The hinges played a gentle serenade as I closed the door to my home. How Trigger had managed to persuade the troublesome inquisition that had descended upon the laboratory had not yet ceased to amaze me. The tactic was simply brilliant. He had placed himself at the epicenter of the undercurrents that sought to slither beneath our hooves. And slither was the proper word.
Everything about the 49th grated my nerves – from the way they imposed themselves upon my evening to the arrogant behavior they displayed. It was not really all that difficult for me to extrapolate my own situation to the realm of possibilities. I had never heard of this particular research unit, but that did not mean much. I had a classified program, so why wouldn’t others? Still, a lingering hunch had established itself in the back of my mind, and the fact that Trigger had so prudently slid into their affairs indicated that he also felt a tingling sense of danger.
The cut grains of hardwood scraped the bottoms of my hooves as I ascended the stairwell. Serene light, providing a clue left in the midnight stallion’s tactical wake, poured from the steamy bathroom while errant vapor wisps swept the hall’s edge. Despite the guidance, there was still a towering pile of jigsaw puzzle pieces irritating my intellect. The plethora of unknowns begged to be solved, and it was only after the timid notes of a foal dripped around the opened door that those mysteries tumbled into place.
Of course, he would put every other care in the world well after the needs of a child. That was the chaos he had been born into witnessing – a sea of unfinished nightmares waiting, needing, yearning to devour the unwinding scraps of my sanity. Of course, he would pitch the comradery of the corps off a cliff if he believed for a nanosecond that anyone was harming even the hair of a young pony.
“Hello?” I questioned with the friendliest tone I could muster. There was no response; however, the abrupt silence that satiated the space spoke volumes enough. “I believe you have already met my friend. My name is Wing. I guess you could say I’m your host, so if you need anything at all, please don’t be afraid to ask. I’m not going to hurt you.
“Sweet Celestia,” the whisper escaped when I caught a glimpse of the filly in my midst. Excluding the color of her eyes, along with the fact that she was a she, the youngster could have easily been confused for a colt-aged Trigger. Her palette was a spot-on match, and it was impossible to repress the subsequent tension that tore through my memories. The clarity with which Trigger’s behavior now shined mesmerized my thoughts. This filly had struggled past his enchantments. She looked like him, and based upon the bandages that wrapped around her midsection, she had been injured as well.
“Sweetie, what’s your name?” I asked, not daring to move from my position as she performed her own inspection. A startling chill of déjà vu cascaded over the infinite expanse of my imagination. Once upon a time, I had experienced this same scan as it scoured my soul for the needed verse. Having uncovered the movement, she took a step out from behind her wooden shield while her countenance clung to whatever shards of confidence she had found.
“I… I don’t have a name,” she replied with an absent, stoic timbre that made the fur along my spine stand on end. “But… they call me E875… when we’re in the lab… that is.”
“That doesn’t sound like a very nice lab,” I responded reflexively after her pause-laden sentence reached its natural end. The insinuation required no further deliberation. Whatever this unit had been doing, it had altered the life of a child and replaced an identity with a number. In one sense, I was a bit happy that she did not consider the designation a name, but on-the-other-hoof, it meant that she was aware.
“Where is Mr. Trigger?” she asked. Hints of anxiety crept in from the bournes of courage that had managed to finally prod the filly from the water closet enclave. “The bad ponies… He’ll know what to do with the bad ponies. He won’t let them find me.”
I raised my hoof gradually and gave a soft smile to the little mare. “Mr. Trigger has led them away from here. He’s going to spend some time with their group for now, and I’m sure neither of us will let anything happen to you.”
The frequency of her breaths quickened before the onslaught of frazzled nerves. “You wouldn’t understand Mr. Wing. I – I need to explain it to him. He’s the only one who will see what they’re doing, but he didn’t listen earlier. He just… kept telling me to hush while he…” She froze as a single tear rolled down the side of her muzzle, and I watched in silence as numerous emotions radiated from the contours of her essence.
“That’s just how he is. I’ve known that stallion for a very long time, so I’ve come to trust his judgement when it comes to taking care of a filly that’s hurt. He looks after others in his own way, and since he didn’t blow your cover, I’m assuming he’s already suspicious of that captain fellow.”
Concern and disdain coursed through her quivering limbs at the mere mention of Proud Valiance. Her brow dropped into a scowl that appeared far too worn for one her age, and flickers of necessity licked her lilac irides. “They’re stealing shadows from foals,” she answered in a darker tenor than I could anticipate. “They won’t be able to stop them, and many will die. That’s why I came to find him… I can’t stop it alone.”
The tension that had choked her frame evaporated once her emphasis settled upon Trigger, but the improvement in mood did nothing to console my fixation upon the dire nature of her warning. My flank soon rested upon the hardwood as various facets of this night began to align with the iridescent anamneses of my past. Shadows, foals, and Trigger… Dread usurped my lungs as a grave wind manifested the construct assembled by my mind.
I was a scientist – prone to reaching conclusions that often stretched well past the routine domain of reality. We were dreamers at heart, at least in our own unique way, and that characteristic tended to brew theories that grossly concealed beautiful, simple truths. In this case, my brain had reached a convoluted conjecture, one which I desperately hoped to see rejected. “Miss…” Visions of the unfinished riled my recollections, and my voice surfaced as a grim minor upon our duet’s score. “Is that unit experimenting with the dreams of foals?”
Trigger listened to every sentence spoken in his presence while sortied to the streets of Las Pegasus with the 49th. The unit was collectively jittery – with the notable exceptions of Proud and a stallion that he had identified as the section’s intelligence operative. It became clearer as the night went on that there were multiple pursuits underway, with the mysterious filly being only one of the objectives. Talk of her was littered with their specific brand of jargon, and subsequent efforts to press the subject of what E875 meant were quashed with skepticism from the captain. Mere whispers of the designation to the breeze evoked groundswells of apprehension that meandered about the troops in repressed murmurs, and the sight just pissed off the onyx stallion even more.
“Look,” he blurted, tired of being relegated to the meaningless duty of bucking with the locals, “I get that it’s your internal shit that’s on the line, but we’re all under the same buckin’ banner. If we run into whatever monster y’all are fussing about, I’m going to see the damn thing anyway, so ya might as well give me some information that’s useful. Sooner or later, we’ll plow into a headstrong townie that won’t back off without me doing some convincing that uses actual facts. I might be the outsider to this group, but you’re the outsiders here.”
Valiance halted his stride and stretched a forehoof to his brow. Trigger’s words had reached the officer, for the manner in which his golden-kissed cores twinkled conveyed the internal scenery of a coalescing strategy. He had been caught in a Catch-22 that formed the moment he had agreed to the unpolished pony’s offer to accompany the 49th. Little doubt existed that they needed a resident drudge to deflect suspicion from the widespread operation, but if he opted to relinquish nothing, then the ruffian would likely walk.
“Wire Wise,” the captain called out to the corporal with a hint of reluctance that instantly grasped the attention of a tan unicorn, “give our rustic cohort the redacted version of the second critical decision review – along with a concise summary of tonight’s briefing. That should give him an idea. In the meantime, my friend, do you happen to know if there are any daycare centers in this city – expressly those tailored towards unicorns?”
“Now we’re getting somewhere,” Trigger replied before turning his head to address Proud. “There are two. One’s off to the northwest – kinda in a swanky neighborhood – and another’s in the South Central District.” The information nudged the smug commander, who instantly ordered his forces to converge upon the facility nearest downtown. It was a peculiar move to the creature of reverie, who expected a runner to flee from all potential points of contact. A daycare would certainly be closed in the middle of the night, but that particular region of the city was the exact opposite of desolate. The question itself additionally carried reason for alarm. Why in Equestria would an officer consider an establishment for foals to be appropriate hot zone?
“Eh-hem!” the tan stallion gasped haughtily after throwing a cactus-green lock behind his ear. His gaze settled upon the Coltston-wearing cowcolt while an exasperated expression took root upon his mien. “Our unit researches atypical psychological phenomena. Exploring the effects of unbridled magic in youths is our primary focus, but we have other activities that obviously exceed your clearance. I don’t expect a dirttrodder to comprehend unicorn problems, but this is a messy subject.
“We had an unforeseen setback, and two entities escaped our compound. One was first extracted on the 17th night of our study. It exhibited hostile behavior and was isolated from the test participants and their quarters. That beast looks like nothing any of us have ever seen, and if we manage to come in contact with it, it will be apparent that it is our target. The second entity, the E875 that you seem determined to decode, manifested through sorcery on the following evening. Its form is that of a black filly that looks disgustingly like you, but make no mistake! E875 poses a potentially larger threat to the population than that… thing. Contact with civilians must be mitigated and eliminated.”
Trigger fought to keep his amber eyes from rolling. The racist remark and the rip on the kid left stinging sensations in his gut that made him want to throw his hind hooves clear through the dark, dumbass circular microphone mark engraved upon the guard's egotistical ass. “I see,” he responded through his teeth before the colt exited with a departing rejoinder – something about not repeating himself for a lowly grunt earth pony.
It was in moments such as this that Trigger thanked Celestia for the ability to cloak his horn. He despised relying upon wizardry to solve every problem that came a pony’s way, and based upon Wire Wise’s projected discrimination, he assumed that the predominantly unicorn group pandered to a certain bias. However, the more pressing issue at hoof still swirled in the details conveniently left out from the corporal’s speech.
Unbridled magic was – indeed – a messy subject, and Trigger knew the associated consequences of that more than most. But do they? He fell in step with the squad's movements and took up a position several paces behind the captain. If they needed him, they would grab him; until then, he had some thinking to do and enough time to do it before their arrival in South Central.
Wing’d probably crap himself over the options. There are too damn bucking many to pick one, but that type of spell means that foals are involved. Of course they wouldn’t know any damn better; I bet they kept most of the guards that aren’t in their unicorn club on babysitting duty. He sighed quietly and continued to ponder. It’s a fucking stretch, though. Sure, little foal shit can create all kinds of dumb stuff, but it usually doesn’t produce any havoc worthy of a damn unit.
Trigger’s sidelong glance detected the prying emerald scopes of Wire Wise upon his frame. The intelligence operative was analyzing him – rummaging for a betrayed indication of his thoughts – but there was nothing to be gained. To the outside world, the charger put on a gentle smile and gave a curt nod while his mind tussled with the strong riptides of disbelief and sarcasm.
Worried, are we? Concerned that I’ve pegged your fairy tale for the bullshit infomercial that it is, huh? Your story’s just too perfect. Oh no! Unbridled magic and some scary things, but don’t worry, we’ll keep ya safe. I’ll play dumb for now, boys, but by the end of this, I’m going to find out just what kind of shit amuses ya. And so fucking help ya if it turns out that you’re doing exactly what I think you’re doing.