A State of Darkness

by Wing

A State of History - Installment 14 - For Whom the Bell Tolls

My hooves struck the floor in firm and steady beats as I strode down the corridor of the 49th’s research compound. Rifts composed by my racing heart filled the spaces between the sharp clicks. My goggles swayed from my neck to the gain of an imaginary chorus that feasted upon my swelling anxiety, and that budding apprehension unloaded upon my consciousness the moment we reached the annex labelled Dormitory One. Behind the facility’s bolted door, I could hear the murmurs of unsettled foals, and in the midst of their awkward harmony, a rising hymn of sorrow made the brutal trek to the safe haven of my ears.

Multiple bulky latches had been riveted to the iron gate that separated the hallway from the living quarters. They were – almost certainly – protected against rheostatic magic, which made sense considering the dangerous undertaking of the unit. Unfortunately, that also meant that I would have to spend additional time popping the locks manually as opposed to relying upon my companion’s impressive talents.

She gazed as I raised my forehooves to the highest bolt and twisted the bulky cylinder into its maneuverable position. The behemoths Proud Valiance had installed upon the bulkhead were roughly four times the thickness – and twice the length – of standardized locks, and as I immediately suspected, the first one was reluctant to budge.

A staccato grunt jumped from my lungs when I heaved my weight into the push. Piercing whines rose from the clashing metals as I forced the first bolt to yield its grip upon the doorframe. The fact that such substantial security measures were used solely to contain foals sent torrents of disbelief cascading down the pathways of my mind, yet the cacophonous serenade of proof continued until I succeeded in releasing the last rod from its overly-snug shelter.

My hoof drifted to the handle of that metal portal while the filly's lilac irides settled upon the infinitesimal slit between jamb and barrier that was due to expand into a cherished egress. Stubborn hinges resisted my beck and call, defying destiny until a pair of lavender wings unfurled to finish the task. Simple tugs transformed into wingpower-backed thrusts that drove the cumbersome obstacle to its inevitable surrender, and the waiting group of four youngsters made use of the gap to counterattack my companion with an onslaught of hugs.

One colt stood out amongst the nuzzling swarm of four fillies, but all of the new acquaintances appeared to be in miserable conditions for ponies their age. Healthy hues had been bled from their coats, leaving behind faded, disheveled furs that were in need of love and compassion. Lanky figures – accented by the prominent presence of bone – highlighted the malnourished states of these growing foals, and consequent pangs of guilt and anger lit raging fires that shot through my veins.

Their sights soon ventured to me after the joy of their collective embrace decayed to hush whispers and palpable tingles of astonishment. “He’s a creator too,” the colt informed his tiny tribe before the others nodded in agreement. Like burning knives, their gazes cut through me – each carrying the daunting wisdom of ages that long outflanked their physical years.

“The one you sent me to find,” my little friend responded, “came from him.” That aura of astonishment rapidly manifested as small jawlines fell. The worn characters of their stares surrendered to the glistening sparkles that survived dilated pupils, and they motioned to my side as though I had become some sort of showpony star.

“Well, hello little ones, my name is Wing. My unicorn friend here – and I guess friend of yours – told me that you were in need of some help, so how about I take you all back to my place for a pizza party or something?” They fell in line at the mere mention of the promised word, and it took a moment for my mind to consider that – as orphans – they had never experienced the delectable treat. “My fiancée’s a baker, you know? But according to her, I make the best pizza.”

Affairs at the other end of the compound were no different when compared to the first extraction, and upon conquering another set of intractable locks, two colts and two fillies joined the increasingly merry band. Smiles crept upon their weary countenances as the promises of freedom – and a desperately needed good meal – spurred them to gather around their creature of dream.

Despite the progress, there was something that had me a bit unsettled. We had passed a room on the way to the second dormitory that spooked the youngsters, and as we approached it again, talons of fear gradually sank into the demeanors of the foals. They shivered and shuddered as that entryway loomed, and when I stopped before the gate marked Kindergarten, I could have sworn audible gasps underscored all of their breaths.

“It’s where they take those that can’t play with us anymore.” Once again, the juvenile specter of reverie read my contemplations with incredible accuracy. Her words possessed an arctic candor that sent ripples of uncertainty down the spines of our companions. “He’d tell them that it was for the best – that Celestia herself would be pleased with them – that maybe she’d find them a home.”

“Why don’t you wait for me down at the end of the hall? You can think up all the toppings you’d like to try on those pizzas once we get to my place.” My voice trailed as I returned my attention to the doorway, and a nagging suspicion bit at the periphery of my thoughts. The girl’s chorus struck a chord, one with a chiming dissonance that caused my ears to quiver to the imaginary sound.

I pressed onward, stepping inside the unlit chamber as a familiar scent stabbed my snout. The jarring aroma was an unmistakable, complex potion of iron, ink, blood and death that prompted a tense anxiety to swell within me. Impulsively, my hoof moved along the wall until it snagged what I had sought, yet a part of my subconscious forced a moment of hesitation.

Even before the plethora of photons bombarded the brushed aluminum walls, the medical benches, and the numerous trinkets scattered about the room, I knew exactly into what I had trotted. The Kindergarten was a morgue. My nerves pitched their fear aside as I scrambled to the lockers and threw open door after door. Pegasus, earth, nightmare… The labels echoed within my head as I identified each cadaver.

The unbridled beasts – left in pools of their own autopsied filth – made my stomach curdle. However, the images of every filly and colt left within those cold, lonely chambers made my blood boil. Proud Valiance had used all of them. He had manipulated the unicorns into casting fragmented dangers into the vulnerable psyches of those incapable of surviving. Those decaying states of non-unicorn toddlers would have been the perfect festering grounds to cultivate demons of nightmare.

I had only lived through my own turmoil thanks to the efforts of my loving family – and the presence of a capable hero. These lost youth had neither of those things. The 49th provided no love here. It fabricated promises of salvation that ultimately fell upon metal ears after the point of a scalpel devoured whatever tainted knowledge there was to be ascertained. It provided lies and heartache that inevitably led to the creation of a new champion through those barely old enough to grasp right versus wrong.

When I emerged from that Tartarus, nine pairs of tear-ravaged eyes looked up at me. Sniffling sounds caressed the air to break the fragile silence while I fought for the phrases that needed to be spoken. Numerous statements assembled within the enraged confines of my brain, but none were appropriate to bequeath to those in my care. Ultimately, my voice surfaced in a raspy, sorrow-stitched whisper to deliver the only message that they deserved to hear. “None of this is your fault.”

Instinctively, the children pressed against my legs while their sniffles grew into burdened sobs that were finally freed to the winds. We stood there, with one of my forelegs cradling the group, for several minutes before a high-pitched squeal from the midnight unicorn yanked us all back to reality. She peered towards me with widened lilac eyes as the news slipped from her tongue. “Trigger is coming this way. He’s close…”

The sight of the shattered windowpane had sent Proud Valiance into a fit of frenzy. He surged ahead of his unit, bolted up the stairs, and immediately set about interrogating the three guards who had been left unconscious and bound. Groups had been sent to check on the dormitories, and when they returned with reports that both had been breached and cleared, the captain lost it.

He pummeled the nearest pegasus and did not even bother to acknowledge the statement that the Kindergarten had also been accessed. The inferiors had failed him. They had let him down at the utter brink of promotion – the precipice of achievement – the threshold of praise. And now, he had absolutely nothing except for hooves dirtied by the blood of his pathetic, tied private. “Search every fucking corner of this place until those damn brats are found!” he shouted. “And the three of you idiots had better tell me who did this before I execute you for treason!”

“It… it was a pegasus,” one of the guards stammered as rage continued to seize his commanding officer. “He was lavender… and I think he came in with that little one you were all looking for this evening.”

“He came with E875?” The question seeped in a thick heat from his tongue before he spun around towards the exit. “Find me that…” He froze to the sight of Trigger’s leer as the dark stallion stood firm upon the doorsill.

“The rot of blood runs pretty heavy in this place, doesn’t it?” He took a step forward with an intimidating stomp of his foreleg. “Ya know, when I was battling that beast, he had some pretty interesting things to say about ya, Captain. I’ve heard a lot about fillies and colts tonight, and now, right when I get here, I can’t help but stop and think that the scent hittin’ me carries the stain of shattered youth.

“I’m startin’ to get the impression that ya treat foals like shit, and I’m not sure I really approve of that bullshit. Ya said ya needed help tidying up loose ends, right? I hope, for your sake, that that doesn’t involve the disposal of kids.”

“Shove your righteous idealism, you lying trash!” Proud bit back. “What we are doing here is in the name of the greater good. We will revolutionize Equestria’s military abilities and usher in a completely new era of magical understanding. You are one damn dirttrodder surrounded by an entire unit of highly trained unicorns.

“No pony would miss you if we happened to have an unfortunate accident, and you had better believe that I will not hesitate to unleash my troops upon you if I think it is necessary.” He raised his hoof and grinned as members of the squad lowered their horns into firing positions. “So tell me. Will you be a good little boy and get back in line, or am I going to have to deal with you the hard way?”

“Gentlecolts, I think it would be wise if ya all stood the fuck down,” Trigger replied in the grittiest tone he could muster. “See, your cappy is under the impression that I’m just some worthless cadet that probably got assigned to the abysmal Las Pegasus detail of guarding a boring lavender professor. The interesting part of this little tale is that he never saw fit to ask for a formal introduction, but if he had, he’d already be aware that I outrank everyone in this shithole by several fucking paygrades.

“So yes, sir, I would actually be missed. In fact, you’d attract a whole fuckload of really fast and really angry ponies who would love to know why one of their colonels happened to go missing in your establishment.” The stallion took another step forward as shock coated the miens of the sentinels. The combat-hardened veteran recognized hesitation when he saw it pervade the ponies’ limbs, and he knew the look of terror that flooded Proud’s golden cores.

Swiftly, Trigger swung his forehoof into his vest and retrieved one of his revolvers. He had the 49th locked into a state of disarray and frozen in the icy barbs of doubt. They were cowards who had taken advantage of youthful innocence, and Valiance was the head of the snake.

Kix’s polished barrel glimmered beneath the artificial light as the stallion took aim, and with a fluent flick, Trigger conducted an agonizing concerto from the depths of the captain’s tumbling frame. Luna’s blaze had torn through Proud’s kneecap and rendered the appendage worthless. Cries joined the progressing score while sprayed droplets provided a snaring cadence. Another shot made the silent witnesses recoil, for phobias plagued their minds as the vision of their captain’s mangled forelegs saturated their perceptions.

“I wonder why they don’t come to your aid, Captain. I wonder why their magic has absolutely fled them in the hour of need, or perhaps, they realize that your grand opus is really a giant load of criminal bullshit.” Trigger’s voice boomed as he closed the gap between himself and the gasping stallion before a kick to the gut pitched Proud upon his back. “I dishonorably discharge ya from your duties as commanding officer of the 49th Research Battalion.”

Meters away, Wire Wise watched in horror as the third shot ripped open the purple stallion’s chest and painted the broken floor with crimson swaths. His limbs trembled as the realization sunk in that there was no chance of recovering from that wound. Even the most gifted medic in Equestria would have nothing with which to work. The last bit of his commander’s life departed with the slowly dissipating final breath.

His mind pushed for him to escape the dreadful fate that had to linger over the horizon, but he could not bring himself to run. He had never seen anything like it. Nowhere had he seen such a powerful, devastating weapon. There was no intelligence on it. He had never intercepted a memo or document detailing such a pristine piece of equipment. Was this the work that the mysterious colt had been assigned to protect? Was this what other units could acquire?

The train of thought was derailed when the intruding stallion pulled his Coltston from his crown. “I’m going to give ya fuckers a second chance at life,” he stated callously. “I hope ya all make the most of it.”

Something in Wise snapped to attention the instant he observed Trigger’s horn decloak. Reconnaissance reflexes drove the tan unicorn to reach for a sheet of paper and a quill on the nearest desk. His heart pounded as waves of realization spawned frantic scribbles upon the page before the entire unit vanished in a flash of blinding argent magic. He’ll want to know…

The greyscale unicorn stood alone with the corpse of Proud Valiance as the night waned. He tapped a tabletop as he glanced over the downed officer a final time. “Her name is Midnight Star, by the way. That is the name they chose to give her, and that is the name I will pass along.”

He proceeded to the exit in silence as a thaumic blaze began to consume the laboratory. There would be nothing to find in its wake, not even a residual scar branded into the beloved earth. A foolish captain had wasted innocent lives for selfish reasons, and no reward could possibly mitigate the risks that could arise from allowing a single research note to survive.

Just outside, Trigger halted his march and turned his head to eye the space above the door. There was a single phrase scribbled upon the bunker in a hoofwriting style that he knew quite well. It had been placed at a height best suited for a pegasus, and it served as the final indicator that the worst of his intuitions had come to pass. “Just like ya indeed, Wing. Just like ya, indeed.”

~Present Day: Matcha Tea House, Canterlot~

Silent Knight stared intently as Trigger finished his tale. The alabaster pegasus maintained a tight grip on his beverage as his thoughts battled through waves of displeasure that shook him straight to the core. “You killed an officer…” the words emerged from the sergeant’s muzzle in a tone that awkwardly fell between the domains of statement and question, which subsequently pulled Trigger from his latest round of Tea’s famous Artillery Punch.

“You’ve been around the block long enough to know that not all officers are good ones, Silent Knight, and this one was a genuine asshat. He ruined those kids – fucked them up for the rest of their lives. The State found them good homes and folks that can help them, but those nightmares will be there until the day they learn to trot their own paths. And those foals were the lucky ones. The unlucky ones didn’t even get to make it out of Proud’s clutches, so yeah, I killed the fucker. I’d do it again…”

Knight’s argent stare settled upon the subtly curving surface of his amber-colored whiskey. “I wasn’t questioning you, sir,” he responded in a reserved, yet adamant timbre. “I was just thinking. If I were faced with the same situation, what would happen? Would I feel remorse for taking a life, or would I find confidence in knowing that I had righted a wrong? I imagine that I’d do the same thing that you did. I took an oath to lay down my life for those we’ve been sworn to protect, so it’s just unsettling to think that a pony who took the same oath as me – who was one of our own – could destroy his character as an officer – as a pony – by doing such terrible things.”

“He wasn’t one of you,” Autumn Tea interrupted. A shimmer of golden determination laced her emerald irides while she peered upon the stallions. “I’m sure you have a kind heart, Sergeant Knight. Your actions today, and the mere fact that you’d even reflect upon the evil in that tale, speak volumes about who you are. At least, that’s what I figure if Ol’ Foxy here dragged you out for drinks.” She paused when stifled coughs emerged from Trigger’s throat. “Need another, Sweety?”

The nightshade stallion recollected himself and threw a grin towards the mare. “You damn well know I’m going to have another, but that’s beside the buckin’ point.” He downed a gulp of the spicy cocktail and replanted the glass with a thud. “The future’s a bitch, Sergeant. No amount of pre-questioning is going to do ya any damn good when it comes to that subject.

“Ya just aren’t going to know the answer until ya wind up in the field one day and have to make a call. Ya might end up dealing with your own asshole. Ya might end up having to weigh the lives of those that can be saved against those that can’t. Now, I already mentioned the currency, but there’s another truth about combat. You’ll make decisions based on what ya see, but sure as shit, there’s always more. There’s always another piece to the story that will haunt ya, whether it’s acknowledged, unknown, or otherwise… Those are the demons ya face once ya decide to cheat Reaper Time.”

~14 Months Prior: San Palomino~

Wire Wise fiddled anxiously with the letter resting upon his hooves. It had been a month since his previous assignment had come to an abrupt end – since the memories of that moment had evaporated. He could not recall the details of his captain, and the lingering recollections regarding his former facility only indicated that he had worked with fillies and colts. Whatever he had done, the associated setting offered by his anamneses seemed unfit for a pony that specialized in information gathering.

Nonetheless, the fact that he could not remember the details was an astounding piece of information in and of itself. It was as if he had lived for months inside the confines of a dream, where recollections became amorphous blobs meant to be forgotten. However, he never would have wasted time with such nonsense. Prestige mattered to him; he would not have taken a position at all if it did not carry some significance.

One indication that perhaps he had been involved with such a project was the discontinuity that marred his history. Another came from the honorable discharge he had received in the week that followed the schism. He was being pushed out, and his records had definitely been altered to fit the tale another had written for him. The notion that such abilities existed terrified the stallion, for if it weren’t for the blessing of a single sheet of paper, the great realization that not all was right would have likely never been made.

New wep, pful, mgc, wipe, C.L.G. Along with the date in question, the shorthoof script was all that he had written upon the page. It was not much, but it was enough to put together the pieces. A powerful magical weapon had been involved in the events of that day, and whatever had transpired necessitated a wipe of his memories. Certainly, it must have been something incredible to warrant the inking of those initials.

Wire Wise,

I must admit that your recent correspondence intrigues me. My work obviously keeps me up to speed with Equestrian law, and I can assure you that the use of mind-altering magic raises both ethical and criminal concerns. Unfortunately, you did not divulge your recent undertakings to me, so I am unable to fill in the blanks in your record.
Nevertheless, there are gains to be made in your sacrifice. While your vague comments do little to narrow down the field, for magical weapons have always been associated with your past, the fact that Equestria is actively developing new military technology will definitely strike a chord on this side of the sea. My talons are a bit tied for now as you have not given information with which I can persuade, but I will see what I can do.
In the meantime, since you have been honorably discharged, I advise you to take your talents elsewhere. If I recall correctly, you have rather strong views when it comes to other pony races. Far be it for me to comment upon unicorn plights; however, you may find the Vanhoover area to be more suited to your interests. It is my understanding that particularly fervent literature has been distributed from the nearby Galloping Gorge region for quite some time – literature that possesses a certain unicorn-centric flair.
The brain behind this country operation is an intelligent mare named Ashen Mystic. Right now, she seems content to merely stir the pot with prose, but perhaps she would be more willing to expand her operational capabilities if she had an experienced intelligence officer.

Until next time, your loyal friend,
Professor Conrad Lichlos Gänse