Rosy eyes blossomed as I exited the chamber with the princess triumphantly marching a few paces behind my frame. The enchanted gaze belonged to a buttermilk stallion whose mane had been sculpted into what every guard could recognize as helmet hair. The deep brown threads practically begged to be resuscitated, and the slate band that ran along one of his part lines was in no better shape.
“Colonel, it’s a pleasure.” His foreleg swooped into a picture-perfect salute, and he held the pose for an uncomfortably long time while I stood there pondering what the hell was happening. It was only when Luna’s giggle seeped into my twitching ears that the vision came into focus.
“I thought you said he was on my timetable,” I blurted before waving the soldier out of the formality. I glanced back at the towering alicorn with an expression of brooding defiance, and the mischief that cradled her rising cheeks and spreading grin only managed to drag my descending brow. “Utterly hopeless… Would you at least mind giving us a moment alone, Your Majesty?”
“Of course,” Luna responded – her voice considerably brightened with teasing cheer, “we will be setting up three floors down in the first room on the left. And fret not, Sir Wing, thou retain the rights to your timetable. We thought it best that ye meet as soon as possible to facilitate the budding comradery.”
For several seconds, we peered in silence as the regal lady of the night departed for her other duties. Neither of us spoke until the last glimmer of her twinkling starry mane vanished beneath the stairwell’s horizon, and even then, an awkward pause dangled its fermata crescent above our heads until a thank you dribbled from the stallion’s muzzle.
“Private,” I responded, saturating my tone with something akin to concerned curiosity, “why exactly are you here? You have a family, and a young one, so why are you so persistent about getting involved with my unit? Were you not allowed to see my medical report? Three weeks ago, I was barely alive. Is that something that you really want to expose your foals to?”
I had spread the guilt as thick as I could, allowing it to stick like grimy mortar to psychological cinderblocks capable of downing even the most stubborn of ponies. However, Ground Cover did not even flinch. The maneuver washed over his sandy shield cutie mark like the waves of an unyielding ocean – always leaving some proof of presence, but not necessarily the one that was intended.
Instead of retreating, the earth pony lifted his head and focused his stare into a fierce beast that possessed its own figurative crisp crunch. “My foals are the reason, sir. If I can’t learn to save myself from those you fight, then how can I possibly hope to save them if the need should arise?” Against the rising turmoil that surged from his flaring memories, he sucked in a deep, yet quivering breath. “I couldn’t get the thought out of my mind. All throughout my recovery, it made my blood boil; and then I learned about what had happened here.
“Innocent ponies died, but it would have been a lot worse if your unit didn’t exist to put a stop to it. If you’re asking me if I would willingly put my life on the line to ensure that my family doesn’t have to experience that shit, my answer is damn right, Colonel – speaking freely, of course, sir.”
“I expect you to speak freely,” I replied while waving a hoof absent-mindedly. “Ranks are pretty much useless in my squad. Frankly, the problems that we tackle require a more academic approach. It’s not like we’re sitting on our flanks all day thinking every which way around ourselves, but when you create a solid group of good thinkers and team players, the end result is pretty effective. That being said, Princess Luna put the scheduling of your involvement in my hooves. If you want to be part of the team, then you’re going to have to live up to the same standards as everyone else. What’s your level of education?”
“Enrolled in the guard straight out of secondary. Wasn’t much point in pursuing anything higher when my special talent etched my course in stone.”
“That path has changed. Whatever business you have here, once it’s done, you’re on the next train to Las Pegasus. Bring your family if they can all relocate easily. If they cannot, then we’ll put you on a different schedule. Regardless, you’ll be enrolling at ULP. Report to the guard post at Equestria National Accelerator Laboratory – east side of town – and tell them Professor Wing sent you to receive the Mozy Special. Celestia forbid, they will all remember what that means.”
A look of confusion brewed upon his countenance while the reality of my words battled whatever scenarios his imagination had conjured. A timid hum swirled about the depths of his throat, and it was apparent that the inner soldier was suppressing the urge to question my orders.
“The long story short of it is that DarkOps has equipment that the rest of the guard wants. Deskwarriors up the chain have been clamoring about it for years, and they only get louder every time I refuse to give the sign-off. After your rescue, and after the events in Canterlot, they viewed my rejections with more disdain than ever. We reached an impasse, so Luna struck the bargain that a pony of her choice could join the unit to serve as a guinea pig.
“Since you’ve been a thorn in her side for the past few weeks, you became the perfect candidate. I have enough thorns as it is, Private. Honestly, I don’t need another, and I sure as shit don’t need one of their guys feeding them information. I have my reasons, so that plan of mine that has you humming to yourself is a two-fold operation. One, you need to learn some physics to understand my reasons – and to know the mechanics of pulling the trigger in the first place; and two, by giving you a broader education, I turn you into my guy.”
“Umm, that sounds rather shameless, but I appreciate your candidness, Colonel,” he answered through a sequence of inflections that pushed his statement far too close to the realm of question. “Though, I’ve never really held that much respect for chair-warmers. Words have their place, but so do deeds. You’ve already made me your guy, sir. I’ll get on the transfer right away.”
I certainly was not going to publicly admit it – at least not yet – but I was growing to like Ground Cover more and more with every sentence he spoke. It should not have been a surprise, considering his name, but the stallion carried a down-to-earth, forthright demeanor that made him approachable. “One more thing while we’re at it; my name is Wing, not sir.”
My conversation with Ground Cover had apparently provided ample opportunity for the guards to move the three prisoners from their cells to the interrogation room of choice. It seemed a bit odd to me that the princess would opt to place all of them in one chamber, but presumably they had been at it for weeks already without much success. Today would be my turn, and I could tell from the absolutely perturbed expression that popped upon Erzsevine’s face that she was not all that thrilled to see me.
The three unicorns were seated on their side of a flimsy-looking folding table. Dull grey shackles bound their limbs, and bland thaumic suppressor rings had been fitted upon their horns. In some respects, the additional security measures were uselessly redundant. The stallion’s magic had been sealed with one of Trigger’s curses, and given that the mark was still affixed upon the captive’s navy blue appendage, it was clear that my associate had just out-and-out refused to remove the hex. On-the-other-hoof, Erzsevine’s horn was still mending from my strike, which meant that any cast in her repertoire would likely emerge as a weak shell of its former self anyway.
Ashen Mystic represented the true oddball in attendance. Trigger had used techniques that – in just about any other circumstance – would have been declared illegal. Even in this instance, imagined murmurs of taboo flooded my consciousness whenever I pondered Trigger’s portion of our report. Skirting along the penumbra of morality, he had altered the fabric of her mind to leave a persuadable belligerent in the remnants of a hollowed hardliner.
Ground Cover had trailed in behind me before taking up a post in the remaining free corner. A pair of royal guards and Princess Luna’s right-hoof stallion-at-arms served as the other cardinal bearers for this particular tryst. The alabaster pegasus in question had received an armor upgrade since I had last seen him, and the décor of his nightly themed breastplate bore the insignia of a lieutenant. “Congrats on the promotion, Silent Knight,” I said while taking my place beside the waiting diarch. “I’m sure Trigger sends his regards.”
He was all business in that moment, and after giving me a courteous flick of his muzzle to acknowledge my affirmation, he promptly returned his attention to his sworn duty. Having patiently waited for the completion of the brief exchange, the purple alicorn straightened her posture. “Let the records show that we acknowledge Equestrian Royal Air Force Colonel Wing as the chief investigator for this session. We bequeath all rights of questioning and negotiation. Thou hast the floor.”
I peered upon the dark abyss, the cloudy frost, and the vermillion shade that scoured my still body for answers. The unicorns looked exceptionally uncomfortable, and I could hardly discredit their expressions. I sat in silence as my brain meandered and massaged the sentences it wished to be spoken – while my flank was relentlessly prodded by the metal frame of my significantly objectionable perch. It was as though the room had been arranged – with its faulty lighting and crappy furnishings – to make prisoners squirm and interrogators edgy. In fact, it probably had been.
“This room really sucks, Your Highness,” I admitted with a flick of my feathers before proceeding. “I think I’d like to get the hell out of here as soon as possible, so I hope the State does not oppose me taking a frank approach.
“Capital punishment is off the table for you Ms. Mystic. I really don’t have to go into the details of why. You’re an educated mare who can figure it out for yourself if you haven’t done so already. However, where exactly you go and the particulars of your incarceration completely depend upon your cooperation. The others do not have that luxury. In fact, it’s a buckin’ miracle they haven’t been taken out back in Tartarus and dropped in a pit somewhere, and after the…”
“Shut your bucking face, windrat!” The royal guards inched towards Erzsevine after she snapped, but I responded with a stern gaze that pinned the duo to their respective positions. Concern had crept onto Ashen’s muzzle, and Kinetic clenched his eyes shut from the wave of – what I presumed to be – disappointment that coated his frame.
“I might be a bucking windrat, but I’m the one on this side of the table. You couldn’t finish the job, and I fucking could; so if you want to have a prayer of a chance at living another ten years, I highly suggest you down a shot of shut the fuck up until I give you something worth speaking about.”
The sound of Luna’s wings ruffling beside me poked my swiveling ears while my leer drove the hunched ivory mare back into her seat. No pony had anticipated the words that had exited my mouth, and the levels of shared distaste that darted about the others’ demeanors were all detectable and subsequently ignored.
“I want the names of everypony in the EHVM – top-to-bottom – along with their expected locations, and I want a statement from Ashen Mystic ordering the remaining cells to stand down. They will not be prosecuted if they comply with the cease and desist. None of your ponies – aside from those in this room – have committed atrocities that merit severe charges, so it’s on you to stop them before they do something stupid. If you do that, then I'll take Tartarus off the threat block and arrange for three far-more-pleasant, long-term supervisions.”
The overhead light shimmered across Erzse’s crimson mane as she once again shuffled in her seat. “I’d rather die on the spot than watch Ashen cater to your buckin’ trash needs! You did this to her! You stole her unicorn pride, and now you want to make her your damn little puppet! You know fucking nothing about our plight! Just off me now! Make me the martyr for my ponies so I don’t have to watch this insufferable display any longer.”
Pulling me from my chair, her accent fell like a thick, heavy sledgehammer upon the swelling airstream. “Fine, guards, take the bitch to Tartarus and chuck her ass into the ravine. I honestly could not give two shits if a heartless, spineless murderer gets sent to the reaper on my watch. I do what I do to keep your kind stuck in the shadows, so rest assured that you won’t be earning any martyrdom – just a cold, lonely and senseless death.
“But before you go off on your last ride, there is one piece of information that I think you should know. The reason why I am standing on my hooves today – the reason why I am here with a body unkissed by your sickening, twisted magic is because of a unicorn. And she is the proudest and most compassionate unicorn I know – one I am immeasurably proud to call my friend. Think about that one on your long trot, and when you’re plummeting down to the spiky, jagged demise that awaits you, remember that I’m still living because I didn’t need a misplaced lecture about the talents of your race.”
“That won’t be necessary,” Ashen interjected in a reserved tone that stood in stark contrast to the rambling exchange. “My actions did not bring the change I wanted, and I will not have my own die because of my shortsightedness, regardless of what they may say in the heat of this horribly cramped room. I accept the core of your demands, though admittedly, there are some things I wish to bring up before relinquishing any further information.”