Starlight, it may be the most beautiful thing in existence.
Ever since my youth, I’ve always felt entranced by the majesty of the open night sky. The way it enraptures me, the way it holds my soul captive and teases my mind with promises of eternity. Even back then, when the clouds and atmosphere dulled the beauty that awaited me. But not today. Today, the only thing standing between me and the glorious starlight is a thick layer of glass, and two and a half feet of sheet metal.
I press a hoof against the window to get a better look at the infinite beyond, bringing my eyes closer, so the stars and nebulas encompass my peripherals. Years ago, I would have been scolded, told to return to my seat, but time has done wonders to develop a respect with my pilot. The glistening sparkles in the depths of the void shine with a brilliance that can be seen from unfathomable distances. Below us, a warm green orb of life and wonder grows larger with each passing moment, its vibrant colors emanating a healthy glow in the darkness of space.
As the fires of atmospheric entry obscure my view, I give the pilot a reassuring nod before returning to the loading bay, where my friends and squadmates await. Some of them chatter about different kinds of things; their families, the mission, their lunch. I just let the roar of the ship drown them out, as I let myself hold onto the beautiful moment I just experienced a little longer. After a few seconds, I sit down and start to clasp on pieces of armor in procedural order; hooves, legs, torso, neck. I keep my helmet under my foreleg as we enter the atmosphere: I want to see this world for myself. The hissing of the bay doors drowns out all other sounds as the air from the outside rushes into the ship.
As the door lowers, a sprawling jungle speeds below us, filled with vibrant colors and energizing scents. Vibrant birds flutter their way from the treetops at our passing, and the sounds of diverse life can be heard below. The planet’s rings crest over the horizon, the atmosphere being just thin enough that their glowing pink hue can be seen off the reflecting light of the rising sun.
I’m brought back to reality as the warning light goes on, signaling us to don the last of our equipment. I attach the magnetic firearm to my side before applying my helmet, which hisses and clicks as it fastens into place. The initial blackness is replaced by an array of lights and colors, various displays portraying tactical information. The muffled sounds of my squadmates’ voices fills my eardrums as each of us call in on our status.
“B-5 standing by.”
“B-4 standing by.”
“B-3, all systems functional.”
My turn. “B-2, standing by.”
“Bravo leader, standing by. All systems are a-go, prepare for drop.”
The pony to my side nudges me with his elbow, “You ready for this, Scoots? Just make sure to aim strait this time.”
Though I give him a courtesy laugh, I don’t smile beneath my helmet. I’m growing a little sick of his antics at this point. “I’ll aim strait if you get my back!”
“Enough chatter!” the commander barks over the comms. “Wonderbolts, let’s rock and roll! MOVE, MOVE, MOVE!”
One by one, each member of the squad dives from the back of the airship, their wings catching them into flight after only a second. As we fall into formation, the squad leader nods towards a clearing in the trees. “Everypony head for the LZ, Orion formation!”
The wind caresses my wings as I soar towards the clearing, three of my squadmates following me in perfect harmony. I tilt my body, arcing my flight path, so that several members of my squad turn and weave past one another, our complex flight pattern designed to throw off the aim of any ground-based attackers. As I land in the designated clearing, two members of my squad land behind me, forming a semi-circle that faces where the trees are the least dense.
The forest around our heads is massive. Trees the size of skyscrapers cover the sky above, leaving only a few patches of light to push through upper layer. The sound of exotic wildlife rings out throughout the jungle, the calls of alien birds and insects. A light fog covers the ground, giving the jungle a surrealist touch, as everything seems like it’s drifting about.
As we get into positions, the commander addresses the team, “Alright everypony, let’s do this cleanly and by the books. Scootaloo, Jet, you take point. Lockeye, move up along the tree line and keep us covered,” she points a hoof towards the right, “Starwind and I are moving up the left flank. Let’s MOVE, ponies!”
As we race towards our designated positions, nopony makes a sound. Our hoofsteps are silent as the wind, and some of us physically glide to avoid even that noise. Despite all this, some ponies still apparently aren’t at ease.
“So, you guys hear that the President herself is keeping tabs on this mission?” though each group is several dozen yards apart, the comms on our helmets make Lockeye’s communication clear as day.
“The President? What’s so important about a bunch of degenerate terrorists?”
“I hear Scootaloo’s been friends with the Prez since before the war.”
“That true, Scoots?” Jet gives me a playful nudge.
“Wonderbolts, stay focused!” The commander’s harsh whisper halts any further communication until we reach a makeshift camp deep in a large clearing of trees. A few towers dot the perimeter, though the hastily prepared settlement seems mostly devoid of modern technology. An array of white tents line up before a large group of excavation equipment.
Out front, a trio of pegasi guards patrol the nearest gate, each equipped with special visors designed for detecting magical interference. Though most military forces would need to avoid these, our advanced armors are equipped with special distortion modules that make us virtually invisible to these types of sensors, actually making them less effective at locating intruders than natural eyes (which is more than a little ironic). To the far right side, a single earth pony patrols back and forth, occasionally stopping to give a certain area a better look. The opposite side can’t be seen from my position, but it appears to repeat the pattern.
“In position,” Lockeye is perched up in a particularly long branch of one of the massive trees behind me, his long rifle mounted on its bipod.
“Starwind, see if you can summon us some cover,” the commander whispered. Within moments, his spell takes effect; the light fog gradually begins to dense, and an electrostatic interference messes with their electronics. This catches some of their attention, as various radar and viewing devices suddenly scramble and black out, but we have the opening we need.
“Lockeye, open fire on my mark…” the group of pegasi start to head in my direction, and Jet and myself duck into the woods behind us, the guards giving chase. “Mark.” Three soft squeals are all that are heard before the approaching guards fall to the ground, a hole through each of their skulls.
Jet and I drag the bodies into the woods before heading below Lockeye’s position. Staying low, I crawl up towards one of the two towers that dot the corners of the fence nearest us. I’m next to the fence, just below the guard tower; if he were to simply look down, I’d be in plain sight. Fortunately for me, he’s too busy fiddling with his malfunctioning radar. “In position, ready to strike,” I keep my voice in a low whisper as my eyes focus on the ledge above me.
“Roger, proceed when ready.”
As I glide deftly towards the tower basket, my veins course with adrenaline. I steady my breathing as my heart rate starts to increase, the rush of the moment consuming me. Just as the guard turns his gaze in my direction, a swift buck to the face snaps his neck, his body landing gently on the balcony. “Target neutralized.”
A quick shot from Lockeye neutralizes the other tower, and Starwind begins to soften the electromagnetic interference, bringing the display on the radar to a readable point. Five static dots represent me and my comrades, while over two dozen dots in the opposite direction display the patrols and locations of the remaining terrorists.
As I relayed the video feed to the rest of my squad, a soft click sounded as the safety on my rifle switched off. Jet, now inside the gates just below me, did the same, as he readied his aim. “Let’s rock.”
My comment incites a soft laugh from Jet. “Guess you’re finally ready to have some fun, eh Scoots?” it seems my earlier annoyance hadn’t gotten past him after all. As a filly, I loved this kind of stuff. I suppose it’s time I had some fun with it again.
“All units, prepare to engage,” the commander’s voice is no longer a whisper, as I see the rest of my squad, sans Lockeye, enter the now clear gates.
I glide atop a large warehouse-like structure that stands beside the tents, my suit’s magical readout keeping me hidden long enough for me to land dangerously close to one of the patrols. Beside me, Jet lands on the opposite end of the structure, Starwind and the commander approaching by ground. My helmet pinpoints and highlights all threats within my field of vision.
Jet is the first one to open fire, two three-shot bursts bringing down a pair of unicorn guards. Following his lead, I land a shot of my own into the skull of an alerted earth pony, racing to the position of his fallen comrades. Behind me, I hear the controlled bursts of my comrades as they systematically bring down the various insurgents spread about the camp.
From behind me, a trio of shots narrowly misses my head as a group of pegasi fly by, firing reign-operated machine guns. I divert a portion of my focus to put up a forward ward, keeping my brains safe from any further shots for the moment. With ease and precision, I let fly a burst of my own, which downs one of the flying attackers and sends him crashing into the tents below.
Their return fire pangs against the metal of the building that holds me as I dart around to avoid their fire. “Jet, I need some cover!” is all I can manage to get out before I’m in the air to dodge another volley.
Jet turns his significantly larger firearm on my attackers, letting loose a heavy volley and riddling one of them with holes. Their attention diverted, I manage to get a shot in of my own, piercing the wing of the final attacker and sending him hurtling towards one of the towers. The collision topples the structure, sending it crashing over the fence.
Satisfied, Jet lands in front of the warehouse structure to get a better look at its contents. He isn’t given much time to react, however, as four tons of its contents come roaring out to meet him. He barely manages to leap out of the way as the appendages of a large modified utility crane swing towards him, crashing into the dirt. A light machine gun, mounted onto the side of the cockpit, opens fire on my comrade as he gallops away from the hail of projectiles. I open fire with my own weapon, two bursts pinging off the dense metal exterior of the machine while the final burst makes its way towards the cockpit. The unicorn piloting the machine reacts just in time, putting up a magical ward which re-directs my fire off to the side.
He manages to split his attention, opening fire on me while swinging the massive crane towards Jet. I manage to avoid the attack, but the impact of the crane heaves Jet into the air, his limp body crashing into the tents below. Before I have time to respond, I spot the commander perched atop the machine, bringing up a large magical blade to carve open the cockpit of the crane. As she pulls the torn section aside, the commander lunges in towards the pilot. From my position, I can’t see the struggle, but the pilot’s screams can heard clearly through the comms as she tears him from his seat, and onto the dirt, before putting a well-aimed round through his neck.
As I look around, my scans don’t detect any sort of magically-based life, so I float down to the ground, the commander landing next to me. Starwind is already heading for Jet’s body, and a quick scan shows he’s still alive, though we all know that doesn’t mean much right now; he’s still got a while to hold on. The commander removes her helmet, letting her azure mane drape down her shoulders. As she gives a quick look around, I find myself entranced by her yet again. Somehow, she reminds me of somepony else every time I see her, though I can’t put my hoof on why. Before I get too lost in thought, however, I notice that her gaze seems very trained on the excavation site behind the terrorist camp. As I trot over to her position, it doesn’t take me long to see why.
Machines like the one we just encountered encircle the edges of a large crater, but it’s the contents of the crater that really interest me. A massive structure, the likes of which I’ve never encountered, lie uncovered within the depths of the crater, burrowing deep into the ground beneath. A large entrance is framed by ornate designs unlike any I’ve ever seen before; they don’t appear to originate from any culture on Equestria. The structure is massive, and it appears that the entirety of its being is not even uncovered. Rather than sprawling upwards like the skyscrapers back home, the building seems to move downwards, like some sort of tomb. Its surface seems to be made of an unusual material; I doesn’t seem to be any sort of metal I've ever seen, but it still appears harder than rock. All along the surface lie carvings of a foreign nature, though they somehow look familiar.
It doesn't seem possible that these regressive terrorists could build something so massive, especially in such a short amount of time, and without getting noticed as well. No, it looks like they dug it out… but then, who did build it? It looks like it’s been here forever, but it doesn’t look exactly… ancient. In fact, sans the exotic carvings and impractical size of the structure, it seems to be modern in design, even slightly ahead of current technology. Exploration was always one of my passions, and I really wanted to see what came out of this, but it was way over any of our heads, and the commander knew it. She propped her helmet back into place, vents hissing as it adjusted the air contents.
“This is Firefly, all hostiles eliminated, requesting evac,” her voice was stern and affirmative as always.
“Roger Bravo Leader, ETA fifteen minutes,” a voice responds over the comms.
“Lockeye, keep our borders covered.” She turns to me, “Scootaloo, I need you to do a quick sweep while Starwind and I get Jet situated.” I nod in response before whipping up a spell to restore my sensors to full capacity. I trot about the premises of the camp, not detecting any signs of life. As I turn around the corner of one of the warehouses, something catches my eye. A pegasus sat around the corner, a small device held in his mouth. His eyes widen as he sees me, and he charges towards me, screaming as he does. I realize instantly that the device is a detonator, and the vest he is wearing is full of high-grade explosives. I push myself as hard backwards as my wings will take me, placing an arcane shield in front of me; it’s barely enough to keep me protected from the blast that encompasses the nearby warehouse building.
“Scootaloo, what’s your situation? Are you alright? What’s going on?” The concerned tone of my commander’s voice actually puts me a little at ease, knowing how secure I am with my squad at my back.
"Yeah... yeah, I'm alright."
"Good. Everypony, prepare for evac. Let's get our flanks back to base."
As we head back into space, I find myself sitting behind the pilot again, staring into the starry distance, almost as if by instinct. When you live in space the beauty of space can dull a little, but I’ve always found that keeping that fact conscious makes it more than bearable. My job also has me spend a good deal more planetside, so the shining expanse of outer space is actually a change to me. I can only imagine how miserable it can be to live your entire life in a colony or on a ship, where space is so familiar it becomes monotonous.
The massive gray hull of the Manehattan glittered with an abundance of shining lights, excreting from various windows and sensors across the ship. The ship expands across my vision as we approach, our shuttle heading towards one of the landing decks. A small hatch designed to fit the craft closely encompasses the shuttle, a docking platform slowly extending to the side door. As a loud hissing indicates the change in air pressure outside the cabin, the door opens, now firmly attached to the Manehattan. As we approach the barracks, the collection of ponies waiting is shocking enough to stop me in my tracks.
Surrounded by an entourage of political advisors and military officers, the president awaits our arrival, her expression stern yet still not unkind. Her almost unnatural height is accentuated by her wings, which she keeps spread far more often than most to create an air of authority. Her lavender fur is wrapped in a regal dark blue jacket, and her darker purple mane seems to flow in the non-existent wind. Her purple-eyed gaze is cold and calculating, as she slowly scans each member of my squad, her expression hardly changing towards each.
“I trust the mission was a success, commander?” though her voice is naturally nurturing, her tone has a steely harshness to it.
Commander Firefly nods her head in reply. “Affirmative, Madame President. All hostiles were eliminated.”
“And their work? Do we have any information on what exactly the HRG were doing on Horus?”
“Analysts are currently at the site recovering any data left behind, though it is possible the progression of the battle could have destroyed most of their data,” the commander replies without emotion.
The president’s eyes continue to scan the squad members, and a slight smile erupts as she spots me among them. Though I can feel the jealousy of some of those around me towards the gesture, I can’t help but feel rewarded by her pleasure. “Scootaloo, it’s been a long time. I hope you are doing well.”
I return the smile. “Thank you, Madame President, things have been all right.”
“Please, Scootaloo, you can still call me Twilight.” She quickly shoots an embarrassed look to the other members of my squad, as though to extend the courtesy to them as well. “At the very least, please call me President Sparkle.”
“Y-yes… President Sparkle.” To be honest, I’m more comfortable calling her Twilight, but right now I just want to escape the pressure of the envy pressing down on me. However, against my better judgment, I speak up as she is about to leave. “We did find something, Madame President,” Twilight turns to face me once more. “Some ruins, or… something. There was an excavation.”
She raises her eyebrows, but only for a moment. “Thank you, Scootaloo. You are all dismissed.”
As we start to disperse, I can feel the commander’s harsh gaze pressing down on me. She obviously withheld that information for a reason, but I’m not sure it was necessary. We didn’t know what those structures were and where they came from, even though we were given access to classified information on a regular basis. Commander Firefly has seemed to have an issue with other branches of the government, though not in the overt manner as some lower-ranking soldiers have.
Both our thoughts are diverted as we watch Jet get wheeled off on a stretcher. Being around as long as I have, I’m used to seeing fellow soldiers get hurt and die, but the Wonderbolts is a much more tight-knit group than most. My heart lurches as the medics attach various tubes to his body, even though I know he will probably survive, given his value.
As we unpack our armor into our personal lockers, Lockeye shoots me an almost accusing glance. “So, Scootaloo, how does the president herself become buddies with a leatherneck like you?”
I just try to laugh it off. “It’s like you said, we were friends before the war. I guess it’s just stuck with us.” To be honest, I never really felt like we were “buddies” to begin with. I knew her best before the change, but back then our age difference seemed so significant it was more like she was a guardian or… something like that. She wasn’t exactly my role model, though; that title was reserved for one pony alone in my life…
The simulators are like a second home to me, here in space. A place where I can just clear my mind, let my instincts guide me as I duck and weave past virtual fire. The pulsing of my muscles, the adrenaline coursing through my veins… it’s all so liberating. The chance to break free of the doubts and questions that fill my mind each day. Even on missions I’m required to think before I act, but I’ve never been one for thinking.
I wince in pain as a carefully-placed shot pulls through my shoulder. I barely managed to keep it away from my chest; though these are virtual rounds, they still sting like hell. Rolling back onto my hooves, I drive a burst into the artificial target. I was… distracted. I could run some of these simulations in my sleep, but those ruins, it’s like they called to me. What could they possibly be? Who built them? Why do I want to know more? Maybe I’ll to head back to the barracks; if combat won’t get this out of my head, perhaps sleep will.
As I head back to my room, a familiar sound stops me in my tracks. Along the hall lies a lecture hall, filled with young eager military cadets. Their instructor reminds them of the oh-so-familiar story of the revolution, how we overthrew our god-like oppressors when we discovered the depths of their vanity, the magnitude of their secrets. How we learned to harness those secrets for all of ponykind, and how we evolved because of it.
She lectures them about the change, about augmentation day and what it meant for everypony. How we obtained what we now call the “power of three,” and how it helped push us into the stars. I remember how we used to dub them “alicorns,” back when such archaic differentiations had any meaning. Although it was so long ago, I still remember that life. I remember how I was just a pegasus, how I lacked the magical and intellectual abilities I now have. How death seemed like a creeping certainty, rather than the distant dream it is now. Though, in my line of work, death is just as present as it was a century ago.
It almost makes me chuckle, to see these eager young cadets throw their lives towards danger so recklessly. They have so much time to decide these days, but some still enlist as soon as they are able. I can’t really blame them, I was the same way when I was a filly. Back then, being a part of the Wonderbolts required a very different kind of pony, but I would still have thrown my life away if they had asked. In fact, I probably would today.
My room is more than just an army cot these days; the government is willing to spare the expense to make sure the Wonderbolts perform at the top of their game. It isn’t anything special, but it’s better than an old-fashioned bunk.
Sleeping doesn’t seem to help rest my thoughts either, or rather, my mind won’t let me sleep. When I came back from my first combat drop, I found sleeping pretty hard. Every time I’d close my eyes, I’d hear the shots whizz past my ears and feel the mud beneath my hooves. More than once, I would physically jerk out of place, my body desperate to dodge the dangers my mind had conjured up. But those days were long gone. Tonight, I just have my questions to keep me awake.
And the memories.