Despite the large conversation piece floating in Twilight’s magic, the walk back to the extraction site had been devoid of conversation for quite some time. Twilight hadn’t seen Zecora this upset before, even during the time when they had first met and nearly came to blows. Considering that she was carrying what amounted to one whopper of a gift from her friend’s father, she thought it best to allow Zecora to be the one to resume any chitchat.
That being said, by the time they were well into the rainforest, Twilight had no choice but to break the silence. She pulled out the little microphone from her helmet and spoke. “Hey Rainbow, bring Spike back to the extraction site, and relay a message to the Bellerophon. Tell them we have a high priority item that needs to be retrieved and stored in the ship’s hold.”
“Roger that!” Rainbow’s voice said over the radio. The little tuft of cloud that had been following them promptly took off at high speed.
Zecora sighed. <<I honestly wish you hadn’t accepted that gift, Twilight.>>
<<Because when the end of the world doesn’t come, he might send someone after you, looking for a favour. The stallion is insane, but shrewd.>>
<<Well, it’s a good thing that I didn’t tell him my real name. It gives us some plausible deniability. At the same time, I really don’t think that’s what his angle was here.>>
<<Don’t tell me you —>>
Twilight shook her head. <<No, I’m not saying I believe his religious ideas, I’m just saying I think he’s sincere when he says that he regrets what he’s done to you. I’m not saying you should forgive him, I’m just saying we should be be pragmatic about this. I mean, this is a huge intelligence coup.>>
<<I suppose. I’m just —>>
Twilight and Zecora both leapt to the side, tumbling into the leaves along with the chest. Twilight’s ears twitched, as the sound of small hoofsteps was oddly familiar. There was also the sound of a rickety wooden contraption that brought back memories from her time in Ponyville.
Twilight raised an eyebrow at Zecora. <<You don’t think…>>
The two poked their heads out of the leaves and watched as a trio of zebra foals ran past, two of them pulling the third in a wooden cart.
<<Sorry! No time to slow down!>> The one in the vehicle called out, the other two not even so much as flinching as they raced towards the village.
Even on the other side of the known world, foals would be foals. Even Zecora couldn’t help but smile at the sight, but it faded quickly. <<To think what Mipaka is teaching them…>>
Twilight’s ears fell, realizing what she was talking about. <<I know that this is your home, and I want to help, but barring some kind of immediate disaster I don’t have the authority to intervene. Celestia and Equestria guarantee religious freedom, provided that the princesses themselves aren’t the ones being worshipped. If I move against them for their beliefs… Well, it would be hypocritical to say the least, and probably illegal on some level. Definitely an international incident…>>
Zecora’s head fell, crestfallen. <<I know. And I don’t have any right to ask something like that of you anyway. Come, let us return to the ship. I want to leave.>>
Twilight nodded and turned to collect the gems which had spilled out of the chest. <<Guess I made a little bit of a mess here.>> She flipped the chest back up and started depositing the scattered crystals one by one. When she got to a certain white one she rubbed a hoof on her horn.
“Is something wrong?”
<<This one still has some energy in it. It’s kind of… Tingly. I’ll put it aside for closer inspection.>> Twilight quickly added the rest of the gems to the chest, save for the one she had deemed more important, which went into her saddlebag. <<Okay, let’s go.>>
Every few moments as they walked back to the chariot, Twilight couldn’t help but look around. There was a slight tingle at the back of her neck making her coat stand on end. Even her mane was getting into the act a little bit.
Hmm… Her eyes darted around as she wondered where the darkness at the edge of her vision kept coming from. Each time she looked at something new, it would vanish, but whenever she let her focus slip, even just a little, it would slowly creep back in.
The air itself seemed heavy, thick. The molecules in her breath felt as though they could be individually perceived. When she looked behind her and gazed at the sun she could almost feel something else there, perhaps on the other side of the star, watching her.
<<Twilight, are you all ri —>>
“Waaaaaaoh –!” Twilight’s chin swung to the ground, announcing its arrival with a clack as her teeth came together. Looking up at the last second had prevented a complete face plant, but she had still fallen completely over, her rump pointing at the sky.
Ow. There goes any dignity I thought I’d gain over this mission. Urgh. She righted herself and sat down, finding that they had arrived at the extraction site. The two Royal guard pegasi who had been assigned to her were coming in for a landing with the chariot, ready to carry off their prize. And of course, I bet they saw all that.
To Twilight’s relief, neither the guards commented on her lack of grace. Instead, they simply grabbed hold of the chest and heaved into the chariot's cargo hold.
“I’m assuming this is the high priority package you mentioned,” Cloud Burner said. “Rainbow and Spike are both back on the Bellerophon. Are you ready for exfil?”
“I suppose.” Twilight looked up at the sky, finding only a few clouds. “What about the patrols? Shouldn’t we have to wait for about an hour to find another window?”
He shook his head. “No, for whatever reason they’ve been quiet lately.”
“Yeah, but if you ask me, I don’t count it as a blessing.” The other guard sneered, staring off into the distant blue. “Something’s going on.”
“We can at least make use of it to get the heck out of here. After we regroup, then we can find out what the patrols are for.” Twilight hopped into the chariot, offering a hoof to help Zecora step inside. “Come on, I know Zecora doesn’t want to stay any longer, I can’t say I blame her.”
The stallion saluted and got to the harness, taking off without further delay. The chest bumped and rattled as the air currents around them jostled the chariot. The winds grew stronger and stronger as they climbed, until the pegasi had to purposefully dampen them with magic.
Twilight watched as the two stallions flapped their wings. If she focused her gaze, she could see the slight variations in the pinion positioning as they fought back against the currents. It’s kind of remarkable how they can do that, really. Things like this are the basics for them, but me? I can’t even comprehend having wings yet.
“Royal one, come in. This is Bellerophon actual.”
Twilight raised an eyebrow and looked around, trying to find the mare who was talking to her over the radio. Bellerophon actual means it’s General Tempest herself, but we’re not in range of the ship yet. So where is…
“I repeat, Royal one, come in.”
Twilight shook her head to snap out of it. "Bellerophon actual, this is Royal one. What’s going on?”
“Adjust your vector to intercept the cloud bank to the east southeast of the caldera. I’ll meet you there.”
Twilight looked over to Zecora, who simply shrugged.
“Um, okay.” She looked at her pegasi escorts. “Adjust vector to… That way.” Twilight pointed in the general direction she thought was correct.
The pegasi nodded and accelerated skyward, boosting their speed to the clouds. After another minute, they arrived, and Twilight saw the general standing on top of their destination.
As the chariot circled around for another pass, Twilight got up and put her hooves on the edge of the chariot, coiling her legs for a jump. As they passed, she sprang into action, leaping off of the chariot and landing on the cloud below with the soft ‘whud’.
“Royal one, this is Bellerophon actual. You are cleared to proceed to the ship. I will escort the Grand Mage the rest of the way later.”
“Royal one, copy. Proceeding with exfil.”
The chariot banked and turned, racing back towards the ship’s hiding spot.
Twilight turned to face the winged unicorn, only to see her turn away and draw her sword.
What the… Twilight took a step back, charging her horn.
Tempest swung her sword, but not at Twilight. Rather, her fury was reserved for the cloud underneath them, the blade slicing off a piece of cloud and pushing it away.
“Calm yourself, Grand Mage. I did not ask you out here to attack you. I need to show you something. But I cannot move this entire cloud on my own. Hence, we will use the smaller one.” The general spread her wings, and Twilight noticed that they were smaller than most pegasi. Despite this, there was no hindrance as she gracefully landed on the other cloud.
Twilight took the charge in her horn and shoved it into her teleportation spell, the overuse of energy resulting in a thunderclap as she reappeared on top of the other cloud.
Wind rushed behind them, pushing the cloud further east but significantly north of the village.
Twilight poked her head over the edge of the cloud, looking down as the jungle slowly moved under them. “You’re using the cloud as a chariot. I’m guessing it’s to avoid patrols, but the guard said they stopped.”
“We did observe that the wyvern patrols have left, but we cannot assume that we are safe just yet. Also, and more importantly, one of our scouts had a near run-in with one before they left.”
“Were they spotted?”
“No, miraculously. But when that happened, the scouts made a couple of interesting discoveries. He believes that the wyverns were equipped with Equestrian guns. A model similar to what we are starting to mount on our pegasi.”
Twilight looked back at the ship, her mind rushing back to the memory of the contractor she captured in Canterlot. “Equestrian guns? Those aren’t legal for export…”
“No, they aren’t. What’s more, they managed to follow a patrol to a hidden base in the jungle. Can you see it yet?” The general pointed with a hoof to a dense pocket of jungle in the distance. “It’s fairly well camouflaged, so look close.”
Twilight squinted, trying to make out the shape of any kind of recognizable structure. “No, at least not yet. But that area does look darker… Although…”
With a blink, Twilight tugged at her wellspring and shifted to her thaumic sight. A gentle glow surrounded the entire forest below her, the magic of life itself welling up. But where the general had pointed, the deep emerald green was contaminated with a spotty greyish tinge. Unlike the forest itself, the consistency of the colouring wasn’t static, but flowing and irregular.
“Okay, I definitely think there’s something there. Are you sure it’s a military base?”
“Absolutely.” General Tempest lay down on the cloud, but kept her head held high. “There is no doubt in my mind. That being said, the patrols seem to have moved off to the north, following a ship upriver. This gives us an opening that, should you wish to proceed, we can use to our advantage.”
Twilight tapped her chin, sitting down on the cloud to ponder. “Well, Zebrica is free to place military bases anywhere inside its territory. Normally, we wouldn’t have any right to intervene with that.”
A little grin formed on the general’s face. “Your wording suggests an exception.”
Twilight nodded. “Yeah. If they’re using Equestrian guns illegally, then we need to investigate. If we can find out where they’re from, maybe we can stop the smuggling.”
“I concur. General Nocturne’s special forces team is waiting outside the base. They could infiltrate on their own, but I thought you might want to see it firsthoof.”
Twilight scanned the perimeter, but whether she was using her special sight or not, she couldn’t quite see them. They were too far up. “Are they radio-equipped?”
“Of course!” The General held a hoof up to her ear. “Shadow One, this is Bellerophon Actual. Do you read?”
A stallion’s voice crackled over the radio. “Loud and clear. We are five hundred meters northwest of the target site, ready for infil.”
“Standby, a special guest will be there shortly.” Tempest smiled at Twilight. “Unfortunately, the chariot has already left, but…”
Testing me, huh? Twilight took off her shirt and hat and stuffed them in her saddlebags, then pulled out her torc and put it on. “Can you take these back to the ship? It’s important they make it back.”
Tempest stood up and gave her a salute with a wing, lifting the bags with her magic and placing them on her back.
Whether it was sarcastic or not, Twilight couldn’t completely tell, but her gut told her it was. With a sigh, she turned around to roll her eyes, then stare back down at the ground. A chariot is one thing, but this… Well, here goes.
Pretending the cloud was a high dive, Twilight jumped up and off the edge, plummeting to the earth below. The wind howled and roared past her and the air grew warmer and denser.
Tempest has a hell of an attitude. As much as I hate to say it, General Blueblood was right. I may have to talk to Tia about this. Twilight shifted her body around, angling herself more to the base. She used the vision again, and this time she could see the faint blips of Equestrian wellsprings underneath forest canopy. At least, she could see it when she wasn’t forced to close her eyes from the wind.
Three, two… She summoned some Pegasus magic, forcing a blast of air underneath her that blew her coat and mane around like a chilly mini-tornado. The air cushion slowed her enough that by the time she had reached the ground, her hooves barely made a sound as they touched down. I think I’m finally getting the hang of this.
“Lady Sparkle!” A voice whispered to her. “Over here!”
Twilight looked in the direction of the voice, making out the wellsprings hidden in the foliage. Violet colour… a unicorn? She stepped forward, finding a group of ponies practically drenched in camouflage.
“Lieutenant Strike, I presume. With team. I gotta say, you guys hide well. I’m surprised I saw you at all.” Twilight had to choke back the fact that she was lying, although it was a only a small one. Without her sight, she doubted she would’ve ever found them.
“It’s all part of the job, ma’am. Did Tempest brief you?”
“A little bit. You find out anything more about the base other than that it is, you know, a base?”
“Yeah.” He lit his horn and pulled out a map, unfolding it and laying it out on the ground. It was covered in hastily sketched topographical lines, along with dots, triangles, squares, and a host of other symbols depicting the town and other important landmarks, including a reasonably sized river.
“Okay, we’re located right here.” Lieutenant Strike said, tapping a spot with a hoof. “On the surface, the base occupies about this much space. He traced out a large rectangle with a pencil, then put in a small circle at one end. And this here is some kind of underground entrance. We think more wyvern patrols are resting there.”
“But why have patrols here at all?” Twilight asked. “We’re really, really far away from the front lines with Saddle Arabia.”
“Our ship-board intel spooks seem to think this is some kind of receiving base, a place to store illegally smuggled goods. Instead of offloading offshore or on a dock, sea-faring ships move just a short ways up the river, and around the bend so they won’t be seen as easily. From here, it could be shipped up river to a major trading city, or over land, and wind up anywhere in Zebrica.”
“Including the front lines, which means that if the war starts, our own weapons could be pointed at our allies.” Twilight sat down and folded her forelegs with a sigh. “At this rate, we could lose the only friend we have in the region. The horses will think we’re supplying the zebras.”
“Which is why this is important. Fortunately, we have an advantage.” He picked the pencil back up and added four more circles on the corners of the base, then two more on one side. “It doesn’t look like they were expecting Equestrians. There are four guard towers, one in each corner of the wall, plus two more guards at the main entrance. The above ground area is only very lightly staffed.”
One of the other spec ops ponies laughed. “We play this right and we’ll be in and out before they notice anything.” As he smiled, Twilight half expected to find a Night Guard fang.
“So, we’re looking for something that ties this in with smuggling operations? Like, the name of the ship or something?” Twilight cringed at the incredulous looks she was getting from the military ponies. “I’m sorry if these questions are somewhat basic; I’m not formally part of the military.”
“Hey Twilight!” Rainbow’s voice sounded from overhead. “Are you down there?”
One of the pegasi in the group soared into the air instantly, looping back around and dragging a blue and rainbow coloured blur with him. “Just what do you think you’re doing!?” He whispered harshly as they hit the ground with a thud. “If you’re spotted this whole thing is blown!”
“Hey! Get off of me!” Rainbow twisted and struggled under the stallion’s hold. “I was careful, dammit!”
“Guys!” Twilight stomped a hoof. “Stop fighting! Yelling at each other is just likely to get us spotted, and besides, we’re supposed to be working together here.”
“She’s not camouflaged!” The stallion grumbled, letting Rainbow out of his grip.
“Yeah, well, neither am I.” Twilight lit her horn and pushed magic and her Armour, deploying it in all its purple glory. “So do you guys have a plan to get us in there or not?”
“Stand down, every pony. Arguing won’t get us anywhere.” Lieutenant Strike picked up the map and angled it so Rainbow could see. “If we are going to get in undetected, we are going to need a little more cover. Captain, since you’re here, I want you to work with the Sergeant here to build us a fog bank.”
Twilight tilted her head. “Wouldn’t a fog bank be unusual for this area? And put the guards into alert?”
“It would be a little unusual for this time of year, but not entirely unprecedented. We’re about two weeks away from monsoon season, when it’s common. Besides, like I said, they aren’t expecting Equestrians. Most likely, they just deploy a few extra guards. Guards which we can remove if necessary. There probably aren’t a whole lot of zebras here. It’s the paradox of secret bases. To make it truly secured, you need a lot of personnel. But if you have a lot of personnel, it’s almost certain to be found, so to keep it secret, you can only have so many here. Resistance shouldn’t be that large.
“The problem we really need to focus on is creating a large enough bank with just two pegasi that we can blanket the entire base. Can you two do it?”
Rainbow smirked and shook her tail at the Sergeant. “In my sleep. You guys go chill for a bit; I got this.”
Twilight jumped to the side to get in front of Rainbow and held up her hoof. “Dash, ‘you guys’ go together or not at all. Safety in numbers. Were in hostile territory here.”
Rainbow slumped her shoulders and sighed. “Okay, okay. As long as he doesn’t slow me down.”
Two pegasi took off underneath the tree canopy, dodging branches and glaring at each other.
Twilight turned to face the Lieutenant and put her ears down. “You sent them both away because they’d be the most disruptive and likely to get us caught, didn’t you?”
“Also because they’re the best flyer’s we have, and we're looking to make an awful lot of fog. Once it rolls in, we’ll make our move. Our remaining pegasus, Corporal Silence here, will sneak over the wall and scout out an infiltration route. From there, we need to check out the warehouses. Priority will be to neutralize any interior guards and inspect what they have hiding here.”
“How do we know where the guards are? Especially inside the building…” Twilight asked.
The other unicorn in the group chuckled. “We don’t. We have to deal with that as it comes.”
“Actually…” Twilight looked over at the wall in the distance and shifted to her magic sight once again, but the ambient magic was too strong to see the base itself. “There’s a spell in my repertoire that might be able to help. If you can get me close enough, I can at least tell you where they are in the building. I might not be able to say which way they’re facing, though."
The group all shared an expression of wide eyes and blinking surprise, followed by a sigh of relief.
“Alright then, every pony.” Lieutenant signalled for the group to gather around the map. “Here’s our new plan.”
Twilight took in a deep breath, feeling the moisture in her nose and lungs. The armoured soldiers rested upon the wall as she listened carefully for any sign of additional guards.
“Looks calm,” the lieutenant whispered to the group. “Certain, lift the Grand Mage for us. She can see through the fog, so she is on point.”
The stallion nodded and went to pick up Twilight, wrapping his forelegs around her chest.
As she felt her hooves lift up off the ground, Twilight looked in the direction of the wall. She could just make out the grey smudges of two guards in her sight, one at either end, and neither close enough for them to see her through the cloud that had enveloped the peninsula.
One by one, the rest of the ponies followed her over the wall. When the whole group had arrived, the lieutenant leaned over to her and whispered, “stay low and slink over to the wall of the building. Step against it, and try not to make any noise. We move from cover to cover. Trees scattered about the base should provide additional hiding spots.”
Twilight nodded, her mind flashing back to some of her training with Luna. She ducked down flat, being careful not to step on anything that would make a sound. She leaned over past the edge of the first building, seeing only a single pony’s wellspring in the distance. With only dirt and grass under her, she moved over to the next building, her group close behind.
In cover once again, she took a deep breath, the moist air being the only comfort for her dry throat. She watched the little swirls of moisture dancing around in front of her as she exhaled. Though the mist was cool, and blocked out much the sun’s light, the air itself was still warm enough for sweat to begin dripping down her brow.
“Keep going,” the Lieutenant whispered again. “We’re sitting ducks out here. The warehouse is just on the other side of this building.”
Twilight nodded, and peeked around the next wall. The warehouse sat kitty-corner from her position, and she could already see some trouble. “There are two guards located just inside the main door,” she whispered behind her as she inched forward and continued her scan. “Two, possibly three more on the opposite side, and it looks like there’s one up above.”
The group stacked up behind her, each taking a look.
“I see the one above.” Corporal Silence said, pointing. “In fact he's by an open window. I think I can take him out, get us an ingress route.”
Twilight nodded. “We could do that. Lieutenant, this is your field of expertise, so it’s your call.”
“Go for it, Corporal, but do it silently”, he said, also giving him some hoof signals. “We can’t afford a ruckus right now.”
The stallion nodded and proceeded ahead of the group, his belly so close to the ground Twilight had to wonder just how in the world he could move like that. It was like watching a snake slither along the grass.
Just as he reached the wall of the window, the Pegasus shot up, grabbing his victim by the neck and dragging him straight down to the ground. The only two sounds were a pair of muffled thuds, the first from a rough landing, and the second being a single blow directly between the zebra’s neck and head.
Twilight leaned forward to go and follow, but a hoof on her shoulder held her back.
“Wait for the Corporal to secure the entrance. Then, and only then, do we go in.”
She looked back into the stallion’s eyes, shrinking down at the weight of the experience being projected at her. “Okay. But we don’t have long.”
“We don’t need it. See?”
In a single jump, the Pegasus flew back up to the window and scurried inside. A moment later, a hoof stuck out from the window to signal them to proceed.
Twilight took a breath and exhaled, and licked away some the sweat that had dripped down to her mouth. Here we go… She darted over to the other building, staying flat against the exterior wall. The buildings in the village were made of a cheap concrete. These however, whatever they were made of structurally, were covered in a material resembling bark, letting them blend in easily with the jungle.
One at a time, each pony was carried ever so gently up to the window and into the warehouse itself. Each pony moved as slow as possible to keep their hooves from making a sound on the metal grate floor. The zebra guard they had already knocked out was then carried up with them.
The Lieutenant motioned over to a door next to them, silently asking if any pony was inside.
Twilight shook her head, finding no additional wellspring sources on the upper floor. She did, however, move forward toward the railing that was overlooking the inside of the structure. Numerous large crates sat unopened on a concrete floor, with lights hanging from the ceiling illuminating small parts of the storage area. She saw four wellspring sources, two at a small door to her right, the others guarding a much larger door on her left. Without a sound she pointed out each.
The Lieutenant nodded and grasped the door handle with his mouth. In a slow, singular movement, he opened the door and checked inside, horn alight with a spell at the ready. As he crept inside the small office, each pony followed until all were inside and the door was sealed.
“Okay, four targets are left within the warehouse.” The lieutenant pointed in the direction of each from within the room, looking out through a large overseeing window. “Twilight, do you see any more guards outside the building?”
She shook her head in response.
“Good.” He turned to the Pegasus Corporal. “You and I will take the guards at the large door. Go after the one farther away. Corporal? You take on the far guard on the opposite side. Sergeant? You have the near one. Twilight, you stay here with the other sergeant until it’s clear.”
The Pegasus, unicorn, and earth ponies all saluted, while Twilight merely nodded.
The group split up, two ponies going one way, two going another, and two staying put in the office.
Twilight wasn’t sure exactly when they would make their move, as nothing seemed to happen for a long time. Though, when they did, she wasn’t quite certain what had transpired until it was over. A flutter of feathers, a set of hooves landing on concrete, and a few subtle flashes of light all came at once. By the time the light had faded, so had the guards’ consciousness. Each one lay limp on the ground for but a second before being dragged back up into the office and tied up along with the first guard they had knocked out.
“There, that’s that,” the Lieutenant said, this time his voice slightly above a whisper. “Corporal, do you have the forget-me-juice?”
Corporal Calibre lit her horn and pulled out a small case of something, opening it up to reveal a set of syringes.
Twilight took a step back, wrinkling her nose. “What is that?”
“A cocktail of versed, propofol, and a few other more magical ingredients. Guaranteed to wipe the last twenty minutes or so of your memory, and keep you knocked out for a good long while.” The unicorn lifted one of the syringes out, and started dosing each of the zebras. “When we’re done, we’ll take them back to the ship for interrogation. Also, we’ll use the typewriter over there on the desk to write up a report on how these guys went AWOL. If we’re lucky, it’ll cause a big kerfuffle in their ranks, which could lead to a few juicy leaks.”
The Lieutenant leaned over to the window, again checking the warehouse floor. “If we just kill them, security will only get tighter. Okay, looks clear. Sergeants, you two stay up here and rifle around the paperwork. Try to find anything interesting. Everypony else, downstairs with me. Time to find out what’s here.”
Immediately, the two earth ponies began to open up drawers and scrounge through the documents, one of them seemingly translating for the other. Meanwhile, Twilight and the others moved downstairs to the warehouse floor.
“Corporal, if you would.” The Lieutenant smiled, pointing at one of the large crates.
“Don’t mind if I do”, she laughed, hopping up on a different crate and turning her horn to face the designated box. Five at a time, the nails sealing the top of the crate popped out from her telekinesis, the top panel coming off in almost no time at all.
Twilight reared up on her hind legs, putting her front hooves over the top of the box and taking a peek inside with the others.
“Hello, what have we here?” Silence asked, reaching down and pulling out a set of cored cannons and mounting them on his back. “Hey Lieutenant, these look familiar to you?”
Twilight took a close look at the weapons, spotting a familiar symbol in between them. Cloudsdale armouries. “This is the second time I’ve encountered their weapons being illegally used.”
"If they’re authentic." Lieutenant Strike picked the weapons up off his subordinate’s back and hoofed them over to the Corporal. “What do you think? Are we dealing with the real thing?”
“Hmm…” She scratched her head, looking over both barrels with squinting eyes and her horn alight. Bit by bit, pieces of the weapon came off as it was disassembled completely, each component thoroughly scrutinized. ”Most of its authentic. Or, at least, authentic enough that I can’t tell the difference. But, the firing crystal and the charge crystal are both knockoffs. Sad to say they probably still work, however. Might be a little bit of a drop in output, but still enough to kill.”
“Hey, Lieutenant! Over here, I found something you’re going to want to see.”
The three unicorns looked behind a stack of crates to find Silence overlooking a workbench. By the time they had arrived, a pit had formed in Twilight's stomach.
“What are we looking at here, Corporal?”
“I can answer that,” Twilight said, motioning to the yellow charged core and the glowing orange potion next to it. A funnel, gem carving tools, and a smattering of other devices were also strewn nearby. “Somehow, this potion is capable of carving enhancements into the core. Somepony was customizing this, trying to give it a new function or higher output. Theoretically possible, but also dangerous.”
“What about charging?” The Lieutenant turned to face the crates behind him. “Cores can only be charged by unicorns or special machines hooked up to solidified magic, which also can be only made by unicorns.”
Calibre picked up the bottle of potion in her magic. “It’s expensive, but solidified magic is available on the black market.”
“It also theoretically possible that they’ve developed a potion capable of charging them. In fact, let’s take a look.” Twilight looked over to a small crate next the table, and pried it open with her magic. “Yeah, look at this." She lifted a vial of a bright yellow liquid from the box.
“Same colour.” Silence looked down at the crystal. “What happens if we…?”
“Way ahead of you.” Twilight cleared off the workbench, leaving only the vial. “Somepony get me an uncharged, unmodified crystal. I don’t even want to attempt charging a crystal modified by an amateur.”
A fresh core quickly found his way over to the workbench, and Twilight uncorked the vial.
“Here goes nothing.” She tipped it over, pouring the entire thing onto the gym. Almost like a sponge, the liquid was absorbed and the crystal began to glow with the new found power.
A cold chill ran through the room, each pony fully aware of what just happened.
“How many weapons you think are here?” Calibre turned to face the array of boxes before them. “How many are already on the front lines?”
“Too many," the Lieutenant growled. "This just became a demolitions operation.”
“Wait!” Twilight held out a hoof to block his path. “If we blow this up, Zebrica is going to blame Saddle Arabia. It’ll start a war immediately.”
“And what do you suggest we do?” Silence asked, stepping forward. “We can’t just let these things go.”
Twilight folded her forelegs and closed her eyes, weighing the options in her mind. I’m still right. If we blow this place up, Saddle Arabia will be blamed. If we do nothing, war will probably start anyway, and they’ll have several hundred additional equestrian weapons to fight it with. I need a third option… I wonder if this is one of the situations that Celestia describes as having “no good choices”.
“Ma’am?” One of the ponies asked.
Twilight’s eyes flew open as she snapped her gaze to Calibre. “When the Lieutenant wanted one of these weapons analyzed, he asked you. I assume that means you’re some kind of weapons expert.”
“Ma’am, yes ma’am!” She snapped off a salute.
“Can you sabotage this gun?” Twilight pointed to the weapon in pieces on the floor. “And if so, how quickly can you do it? Can you do it in a way they might not notice?”
A grin formed on all three of the military ponies.
“It’d just take a couple seconds. Are you thinking what I’m thinking?”
“Yeah. We’re going to be here awhile longer.” Twilight turned to Silence. “I need you to make a run to Rainbow and her new friend. Tell them we're going to be here awhile, and we need them to keep the fog up. Then, get back here and help the ponies upstairs. We unicorns will get to work sabotaging these as soon as Corporal Calibre shows us how.
“And if we are very, very lucky, a whole bunch of defective weapons are about to be shipped to the front.”
Around thirty minutes in, the three unicorns on the warehouse floor had formed into a relatively efficient sabotage assembly line. Twilight lifted the weapons out and put them in front of Calibre, who sabotaged them and put them in front of the Lieutenant, who arranged them together to be placed back in the crate as if they’d never been disturbed.
Halfway through the twelfth large crate, the door from the room above opened at one of the Earth ponies silently scrambled down the steps to meet with them.
“Lieutenant, I think we have a new problem. Take a look at these documents.”
“I can’t read Zebrican, Sergeant. What do they say?”
“I’ll translate." Twilight took the clipboard in her magic and started flipping through it. "They’re shipping manifests, but this isn’t government letterhead. It looks like… Wow, this is a lot of money changing hooves. It looks like a lot of it was for food… No, wait.”
“What is it?”
“Apparently, there was a shipment that came through here very recently. They dropped off these weapons, but picked up a large shipment of food from the warehouse. At least, that’s what it says.”
“Food?” The Corporal rubbed her hoof on her chest. “Wonder what that’s code for.”
“Actually, I think it’s legit." Twilight pointed at a number of the other entries. "They aren’t hiding the kinds of goods they’re carrying. They’re still a lot of weapons, but much of Zebrica is in the midst of a drought, and an army marches on its stomach. They may well have had to pick up food from here. Most of the rest of the shipments, however, are weapons.
“It’s strange, though. There are payment logs in here as well. It’s like they’re being paid for as they leave this depot. Going to… the Wavu? I’m not sure what that word is…”
“Aw, bucking hell"! Precision Strike stomped his hoof on the ground. "Suddenly, everything’s starting to make sense. The Wavu are a Zebrican criminal organization. They do operate in some areas of Equestria. They must be buying the weapons, shipping them here, and then selling them to the Zebrican government. For all we know, they might be under orders from President Malkia herself.”
Calibre’s lip curled in a sneer. “No wonder security is so lax here. We’re in a mob base, not a military base. This is a smuggling dock!”
Twilight looked up to the room where their captives were held. “They sure look like soldiers…”
Precision rolled his eyes. “That’s because thugs like this like to play soldier, but they’re really just that: thugs. Now, though, my question is, how many weapons are we talking about?”
Twilight flipped through the pages adding up the numbers in her head.
Calibre leaned over to watch. “Please tell me those are all duplicates.”
Twilight shook her head. "No, there’s enough weapons going through here to supply an army. And I don’t think destroying the base would help any. The ships would just go farther up river, directly to the city. This is likely just a checkpoint. Not to mention it’d likely set off the war right away.”
The door to the office swung open again this time with a bit of a clang. “Lieutenant! I found a guard schedule! Shift changes in six minutes!”
"Crap." Precision facehooved. "Looks like we’re Oscar Mike. Twilight, seal up these crates. Silence, get ready to do your thing. You're going to silently fly our captives out to the staging area, hostile exfil. Everypony else, clean up. Make it look like we were never here. As soon as Calibre finishes, we are ghosts. Am I clear?”