Years ago, a recruit named Michael Hengst impressed an officer during an investigation about divulgation of classified information. Which eventually landed his current, long-term assignment: “Her registry is Specimen 25467, but she likes the name Flora.” “Your primary mission is the typical for an Intelligence soldier like you: Keep the secret from becoming public.” “Your secondary mission is why we selected a soldier who had maintained his humanity despite his line of work: the only alien life form known to humanity needs a friend.”
And he became so much more than a friend: Flora needed a father.
While I have made this story approachable without having read "All American Girl", this story is a reply to the AAG May Story Challenge. If you like my story, you'll love the original.
‘Wake up, shored sailor: another day of ennui awaits you.’
Lieutenant, Junior Grade Michael Hengst blinked hard a few times before slowly sitting up on his bed: even if being in charge of Viques Island was a dead-end job, he was still the OIC and it was his responsibility to keep his crew in shape.
And talking about that, he reached behind his alarm clock on his bedside table, pulled his radio from its charging cradle, turned it on and, after waiting a moment just to make sure he wasn’t about to intrude into existing communication, pressed the send button and spoke:
“Night shift report! Over.”
“Morning, sir!” his radio cracked back at him, making him adjust the volume a tad lower. “Boat Three intercepted a pleasure yacht at twenty-three-o-nine, sailing from the civilian side of the island. Boat Six escorted around a cargo ship that saluted the south side from o-four-thirty-five to o-four-fifty-three. Report ends. Over.”
“Copy that, Ensign,” replied Mike, finally disengaging from his bed. “Forecast for today. Over.”
“Weather reports sunny in the morning, some clouds in the afternoon, and light wind all day. Traffic only reports a provision ship, ETA eleven-hundred at the resort’s dock to unload two DHS personnel, five invisible civilians and regular cargo. It should be at our dock at fourteen-hundred, and should carry that third freezer for our resident contractor. Over.”
“Copy that.” Mike said with a smile. “I’ll leave you the honours to announce that to the furball, but please do so after you wake up in the afternoon. Over.”
“My pleasure, sir. Out.”
Now with his day planned beyond strict routine, Mike rose out of bed.
Following his usual routine, he exited his bedroom, walked to the kitchen and made himself a “quick-puccino”: a shot of expresso from his timer-operated espresso machine, watered down in a half-cup of milk nuked to lukewarm. And quickly enough he drank it and dropped the cup in his sink, to then prepare a second quick-puccino, this one with a little sugar, and carry it to the second bedroom.
He knocked softly, then waited a couple heartbeats and walked into... girly: a fluffy pink carpet, lavender and baby blue wallpapers, lime green furniture and posters of fluffy animals and Disney princesses that were slowly being replaced with boy bands. And there in the far corner, tangled in the sheets of a four-poster bed that had put him behind by a pretty penny, was the female who kept him chaste and voluntarily nailed to this backwater island and dead-end post:
“Rise and shine, sweety,” he said, as he placed the cup on the bedside table, sat down on the table and gently leaned on the mass of sheets on the bed.
Out came a couple of deep breaths, then a soft whiny, and then a voice that, for the next few moments, wouldn’t truly fool a listener into believing ‘human’.
“Faihv morrh meeehhhnuths, Hahhee,” weakly came a reply from in there.
“You need to drink your joe, furball,” he commented, half seriously, as he found that his daughter was upside-down on the bed again. He uncovered her head and found it to be an adorable mass of olive-green sweety under a nimbus of magenta tangle. “You are far too sleepy to enunciate.”
She had a couple of deeper breaths, then licked her chops, then tried again: “Five more meehnutes, Daddy.”
“No can do, Flora, unless you want to get to school with damp fur.”
That got out of her a grunt that sounded much more equine than human, followed by her putting her legs under her body and beginning to crawl out of bed. Mike assisted her by keeping the sheets on the bed, then watched as his quadruped daughter yawned large enough to bite a large grapefruit, stretched like a cat and then slowly clip-clopped to the door until…
“Don’t forget your coffee, Flora” he called, not incidentally stopping his daughter from using her mouth on the door’s pommel. He wouldn’t bother her about being naked, though, as he knew that, other than respecting human sensitivities, she despised clothing. “Sorry, Dad,” she replied, as she returned, gave him a nuzzle, picked up her mug by biting the edge and, with strength and dexterity that no human lips had, slowly turned it from vertical and full to horizontal and empty without making a sound and without spilling a drop.
He then took the mug from her and watched her make her way again to the door, now with a closer-to-functional brain that allowed her to open it with her hoof.
As she took her morning shower first (after all, she took a good ten minutes to towel dry) he washed the coffee mugs and washed and reloaded the espresso machine, getting it ready to jolt them awake tomorrow.
After some ten more minutes, he received an “All yours, Dad,” and took his turn into their heavily modified shower stall…
And at 0629, Lieutenant Junior Grade Michael Hengst and his daughter Flora exited their housing unit and begun walking to the base’s cafeteria, him displaying Summer White Service uniform, and her wearing the ugly pink-on-white, sailor-styled uniform of the only secondary school in the island. Four minutes later they were sitting on ‘their’ table at the cafeteria: him with some gruel and scrambled eggs from the food line; her with her ‘special nutrition’ that the cooks, bless their souls, had shaped today as blueberry-and-hay muffins.
As usual, he let her go as soon as she had eaten her almost tasteless breakfast so she could greet people, but at 0645 he pulled her back and told her that ‘it was getting late’ and she had to go to school.
And as his daughter sank into the VR room that connected her to a faceless robot at a school ten miles –and a world—away, Lt. Hengst turned around and went against the usual dread of ‘Summer White’ days:
Six mind-numbing hours later, Mike temporarily emerged from the clutches of his greatest enemy and, after a quick uniform change to gym clothes, could peek into the VR room.
There was his daughter, diligently typing on her laptop by using a T9-type keyboard with keys as large as fists. Glancing up, he saw on the robot’s four screens that her classroom was in the middle of a quiz, with the three panoramic screens showing a 180-view of her classmates hunching on their desks, and her zoom camera zoomed into the blackboard, showing ten questions on South American history that he didn’t know if he had ever learned.
Who the heck was Cusco, anyway?
After a few minutes, the speakers delivered the teacher rapping the eraser on his desk, making the students look up. “You can print your answers, Miss Hengst. And everybody, please put down your pens and pass your answers forward.”
After a round of groaning, including that of his daughter, the teacher began receiving the papers, including the one coming out of the chest of the Execubot’s integrated fax/printer.
“Homework,” said the teacher, eliciting some more groaning. “Read pages 137 to 144 and answer the questions in page 145. And now you can go to your PE class.”
His daughter then removed her diadem microphone, turned off the Execubot, turned around and, with practiced ease, caught the bundle of clothes he had just tossed her.
“Hurry up, furball, so I can help you dry.”
“Gotcha, Dad,” she replied, extending her school-regulated gym uniform over her desk, while he turned and walked out of the room to let her change.
A couple minutes later, they marched into the base’s gym and begun their workout:
First came stretches.
Second came some cardio, where he took his usual rowing machine and she took her special treadmill and begun running upright. Then started the differences between their two workouts: on the ten-minute mark, her machine began beeping. She pressed a green button on it and dropped to all fours and the machine, following its program, slowly accelerated to a twenty-minute routine at speeds not usually sustainable by humans, and in fact going into all-out gallop at some points.
At the thirty-minute mark both their machines beeped them to stop, and after a short break for hydration and catching their second wind, they went to the weight room and, as he did some biceps, his soft-looking “daddy’s girl” took an abdominal machine and rapidly maxed it...
Ten minutes later, they were at the gym’s shower room, taking advantage of it being co-ed by him helping her to wash her back without straining her neck.
And minutes later, after he had helped her to dry (a much faster task if his daughter had an extra pair of hands), they were out and ready for more sit down time: him back in the office, her to her last couple of classes for the day.
At seventeen hundred, he could say ‘bye’ to the week’s only day of intensive office time, he could change out of uniform and go spend some more time with his daughter.
Following the radio of Seaman Martin, her watchdog for the day, he could find her at one of her mint fields. As he approached he was greeted by her ‘doing her magic:’ she had a full size scythe on her jaw, and was making it fly through bergamot mint like nobody’s business, while Seaman Lawrence, on his civvies, was a few steps behind her, bunching up the cut mint and loading it on a wagon. A wagon that, obviously, also happened to be hitched to his daughter.
He also noticed that she was chipper than usual, mumbling a catchy tune as her scythe moved much faster than usual. Mike waited until she finished the line (and dropped the scythe) before greeting her:
“Hey, Sweety; why so enthusiastic today?”
“Dad!” she exclaimed, pushing the release on her harness and then jumping at him. He intercepted her flying hug, then brought her down and hugged her gladly as she enthusiastically nuzzled his neck.
“So, what is it, furball?” He said after savouring her love for a little longer.
“Sharon just told me! This supply ship just brought my new freezer! I’ll be able to double my ice cream production, and just in time for me to try selling Yerba Buena Sherbet!” she said, finishing by nodding at the bergamot on her wagon.
“That’s great, Flora!” he replied, being excited about that peculiar sherbet she had tested on the base’s cafeteria last week. “Vieques Herbs Incorporated seems to be going full steam ahead.”
And he really hoped it was: her company was a very important step on the plan that the DoD had drawn for her independence: first it was for her to move into a small island environment rather than the underground lab that she spent most of her childhood. Next she stopped being home-schooled after elementary and began attending middle school through the Execubot, inside a small-town environment. Next step, although she didn’t know that, but her Execubot would be unavailable from her very first day at high school, ‘forcing the DoD’ to have her attend in person. And the very day that happen, the DoD would spam the media and try to gain a favourable image about them having correctly handled Specimen 25467, Earth’s first real alien. The ‘final’ step was something that the plans had drawn as unlikely but Flora herself had provided: for her to somehow gain financial independence inside the island, so she would be unlikely to leave, and thus be sheltered by the small-town environment.
They then held together for a while, until Seaman Martin cleared his throat.
“Come on, guys,” he said, making room for the scythe on the wagon. “You are paying me by the hour, Flora, and I like to give you your money’s worth.”
Mike was unhappy about ending the moment, but could agree with the seaman’s work ethic and stood up again.
Five minutes later they entered her factory and began washing the part of the bergamot that would go into the sherbet.
At nineteen hundred, Mike left his daughter to TV and homework at their housing unit, to go receive in person the logs concerning the supply ship. Thankfully, they contained no sensitive information, so he could rapidly return home and read them on his own kitchen table, while he watched his daughter watch TV.
And finally, at twenty-thirty, he herded her into her room, getting out of her a promise to not stay up too late.
When Mike eventually got to bed, he checked on her and found her asleep, curled in the middle of the bed. He gave her a kiss and covered her again, then left: in three more years he would sail again, but Flora would always be his daughter.
Author Notes: What if ‘the foal-napping incident’ had been a mobilization rather than a commando operation? And what if the enemy had been warned? And sorry if Flora sounds younger on this chapter: it just came out that way! Cookies points to the one who spots the Asimovian references.
When the new silent alarm went off and shocked him awake at o-three-fourteen, Mike had an instant of honesty and sighed in relief: This past two weeks had been too weird, and he had wanted to see the other shoe drop and actually know what he was supposed to prepare for. Two weeks ago both Sharon and him had been promoted, his garrison had suddenly been upgraded from ‘seventy-man misnamed Coast Guard’ to ‘two-hundred and-fifty-man fortified island,’ the DHS evacuated their hotel so to garrison some pyros from the US Army Corps of Engineers, and the Corps then went as far as to air-drop concrete slabs, engineering tanks, backhoes and a stripped-out APC so to bury the APC six feet under, label it ‘bunker’ and have Flora sleeping in it in under a week!
Besides, his orders summarized to “prepare for weird”? What kind of an order was that!
Of course, his moment of weakness only lasted a second, after which he shock his head and hovered his hand over his new growler phone. And instant later it began growling and he picked up.
“Report!” he barked into the microphone.
“Around forty contacts flying low from Puerto Rico, opening north and south into a pincer manoeuvre. A third prong coming from the Virgin Islands; some twenty contacts,” said one of the newcomer officers, Ensign Ruiz. “ETA fifteen minutes for north and east prongs, twenty-five for south prong unless they cut across the civilian side.”
‘Good: they are moving awfully slow. Bad: they were in US territories undetected.’
“Roger. Are we in Ambush Protocol, ensign?”
“Say again the ROE.”
“Assume enemy to employ silent rocket belts, heavy armour and unknown weapons and tactics. Put the VIP into full tactical gear and stuff her into the bunker. Silent sirens sound Full alert; lights out; do not engage the enemy unless engaged or they clearly demonstrate that they are advancing on the VIP; try to give warning shots before employing lethal force.”
“Roger. Out,” said Mike before hanging the phone, not remembering that it wasn’t a radio.
As he slipped on his full tactical gear, he eyed the weapon that had come to replace his carbine five days ago: a mini-iPad controlling a handful of pyrotechnic charges and some two hundred Claymore mines, most of them facing upward and placed all around the roofs and gardens of the camp.
He picked it up, slipped it on its left-arm holster and exited his office/temporary bedroom, to then only have to cross two more doors before getting to the new command centre, where he mostly ignored the four walls worth of monitors and marched onto the radar station.
“Updates, Ensign Ruiz?” he asked his new Hispanic subordinate.
“Muñiz Base is scrambling a Spooky and two Apache escorts. ETA is...” The man looked at his watch. “...sixteen minutes.”
“Enemy speed remains constant at forty knots, so ETA is twelve minutes for their vanguard, twenty-two for their reinforcements,” the copper-skinned ensign replied, barely looking up from the radar stations. “We also have better numbers: each prong has three formations, and each formation has six ‘motorcycles’ flying double line, and one ‘small bus’ flying on their wake. So numb-”
The ensign cut off suddenly, watching on the radar how two new ‘motorcycles’ came out of the rear of each bus, then entered the rear of the motorcycle formation just as the two on the front disengaged and entered their respective bus.
“Rocket belts, indeed,” mumbled the ensign, rubbing his chin.
“Re-label,” barked Mike, making the equally baffled radar operators react. “Small contacts are Flying Infantry; large contacts are APCs. And Ensign,” he continued, turning on the one mentioned, “Text the troops with the ROE and two minute updates on the enemy. And have an ‘Incoming’ message prepared in case the enemy decides to fire something.”
He then moved on and went to look around the various monitors, especially the four smart maps: one being an overview of his half-island, the rest being zooms into the hotel, the base and the new tent city that had eaten half of Flora’s east fields. He saw his garrison working like clockwork, with their radio beacons showing on the maps how the new camp was emptying as people ran into various positions, mostly a brand-new complex of trenches and pillboxes dug around the base and on a third-circle centred around the bunker; how the anti-air batteries on the hotel’s roof came online, and how his boats bobbed under minimal power to perimeter positions.
He removed his helmet, then put on his microphone diadem and put the helmet back on.
He waited another minute for all the blue dots to have gotten to their stations, then turned on the HUD on his combat helmet, and turned on the minefield in manual firing mode. His HUD immediately flashed the alert about the minefield and, turning it off, he took a moment to see how the camp’s map coloured with green circles for the vertical claymores and green, diffuse cones for the minority of horizontal ones, mostly aiming into the jungle.
A few heartbeats later he saw the second minefield, the one centred on the hotel, come online. He turned to the nearest phone, dialled ‘03’ and waited.
“Hotel control room,” came the curt answer from the other side.
“This is the OIC. Put Lieutenant Borg on the phone.”
“Right away, sir!” The phone was then dropped on a hard surface, and after a few heartbeats it was picked up again.
“Morning, IOC, sir!”
“Morning, lieutenant,” he replied. “Anything to report, besides the obvious?”
“Nothing, sir,” she replied. “My cannons are tracking by radar, but my north-side spotters can’t discern the enemy yet. Will send images as soon as I have them.”
“I would appreciate those images, lieutenant.”
Then she continued, in a more personal tone: “And, Mike...”
“Yes, Sharon?” he replied, his tone changing accordingly.
“Keep the furball safe,” she closed, then hanging the phone on him.
He stared at the phone for a moment, then looked at the radar screens and, judging that he had two minutes to spare, dialled ‘09’...
“Bunker,” came a curt reply.
“Morning, Seaman Martin,” said Mike, immediately hearing how the seaman straightened up. “Put Flora on, please.”
“Of course, sir.”
It barely took a couple of heartbeats until...
“Dad; I’m scared! What’s going on?”
“I don’t know, furball,” he answered. “But please, please, promise me to be brave anddo anything that your personal detail tells you to do. We all love you, and we all want to keep you safe.”
“I will, Dad. You know I will.”
“That’s my girl, Flora. Now put on Seaman Martin again.”
“Love you, Dad!”
“At ease, Seaman. Now I am not talking officer to trooper, but man to man: you and the others, keep my girl safe!”
The seaman’s reply took a moment to come, and was barely whispered into the microphone: “I think I can talk for everyone in this bunker, sir: they will only take her through us.”
“Thanks, Seaman Andrew Martin. Out.”
Mike hung up, wondering if this was the last time he would hear of his daughter, and concentrated again on the maps: the first two prongs were six miles out and closing, still maintaining their awfully low speed. He couldn’t help but wonder: was this some sort of psychological strategy, meant for drawing fire and thus justify the attack?
And what was up with this double-line formation as compact as race cyclists? Mike might not be a flyboy, but even he knew that the air inside those wakes must be so fouled up that it was just impossible to fly by fixed wing like that. Were these motorcycle-sided choppers? Or was the enemy just so darn advanced that they were literally walking on air?
“OIC!” one of the technicians called. “Hotel is sending images.”
Some images then took his screens: a panoramic of the three formations coming from the north, then the same zoomed into a group, that were indeed moving single file, and a third on the leader of one of the columns: while the green-hued false colour image didn’t help, he could not deny his eyes: he was seeing a winged, adult version of Flora, wearing some sort of plate armour.
A fourth image then came, zooming on this fellow’s angry expression.
Mike couldn’t help but try to compare this fellow’s mug with Flora’s always-happy face. His brain just couldn’t compute it: he had never seen Flora angry...
Mike rapidly shock his head and, rather than shout across the room, finally took his brand-new command chair, docked the minefield controller on the cradle on his left, and, on his right, started the switchboard hooking his diadem to all comms on the island.
He first stared at the wall-full of monitors in front of him, then pressed the ‘radar’ button and calmly said “Radar: re-label: ‘pegasus’ and ‘chariot’. Out.”
He glanced at the smart map and spotted that Boat 3 was a minute from being passed at low altitude by the east prong, just like Boat 1 would be passed some thirty seconds later by the north one.
He pressed the button for ‘Boats’ and spoke with the carefully controlled tone of a teacher feeling like going ballistic: “This is Central. Boat 3, Boat 1: I do not; I say again, I do not want you gapping at the flying horses! I want you to look for weaknesses on their armours! Call after your observations. Out.”
He then thought for a second and selected ‘All Call’
“This is OIC. Everyone is authorized to use infrared light. I say again: Use infrared light!” After all, Mike knew Flora was every bit as blind as humans to IR, so he considered it a safe gamble that this apparently low tech pegasus force would be equally blind.
And even if those antique-looking helmets had HUDs that weren’t blind to IR, they still were the advanced space horses invading Planet Earth; so human weapons might be as unthreatening to them as peashooters.
“This is Boat 3,” came the speaker on the room’s ceiling. “We report the enemy to have exposed abdomens, exposed wings and poor limb protection.”
“Roger, Boat 3.” ‘Not the best combination for walking into a minefield,’ thought Mike, feeling a sinking feeling in his gut. He then dismissed such thoughts: first of all, for all he knew they could use forcefields or something; secondly, he was well aware that the DoD had protocols in place for negotiating Flora’s handover if somebody came looking for her, so he knew that, if this incursion was happening, then whoever had come for Flora didn’t precisely have her best interests at heart.
“This is Boat 1: enemy has exposed bellies and minimal armour in all six limbs. We also report the last vehicle is painted white with red crosses. I say again: last vehicle is an ambulance.”
“Roger, Boat 1.” ‘Therefore, they have some awareness of human conventions. Definitely a break in talks, if there ever were talks.’
Happily, Mike at least knew that he had competent subordinates, as the smart map rapidly re-labelled the last vehicle of the north prong to “Ambulance,” and he could see Ensign Ruiz punching an update text to the troops.
Mike couldn’t quite remember the next five minutes, consumed by stress as the enemy slowly overflew his base, but they finally cleared it all and landed on the courtyard, making a perimeter around the ‘decoy building,’ a fifteen-by-fifteen fortified shed that had been built over a two-foot thick foundation of concrete over the buried APC.
The extremely scarce intelligence on the enemy did suggest them to be able to home on Flora with pinpoint accuracy, although the ‘shed,’ being the only illuminated structure in all of his camp, might have helped that. And it was thanks to this square of floodlights that Mike could have his first good look at the enemies: white bodied, every single one of them, and every one of them blue-maned except for a magenta-maned apparent officer. He also noticed that about two thirds had wings and lances, and the remaining third were evenly divided between beefy bruisers and these thin ones with horn-like protrusions on the front of their helmets. And he also noticed that the personnel coming out from the ambulance were wearing red armours (against the silver/gold armours of everybody else), and were sticking close to their vehicle rather than participating in the manoeuvres.
“Radar!” barked Mike, raising his voice rather that using the switchboard. “New labels: ‘bruiser,’ ‘unicorn,’ ‘medic,’ ‘officer.’”
During his musings, Mike also noted that, once the perimeter had been set, the officer began pulling a squad of several bruisers, a fellow pegasus and one unicorn toward the door.
He turned on the audio feed from the shed and listened:
“Ma’am, the Lost Foal is underneath that structure.” Said the pegasus, showing her a blue crystal, blinking red several times a second.
“Well: let’s go inside! Corporal Minute: Open the door!”
The sensors concerning that door immediately reported the first of its three dummy locks being picked. This was one of the activating commands for ‘diplomacy’, making four heavy deadbolts slide into place, opening a shutter (uncovering a mirror) on the upper door, and getting Sharon on speakerphone.
“Well, where I come from, forcing entry is considered rude!” she interjected snidely. The corporal on the other side froze for a second, to then be pushed aside by the officer, who began speaking into the shutter.
“This is second captain Scootaloo of the Equestriani Royal Guard, Margravine Tolfetano, and I demand you open this door in the name of Equestria!”
“Well, this is second lieutenant Sharon Borg,” whose voice sounded quite relaxed. “...Second in charge to this base, and this door will remain closed in the name of the United States of America.”
The armoured horse opened her wings and gave a single flap, somehow achieving that she stayed hovering level with the mirror as if she was nailed to the air.
‘That is so not natural!’ thought Mike, immediately starting to wonder about those lances of theirs hiding phasers or something.
So, the horse came to hover in front of the mirror; then growled into it. “We will take my niece Minty back to her parents, and that’s not up to negotiation!”
‘Niece?’ Mike thought.
“So you call her Minty? Well, that certainly explains why she has turned half of this camp into mint fields.” Sharon’s voice then turned from whimsical to slightly cynical. “Anyway, today I am happy to inform you that Flora, the baby that you abandoned to die fourteen years ago, has the officer in charge of this base as her appointed guardian, and that we will not release her from custody unless our chain of command orders us to.”
“I don’t care about your orders, she-monkey! Minty belongs to the Equestrian Royal Family! Open this door!”
“So ‘she belongs’, like in a slave?” Sharon’s voice raised tone to a point where Mike had never heard his normally whimsical subordinate. “You have now given me more than enough reason to never let this door be opened! But wait: I will go and get Flora’s father so he can have his opinion!”
And she hung up the speakerphone, causing the shutter to close on the horse’s nose. Mike found amusing her nonplussed expression, but couldn’t help but be angered by the insinuation of his Flora ‘belonging’ to somebody.
But Mike was a professional along with being a father, so he got a hold of his emotions so his next part would come out as cold fury rather than unthinking anger. Meanwhile, on the monitors, he saw the aggravating mare land and begin passing, then get more and more agitated as she apparently berated herself. Mike judged that he had waited enough and pressed and locked the ‘decoy house’ button on his switchboard.
He then stopped, activated a ‘deep vocals’ voice filter, and began speaking:
“So I heard you want to take my daughter Flora as a slave,” he said, his voice coming out as hard as grinding stones.
It had an immediate effect: the pegasus folded its wings, ears and tail, and when she dropped on the ground looked about half the size she did just a few seconds ago.
The mare outside began opening her mouth and sputtering nonsense that the microphones could barely pick. Mike decided to up the ante by channelling every Recruit Division Commander he had ever seen in the Navy:
“Is that how an officer states her intentions, Recruit Scootaloo? Of course IT ISN’T! You will NEVER be an officer! Now get down on the ground and GIVE ME FIFTY!”
And as the mare dropped and began counting pushups (done with her wings!), Mike utilized the only other name he knew:
“Corporal Minute: left and centre!”
Said corporal seemed to materialize a step behind Scootaloo, his hoof coming up so hard against his helmet that Mike saw this horn-like thing on his helmet spark.
Wanting to keep the momentum rolling, and glancing at the smart maps and seeing the Spectre in orbit, he used his left-size tablet to turn on the floodlights for the courtyard, then his right-side switchboard to bring up the courtyard’s VA system.
“And now, you sorry lot: I am Lieutenant Michael Stallion and I will teach you DISCIPLINE! Counting one to ten, I want you to form columns in front of your vehicles.
“Start counting now!”
Without dropping the VA channel, he then added the “Radio-All Call” channel into the switchboard, and: “Spectre: Draw me a circle 50 yards across! Heavy Gantlings! Now!”
Mike then watched in silence and couldn’t believe his luck so far: The video feeds showed how the horse soldiers had indeed lined up into six columns and were quaking while the Spectre’s guns rapidly drew a circle around them, incidentally setting off three mines that were in the path of fire.
And the very second that the Spectre stopped firing, Mike barked the next order: “You have your circle, recruits! Fifteen laps, full speed!” And for added effect, Mike detonated a mine in the middle ground between the columns and the bunker.
As the horses stampeded to do their exercise, Mike then eliminated all sound outlets but the decoy’s speakerphone and spoke again.
“Corporal Minute: you will refer to me as Lieutenant Stallion! Is that clear?”
“Yes, Lieutenant Stallion, sir!”
“So, Corporal Minute: what does it mean that my daughter belongs to Equestriani royalty?”
“It is her birthright, Lieutenant Stallion, sir! She is Countess Calabrese, daughter to Duchess Lipizzan, who is sister royal to Grand Princess Regnal Celestia.”
‘So it was the second definition of the word ‘belong’! Now I wonder where would be right now if’-
“WHAT THE HAY IS GOING ON HERE! STICK TO THE PLAN, YOU FEATHERBRAINS, AND ATTACK!”
...the second wave had arrived, and the rainbow-headed commanding officer didn’t seem happy to have found her vanguard doing exercise.
The first wave weren’t recuperating quickly enough, so “Spectre: strafe with flares! Apaches: same, then separate and do three low orbits, aggressive! Hotel, illumination shells! Synchronize with Spectre!” ...then detonated three mines in close succession, all just inside the circle, to demoralize the Guards who were regaining their wits, and... “You will CONTINUE doing your exercise, Equestriani Royal Guard!” He detonated another mine, this one much closer to the bunker than the circle. “Your leadership is so weak that I had her doing pushups to a voice behind a door!” He set off a flash-bang mine just outside the decoy building’s door, not incidentally in the place where Second Captain Scootaloo had been doing pushups. “And you are all so undertrained, so pathetically underprepared, that your enemy has to train you to make you worth fighting! AND KEEP RUNNING!”
Mike looked up at the smart maps, waited a few more heartbeats, and attacked them again: “And now your enemy says: LET THERE BE ATTRITION!” And the plane and choppers roared by, dropping dozens of short-lived red flares, along with a solid, oppressive wall of noise and a lot of cough-inducing magnesium noise.
Just as Mike had hoped, the stress was just too much for the enemies, and they began outright panicking, dropping their lances and pieces of their armours and trying to leave the running circle. The choppers’ low orbits, however, quickly herded them back into a controlled stampede. He also idly noted that the herd had turned a lot more colourful from the uniform white they were, but dismissed it as unimportant.
Important was what had begun happening at the core of the circle: that rainbow-maned officer had seemingly managed to organize her own squad and had two big bruisers trying to kick down the door. He limited communications to the speakerphone again and spoke:
“I wouldn’t be so hasty to kick down this door!”
“Don’t listen to the enemy! He’ll get inside your heads, too! Focus on Minty!”
“So you wish to focus on my daughter, the baby you abandoned in a storm?”
“We didn’t abandon Minty! For...” CLANK! “...fourteen years we tore apart the universes to...” CLANK! “...come rescue her!”
“So you never expected her to...” CLANK! “...be happy where she is? To have family and...” CLANK! “...friends? To have a life?”
“My sister royal wants to see her...” CLANK! “...daughter, and that’s all I care about!”
“If you don’t care for her happiness,” CLANK! “...then you give me even better reason to never allow you near her, and...” CLANK! “...I am authorized to employ lethal force if you open this door!” CLANK!
“Try your worst, primitive!”
“I will in less...” CLANK! “...than a minute, at the rate you’re going.” CLANK! “Godspeed.” And he closed the channel.
And indeed, they were going to open the door in less than a minute: that door was a solid inch of steel and they had already made it buckle a good four inches, judging by the interior video feed. As it stood now, it only held through the hinges and the deadbolts, and the later would finish sliding out the wall any moment now.
And the wall was cracking, too: a solid foot of fibre-reinforced concrete, and it was cracking! Flora was uncannily strong, but these people were monsters!
And just as he watched, the door began sliding in a good inch per hit: the deadbolts had failed, and it now only was held by the deformation of the hinges!
But then, they stopped! Looking at the outside feed, Mike saw that the two bruisers were retreating, Corporal Minute was sliding in an anchor, eight more bruisers had hitched themselves to the anchor and some fifteen others, led by the rainbow maned officer and a pissed Second Captain, were lining up single file and readying to rush the door the moment it opened.
The corporal ran and cleared the area, the eight fresh bruisers reversed the door in a single yank, and some fifteen enemies rushed inside the decoy building.
Mike gave a prayer and focused on the Spectre’s camera feed.
And the three-second timer on the laser tripwire detonated the demolition charges, blowing off the building’s roof and spraying dust and rubble... and at least three bodies... a good fifty feet into the air.
He dialled again the courtyard’s VA system and the radio all-call and barked some more: “Medics: do your jobs! Equestriani and US Navy medics: forward and do your jobs! US Army engineers! Forward and clear the rubble! And everybody not mentioned: drop your armours and GET RUNNING!” He punctuated this last statement by setting off two mines that were near clusters of the newcomers, causing them to run out of the circle and begin their laps.
And Mike wouldn’t know it for some time, but a fair deal of his own troops also cleared their trenches and ran forward before being stopped by their squad leaders. One of them, who had dropped his helmet first thing, even ran a full lap before being stopped.
“Recruit Division Commander Susan Calvin and every non-com in my base: get yourselves some wheels and then make these sorry excuses of recruits into enemies worth fighting against!”
He breathed in and out a few times, then continued:
“Lieutenant Sharon Borg now has the bridge! I am off to bed! And anybody who makes me wake up before noon will ACTUALLY see me angry!”
He then turned off the switchboard, then the minefield, then he managed to groggily ask for his daughter before he fainted in his chair.
Mike woke up some time later to a sensation that he hadn’t experienced since his childhood: fingers being licked over the side of his bed.
Opening his eyes yielded his office’s ceiling, easily recognized due to the slight wobble of his ceiling’s fan, an imnotic that he would stare at a little too often.
Looking down, he saw his daughter busily licking his fingers. Focusing, he saw all the telltale signs of how scared she was: her ears flush against her scalp, her tail so far between her legs that it looked like it came from her belly and, despite the low light, he could see a sheen of sweat on her brow. The licking also confused Mike, but he could admit that it might have been that he had never seen her sufficiently scared to start licking.
And she also seemed to be in something of a trance at the moment: her eyes were open and her mouth was tracking his hand as he tried to caress her cheek, but ‘lights on, but nobody home’. Mike was well aware that Flora wasn’t human, but it was rare for him to be reminded of the truly inhuman nature of his daughter. The scientists had registered her getting into them whenever she came into enough stress, but had never gone and truly tried to systematically study them.
But enough about that. He decided to break her trance, so he could console her and perhaps also catch some winks. Besides, Mike was very oral with his sporadic lovers, so he felt freaked-out to come to relate licking to his sweety.
“Do I taste good, Flora?”
It was first a twitch on her ears, but Flora suddenly blinked, then launched at him.
“Dad, I was so scared!” she said, nuzzling into his neck.
“So was I, furball; so was I,” he replied, trying to rub her back through her tailor-made bulletproof vest. And not feeling anything but Kevlar and ceramic insets, he looked down on the forehead below his chin and, pulling an idea from some half-remembered nature show, he gave her brow a good lick.
“Dad! Don’t!” she said, trying to squirm away.
“No can do, daughter,” he sentenced, holding her while he had another taste of her uniquely unsalty sweat. “Just a moment ago you were licking my hand, so now I get to lick you too.”
“I wasn’t!” Lick. “Was I?”
“You were.” Lick. “You got into one of your trances.”
“First one in years...” she said weakly, clearly falling asleep on top of him.
“Move over, furball,” he said, giving her a last lick before he pushed her to the right, simultaneously scooting to the left. And once she was on the bed rather than on him, he gathered her and curled her against him.
She was already asleep, and after giving her a few more licks and mentally scheduling a stomach pumping, he followed.
‘And now, the Japanese emperor approaches the USS Missouri, with the battleship tracking his ship with all main guns,’ thought Mike, while he spied on the sky the three black dots of one flying chariot being closely guarded by two Apache choppers. Considering that they were only doing forty knots and that their flight plan stated they would make it into position before performing a slow vertical descent (from three thousand feet), he guessed it was safe for him to let his eyes wander for a while.
He first looked at Flora, wearing a frown and a business’s suit and felt a pang of sadness: five months ago he had seen her at her happiest, when her Execubot ‘blew up’ and she ‘had to be’ released to the public. For one and a half months she was blessed with normalcy: after five years of watching a robot and speculating that the face behind the robot must be hideously disfigured, her classmates hadn’t been too shocked that she didn’t happen to be human, with the civilian population of Vieques following shortly after.
Mike had even had to establish rules with her, once her newfound social life had begun affecting her grades.
But then, three and a half months ago, the DoD put her back on the robot and ordered the fortification of the base...
And ever since the attack, she had learned more about her species than she had ever known, and then immediately begun reneging on all the things that she had unconsciously been doing ‘just like a normal pony’:
She stopped walking on all fours. She would still run normally but, even at home, she had taken to walking upright at all times.
She had truly taken to wearing clothes. Previously, she hadn’t even owned underwear, but now she even had pyjamas every night!
Thirdly, she had quit agriculture. She had slowly grown horrified that “Earth ponies” were the peasant class in her world, and was currently lost, as she had then turned at the US Navy, but she would never be an officer if she did happen to be, as those dead ladies had said, a peer of foreign nobility. That was nothing but broken dreams pilled on more broken dreams.
And about broken dreams came the fourth and most noticeable change: she had stopped being happy. Well, not really, but her happy, carefree smiles were gone, now replaced by the defiant frowns of a minority activist, and the occasional melancholic sighs of an angsty teenager who doesn’t know what she wants to be.
Mike had tried everything in his power to keep her from going down the deep end like she was currently doing, but his words were only so powerful, and the town and base were exerting significant peer support for her to more human everyday.
In the end, Mike didn’t care whether his sweety was human or pony or decided to pull a zipper and reveal herself to be a chestbuster: he just wanted her to be Flora. And he had told her time and time again.
And it was in part why these ponies were visiting today: when the chain of command asked him for his opinion about her birth family gaining visitation rights, he jumped on the opportunity for her gaining a second opinion on her own kind.
Self-loathing was ugly, and his daughter wasn’t normally ugly.
So just two weeks after he had been asked his opinion, here they were, performing a feather-slow descent in a chariot hitched to six Equestriani Royal Guards.
And looking at the white pegasai in the gilded armours, Mike sweated. He couldn’t deny that he had been incredibly lucky in the battle: he had held the attackers as recruits undergoing Basic Training for the week until their government disowned them for volunteering in an unauthorized operation. During that week, his every officer had found them bootcamp drills and had found their capabilities to be horrifying: both pegasai and unicorns could, on average, wear half their own weight on their persons, but ‘earth ponies’ could wear four times as much, and drag comfortably up to five tons. Pegasai could fly for short distances carrying their own weight, but the interesting part was that they could rather ‘extend their weightless aura’ through an object and drag it through the air with no more effort than they would exert to drag it on ground. And then were the unicorns, with they relatively weak physique but those horns, which there actual magic wands: utility spells, healing spells, monitor spells, attack spells, shield spells...
The shields! Those hadn’t been a happy surprise! Those armours of theirs projected forcefields that, despite doing nothing about blunt damage, had protected them perfectly against penetration and heat damage. And then there also were those lances of theirs! In the hand of a human, they were just lances, but in the hoof of a pony they were fire-and-forget, self-returning missiles, that could penetrate human body armour with ease! Truly, Mike knew that, if he hadn’t demoralized them into submission, the battle could have gone very, very differently.
Thankfully, that hadn’t happened, and Mike could concentrate on reality, like on the carriage that had finished approach a couple minutes ago and was now low enough for his howitzers to track, so would touch down in less than a minute.
By him, Sharon was finishing her latest peep talk on Flora, insisting her to give her family a fair chance. Once he was sure she wasn’t saying anything new, he interrupted her and motioned to the window, where the chariot was touching down like it was a sculpture being lowered by a crane.
As per the agreed upon protocol, the six guards on the pull team remained hitched while the carriage was approached by his troops, then one of them unhitched, unfolded a step and opened the carriage door.
First came out Flora’s father: a steel-gray stallion, with a bluish-white Mohawk and some sort of military uniform that clearly spelled senior officer. Mike couldn’t help but notice the scabbard across his back, but it was thankfully empty (as stated by the current protocol).
By the file, he was Silversteel, age 56. General to the Equestriani Royal Guard.
Next came out Flora’s mother: a milky-white mare with indigo hair in a refined hairdo and a combo of cream-coloured hat-and-dress that, despite being worn by a quadruped, sent Mike’s mind straight to watching his mother have occasional ‘tea parties’ with her friends.
By the file, she was Rarity, Duchess Lipizzan, age 58. She too apparently held an elevated military rank; although she much more seemed like a reluctant army-wife than any officer that Mike had ever seen.
And finally came out the last passenger on the manifest: a khaki coloured, chocolate-haired mare that the file had as ‘Sandalwood, Countess Faroe, age 30.’ She apparently didn’t have anything to do with the military, but she weathered the military display with an attitude as stoic as the business suit she wore.
And even before her four hooves were on the ground, she was already leaning down and sniffing the dirt. She then said something at her parents that immediately uplifted her mother’s frightened expression and pulled a momentary smile out of her father’s dour face.
She then went to the back of the carriage and retrieved a suitcase. The manifest did mention them to be bearing gifts, and that the gifts had been as thoroughly inspected as humans knew how to inspect luggage.
Ready at last, his daughter’s relatives began advancing through an aisle of sailors in dress uniform. This was the clue for Mike and Sharon to step out and greet them at the door.
Seconds later, they were facing the group. Mike broke the ice:
“Lieutenant Michael Hengst, US Navy, Officer in Charge of the Vieques Island Naval Reserve, and legal guardian of Flora Hengst,” he said, saluting while he spoke.
“Lieutenant Sharon Borg, US Navy, Assistant Officer in Charge of the Vieques Island Naval Reserve, and second responsible for Flora Hengst,” she said, starting to speak barely a heartbeat after he finished.
Flora’s dad took him clue immediately: “General Silversteel, Equestriani Royal Guard, father of Minty, Countess Calabreze,” he said, bringing his hoof up in a salute.
His wife took a few heartbeats to gather her wits, but did so and, performing a four-legged curtsy, spoke: “My name is Rarity; I am the Duchess Lipizzan of Equestria.”
And their daughter took her turn after waiting a couple of seconds after her mother’s abrupt stop. She then carefully stood up on her rear legs, gave a short (and shaky) bow, stood up again and spoke: “And my name is Sandalwood, Countess Faroe, and I am the older sister to Minty, Countess Calabreze.”
“Very well,” replied Mike. “I now request you state the intention of your visit.”
“We’ll be taking Minty back home”-
“Mother!” the daughter interrupted the mother, then turned at the human officers. “We wish to perform a visitation of my sister, and to extend to her and her legal guardians an invitation to visit us in Equestria.”
Mike held her eyes, looking for signs of deception, but found none. He then subtly shifted his gaze to the father, who nodded curtly, and to the mother again, who would not meet his eyes.
Mike looked at Sharon, who nodded at him. And he agreed: the mother was overemotional, but even if she went berserk, Flora would be completely safe. Sharon gestured at the seamen behind them to open the doors, and Mike gestured them to follow him inside.
The next few hours passed like a blur to Mike. He knew their meeting tent was bugged to heavens above, but later on was still bugged by how little he could actually remember beyond generalities.
First of all, as soon as they entered, the lady tackled Flora to the floor and hogged her for the next ten minutes. Next, the father and the sister took their turn together and ruffled her a little more.
Mike knew that, at that point his girl was lost, but he was glad that she was, so far, keeping an open mind. Mike also remembered how Flora’s sister had formally introduced herself and her father, and had asked for her name, before hugging her. In contrast, her mother hadn't let her get a word out and had gone for ten minutes of alliterations of "Minty, I am your mother!"
Next came the early dinner that was the excuse for the meeting. Mrs. Rarity wouldn’t have let Flora eat if Sharon hadn’t intervened and had told her to talk to Flora about their life in Equestria. Mike then learned a complete gospel about like nine branches of extended family, not connected by blood but tied together by them having been normal civilians that had been friends and unpaid advisors to the rulers of the land, and the rulers then surprising them by putting them at the very top of the peerage. Thankfully, the stallion knew the story by heart and the sister also was willing to add or clarify, so the lady could take breaks to scarf down her food.
After the food was eaten, Mrs. Rarity tried to continue speaking, but was interrupted so Flora could have her turn. They moved to a lounge, where gifts were given (a scrapbook, gifts from her aunts (including some in name of the two who died leading the attack), a horribly sumptuous dress hand-made by Mrs. Rarity, a practical guide on distillation from her sister Sandalwood and a heavy golden yoke from her dad, and then some bottles of spirits from Sandalwood to both Sharon and him) and the relatives sat around Flora and began getting her life history out of her.
Mike had to help a lot at this point, as Flora didn’t really remember her earliest years, Mike hadn’t been there, either, but he had been fully briefed, and had received instructions to not lie to her relatives.
They hadn’t been too trilled that their little girl had largely lived out her childhood in underground facilities, but had been somewhat placated on knowing that every researcher who came in contact with her had always sustained that she was harmless and deserved a more normal upbringing. Which then came to the devising of the plan to unveil Flora (and as Flora hadn’t been aware of most of it, she then latched at him and staid there until he finished), and to Mike offering himself as her permanent guardian until she would legally be an adult.
And Flora then began speaking about how she had been going to school through Execubot for the last several years and then in person for the last few months; then about her friends, her classes and her grades.
They then asked about her dreams for the future, but here Flora became mute. Mike and Sharon had to step forward and explain that Flora had, for years, dreamed with farming mint for a living but, ever since she learned her birth name to be ‘Minty,’ had stopped caring for her fields and was utterly lost.
Flora’s mother was no help there, having gone the entire meeting calling Flora ‘Minty,’ then mentioning that she should exercise her 'special talent' with mint and leaving it as if that settled the matter. And never mind that the lady had been letting her emotions run free every five minutes the entire day, creeping Flora out. Flora’s dad hadn’t been much more help, looking as lost as Mike felt himself. Flora’s sister, Sandalwood, was the one who saved the day, saying some of the very few words that Mike could remember of the entire afternoon.
She took Flora’s hoof on her own and, looking into her eyes, spoke:
“It isn’t the name that makes the pony, Flora, but it is destiny what directs parents to choose names that will fit their foals. Just look at me,” she said, gesturing at the fruits and the still emblazoned on her flank. “Does my Cutie Mark look like anything related to sandalwood? Mother and Dad would tell you that destiny whispered the name ‘Amaretto’ to them, but they chose to name me after our grandmother Sandalwood. The result is that I found my destiny in making spirits even without ever knowing my real name, and found my calling in life.”
“You, Flora, are as lucky as I was: even without knowing your real name, you gravitated toward your true calling and developed it. Now, come here,” she said, standing up from her lounger. She went to one of the corners of the tent and uncovered the tarp separating the inside of the tent from the dirt below. She then conducted Flora to the bare spot and put her hooves in the dirt.
“You can feel it, can’t you, Flora?” she asked, closing her eyes as she slowly shuffled her own hooves by Flora’s. “That feeling is a soil that tastes of having grown orange mint. And the landing pad tasted of bergamot, and the way here tasted of apple mint.”
“Sister: you aren’t Minty because that the name our parents chose for you: you are Minty because you love mint, and mint loves you.”
There were some more exchanges of words, but Mike couldn’t remember them: all that mattered to him was that Flora had found happy tears to cry, and that Mike himself had later kissed the hooves of Sandalwood for giving some peace to his daughter.
And Mike wouldn’t know till much later, but the first human-pony marriage started to gestate from him doing so terribly forward as kissing her hooves in public and then acting casual. She was in fact so confused that she asked him out the first time she saw him out of uniform...
And well, from this point and until the end of the meeting, the conversation began turning a little too feminine, which, while it made Sharon and Rarity become much more involved, slowly made both Silversteel and him scoot out. And Silversteel, the old general, took the opportunity to approach him and thank him for taking in his daughter and making her a happy mare.
Mike did remember what he replied:
“Having a daughter like her is thanks enough.”
Due to the weather forecast turning ugly, the meeting had to wrap up about an hour after his daughter truly began opening up to her sister. Not that it mattered, though: Mike had promised to extend a recommendation for unlimited weekend visitation rights, and in turn Sandalwood and Silversteel had (...quietly...) promised him to not let Rarity come alone and freak Flora out with her neuroses.
And as the carriage flew away, and once the surrounding trees made it invisible from the ground, Flora glued herself to his chest.
“You know I love you, Dad?”
He knew what she wasn’t telling here...
“I promise you I won’t get jealous just because you find some love for your real folks, furball.”
She didn’t reply with words: She just hugged him a little harder.
“I know I asked for Disney World this vacations, but”-
“I know, Sweety: Equestria it is. But on one condition.”
Under his chin, her ears tracked forward: he had her undivided attention.
“A month till summer holidays, hon. If you start taking good care of the west fields tomorrow, that’s more than enough time to have a few bushels freeze-dried by then.”