Pony POV Series
Shining Armor Arc Chapter 13
Written by Kendell 2
Edited by LZ, Alexwarlorn, and Louis Badalament
Once we'd all assembled for the customary briefing, Shepard took center stage.
"We will soon be landing in Zebrawa. While the country is normally peaceful, there was a security situation at the embassy and a riot at a volleyball game. Going by what we know, our recent experiences are most likely unconnected. That said, my crew will be going on high alert as soon as we land. Be careful. And under NO circumstances is anyone to attempt a witch hunt, is that understood?" she asked, giving one of those glares that universally translated to You'd BETTER understand what I just said or else.' I should know, I was wearing a matching one.
(Interviewer's Notes (Pegasus): Still clopped off at what happened with Sunset?)
I'll put it this way, if any pony had tried that stunt again, Private Ranger would have to be pretty quick to get his hooves on them before me.
Anyway, after that, briefing was a standard affair by now. A little bit of detail about the country and the locals, confirmation musical numbers were permitted. Zebrawa is what most ponies think of when they hear of the Zebrafrica continent. Which makes sense, considering it's the homeland of almost half of non-Zebrafrican Zebra. And yes, these Zebra actually DO have the rhyming pattern of speech, before you ask.
Thankfully, there wasn't any need for more vaccinations (didn't stop us from needing to get Twinkle Shine out from under her bed), so we proceeded into Zebrawa, nothing too unusual about our party departing the ship bar the addition of Commander Bond to tag along with us.
(Interviewer's Notes (Pegasus): Let me guess, landed at another military base?)
Actually no, the nearest one was fifteen miles north of the city to make room for civilian traffic. The country as a whole was at constant risk for food shortages due to an unstable climate and bugs called Parasprites. Nasty little things, like locusts on steroids. They're a major problem in part because the Zebrawan locals can't easily use pesticides to deal with them due to environmental concerns, as well as the possibility someone might try to weaponize poisons for warfare (Equestrians tend to shy away from them anyway, since we prefer a no-kill solution whenever it's feasible.)
They also live in Equestria, but only the Everfree Forest normally. Scientists are still baffled as to why the forest is still standing, but my guess is some other predator eats the dang things and there's just so much stuff to eat, the Parasprites stay there. There was an outbreak in Fillydelphia during our trip. Thankfully, Celestia knew how to properly deal with it before it caused any major damage and had the Musical Corps (the bands representing each regiment with their own administrative unit) draw them back into Everfree.
(Interviewer's Notes (Unicorn): Wait, she knew what Parasprites were?)
Yeah, why wouldn't she? She's the Princess of Equestria, I doubt there's anything in Everfree she doesn't know about...Why?
(Interviewer's Notes (Pegasus): ...No reason, please continue.)
Right...anyway, the problem is in Zebrawa, there wasn't anywhere TO lure the Parasprites with music most of the time, at least nowhere they'd stay and pesticides were generally a no go. So despite being pretty stable as politically and a peaceful place to live, the threat of a food shortage was constantly hanging over their collective heads. As a result, the government wanted to make sure the docks were always open to food transports in the event of another shortage. We were landing in a civilian aerodrome in the southwest part of the city. An aerodrome is basically a general term for a location for aircraft operations.
(Interviewer's Notes (Unicorn): Were you landing there due to paranoia over the attack?)
You know, I thought the same thing.
"No, Captain Sparkle, we were planning to land there from the start. The rest of the surrounding facilities are all too busy to support us for more than a day, let alone our whole stay," Shepard informed me as we made our descent.
Turns out the location we were landing out was mainly for internal traffic and a bit more peaceful and secure. Which I'll admit, did a bit to settle my nerves and left me hoping this would be more like Zamunda than Columbia. At the very least there were no signs of a certain big golden airship, it's psychopathic imagination demon owner, or shadowy wolf things that were out to kill me. If it weren't for the report we'd gotten before, I probably would've been pretty calm. Unfortunately, we had gotten said report, so my settled nerves were still in a similar state to Twilight's when she had reason to expect a pop quiz and was afraid she hadn't studied enough.
(Interviewer's Notes (Earth Pony): Wow...that's pretty bad...)
Probably why I don't remember much of the welcoming committee this time. Not that it was anything big from what the others said; local national guard lined up, quick greetings from the locals, and red carpet to carriages. It was the actual status of the guards composing said welcoming committee I was paying attention to.
The Zebrawan national guard wear white barding and all had their manes arranged like mohawks, about an inch-and-a-half tall. Their helmets even had a ridge in the middle to cover it and the Zebrawan's crest (a solid gold star in a blue circle), though they weren't wearing those right now, they hung from the front of their vests. I assumed out of respect for Cadence.
Two things intrigued me about them. For one, their armor had black stripes that mimicked their own body patterns, which kind of confused me since it was a break from their otherwise uniform armor design. The other thing was their rank symbols went over their Cutie Marks. We Equestrians generally avoid that. The most obvious reason we leave it blank is because we don't like the idea of our rank being greater than our special talent and we feel the blank armor protects our talent, and thus what makes us us. In a practical sense, however, it was because flanchard plates (that is the armor that protects the flank) are harder to clean when they're painted. The Zebrawans generally didn't put as much stress on their Cutie Marks, they're still somewhat important, but not to the same extent ponies take them. And we can get kind of crazy about our Cutie Marks sometimes...
(Interviewer's Notes (Pegasus): We know, ask Ellis about his cousin Apple Bloom.)
Next time I need an entertaining story to distract from another Running Gag joke, I'll be sure to do that.
"Where are the Sergeants from the other regiments? They were supposed to meet us here," Minuette asked, looking a little frantic.
I gave a look around the aerodrome, figuring they'd stand out among all the white armor.
"Actually, the 82nd call their Sergeants Dragoons," Lance-Corporal Audience chimed in. "They're an air regiment, the Sergeants' title for Enlisted Grade Four troopers is replaced by 'Dragoon' in all of the four Regular air regiments as well as the two Reservist air regiments..."
Minuette seemed to understand.
"Oh, I'd forgotten that they were a Pegasus regiment."
She wasn't exactly correct. The Air Regiments were now about 40% land troops, but they used light airships. Audience may have pointed it out, but, like I said, I wasn't really paying much attention at the time and only remembered that because it regarded the 82nd and Pegasus Guard, both of which I was... anxious about.
I finally saw the two up ahead. The 82nd still wore black and gold style armor like Commander Hurricane's troops which they and all of the 18th Legion took pride in representing. I'd seen a few actually be mistaken for actors in the Hearth's Warming play. Ironic given they'd prefer to perform a Homareian-influenced historically accurate three hour long epic version rather than the shorter foal-friendly version.
What the 82nd's Dragoon was wearing didn't surprise me. What surprised me was the Pegasus Guard's new armor. It was primarily grayish blue with a dark blue crest on the head that looked somewhat reptilian. The chest piece and shoulder pads were also a dark blue and seemed modeled after flames. And there was a blue eye on the chest that seemed to be staring at me.
It all somewhat clashed with the still-white fur of its wearer, so I guessed Luna either hadn't had the chance or was still too weak from my sister and her friends defeating her Nightmare form to perform the customary infusion. It turned out it was both: The Pegasus Guards had been preparing to leave for Zebrafrica a few days after the Summer Sun celebration. I'm impressed their blacksmiths managed to get the new Night Guard barding done in time for their deployment.
"My...Auntie Luna certainly has... frightening tastes," Cadence remarked, saying what we were all thinking.
When they got closer, I could make out lighter blue markings on the chamfron that kind of looked like eyes. If that's what it looked like WITHOUT Luna's infusion, I was rather glad I wasn't being drafted to the Night Guard. On the bright side, they trotted over talking like old friends as they came to greet us.
(Interviewer's Notes (Pegasus): Really?)
No. You could practically smell the stink eyes they were shooting each other a mile away.
"Princess Cadence, welcome to Zebrawa," the Pegasus Guard said quickly, as the 82nd NCO barely got his mouth open to try to say the same thing.
"I am Dragoon Maelstrom of the 82nd Air Regiment," Of course that meant the 82nd Trooper had to introduce himself first.
"And I am Sergeant Thunderhead of Her Nightjesty's Pegasus Guard, we have been sent to escort you to the embassy," the Pegasus Guard had, of course, had to get the last word, throwing in what then had seemed like the very odd title of address Luna preferred.
(Interviewer's Notes (Unicorn): Actually, it's a...)
I know, I'll get to it. Anyway, both the Enlisted Grade Fours bowed.
"Thank you very much for your greeting, Dragoon Maelstrom, Sergeant Thunderhead," Cadence replied, trying to seem as polite as possible.
After that, they did their level best to act professional and go with the old saying 'if you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all' and spent the rest of the time trying not to notice the other existed.
What REALLY surprised me was the local sent to be our guide. I'd almost been distracted from her by the Nightjesty remark, but when she moved up, my own Sergeant managed to break me off that mental tangent.
(Interviewer's Notes (Pegasus): Why? Was she a Virgacorn or something?)
Close, but no cigar. She had a slightly more streamlined body than the average Zebra, but I didn't notice anything that out of the ordinary at first glance.
"Wow, nice wingspan," our resident ladies-stallion whispered.
That's when it came to my attention our guide was a half Pegasus, half Zebra.
(Interviewer's Notes (Unicorn): I believe the proper term is Virgasus.)
Really? Why is it hybrids have such cool names?
(Interviewer's Notes (Pegasus): Well, 'Mule' isn't exactly an exceptionally cool name.)
Point is, Hippogriffs were rare enough. Like I said before, I hadn't heard of a lot of pony/zebra hybrids, so it took me off-guard.
(Interviewer's Notes (Pegasus): Let me guess, you were paranoid she was another imagination demon?)
It entered my mind, but didn't stay long. Unlike whatever had resulted in Makarov, I knew that ponies and Zebra were able to mate, and the idea of a hybrid being a guide for non-Zebrafricans in a country that was on friendly terms with ours actually made sense, as opposed to a Deer/Unicorn hybrid being second in command of a country dedicated to domination of all non-Deer. I found out later she was a member of the City Watch, but not an extremely high ranking one. If she were something like Makarov, no way she'd be in that position. That and her Cutie Mark wasn't some big complicated mess.
It looked more like a compass rendered in the style of a Zebra Cutie Mark. I guess being a hybrid of two Cutie Mark bearing species has the effect of combining the styles of Cutie Mark, but it didn't seem out of the ordinary like Makarov's. However, it did seem to fit the idea of her being a guide and a City Watch member and I could actually grasp the meaning of it.
Still, I seem to be a magnet for all things unusual, so the odds of running into a Virgasus didn't really seem that peculiar anymore in hindsight.
"Welcome to Zebrawa, Princess Cadence. While you are here I shall offer guidance. Kweupe is my name so you may know, and around Adidas Azebra you I will show."
See? Told you Zebra rhymed here.
"I'm certain you will be of help, Kweupe," Cadence replied, giving a smile. "And good to meet you."
"Your name is kind of cool," Twinkle Shine added, but I couldn't help noticing she seemed a little more nervous than usual. Kweupe gave a bit of a blush.
"Thank you for the compliment at of my designation, Good Weather is the Equestrian translation. If my name is too difficult to pronounce in its native manner, to that I will also answer."
Kweupe led us towards the city proper, to my dismay, in open-topped carriages (but judging by the heat, maybe that was a blessing of sorts) flanked by the National Guard outriders - many of our Pegasi hovered above us. First thing I noticed about the place as I kept an eye out for insane thieves and my doppelganger was that it was a melting pot in terms of architecture. The city center looming out a few miles away seemed a mix of Columbian cloudscrapers, Equestrian style spires, and Germane Gothic. I'd probably have enjoyed the view if I wasn't so busy jumping at the sight of my own shadow.
However, as we traveled trough the suburbs and outskirts, we primarily rode past house-trees like the one Zecora had been building.
"I've always found house-trees beautiful, but to have them bear fruit is impressive," Cadence drew our attention to several such trees with fruits hanging from them.
"Why do some have fruit and some don't?" somepony asked.
"If you notice the ones with fruit to bear, those are a privilege for their house to wear. They require a lot of upkeep, and thusly are not cheap. Therefore, they're a status symbol, or someone willing to gamble," Kweupe explained helpfully.
I snapped my head around at the sound of rustling behind me...just the wind through the trees. No spies, no doppelganger, no...wolf.
While the paranoia was unwarranted, it did apparently spare me from hearing a particularly groan worthy plant-related joke Kweupe's statement invoked on the part of Running Gag judging from him laughing while everyone else physically face hoofed if it was proper to do so, mentally if it wasn't, on top of the actual groans. Except Kweupe, as the pun had apparently mercifully flown over her head due to not applying in Zebrawa.
"Um, Running, only Columbian money is green," Garnet pointed out, seemingly finding more amusement in the situation than Gag's joke.
I don't know if it was realizing it was the wrong country for that joke or that it'd flopped in general, but Gag suddenly looked nervous.
"Oh...yeah...Well, I think I'll spread my wings a little," Gag covered.
Given the reaction of the audience, I don't blame him. Then again, I should really have wondered why he was even in the carriage with us given the other Pegasi, including Thunderchild and Sunset, were already flying a few meters above us. It wasn't because we had a need for a translator...
"No problem, you may fly if you don't venture far, but keep an eye on how high up you are.
In this part of the city we are in, to fly above fifty meters is a sin," Kweupe reminded as he went up.
Apparently, the whole reason the city was built on a desert coast was that leylines and manastreams created a fertile area in an otherwise barren desert (even on the coast, the air was pretty dang dry). As a result, they heavily monitored flight to prevent unwanted changes to the weather. However, thankfully there were 'safe' zones where our pegasi could stretch their wings without a care, which just happened to include the embassy.
"Hey, Ellis, think you could make an apple tree into a house like that?" asked Twinkle Shine a few moments of awkward silence later.
"Don't rightly know...Eh, mah cousins probably wouldn't like that too much, might be afraid of hurtin' the tree."
We finally reached the embassy itself, which was a rather big Equestrian-style mansion. It had a pretty nice, big garden which Cadence seemed determined to try and bring our attention to.
"Hey look, there's even a gazebo! Best not anger it!" Cadence whispered warningly, getting a few chuckles.
Come to think about it, when I let myself pay attention to her between bouts of paranoia, I think she just kept trying to draw everypony's attention to the sights around us. That and I think try to get Maelstrom and Thunderhead to actually get along, but even for the Goddess of Harmony that seemed an impossible feat.
Cadence went straight to talking to Ambassador Supermarine once we met up with her. I was too busy investigating the security to hear much of what was said, but Cadence was excited to see her.
"Commander Bond, how far did the break-in get?" I asked while they spoke.
"Didn't get any further than the guardhouse," he said, making his own glances at the thankfully high walls.
"Do you think they could've gotten further than that if they'd wanted to?" I replied, fixing my attention on the building beside the gates.
"Not sure. The embassy already had a decent guard detail before the Pegasus Guards arrived, but if they had wanted into it they could have chanced their leg on trying for a story that'd let them into the main building."
The Pegasus Guards had just arrived on a troopship, which would return to pick the extra Airborne troopers up after dropping off guards elsewhere in Zebrafrica. I'll admit at the time I had failed to realize the 82nd could maybe have been feeling a little more antsy at being asked to stay here an extra week. Troops in the middle of transfers generally get to stand down and relax on the journey home or to their posting when it's on board Air Navy ships.
"At least they've stepped up the guard detail at the guardhouse itself," I remarked, having already noticed that since we arrived. I resisted the urge to give a sigh of relief.
At that point I turned my attention back to Cadence and Supermarine, who had noticed me examine the area.
"Well, it looks like he's been getting a good look of the place," the Ambassador said to Cadence, but just loud enough for me to overhear. She reminded me a lot of one of the Wonderbolts, but I couldn't place my hoof on which one at the time. She actually looked pretty pleased.
"He does that a lot, always looking around," Cadence stated. I think she looked a little worried actually...
"Well, of course he does," Supermarine replied. "He's your bodyguard commander. It's his job to make sure the area is secure."
I'll admit it, I did feel a bit smug at the possibility I was properly paranoid instead of just paranoid.
"I don't believe we've been properly introduced," I said, trotting up. "Captain Shining Armor Sparkle."
"Ambassador Supermarine, good to meet you. I hope our security is up to your standards, Captain Sparkle."
"There's a good guard detail, Ambassador, but I'd like to talk to the ones in charge of it if that's alright."
"Well we're going to lunch, they'll be eating with us. You can talk to them then."
Ambassador Supermarine and Cadence were at one table. I didn't hear much of what they said, but I could tell the two of them were getting along. Supermarine had my respect for a lot of reasons. A retired Lieutenant Colonel wasn't anything to sneeze at, and neither was an Ambassador, but being Cadence's foalsitter was, by itself, something worthy of respect. Cadence's foalhood naturally required constant supervision. There were a lot of ponies (and Deer and Griffins and Diamond Dogs and Zebra) who'd want to get their hooves on an Alicorn foal. So naturally, any old foalsitter wouldn't do. And while her family were trustworthy, they weren't a military family, they couldn't ensure her safety if there was an incident. No matter how much Celestia wanted Cadence to have a normal life, the fact of the matter was, she couldn't. And the fact Supermarine was considered trustworthy enough to be her foalsitter was something to be respected. Unfortunately, to say I wasn't as pleased with the ones running the two regiments at the embassy is an understatement.
(Interviewer's Notes (Pegasus): What was the problem?)
I'm not saying they were bad ponies, or bad soldiers. They were competent. However, there was one major issue...
"Commander, I'm Phalanx Officer Shooting Star," the 82nd's officer introduced herself. A mare promoted through the ranks.
"Second Lieutenant Meteor, reporting for duty, Maj-Captain Sparkle," introduced the younger stallion, graduated from college and sent on an Officer Training Course rather than Academy trained like myself.
Shooting Star was older, more experienced, and trained in a different way than Meteor or me - in fact, from most Equestrians. According to her file, she'd actually served in the Columbian Marines at one point in her life, even being involved in live combat during the Dalmascan War (a war between the Avian Empire and a smaller country called Dalamsca that ultimately drew in other nations, Columbia included) before returning home. In many ways, she was my senior despite the fact I outranked her.
Shooting Star was a combat vet and far more experienced than Meteor was. This meant not only did the 82nd have a claim to being the more elite group present, there was a gap between the two that could make compromise even more difficult. I was just happy they both seemed to be doing their level best to be professionals.
"Glad to meet you both. I've been checking out the security. Given the recent break-in and... other concerns, I just wanted to check and make sure steps are taken to ensure everything is secure."
Shooting Star nodded. "Captain, we have upped security appropriately, particularly in the area that the break in occurred," she explained, her take charge attitude was plain as day from the start.
I could tell Meteor wasn't extremely happy about it, but he at least didn't try to force his way into the conversation or cut her off. At least he had respect for his senior officer, even if it was simply the date of her commission granting her official seniority. He also politely made no mention of the fact it had been one of her troopers that had been on duty.
"We've also increased the number of guards patrols for flying targets trying to get in over the wall as well," Meteor continued, once he saw a proper opening. "The anti-teleportation wards have also been stepped up."
"Of course, this leads to another problem, Captain. As you're well aware, the 82nd and Pegasus Guard don't exactly get along," Shooting Star noted.
"Yes...the thought had crossed my mind," I'd answered, verbally. Mentally my response was more 'Thank Celestia I'm not the only one worried about this.'
"As a result of our steps to cover the situation, there are now a large number of patrols composed of both the 82nd and the Pegasus Guard. While at present the troops have more to worry about than the Wonderbolts and their varying viewpoints on them, we're worried the playful banter may stop being playful," She said.
There was thankfully a noticeable lack of venom in her tone when she mentioned the Wonderbolts. I think part of the reason may have been the fact she'd spent a long period outside of the Equestrian military. She may have not picked up the same hatred as the rest of her legion. Either that or she was extremely good at suppressing it.
(Interviewer's Notes (Pegasus): Why'd she join a foreign military anyway? How is that even allowed?)
Well, we simply don't stop it. Our own military is small, and since the military is a rather simple way for somepony to get some experience before looking for another job in civilian life, there have been various agreements that a limited number Equestrians can enlist in some allied militaries. It's partly because they have shorter enlistment requirements, but for a lot of troopers, it's to find some real adventure. For some Griffins it's dual nationality.
"I think that's a legitimate concern," I answered.
"I was wondering if you'd mind loaning troops from your platoon to add a little harmony to the mixed patrols. Help keep their minds off the bad blood between them," Shooting Star added.
"And it may also provide some unity between the three regiments. After all, the 82nd are still Day Guard, the Pegasus Guard are Night Guard, and the Harmony Guard makes all three. Perhaps realizing all three are together would help them unify under a common cause," Meteor added.
"Sorry, Lieutenant, but the only way that's going to happen is that each trooper knows they're outnumbered by members of the other two," Shooting Star voiced her stance on that notion.
I sighed. It was up to me as the superior here, even if I respected Shooting Star's service.
"...She's right, that probably is the truth. But if all three groups are together it should still mean any emotions are kept in check. We should go talk with the NCOs and the Princess and see what they have to say about this."
"W-well, since we're borrowing some of yours, maybe one each from ours could tag along with the Princess when she's out of the Embassy? Make sure our guys all know they're guarding the Princess as well?" Meteor tried again.
He reminded me somewhat of Caramel, a former Second Lieutenant I'd worked with in the past. He'd often tried to follow up a failed idea with another suggestion, but as time went by he'd been discouraged and disillusioned by constantly having his ideas dismissed. I think he became a reservist, I'm not sure. Still, this time Meteor had come up with something decent.
"That sounds okay to me, especially since it also helps boost security around the Princess since the main command squad will always be with me. We should probably discuss this with out NCOs, work out schedules and who goes where... And the Princess, of course," I finished.
And with that, the meeting was pretty much over for the moment. We managed to run the basic ideas by the Princess before lunch ended.
"Wait, just to be clear, are we taking members of our squad and putting them on these patrols?" asked Cadence, a little confused.
"No, Princess. You are still a priority to be protected, so this would actually add additional members to your guard," Shooting Star noted.
Cadence seemed a little nervous about that. I think it was more her being seen as something in need of protecting.
Anyway, we all agreed and it was finalized. Harmony Guard would take part in the mixed patrols with the other two groups. As we were leaving the dining room, Second Lieutenant Meteor caught up with me.
"Er, Captain Sparkle, there's something I need to double-check here quickly, um... I had thought you were a Major, because you see..."
"Some of the documents were mixed up? It seems to be happening a fair bit. Just as long as you don't start wondering where 'Runset' is..."
"Nothing, nothing. Actually, Lieutenant, there's something I'm wanting to check with you. Your Sergeant, Thunderhead. He said he was from 'Her Nightjesty's' Pegasus Guards. What's that about?"
"W-well, it's the preferred form of address that Princess Luna used... uses... Either way though, Sir, the term explicitly refers to her status as Queen of the Night, much like Princess Celestia's title of Dayjesty..."
Of course, Celestia hadn't actively used that title in a thousand years and had no intention to my knowledge of reviving it. Cadence may have had one but had no interest in using it. However, Celestia had told her to be prepared for Queen Tiamat to call her 'The 14th, Concept of Temperance' for some reason.
"In the context of who the regimental Supreme Commander is, it's not the right title, though. Princess Celestia's role as Queen of the Day isn't connected to her status as Princess of Equestria. Your troopers using it in the context of their Supreme Commander could cause confusion and offense - I recommend you clarify the protocol."
He looked at me with that expression any Junior officer has to make when a Senior officer has asked for something that might sound sensible enough on first hearing, but when properly analyzed, is actually rather ludicrous.
"...Clarify the protocol?"
"Yes, I know. Clarified protocol is an oxymoron, but please try and make sure they're aware of how confusing it is. I mean, potentially problematic."
(Interviewer's Notes (Pegasus): Do you mind explaining why this was a concern for the sake of our readers?)
Well, to simplify it, this was a soldier referring to his supreme commander and we had enough risk for argument without the 32nd or even some of the Harmony Guard believing the Pegasus Guard were putting Luna above Celestia or Cadence. And we were on a diplomatic mission, where everything said has importance. Yes, it's confusing, that's actually part of the reason I brought it up at all.
With any luck the ones who planned to deliberately use it as a taunt after being told it was offensive would be confused into saying the wrong (right) thing...
We got some more details on the attack. It turned out the four dead were from a Columbian-owned private weather firm, but had apparently all been European and Ponsian nationals. The City Watch were investigating possible illegal mercenary activity on their part, and the PWC they'd worked for was adamant they were not on company business.
Their cause of death was alarming too. Four targets, four gunshots, four kills. Whoever was behind it, they'd demonstrated a ruthless professionalism. The shooter had access to the latest in firearms technology. Small, fast, armor-penetrating bullets, fired from a repeating mechanism, probably a revolver of the kinds I'd been shown by Dai Mason and Bond back in Liberty. I, however, couldn't help but wonder if the rounds fired were of Hooviet origin...
Meanwhile, the wounded Zebra was a university worker who'd taken a bad hit to the head. He was in an induced coma due to swelling, but we were told should be awake the next day. Rather handily, the university had a hospital campus on site. He'd merely had to go across campus less than fifty meters to be in the safest of hooves in the city.
In the meantime, myself and Ellis decided to take a look at the post office. It was a mess. And it was exactly as reported, the weapon the culprit had used had sliced right through everything it touched. And it had done so remarkably neatly. The only damage outside where it had cut was simply from the sheer heat generated. A mark on the ground where a solidified puddle of molten remains had been pulled away was the only 'clean' spot in the burn area. The puddle had been taken away for examination. So far, they'd found iron, aluminum, sulfur, and evidence of some sort of barium compound.
"What do you think, Ellis? You're the explosive expert," I questioned, examining the burnt remains of the deposit boxes. I didn't like this.
Ellis took a close look and rubbed his head with a hoof.
"Sorry, Sir, Ah honestly got no idea what Ah'm lookin' at here. There's a few things that could do damage like this, but all of 'em would've had a much BIGGER effect on everythin' else. It's too powerful to be anything low-grade, but too clean to be high-grade. Ah honestly don't know."
I was busy staring paranoid at the destruction in front of me. An unknown substance that had qualities nothing my explosive expert knew of (and Ellis took it at a point of pride to know every possible explosive he could). Three guesses who my mind tried to convince me was somehow involved.
(Interviewer's Notes (Pegasus): The one with the high tech tripods?)
(Interviewer's Notes (Earth Pony): So I bet you took charge of the investigation, right?)
Uh...no. I'm not an investigator. The only experience I had with that kind of thing was...when I did some work as a community service officer when I was younger...
(Interviewer's Notes (Pegasus):...Shining, are you hiding something?)
No...Point is: Bond and the local authorities were the ones with communication as their forte. I'd just be kept in the loop.
(Interviewer's Notes (Pegasus): And looking around in paranoia?)
Anyway, after that, we moved on to the visit proper, starting with Princess Cadence and The Prime Minister of Zebrawa, T'Challa, who were meeting for dinner. And yes, the Prime Minister was a Zebra from the town of Wakanda, in Leboa-Seko (ironically, there's also a settlement with his name in the same area). Though he did seem to have a thing for panthers oddly enough. Apparently it was a family thing. Luckily, no Panthers were patrolling any courtyards... Except the very small ones Private Gag kept finding.
While they talked, I was busy with my new habit of looking over my shoulder at every small noise.
"Captain, looks like the security is stepped up a bit," Thunderchild remarked, noticing that before me.
The Zebrawans had put up more security of their own in addition to our own. From all I could see, the room was about secure as it could be, baring...well, bars on the windows. Of course considering my habit of attracting weird situations, I decided to keep my fingers crossed.
(Interviewer's Notes (Pegasus): You don't have fingers.)
Yeah, I realized that, which is why I had Griffen cross his talons for me. One time I looked over my shoulder, it turned out I saw a couple of deer lurking in the crowd. What concerns me is they were Roes, actually the proper type of deer to be Hooviet higher-ups, and I swore they were looking at me every time they thought I wasn't looking...
I looked over at the stallion once again. So close yet so far away.
"He's sticking too close to the Alicorn. If we try to get close, she'll sense us."
"One drawback to the blessings, even a young Alicorn can detect it," my comrade replies as she gives a sigh. I curse our poor luck.
"Looks like we'll have to find another way. So long as he's sticking next to Princess Cadence, it will be difficult to get close to him."
"Well at least we get a look at him. He has the eyes of a spotter, always alert for threats and targets."
Always thinking in sniper's terms...
"He wouldn't have survived this long if he wasn't... Let us continue to observe."
Uh...why did you just hide a section of your notebook?
(Interviewer's Notes (Unicorn): Sorry, spoilers.)
Ah...well, anyway, they never DID anything...they were just odd deer. Thunderchild speculated one of them may have been interested in me in a different way, and the other was jealous - or they both were interested. With a blush, I had to make it clear to him that I certainly wasn't interested in such matters...
Other than them... Quiet dinner. Not much happened, or if it did, I missed it because it wasn't a threat.
As luck would have it, Cadence was actually scheduled to visit the university where the break-in took place the next afternoon.
(Interviewer's Notes (Pegasus): Not big on fate, huh?)
Kind of hard to be when you've been told you're kind of immune to it. Bond and Ellis had both taken a look at the damaged areas here: And sure enough, it seemed that the very same unknown material had been used. Analysis of the molten slag had even turned up the same barium traces, and zero signs of a magical influence.
Anyway, we lucked out and while Cadence did her thing with a few other professors elsewhere in the room, I got to talk with Professor Elemental, the professor who lost his finds in the fire, an Equestrian unicorn.
"So, Professor, what can you tell me about what happened?" I asked.
"My finds were all destroyed in the fire. All they recovered was bits of metal and pottery...I'm sorry, that's honestly all I can tell you, Captain."
"Can you tell us what the finds were?"
Professor Elemental gave a sheepish look. "My memory is...not so good, I'm afraid. I wrote it down to remember it..."
"And your notes were destroyed as well?"
"And the Zebra worker who was injured?" I asked.
"He's my assistant. I'm not sure he'd know anything either, but it doesn't particularly matter, given his present condition." He frowned at my mentioning the assistant's condition.
"...Do you think he'd have any reason to be involved in this, Professor?"
Professor Elemental looked shocked and even a little offended that I made the suggestion.
"No, not at all! I've already told the locals I'm certain he's innocent and I'll tell you too. Amini has always been loyal and trustworthy. Besides, why would he destroy our discoveries instead of steal them?"
(Interviewer's Notes (Pegasus): Why would you ask that? I thought you were just looking for stuff Bond might be able to use.)
Partly because I didn't want to leave anything out...and mostly paranoia. Both about the incident and about an innocent Zebra potentially being lynched.
(Interviewer's Notes (Unicorn): At least you're honest about it.)
"That's a good point. So whe-"
At that point, a yellow-maned brown-coated pegasus burst in and dashed up to us. I think his Cutie Mark was a simplified picture of a Chimera.
"Professor!" he announced, a bit excitedly.
"Captain, this is Nitoh, an archaeology student from a class of mine here," the professor introduced.
Even as the student nodded and said hello to me, I recognized it as a Neighponese name. I guessed from the Cutie Mark his speciality was mythology. He then turned his attention to the Pegasus.
"What is it, Nitoh?"
"Amini's woken up!"
"He has? Captain, please excuse me, I need to go see him right away."
"Hang on a second," I replied, and ran over to the Princess.
"Princess Cadence, it appears the assistant has woken up, Professor Elemental is going to go see him. Can I have permission for me and Private Gag to accompany him?"
"Shining..." Cadence said, looking a bit hesitant.
"He might have something Bond can use," Ambassador Supermarine added, and I gave a nod of agreement.
I wasn't sure if the Ambassador was with us on official business or just to be with Cadence. They seemed close.
(Interviewer's Notes (Pegasus): Must be where Cadence got her foalsitting skills from.)
"Isn't Bond on campus?"
"Yes, but we can't be sure he'll know he's awake, and considering we don't know much about whoever was behind this, it'd be wise to get the information as soon as possible."
"...Alright..." Cadence sighed.
"Thank you, Princess. Gag, you're with me."
"But Shining?" She said as we made to leave, making me look back at her.
"Don't forget to stop and smell the roses sometime during this trip, ok? This isn't JUST business. I appreciate your work ethic, but you need to relax sometime."
(Interviewer's Notes (Pegasus): Let me guess, you didn't listen?)
I wish I could say no to that question.
Naturally, I kept an eye on everything on the way there. After all, we couldn't be sure if the thieves had intended to kill him or just get him out of the way. If the former...well, particularly if it was Mr. Makarov, a second attempt was plausible. Which is why it was reassuring we needed to produce identification just to get into the ward he was in, and the City Watch officers at the doors made dang sure they were real.
"Amini?" asked Professor Elemental as we entered.
Said Zebra seemed happy to see him...But then...
He began panicking the moment he saw me and yelling that at the top of his lungs. He yelled some more stuff, but Zebrafrican wasn't something I had an ear for and the word 'Salawa' was the only thing I could make out. Needless to say, Gag and I were stunned.
And of course Bond would choose that exact moment to appear behind us. Well, he's a spy, so I guess that means he's good at his job.
"Oh...Commander Bond," I managed to say, turning to look at him.
"Captain, mind stepping outside and letting me do my job? He doesn't seem to like you much."
I nodded slowly, still a little surprised.
"Yeah...Sorry, we just wanted to make sure someone got to him just in case."
Bond rubbed his head.
"Yes, I understand... I'd have been here sooner, but I was trying to find some coffee. Long night, don't ask, I can't tell you here any way."
"Uh...there's a vending machine in the hall that sells tea."
"I would rather drink mud," Bond muttered and shut the door after escorting me into the hallway.
"Coffee is mud..." I mumbled. Seriously? Who doesn't like tea?
(Interviewer's Notes (Unicorn): You weren't more concerned about the fact a victim had panicked upon seeing you?)
I assumed at the time that Amini had just started yelling because my doppelgänger might have been the one to bash him over the head, and he may have also seen that doppelgänger murder three ponies and a griffin in front of him. It seemed to make sense.
(Interviewer's Notes (Pegasus): Didn't convince you, did it?)
No, it was much too mundane an explanation for a weirdness magnet of my magnitude. Gag stepped out a couple moments later, looking quite confused.
"How's it going, Private?" I asked.
"He said that he was just filing reports away in the room, and the next thing he remembers is, he's on the floor, he hears some swearing, and four loud bangs, and that's all he remembers. The weird part is he said it all in Equestrian," Gag reported.
It was my turn to be bewildered. "That is odd...but I guess when he was panicked he defaulted back to his native language. What did he say when we got in there?"
Gag scratched his head.
"When he shouted at seeing you? He said 'The wolf, the wolf, it is hunting you, it is close by.' It doesn't make much sense to me...Sir? You look pale...well, paler."
"Y-yes, I'm fine. Just fine. I just might need a tea...then let's head back to Cadence, shall we?"
It probably didn't help that I was clumsy with the tea and ended up having to have Twinkle Shine use one of her whitening spells on my coat before our next stop.
Next stop on the trip was another dinner, this one mostly business ponies doing business things. Ellis recognized some of his relatives, though I think he mentioned they were from the Orange side of the family. But seriously, just how many relatives can one pony have?
"Minuette, according to the schedule,we're only at the embassy one evening this entire trip," I observed while Cadence was talking with the owner of that weather company that had lost four employees at the university. Apparently, the company was washing their hooves entirely of them, claiming they'd been there on their own time and would certainly have been instantly dismissed had they been caught alive. He'd tried to seek out Cadence to further reinforce his point: His company was not involved.
Bond had privately told me he wasn't so sure of that before he'd wandered off back into the city to investigate. I honestly wished he hadn't.
"We were originally going to spend more, but the trip was compressed by the who mess," said Minuette, looking a little flustered. "We lost several whole days and I had to completely redo the schedule to fit everything in...I made it work."
I swear her pride at that statement rivaled Twilight's that one time she had to redo her monthly checklist to take into account a blizzard snowed us in at the house for a week and succeeded.
"I even managed to make sure we'll see the hoofball game tomorrow."
I wish I could say that excited me, but it frustrated me more than anything. First hoofball game in months I'd get to see... and what happens? I'm so paranoid with this whole mess I wouldn't even be able to enjoy it. It was hard enough to stop watching the Weather Company Owner for suspicious behavior long enough to hear her announcement.
"Captain," Audience called for my attention about twenty minutes later. He'd just got off the radio.
"Just got a report, sir. City Watch tried to apprehend two suspects. Unfortunately, they seemingly escaped before they even raided the location they were supposed to be. They think they've skipped town."
I gave a groan.
"Let me guess, two unicorns, one male, one female?"
"Unfortunately so, sir.."
I made sure no one else was watching and promptly slammed my head into the nearest wall. Now I REALLY wouldn't be able to enjoy that hoofball game. And yes, I know it's selfish to be upset over that...But it's bucking frustrating that the thing me and Cadence loved the most was something that I couldn't even enjoy because I was so stressed out...
(Interviewer's Notes (Earth Pony): It's okay. We all have moments like that.)
...Thanks, filly, I needed that. Even thinking about it now is... annoying. It left me feeling antsy the remainder of the night.
I stood in an office. A stallion stood in front of me at a desk, his nameplate said Chief Inspector Triggert of the Clydesdale Police Force. I was paying full attention: The accents could throw me off even after knowing Baseplate for a while.
"Awrrright, herrre's the situation. A stallion by'ra name o' Buckie Bottle is in possession of a large, dangerrouse, dug. He's ta'en tae lettin' this dug aff the leash at the park to attack ither pets there. We've telt him multiple times tae keep his dug under control, but he's no listenin'. E'en a court mandate hasnae got him tae listen. And worse, thur's been a very serious incident since his last warnin'. His dog caused a murder-"
I gasped in surprise. Triggert paused, glared at me without a comment, then continued.
"-of crows tae be disturbed, resultin' in a Pegasus polis officer being injured."
Triggert looked at me and the other ponies in the room.
"Unfortunately, we're no' equipped for a dangerous dug, makin' this yin a high risk scenario. We need a STARS team tae make the arrest, and subdue the dug. Bottle is tae be arrestet fur disobeyin' court orders and injurin' a polis. His dug is to be confiscated."
We headed out the door, making our way towards the suspect's home... but I couldn't help the feeling something was wrong... Like something inside me was saying... This didn't happen.
And yet, something else was telling me... It did. Just not yet.
But this was in the past, I wondered in my head. How can something in the past...
Waking up suddenly in your bed? Disorientating. Waking up suddenly staring at your bathroom mirror? Extremely disorientating? Waking up suddenly in full armor in the middle of the embassy grounds with two Pegasus Guards starting at you about as confused as you are? Words do not exist to describe how disorientating that is.
"Um...Sir, is there something wrong?" asked one of the perplexed Pegasi peering at me.
I looked around for a moment, giving a blink as it hit me I'd actually been sleepwalking. I barely remembered going to bed.
"Uh...no...nothing, just stretching my legs a little..."
Needless to say, I didn't even try to get back to sleep since just waking up suddenly in my own bed was enough to ensure no sleep for the rest of the night. Considering I was still out of books to read, I just looked out the window at the night sky for a bit. I figured since according to legend, Princess Luna turned into Nightmare Moon because ponies didn't appreciate her night (and I couldn't avoid being awake through half of it anyway), I'd better start appreciating.
(Interviewer's Notes (Unicorn): I'm sure Princess Luna appreciates that.)
I hope she does.
At any rate, the next morning I went on with my day. Another day of wary looks at shadows in the corner of my eye, of examining the source of every unexpected noise. The surprising thing was, once I got to the hoofball game, the increased security actually did settle my nerves enough to enjoy it a bit. A welcome little release from the paranoia...Unfortunately, that wouldn't last.
"Status report?" I asked tensely as we waited on the carriages pulling up to the front of the embassy.
"Looks like it's started, sir," Garnet reported.
"So our fears have been realized..."
Once more, Cadence was on her way to another dinner, this time to welcome various flight teams to the country. And that meant the Wonderbolts were almost here. With the security situation becoming more secure and less tense, the 82nd and Pegasus Guard had less to keep their minds off the other situation.
"It isn't that bad, captain. Just seems to be playful insults so far," Thunderchild reported.
"Gag, your opinion?" I asked. Gag liked a lot of things, but racing wasn't one of them. Thunderchild liked the Wonderbolts, Gag could be unbiased.
"Not too bad, sir," Private Gag replied. "Just a few jokes at the other's expense. Not very good ones, at that."
"I wouldn't be too sure. I had to treat two pegasi who butted heads over it," Garnet added.
"There was a fight?"
"No, they literally butted heads by accident."
"Oh. Why didn't their medics handle it?"
"They were the medics."
Yes, both of the other troops at the embassy had their own medics already while my troop had to have Cadence intervene before we got one.
"So in other words, we've already got two soldiers injured in the opening shots of the flame war. At least the airshow is the last day of our stay here so the Wonderbolts will be out of sight until then..." I sighed.
"Uh, Shining, the Wonderbolts aren't staying at a hotel. Their managers are worried about security so... they're staying at the embassy..." Minuette chimed in.
I resisted the urge to slam my head into a convenient pole we happened to be passing.
Technically, as the highest ranking officer present, I could've shot down their request if I felt it was needed, but I couldn't argue because I was feeling every bit as paranoid. Besides, Supermarine's daughter was one of them and her husband used to be a 'Bolt as well, so I imagine I'd not make friends even if I didn't agree with their own security concerns. Thank Celestia the Bolts decided to spend most of their time in Zebrawa training away from the embassy.
Then it occurred to me they needed a guard detail and thus would stretch us a bit thin, obviously my Guard and the Pegasus Guard contributing most of the troops. On one hoof, I wasn't thrilled by that, but on the other, I respected why it had to be that way. The Wonderbolts were a flying team, they have a seriously intense training regimen they have to keep to remain up to snuff like any serious sports team. Those stunts they perform weren't just pretty to look at, they were dangerous, and if they didn't have them down perfectly, they could get seriously injured or killed. It wasn't they wanted to train, it was that they needed to train - Just like us soldiers in a way. And it wasn't very easy for them to train within viewing distance of the embassy. There was too much around here for the kind of space they needed.
"Captain, I volunteer to lead the guard detail for the Wonderbolts," Thunderchild helpfully offered upon hearing of this development.
"You do remember the discussion pertaining to the Wonderbolts we had before we got here, right?" I asked, a little more intensely than I intended to.
Lets see; trust him with body guard duty for being my Sergeant and good friend, or try to keep the Casanova wannabe Wonderbolts fan as far away from them as phyiscally possible? Tough call.
"...Alright, you can lead it on one condition. Ellis, you're going with him."
I sent Ellis for two reasons; he's level headed enough to keep Thunderchild's fancoltism under control (I hoped) and actually knew something about racing, even if it was just NASCART. It actually turned out a few Wonderbolts were fans of that form of racing themselves.
I wasn't too surprised Running Gag was the only Pegasus I had left on the team.
Thankfully though, things seemed to go pretty smoothly the rest of the day and into the next....until after dinner that evening Twinkle Shine ran past me while I was heading out to the courtyard for a breath of fresh air.
"Not again! Not again! Not again..."
After overcoming the confusion that scene brought with it, I walked outside and found Supermarine talking to a Wonderbolt doing stretches. It turned out the yellow pegasus with the firey mane was her daughter.
Meanwhile, there were also Jenkins, an 82nd Pegasus, and a Pegasus Guard trooper doing pre-race stretching. They'd all removed their barding, since the Wonderbolt wasn't wearing a flight suit either.
"Uh...what's going on?"
"Oh, hang on," said Cadence, who to my shock was also doing her stretches. At least that explained why Twinkle Shine was having a panic attack. She finally came over to me after finishing.
"The 82nd got the idea to challenge the Wonderbolts to a race," she explained. I got the idea it was not nearly as friendly a challenge as she wanted me to think it was.
"When I heard about it, I thought it might be a good idea to make it a friendly competition between all the groups."
In other words; turn a grudge match between militant elite Pegasi with a chip on their shoulders and an illustrious racing team who won't back down from a challenge into a fun cross guard race...with one extra member.
"I've gotten to have one good flight since we got to this continent, I want a real chance to stretch my wings. Mind keeping an eye on these? Twinkle Shine ran off before I could tell her I wouldn't need something to weigh me down this time," Cadence said, floating her barding over to my hooves.
Contrary to popular belief, being an Alicorn doesn't automatically make you the best at everything (at least not if you're young). Cadence actually isn't exceptionally fast, by pegasus standards.
"Very well, but for the record, Princess, I'd appreciate being informed of these sorts of matters. What kind of race is this?"
"Four Kilometer Sky Sprint, Two K up in the air, then back down, simple. I'm not completely ignorant of my own safety, Shining, I wasn't going to organize a level-course race around the safe zone even if you weren't sure to blow a gasket at the idea!"
"That's not what I mean, Princess, it's just..."
"Shining, I understand. I'd actually meant to send somepony inside to get you to double-check but, er, Twinkle Shine volunteered... Might want to send somepony to get her out from under her bed actually."
I decided it'd be best to just watch this play out - it was secure enough. If Cadence's plan worked, maybe we'd actually get a harmonic coexistence between the groups for the rest of the time we were in Zebrawa. And if not? Well, one side hopefully shut the other up and we'd avoid a war...
"Where's Fleetfoot?" Thunderchild happened to ask as they got ready.
"She's back in Cloudsdale right now," the Wonderbolt preparing for the race replied.
Apparently, it was commonly held that Echo Fleetfoot was the fastest Wonderbolt and apparently Thunderchild thought she had the best chance of winning the race. Or just had a crush on her, hard to tell with him.
So they lined up to start while I played bodyguard to Princess Cadence's regalia. I was actually getting kind of pumped for the race...until about a minute after Supermarine yelled "GO!"
Two K. Two thousand. Cadence was about to race well over a few hundred meters away from me.
You would only be safe at very short range. Less than tens of meters from their line of sight...
I watched her slowly go higher and higher with the other racers...then I started to hear sniffing. Growling. And it was right behind me.
I didn't turn around, I didn't move. I just stood there, watching the little pink dot in the sky.
"No, it cannot harm you right now! She expects you here, your Princess, do not..."
'Don't run...Don't run...She expects you here...Don't run...'
But I could feel it! It was breathing down my neck, right behind me... I was fading... It was there, I was...
"!distorT realitY, nO furtheR .returN heR lighT yoU havE stoleN"
Then I saw the racers returning and it stopped as quickly as it started.
Cadence was last, the Pegasus Guard fourth, the Wonderbolt and the 82nd tied for second place, and Jenkins came in first by a nose. Apparently Cadence had thought ahead and had a photo finish all set up just to make absolutely sure there wasn't any debate. The 82nd and the Wonderbolts both seemed to be at least pleased they hadn't lost to the other.
Cadence soon walked over to get her regalia back with a big grin on her face, whilst the rest of my platoon present continued to congratulate our victorious Pegasus, wish I'd actually seen her win.
(Interviewer's Notes (Pegasus): What did you feel during all this?)
I was too busy repeating 'it wasn't there, you were imagining it' in my head over and over again to feel anything but relief. And I quickly rationalized it had to be all in my head.
"Well, I think that went well, a little healthy competition," the Princess of Harmony stated, looking over her hoofiwork. "And I didn't have to use one spell to spread harmony, a pretty good day's work."
She then looked at me with a blink and looked over my shoulder. "Hey Shining... was there a dog behind you? I could've sworn I saw one when I was coming back down..."
I didn't have a heart attack, but I probably should have.
"...Are you feeling all right, Shining?"