("Please, Help me! My friend! She's sick")
("We knew this was coming...")
("NO! no no...I-...I didn't mean...)
"We're sending you in. Priority target 'Zodiac' must be recovered and remain unscathed. Reports say it is located underground. All other targets are expendable. Good luck."
Those are the last words displayed. That is the order. A simple safe-and-recovery exercise to extract a high-priority target guarded by one of the tightest securities available; it makes the Canterlot Royal Guard look like foal's play. That is what he has to do.
But he has existed in scenarios like this. Never has he gotten cocky but maintains a cool head and takes his time to focus even in somewhat hopeless situations. He brushed his purple mane one last time before getting into gear. He knew this was going to be another day in the job. But what he didn't know that this very mission will never be the same.
January 02 20**, 2:00 AM EST
Sigh. Another long day
He sounded quite gruff as he stepped out of the bathroom, his face still soaking wet. From the looks of it, he really needed to relax for once. After all, 10 days of code-breaking, reconnaissance, and even petty theft with no rest can really sap the life out of a stallion. He threw his white hooded jacket to a chair and fell on his bed face first.
*BUZZ* *BUZZ* *BUZZ*
*groan* Every damn time. He grabbed his phone and blindly read the message:
Where r u?
its been 2 hours
meet at Rustshoe Alley
He just stared blankly at his phone. Another long day, yeah sure. Spoke too soon.
30 minutes later
Blinking street light. Torn "Vote Senator Ironhoof for 2nd term" posters covering the sticky, molded brick walls. The stench of decay wafted through the air like a thief in the night, eager to pass by unfortunate victims swiftly right under their noses and into the nostrils. The crammed space is not a familiar thing for our informant here, grown for the slums himself and all. He parked his car in such a way stalkers find familiar.
This is Rust shoe Alley, an infamous location inside the dark corners of The Veil, one of the tertiary districts of Canterlot 3. A favorite spot among snatchers and shady dealers alike. It's no shocker to see a pony stripped off of whatever thieves can get their hooves on coming out of this narrow, steamy corridor. Cops would even hear several fist brawls, screams of help, or the occasional gun shots, but even they couldn't go as far as catching the snatcher or saving the helpless victim being held with a knife.
Our purple-maned stallion trotted his way for a few minutes and immediately took a right; then he took another right and then a very sharp left. He then is inside the dreaded, stinking alleyway his contact was in. He spotted a certain dark grey car, smoke belching out of its windows. "You certainly took your time." The informant said in a voice of different cultural norms clashing against each other. His semi-stubbed snout, dark brown coat, and thick cloven hooves made him appear as a long, lost heir to a lineage of slavers and slaves. He lit another cigarette by the time our stallion entered shotgun.
"10 days straight of target neutralization" he said in a-matter-of-fact tone. "I was almost caught by a SABRE drone."
The informant puffed out a smoke. "Occupational hazard, knowing your line of work. Besides, those things are already outdated. I heard its schematics are being shipped in to the grey-market and turned into REAL weapons."
"What do you want, Caesar?" The stallion said, growing impatient.
He cleared his throat. "I'm sorry, but as of now we can only be called by our code names. Yours is ORION, am I correct? We're just erring the side of caution is all." he handed over to him a tablet.
"Whatever you say, MIDAS." Orion never liked this whole pseudo-naming system. Both him and MIDAS (aka Caesar the "informant") are already living in the shadow of a corporate and technologically changing world. For him, 'ORION' is like painting a huge target on yourself for big-time PMCs and bounty hunters to track you down.
"So, who exactly am I looking at?"
"Your objective." A certain mare with a purple coat and a dark purple and magenta striped mane flashed to the left of the screen. "This one is your target. He's the one running the show." A grumpy-looking griffon flashed to the right this time.This new target looked middle-aged, experienced, and stressed.
"Any word on OCULUS?"
"Not much. The Nerve Center's been messing around lately. Magnetic flux from different frequencies has been staggering communications. Right now, we're completely blind."
"...When do I get started?"
"Whoa there cowboy. You think you can just sneak inside the most heavily guarded facility in Canterlot 3, pacify your target, and extract the package all in one day?"
"I can't risk anymore casualties. The last time I took someone with me, it didn't end so well." ORION pictured well the events that happened during his early years. But that proved too long a story
"Well, like it or not, you're not doing this on your own."
"I work better alone."
"And if your 'plan', if you have any, doesn't work?"
"I always improvise."
"Look, I don't wanna sound like your old stallion..."
"You sure as hell sound A LOT like him right now." ORION felt slightly offended.
"Well times have changed, ORION. Every second spent on doing our usual operations is crucial. God knows how many of our agents are still in captivity just to provide information for YOU guys."
"That's why I work alone."
"It never was enough that you do your best. Even our information can be...unreliable. You take out your target, 3 or 4 more come out of hiding. Blow up one of their buildings, a new one will surely rise up. Plus, that sends a bad message. We're losing this war, son. It's about time you open your eyes and deal with the situation."
ORION had always had this kind of lengthy talks with his old stallion. Not that he particularly learned from them, but it was always a pain in the hindquarters to even recall a single word mentioned. And listening to Caesar's advice brings back such bitter memories. But Caesar has been a very trusting companion, wiser even, to his father, and that gained him respect. ORION felt utterly defeated, now focusing on the issue at hoof.
"Fine. But what makes Her so special?" Looking at the purple mare again in the screen, somehow the complexity in her looks can be hard to miss.
"Well, that's for you to find out apparently. OCULUS classified her as Priority Level 4."
"Heh, it figures." Considering this is the 5th one this week. How many more targets do they need to capture/neutralize/recover/steal?
"...So when do I start 'recruiting' for my team?" ORION feeling stressed out.
"Oh no need to worry bout that." MIDAS reached the back again to reach a driver. "HQ already took the liberty of picking a few candidates...4 of them to be exact." Every time ORION hears HQ, it can only mean his father. "Plug it in."
"So I guess we an arrangement then." MIDAS said before ORION got out of shotgun.
"I'll make sure to report my findings as soon as I can." ORION still had doubts on these 5 candidates. For him, this is not enough to face an entire unit of SABRE drones at the at the same risk too many members in one squad to send out for recon missions. The stakes are just too high for a young agent whose sole purpose is to make sure the world doesn't go out of hoof when dealing with problems of the poor citizen and the egotistical politician. Canterlot 3 is no joke when it has people like this; it is big enough to fit the entire population of Fillydelphia (twice). Still, it would be close to impossible to have eyes and ears everywhere; that takes time and a lot of effort in keeping tabs on everything.
"You're still not for this plan are you?"
"I'm not saying it's a bad plan. I just don't like putting ponies at risk."
"Somepony, if not everypony, is always at risk."
"Well that really takes the cake when you drag someone to The Skirt...no offense."
"...None taken." MIDAS felt lightly insulted, flicking his burnt out stick. "HQ also requested that you fill-in your assignment as soon as possible. Reaching the chosen candidates will take time, so manage it."
"Sigh give me 4 months."
"You'll only get 3."
"Too soon." ORION still thinks he can accomplish his task on his own. "I'd better get going."
"You wanna know something?" ORION felt an inconvenient curiosity that took over his own mind and noticed a sudden change in his gruff tone. This sort of feeling can really blow his cover and get himself killed, or worse. but all that ORION can respond was a vague look on his face that says "What?"
"You can be predictable sometimes, putting yourself in tight situations. And I'm certain your dad will hate you for that, but he can't keep an eye on you forever. So please, for all our damn sake...watch your back."
ORION hated the feeling of sudden oppression and had nothing to do about it. He knew that MIDAS was right, just as how his father was right. He needed to tread carefully in his future assignments.
"I'll take that under consideration," he replied.
"Hmm...nihil verum est..."
"...licet omnia." ORION turned his back and fled back to the dark corridors until the cold, dirty fog enshrouded him from the tip of his horn to the longest strand of his tail. MIDAS watched him disappear and lit another cigarette.
"Project MENTIS?" Twilight babbled on how inexplicably crazy and ingenious the whole idea was. Fusing the concept of time travel and the magic of science into one big ball of digital and technological prowess can be the stuff miracles and marvels (if this didn't even interest Dr. Whooves, she would be very disappointed). "But how is that even possible?!"
"Let's just say that we have ways, miss Sparkle," Nimbus pushed the center of his tar-black glasses. Overconfidence has never been an issue for his character, and like it or not, he feels damn proud of it. But the blind eagerness of Twilight can only boost such character to the very point were he is just too happy to show her the nitty-gritty portion of what they were just discussing. In his fore leg, Nimbus pressed his wrist mounted omni-tool. "Do you know what a memory is?" he asked.
"It's...a recollection of past events," Twilight replied, trying to sound straight-to-the-point.
"Correct. What makes them so memorable? So...hard to forget?"
Twilight gave it much thought. "It is most likely due to one's actions. It depends on how he or she acts and reacts to a certain situation. It may affect the self, but it can also affect others," Twilight then remembered her friends, how they became who they are and whom they will or might choose to be. But then she also remembered her "other" friends back in Canterlot, Sunset Shimmer back in that alternate world, but she decided not to tell Nimbus the details. "So yeah, I think that's why."
"I guess you can say that history repeats itself, yes?" Nimbus then flashed a holographic screen in front of him and Twilight, showing his memorandum.
This gave Twilight goosebumps, as if every book she had read ever since Celestia started sending her new books are down to this very moment; she would put and share all her knowledge to it. This would be a chance to have most, maybe all, her questions answered. Ancient riddles solved, new artifacts discovered, theories converted to facts or law; she can see it all connecting. It would only be a matter of time until she writes her own books about her new discoveries. Then she remembered one book she didn't finish reading, a certain unfinished one from her past reading sessions, but she didn't pay much attention to it.
"As you can see, Alicorn Enterprises is one of the first innovative corporations stationed all the way from Fillydelphia and as a sub-branch of Abstergo Industries. Our goal is to create different means of safeguarding the lives of many citizens all over Equestria. But through the massive breakthroughs of science and technology, we were able to not only protect innocent lives, but even educate them, entertain them, help them." Twilight knew this whole project can become a paradigm for a princess of Friendship. Helping others in need while spreading friendship can spark a great reputation on her name and spread even outside the boundaries of Equestria. She knew this moment can become her greatest yet.
"This is just amazing!"
"indeed it is. For example, our latest creation," Nimbus waved his hoof "The SABRE drone: our autonomous surveillance and defense drone. We have already shipped more than 250,000 units worldwide, including several cities such as Manehattan and Canterlot."
"Wait, does Princess Celestia know about this?"
"She does apparently, ordered her first 100 units."
"Hmmm...Why hasn't Shining Armor told me yet?" Twilight thought.
"Well putting that aside, I am here now to offer you an opportunity of a lifetime," Nimbus said with his usual proud tone. "Project MENTIS is in need of volunteers for..."
"OOOH That would be great! You see, I've been doing so much research about the recent-" Twilight became over herself as usual. "Uhh...sorry. You were saying?"
"Well, as I was saying, would you like to be part of this project?" Nimbus offered.
Twilight paused and gave it some thought. But she can only stammer a little. "Y-you want me? T-to be part of your TEAM?!"
"Your reputation has reached as far as outside Equestrian boundaries. And knowing you as the princess of friendship, you may be able to help different people at the same time expand your influence. They could use more ponies like you; Smart, fair, determined to solve any problem, With all those traits as well as your highly expanded knowledge on the sciences, this world can be a better place." Nimbus waved and highlighted holo-screens in front of them. "Now we all know times such as today have been dark; ice caps melting, war in the eastern fronts, pandemics sweeping across the slums, everyday a new threat is just around the corner waiting to strike. I'm sure you've also heard about the 'Red Orchard incident.'"
After receiving reports about a certain community college in Baltimare protesting against Senator Iron Hoof's orchard building proposal, Twilight couldn't help but put a bitter frown on her face. "Oh yes...even the Environmental professors of Golden Apple University are against it. I can't even imagine Iron Hoof's motives on tearing down their campus in exchange for 'progress.'" Twilight felt slightly heavy inside, wishing she could've just taken the matter in her own hooves. "But...all of those students, beaten...sigh," Twilight breathed deeply.
"You sound like someone you know was there," Nimbus replied.
"No, it's just that my dad has been working there as a book binder and writer. He's the one who told me about the whole incident, even volunteered in making banners and signs."
"He sounds like a good stallion. Was he..."
"Oh no! He's fine, he still messages me. I mean sure he can be involved in the rally, but he operated behind the scenes."
"Yes it is indeed a very tragic event over certain misguided concepts of progress, but lets leave the politics to the politicians," Nimbus pushed his glasses. "So miss Sparkle, this offer I'm giving you is, as I said, a great opportunity for you to prevent something like this from ever happening again. With MENTIS, we can change the outcome of our future by re-visiting our past and learning from our mistakes. We can change the individual's perspective of progress, not as a way of stepping onto others, but as a way of moving forward together. With the right motives and ideals, every stallion, mare, and foal can contribute to society and make the world a better place for them. With MENTIS, we can change the world..."
Though that last phrase felt very tempting, Twilight still needed time to think about his offer. If she's going to be part of this enduring project, it will definitely consume most of her time as a princess. She would at least leave the countless books she has read numerous times and finally do something for a change, but that would be a little selfish on her part, considering she needs to care for Spike and her friends when they needed her the most. But when it comes to the greater good, she can't simply put only her family, friends, and loved ones into perspective.
"UHH! That sales pony is such a pain in the hindquarters! Did I ask for too much? No! Did I ask for a refund? No! All I wanted were fresh ingredients, not cheap factory produce!" Spike flurried his claws out of annoyance after his trip to the Ponyville market. "Well, at least the list is done. TWILIGHT! I'M BACK!" Spike then caught her and Nimbus in the living hall.
Spike looked dumbfounded. "Ehh...Twi, Who's this?"
"You must be Spike. Nice to meet you." Nimbus got up and extended his hoof.
"Whoa whoa whoa. How do you know my name? Twilight, do you know this guy?"
"Now Spike, he's our guest, please show some respect."
"Sigh. Sorry, what did you say your name was?" Spike looked at him, a little embarrassed.
"My name is Nimbus. I was just showing your friend Twilight something."
"Oh cool! What is it?"
Twilight got beside Spike. "Oh you know some boring princess-y stuff. Maybe you should go fix up the groceries and I'll catch up with you later." She started nudging him to the kitchen.
"Aww, but I wanna know what's up!"
"I'll be right with you Spike!" Twilight kept pushing Spike away until they reached the kitchen. Before Spike moved his mouth, the door slammed. He let out a groan.
Twilight breathed deeply. "OK. I...greatly appreciate this offer, but I still need to think this through. With all the friendship problems arising across Equestria..."
"Oh please, take your time in making a decision," Nimbus replied. "I understand priorities are a first. If it is alright," he handed her his card, "contact details are on the card, as well as my initials. Should you choose to agree to this project, have the card scan your hoofprint, it will tell you what to do next."
"Oh, of course. Thank you."
"Oh and one more thing, it was a good call you didn't have to involve Spike in such things."
"Oh well, you know him," she tried her best not to sound like a tease.
"I'd suggest we keep the discussion of our proposal to a minimum. We really wouldn't want to raise anymore suspicions," Twilight thought of Spike for a moment. "Anyway, I must be off now. You have a good day. And may the Father of Understanding guide you."
Twilight didn't quite understand the somehow the formal adieu, but she's sure it was a sign of respect. She looked at the card he gave her one last time before she shut the door.