The sight before Princess Celestia was simply breathtaking. Her sister, Mistress of the Night, was truly skilled at her art. Now that Princess Luna knew that there were ponies that appreciated her night, she strived to put more effort into her designs. Oh, she could not truly move the stars at her whim, despite popular belief. All she could do was control which stars were visible on a given night. It was a simple illusion spell, but required great concentration to get it just right.
However, like any true craftsman, Luna had more tools at her disposal. Comets, meteors, all were at her beck and call. For tonight however, her chosen brush was the Aurora Borealis. Winter Wrap Up was still a few weeks away, leaving plenty of time for a couple more showings of the Northern Lights.
"Beautiful work as always, Lulu." Princess Celestia complimented, forcing a smile.
"Thank you, 'Tia." Luna replied with a smile. She had just finished putting the finishing touches on one more wondrous display in the night sky, a twisting red nebula illuminating the eastern horizon, a perfect complement to the aurora.
Upon seeing the finished work, Celestia's facade broke, and she heaved a deep sigh. "Twilight would have loved to see that."
"Has there been any word?" Asked Luna.
Celestia shook her head in response. "No. Our search has proven fruitless so far." She sighed. "I am beginning to doubt that she is even on this planet."
"How can that be?" Asked Luna incredulously. "Surely her spell couldn't have misfired that catastrophically."
"I can think of no other explanation." Celestia stated. "If she were still anywhere on Equis, even if she were in the pits of Tartarus, I should be able to sense her presence, as I have with my other faithful students in the past."
Luna frowned at this. An alicorn's very nature meant that they could form a bond with anypony they grew close to. It was a bond that transcended time and space, but it was still limited. If Twilight were truly not on the planet of Equis any more, then there was little hope of finding her. It would mean that Celestia had been lying to herself since her most faithful student disappeared, eventually, even the Solar Diarch would have to face facts. Twilight Sparkle’s chances of returning home were effectively zero.
But at least she was still alive. No matter how far away in the cosmos Twilight was, as long as she was alive, Celestia could sense that. The Night Princess hoped that, wherever Twilight was, that she was safe and happy, and making plenty of new friends.
"Maybe she'll find her own way home. She is a smart filly, after all."
Princess Celestia smiled at her sister's attempts to cheer her up, before letting off a long, exaggerated yawn. "I'm sorry, sister, but I must be getting to bed."
"Pleasant dreams." Replied Luna, as Celestia turned and headed for her room.
The trek to her room was over before she knew it. She didn't even chide her guards when they cast surreptitious looks amongst themselves when they thought that their Princess wouldn't notice. They were merely concerned for her well-being. It was pointless to tell them to not be, as it was their job.
For now though, Celestia's bed called for her, and she intended to answer its siren song. In truth, her guards had every reason to be worried. Princess Celestia had run herself ragged ever since Twilight Sparkle had disappeared in a teleportation accident, especially considering she held herself responsible. She had ordered Twilight to test a spell to bring the Elements of Harmony to her home in Ponyville, and a mix-up in reagents transformed the summoning spell into a teleportation spell, one that had apparently taken her far away from home. Farther than anypony had gone before.
Now, unless she met some friendly aliens that could travel the vast distances between star systems, she was unlikely to ever return home. Sighing dejectedly, Princess Celestia doffed her crown and necklace, slipped out of her golden slippers, and climbed onto her exorbitantly comfortable bed. Once she got comfortable, she levitated a scroll from a nearby pile. She swiftly unrolled the scroll, and suppressed a fit of the giggles when she saw the contents.
It was one of Twilight's "Friendship Reports." Specifically, it was the report detailing what would live in infamy as the "Smarty Pants Incident." It was easily Celestia's favorite report, even though she couldn't help but feel partially responsible.
Before her musings could continue, however, she was interrupted by the sound of arcing electricity. In the far corner of her room, a small orb of energy had appeared. It was a bright blue color, no larger than a soccer ball, but lightning arced all over the surface. Before the Princess could react, the orb grew in size until it was larger than Celestia. A gust of wind scattered the pile of scrolls as the orb pushed the very air of the room.
As Princess Celestia stood up to deal with the potential threat, the orb vanished, leaving a pony garbed in strange, grey armor. At first glance, the armor appeared to be a mix of ceramic and a strange metal, unlike the purely metallic armor of her Royal Guards, though she had no doubt that the strange pony's armor was designed for combat, unlike the Guard’s largely ceremonial barding. Where a pegasus' wings would be, the pony had a stenciled outline of folded wings painted in white. The helmet was made of the same metal as the rest of the armor, but with a large glass visor where the pony's face would've been. Above the visor was a small crest which could cover a unicorn's horn. A strange object that Celestia was not familiar with was strapped across the pony's back and across its flanks was a set of saddlebags marked with a stylized image of a primate's skull wreathed in flame.
She took notice of all of this in less than a second before the pony dropped to the floor with a startled yelp. As the new arrival picked itself up, Celestia did a double-take. Under the armor, the mare, Celestia could tell that the strange pony carried itself like a mare would, was wearing a bodysuit that covered her coat, but not her tail. Her dark-indigo tail with one violet and one pink stripe.
As Celestia stared, the mare's head turned swiftly as she searched the room, finally settling her gaze on a nearby wastebasket. The mare dashed over to the can, and a lavender aura enwrapped her helmet before jerking it off her head and tossing it aside. Celestia's jaw dropped as she saw the familiar lavender coat and indigo mane of Twilight Sparkle...
... Just as she emptied the contents of her stomach into the waste basket. "Note to self: Never travel via slipspace without a ship." Twilight groaned, wiping her mouth off with a hoof. "By Celestia, that was not fun!"
"Twilight!" Celestia exclaimed, overjoyed to see her student again, catching the lavender unicorn's attention. When Twilight saw her mentor laying on the bed, her smile brightened the room by several lux.
"Princess!" Twilight exclaimed as she galloped towards the large bed. She then jumped up onto the bed and nuzzled the Princess affectionately. "I've missed you so much."
"I've missed you too, Twilight," said Celestia, tears streaming down her smiling face. "What happened? Where have you been? Where did you get that strange armor?"
"It's a long story, Princess." Replied Twilight, pulling away from her mentor. She then shook her saddlebags off and removed the object attached to her back and set it down beside the bed. "It all started when-" she was interrupted by an outstretched hoof.
"It can wait, Twilight. At least until I get your brother and my sister here." She gripped a pull cord with her magic and a bell sounded as Celestia tugged the cord, and a guard opened the door and stepped inside. "Please fetch Captain Shining Armor and my sister. Also, have a servant bring up some tea and a few bottles of my finest wine."
"At once, Your Highness!" The guard swiftly saluted before rushing out the great double doors, closing them behind him.
Shining Armor couldn't help but grumble, despite his loving wife's best efforts. The Captain had only just collapsed into his bed when another guard informed him that Princess Celestia had summoned him to her chambers. Luckily for the guard, Princess Cadence was in the room, or he would've gotten an earful of very descriptive and colorful language.
Exhaustion had been a fact of life for Shining Armor since Twilight disappeared. He was in charge of locating her, and the search had begun to take its toll on his health. He'd have worked himself into an early grave if not for Cadence's insistence that he take a few days to rest.
The Captain shot his wife a loving smile as she walked next to him. The guard had only specified for Shining Armor to meet with the Princess, but there was no way in Tartarus that Cadence was going to let him go alone, especially as tired as he was.
As they approached the door to Celestia's chambers, the married couple was surprised to see Princess Luna coming from the opposite end of the hallway. As they reached the door, they each shot curious looks at the other before a guard let them in.
Shining Armor forgot just how tired he was the moment he stepped into Celestia's room and saw his little sister on the Princess' bed.
"Twiley!" Shining responded, galloping for the bed. Before he could jump up there with her, Twilight tackled the stallion in a tight embrace. "I've missed you so much!"
"Twilight, where have you been?" Cadence asked, eyes wide in shock at seeing her sister-in-law.
"And where did you get that strange armor?" Added Luna, wearing a similar expression.
"I've already asked those questions." Celestia interjected while pouring wine for the three newcomers. "We've been waiting on you. Twilight tells me that she made a few new friends while she was away."
"I have a picture if you want to see them," said Twilight.
"Come join me by the bed." Celestia began passing around full wineglasses. "Then we'll let Twilight tell her story. But first, I'd like to see this picture."
Cadence and Luna trotted over by Shining and Twilight next to Celestia’s great bed. Twilight climbed up while Shining Armor, Cadence, and Luna laid down on cushions by the foot of the bed. Twilight dragged her saddlebags over towards her and began rifling through them until- "Aha, there it is"- drawing a photograph out of a pocket and showing it to the others.
The picture had Twilight in the center, with two strange creatures, one on either side of her. The closest description Luna could come up with for the two creatures was "shaved ape," but that description wasn't accurate. They were hairless, save for their manes, which were black and cut short. One of the creatures, the one on Twilight's left, had an olive complexion, while the other's skin was pale, almost unhealthily so. "What are they?" Luna asked.
"Humans." Twilight replied, startling all present.
"But... humans are a myth!" Exclaimed Cadence.
"Yeah, they said the same thing about me." Twilight said with a visible smirk.
Princess Celestia was too stunned for words. Twilight Sparkle had disappeared off the face of Equis, only to return months later to prove the existence of mythological beings. Not even the most learned scholars of ponykind had come up with proof of the existence of humans, and Twilight did by accident.
"Did they at least treat you well, Twiley?" asked Shining Armor, taking a sip of wine.
"For the most part, yes, although, some of them were real assholes." She replied, only to be sprayed by a fine mist of red wine that had previously been in her brother's mouth.
"Twilight!" exclaimed Cadence.
"Sorry. Bad habit I picked up." She replied sheepishly.
Celestia could hardly believe Twilight's language. Oh sure, Twilight would occasionally swear up a storm back when she was living at the castle and was stuck on an important project, but only when she thought nopony was around to hear. She had never heard Twilight use foul language this casually before.
"I think we've postponed Twilight's story long enough." Said Celestia. "If you don't mind, would you please tell us what happened?"
"Of course, Princess. It all started at my library..."
“Of course, Princess. It all started at my library all those months ago.”
It was a quiet Tuesday evening when Twilight and her friends had gathered at the Ponyville library that fateful night. Winter had begun not even a week beforehoof, and the Element Bearers were already bored. Luckily, Twilight Sparkle had a solution to their dilemma. She had been given a task from Princess Celestia herself to test a new spell, and she wanted her friends present for the big event. Besides, the spell required numerous reagents that the others were glad to supply.
"Now, are you sure this is safe, Twilight?" Rarity asked for the third time.
"Of course it's safe!" Twilight assured her, again, as she drew a pentagram on the library floor with white chalk. "I have run all of the necessary calculations and re-checked them three times. No harm will come of this experiment. Now, please pass me the diamond dust."
Rarity levitated the pouch of precious powder over to the lavender mare, though her fears were far from abated.
"Five grams of diamond dust, check." Twilight marked off as she dropped the dust in the circle. "Next, the liquid rainbow." Rainbow dash hoofed over a large bottle, fresh from the Rainbow Factory, which Twilight poured over the dust.
"Two liters of Rainbow, check! Crocodile tears, please." Pinkie tossed an inkwell full of tears she had gotten from Gummy, though she would have to make it up to the poor thing for making him cry. Twilight deftly caught the small bottle in mid-air with her magic and set it in the circle.
"Two fluid ounces of crocodile tears, check! One phoenix feather, please." Spike ran over to his pet phoenix and plucked a single feather from its tail, much to the bird's chagrin. He placed it in the circle next to the other reagents.
"So, what does this spell do, Twilight?" Spike asked.
"I'm glad you asked, my Number One Assistant. Remember how Discord managed to grab the Elements before we could get to them?" She asked, receiving nods from her friends. "Well, this spell should render that happening ever again a non-issue. With this spell, I will be able to summon all of the Elements no matter where they are, even if Discord has his clutches on them again."
"That would've been useful at the wedding." Applejack commented.
"Tell me about it," added Rainbow Dash.
"But ain't it mighty inconvenient to be carrying all that stuff with ya everywhere ya go?" Asked Applejack.
"Yes it would be, Applejack, but this is just a proof of concept experiment," replied Twilight. "Princess Celestia's working on a more convenient method, but we need to know if the spell will even work first." She said, turning to her checklist to triple-check that everything was right.
"Ok, let's see. Draw a pentagram: check! Add reagents: check!" said Twilight. "Now, all I need to do is cast the spell. Everypony stand back."
Twilight's friends backed away from the lavender unicorn as she began channeling magic through her horn and into the circle. Arcane energy swirled around the room, causing a great wind to scatter any loose papers. Twilight fed more energy into the circle than she had ever used on a spell before. A ball of condensed energy formed in the circle, deep blue in color and arcing with lightning. The wind picked up and pushed Twilight's friends back until they were up against the wall.
Suddenly, Pinkie Pie gasped and her eyes widened. "Twilight! I messed up! You have to stop." She tried to yell over the din.
"A little late for that, Pinkie! I can't stop this." Twilight was visibly straining from the effort of controlling the spell.
"You have to stop it! I forgot that Gummy's an alligator!"
The Element Bearers and Spike all looked at Pinkie with wide eyes and slack jaws, and Twilight's right eye began to twitch.
Before anypony could react, the ball of energy grew in size until it washed over Twilight, and then kept growing, engulfing a few bookcases and part of the floor and ceiling. As suddenly as it grew, the spatial distortion collapsed. Wind rushed in to fill the gap the orb left as it disappeared.
And Twilight had vanished, along with several bookcases, part of the ceiling, and part of the floor as well.
Twilight Sparkle barely managed to avoid her ceiling as it came crashing down. She had what was left of her bookshelves to thank for that, since they slowed the ceiling's descent just enough for her to leap out of the way, otherwise, she would have been a pancake. Twilight picked herself up and dusted herself off, then turned to look at the wreckage. Upon seeing what was left of her library, one phrase came to mind.
"Damnit Pinkie!" She yelled, not caring who heard. "Alligator tears! I clearly said Crocodile! I knew I should've gotten Fluttershy to gather that reagent, but no, you had to insist on getting the tears! I should've known something like this would happen... wait, what exactly happened?"
Twilight took a few calming breaths before taking in her surroundings. The first thing she noticed was that she was standing in the middle of a paved street, completely different from the dirt and cobblestone paths in Ponyville. There were what appeared to be carriages lining the road, though they were of a type that Twilight was unfamiliar with, having no place to hitch up a pulling team. Most were enclosed, but a few had their passenger compartments open to the elements. Some were overturned in the middle of the road, while others were completely burnt, as if a raging inferno had destroyed them.
Houses lined the road as far as the eye could see, and tall buildings could be seen in the distance. Their architecture was unlike anything Twilight had seen before, but similar enough that she could guess that she was in the residential district of a city. Very few of the buildings were intact, and some were even on fire. Twilight guessed that she had arrived in a ruined city, but that it was freshly ruined, as if a battle had just taken place.
Twilight shuddered at that thought. She was no stranger to combat, having fought during the Changeling Invasion not too long ago, but the thought of being caught in the middle of another battle terrified her. The fact that she could now hear explosions off in the distance and the oppressive scent of ozone washing over her put Twilight even further on edge.
"Ok, seems that, instead of a summoning spell, I created a long-range teleportation spell. Neat!"
Her next step was to figure out where she was. Despite all evidence to the contrary, Twilight still hoped that she was somewhere on Equis. As such, she concentrated on a simple locator spell, trying to feel the ley-lines and estimate her position on the planet. It was a spell that any unicorn worth their horn knew.
But she failed. The ley-lines were there, but they were not in the right position, nor the right orientation. In fact, there seemed to be more ley-lines than there were on Equis. Wherever her misfired spell had taken her, she was farther from home than ever before. Farther from home than anypony had ever been before. The lavender mare began to sweat and her legs began shaking.
"Ok Twilight, get a hold of yourself. Remember what that old sci-fi book said. Don't panic." She told herself, breathing hard, as if she had just run a thousand-yard sprint, her eyes wide and pupils shrunk down to the size of pinheads. "Panicking's the last thing you should do, Twilight. It'll just get you killed. Sure, you teleported somewhere random, and more-than likely no longer on Equis, and your chances of ever returning home are effectively zero. But look on the bright side. At least this planet's habitable. And there's at least some semblance of civilization! Also, you're the first pony to leave your home solar system. That's got to count for something. Oh, and you've proven Starswirl the Bearded's theory of Extra-Equestrial ley-lines. Neat!"
Then, her whole body slumped. "Too bad I won't be able to tell anypony." She said, voice heavy with regret. "Nor will I be able to see the Princess again.... or my big brother... or *sniff* my... my friends." Her eyes began to water and, shortly after, tears began streaming down her muzzle as the full weight of reality came crashing down on her. Wherever that spell had dumped her, her chances of returning home again were effectively zero. Even if whatever civilization that made this city had mastered interstellar travel, it was unlikely they knew where Equis was, and she doubted that she could even point them in the right direction.
Twilight shook her head, trying to regain her composure. "This is not helping. Crying about it won't get me home." She said, putting on a brave face. "First, let's see if the locals are at least friendly." She took another look at the buildings, and quickly realized that they were all likely abandoned. However, a small blue box, similar to a newspaper vendor one would find in any city on Equis, caught her attention. Curious, Twilight Sparkle galloped towards the box, and found that it was indeed a newspaper rack. The newspaper in question was called the Ariel Times and claimed to be the "last remaining colonial printed publication." It took Twilight a few minutes to notice the veritable elephant in the room.
"This... this is printed in perfectly legible Equish!" She exclaimed. Then she noticed the date, December 28, 2551, although she had a hunch that the machine hadn't been restocked for a few days. The date made absolutely no sense to Twilight. On Equis, December was a winter month, but the weather here was nice and balmy. But then again, what's to say that the calendars matched up? Maybe it was only a coincidence that the two worlds shared a month... and a language.
Before her musings could go on, Twilight heard footsteps approaching. The tread was heavy, almost plodding, and sounded like the creature was bipedal. Twilight turned to face the newcomer, and gasped at its monstrous appearance.
It was tall, just a hair taller than even Princess Celestia, including her horn. The creature was not only bipedal, but digitigrade, lumbering along on three toes. What little skin that wasn't covered by pitch-black armor appeared to be reptilian in nature. It held a blade of what looked like pure energy in one four-clawed hand. The creature's most striking feature, however, was its mouth, which consisted of four hinged mandibles. Twilight got a good look as the monster's jaws spread wide and let off a loud roar. It was a sound that pierced the unicorn to her very core, igniting old instincts. But it was not the noise that terrified Twilight Sparkle the most, but rather, the many needle-sharp teeth the monster had. The teeth of a predator.
The Princesses and Shining Armor recoiled at the image of the monster Twilight had conjured up. It was life-sized, and had enough details to make anypony believe it was actually alive.
"How did you get this level of detail?" Celestia asked, not really sure if she wanted to know.
"Unfortunately, I got a very good look at it," replied Twilight.
Before Twilight could respond, the monster covered the distance between them with a great leap. It slashed at her with its sword, which she narrowly dodged by rolling between its legs. The blade missed her tail by a hair, but sliced cleanly through the news rack like it was made of paper, cleaving the blue box in twain.
Before the monster could turn around, Twilight bolted down the street. She was too panicked to think of teleporting, or even throwing something heavy at the beast. In her rush to escape, she didn't even notice the debris until she tripped over a piece and was sent tumbling, only coming to a stop after crashing into one of the strange carriages. The mare hadn't even gotten back on her hooves before the monster was once again upon her. The look on its face was one of untold glee. It spoke of a hunter who had cornered its prey. As the monster raised its blade high for a killing stroke, Twilight Sparkle; personal student to Princess Celestia, sister of the Captain of the Royal Guard, and Bearer of the Element of Magic, could only scream in terror.
"Somepony, anypony, HELP ME!" She shouted, even though she doubted there was anypony around that could possibly save her. To her surprise however, the alien hesitated. Its blade arm noticeably relaxed and its mandibles slackened slightly. The alien recovered quickly, however, and raised its blade again.
An ear-splitting *CRACK* broke through the air. The alien seemed to shimmer, and a golden aura surrounded the creature for a moment as it was knocked off-balance by an unseen projectile. Another *CRACK* sounded, and blue ichor exploded from the creature's neck as another projectile pierced it, leaving a gaping cavity in its wake, nearly tearing the monster's head off. The alien didn't even struggle as it fell. It had died instantly from the wound.
The sight of the bleeding alien nauseated Twilight. She had never seen so much blood before, not even during the Changeling Invasion. Nor had she seen blood that had an indigo hue. As Twilight breathed frantically, she turned to face where the loud noises came from. There, no more than ten yards away from her, she saw two more aliens, though they were very different compared to the one that tried to kill her.
They were shorter than the first alien, one coming up only to half a head taller than Princess Celestia, minus her horn, while the other was about the same height as the white alicorn. They were bipedal, but plantigrade rather than digitigrade, their legs being much straighter than the other alien. Like the first, these aliens wore armor, though theirs was dark-grey rather than pitch black. What wasn’t covered by armor revealed that the two wore bodysuits with a black and grey camouflage pattern. Helmets covered their heads, and where Twilight expected to see their face, she saw only a tinted visor.
They carried what Twilight assumed to be weapons in their hands. The shorter alien's weapon was almost as tall as its carrier, if you stood it straight up; its appearance reminded Twilight of a Minotaurian crossbow she had seen once in a museum, but instead of a bow at the front, a long tube stuck out of it with smoke rising from the end. The alien was gripping it by a handle obviously designed for the task, and two prongs stuck out where the body and tube met. The taller creature's weapon was much smaller, about the size of the stock and body of the other weapon, but appeared to be encased in an angular, metallic shroud of some sort.
The taller alien reached up with one hand and tapped his helmet. To Twilight's surprise, the visor became transparent, and she saw part of her rescuer's face. Its skin was pale, almost like snow. What stood out most, however, were its eyes. They were small, almost beady compared to a pony's, but belied an intelligent mind. Their most striking characteristic was their color, a deep, midnight blue like Princess Luna's.
Then, he, it sounded like a he, spoke. "I don't know who you are, what you are, or what top-secret ONI facility you escaped from, but come with us if you want to live."
The shorter alien turned to face the other. "Oh, you did not just use a clichéd line from a twentieth century movie!"
"Yes I did, Sergeant. Do you have a problem with that?" The taller one shot back.
"Yes sir, I do, Captain," replied the other one, jabbing a finger into the first one's side. "That's my shtick! No stealing!"
"Wh... what's going on? Wh...who are you?" Twilight asked, her voice wavering.
"Oh, we were just passing through the neighborhood and saw an Elite trying to shish kebab you and heard you screaming bloody murder, so we decided to save your sorry tail." The tall one said as he took a few steps towards Twilight. "I'm Captain George McCoy, UNSC Marine Corps, ODSTs. The idiot behind me's Sergeant Anthony DiNardo."
"Yo," said the Sergeant, waving a hand at Twilight.
"We just call him Tony," continued George as he stopped next to the lavender mare. "You got a name, or do you just go by 'Purple'?"
"My coat's lavender," retorted Twilight with an annoyed snort. "And my name is Twilight Sparkle. Personal student to Princess Celestia."
"Princess Celes-" began George before shaking his head. "Never mind. We'll get your life story later. Right now, we need to book it. There's a pack of Brutes right on our ass. Sergeant, can you hot wire one of these cars?"
"Is the Space Pope reptilian?" Tony asked as he ran over to one of the carriages, a red, open-topped one.
"There is no Space Pope," replied George.
Tony turned his head to look at George as he set his weapon down and leaned it against the carriage. Twilight couldn't tell because of his tinted visor, but she could almost feel the annoyance radiating off of him. "Man, you have no appreciation for the classics."
"Can it, chowder head," shot back George. "Now get to work. I wanna arrive at the LZ in style."
"Yeah, yeah. I'm on it Moe Howard," said Tony as he opened a door on the vehicle and climbed half-way in head first and lay down on the floorboard. "So, miss Sparkle, is there an ONI facility nearby that we haven't heard about?" Tony asked as he fiddled with something in the vehicle.
Twilight quirked an eyebrow as she looked at him. "What's Ohnee? And how would I know?"
"It's an acronym," replied George. "Stands for Office of Naval Intelligence, ma'am. What my friend here meant to ask is, where did you come from?"
"Uhh..." she began, not really sure how best to answer. It didn't help that she had seen what they did to the other alien, what they called an "Elite." Sure, they had stopped it from killing her, but that didn't mean they would be nice to her once they found out that she was an alien as well. But why wouldn't they think that already? She asked herself. What else could they think I am?
She couldn't come up with any other possible answer for them but the truth. Even if she could, she was a terrible liar. "I'm from Ponyville, a small city of the nation of Equestria on the planet Equis," she said, hoping for the best
Tony stopped working on the carriage and looked up at Twilight. He had de-tinted his visor and Twilight could see his olive complexion and hazel eyes. "Sir, if she's telling the truth, then I think we just screwed up a First Contact situation."
"No shit, Sherlock." George shot back before looking at Twilight again. "Sorry, ma'am, we thought you were one of ONI's experiments." The way he spat that last word spoke of untold hatred. Tony didn't seem to notice as he went back to work. "Anyways, if you're from another world, how did you get here Miss Sparkle?"
"Please, just Twilight," she said, beginning to relax now that she wasn’t in immediate danger. "I was testing a new spell for the Princess. I gathered all the necessary reagents and began casting the spell. Turns out, one of the reagents was wrong, and so instead of a summoning spell, I got a long-range teleportation spell. Extremely long range as it turns out."
The tall alien looked at her with a very confused expression on his face. "Spell? As in magic?" He asked incredulously.
"Yes, magic," replied Twilight, taking on the tone she would use for lectures. "As in, one of the five fundamental forces of the universe, along with gravity, electromagnetism, and the strong and weak nuclear forces," she said. Eventually, she noticed the uncomprehending look she was getting, and she assumed that Tony had the same look. "Wait, does your species not use magic?"
George just shook his head in disbelief. "Not magic like you described. We only know of the other four forces. Now, you're telling me that you can harness this so-called fifth force?"
In response, Twilight's horn began to glow. George was about to scoff at the light display, waving it off as a cheap trick, when a similar aura engulfed a piece of debris, part of the destroyed news rack in fact, and it began to hover, slowly levitating towards Twilight. If not for the helmet, Twilight would have seen George's jaw drop faster than the speed of sound.
Twilight tried, and failed, to not look smug at George's disbelieving expression. "So, what does your species call itself?" she asked.
"We call ourselves humans," he replied. Now it was Twilight's turn to be shocked, and she dropped the news rack as her concentration shattered.
"But humans are a myth!" She exclaimed.
"Says the purple unicorn," stated Tony from the carriage.
"It's lavender!" Twilight yelled back.
Before this conversation could continue any further, another ear-splitting roar sounded. This one was much lower pitched, but still close by. Twilight and McCoy turned to face the source, and what Twilight saw nearly sent her into another panic. It was another alien, a massive ape-like creature. It stood nine-feet tall and wore ornate red and black armor. Its helmet was an elaborate headdress with a red crest and two horns on either side of the crest. The face of the helmet was open revealing a grinning mouth full of sharp, powerful teeth. In its hands, the beast carried a large hammer.
"Brute! Chieftain!" George yelled, raising his weapon and bracing it against his shoulder as he ran towards the beast. He pulled the trigger and three loud, rapid blasts sounded out and fire spat from the end of the weapon as the large ape charged. Twilight saw three impacts on the charging alien's armor and instantly made the connection. It's a miniature, rapid-firing cannon! If she weren't so terrified, she'd be fascinated by the strange weapon.
The Brute didn't even register the impacts of the projectiles, but George kept firing in three-round bursts as the two combatants closed the distance. The Brute raised his weapon above his head and swung downwards at its foe, but George leapt aside and the weapon connected with nothing but the ground. It made little difference, as a blast of energy erupted from the hammerhead and threw the Captain another five feet. He landed hard on his stomach, nothing was broken, but he had the wind knocked out of him and lost his grip on his weapon.
He rolled over onto his back and, while trying to catch his breath, fumbled with something attached to his belt. The Chieftain stalked towards the Captain, hammer raised high for a killing stroke. It was interrupted, however, when half of a news rack slammed into his side and knocked it off-balance. The Brute recovered soon enough, and looked towards where the offending piece had come from, only to see a lavender equine with its horn alight, pawing at the ground and sneering at the monster.
The Brute growled at Twilight and stepped towards her, momentarily forgetting about its downed foe. Its distraction would cost it dearly, as that was the opening George needed. He quickly stood up and leapt onto the Brute's back, grabbing on to the collar of its armor. The Chieftain roared as it dropped its hammer and tried to reach around to dislodge the human. George climbed up and wrapped his left arm around the Brute's broad neck as he raised his right arm, where Twilight could see that he was holding another firearm, this one small, able to be held in one hand.
As the Brute roared and struggled to dislodge the Captain, George reached around with his right arm and shoved the firearm into its mouth. He pulled the trigger twice and the Chieftain instantly collapsed as two bullets pierced its soft palate, ricocheted off the interior of its thick skull, and shredded its brain. Luckily for George, the Brute landed on its front and he managed to extricate his arm before it could get crushed. He stood up shakily and staggered over to his dropped weapon, nodding towards the lavender unicorn as he picked it up.
"Nice going, kid," he said.
"Th-thanks," she replied, her limbs shaking like maracas. Just then, more loud, primal roars were heard, though these were distant.
"Shit, Tony!" George shouted as he sprinted for the car.
"Done!" DiNardo replied as the vehicle's engine roared to life and the human climbed into the driver’s seat and tossed his weapon onto the back floorboard.
With an "eep" of surprise, Twilight Sparkle was scooped up by George and deposited in the back seat as the Captain climbed into the front passenger seat. "Gun it!" He commanded, and Tony pressed the accelerator pedal as far as it would go and the car shot off, nearly clipping another vehicle.
George slumped down in his seat, relaxed for the first time since Twilight met him. He turned his head and glanced at the unicorn riding in the back seat, who was shaking like a Chihuahua. "You alright back there, kid?" He asked.
"I-I-I d-d-don't know," she struggled to reply. "W-w-w-what's happening to m-m-me?"
"The shaking? That's just your body burning through excess adrenaline. You'll be fine by the time we reach the LZ."
"W-when will that be? W-w-what's an el zee"
"Landing zone. ETA: Twenty minutes, give or take." Tony interjected. "Just sit back, relax, and enjoy the ride my new purple friend."
"Lavender," she retorted as she collapsed into the padded seat and reflected on the day’s events. There was a lot she didn't know about her rescuers, but that didn't matter right now. She'd ask her questions later. Undoubtedly, they had similar questions for her.
"What's powering this vehicle, an internal combustion engine?" Twilight asked after she finally got her shaking under control. Now that she wasn't in any immediate danger, she was taking on a more scholarly viewpoint. "Those are only theoretical back in Equestria."
"Really? We've been using them on vehicles for well over five centuries," replied George. "Sure, we've tried other methods. Electrical power, hydrogen fuel cell, turbine, hell, there was even an attempt to make a nuclear powered car."
"Whoever thought that was a good idea was a fucking moron," Tony interjected as he lifted his right hand off the steering wheel and touched the side of his helmet.
"What he said," continued George. "Anyways, no matter what we tried, nothing really beat the ICE for personal transport. The only thing to really change over the years has been fuel."
Twilight tilted her head a few degrees. "Wait, did you say nuclear? As in fission?"
"In that particular case, yes, but we haven't used fission for over three hundred years," replied George. "Fusion is much more efficient."
"F-fusion!" Twilight’s right ear began flopping and her left eye fluttered slightly as her head twitched. Her strange movements did not go unnoticed.
"Uhh, You okay back there, Sparks?" Asked the Captain, having turned his head to see her out of the corner of his visor. "You're kinda spazzin' out on us."
"Huh... oh, yes, I'll be fine. Just need to get to a library. Your world is just fascinating!"
George just laughed. "This isn't even our home world. It's just a small archeological colony."
"Shit!" Tony exclaimed, interrupting Twilight’s train of thought. "Bad news guys. We’ve gotta divert to LZ Bravo. Covies decided to make camp near Alpha, and the flyboys got nervous. ETA: hour and a half," he said, before turning down a side street. "By the way, Captain, command wants to know if the package is secure. After that spill you took, I want to make sure it's still intact before I tell them."
"Fuck, I forgot about that!" George scooted up in his seat, slid his backpack off, and set it down in the floorboard. As he opened a compartment and rifled through it, Twilight glimpsed a pair of wings stenciled in white on the back of his armor. She tried to remember if humans were supposed to have wings, but it had been a while since she'd taken a serious look at a mythology book, and that one dealt with the legend of the Mare in the Moon.
Twilight could feel her eyes tear up as that memory was dredged up from the depths of her mind. If not for that fateful Summer Sun Celebration, she would never have met her friends, would never have met Pinkie Pie, and would never have...
She shook that thought away before it could even be finished. Don't even think that way, Twilight. You're better than that. You should know better, she berated herself. Her somber mood at least stopped the twitching.
"Got it,” called George, as he drew a violet ovoid object no bigger than a deck of cards out of his pack and held it up for examination. "Looks intact. Hope the boys at ONI can get something off it," he added as he dropped it back in his pack.
"Roger that," replied Tony. "Also, I told the Colonel about our little stowaway,” he added, jerking a thumb in Twilight’s direction. “Long story short, he ain't happy."
"He never is," sighed George. “He gonna make us leave her down here?” When Twilight heard this, her eyes shot open and she began to tremble slightly.
“No, but he said to ‘expect an ass chewin’ for handling the situation so casually,” replied Tony with a shake of his head.
Soon, the car passed out of the residential area and into the countryside. Row upon row of empty houses made way for vast stretches of highland prairie. The humans and unicorn rode along in silence for a while, neither knowing quite what to say to the other. After a few minutes, however, George had to break the silence. "So, what's Equestria like, Twilight?"
Twilight's mood immediately brightened as the Sergeant gave her a chance to slip into lecture-mode. What followed was a twenty-minute dissertation outlining the history of Equestria. She covered the founding of the nation, the reign of Discord and the rise of the Royal Sisters, Luna's transformation into Nightmare Moon and subsequent banishment, her return a thousand years later and cleansing, Discord's escape from imprisonment and eventual recapture, and the Changeling Invasion.
She then tried to delve into the three pony tribes, only to be interrupted when lecturing about the pegasi.
"Wait, you're telling me that you ponies can control the weather?" George asked incredulously.
"Well, yeah. Can't you?" Replied Twilight.
"No we can't," exclaimed Tony. "Not for lack of trying mind you. We just never got it to work. Now you're telling me that pegasi can do this naturally?" When Twilight nodded, Tony cursed. "Fuck! There're a bunch of ONI scientists that are gonna love you." Captain McCoy tensed up slightly, which did not go unnoticed by the unicorn.
"No," he replied tersely. Twilight wanted to press for more information, but knew it was probably best to leave it for now. If George were one of her friends back in Equestria, she wouldn't hesitate, but she knew that doing so would only strain their relationship unnecessarily, and she needed all the help she could get.
"What about those wings on your back? Do they signify anything?" Twilight asked, trying to change the subject.
"Saw those, huh?" He replied, this time much more jovially. "Heh, it's a hell of a story. How long to the LZ, Sergeant?"
"A little over an hour now. We got plenty of time. Just don't tell her anything classified. We’ve pissed Colonel Zhang off enough for one mission."
"Fantastic!" George clapped his hands together for emphasis. Twilight could practically see the smile on the man's face. "This was almost twenty-one years ago, during the last battle of the Harvest Campaign. Incidentally, this is where Tony and I first worked together. Anyways, the Covenant had taken the colony Harvest five years prior, and we were finally going to push them off-planet for good."
"An alien alliance at war with humanity. Those aliens we killed earlier are part of it,” replied George. "There're more species involved, but you'll find out about them later. Now, as I was saying, we'd gotten word that a bunch of civilians had bunkered down in a cave system near a mountain range and had been there since the start of the war. Problem was, the Covenant had just found them and were knockin’ on their door..."
One instructor in Drop School called it the "Elevator to Hell." Sitting in his SOEIV for the first time, 2nd Lieutenant George McCoy had to agree. His suit's cooling system helped, but only made the heat survivable, not comfortable. Still, he had to count his blessings. His pod hadn't burned up on re-entry like some poor fuckers.
As his pod reached three thousand feet, McCoy felt the 'chute open and slow his fall down to the colony below. He checked his weapon, an old MA37 assault rifle, for what seemed to be the hundredth time. It wasn't as sleek as the MA5B or as gimmicky as the new M7, but it was still the workhorse of the UNSC Military.
His breath caught as McCoy saw the landing zone. It was a barren field interspersed with large boulders. The big problem, however, was that the Covenant owned the entire area. Grunts and Jackals swarmed the battlefield with the occasional Elite here and there. Plasma fire arced through the air, passing by McCoy's SOEIV, with the occasional lucky hit rocking the pod.
"All troops, be advised," the rough voice of Captain Adams came over the pod's speaker. "The Covenant was nice enough to set up a little command post for us. Your first priority is to evict them from their little hilltop." A NAV Marker popped up on his HUD, illuminating the objective. Calling it a hilltop was a stretch, but it was the highest point around, save for the distant mountain peaks.
Lieutenant McCoy felt the pod's braking rockets fire as he passed the fifty-meter mark. Mere seconds later, he touched down with a jarring thud and switched his rifle from safe to auto. The door beeped twice and then shot off, careening into an unlucky Grunt. George climbed out of his pod, raised his rifle at another Grunt, and fired. The Grunt fell limp, but was soon replaced by a Jackal that opened fire at the ODST. McCoy dived to his right and landed behind a small, waist-high boulder. Rock chunks peppered his helmet as he got up into a kneeling position. George reached for a grenade, but stopped when he heard the telltale *pft-pft-pft* of a three-round burst from a suppressed M7 and the yelp of a dying Jackal.
George peeked over the boulder and saw another ODST, Corporal Anthony DiNardo according to his IFF, crouched in front of another boulder behind the now dead Jackal. He gave a thumbs-up to the Lieutenant before clipping the SMG onto his belt and detaching a sniper rifle off his rucksack. Lieutenant McCoy climbed over the boulder and dashed over to Anthony's cover.
"There's a small Covenant patrol just down below, sir, to the north," the Corporal reported. George took a peek over his cover and saw the patrol fifty meters below in a small ravine. It consisted of around a dozen and a half Grunts, a few Jackals, and an Elite Major. It took the Lieutenant a moment to figure out their course of action.
"I'll toss a frag down and draw their fire," he said as he pulled the grenade off his belt. "Keep down until they're focused on me, then take out the Major. We'll mop up the rest after. Got it?" The corporal nodded and checked the magazine on his rifle. "On three. One, two, THREE!" George pulled the pin and tossed the grenade into the ravine. It landed in the middle of a squad of Grunts and exploded, taking out six, as well as a nearby Jackal. The Lieutenant stood up and fired three bursts from his rifle, taking out two more Grunts and injuring a third.
McCoy dashed out of cover as the Covenant got a bead on him. Plasma fire passed dangerously close to his head as he made for another stone not twenty-five meters east of his previous position. He almost made it when a plasma bolt clipped his shoulder and sent him skidding the last meter to safety.
The Elite roared in glee, giving DiNardo the opening he needed. He stood up and rested his rifle on the boulder. The Corporal zeroed in on the Elite's blood-red helmet before firing once, ending his life cleanly. He dropped the rifle and brought his SMG back up, firing on the surviving Grunts and Jackals. McCoy soon joined in with his MA37, and the rest of the patrol was dead within moments.
"You alright there, sir?" DiNardo asked as soon as he made it over to McCoy.
"Yeah, just slagged my shoulder-guard a bit. Let's keep moving. Don't wanna keep the Captain waiting."
"... And that's the first time Tony saved my sorry ass."
"And it hasn’t been the last either. You should've seen some of the hair-brained schemes he's come up with," supplied Tony. "Seriously, charging a Bravo Kilo with a big-ass hammer? What the hell were you thinking?"
George just shrugged. "Had to keep him away from the vehicle, and the civvie. Besides, it worked, didn't it?"
"Yeah, and you didn't even suffer so much as a broken rib. How the hell-" he was interrupted by laughter from the back seat, "now what's so funny, missy?"
"Hehe. Sorry. It's just that, you two aren't acting like you're in the military at all," replied Twilight. "At least, I've never seen an Officer and NCO act this casually together. My brother's Captain of the Royal Guard and he's all business while on duty."
"We're weird that way," replied George. "Now, can I continue my story?" Twilight nodded in response. "Ok, by the time we made it to the command post, the rest of the platoon had already taken it, and Captain Adams was waiting for us..."
The former Covenant command post was a study in controlled chaos. Elite corpses were being tossed unceremoniously down a small ditch, while the few dead troopers were stacked neatly in a corner, awaiting burial detail. Another ODST was inventorying Covenant gear for the intel pukes back on the ship. Captain Adams and the rest of the officers had gathered around a small, hastily erected table near the center of the post. On top of the table was a map of the area generated by the Heaven's Gate, the frigate supporting the operation.
Adams was the only ODST not wearing his helmet at the moment. His graying hair and scarred, tanned face spoke of experience beyond his years. Scuttlebutt had it that he was part of the party that made First Contact with the Covenant, but he always denied those claims.
"You're late," he growled as McCoy and DiNardo approached. "Alright, here's the situation. We've got three possible cave systems that the colonists could be hiding in here, here, and here." He indicated three different points on the map, each within approximately a kilometer of the command post. "We're not sure which one they bunkered down in. Good news is, that neither do the Covenant, so there’s a good chance that they’re still alive.”
“Sir, how do we even know there’s anyone in there?” One of the troopers asked.
“They’ve been monitoring transmissions for the last five years, and finally decided to give us a call a few days ago,” replied Adams. “Now, we’re gonna divide up and search the caves simultaneously. Lieutenant Graves, you and Alpha team are searching the first cave system. Lieutenant Shepard, take Bravo team to the second. Lieutenant Archer…” he looked around the soldiers at the table, “where the hell is Lieutenant Archer?”
“Dug his own grave, sir. Sergeant Tarkov reporting.” The others cringed involuntarily. It was a fate feared even more than burning up on re-entry. An ODST ‘digging his own grave’ meant that either his pod’s ‘chute or braking rockets failed, and he plowed into the ground. In most cases, the poor soldier died on impact.
Captain Adams just shook his head. “Well that’s just great. Sergeant, you and Charlie team are with me. We’ll be running this op from here and I need someone to help defend this little command post.”
“That just leaves you, Lieutenant McCoy,” growled Adams. “I was gonna have you and Delta defend this post, seeing as you were the last to arrive, but with Lieutenant Archer’s demise, you get to go into the third cave system. Everyone has their assignment. Form up and move out. Don’t forget to use your NAV beacons. I don’t want anyone getting lost down there.”
The officers scattered to collect their teammates. Lieutenant McCoy’s consisted of Sergeant Antonio Mendez, Corporals Anthony DiNardo and Sergei Popov, and Lance Corporals Dieter Weber, Samantha Sadi, Frank Grimes, and Jacque Sarkozy. Most of the squad wielded MA37’s as their primary weapon, with the exceptions of Mendez, Weber, and DiNardo. Mendez had a shotgun as his primary, while DiNardo had traded his sniper rifle for an M392 Designated Marksman’s Rifle. Dieter, on the other hand, had opted to carry an M247 general-purpose machine gun.
“You sure we’re gonna need that, Rambo?” DiNardo asked, trying to poke fun at the massive weapon. Weber just laughed it off as he shed his rucksack, attached an ammo drum in its place, and ran a belt to the gun. He was easily the biggest man on the battlefield that day, and he carried the large weapon as if it were a toy.
“One can never have too much firepower,” he stated matter-of-factly, cocking the weapon for emphasis.
“Alright, knock it off, you two,” George said. “We’ve got a one click hike, plus however large the cavern is, an unknown number of Covvies in the way, and civvies waiting for an evac. Now, let’s book it. Popov, you’re on point.” The small Slav nodded once and took off towards the objective, while the rest of the team tried to keep up.
After fifteen minutes of hiking, Delta team made it to the cave entrance, and immediately spotted signs of Covenant activity. The footprints of Grunts, Jackals, and Brutes littered the ground. The last one had George worried the most. According to ONI, Brutes considered human flesh a delicacy, and they liked their meat fresh.
George suppressed a grimace at that thought and motioned his troops into the cave. It was wide enough that the squad could walk three abreast. Popov was still on point, but had slowed down considerably. He didn’t relish the thought of facing a Bravo Kilo all by himself. For now, he was content to stay near the squad, and Weber’s big gun.
Five minutes into the cave, the squad heard a distant banging noise. It was steady, constant, and unnatural. The ODSTs stopped a moment to listen, but the rhythm never changed. Bang, bang, bang, pause. Bang, bang, bang, pause.
“Well, at least the dumb monkeys are going to cover any noise we make,” Sam whispered.
Lieutenant McCoy didn’t even bother to respond as he waved the squad forward. A few minutes later, the cavern split off into four different directions. The leftmost passage went up into the gray stone of the mountains, while the others all went deeper underground. It took them only a few seconds to pick the correct path. Between the footprints and constant banging, the Brutes might as well have put up directions.
McCoy dropped a NAV beacon, and the squad took the rightmost path, which was the direction the largest number of footprints went. They found the first corpse barely five meters down the passage. It was a woman, but that was the only thing the squad could tell about her. Her skin had suffered severe plasma burns and several long, cruel spikes jutted out of her chest. One of the woman’s arms appeared to have been hacked away by a blade. Nearby lay an outdated MA3 assault rifle.
Barely five feet from the first corpse lay another, this one male. He had several deep cuts in his torso, from which blood flowed freely. This one was definitely killed by a Brute weapon, as they did not use plasma blades, which would have cauterized the wounds. This one also had a weapon, a shotgun, lying nearby.
Lieutenant McCoy forced himself not to retch as he waved his men forwards. It wasn’t the sight that sickened him, he’d seen far worse on his deployment at Hat Yai. Rather, it was the smell of burnt flesh that got to him. That smell was something nobody got accustomed to.
As they went deeper down the passageway, they came across even more corpses, all with discarded weaponry lying nearby. They had been killed by various means. Some had large spikes sticking out of their vitals, while even more suffered burns from plasma weaponry. However, some were completely ripped to shreds, most likely grenades from a Brute Shot. A few here and there had obvious Needler wounds; their limbs and torsos were ripped open by the explosive ammunition. No matter what, Delta could not turn away from the carnage. They had a mission to accomplish, and they were on the right track.
So Delta team followed the trail of the dead, deeper and deeper into the cave while the distant banging grew louder, giving the illusion of descending into Hell itself. They did not fear, “feet first into hell” was the ODST’s creed after all, but they were apprehensive. Even the usually boisterous DiNardo was silent as they walked amongst the corpses. They could now hear the occasional grunt of exertion interspersed amongst the banging. Whatever the Brutes were doing, it was taking its toll.
They had descended down the passageway for a solid thirty minutes, and now they saw a light at the end of the tunnel. It was a harsh blue light commonly used by the Covenant. The banging was now deafening, and now Delta could tell that it was a definitely a Brute gravity hammer causing the noise.
Cautiously, the ODSTs exited the tunnel into a large chamber. They were on a ledge overlooking the main area of the cavern with a ramp on the left leading down. Slowly, Corporal Popov approached the edge and looked over. He waved the rest of the squad over and motioned for them to keep down.
Below, it was standing room only. Twelve Brutes and three times as many Grunts and Jackals packed the chamber, mostly just standing around doing nothing. On the far end of the chamber was a large metal door that was heavily dented. It was not hard to see why, as a few Brutes had lined up behind another, a Minor, that was pounding on it with a gravity hammer. After a few attempts, the Minor passed the hammer to the Brute next in line and he would continue the onslaught. In one corner, next to another passageway, sat a Chieftain, the likely owner of the hammer, watching the procession and chomping on…
McCoy forced himself to turn away from the disgusting sight and focused on forming an assault plan. The squad was severely outnumbered, but had the element of surprise on their side. Many of the Grunts had fallen asleep, so that would give them another edge. A plan soon formed in McCoy’s head, and he signaled to DiNardo to target the Chieftain and take him out first.
DiNardo went prone, rested his DMR on the ledge and lined up his sights with the Chieftain’s left eye. It was one of the few places on a Brute that could guarantee an instant kill. Even a headshot on an unarmored Brute was uncertain, as the bullet had to pass through its thick hide and even thicker skull. The rest of the squad primed frag grenades to toss down after DiNardo took his shot.
The brutes in line at the door began to roar in triumph as the steel began to part, leaving an inch thick gap between the two panels. That’s when the squad heard the screams. High pitched, loud, and filled with fear; they were clearly the screams of terrified children.
Delta team tossed their grenades as Tony fired. The explosives detonated amongst the milling Grunts and Jackals, killing half a dozen. The pressed throng acted as a living shield, otherwise more would’ve died. The Brutes turned to receive orders from their Chieftain, only to see that he was dead, tongue rolling out of his mouth filled with half-chewed human flesh. Distracted, the baby-kongs left themselves open as DiNardo drilled five of them right through the eye in rapid succession before they could react.
Dieter stood up and rained fire from his machine gun down on the Covenant below, killing twenty Grunts and two Brutes, only to be knocked back as a plasma bolt grazed his helmeted head. Emboldened, the Covenant forces fired on the upper ledge, keeping the humans down and unable to return fire effectively.
“You alright there, big guy?” Frank asked as he blind-fired his MA37 over the ledge.
“Got my bell rung,” Weber groaned out as he shook his head, sending flecks of partially melted titanium flying. “Other than that, I’m fine.”
Down below, Brutes roared at their unseen foes, and Delta team heard one scrambling to climb up the ledge. The brute poked its head over the precipice only to come face to face with Mendez’s shotgun and took a face full of double-aught buckshot. Enraged, the rest of the Brutes roared at the humans who dare kill their pack mates.
Then the Jackals made their move. The bird-like aliens marched onto the ramp in a phalanx formation, firing their plasma pistols as they advanced. Delta team, already pinned down from the barrage of plasma fire below, was forced back. Fortunately for them, the Brutes were impatient with their allies’ pace and ploughed through their ranks, scattering the Jackals.
While this gave the troopers room to breath, they had several angry monkeys barreling towards them. Weber picked himself up and opened fire at the first Brute to top the rise. The ape just shrugged off the hail of bullets as it charged the human. A stray round hit the Brute’s Spiker, but it merely dropped the weapon and reached out with both arms to strangle the large human. It never got the chance, as Mendez’s shotgun tore the Brute’s leg off at the kneecap. A pistol shot from McCoy finished the ape off
The deaths of more of their pack mates further enraged the remaining Brutes, and they began to disregard any semblance of tactics in their bloodlust. Another Baby Kong, a Minor, charged forwards on all fours, not even bothering with a weapon, and tackled the Sergeant. Mendez’s shotgun was knocked away as the giant ape began to pound the Hispanic man to death. The rest of the squad opened up with their automatic weapons and filled the turquoise-armored brute full of holes.
Then, the last Brute charged forwards, swinging a spike grenade like a baseball bat. The squad opened fire, but the beast made contact with Frank’s chest piece, driving the blade deep into the ceramic-metal armor and piercing his torso. Frank cried out in pain as the Brute tried to pull its weapon away, but the blade was stuck in the armor. Luckily, the explosive was unarmed.
Dieter charged forward, shoved the barrel of his weapon into the back of the Brute’s neck, and pulled the trigger. Its head erupted in a fountain of blood, brains, and bullets, covering both Lance Corporals in gore.
A terrified shriek came from down below as the Grunts scattered. Some ran down the side passage next to the dead Chieftain, while others attempted to run up the ramp, not knowing that death awaited them. Whether they were stupid or delusional, nobody could answer.
After the squad mopped up the Grunts attempting to flee in their direction, they turned their attention to the remaining Jackals. However, the Jackals were in the process of fleeing as well, only in a far more orderly manner than the Grunts. Soon, the entirety of the Covenant forces had withdrawn from the cavern, and Weber rushed up to cover the entrance of the side passage with his gun.
“Biofoam!” George called out as he rushed up to the injured trooper. A canister of the miracle substance was swiftly passed to the Lieutenant as he removed the spike grenade from Grimes’ chest. Once the weapon had been extracted, McCoy injected the wound with the foam. Grimes gasped as he felt the sensation of thousands of ants biting the wound. Within moments, however, the biofoam dulled the pain and he sighed in relief.
“You alright, sarge?” Sergeant Mendez only groaned in response. The Brute had beaten him to within an inch in his life, but the old Helljumper would live. Eventually, he managed to pick himself up, but cried out as he took a step. He nearly fell before Popov caught him and held the Sergeant up. McCoy made a mental note to make sure that Mendez recieved medical attention back on the ship.
With his squad’s medical needs seen to, Lieutenant McCoy sprinted down the ramp and towards the steel doors. They had parted enough for him to look inside, and the sight gave him pause. Hundreds of children, all cowering in fear, were hiding behind the vault doors. Some looked up at him with wide eyes. For a moment, McCoy wondered where all their parents were, but he made the connection soon enough. Delta team had passed the parents on the way down. They had tried, and failed, to fight the Brutes off and keep their children safe.
“Are… are you an angel, mister?” A little girl no more than eight years old asked the Lieutenant.
“W-what?” He asked, not quite understanding the question.
“Mommy told me that angels would protect us, that they would come down from heaven and keep us safe,” the child continued. “Are you one of them?”
Despite what he had seen today, all the blood and guts he had to wade through to save these children, George McCoy couldn’t help but smile. “You could say that, kid.”
“…After that, the name stuck,” said George. “Once we got back to the Heaven’s Gate, we got the ship’s machine shop to cut out a wing stencil for us and we spray painted it on the back of our armor.” As he finished, George turned to look at Twilight, who had her head cocked to the side.
“I’m sorry, but what’s an angel?”
“An angel is a mythological being, most commonly portrayed as a winged human,” he replied. “They have multiple roles in various religions, from being messengers of god to protecting the weak. That little girl, Sarah I believe her name was, saw us as the latter.”
“Wow,” breathed Twilight. “Are the other people in your squad still around?”
“Actually, yes,” replied George. “We’re actually still working together, save for Mendez. That brute did a number on his spine, and he’s now teaching at Drop School. Poor bastard’s walked with a limp ever since.”
“And… you’ve been fighting the Covenant for the past twenty one years?” She asked, unable to keep the horror at the concept of such a long war out of her voice.
“Eeyup,” replied Tony, “it’s been a long, costly, twenty-seven years. Casualties topped twenty billion last time I checked.”
Twilight was dumbstruck by that number, even more so by the somewhat casual way that Tony stated it. Her breath caught as she tried to voice her disbelief, but something deep down told her that the human spoke the truth.
“H-how?” She eventually managed to squeak out.
“Pretty easy when your enemy can burn entire worlds into glass from orbit,” stated George matter-of-factly.
Twilight couldn’t believe her ears. Sure, she wasn’t unfamiliar with apocalyptic scenarios. Nightmare Moon’s eternal night would’ve killed all of ponykind slowly, but an enemy that can actually destroy a planet was too much for her mind to process.
And these humans just take it all in stride, she thought to herself. She couldn’t help but marvel at the strength of will these two had. “H-how do you keep going? It just seems so hopeless.”
“There’s always hope, Twilight,” replied Tony. “Even if it’s only a fool’s hope. We threw the Covenant off of Harvest for good, we stopped the first invasion of Arcadia, and Admiral Cole single handedly destroyed an entire Covenant fleet at Psi Serpentis. True, our victories have been few and far between, but we keep fighting, because to just give up would doom us all.”
“These… people have faced great hardship,” Celestia said as she shed a tear.
“Twenty billion…” breathed Luna. “I can’t even imagine that many casualties.”
“Neither could I at the time,” added Twilight, as she let off a yawn. “I’m sorry, I just haven’t slept in a while. Mind if we continue this in the morning?”
“Of course, Twilight,” replied Celestia. “You know where your old room is. We can continue your story over breakfast. I’ll clear my schedule for tomorrow.”
Twilight thanked the Princess, grabbed her saddlebags, and reattached the object, which the others now assumed to be one of the humans’ weapons, to the back of her armor and trotted off to her old room by the Palace Library.
“I guess we’ll be off to bed as well,” stated Shining Armor. “These humans… their courage in the face of great adversity is inspiring.”
“Agreed,” replied Luna. “It may not be our war to fight, but I still wish there was something we could do to help.”
Everyone present knew that there was nothing they could do. Even with the natural magic of ponykind, the humans surpassed them with technology. Worse still, it would just make Equis a target for the Covenant juggernaut.
With that dark thought, everypony bid each other good night.
AN: Credit DoomManta for the edit work.
The next morning, Shining Armor made his way down to the Royal Dining Room, surprisingly spry considering how late he stayed up listening to Twilight’s story. His wife, on the other hoof, was a mare who seriously needed a cup of coffee. Her mane hadn’t been in worse shape since the time she was trapped in the tunnels under Canterlot
“I can’t believe the servants woke us up this early,” Cadence grumbled.
“I guess somepony forgot to tell them how late we stayed up,” offered Shining Armor.
“I guess.” Cadence let off an undignified yawn. “I wonder if Twilight’s up yet.”
“Knowing her? She probably stayed up late reading up on recent history,” replied Shining Armor as they reached the dining room. A unicorn guard quickly saluted before opening the door. Inside, Shining Armor and Cadence saw Princess Celestia sitting at her usual spot, while to her right sat Princess Luna. The Night Princess usually took a light meal in her own quarters at this time, but seeing her at the breakfast table was not unheard of.
Sitting on Celestia’s left, surprisingly, was Twilight Sparkle, this time without her armor. In front of her were plates full of pancakes, hash browns, and various egg dishes, all of which she looked upon greedily. Cadence and Shining Armor couldn’t help but giggle at the spectacle.
“That look on your face tells me that you’ve been on combat rations for a while,” the Guard Captain said.
“Really? How could you tell?” She asked as she dug into her pancakes.
“Because that’s the same look he gets after a long weekend of training,” replied Cadence as she took a seat across from her aunt, while her husband sat across from Twilight. “So, are you up for continuing your story?”
“Of course!” She exclaimed. “I hope I can finish by tonight so I can go see my friends. How’ve they been, by the way?”
“It’s… been hard on them,” Celestia replied sadly. “Applejack buried herself in her work just to keep distracted. Rarity put on a brave face in public, but deep down she was worried. Rainbow Dash has been all over the world looking for you. In fact, she’d only just returned to Ponyville yesterday after an extensive search of Zebrica. Fluttershy’s barely left her home since that day, only going into town for the basic necessities. You know how Spike is, of course, but Rarity’s been taking good care of him.”
“… And Pinkie?”
The sorrowful expression on the Princess’ face said it all. “She has been… taking it the hardest. She’d barely eat the first two weeks, so little that the Cakes worried about her health. She didn’t even smile for a month. She went back home to the rock farm for a few days and it seemed to help. She began to smile again, but it was tinged with sadness.”
“I… I see.”
“She blames herself, you know. Can you ever forgive her?”
“Princess…” Twilight began, tears brimming her eyes, “I forgave her that very same day. The moment I went into space in fact…”
Getting out of the car, Twilight marveled at the winged monstrosity before her. It was made out of a gray metal with various markings painted in white, the most prominent one being the word “MARINES” near the door along the back and “UNSC” on the tail section. At the front, Twilight spotted a glass canopy over what she assumed was the driver’s compartment. The vehicle was currently hovering a couple feet off the ground. Twilight estimated that it would take dozens, if not hundreds, of pegasi to lift the machine, and she marveled that it could do so under its own power.
“Looks like Sam decided to wait for us,” George said as he climbed out of the car. Twilight hopped out as well, and saw another human leaning out of the passenger bay of the vehicle. This human looked different than the ones Twilight had already encountered, so she assumed it was female. She was just a hair shorter than George, wearing identical armor to George and Tony, but didn’t have a helmet. Her blonde hair was cropped just below the ears, and her eyes were a bright green.
“Captain,” she said in a feminine voice, confirming her gender. “What’s with the purple unicorn?”
“Lavender!” Twilight exclaimed.
“Correction, what’s with the talking, lavender unicorn? Is this another one of your hair brained schemes?”
“Govno!” exclaimed another voice, in what sounded like a Stalliongrad accent, as another human stuck his helmeted head out the doorway. “I’m having flashbacks to Jericho VII.”
“Now Sergei, what was wrong with Jericho VII?” George asked flatly.
“You had the Pelican drop our Warthog through a skylight!”
“While we were in the damn thing!”
George just shrugged. “Hey, it worked, didn’t it? The Covvies never saw it coming.”
“Nobody saw it coming!”
Sam facepalmed with an audible smack. “I swear to God, Lin and I are the only sane ones in this unit, and I’m stretching to include her.”
“Speaking of whom, where is our rookie?”
“Right here,” replied a soft, feminine voice. From seemingly out of nowhere, another soldier appeared, this one wearing vastly different armor than the others. It was olive drab and appeared bulkier, under which was a black bodysuit. Most striking of all, however, was the golden, globe-like visor that made up most of the helmet’s front. Written on the collar of the chest piece was “Lin-B260”.
“I hate it when you do that,” said George.
“I’m sorry,” she replied in that same quiet voice. It was eerily similar to Fluttershy’s tone, but instead of being timid, the voice was monotonous, completely devoid of emotion. It was like the voice of a machine simulating a living being.
“Just… just get in the damn Pelican.”
With that order, Lin climbed into the dropship, followed by Tony, Samantha, and George. Twilight hopped on and nearly slid off. Before anyone could reach down to help her, she teleported next to Tony, much to the surprise of everyone in the craft.
“How…” Sergei started to ask.
“Magic,” George and Tony replied simultaneously. Sam and Sergei both cocked their heads, though Lin seemed un-fazed by the statement. Sam, Sergei, Tony, and Lin sat down in seats that folded out from the walls of the passenger bay while George helped Twilight get strapped in. The seats were uncomfortable for her, as they were clearly designed for a bipedal creature. With Twilight unable to go anywhere, George took the seat next to her.
Her stomach lurched as the engines’ whine grew to a deafening roar and the Pelican took off. The rear hatch closed soon afterwards, reducing the deafening noise to a safe, but still loud, level. George reached up into an overhead compartment and extracted a headset and microphone. It took some adjustment, but he managed to put it on Twilight.
“Can you hear me alright?” He asked.
“Yes, I can hear you.”
“Good, because there’re a few things we need to go over. First things first, after we get to the ship, our first stop will be the quarantine lab.”
“Why?” Twilight asked.
“Simple, you might be unintentionally carrying a disease that, while innocuous for your species, could be deadly to us, so we need to rule that out first. That goes for the rest of you, too.” The others didn’t seem phased by that statement.
“I see.” Twilight could not deny the logic behind that particular safety protocol. “What next?”
“That I’m not so sure about,” admitted George. “Most likely, Tony and I are gonna get reamed by Colonel Zhang. Also, Doctor Montgomery will most likely want to talk to you.”
“Our ONI handler, and our ship’s Chief Medical Officer,” replied Tony. “She’s actually a nice lady.”
“Very nice,” added Lin, still in the same monotone, but with a hint of something else. Her voice gave Twilight the impression that something was deeply troubling her, something in the soldier’s past.
She’d read a book on Post Traumatic Stress Disorder once, just after the Smarty Pants Incident. Princess Celestia herself had recommended it to her, and Twilight had only needed to read a couple chapters to understand why. The Princess believed that the incident came about because Twilight had suffered a mild case after the battle with Discord, and hoped that she would recognize the symptoms as well. However, a few trips to a psychologist had eliminated those fears.
Now though, Twilight was wondering if this strange, otherworldly soldier could be suffering from a major case. The others were jovial, actually laughing with each other. Lin, however, was the exact opposite, distant, aloof, and cold.
“Hey Twi, wanna see something neat?” George asked, shaking her from her thoughts.
“Sure.” George stood up and unbuckled Twilight from her seat. When she jumped down, she immediately noticed that the dropship was still climbing. The deck was steeply pitched, but not so much that Twilight had trouble standing. George, however, seemed to be struggling to stand upright due to his higher center of gravity.
Slowly, he led her to the back of the craft towards a small porthole in the door. Twilight had to stand on her hind legs to see out the window, but what she saw was simply breathtaking. The ground was several hundred kilometers below, so far that she couldn’t make out individual landmarks. A ways to the east, she could see the terminator line, marking where day turned to night. However, most spectacular of all was the border between atmosphere and space, where royal blue met inky blackness.
The Pelican turned away from the planet as it passed through this border and the whining engines were silenced, replaced by a dull rumble. Out the porthole, Twilight could now see something that she truly loved; stars, thousands of them, more than she had ever seen even on the clearest, moonless night in Canterlot. Princess Luna was an artist with the night sky, but even her greatest masterpiece paled in comparison to the wondrous display before Twilight’s eyes.
“Yeah, everyone’s like that their first time in space,” said George as he noticed Twilight’s awed expression. “C’mon. We need to get you strapped in before we lose gravity completely.” He almost had to drag Twilight from the window. She felt so light now, almost as if she was floating, making it hard to move naturally. Eventually, George managed to get her strapped back into her seat.
“So Sam, how’re the others?” He asked as he took his seat.
Her face fell, she obviously had bad news. “Jacque… he didn’t make it.”
“Beam rifle… Through the heart… Close range,” Lin slowly droned out. “Left him… No choice.”
“Covvies were right on our ass, sir,” Sam stated. “We barely made it as it is. We got separated from Weber and Grimes, but they made it to their Pelican.”
“My fault... Got sloppy… Like before…” Lin’s voice was breaking, as if she was on the verge of tears. Sam reached over and placed her hand on Lin’s shoulder, while the other woman slumped in her seat. “Like before.”
“How long to the Charlemagne?” George asked, presumably to the pilot.
“Two minutes, sir,” a voice replied over the intercom. “The lab’s prepped and ready.”
“Tell Dr. Montgomery that our SPARTAN’s having a breakdown,” he ordered.
In no time at all, Twilight felt the Pelican land with a small thump. George reached over and undid Twilight’s straps, allowing her to climb down. The first thing she noticed was that, wherever she was, the gravity was normal. The rear hatch of the Pelican opened and the squad filed out of the dropship, mostly under their own power, though Lin had help from Sam.
As Twilight exited the dropship, she wasn’t too impressed with the hangar. It was smaller than she’d expected, smaller than the Throne Room back at the Palace. The walls and floor were metal, completely devoid of decoration, and coated in drab gray paint.
Before she could truly look around, the squad ushered her towards a door, which slid open automatically. The door led to what appeared to be a small, cramped hallway that was barely large enough to hold them all. At the opposite end was another door, though this one did not slide open, even with Sergei leaning against it. In the center of the door were two lights, one red and one green. The red light was currently lit, while the green one remained dark.
As soon as the doors closed, a low hissing sound could be heard, and Twilight could feel the air pressure dropping slightly. Less than a minute later, the hissing stopped, and the green light on the door lit up while the red was extinguished. Sergei stepped back from the door as it opened, allowing Sam to carry Lin into the next room, followed by Tony, Sergei, Twilight, and George bringing up the rear.
It was a fairly large room, almost as large as the barracks at the Palace. Unlike the hangar, the walls in this room were painted a dull, off-white color. Shelves full of various medical supplies, glass vials, and several pieces of technology that Twilight could not readily identify lined the wall to the left of the entrance, while the opposite had well over a dozen beds. Next to a cabinet, a pedestal of some sort stuck out of the ground. Across the room from the entrance was another door similar to the one everyone just passed through, above which the word “QUARANTINE” was stenciled in big block letters.
Sam carried Lin towards a bed and laid her down, while Twilight dashed off to examine the equipment. She was about to open one of the cabinets, when she heard someone clear their throat. Turning to face whoever was trying to get her attention, Twilight spotted another human, a female, sitting in the corner of the room.
She was a statuesque woman, a little less than six feet tall. Her blonde hair was wrapped in a tight bun, and her eyes were a piercing green. Other than the lab coat, she also had on a dark-blue shirt and skirt.
“Where did you come from?” Twilight asked hesitantly.
“I’ve been waiting here. You really need to pay more attention,” she replied with a smile.
“Dr. Montgomery, what are you doing here?” George demanded.
“My job, Captain,” she said. “I have a blood test to run, and a scared little girl that needs consoling.”
“Well I hope you’ve got a strong immune system, because you just exposed yourself to who knows what,” George deadpanned as he took off his helmet, allowing Twilight to see his face for the first time. His skin was pale, as if he didn’t spend much time in the sunlight. He lacked hair on his face, save for a pair of thin eyebrows. The hair on his head was raven-black and cut short, barely half an inch thick.
“I appreciate your concern, Captain, but it is unnecessary.” She shot back. “Lin is in a bad place right now, and needs someone to calm her down as soon as possible or she could lash out, and I can’t do that through a computer monitor.” She walked over to a nearby shelf that was loaded with medical equipment and pulled out a hypodermic needle and alcohol swab. She then approached Twilight, knelt down, and held a foreleg up. She examined the limb for a minute, before sighing in defeat. “Alright, I’m not up to speed on my equine anatomy. Where’s a vein I can use?”
“Let me,” she replied with a huff, wrapping the swab and needle with her magic and taking it out of the Doctor’s hands. “How much do you need?”
“Just a few milliliters.” Dr. Montgomery tried to keep a passive expression at the display of telekinesis as Twilight took a blood sample, only allowing a raised eyebrow to showcase her fascination. Soon enough, the unicorn had drawn the requisite amount of blood and withdrew the needle. “I hope you were paying attention, Captain. You might need to give her an injection one day.” Twilight set the needle down, allowing the Doctor to grab it.
Blood sample in hand, the doctor walked over to a machine and placed the full syringe inside. “Joy, are you here?” Twilight cocked her head to the side in confusion; it looked like Doctor Montgomery was talking to nothing.
“Of course I am, Doctor. I’m everywhere,” replied someone Twilight could not see. Without warning the pedestal emitted a blue light, which coalesced into the form of a miniature, longhaired, nude human female. “Wow, that came out creepier than I intended.”
“What the buck are you?” exclaimed Twilight.
“Language, my little pony,” she chastised, waving a finger at the unicorn. “I’m Joyeuse, the Charlemagne’s shipboard A.I. Everyone calls me Joy for short, though. What you see here is my holographic avatar, which I use to communicate to the crew. People find it disconcerting to just speak to thin air.”
“A.I.? As in, artificial intelligence?” Twilight received a nod from the hologram. “I… I had no idea humans were this advanced!”
Joy held a hand over her mouth and appeared to be shaking with laughter. “You mean to tell me that, after teleporting a long way from home, meeting several beings straight out of your mythology, nearly getting killed twice, having to deal with those two knuckleheads…” she pointed to Tony and George, “and finally, flying into space, you’re still surprised?”
With everything laid out, Twilight couldn’t help but laugh at the ridiculousness herself. “Yeah, this has been a strange day, even for a Tuesday.
“You use the same word for the day of the week? Amazing. I wonder what else we share. Tell me, what’s the date back where you’re from?”
“While I’m sure this is fascinating,” interrupted Montgomery, “Can you please run the blood sample? If I’ve contracted a disease that’ll make my eyeballs melt, I’d prefer to know sooner rather than later.”
“You wouldn’t have to worry about that if you’d just follow proper quarantine procedure, Doctor,” groused Joy. “But no, you had to break isolation to take care of Lin. While admirable, I would prefer you not come crying to me if you get infected.” She sighed. “Ok, running a full microbe scan. Shouldn’t take long, an hour tops.” With that proclamation, Joy winked out of existence.
“Wait, I have a question,” exclaimed Twilight.
“Yes?” Joy asked, reappearing on top of the pedestal.
“How did you know what happened to me earlier?”
“Oh, that’s easy,” Tony interjected. “Joy and I talked while George was telling his story. Basically, I filled her in on the situation.”
“Thank you, Sergeant. Now, if there are no more questions…” Joy winked out once again, this time for good.
On her bed, Lin had stopped crying, but was still visibly distressed. With a sigh, Dr. Montgomery stood up and approached Captain McCoy. “She’ll be alright, but she needs rest,” she stated. “I hope Joy can hurry with that blood culture. The beds may be comfortable, but isolation is still not a nice place to be. Now…” she turned towards Twilight, “where are my manners? I’m Dr. Helen Montgomery,” she said with a charming smile.
“Twilight Sparkle, pleased to meet you,” replied Twilight, before turning her gaze on Lin. “What’s wrong with her?”
Helen hesitated, trying to word her statement just right. “I’m sorry, Twilight, but I have to invoke Patient/Doctor Confidentiality. You understand right?”
“Whoa there, doc!” George protested. “Patient/Doctor Confidentiality is fine and all, but it goes flying out the window if it could possibly get my men killed. I have a need to know.”
“True, but Miss Sparkle doesn’t, Captain,” she replied. “I’ll brief you fully later, something I definitely should’ve done before she was attached to your unit. Did it affect the mission at all?”
George shook his head. “It didn’t come up until we were in the Pelican, when we were talking about…”
Helen placed a hand on George’s shoulder. “He was a good man, Captain.”
Twilight couldn’t help but marvel at how similar these strange aliens were to ponies, especially their body language. Although different due to their bipedal nature, Twilight had no trouble at all reading it like they were ponies themselves.
The moment ended when Joy reappeared above her pedestal. “Doctor… you might want to take a look at this.”
“What is it, Joy?” she asked, pulling away from the Captain.
“While I ran a microbe scan, I also decided to see what else I could find. As I suspected, the DNA sequence is similar to earthborn equines, with a few key differences of course. However, one test picked up something… strange.” She snapped her fingers and disappeared, only to be replaced with a graph. “It appears to be an unidentified form of energy that is completely natural to her species. I theorize that this is the source of her telekinetic abilities.”
“Any idea what the source of this energy is?”
“Could it be some type of microbe?” Tony interjected. “Like midichlorians?”
Joy sighed. “No, Sergeant DiNardo, it is not midichlorians. You really need to lay off the old sci-fi vids.” Tony responded with a single raised finger.
“As I was saying,” Joy continued, “I would love to thoroughly test Ms Sparkle’s abilities after she clears quarantine. That is, if she wouldn’t mind.” All eyes turned to the unicorn, who suddenly felt much smaller
“I don’t see why not,” she managed to squeak out.
“Fantastic!” Joy’s hologram looked like it actually brightened by a few lux. “I’ll have some crewmembers prep a room for testing purposes. Ooh, they’d probably like to see this. I could sell tickets.”
“Joy,” interrupted Helen. “No exploiting the pony.”
The hologram put on the saddest puppy-dog eyes possible. “Not even a teeny, tiny bit?” Helen’s only response was to cross her arms and give a stern look. “Fine,” Joy responded with a sigh.
“Wait, this examination won’t be invasive, will it?” Twilight was rapidly getting second thoughts after seeing Joy’s enthusiasm.
“Oh, don’t worry my little pony,” replied Joy, allowing Twilight to calm down. “We don’t have the equipment on board for a proper vivisection.” Seeing Twilight’s distressed look, she quickly amended, “That was a joke.”
“Not funny, Joy,” said George.
“Eh, I guess,” she replied half-heartedly.
“Not good enough,” he stated firmly. “Apologize to the poor girl.”
“Ugh, fine,” she sighed. “I’m sorry for my poor taste in humor, Ms Sparkle.”
Twilight glared at the hologram, and George could practically see smoke rising from her mane. No, wait, that is smoke!
“Alright, I forgive you,” she said, and all traces of smoke disappeared.
“Well then,” she began, glad that her apology was accepted, “while I’m busy making sure that you won’t infect the crew, why not tell me a little bit about this ‘magic’ that you use?” As she said this, Joy snapped her fingers and a holographic pad and pen appeared in her hands. “I must admit, I am curious. I have never seen anything like it before.”
“Oh, this ought to be interesting!” Tony exclaimed as he pulled off his helmet. Like George, his hair was black, but longer, nearly an inch thick. His complexion was darker than George’s, indicating more time spent in the sun.
Sergei had also taken the opportunity to take his helmet off. His complexion was pale, much like George, but his hair was blonde rather than black, and his eyes were a bright, piercing shade of green. The right side of his face was pockmarked, as if it had been burned some time in the past. Forcing herself not to stare, Twilight looked down, and noticed the man’s thin, wiry frame for the first time.
Once again, Twilight found that everyone’s attention was focused on her, but unlike last time, she didn’t mind too much. Joy had given her a chance to slip into “lecture mode,” and Twilight had every intention to educate these people.
With a smirk, Twilight conjured up a pair of glasses and slipped them on, much to the amazement of everyone present, while Joy appeared to be furiously scribbling notes. “Alright then,” she began, “lesson one: basic theory of magic…”
Twilight’s magic lecture went surprisingly well. Despite popular belief back home, Twilight is an excellent, if slightly long-winded, teacher. This is doubly true when she has a captive audience that is interested in the subject.
“So, you’re saying that magic just imagination?” Sam asked.
“That’s oversimplifying it, but yes,” replied Twilight as she readjusted her glasses. “However, it also requires that a unicorn focus their will on making what they want happen. The more complex the spell, the harder it is to cast, and the more energy required. For example…” she lifted a glass vial from a shelf and floated it over until it was hovering next to her head. “I can imagine that this vial is levitating all I want, but unless I truly want it to do so, it will remain grounded. And the larger the object, the more willpower and focus required to lift it.”
“Like how it’s harder for me to lift a fifty kilogram object than ten kilos?” added George.
Twilight enthusiastically nodded, glad that everyone seemed to understand the basics. “Exactly, and like a muscle, the more you work with magic, the easier it is to pull off. More complex spells may also require additional factors, such as incantations or reagents, to pull off properly, and if you mess up, there’s no telling what will happen. For example, the spell that brought me to… what planet were we on?”
“Ariel,” supplied Joy.
“Ariel, right. The spell that brought me to Ariel was originally a summoning spell, but because a reagent was off, it turned into a teleportation spell.”
Sergei let off a low whistle. “That is one serious clusterfuck.”
“…Right,” said Twilight, a slight hitch in her voice. “Profanity aside, any questions?”
“What about the energy? What can you tell me about that?” asked Helen, failing to keep the excitement out of her voice. “Also, how is it possible to just conjure an item like your glasses? Doesn’t Conservation of Mass come into play at all?”
“All excellent questions,” Twilight acknowledged with a smile. “The energy that makes up magic, despite popular belief, is not limited to unicorns and alicorns. Rather, it is as ever-present as background radiation, and can be manipulated with the proper foci. A unicorn’s horn,” she emphasized her statement by lightly tapping her horn, “is made of a substance that acts as a natural focus for magical energy.”
“Would it be possible to get a sample then?” asked Joy.
Twilight involuntarily winced at that suggestion, before thinking about it. “A small sample should be fine, but be careful. It’s very sensitive.”
Having anticipated the request, Helen walked over to a cabinet, opened it, and retrieved a small metal file normally used to scrape burned flesh. Next she grabbed a small flexible square sheet of plastic and walked back over to Twilight. “Let me know if this hurts.”
“That’s not what I’m worried about,” Twilight muttered under her breath as she held her horn over the plastic sheet, squeezing her eyes shut as she awaited the file. She didn’t have to wait long, and suppressed a gasp as Helen ran the file over the tip of her horn a couple times. It was over almost as soon as it began, but Twilight still felt her cheeks turn red.
As Helen deposited the horn shavings into a glass vial, Twilight continued her lecture. “Now, you are correct, Conservation of Mass is an absolute law of nature, and conjuration is not a real field of magic. Anything that simulates it is either a form of teleportation or, in the case of my glasses here, an illusion.”
Twilight’s lesson was interrupted when a machine beeped. Twilight recognized it as the same one that Helen placed the blood sample in earlier.
“Yes!” exclaimed Joy as her avatar jumped giddily. “Forty-six minutes and twenty-nine seconds exactly. New record!”
“We clean?” asked George.
“Yeah, you’re good,” she replied. “No infectious diseases found.”
“Finally!” exclaimed Helen. “Sam, could you help me with Lin? We need to get her out of her armor and into a proper bed soon.”
Sam nodded and the two women got the SPARTAN up and shoulder-carried her towards the door opposite the one everyone entered through. The door slid open with a hiss, and Twilight could make out what looked like a medical clinic before the three women passed through and the door closed.
“By the way, George,” Joy’s avatar turned to face the Captain, “Colonel Zhang wants to see you and Tony, and he wants you two in his office yesterday!”
“Shit!” spat George. “Sergei, look after our guest. C’mon Sergeant. We don’t wanna keep that ornery bastard waiting too long.”
“Ten-Four, Captain.” With that, the two troopers practically ran out the door, leaving Twilight alone with Popov, and Joy if she counted.
Popov just shook his head, clicking his tongue. “Those poor fuckers are in so much trouble.”
“Why?” asked Twilight, looking up at her newly appointed chaperone.
“Frankly, because of you.” Popov held his hand up to forestall her protest. “Now, it’s not your fault. They just broke at least half a dozen regulations when dealing with a new alien species. Hell, you’re lucky you weren’t shot on sight.”
“You have to remember, Twilight, the only time we’ve made contact with an alien species before today was with the Covenant. Since then, they’ve slowly been exterminating us. We had over eight hundred colony worlds before the war. Now, most of them are glass deserts.” Sergei shot her a quick smirk. “You can probably understand why we’re a little xenophobic.”
“Yeah… I can see that,” she replied as realization dawned on her. “But, if that’s the case, why did George help me?”
Sergei let off a low sigh. “Frankly, I don’t know why. Maybe it’s another of his crazy schemes. Maybe he just had a good feeling about you. Hell, it’s probably his hero complex acting up again.” He had a soft smile on his face and a wistful look in his eye as he informed Twilight. “He always did have a weakness for a damsel in distress. The point is, the Captain has never steered me or anyone in our squad wrong before, and if he trusts you, then we’ll trust you. The rest of the crew might pose a bit of a problem, though.”
“Will… will they try to hurt me?” she asked fearfully.
“Nyet,” said Sergei, shaking his head. “You’re under our protection, and nobody, not even a SPARTAN, will fuck with an ODST squad.”
Twilight cocked her head in what Sergei would later describe as the most adorable thing he had ever seen before asking, “What’s an ODST?”
“Orbital Drop Shock Trooper, and yes, that is exactly what it sounds like,” he replied.
“Wait, you mean you… Oh, duh!” Twilight smacked herself in the back of the head for good measure. “George told me about that earlier.”
“That’s it!” exclaimed Joy. “There is no way an equinoid should be that flexible. I’m ordering an x-ray and MRI! Corporal, please escort Ms Sparkle to the nearest examination room.” With her order given, Joy disappeared from her platform and the door hissed open once again.
Shrugging, Sergei waved Twilight along as he led her into the next room, which turned out to be a triage center. Twilight eyed the various surgical implements warily, hoping that Joy was, indeed, joking about being vivisected. Her fears were misplaced, as Sergei led her through another door and into a hallway.
The hall was gray and featureless, save for white lights along the ceiling and arrows painted on the floor, a blue one with the word “CRYO” stenciled in and a red one with “MED” pointing in opposite directions. The pair took a left turn, following the red arrow.
Twilight’s clanging hoof-steps echoed down the hallway, while Sergei’s rubber-soled boots muffled his steps. They hadn’t gone more than fifty feet when they came across another human, this one a male and wearing a red jumpsuit. The crewman nodded as Sergei walked past, but did a double take upon seeing Twilight.
After taking a right turn, Sergei and Twilight passed two doors on their right before stopping in front of a third. Above the door, the word “MED CLINIC” was stenciled onto the gray wall in white paint. “After you, Ms. Sparkle,” said Sergei, waving Twilight forwards. As the door hissed open and she stepped inside, Twilight couldn’t help but to wander what George and Tony were doing at the moment.
“What the fuck were you two thinking?” yelled Col. Zhang, who hadn’t bothered to get up from his desk. The small, bald man could shout over a Drill Sergeant with ease, and Captain McCoy and Sergeant DiNardo were on the wrong side of the Colonel’s voice.
“Honestly sir, we were thinking ‘hey neat, a purple unicorn’,” replied George sheepishly. “I thought she was an ONI experiment at first. You know how they get with their science projects.” The Colonel couldn’t argue with that.
“What made you think she wasn’t a new Covenant species we hadn’t encountered before?”
“Sir, when we ran into her, she was about to be skewered by an Elite, and she yelled for help in near perfect English.” George could feel his blood boiling. Colonel Zhang was always able to get a rise out of him
Zhang cocked an eyebrow. “Near perfect?”
“A few minor dialect issues,” Tony interjected, not allowing his friend say something he’d regret. “Nothing major. Instead of somebody it’s somepony, for example. You can still understand her perfectly.”
Zhang began rubbing his forehead, which George knew was a bad sign. It meant that the Colonel was getting a serious headache, and his legendarily short temper would be even shorter. “She a security risk?”
“Doubt it,” replied George, finally getting his anger under a semblance of control. “She’s not Covenant. I’d stake my career on that. From what I’ve gathered, her society hasn’t achieved spaceflight yet, so they’re not a threat.” George had to tell himself that Nightmare Moon’s banishment didn’t count. “She’s insanely curious, but I’m sure she’ll leave it be if we tell her something’s classified.”
“Is that your personal opinion?” Zhang’s voice was little more than a growl.
“My personal opinion,” George replied acidly, ready to vent his spleen at a moment’s notice, “is that Twilight Sparkle is a lost little girl who is thousands of parsecs away from everything and everyone she’s cared about and has been thrust into the middle of a deadly interstellar war. She doesn’t show it, but I can tell that she’s scared, confused, and really needs a friend or two right about now. I suggest we be a little lenient with her. Sir.” George stared down the Colonel as he finished his statement.
If looks could kill, the one that Colonel Zhang shot back at McCoy could’ve destroyed armadas or slaughtered armies. Even so, Zhang knew that this was not a battle he could win. Captain McCoy was notoriously stubborn, particularly when it came to protecting civilians. Sighing in defeat, Zhang looked away, taking particular interest in a splinter on his desk.
“I’ll talk with Captain Ackermann. It’s his ship after all. Until we reach a final decision, she’ll be staying in your team’s barracks. She’s officially your responsibility now, Captain. Dismissed.”
McCoy and DiNardo snapped a salute, turned, and walked out of the Colonel’s office. “That went well,” quipped Tony.
“Could’ve been a lot worse,” George conceded. “At least he didn’t make us throw her into the brig.”
“Zhang’s a hardass, but he’s not heartless, sir.”
“Still…” Silence reigned as the two old friends marched towards the nearest elevator. George’s mind was racing at light speed, trying to figure out how best to accommodate his new ward. She’d take Jacques old bed, of course, but what about her diet? That question, thankfully, hadn’t come up yet. She was obviously herbivorous, but how would she take eating next to omnivores (or outright carnivores in Weber’s case). He couldn’t deny his men much needed protein just to appease her sensibilities. In the end, she’d just have to suck it up. At least there were plenty of vegetarian meals for her.
Those thoughts were driven out of his mind as he reached the elevator and stopped. Tony pressed the button to summon the platform. As they waited, George spoke up. “Joy, where’s Twilight? Is she still in Quarantine?”
“Of course not, Captain,” the A.I. replied over the loudspeaker. “I sent her for an X-ray and M.R.I. Right now, Corporal Popov is escorting her to the mess hall. She said she was feeling a bit peckish, and I figured it’d be best to get the crew used to seeing her.”
Shit! I was hoping to hold that awkward conversation off, he thought to himself. “Alright, we’ll be there in a minute.”
The lavender unicorn eyed the substance on her plate suspiciously. The package said “vegetable medley”, but there was something wrong with it. Oh sure, the mystery substance looked like peas, corn, carrots, and green beans, but the color was off. Instead of the bright green, yellow and orange she was used to, they were a drab and grayed shade of those colors, almost as if Discord had come around and corrupted the vegetables while nobody was looking.
Twilight leaned in and gave the “food” a tentative sniff. Not detecting anything obviously foul, she took an investigative bite of a green bean. Other than being bland beyond belief, she did not taste anything wrong with the supposed vegetable.
She heard a loud cough and looked up, noticing that everyone in the crowded mess hall was currently staring at her, some standing around her table, others sitting, but craning their necks to look. Twilight chuckled nervously as she pulled her head away from the plate. She had never felt this exposed before. Of course, it didn’t help that she had appeared to be eating like a pig at a trough. She levitated a nearby fork and began to eat normally, drawing even more unwanted attention to herself and the crowd began to press in for a closer look. Fortunately, however, her escort picked up on the signs of her agitation and stepped in on her behalf.
“Alright everyone, let’s give the poor girl some room to breathe. She’s had a rough day.” The rest of the ship’s crew, not willing to risk earning the wrath of an ODST, backed off, except for three people that stayed where they were. One of them Twilight immediately recognized as Sam, although she was no longer wearing her armor, but a gray shirt and pants instead. The other two were males that she didn’t recognize, all wearing the same outfit.
The first was around the same height as Tony, but stockier. His skin was a dark brown and his head was shaved, while his eyes were blue. He had a short beard of brown hair that seemed to wrap around his mouth.
The other human was taller, about the same height as George, but bulkier, more muscular. Twilight couldn’t help but feel like she was in the presence of the human version of Big Macintosh. His skin, unlike his companions, was a light tanned color, while his stubbly hair was blonde. A scar ran over one of his brown eyes.
“So this is the Captain’s new friend,” said the dark skinned human. His voice had a deeper pitch than she expected.
“No, Frank, it’s the other purple unicorn,” replied the muscular newcomer sarcastically.
“Lavender,” growled Twilight, causing everyone to laugh uncontrollably. After a moment, she couldn’t help but join in as well. They drew more looks from everyone else in the room, which only caused them to laugh harder. Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, they got their laughter under control and began introductions.
“Frank Grimes,” introduced the dark skinned man with a wide smile.
“Dieter Weber,” added the other.
“Twilight Sparkle,” finished Twilight.
“So, anyone seen the Captain?” asked Frank. “Or is he still getting his ass chewed out by the Colonel?”
“No, we’re done with that.” Twilight turned around to see that both George and Tony had joined them. “He was actually surprisingly lenient. Must have gotten up on the right side of the bed for once.” He then spotted the veggies in front of Twilight. “How’s the chow?”
“Bland,” she deadpanned. “Very bland. How can you eat this?”
Her question was answered by another round of laughter, leaving the incensed mare to wonder what was so bucking funny. “Twilight, compared to our combat rations, this stuff is gourmet cuisine,” explained George.
“And don’t forget the ‘nutrition paste’,” added Weber, forcing everyone else to involuntarily cringe. “The tube may say ‘chicken’ but it tastes like shit.”
The unicorn raised an eyebrow at that statement. “Wait, you’re omnivores?”
“Uhh…” George looked at each member of his squad for help, but everyone’s attention was pointedly elsewhere. “Boy, this is awkward.”
“Eh, not really.” Twilight’s statement drew a few curious stares from the six humans. “I mean, Equestria has peaceful relations with the Gryphon Empire, and they’re omnivorous. Also, while we don’t eat meat, dairy and eggs are commonly eaten across Equestria.”
Before any conversation could continue, the shrill sound of an alarm came over the loudspeakers, followed by Joy’s hurried voice. “Attention all combat personnel, report to your action stations. This is not a drill. Repeat; this is not a drill. We are re-engaging the enemy. External and internal contacts imminent. Stand by and prepare to repel boarders.”
Like a beehive that had been disturbed, the mess hall exploded into action. Crewmen jumped up from their tables and ran for the doors, leaving half-eaten meals behind. George and the rest of the ODST squad followed suite, leaving a frightened unicorn behind. Confused, Twilight did the only thing she could think of, and galloped after George, unaware of the danger of such an action.
“What’ve we got?” barked Captain Ackermann as he approached Joy’s pedestal. Like the rest of the ship, the bridge was a study in controlled chaos. At the eye of the storm, the ship’s CO stood, eerily calm despite the situation. His gray hair was meticulously groomed despite being woken up only minutes before the alarms sounded.
“Stealth corvette, sir. We barely detected it in time,” Joy reported. “It’s launched a ton of boarding craft. Archer pods are having hell getting a firing solution. They must have some sort of stealth coating.”
That fact shocked the Captain a little. The Charlemagne was the newest destroyer in the fleet. From state-of-the-art sensors and weapons, to an experimental slipspace drive that could reach speeds of fifty lightyears per day, she had the latest and greatest technology of the UNSC. But even then, some lowly little boarding craft could slip through her detection nets. “Any good news?”
“Yes sir,” replied Joy, a hint of a smile on her avatar. “We do have a firing solution on the corvette itself, and its shields are down. I’m going to let the boarding craft get in range of our point defense guns, then fire a round from our number two MAC. It should gut the corvette cleanly.”
Ackermann couldn’t help but smirk. It was a solid plan. The point defense guns would have a much easier time getting a firing solution, since the enemy craft would be closer. Waiting to fire on the corvette would also let them think they had the element of surprise as well. That is, until they got their hulls shredded by seventy millimeters of depleted uranium. A few would still slip through, but most would be cut down before unloading their living cargo.
In the end, the Marines on board would still determine whether the battle was won or lost. All the Captain could do was tip the odds in their favor.
For Twilight, catching up with the ODSTs was not hard. Catching up with them while dodging other crewmen was the real challenge. She was nearly trampled numerous times before falling in behind Weber.
They ran for another minute before ducking through a doorway and into an armory. Various firearms sat in racks along the walls, while armor components were being pulled out of closets. Armor was donned swiftly, but not hurriedly. Each soldier checked that each piece was secure before donning the next.
For her part, Twilight did her best to stay out of everyone’s way, going so far as to sit in the corner. She noticed that not everyone was wearing the same armor type. Some of the armor had a different style and color scheme than George’s ODST armor. Instead of gray and black, it was a forest-patterned camouflage, and the helmet was different. Instead of covering the entire head, it only covered the top and back, ending in a long brim just above the eyes. Instead of a visor, they had an eyepiece made of a green plastic over one eye.
“Alright everyone, you know the drill,” yelled George. “Our job is to keep Engineering under our control. We do not let those xeno bastards through under any circumstance. Any questions?” The last part was a formality, but there actually was one.
“Sir, what about… that?” The Marine pointed towards the corner Twilight had been standing. As McCoy saw her, he cursed.
“Shit, I forgot about her. Joy, is there anywhere she could go?”
“Nowhere safer than behind a squad of ODST’s and a bunch of Marines,” she replied hurriedly. As she said that, the entire ship shook for a moment. “That was the MAC. You’ve only got a few minutes before hard contact. Get in your positions.”
“What about Lin?” George asked as he grabbed a weapon from a storage rack.
“On her way to the Bridge. Now, are you just going to stand there and let the Covenant take engineering?” Although nobody could see her, everyone could hear the frustration on her voice
Without waiting for orders, the Marines filed out of the room, leaving George and his squad alone with Twilight. “What now?” she asked.
“Now…” George walked over to a table and waved Twilight over. When she approached, he picked up a spare eyepiece and radio headset. The eyepiece and radio were slipped onto Twilight’s head, and were quickly adjusted for her. “Now we find you a place to hide. Plenty of nooks and crannies in Engineering to take cover in. Keep that eyepiece on at all times, Twi, as long as you’re wearing it, the IFF will mark you as safe. ”
“‘Identification friend or foe’, basically, it tells everyone that you’re on our side, and not a hostile.”
Properly geared up, the six ODSTs and one unicorn left the armory, locking the door behind them. Engineering was only a brisk walk away, but by the time they got there, there was little that needed to be done. The Marines had already put up portable barricades and machine gun nests. There was only one entrance into the ship’s Engineering section, and anything trying to gain access would run into a wall of lead.
The Marines, for their part, seemed a little wary of Twilight. However, she showed up green on their IFF and the ODST’s seemed to like her, so there was little to be done about it.
“Twilight,” called George, gaining her attention. “Can you get up there?” She looked to where he was pointing, and saw a balcony ten meters above the deck. In a flash of light, she winked out of existence and reappeared on the balcony’s edge. “Alright Twi,” she heard over the radio, “keep your head down. Things are about to get violent down here.”
As if on cue, Joy decided to pipe in over the loudspeaker. “Attention all personnel. Ten seconds to hard contact. Enemy numbers estimated to be at minimum two hundred.”
“That’s all?” asked one of the Marines incredulously. “Man, what a rip-off.”
“Stow it, Marine,” barked George. “That’s two hundred too many in my book. Now cut the chatter.”
The Marines quieted down and waited for the enemy to make hard contact. The door was locked, but that wouldn’t keep the Covenant out for long. Either an Engineer would hack the locks, or they’d just melt it open with plasma.
Sure enough, after a little more than a minute, the doors began to glow from intense heat. Voices could be faintly heard on the other side, uttering the guttural language of the Elites.
Despite George’s order to hide, Twilight couldn’t help but peek over the edge and watch. She’d read up on ancient battles in Equestrian history, as well as a few more modern skirmishes between the Gryphon Empire and Royal Guards. Now she could see how humans fought, and compare it to the fighting styles of Equis armies. What struck her as odd was that none of them used any melee weapons, instead favoring their firearms. Sure, they all carried knives, but they would be of little use against even the Equestrian Royal Guards.
As she stared at each of the humans, the eyepiece displayed some information about them, such as their name, rank, and weapons they carried. George, as it turns out, was carrying an MA5B. She had no idea what that meant, but it was something she could ask later.
Twilight’s attention was drawn back towards the door when a loud blast forced it open, and she got a good look at the hell that awaited her.
Princess Celestia looked down upon her student in pity as the poor mare shivered in fright. “Are… are you alright, Twilight?”
“I… I’ll be f-fine,” Twilight stuttered out as she shook like a leaf. “It’s just a bad memory now. Nothing more.”
Shining Armor, seeing how distressed his sister was, rushed over and wrapped her in a tight embrace. “Twiley, you don’t have to talk about it if you don’t want to.”
“Thank you, BBBFF.” Twilight’s tears flowed freely, staining her brother’s white coat. “Really though, I’ll be fine. I thought that I’d gotten over this a while ago. It’s just…”
“Twilight…” Cadence chipped in, “was it as bad as the Changeling Invasion?”
“No. It was worse.”
As soon as the doors blew open, bolts of green plasma shot through the opening. Twilight’s ears instinctively folded down as the humans opened fire, attempting to block out the earsplitting roar of their weapons. The bodies of short, simian-like aliens flopped down onto the deck just inside the doorway; Twilight assumed they were Grunts from George’s description of them. Only a handful made it through the door. An unrelenting wall of lead cut down most before they could get near.
Next through the door were what Twilight believed to be Jackals, though they looked more like lizards than the birds George described them as. Their shields deflected bullets with ease while they fired their own plasma weapons at the Marines, forcing the humans to keep behind cover. This allowed the Covenant forces to gain a foothold into Engineering; more Grunts filed in and opened fire as well.
The only upside was that casualties on the human side were surprisingly light. No fatalities and few burns to show for their efforts. A few brave Marines would occasionally move to take potshots at the Grunts and Jackals, scoring a handful of kills.
Up on the balcony, Twilight struggled to keep her lunch down as the grisly scene registered in her mind and the scent of ozone and burning flesh assaulted her nose. Now she knew exactly why the humans used the weapons they did. She merely got a taste of their capability on Ariel, but now, the absolute carnage they were capable of was plain for her to see. And yet, despite the horror below, she didn’t look away. She couldn’t look away.
“Grenade!” One of the Marines stood up and threw a small, round object, only to be struck by three plasma bolts. His armor melted, and he fell, dead before he hit the ground. The object he threw, however, flew true, and landed right behind the Jackals’ shield wall. It exploded with a loud blast, shredding everything nearby. The Covenant outside the kill radius were staggered by the blast, creating an opening for a counter-attack.
The Marines took advantage of their enemy’s predicament and unleashed hell on the Covenant, killing each and every one that dared to pass through the door. Eventually, the last Jackal was killed, allowing a moment’s respite.
“Attention!” Joy called out over the radio. “There are more Covenant headed for Engineering. I’m diverting a fire team that way to assist.”
Despite her headset, Twilight’s mind didn’t register Joy’s words. Her eyes were glued to the carnage below. A few Marines rushed forward and began piling corpses in front of the doorway. Twilight felt sick as she witnessed how casually they handled death, yet part of her mind knew that it made tactical sense. It was fascinating, in an intellectual and detached way. The pile, though grisly in nature, would act as a makeshift barricade, slowing the Covenant’s advance, and allow a better chance at fighting back.
Before the barricade could be completed, however, more plasma flew through the doorway and slammed into one of the Marines, killing him instantly. He fell onto the corpse pile as a red armored Elite leapt out into the open and fired its weapon. Another Marine burned as the plasma raked across her body. The survivors immediately focused their weapons on the Elite, and its shields crackled to life as bullets impacted. The golden aura shattered as the shields broke, but the Elite dived back behind the pile of corpses before it could suffer permanent harm.
“They’re using our own cover against us!” Tony called out as another Elite, this one wearing gold armor and wielding a sword, jumped out. “Shit, Zealot!”
Before the humans could train their weapons on the new opponent, the Elite leapt over their barricades and impaled a Marine with its sword. The alien then jerked the blade out and swung in one smooth motion, decapitating another Marine. Tony rushed up to hit the Elite with his rifle, only to get smashed with its free hand. He was knocked down, and the Elite stomped on his chest to keep him that way. The alien raised its blade high, ready to add another human to its long list of kills. Tony was saved, however, when a beam of violet energy smashed into the Zealot and sent it flying into the wall above the entrance. It hit with a sickening crunch and fell onto the corpse pile, dead instantly.
Tony looked towards the source of the bolt of energy, only to see Twilight staring down at him from the balcony, horn aglow with magic.
For her part, Twilight was shocked by her actions. She had killed the Elite, something she had never done before. Even during the Changeling Invasion, she had only stunned her attackers. She was horrified, and yet… the Elite was going to kill her friend. Not capture or stun, but kill. She asked herself, if push came to shove, and something tried to kill her friends back in Equestria, would she do the same? It only took a moment for her to find the answer.
The other Elite chose that time to dive out from behind the pile. Unfortunately for the Elite, before it could open fire, its weapon was wrapped within a violet aura and jerked away from its clawed hand. Distracted by the now floating weapon, the Elite didn’t notice a grenade land next to it until it was too late. A third Elite, this one wearing white armor, climbed over the corpse pile and began firing strange pink, crystalline projectiles towards the humans’ defensive line. The Marines tried to dodge, but the projectiles changed direction mid-flight. One unlucky woman was hit by three of them, which shattered moments after impact, leaving gaping holes at the impact points.
Wasting no time, Twilight focused her magic on the white-armored Elite, and hoisted it into the air, much to the alien’s surprise. Giving it no time to recover, she slammed it into the ceiling at high speed, breaking its neck.
“All tangos down,” reported George, as he looked up at the balcony where Twilight stood. “Thanks for the support, Twi.”
Twilight merely nodded, not trusting herself to speak. With her adrenaline levels tapering off, she felt the contents of her stomach once again making an escape attempt. She had killed not once, but twice now, and her actions directly resulted in a third death.
“Twi, you all right?” George asked her, noticing her trembling legs and wide-eyed expression.
“I-I’ll be fine,” she lied.
George made a mental note to have her talk to Helen after this was all said and done. From what she’d told him earlier, Equestria was a relatively peaceful nation, and she had never seen the true horror of war until now. However, they had bigger fish to fry at the moment.
“Heads up, more Covenant inbound,” reported Joy. Before Joy finished speaking, three Jackals dashed through the door, but they were different this time, more avian than saurian. Rather than the sparse quills of their brethren, these Jackals had thick, luxurious manes of black feathers. Instead of a large, round shield over one arm, they had shielded gauntlets on both, allowing for greater mobility. Twilight’s eyepiece identified them as Skirmishers, but whether they were a separate subspecies entirely, she couldn’t tell. They ducked and weaved, dodging incoming fire, all the while firing bolts of green plasma back at the humans. One was unfortunate enough to run into the machine gun’s lane of fire, and thirty caliber rounds tore through its legs. Crippled, the Skirmisher was easy prey, and was finished off in short order.
The other two were proving more problematic. They continued firing plasma at the Marines while on the run, making it next to impossible for the Marines to line up shots on them. Even when the Marines did manage to properly aim, the aliens merely blocked the bullets with their shield-gauntlets. The stalemate ended when Twilight managed to magically lock a knee on one of the raptors. She only held the spell for a second, but that was enough time for it to stumble, and it was cut down soon after.
Without its squad, the last Skirmisher didn’t stick around, and ran back through the door. The Marines were only given a moment’s reprieve, as two black-armored Elites stormed through the door, followed by over a dozen Grunts, as well as the surviving Skirmisher slinking by in the rear. They began firing their weapons immediately, and one Grunt tossed a small, burning object towards the humans.
While she didn’t know what the object was, Twilight knew it wasn’t good. She telekinetically grabbed it in mid-air and hurled it towards one of the Elites. The object hit the surprised alien on its chest and stuck to it. A second later, the object blossomed into a large blue fireball, engulfing the Elite and three Grunts.
Twilight didn’t even have time to register what she’d just done when green plasma flew by her head. Against all odds, the Skirmisher had snuck behind the Marines and made it up to the balcony Twilight was on.
Twilight ducked and weaved around the incoming fire as best she could, wishing she had Rainbow’s agility. One bolt came dangerously close, singing the end of her tail, before she caught on to an idea. In a flash of light, she vanished, leaving the Skirmisher baffled. Its head jerked around like an eagle searching for prey, until it felt a powerful kick connect with its back that knocked it off its feet; it stumbled, and landed face first onto the deck.
Snarling, the avian picked itself up and spun around, spotting the purple equine it aimed to kill. She pawed the deck and snorted, horn blazing with violet light. The Skirmisher fired its weapon at the unicorn, only for the plasma to splash off a domed, violet shield. Screeching in rage, the alien fired its weapon as fast as possible, but was unable to so much as dent the unicorn’s defenses. The futile assault eventually caused the weapon to overheat, and the Skirmisher shook it in an attempt to force it to cool down faster.
Twilight’s shield collapsed, and the energy coalesced in a point right in front of her horn, forming a violet ball. In the blink of an eye, she unleashed her magic, firing it at the raptor in a single stream of powerful energy. Her aim was off, however, and the violet beam merely grazed the Skirmisher’s shoulder, causing it to drop its weapon.
The raptor hissed in pain, and cursed its own stupidity. Its advantage in battle was speed and agility, and in its arrogance it had merely stood in place, allowing an easy shot.
For her part, Twilight was fighting the urge to panic. The Skirmisher was bringing up memories from her battle with Nightmare Moon, only this alien terrified her far more than the Mare in the Moon ever did. Nightmare Moon was still a pony, and therefore herbivorous, while this creature was a virtual unknown to her, except for what she could see, specifically, that it had talons and sharp teeth.
With an earsplitting shriek, the Skirmisher lunged for Twilight, attempting to rip her apart with its claws. It only hit air, as Twilight teleported away once again. As soon as it landed, the raptor spun around, unwilling to be caught off guard again. Expecting the equine to once again try to buck it, the Skirmisher’s eyes widened in shock as it saw its quarry on the other side of the balcony, glowing bright.
Thinking back to the Changeling Invasion, Twilight began rapidly firing beams of violet energy from her horn. Each individual beam was relatively weak and highly inaccurate, but the sheer volume of fire made both factors irrelevant. Although most beams missed her target, destructive energy still raked across the alien’s body. It was the same spell that she used back during the Invasion, but she put more power behind it this time. When used on the changelings, the spell merely stunned, the Skirmisher, however, was nearly disintegrated.
“Holy shit!” Twilight turned to face the source of the curse, and saw that Tony had snuck up on her as well. “Remind me never to piss you off Sparks.”
“When did you get here?”
“Just a second ago,” he replied, cradling a long-barreled rifle in his arms. “Thought you could use some help.” He turned his head to face the Skirmisher’s burnt-out husk. “Guess not.”
For the third time in less than an hour, Twilight felt bile rise up her throat as she looked upon the result of her magic. However, with a quick shake of her head, she managed to keep it down and look away.
“You gonna be alright?”
“No, but I’ll deal with it later,” she growled.
The deck began to shake rhythmically, as if a large monster stalked nearby. Twilight had no idea what could make such a noise, but Tony knew all too well. “Oh shit.”
As the thudding reached a crescendo, the pile of corpses exploded outwards as two hulking monstrosities barged their way through. They were unlike any Covenant species Twilight had seen thus far. Nearly encased in heavy, teal-colored armor, she could only spot a small patch of red-orange, writhing flesh at their necks. One arm carried a large shield, while the other had some sort of cannon attached at the wrist. Long, sharp spines protruded from their backs, completing the fearsome image.
“Hunters!” Tony immediately dropped into a prone position and inched closer to the edge of the balcony. One of the aliens appeared to gather bright green energy around the mouth of its cannon, much like a unicorn would gather magic around their horn, and unleashed it in a destructive stream. The deadly beam connected with one of the metal barricades, sending it and the Marines hiding behind it flying.
The rest of the humans opened fire, but their bullets merely pinged off the Hunters’ armor uselessly. A few lucky shots hit the exposed flesh, spraying orange blood, and what appeared to be small worms, out the other side. Grenades detonated around them as both Hunters fired their cannons. Fortunately, the Marines had abandoned their cover, and most were able to dodge the deadly beams. The unlucky ones were melted into green goo.
Having reached the balcony ledge, Tony fired a shot from his rifle. It scored a direct hit on the exposed flesh, and the bullet hit the inside of the Hunter’s impenetrable armor, ricocheting around its insides. It was a mortal wound for the colossal creature, and it collapsed, red-orange worms flowed from the armor, like maggots from a corpse.
The surviving Hunter emitted a low, rumbling roar, a sound more felt than heard. It was a sound that shook the very core of one’s being, and spoke of untold rage. The Hunter charged the Marines, bashing three aside with its massive shield.
Reacting quickly, Twilight managed to catch them in her telekinetic grasp and set them down gently. Unfortunately, one was dead, and the others, Sam and another woman, were severely injured.
“Light him up!” George barely dodged another swing of the behemoth’s shield as he shouted out the order. ODSTs, Marines, and unicorn all opened fire on the Hunter. The humans adjusted their aim for the exposed neck region, and soon orange blood splattered the deck, while the beast was staggered by repeated impacts of the tiny projectiles.
Opting for power over speed, Twilight took her time and focused her magic into a single, massive beam. It was absorbed by the Hunter’s armor, but the armor began to glow from the heat wherever the violet beam made contact.
The Hunter was the first to make a mistake. Taking another swing at George, it over-extended on the follow-through, exposing a massive gap in its armor’s back. The defenders took advantage, and unleashed hell upon the monster. Bullets and magic ripped through the exposed flesh, and within moments, the Hunter joined its companion in death.
Silence reigned as the survivors took stock of their situation. Many lay dead or injured, but thankfully for Twilight, none of her new friends were part of the former category. Mere moments after the final Hunter fell, Joy’s voice piped in over the PA system.
“Attention all personnel. Covenant forces have been eliminated. I repeat…” Riotous cheers drowned the rest of the announcement out. The enemy had been defeated, the ship was safe, and the survivors would live to see another day.
Even Twilight gave a quick cheer, before once again turning her eyes on the carnage. Her lunch made another assault on her esophagus, and this time she didn’t put up much of a fight. Casting her gaze about, she searched in vain for a wastebasket. Unable to find one, Twilight dashed over to the nearest corner and puked.
“Hehe, if I had a bit for every time I lost my lunch like that…” said Twilight, with a mix of a smile and grimace on her face. She looked up and saw the various reactions her audience had, from the sorrowful looks from Celestia and Luna, to the horror-stricken expression playing out on Shining Armor and Cadence’s faces.
“Oh, here we go,” said Twilight, rolling her eyes. “I was hoping to avoid this little conversation. Yes, I killed Covenant that day. Was it the last time I did? No. Did I enjoy it? Fuck no, I didn’t! I still have nightmares about that day.”
“Twilight, language,” Princess Celestia sternly admonished.
“Sorry, anyways,” Twilight continued, her voice rising in pitch as she glared at her old foalsitter, “what you should keep in mind is that those people were, and still are last time I checked, fighting for their very existence. They can’t surrender, and the Covenant won’t. The Covenant only has one term for peace, and that is extinction. Unfortunately, I was caught in the middle of this conflict, and was forced to defend myself and others. So yes, I did kill, and if I had to again, I would. Without hesitation.”
Twilight’s outburst thoroughly stunned everypony present. Even Princess Celestia was shocked by her student’s behavior; this was not the quiet academic she remembered, this was a battle hardened warrior, more akin to a gryphon than a pony. The guards standing at the door exchanged nervous glances, clearly afraid to intervene. One of them had even been on the receiving end of Twilight Sparkle’s temper long ago, and was not relishing another go.
“Look,” Twilight sighed, seeing how much distress her outburst caused. “Let’s just drop this for now, okay? Last night was the first decent night of sleep I’ve had in days, and I’m tired and cranky as a result. I’m sorry for just flying off the handle like that.”
“It’s all right, Twilight,” Cadence said with a soft smile. “I shouldn’t have been so quick to judge. It’s just… this is all so surprising. I never expected you to change this much so quickly.”
“I’m still the same pony, Cadence. I just have a few more scars now. Both mental and physical.”
Celestia noticed that Twilight unconsciously rubbed her right foreleg at that statement. She had no idea what exactly that meant, but she wasn’t about to broach that subject. One glance aside told her that she was the only one that noticed the gesture.
“Scars?” As she asked this, Luna began leaning over for a closer look. “I don’t see any scars.”
“Human medicine is far and away more advanced than ours,” replied Twilight, giggling to herself. “Seriously though, could we continue this later? I’d like to take a nap right now.”
“Go and rest, my student. You have more than earned it,” replied Celestia. “Afterwards, I feel we should take this discussion elsewhere. Say, Ponyville?”
Twilight’s face brightened enough to rival Celestia’s sun. “You mean it?”
“Of course. Honestly, we should’ve gone to see your friends much sooner. However, rectifying that mistake will be easy enough.” Princess Celestia summoned a quill and a roll of parchment. “I shall summon your friends to the library this afternoon.”
“Wait, ‘Tia,” Luna interrupted. “Why don’t we surprise them? I have an idea.”
In the town of Ponyville, dusk was the signal for the day to end. Not that the villagers went to sleep at that time, oh no. The small farming community actually had a bit of nightlife. It was nothing compared to Canterlot or Manehattan, just a few small taverns and the occasional traveling show, but enough to keep ponies awake well into the night.
For five mares and a young dragon, however, the taverns were not their calling. Rather, none other than Princess Luna herself had summoned them to a small hill outside of town. For what purpose, none of them knew, but the invite clearly said to bring refreshments.
So they did. Pinkie Pie, who had mysteriously gotten back in the groove of things the previous night, supplied a veritable mountain of baked goods, and Applejack had rolled out a large barrel of her best apple cider.
“Ya seem to be in much finer spirits than last time I saw ya, sugarcube,” Applejack remarked to Pinkie.
“I know!” Pinkie was literally bouncing in place, and the rest of her friends felt better seeing her enthusiasm. “My Pinkie Sense went off last night and told me that today was gonna be a good day. I haven’t been this happy since-”
“Woah nelly!” Applejack interrupted. “Let’s not bring that up right now. Ah don’t want to spoil yer good mood, ya hear? Not with the Princess commin’.”
“Yes, darling,” added Rarity, having just arrived with Spike on her back. “It is simply wonderful seeing you in such good spirits after all this time.”
“I agree,” added Fluttershy.
“Aww, thanks girls,” beamed Pinkie. “Group hug!” Before anypony could react, Pinkie grabbed her four friends in a powerful embrace, practically squeezing the breath out of them. It only lasted a moment, however, before she looked around frantically. “Hey, where’s Dashie?”
“Over there,” Spike struggled to say in between gasps of breath, pointing to a nearby patch of grass. The cerulean pegasus was lying down on her back, staring at the rapidly approaching night sky as the sun fell below the horizon, chewing on a stalk of wheat.
“Rainbow! Why ain’t ya in this here group hug?”
“Huh?” The question seemed to shake Rainbow from her thoughts, and she looked up. “Oh, sorry. I wasn’t paying attention.”
“Ya alright there, sugarcube?”
“Yeah, just thinking,” replied Rainbow.
“I thought I smelled something burning,” Spike deadpanned, earning a few giggles. Despite being the butt of the joke, Rainbow Dash couldn’t help but snort out a laugh as well.
“Good one, short stuff,” she retorted. With a sigh, she turned back to face the night sky as the stars began to appear. “It’s something I’ve been doing a lot lately. Especially at night.”
“What do you mean, Rainbow Dash?” Fluttershy fluttered over and landed next to her fillyhood friend.
“Well…you all know how I’ve been looking all over the world for Twilight, right?” Upon receiving nods in return, she continued. “During my search, I would usually find a cloud to sleep on out in the open, rather than pay for a room at some inn. There were a few nights that I just couldn’t sleep, so I just stayed up and stared out into space. It really makes you wonder…”
“Makes you wonder what, exactly?”
“Like, what else is out there,” replied Rainbow. “Have you ever wondered what’s up there?”
“Maybe… someone up there is wondering what it’s like here,”
“Maybe,” agreed Applejack. “Do ya think we’ll ever meet ‘em?”
“I hope so,” replied Rainbow, turning to face her friends. “Don’t…” Her jaw dropped, as she spied the one pony she had not expected to see. “No way.”
Everyone else turned to follow Rainbow Dash’s gaze, and froze. Standing behind them, clad in strange, otherworldly armor, was none other than their long lost friend.
“I really hope none of you meet any aliens,” said Twilight, smirking at her friends’ dumbfounded looks. “Most of the ones I’ve met were not nice at all.”
“Is… is it really you?” asked Rainbow Dash, rising to her hooves tentatively.
“Last I checked, yes,” replied Twilight.
Slowly, carefully, the prismatic pegasus stepped towards the figure that looked and sounded like her long lost friend. “How do I know you’re the real Twilight Sparkle?” She leaned in for a closer look and narrowed her eyes. “For all I know you’re just another changeling trying to trick me. Well, I’m not going to be fooled like that again!”
Twilight was stunned to say the least. She expected to be greeted with open arms, not hostility from one of her closest friends. Before Twilight could offer a rebuttal, however, Pinkie wrapped her up in one of her signature bear hugs.
“That was mean, Dashie!” Pinkie said. “Twilight comes home from her long trip, and before we can even say ‘hi’, you’re accusing her of being a spy, and now she’s gonna be sad and leaves us forever and ever and… and…” Try as she might, Pinkie couldn’t hold back any longer, and tears flowed like twin waterfalls from her eyes. “I’m sorry, Twilight! Please don’t leave us again!”
“I… I won’t Pinkie,” Twilight cooed, trying to soothe the distraught mare attached to her. “I’m back, and I’m here to stay.”
Rainbow’s face fell as she realized just what she had done. If any of her friends could tell the real Twilight from a fake, it would be Pinkie. To say she felt like a heel would be an insult to heels everywhere. “Twilight… I’m sorry for-“
“It’s alright, Rainbow,” Twilight interrupted. “I guess I can understand, especially if changelings are involved. What happened, by the way?”
“Eh, nothing major. A changeling just tried to impersonate you while I was searching the Badlands. She wasn’t that bad once I got to know her, kept me company on the way to Appleloosa at least.”
Twilight was about to ask for more details, until a pink hoof was shoved unceremoniously into her mouth. “That subplot can wait until later. Where were you? When did you get back? Where did you get this totally awesome armor?”
“Pinkie, one at a time!” Twilight pleaded. “That misfired spell sent me a few thousand light-years that direction,” she said, pointing straight up. This proclamation drew gasps from everyone, especially Rainbow Dash.
“You mean to tell me that I searched all over the world for nothing!”
“I’m afraid so, Rainbow, but I do appreciate the gesture.”
Rainbow Dash grunted in annoyance as Twilight continued. “As for when I got back, I actually teleported into Princess Celestia’s bedroom last night.”
“Oooh,” cooed Rarity as her gossip sense kicked into overdrive. “Did you happen to see anything juicy? Are the rumors about the Princess having a secret lover true?”
“Uh, I don’t think so, Rarity,” replied Twilight. “At least, I didn’t see any evidence of such.”
Hiding in the bushes nearby, Princess Celestia was fighting the dual urges to both panic and send Luna back to the moon. Somehow, word had gotten out about her secret meet-ups with a certain member of the castle staff, and based on the seedy looks a certain blue alicorn was giving her, she had a few suspicions about the origins of those rumors..
“As for the battle armor, well, my friends had to custom make it for me, so they let me keep it, and it’s very nice. The UNSC equips its soldiers well.”
“Ooh, ooh, new friends!” Pinkie chimed in. “Are we gonna get to meet them?”
“I highly doubt it, Pinkie,” Twilight replied. “They are on the other side of the galaxy, after all.”
Pinkie deflated a little bit, but was quick to recover. “Oh well! As long as they were nice to you, that’s all that matters. Now, are you going to tell us about your trip or not?”
“Sure!” Twilight replied enthusiastically. “But I have to warn you all that there are parts that are, well, really violent.” Her friends’ reactions varied with that statement. Applejack, Rarity, and Pinkie seemed to withdraw a bit, unsure about whether or not they wanted to know. Dash merely raised an eyebrow. She’d seen a few battles in the Gryphon Kingdoms during her search for Twilight.
Predictably, Fluttershy had the most violent reaction. The shaking of her hooves could almost start earthquakes on their own. “H-h-how violent?” she managed to squeak out through her chattering teeth, hiding her face behind her mane even more than she usually did.
“Very. In fact, I probably have more combat experience than most of the Royal Guard,” Twilight stated. “As it turns out, the galaxy is a very dangerous place, and I nearly died ten minutes after my spell misfired.” This drew startled gasps from everypony. “If it weren’t for my new friends, I wouldn’t be here today…”
Meanwhile, in the bushes, the Princesses were having their own discussion about Twilight’s journey.
“I… still don’t know what to think,” Cadence said. “Twilight, the little filly I helped raise, is now a killer. I’m glad that she came back, but did we really get our Twilight back?”
“Yes we did, Cadence,” Celestia replied. “Despite everything that happened to her, that is still our Twilight Sparkle.”
“Auntie, you of all ponies know it’s not that simple,” Cadence shot back. “Killing changes ponies, deep down in their very souls. Some go into a deep depression, while others simply go mad, but not Twilight. She seems to have just… accepted the fact that she killed, and that terrifies me.”
Celestia had to admit that her niece’s logic was sound. Not even her Royal Guards were immune to the psychological impact taking a life entails. But still, Cadence was young. At less than two centuries old, all she knew was peace and tranquility. She had not been around during the dark times, when war raged across the land, and death was an everyday occurrence. Unlike Cadence, Celestia knew that her little ponies had the fortitude to live a normal life after such a traumatic experience. Whether that was good or bad remained to be decided.
“Luna, you’ve been silent on this matter,” said Celestia, drawing her sister into the conversation. “What are your thoughts?”
“I’m surprised it hasn’t happened sooner,” she replied bluntly, earning herself a horrified look from Cadence. “With all the danger she has been in during her stay in Ponyville, she has been in many circumstances where killing would have been an acceptable decision.”
“How can you say such a horrible thing, Luna!” Cadence yelled.
Luna placed a hoof on her niece’s shoulder, trying to calm the young Princess down. “It is horrible, yes, but it has been a possibility. When the ursa cub rampaged, what if Twilight was unable to soothe the beast? When diamond dogs abducted Rarity, what if they had to fight their way to earn her freedom? When Discord was freed from his stone imprisonment, what if, instead of playing around, he had summoned horrors beyond description to do his bidding?” Luna reflexively shivered at the memory of some of the monsters under the draconequus’ command.
“So far, Twilight Sparkle and her friends have been extremely lucky that they have not needed to commit such a foul act. But luck, like all things, runs out, and Twilight’s ran out amongst the stars. Even so, Cadence, there are far worse acts than killing. When the life of an innocent or friend is in danger, and the only way to save them is to take another life, the worst thing you could do is stand by and do nothing.”
Cadence’s tears streamed down her face. She felt like such a foal. Her aunt’s words had wisdom, and she knew that Luna had been through far worse times than she ever would. But still, she worried over Twilight, her little filly...
But she wasn’t a little filly anymore. Cadence had to concede that Twilight Sparkle had been through a lot living in Ponyville, and Luna had a fair point. Twilight had indeed been lucky.
She realized how foolish she’d been acting. Twilight needed love and kindness, not admonition, and the Princess of Love had been neglecting her duties. That would have to change.
Twilight’s friends listened to her tale with rapt attention. Not even Pinkie dared to interrupt her, and Twilight was a master storyteller.
She hesitated, however, when she got to the battle on the ship. She wanted to gloss over, even outright lie about her contributions, but she couldn’t. More so than the Princesses, her friends needed to know about her actions.
“You… you killed them?” Fluttershy asked fearfully, drawing back from Twilight. “H-how could you do such a thing?”
“Because I had to, Fluttershy,” Twilight replied. “It was either that, or watch my new friends die in front of my eyes. I only knew them for a few short hours, but it would’ve been like losing any of you, and I couldn’t live with myself if I had done nothing.”
Silence fell, as none of Twilight’s friends dared speak up. They were relieved that Twilight was not a heartless murderer, but she could tell that there was still an undercurrent of fear in them.
Pinkie was the first to speak up. “Why didn’t these humans try to make friends with the Covenant? Why do they have to fight?”
“They tried, Pinkie,” Twilight replied. “From what I’ve read of the war’s history, First Contact was tense, but relatively peaceful. Then the Covenant decided that eradicating humanity was tantamount to their religious beliefs. Things escalated quickly from there.”
“Those brutes!” Rarity shouted, throwing off the shock she’d been under. “But really, Twilight, did you have to get involved? I mean, sure they were your friends, but that doesn’t mean you had to fight to protect them.”
Twilight just blinked, stunned by Rarity’s comment. She cleared her throat loudly before responding. “Fighting's not really my thing, I'm more into fashion, but I'll rip you to pieces if you touch one scale on his cute little head!” It was a perfect imitation of Rarity’s voice.
Hearing her own words thrown back at her, Rarity’s pupils shrunk to pinpricks. “Oh.”
Applejack eventually managed to find her voice. “Ah’m sorry, Twi. We shouldn’t have jumped to conclusions, but this is a lot to take in. Ah think we just need some time to process all a’ this.” The others silently nodded, but each managed to give Twilight a reassuring smile.
“That’s… actually a good idea,” Twilight conceded. “Besides, this is where I left off with the Princesses, and I’d like them present when I continue. Breakfast at my place?” The five mares and one dragon all nodded in agreement. “Alright, I’ll see everypony tomorrow.”
With that, two pegasi, two earth-ponies, and one unicorn all went their separate ways, leaving Twilight alone on the hilltop with her number one assistant. Slowly, Spike walked over to Twilight, and gave her a great, big hug. “I still believe in you, Twilight. No matter what you’ve done.”
That was the final straw for Twilight. She broke down in tears as she hugged the baby dragon, and continued crying in happiness for several minutes. However, even the most joyous of times must end, and this was no exception. Drying her eyes, Twilight let go of Spike and slowly stood up.
“C’mon Spike. Let’s go home.”
The next morning dawned bright and cheerful, and Rainbow Dash rose with the sun. Many ponies would be shocked at how early she had gotten up, especially since she had no weather duties to attend to. But today was special because, even though her search was ultimately fruitless, Twilight Sparkle had finally been found.
Rainbow Dash was ecstatic now that she could cancel the rest of her worldwide search. She’d barely covered half of the Equestrian continent in the preceding months, and had not been looking forward to searching the rest of the world. Despite her speed, such an endeavor would have taken years, maybe even decades.
She took a deep breath of the crisp, late-winter air as she stepped outside her cloud home. She had missed the skies over Ponyville. This was her domain, and Ponyville’s airspace had not been graced with her presence for nearly five and a half months! It was high time to rectify that mistake.
With a joyous shout, Rainbow Dash catapulted into the air. This was what she lived for. No worries, no doubts, just her and the open skies. Rainbow was about to launch into an impromptu aerobatics routine when movement below caught her eye. Looking down, Rainbow could see flashes of color in between the barren trees of the Whitetail Woods. Specifically, she saw flashes of purple and indigo.
Zooming down for a closer look, Rainbow Dash was surprised to see Twilight Sparkle leisurely cantering along through the Whitetail Woods.
“Hey Twilight!” Rainbow Dash called out. “What are you doing out this early?”
“Oh, hello Rainbow,” Twilight replied as she turned her head to look at Rainbow Dash, but otherwise continuing her pace. “I’m just out for my morning run.”
Something about that answer didn’t sit well with Rainbow Dash. “Since when did you have a morning run, egghead?”
“I picked up a few habits while I was away, Rainbow,” said Twilight. “Besides, it’s done wonders for my physique.” Indeed it had. Now that Twilight was not covered head-to-hoof in armor, Rainbow could see that she was much slimmer. While Twilight could never have been called fat, her sedentary lifestyle meant that she was a little pudgier than the average Ponyville resident. Now though, the bookworm looked like she didn’t have a shred of body fat.
“Yeah, that is definitely a good look for you,” said Rainbow as she continued to follow Twilight. “Say, weren’t we supposed to meet at your place for breakfast? What’s on the menu?”
“Pancakes, eggs, and muffins,” replied Twilight as a hint of drool formed at the corner of her mouth. “It’s been a long time since I’ve tasted Cadence’s cooking.”
For a moment, Rainbow could only blink as her brain tried to process that statement. “Wait, the Princess is cooking breakfast?”
Twilight giggled at Rainbow’s reaction. “Cadence may be the Princess of Love, but she also loves cooking. Frankly, her baked goods would give Pinkie a run for her bits.”
Rainbow couldn’t take it anymore. She just started laughing like a hyena. Somepony was a better baker than Pinkie? Yeah, she’d believe that when she saw it.
Her disbelief was not lost on Twilight. “Well, you’ll learn soon enough. Breakfast should be ready in thirty minutes. Say, could you do me a favor?”
It took a few moments, but Rainbow Dash eventually got her laughter under control. “Sure Twi, hehe, whadya need?”
“I need you to go by Rarity’s and ask her if I could borrow one of her ponnequins. I’d like to keep my armor on display in my room.”
“Sure thing, Twi,” replied Rainbow. “Knowing her though, she’ll just let you keep it.”
Twilight couldn’t help but laugh at that. “True, true. So, anyways, I’ll see you at the library. Later.”
“Later Twi.” With that, Rainbow Dash jetted off into the blue skies over Ponyville once again, angling her trajectory towards Carousel Boutique.
“Well, I suppose I could let go of one of my ponnequins,” said Rarity. “I must say that it will be put to good use. That armor was exquisite! It’s a shame that I didn’t ask what it was made from.”
Typical Rarity, thought Rainbow Dash, wearing a knowing smirk on her face. “Yeah, well, we were all kinda distracted last night. What with Twilight showing up out of the blue with a story suitable for a science fiction series.”
“True,” Rarity muttered in agreement. “Frankly, I’m still appalled at the fact that Twilight is a killer. Doesn’t that bother you?”
Rainbow blinked once and shot Rarity a flat look. “Not one bit.” With that declaration, Rainbow Dash fled from the boutique, not even giving Rarity the chance for a rebuttal.
The Ponyville library was a large building, but even so, three alicorns and seven ponies, plus a baby dragon, could make the main room seem small. It didn’t help that Twilight had dragged out a large table from storage that was taking up most of the available floor space.
Still, Twilight could hardly complain. All of her friends and the Princesses were enjoying a hearty breakfast, and she wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world. She just wished that her parents could’ve made it down to Ponyville. She’d gone to see them after her nap the previous day, but they simply couldn’t tear themselves away from work on such short notice, unlike the Princesses whose word was law.
Having finished a second plate, Rainbow scooched her chair out from the table and patted her belly contentedly. “I’m sorry Pinkie, but those were the best muffins I’ve ever tasted.”
“Nuthin’ to be sorry about, Dashie,” Pinkie replied as she mimicked Rainbow.
“It’s why I married her,” added Shining Armor.
For her part, Princess Cadence could only smile… and blush. There was a lot of blushing. “Oh, all of you are just flattering me.”
The friendly banter continued for what seemed like hours as Twilight tried to catch up on some of what she’d missed while away. However, all things must end, and eventually Princess Celestia tapped a glass, calling everypony present to attention.
“Now, Twilight,” she began. “I believe you have a story to continue. Please, tell us, what happened after the battle?”
Twilight stood up and cleared her throat before speaking. “Yes, right. So, the fight for the ship was over, and…
The noise in the engine room was deafening. Marines, ODSTs, and a few Navy engineers continued cheering over their recent victory.
Despite recently losing her lunch, even Twilight Sparkle jumped for joy. That is, until she got a good look at the results of her spellcraft. Nearby, the burnt husk that was once a Skirmisher emitted acrid smoke. The scent of blood, ozone, and fresh vomit mixed in a pungent, nauseating cocktail.
Lurking behind that, however, was an all-encompassing sense of fatigue. It was something she’d felt before. The last time she felt like this was after her first attempt to remove Discord’s corruption, before she even learned of the draconequus’ involvement. This time, however, the feeling was much stronger.
Like on the planet below, she started shaking. This was different, though. Her trembling was far more violent, so much so that she started to worry Tony.
“You alright there, Sparky?” he asked.
“I-I-I don’t k-k-know,” she managed to say. Her head swam as darkness began to cloud her vision. The cheering seemed to die down to a faint droning. She didn’t even hear Tony yell her name as she passed out.
She was alone. Darkness spread as far as the eye could see. Yet despite the darkness, she could still see. Bodies were strewn all around her. Humans, Covenant, ponies, all dead. All butchered. Her hooves were coated in blood of various hues.
The unicorn walked amongst the carnage, as if drawn towards an unseen horizon. Suddenly, the bodies faded, dissolving into a black mist, save for one. Lying before her was the body of Princess Celestia. Her once white coat was stained red with blood. Soon, even she dissolved into mist.
The mist swirled all around the unicorn. In front of her, a pair of eyes began to form in the mist; large, teal, viperous eyes. Below the eyes, a black snout pushed through the mist, snarling with a mouth filled with wicked fangs. Without any warning, the mouth snapped open and lunged at the unicorn…
Consciousness found Twilight lying on her back in a soft, warm bed. Thin, silky sheets covered her up to her neck. Her head felt like somepony had been using it for drum practice. She slowly cracked her eyes open, only to be blinded by a bright light.
“Ooh, Princess,” she groaned. “It’s too early to raise the sun.”
“She’s awake,” someone said. Twilight knew that voice, but her foggy mind was having trouble placing it.
“Thank the lord,” another voice said. Twilight recognized this one too, but had equal trouble placing it. The Stalliongrad-ish accent was rather distinct, though.
She turned her head, and once more cracked open her eyes. The light was still bright, but it was no longer pointed directly at her face. Her vision was blurry, but clearing slowly. She eventually made out both George and Sergei sitting at a table, dressed in casual fatigues with an abandoned game of chess in between them.
After several false starts, she eventually managed to say something. “Where am I?”
“Sick bay,” said a third familiar voice, this one on the other side of Twilight’s bed. She turned her head to see who it was, which only caused her headache to flare up. Twilight hissed in pain as she squinted her eyes. The pain faded quickly, allowing Twilight to open her eyes a little more. She saw Dr Montgomery standing over her, examining her closely.
“You gave us quite a scare when you passed out, Ms Sparkle,” she said, a hint of motherly concern in her voice. “How’re you feeling?”
“Like the morning after a party at Berry Punch’s place,” said Twilight. “How long have I been out?”
Dr Montgomery chuckled. “Not long, only a few hours,” she said. “About long enough for word of your exploits to spread all over the ship. Congratulations, Twilight Sparkle. You’re a hero.”
“Oh great,” groaned Twilight. Even thousands of lightyears away from Equestria, she couldn’t avoid being a celebrity. She tried sitting up, but this only caused another lance of pain to shoot through her head.
“Easy now, don’t strain yourself,” Helen said as she placed a cool, damp cloth on Twilight’s forehead, pushing the unicorn’s head back down on the pillow. Slowly, but surely, her headache began to fade. “Any idea as to why you passed out? I hate to ask, but I have very little knowledge about your physiology.”
Twilight thought for a moment before coming up with an answer. “Magic exhaustion, with a side of mental trauma is my best guess.” In the back of her mind, she knew that self-diagnosing was a bad idea, but at the moment she was too exhausted to care.
Helen raised an eyebrow as she typed something on a datapad. “Magical exhaustion?”
“Well, I was tossing out a lot of spells during the battle,” she said. “A few of them required a lot of energy.”
“She melted Hunter armor, Doc,” George exclaimed.
“Da,” Sergei added. “Remind me not to piss little pony off.”
Twilight laughed nervously, clearly remembering exactly why she slung around so much power earlier.
“And… the mental trauma?” Judging by her face, it was obvious that Helen already knew.
Twilight gulped. She was afraid she’d be asked about that. “I don’t want to talk about it,” she mumbled.
“I see,” Helen said evenly. “Well, if you ever want to talk, my door is always open, Ms Sparkle. For now though, I pronounce you fit to leave sickbay. Go and decompress. You’ve had a long day.”
“Y-yeah. I have,” Twilight agreed.
Slowly, she climbed out of bed, and only encountered a brief bout of dizziness as her hooves touched down. George and Sergei stood up to help her, but she only waved them off. “So, what’s next?”
“Well, Colonel Zhang wants to have a meeting with the squad in our ready room, and you’re invited,” George answered, a bit of trepidation in his voice.
Twilight cocked her head sideways. “Something wrong?”
“Nah. I just have a bad feeling about this whole mess,” he replied.
“You always have bad feeling,” Sergei said mirthfully. “You had bad feeling about yesterday’s soup!”
George just grumbled at his teammate, eliciting girlish giggles from both Twilight and Dr Montgomery. It took them a couple minutes to calm down.
“Well,” Helen began, “I’ve got paperwork to finish. Twilight, I hope to see you later.”
“Thank you, doctor,” she said.
“Please, Twilight,” replied Dr Montgomery. “Call me Helen.” With that, the doctor turned on her heels and walked through a nearby door. From what Twilight could see around the woman, it appeared to be a normal office.
“C’mon, Twilight,” George spoke up as he started to leave the clinic. “Colonel Zhang’s waiting for us.”
Twilight fell in step behind George, while Sergei took position behind her. She suspected that they were escorting her like earlier, but wasn’t completely sure due to their lack of weapons.
That lasted until they got out into the hallway. An armored, grim faced Marine handed George a handgun and he holstered it on his belt. Twilight could only conclude that the humans still didn’t completely trust her, even though some considered her a hero. Still, the Marine flashed a quick smile as she trotted by.
“So…” began Twilight, “we’re meeting the Colonel. Do I have anything to worry about?”
“I don’t think so, Twilight,” replied George.
“Good,” she sighed. “I just hope he likes me.”
“Frankly, I don’t like you.”
Twilight could only blink at Colonel Zhang’s blunt remark. “I’m sorry?”
“Let me be clear. Yes, you saved a lot of lives earlier. Yes, my ODSTs adore you. But to me, you’re nothing more than a giant fucking security risk!” As he swore at her a vein in his forehead visibly pulsed. “If I had my way, you’d be locked up in the brig until we got to Reach!”
Involuntarily, Twilight gulped. Zhang was the first human to show any sign of open hostility towards her. Everyone else she’d encountered had been overly curious at worst.
“However,” Zhang continued, “in his infinite wisdom, Captain Ackermann has decided to be very lenient with you. You will not be spending the trip locked up. But that does not give you free reign aboard this ship. Am I understood?” Unable to speak, Twilight nodded her confirmation. “Good.”
Zhang turned around to face George and his troops, who were standing at attention. “Now, against my better judgment, I’m entrusting Angel Squad to look after our guest. I want this done by the book, and I will not tolerate any of your usual shenanigans!”
Sergei mumbled something under his breath. Unfortunately for him, Zhang must’ve heard him “What was that, Corporal?”
“Yob tvoyu mat, comrade Colonel,” he replied.
Zhang glared at Sergei for a moment. “Very well. All of you, dismissed!” With that, the Colonel swiftly walked out of the room. As soon as the door closed behind him, everyone let out a pent up breath.
“Holy shit, man! Holy shit! I can’t believe you said that to him!”
“Seriously, Sergei, you are one crazy Ruskie!”
“Why, what did he say?” asked Twilight.
“’Fuck your mother’,” everyone replied simultaneously.
Twilight’s jaw dropped upon hearing that invective. Part of her mind wondered why Zhang was treated with such open disrespect. From what her brother told her about life in the Guard, such an act was unheard of in Equestria.
Her thoughts were interrupted when the door hissed open once again. Expecting to hear Zhang return to dress down her new friends, she was surprised to hear a familiar, soft, feminine voice. “Did I miss anything?”
Twilight recognized Lin’s voice. She turned around, and received yet another shock. Twilight expected a big, hulking brute of a woman. However, without her armor, Lin was downright petite. Still, her muscles were well defined under her fatigues, and she looked like she could overpower Sam easily.
“Sergei just cussed out the Colonel right to his face,” said George incredulously.
Lin covered her mouth with a small, delicate hand and giggled like a little girl. Once again, in a strange case of juxtaposition, Twilight could almost see her friend Fluttershy standing there.
“Wish I’d seen that,” Lin said. “We’re on guard duty?”
“Correct, Lin,” George replied. “We were told to do this by the book, but since we don’t exactly have regs for a non-hostile alien life form, just treat Twilight like she’s a regular civilian.”
Lin nodded and walked towards what appeared to be a small kitchen area. Now that Twilight wasn’t busy being yelled at, she took a moment to survey the squad’s ready room. It was better furnished than the Royal Guard’s barracks at the palace. The walls were the same dull gray as the rest of the ship, but the floor was actually carpeted. Granted, it was a horrid green shag that would put Rarity into a coma, but at least it wasn’t metal.
The walls were decorated with what appeared to be framed photographs. Some showed families, while others appeared to be graduation photos. Twilight made a mental note to further study them for any similarities to pony culture.
Calling the kitchen a “kitchen” was being generous. It consisted of a small fridge, an even smaller pantry, a counter with a built in sink, and not much else. Lin opened the pantry, pulled out a small bag, and tossed it towards Twilight. Reacting, Twilight caught it just before it hit her, and saw that it was a bag of potato chips.
Her stomach grumbled sympathetically, much to everyone’s amusement. Chuckling to herself, she opened the bag and began munching on the snack. The taste was a definite improvement over her previous meal of bland vegetables.
“Well, when you’re done with your snack, I’ll show you your cabin,” said George.
“Here you are, home sweet home,” George said with mock enthusiasm. It was a tiny room, with sparse accoutrements. A small metal desk and chair along one wall, and a thin mattress in a recess on the opposite wall were the only bits of furniture.
“How luxurious,” Twilight deadpanned.
“Yeah, well, the Presidential Suite’s down for maintenance, and every other room was booked up.” George’s sarcasm was so thick that Twilight could almost see it hanging in the air. “If you need a snack, you can raid our pantry any time you want. The ready room’s just down the hall, so you don’t need an escort from here to there. Breakfast is served in the galley at 0700. One of us will wake you up in time.”
Twilight only nodded. She wondered how she’d tell the time, as there was no clock she recognized.
“It’s 2314 right now, so I’d suggest getting some sleep. We’ve all had a long day. I’ll get you a datapad in the morning. Then you’ll be able to browse the ship’s library.”
The unicorn smiled at that prospect. She’d desperately wanted to learn as much as she could about humans. Their history, their culture, everything she could.
“Light switch is right here.” George tapped the switch next to the door a couple times. “Night, Twi’. See you in the morning.”
“Good night.” With that, George left her to her thoughts, the door hissing closed behind him. Having nothing better to do, Twilight climbed into bed. She had a little difficulty, seeing as it was sized for a human. But, with a little effort, she managed, and it was surprisingly comfortable despite how thin it was. Nowhere near as good as her bed in Ponyville, but it’d do.
She laid her head down on the pillow and flicked the light switch with her magic, intending to get some sleep after a long, long day.
However, now that her mind was free of constant stimuli, it began racing. Her thoughts turned to her friends. No doubt they were wondering what exactly had happened to her. Princess Celestia would’ve undoubtedly been informed as soon as possible, and most likely would be busy puzzling out how the spell had misfired.
Being the Captain of the Royal Guard, her brother would most likely be with Celestia, and would know about her fate as well. The one saving grace would be that her parents most likely hadn’t been informed, but that would change soon enough. They would be in tears for a long time to come.
The worst part was, barring a miracle, there was likely no chance for Twilight to return home. She would never again see Rainbow Dash as she raced through the sky, never model another of Rarity’s dresses, and never taste another apple fresh from Sweet Apple Acres.
She’d give anything to see Fluttershy’s smiling face once more; to taste just one more of Pinkie’s cupcakes.
Sleep was a long time coming.
“You alright there, Sparky?”
Twilight looked up from her plate of half-eaten eggs. By any objective standard, she looked terrible. Her bloodshot eyes seemed to struggle to remain open, and her mane was a frizzy mess. She had barely even touched her breakfast.
“I’m fine; I just didn’t sleep that well last night.”
“Yeah, I know that feeling,” said Tony. “My first night away from home was rough. Hell, I bet I got less sleep than you did.”
Twilight couldn’t hold back a tired laugh. She recovered in a few seconds, only for the inquisitive part of her mind to take over. “I’ve been meaning to ask, where are you all from?”
“Oh, wanna know our history?” asked Tony. “Well, as for me, I’m Earthborn. Grew up in the rich jackass part of Venice.”
“I am Earthborn as well,” added Sergei, “Siberia to be precise. Winters were hard, but they made me into the man I am today.”
“Eridanus II for me,” Frank said. “Place was glassed years ago, though.”
“I’m from the city of Côte d'Azur on Sigma Octanus IV,” Samantha said wistfully. “I miss the beaches there."
“Madrigal here,” Weber stated matter-of-factly. “My family owned an orange grove until the Covenant arrived.”
“Jericho VII,” Lin added sadly. “I was still a kid when it was glassed. Lost my entire family.” Tears began to well up in her eyes. Twilight feared a repeat of yesterday, but Tony was on the ball and redirected the conversation.
“Ya know, boss, you’ve never told us where you came from.”
“I grew up on Reach,” George said tersely. “Got in a big fight with mom one day and ran all the way to Arcadia.”
“When was this?” asked Twilight.
“Back in ’25. A few months before the war started, actually,” he replied. “I don’t like talking about it that much. Too many… unpleasant memories.”
“Ever thought about seeing your mother again?” Twilight asked innocently, only to receive a venomous glare in return.
“Considering I promised her that I’d put a bullet in her skull if I ever so much as saw her again, no,” he spat, punctuating his declaration with a bite of sausage. “Yeah, I’m bitter.”
An awkward silence fell upon the group. Twilight’s ears drooped considerably as she realized just how sensitive a subject George’s past was. Never before had she met anypony so angry with their parents. Her inquisitive side was starting to tell her to prod until she found out the whole story, but she held the urge down as much as possible.
“So, Twilight?” asked Sam. “Why not tell us about Equestria? Does your Princess really raise and lower the sun each day?”
“Kinda,” replied Twilight. “I mean, she doesn’t actually force the sun to move. She just gives the planet a little shove each morning and evening to keep it rotating. Luna, however, does affect the moon’s revolution.”
“Why would something so… contrived exist naturally?” asked Weber.
Twilight took a deep breath before answering as she consciously switched over to lecture mode. “That’s the thing. Despite what everypony says, it isn’t really natural,” she said, drawing questioning looks. “Thousands of years ago, at the tail end of the first great pony civilization, a cataclysmic event struck Equis. Since then, we’ve had to use magic to control everything. Seasons, weather, even the rotation of the planet; everything’s managed by ponies.”
“Nopony knows,” Twilight answered ominously. “Most of the records from that time have either been lost or destroyed, and not even the Princesses were alive at the time.”
“Is that the whole world, or just Equestria?” asked Frank.
“A little of both,” Twilight answered. “Ponies, specifically pegasi, are rarely found outside of Equestria, and therefore the weather in other nations is not so carefully managed. However, at the same time, weather systems that start in Equestria eventually spread across the globe. Also, any nation with diplomatic ties to Equestria is given their own dedicated weather teams as a token of friendship.”
George gave off a low whistle. “That’s a lot of power for one nation. Seems to me that anyone that pisses off your Princess could be in for a world of hurt come harvest season.”
“Yes, and she knows it,” replied Twilight. “She’s even used that threat a few times when the Gryphon Empire has seriously threatened Equestria.”
“A shrewd statesman,” commented Sergei.
“Well, barring a few border skirmishes, it’s kept us out of any major conflict for the past five centuries, so I’d say it works,” Twilight added.
Further discussion was interrupted as a loud klaxon sounded off over the loudspeakers. For a moment, Twilight thought they were under attack again. However, that fear was laid to rest as soon as the ship’s AI began to speak. “All hands, we are entering Slipspace in one minute. I repeat, T-minus one minute to jump.”
Twilight heard an almost imperceptible humming sound. To her, it sounded almost as if it came from everywhere, and yet nowhere at the same time. It was barely at the edge of her hearing, and she doubted any of the humans could hear it with their small ears.
Approximately thirty seconds after Joy’s announcement, the ship began to rumble. It was only a slight tremor, and Twilight doubted she’d even notice were it not for the fork clattering on her plate.
At the one-minute mark, Twilight felt a sharp, disorienting lurch through her horn, as if something grabbed it and gave a hard tug. Her vision swam and she felt a debilitating wave of nausea, but the sensations passed momentarily. Blinking rapidly to clear her vision, Twilight could sum up the experience with only one word. “Whoa.”
“Yeah, entering Slipspace can be a trip.”
Further conversation was interrupted by another announcement from Joy. “All non-essential personnel, report to your assigned cryobay. I repeat; all non-essential personnel, report to your assigned cryobay.
The galley exploded into activity as various humans hurried to finish their meals. By contrast, Angel squad didn’t seem to be in any hurry. Twilight considered asking what the rush was for, but she knew that she’d be drowned out by the noise in the rest of the galley.
She was amazed that it only took three minutes for the rest of the humans to clear out, leaving her and the Angels alone. She doubted that anything besides an army of Pinkies would do it any quicker.
“What was that about?” she finally asked as the last human left.
“Well, it’s like this, Twi,” said George. “To save on resources, all personnel not needed to actually run the ship during Slipspace travel are cryogenically frozen during the jump. Essentially, they’re put into a deep sleep where they don’t need to eat, sleep, or even breathe.”
Twilight thought she’d already been blindsided by human technological advances enough to be numb to the feeling, but apparently she was wrong. Only now did she realize that she’d just scratched the surface. “That… makes a lot of sense, really. Why waste food and water on people that aren’t actually doing anything?” Still, one question remained. “Who exactly are the non-essential personnel?”
“Damn near everyone,” replied George. “Hell, if we weren’t supposed to be ‘guarding’ you, every one of us would be headed for the freezer right now.”
“So… how do we pass the time?”
“Oh, read, exercise, watch old movies,” Tony replied. “Really, though, it’s gonna be a boring two weeks on the way to Reach.”
“Says you!” Frank exclaimed. “I just got a reprieve from the freezer, and brother, I’m gonna enjoy it.”
“You say that now…” Tony muttered, shaking his head before returning to his breakfast.
Despite her dark mood, Twilight felt her spirits lifting just observing their antics. They reminded her so much of her friends. Oh sure, they weren’t perfect analogues, but they didn’t need to be. She doubted any of her friends could stay sane after going through what they had.
“All right, pack it in guys,” George said. “Let’s finish breakfast quickly and get some PT and weapons drills done. I don’t want us getting soft during our downtime.”
“Aye aye, sir,” everyone chorused as they resumed eating. Twilight joined in, attacking her eggs with renewed vigor. In less than three minutes, everyone was finished with their meal.
On their way out of the galley, Twilight had one more question to ask. “What’s PT?”
Twilight felt silly for asking what PT was as the squad entered the gym. Her brother’s in the Guard for crying out loud, she should’ve at least picked up a few of the terms they used. Then again, it wasn’t like she expected an alien military to use the same lingo as the Royal Guard. It was yet another strange parallel between the two societies.
Machines lined the wall of the room, most of which had functions that were easily identifiable. George, Weber, and Lin made a beeline for weight machines, while Sergei, Tony, and Sam each got on a treadmill. Frank was the odd one out, and began doing pull-ups at a horizontal bar.
Not knowing where to go, Twilight just stood in the doorway. None of the exercise machines were designed with quadrupeds in mind, and she knew that she could hurt herself if she wasn’t careful. What she didn’t realize, however, was that standing in the doorway could be just as hazardous. She realized her mistake when she felt someone nearly trip over her.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” Twilight exclaimed, turning to see Helen stumbling forward.
“It’s all right, Twilight,” Helen replied, quickly recovering from her near tumble. “Just try not to stand in the middle of doorways from now on.”
“I’m sorry,” she repeated, her ears drooping even lower.
Helen simply chuckled, shaking her head in amusement. “So, what brings all of you down here?”
“PT,” George answered as he lifted weights. “What about you, Doc? I thought you’d be riding in the Freezer.”
“I wish,” she replied. “I’ve got too much paperwork to do. Plus, I need to get started analyzing that artifact you brought me.”
“Think you’ll get anything off of it?”
“I sincerely doubt it,” admitted Helen. “At first glance, it appears more Forerunner than Covenant, and Halsey’s the expert on that particular subject, not me.”
Out of the corner of her eye, Twilight thought she saw George tense up. It was just for a moment and she didn’t have a clear view, so she filed it away as just her seeing things, possibly due to lack of sleep.
“So, are you going to use one of the machines, Twilight, or are you just gonna stand around watching?” Helen asked. Twilight mumbled something under her breath. “What was that?”
“I don’t know how to use the machines,” she replied.
“Oh, no worries then. Here, let me show you.” She led Twilight over to a treadmill and motioned for her to hop on. Her muzzle was just high enough for her to see the control panel. A few minutes later, after Helen showed her how to work the controls, Twilight was cantering along at a good clip while Helen jogged on the treadmill next to her.
Occupied with a task, Twilight began to feel better about herself. Sure, she’d need a nap later, but at least she wasn’t focusing on the negatives. “So, Helen, what’ll happen once we get to our destination?”
She was silent for a moment as she formulated her answer. “I’m… honestly not too sure, Twilight,” admitted Helen. “We’ve never had any contact with an intelligent, friendly alien life form. Expect a lot of initial hostility, especially from Ackerson if the bastard’s there.”
Twilight’s mood deflated a bit, but she was thankful for the warning. “How bad is he?”
With a grunt of exertion, George cut in. “Colonel James Ackerson’s the meanest, most heartless son of a bitch in the entire UNSC,” he said. “But, at the same time, he’s one of the most brilliant tactical geniuses in the Army. With his record, I don’t know why ONI put him behind a desk. Any ideas, Doc?”
“No.” Even Twilight could tell that Helen was a little too quick with her answer. Still, she thought it best not to question it, no matter how curious she was. She didn’t want to get off on the wrong hoof by being accused of spying.
An hour and a half later, Twilight was staring intently at the broken-down weapon on the table before her. She had to admit an almost morbid fascination with the device, despite its intended purpose.
“You have anything like that on your planet?” Frank asked as he worked on reassembling his rifle.
“No, not quite,” she replied, never turning her gaze away. “I mean, the Royal Guard has cannons, but they’re limited in number. They mainly use swords and spears.”
Having answered his question, she returned her full attention to the submachine gun in front of her. She didn’t know why it was a submachine gun, but she’d find out later. Every single part was inspected closely. Twilight felt a bit of awe at the meticulous craftsponyship that went into the device. Every part had a purpose, and they all came together into a beautifully designed machine.
After what seemed like an eternity, she began levitating parts. For a moment, Twilight envied Rarity’s eye for detail. But, she pressed on, slowly and carefully reassembling the weapon. Twilight was amazed that she’d convinced Frank to let her inspect the device, but apparently he couldn’t resist her charms.
George chose this moment to walk into the room, and he gaped at the disassembled weapon floating in midair. “Frank, why, exactly, did you let her have a weapon? Do you even realize how many regulations you’re breaking?”
“Sorry, boss,” he replied dejectedly. “I tried to tell her no, but she has the ‘puppy dog eyes’ down pat. Plus, I cleared it with Joy. She said it was alright.”
George just stared for a moment before speaking up. “Is that true, Joy?”
“Yes, Captain,” the AI replied. “I gave Corporal Grimes permission to allow Miss Sparkle to examine a standard issue M7. The design is not a military secret. Additionally, if she was a threat to the ship, Miss Sparkle could easily put a hole through the hull with her magic.” Twilight was not exactly happy with Joy’s analysis of her.
George groaned in annoyance. He knew that, even if the AI gave permission, Zhang would ride his ass hard if word about this got out. Angel Squad was in enough hot water as it was, and he didn’t need a Smart AI to put even more heat on him.
“We’ll discuss this later. Twilight, once you finish there, could you please head outside? Tony will escort you to our hallway and show you how to work a datapad. We’ll join you in a moment.”
“Yes sir,” she said as she finished with her task. Frank took the weapon from her magical grip and began inspecting it, allowing Twilight to leave immediately.
Once Twilight was out the door, she spotted Tony leaning casually against a bulkhead. “Took ya long enough,” he said playfully. “What, were you seeing how our weapons worked?”
Her response threw Tony for a loop, and he could only stare at the unicorn. “Oh… that’s cool. C’mon, let’s get back to the ready room. I’ve gotta set up for movie night.”
“All right.” Tony began walking down the hallway with Twilight close behind. It took them a few minutes to reach the elevator, and they had to wait for the platform to reach their level. They stood in awkward silence after Tony called the elevator, neither of the pair wishing to speak up.
But, once the elevator dinged, announcing its arrival, Tony had to speak up. “Something wrong, Twi?”
“I… think George is mad at me?” she replied.
“Oh, what for?” Twilight filled him in on the exchange between Frank and George back in the weapons locker. “Ah, I see. Don’t worry about it too much. The Captain’s just being a little too cautious with regs. He doesn’t want Colonel Zhang to get too bitchy when he wakes up.”
“You don’t like him very much, do you?”
“He’s a fucking coward,” Tony snapped, startling Twilight. “Sorry about that. The Colonel doesn’t exactly have an exemplary record.”
Twilight’s curiosity peaked as they stepped on the Elevator. “What did he do?”
Silence was her only answer as Tony pressed a button. At first, Twilight thought that he was simply avoiding the question. But, as soon as the lift started moving, he spoke up. “I heard this second hand, but I trust the source with my life. It happened when the Covenant attacked Jericho VII. We were on the other side of the planet, but a pilot I know saw it happen.
“The Colonel was at an evac center, directing efforts to get civilians off-world and out of harm’s way.” He paused for a moment before speaking again. “Now, I’ve seen Zhang’s record. His service up to that point had been exemplary. However, something about Jericho VII caused him to snap.
“When the Pelicans arrived, the Covenant were already trying to break in. The Colonel pushed his way towards the front of the crowd and onto a Pelican. He then ordered the pilot, my friend by the way, to take off immediately.”
“Yeah. Anyways, my friend tried to tell the Colonel to calm down and let him load the civilians, but all Zhang did was hold his sidearm to my friend’s head and repeat his order.”
Twilight was stunned. “You mean… he just left innocent civilians behind?”
“Eeyup,” Tony replied. “Shortly after that, the Covenant barged in. There were no survivors.”
“Horrible? Yeah, it is,” agreed Tony. “Too be fair to him, though, Colonel Zhang knows how badly he fucked up, and he’s taken it very hard. Nowadays, it’s rare that you see him without a bottle of Alt Burgundy in his hand when he’s not on duty. One time, I walked in on him staring down the barrel of his sidearm. He took one look at me and I knew he was about to pull the trigger. I managed to talk him down, but that just made him drink even more. I honestly feel bad for him.
“But, he lost a lot of respect that day, and he has yet to do anything to gain it back.”
The lift dinged, announcing their arrival, and Twilight felt a twinge of sympathy for the Colonel. What he did was horrible, but he was still suffering for his mistake.
“Hey,” Tony said, interrupting her thoughts. “I don’t like leaving bad vibes in the air. Wanna hear another story to cheer you up?”
“Ok, this one also took place on Jericho VII. It was just Sergei, the Captain, and I. This is when we confirmed just how crazy George is…”
The Pelican sped over the streets of the city, just below rooftop level. The dropship’s destination was a mall where Marine forces were holed up and under attack by Covenant troops. Inside the troop bay were three ODSTs who had long since dropped on the planet; they’d been on the ground for over three days.
Hanging off the back of the Pelican was a Warthog fast reconnaissance vehicle. The ODSTs didn’t need the vehicle for their mission, but the only Pelican available already had it, and they saw no reason to drop it off.
Suddenly, the Pelican began to shake. One look out the back and anyone could see why. A half dozen Banshees were following them and taking potshots with their plasma cannons.
“Hang on!” the pilot yelled as he bled altitude and turned sharply, trying to shake their pursuers. Two of the Banshees turned too wide and crashed into a skyscraper. The rest remained on the Pelican’s tail, and no matter how hard the pilot tried, he could not shake them.
After two minutes, one of the ODSTs stood up. “Oh fuck this shit!” George shouted, just before running towards the back door. When he reached the edge, he took a flying leap, and landed on the hood of the Warthog. Taking a moment to get his bearings, George slowly climbed over the ‘hog, headed for the gun on the rear. “You two coming, or what?”
Hesitantly, Sergei and Tony looked at each other and just shrugged. Whatever the Captain was planning was fucking insane, but he’d yet to steer them wrong. They stood up, and made the same leap as George, one after the other. Tony crawled up and climbed into the driver’s seat, while Sergei took shotgun.
Not knowing the plan, Sergei and Tony unslung their rifles and took potshots at the Banshees, while George opened up with the main gun. With their combined firepower, they managed to destroy the pursuing Banshees with relative ease. However, they didn’t have much chance for respite, as even more Banshees took their place, and were joined by anti-air fire from Covenant ground forces.
“Twenty seconds,” the pilot called over the radio, his voice all business. “LZ is hot! I repeat, LZ is hot!”
“Take us over the roof!” George ordered. “There should be a skylight!”
Sergei perked up when he heard George. “Captain, what are you planning?”
Only silence and gunfire answered the Russian as George fired upon the Banshees. Tony and Sergei shifted their fire to ground based targets, focusing on Shade turrets and anything with a Fuel Rod Cannon, thanking providence that the Covenant made the deadly weapons so damned flashy.
The mall came into view, and soon the Pelican was hovering over the large skylight, something that seemed to be standard to malls all across the galaxy. Through it, Tony and Sergei could see Covenant forces engaging Marines on the upper level who were defending civilians. How George planned to get them inside was anyone’s guess.
“Prepare to drop!” Wait, what?
All three ODSTs felt their stomachs jump up into their throats as the Pelican released the vehicle. With a loud crash and the tinkle of shattering glass, the Warthog dropped through the skylight. They landed hard in between wide-eyed troopers and Covenant. Judging by the sickening crunch, they also landed on top of an Elite.
George and Sergei fired on the Covenant as Tony began driving. He didn’t have much room to maneuver indoors, but he didn’t need to go far, just over a staircase and near the line the Marines were holding. Their added firepower allowed the defenders to push the Covenant back, if only temporarily. They’d be back, but hopefully not before evac.
An officer came running up to the ODSTs as they dismounted from their vehicle. “Glad you boys could drop in.”
It was a terrible joke. Simply horrible. Twilight knew it was too. It was an objective fact of the universe. But, despite all that, Twilight couldn’t help but laugh.
“I swear to god, I wanted to smack him for that horrible joke,” said Tony as he tried, and failed, to suppress chuckles of his own
They had reached the door to the ready room by the time both could form coherent sentences again. “So,” Twilight started to say, “what happened next?”
“Well, the Covvies threw a few more waves at us, but we managed to hold them off with minimal casualties until the evac shuttles arrived. Once the civvies were on their way off world, we continued on fighting until we were ordered to retreat.” He didn’t say that the Covenant had started glassing the world before the retreat order was given. Twilight’s mood didn’t need to be dragged down again.
“So, now that we’re here, let me show you how to access the onboard library.”
Twilight almost stopped herself from squealing. Almost.