Guard Barracks, The Royal Palace
August 25th 1023 RC
“So you're just giving us this stuff?” Rainbow Dash asked, as she picked up a helm with her front hooves and held it up to inspect it.
“This "stuff" as you call it is finely crafted bronze plate with an iron backing,” the large earth pony in charge of the guards' armory stated flatly. “It is both strong enough to withstand hits from a manticore and flexible enough to allow nearly full movement.”
“It's so heavy, though,” Dash said, hefting the helmet back onto its rest. “It'll slow me down way too much.”
“Going fast ain't everything, Rainbow,” Applejack observed as she picked up the helm Dash had just set down. “'Sides, some of us ain't got your speed and we kinda need the protection.”
“Yeah, I can see that,” Dash said, and then started to flap her wings until she was hovering a few feet in the air. “But need I remind you which pony you're talking to?” She asked in a cocky tone.
“Somepony who's asking to be skewered on a spear or stuck with an arrow,” the armorer gruffly interjected. “If you don't want plate, that's fine. We do have some light chainmail for pegasi who prefer speed.”
“Hay yeah, that's what I'm all about,” Dash said as she descended back to the floor. “Where do you keep it?”
The armorer rolled his eyes at that, but said nothing about the cyan pegasus' attitude. “Follow me then,” he said, turning to head off to another room. He did glance back at two of the ponies behind him, though. “Try not to touch anything until I get back. Some of the equipment is quite heavy.”
“We'll be careful,” Applejack replied. She waited until the guard left before she put the helm she was holding onto her head and then looked to the pony still with her. “How do Ah look?”
“Ridiculous,” Rarity said with a huff. “I can't believe the princesses want us covered in such tacky armor. And the things it will do to my mane! I'll look like some common cart puller.” She raised and pressed a hoof to her forehead and rolled her eyes back. “Oh, the horror, the horror!”
“Will you quit that?” Applejack asked, giving the white unicorn an irritated look. “You heard what they said, we gotta be ready for anything.”
“Humph,” Rarity replied, tossing her head up and back in disdain. “By putting armor on? If we're attacked then we can certainly use our elements to drive them off.”
“You know things don't work that way,” Applejack countered as she shifted the helm until it was more comfortable. “Twi said they're only meant to be used as a last resort. And even then she said nopony's got any idea if'n they'll do any good against non-magical types.”
“Well, if we've resorted to fighting, then we would have failed our duty to welcome those strange beings in peace,” Rarity said with a huff. “Surely anypony who has power enough to enter other worlds must be peaceful. They would destroy themselves otherwise.”
“And I suppose Nightmare Moon and Discord were just chopped daisies, then?” Applejack retorted. Turning around, she saw a stand holding up some back plates, and she walked over as she continued to speak. “Sometimes, Rarity, somepony don't got any sense enough to stop bein' a pain. Them times the only thing they take seriously is a good wallopin'.”
Rarity scoffed and raised her nose at that. “I suppose I should expect such a suggestion from such an unrefined pony.”
“Now don't you git on that again,” Applejack replied. “We had this discussion way back, so I don't need a refresher.” She turned back to the armor stand and looked carefully along the backplate. “Now help me out here.”
“The guard said for us not to touch anything,” Rarity reminded her friend.
“He said to try not to touch anything, and you don't really touch things when you use that unicorn magic, right?” Applejack rejoined, and then turned to give the unicorn a smile. “Besides, it's not like Ah'm asking for you to grab somethin' off of some shelf full o' precariously perched parcels. Ah just want you to lift this armor off the stand and help me put it on,” she said. Then after a moment of thought, she added “please.”
Rarity sighed in frustration. “Very well,” she said wearily, and then concentrated. Her horn began to glow with magic and she reached out with it to grasp the armor and lifted it. She grunted slightly as the plate was quite heavy, but she managed to set it on Applejack's back without issue.
Applejack herself grunted as the weight was placed fully on her as Rarity released her grip. “Sakes alive, that's got some heft to it!” She said, surprised and a little excited. She bent her head down at that and set about grasping the straps for the armor with her mouth and started to fasten the front portion to her chest and neck, while Rarity, after a break, focused her magic once again and tightened the rear straps to secure the armor to the orange earth pony's stomach and flanks. After the pair was done Applejack wobbled a bit to make sure the armor wouldn't shift, and then slowly began to walk around the room.
“So, how does it feel?” Rarity asked, feeling curious despite herself.
“It's okay,” Applejack replied, and then paused to think for a moment. “It's sort of like havin' a harness on, but spread out all over.” She sauntered over to a shield that had been shined to a mirror polish and looked at her reflection. “Ah kinda like it.”
“Figures,” Rarity sniffed. “I should have stayed with Twilight and learned from the princesses.”
“You know they asked for her specifically,” Applejack observed. “Didn't say anything about you.”
“I know, but at least I could have sat and watched something intelligent occur rather than see you parade about in gaudy, scruffy-looking metal.”
“Hey, who's scruffy-lookin'?” Applejack demanded.
“What the hay?” A voice bellowed out from across the room, and both Applejack and Rarity jumped and spun to see that the armorer had returned. “Didn't I tell you two not to touch anything?” He demanded.
“She did it!” Rarity said, and then briefly pointed to Applejack with a foreleg.
“She helped!” Applejack returned, nodding her head towards the unicorn.
The stallion snorted and lowered his head at their replies, and both Rarity and Applejack took an involuntary step back. “Think we should run?” Rarity asked her friend in a low voice.
“As Big Mac would say, "hay yes!"” Applejack replied, and then spun about and dashed out of the room. After a split second, Rarity followed, while behind her the stallion armorer ran after them.
South Garden, Royal Palace
August 25th 1023 RC
Warm sunlight poured over the well-manicured lawns and topiary like a blanket, covering everything with a soft, golden light as the dawn waned into a glorious morning. There was a slight chill to the air caused by the encroaching autumn, but Twilight Sparkle ignored the mild discomfort as she kept her eyes closed and concentrated on the words of her instructor, princess Celestia. “Calm your mind and let the currents of thought slow,” the white alicorn spoke softly, pitching her voice so that it would not interfere with the calm she wanted from her student. “Think of your consciousness as a river, sometimes pouring through rocky rapids, other times pouring over waterfalls, or slowing and meandering lazily across a plain. Picture that in your mind, and then follow the river of your thoughts until you find a calming, a patch where the waters have slowed and a lake of peace has formed.”
Twilight did as she was asked, and soon enough she found the imagery evoked by her mentor as seeming appropriate. “Calm,” the lavender unicorn told herself quietly. She imagined her thoughts slowing, as if moving down and ever gentler slope until they reached a point and stopped. She could feel them there, but they were quiet and still, yet still remained fluid.
Celestia let herself smile briefly as she saw an expression of total calm come over her student. “That's it,” the princess gently encouraged. “Now, imagine yourself standing on the shore of that pool. Below you, at your hooves, is every one of your thoughts and ideas, and all of your learning. Let it sit there, undisturbed, and instead look up and outward.”
Twilight didn't respond, but she followed her teacher's instruction, turning her attention away from the thoughts of her conscious mind and focusing on senses that came from without. She became suddenly aware of the feel of each individual blade of grass she sat on, and how they spread her weight to the ground. She heard the trees in the garden sigh their quiet song of respiration, and smelled the tang of sweet garlic growing in a private vegetable garden somewhere in Canterlot.
Just as she was grasping all of this, Twilight saw something in her mind's eye twinkle. “Princess?” She asked, unsure of what she was witnessing.
“You see it already?” Celestia asked, unable to keep a mild tone of surprise from her voice. “I'm impressed, my student. But before you let yourself feel pride,” the alicorn immediately added, “keep on that thread. Do not try to reach for it, but do not look away, either.”
“Yes, princess,” Twilight said, her voice barely above a whisper. “It's beautiful. What is it?”
“That is the Binding, the tie that holds the strings of magic together,” Celestia replied. “Without it the forces that we call magic would not work. It is special to our world, to our universe, and it unites every being that thinks and speaks with one another. For that reason our world has had more peace than most could ever hope for.”
Twilight mentally gaped in awe at her mentor's words, and continued to do so as she seemed to soar towards the twinkle and saw it grow into a long strand that wove back in on itself in an infinite pattern. Her mind boggled at the insane complexity of it, and the unicorn found herself blurring her own perception of it to keep her mind intact.
“Your instincts serve you well, child,” Celestia said with approval. “Even myself and Luna cannot look on the entirety of the Binding without losing our minds. Yet, a portion of it will not overwhelm, and so you must learn to selectively drop your filters to look for problems and solutions. Fortunately, what I want you to see today is far easier than most to detect,” Celestia added, and then paused to think. “Pull back a bit, and look for a spot where the glow is faint.”
It was hard for her to obey, so beautiful was the webwork beneath her, but Twilight Sparkle forced her mind to follow the instruction, and soon she was looking at the web from a point where it just looked like a soft glow to her virtual sight. Once there she looked back and forth until she saw a dark patch in the field. “I see it,” the lavender unicorn reported.
“Move in closer,” Celestia said. “Let your filter drop a bit as you do, but be careful to not overdo either action.”
Cautiously, Twilight advanced as directed, and she saw the hole in the lightwork grow large and more defined. Soon it was so large in her mental vision that she could barely see the edges, and here she made herself stop. “What is this?” The unicorn asked.
“That is the hole that the beings made when they entered our universe,” Celestia explained. “It remains open, a pathway back to their reality through which one could see the other side, if we only had the ability to do so. Unfortunately their world lacks the magic we use, so we remain blind beyond the borders of our reality.
“But there is a reason I asked you to find this spot,” the alicorn continued. “Touch it, but do so gently. So long as you do not use too much force you will be safe.”
Twilight frowned and felt her concentration wane a bit in worry, but her teacher's words comforted her and she did as told, reaching out with her mind to lay an ethereal touch upon the black spot. Despite her trepidation it did not feel hostile or painful, but rather it was merely cool, almost cold to her sense. Where the Binding seemed to pulse and shift the black spot seemed to be static and unmoving, yet the longer she touched it the more Twilight felt something familiar in it. “It feels so strange and different,” she said. “But it feels like I've known it before.”
Celestia allowed herself a frown, comfortable that her student couldn't see it in her state. “You are feeling the fabric of their reality. It exists at a lower energy state, which is why magic does not exist there. Though I admit to some confusion how you could have encountered anything like this prior to today. Have you been doing these exercises without telling me?”
“No, Celestia,” Twilight replied, the emotions in her mentor's voice disturbing her. She saw the dark patch and the fringed of the Binding begin to blur, and she tried to calm herself again. Unfortunately, all that she had seen was starting to weigh on her thoughts, and despite her best efforts they began to flow again, obliterating any sort of sense beyond her normal ones. Twilight blushed and opened her eyes to give Celestia a sheepish look. “I'm sorry, I couldn't hold it any longer.”
The alicorn graced her student with a warm smile. “That's all right, child. I shouldn't have distracted you. But it is of no matter, you accomplished all I had hoped you would, and more. I think this is a good a place as any to pause and rest your weary mind.”
Twilight blushed at her mentor's praise, and she nodded. “If you say so your majesty,” she said trustingly.
A loud crash interrupted the scene, and both Celestia and Twilight Sparkle startled as Applejack and Rarity ran through a doorway that had been suddenly bucked open. “He's coming!” Rarity shouted at her friend as they bolted across the garden. “Can't you run any faster?”
“You try keepin' up this pace in a metal dress!” Applejack retorted as they bounded around topiary.
Behind them, the irate armorer stormed out of the door they had just vacated. “Come back here you foals before you hurt yourselves!” He shouted before bounding out after them.
Twilight blushed furiously as she watched two of her friends try and stay out of the armorer's reach, eventually resorting to running in circles around the garden. “Princess Celestia, I'm so sorry,” the lavender unicorn said as Applejack and Rarity completed another circuit, the armorer right behind them.
A sound of light laughter startled Twilight, and she looked up to see the brilliant white alicorn making the sound. “Oh my goodness, that is quite the sight,” Celestia said, her voice filled with cheer. “But I think this has gone on long enough,” she added. Immediately after, her horn began to glow and Twilight looked out to the running ponies in time to see a golden glow envelope all three. Applejack, Rarity, and the armorer all yelped in surprise as they were lifted off of the ground and were held in mid-air until they stopped moving their legs. Once they had stilled, they were floated over to where Celestia and Twilight Sparkle stood, and then finally set down on the ground again. “Now that everypony is settled down, I would like to know what has caused this?” The alicorn asked in a pleasant tone.
Both Applejack and Rarity seemed to shrink in on themselves at the question, but the armorer simply stood tall and replied evenly. “I had instructed these two to not touch anything in the main armor room while I left to assist their friend in finding suitable chainmail. When I came back the orange one had incorrectly put on a helm and backplate and they both ran before I could correct the issue.”
“You yelled and then charged at us,” Rarity protested. “Besides, how is it on wrong?”
“Those straps are placed over the wrong areas,” the armorer replied. “Also that's a male model plate, it won't fit properly over a female's differently-shaped flanks.”
“Are you callin' me fat?!” Applejack exclaimed, turning to spit the stallion with a furious gaze. “Ah'll have you know that Ah spend all day buckin' apples when Ah'm not-”
“The female anatomy is simply different from that of a male,” the armorer replied evenly, yet loud enough to cut through Applejack's outburst. “It is a fact of life, not an insult. I'm sure you've noticed, having run around in that plate, that it's a bit loose around the shoulders?”
“Er, uh,” Applejack muttered, and then shifted her shoulders a bit. “Maybe a little.”
“And that is why I wanted you to wait until I got back,” the larger earth pony explained. “You could hurt yourself making uninformed decisions.”
“An excellent point, Steelshod,” Celestia interjected, naming the armorer. “Though I think you could have made it better had you not chased these two mares around the palace.”
The armorer bowed his head, and everypony could see a blush form on his face. “Yes majesty. You have my apologies for my lapse in judgment.”
“And they are accepted,” Celestia said, and then looked to the two ponies Steelshod had been chasing. “Are they not, ladies?”
“Sure are,” Applejack replied, while Rarity nodded and added a “yes.”
“Good,” Celestia said, and then took a moment to look over the ponies around her. “Now that's cleared up, you all should...”
Twilight Sparkle and the others felt an odd sense of foreboding as they watched their princess's good-natured expression ebb away alongside her fading voice. “Princess, what's wrong?” Twilight asked.
“Our time has become limited,” the alicorn said simply as her attention came back to the others around her. “They have begun to move.”
DropShip Heart of Steel
Zenith jump point, Unknown/Sol System
Accelerating at 0.1g
“I don't like it.”
James McKenna grunted at his wife's observation. “Neither do I,” he admitted. “O'Connell's reasons are specious in the least.”
“And his motives are more transparent than vacuum,” Rebecca McKenna dryly observed. “Or do you really think that a man even Free Skye dumps has enough of a soul to care about rescuing survivors?”
“I could have sworn I was the adoptive Lyran in our relationship,” James said, amused.
Rebecca shook her head briefly, letting her hair bob back and forth in the tiny gravity the Heart of Steel produced via acceleration. “Just because I'm a Fed Rat, dear, doesn't mean I can't develop a healthy hatred of foreign terrorists. And I know you remember that one mission we did during the last uprising where O'Connell's name just happened to appear on the 'shoot on sight' list.”
“Yeah,” James said, his amusement gone. He turned his head to look over the Steel's MechWarrior briefing room to gather his thoughts. Fortunately for him, it was empty of the other Dark Horse members save two, and both were welcome. “What do you think about this, Hermes?”
“Hermes” was Johannes Schneider, the resident reconnaissance specialist and former MIIO spook. The black haired man just shook his head slowly. “That man” - he refused to call O'Connell by name unless absolutely necessary - “would slit his mother's throat if it got him what he wanted. Rebecca's right, he's just after loot.”
“If that's the case, why don't we do something about it?” The fourth person in the room asked plaintively. “Let me and Freddie launch and we'll punch a hole in that overgrown egg's backside.”
“And then his six fighters come out and vape you, Melissa,” Schneider observed. “Then they return the favor to us, and O'Connell can commandeer the other two ships in our little task group and do whatever he wants.”
“He's doing whatever he wants now,” Melissa countered. “Captain Marquette was right to ask us to burn together for the planet. Then O'Connell comes up with this bullspit about going in at a full G and doing recon? We're the spec ops specialists here, he's the one with the heavy metal, and he expects us to buy that trash?”
James sighed deeply and shook his head. “Mel, he can do that because as you've noted, he's the one with the heavy metal,” the mercenary commander told his youngest daughter. “We're just too outmatched for a straight up fight.”
“Besides,” his wife grumbled out beside him. “Even filth like O'Connell knows not to do anything too stupid or obvious. Sooner or later, someone's going to check in and find out why the central hub of the HPG network went down, and if it got out that O'Connell's Desperadoes hit people up hard after a disaster, then they'd be pretty much screwed out of any legitimate contract in the Inner Sphere, and probably most of the Periphery.”
“There's still room for him to pull more than enough dirty tricks,” Melissa McKenna noted.
“Yes, there is,” James admitted. “Which is why I told Mei to take us to a one-point-five G burn as soon as the Red Skye lands.”
The others in the room winced at that. “One point five?” Rebecca asked. “For how long?”
“About a week,” James replied, and then shook his head at the groans that met his statement. “I know, I know, that's insane. But if we want to actually get there in time to keep O'Connell from crossing the line we'll need to hustle.”
“Just to be sure you're aware, sir,” Schneider began. “But you do know that you'll be making the entire unit completely exhausted by the time we make planetfall?”
“Military units have burned harder for longer,” James replied. “The Kathil Uhlans hit Sian after a two-g burn.”
“Yeah, and they had that gas that neutered Liao's 'mechs when they got there,” Schneider replied. “I don't suppose you have a similar cheat mode for us to use?”
“That's what I pay you for, isn't it?” James asked with a cocky smirk on his face. The expression disappeared in a flash, though, when his wife elbowed him in the ribs. “Ack! Confound you, woman!”
“What my husband means, Hermes, is that he'd like you to work up a few ideas,” Rebecca spoke in a sweet tone, ignoring her James' complaints. “Isn't that right, dear?”
“I should hang you by your feet and slap you with a fish.”
“Then who would do the accounts, Jim?” Rebecca innocently asked.
James gave the brown-haired woman a harsh look before he grunted. “Very well. You win this round, miss Bond, but know that I shall return more powerful than you can possibly imagine.”
“Stop it with the ancient culture references, Jim; you're breaking Hermes' mind.”
“On the contrary, ma'am,” Schneider replied. “It's always interesting to hear an old man slip into senile storytelling.”
The two women laughed at the joke, and Schneider joined in as well despite being the one telling it. For his part, James smiled in good humor. It's almost good to be the butt of a joke now, he thought mournfully. Soon enough no one will be in a mood to laugh.