Stay awhile, and listen.
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DropShip Red Skye
Low Orbit, Unknown planet (Terra Analog)
Garth O'Connell was not a happy man. This statement would be true most times, but it took on new layers of meaning as the grizzled mercenary stared down at the electronic plotting table in the Red Skye's bridge. “Where the frack is everything?” He asked, anger and confusion mixing into a potently explosive combination.
“Well,” the captain of the Red Skye began, “we've picked up a fair number of radar returns that show a good many towns-”
“This is freakin' Terra!” O'Connell rounded on the spacer. “There shouldn't be just towns, there should be cities! Megacities! Arcologies! Or at least enough pieces of them to form a carpet of junk from ocean to ocean.” The mercenary turned back to the plot and watched the composite image slide as it moved to show the area immediately below the Overlord-class DropShip. “What the frack just removes all of that and leaves behind towns?”
His executive officer decided now was the best time to speak up. “We've still got the east coast of this continent to pass over yet, boss,” Kilroy offered. “Coasts are always good to find cities, even on newer worlds.”
“Yeah,” O'Connell said, but while his volume had been reduced to a reasonable level his anger was still present. “But didn't you notice the whole place looks wrong?” He asked, looking back over at the Skye's captain. “Grimes, I'm not imagining it, am I?” For a wonder, O'Connell was genuinely asking now. “Or did I get taught the wrong map when I took history in school?”
“I wish you had been,” Grimes replied. “Because then at least I could tell you so and everything would be sane and normal. But nothing on this globe is quite the way it should be. I'm seeing big shifts in coastlines, mountain ranges, and rivers, just to name the most obvious.”
“Then is it really Terra?” Kilroy asked. “I know the charts match up and all, but this,” he gestured to the plotting table, “is like some sort of caricature of a world map. It looks like a kid took crayons and started doodling Terra's coastlines from memory.”
“It can't be anything but Terra,” Grimes protested. “It's in the right spot, it has the right mass, it has Luna in the right position, and it's about one AU out from the primary.”
“But it can't be,” Kilroy said. “This doesn't look anything like it.”
“Doesn't matter,” O'Connell said, interrupting the others' argument. “We're going in.”
“What?” Kilroy asked, shocked. Then he saw his commander staring down at the plot and saw the same thing O'Connell did; a cluster of cities of various sizes near the coastline of one of the smaller continents.
“Whatever's going on,” O'Connell continued. “There's still someone living down there. And cities that big at the least will have valuables.”
“They don't look damaged,” Kilroy countered. “They might have enough forces to fight us.”
“Something tells me they won't,” O'Connell said, his voice distant. “Dunno why, but I know it. Grimes,” he added, turning to look at the spacer. “Mark the big city there,” he said and pointed to one on the coast. “And shape orbit to land us right in the middle of it on the next pass.”
“Yes sir,” the captain replied, and then turned to carry out the directive.
Guards Barracks, Royal Palace
September 8th 1023 RC
“All guards scramble! All guards scramble! This is not a drill, all guards scramble now!” The voice of the captain of the guards reverberated throughout the barracks, carried more by sheer force of volume than any magic or technology. In every room, in every station pegasi raced about, stepping into armor mounting racks that helped them equip themselves with little outside help. Helms fit snugly onto heads and spears and blades were brought out of their careful storage to be carried in slings that would let them be used easily even by ponies that lacked a unicorn's magical telekinesis.
The noise of all this activity in the predawn hours rose into a tremendous racket, waking up ponies across Canterlot, as well as the entire palace. Six ponies in particular rushed out from guest rooms in the palace and were quickly guided by staff to the throne room, arriving to find Princess Luna standing amidst several older ponies dressed in royal livery. At the entrance of the Elements of Harmony, however, the princess of the night held up a hoof and bade the young mares towards her. “I am glad thou art here,” Luna said earnestly. “The first set of strangers hath begun their approach to our world.”
“They're landing?” Twilight Sparkle asked, still trying to get her mind in working order after being awakened in the middle of the night.
“Yes, and they are headed for Manehattan,” Luna responded. “I hath activated the guards and my sister is being awakened as we speak. I hath also called for some chariots for thee, and General Stonewall here,” she gestured to a dark gray earth pony with a red mane, “will go with thee and thine out with the airborne guards to see if their intentions are peaceful.”
“And if they're not peaceful?” Fluttershy asked, her voice wavering, but still strong enough to speak through her fear.
“Then we fight a delaying action while the guards' earth pony and unicorn contingents march out to meet us,” Stonewall answered, his voice accented similarly to Applejack's. “Meanwhile, the royals will call up a full army, if the situation calls for it.”
“Now wait a moment, please,” Rarity spoke up, her affected accent cutting through the background of murmurs from the other royal advisers in the throne room. “Isn't it a bit early to be worrying about fighting them?”
“Miss, it is better to be ready and not have to act, than needing to act and not being ready,” Stonewall stated the old axiom. “I hope they're peaceful as apple pie and far more appealing, but we cannot take chances with the safety of Equestria.”
“Quite right,” an unmistakable voice spoke from the entrance to the throne room, and everypony turned and bowed to Celestia as she purposefully strode in. “However, there shall be a slight change in plans. General Stonewall will not be the only pony going with you.”
Most of the gathered ponies seemed somewhat confused at this proclamation, save Luna, who gasped lightly. “Celestia, please,” she begged, and then trotted over to stand in front of her sister. “Thou art needed here.”
“I'm needed out at Manehattan as well,” the white alicorn replied. “Whatever may happen, one of us must go as a representative of Equestria. You have always been the better of us for organization and efficiency, Luna, and I cannot think of anypony I would trust more to raise an army if it comes to that.”
“That is not a good reason, and thou knowest it,” Luna protested. “You are the one everypony looks to in a crisis, the one who has always had a level head and a calm demeanor. You are a born leader the likes of which I am not and could never be. It took me a thousand years of isolation and the Elements of Harmony to drive that lesson in, and I will not stand here and let thee go off to face heavens know what!”
The sudden outburst of emotion stopped everypony in their tracks, and all stared in surprise at the ordinarily reserved and proper night princess. For her part Luna used the silence to take in a deep breath, and then she continued in a calmer vein. “Please, mine sister,” she said imploringly. “You are needed here, and not just by the government.”
Celestia unfolded a wing and stretched it out to gently rub the feathered tip against her sister's muzzle. “You have no idea how much it warms my heart to hear the love in your voice,” Celestia said. “But you know why I must go. We have both felt the shift in the Binding; something is about to change the way our world works, and these new creatures are no doubt part of it. I must be there, Luna, so as to lend my hoof in its shaping. Or barring that, I will at least be able to see what has changed and come up with a way to adapt.
“So I must go,” Celestia added, and then smiled. “But the Elements of Harmony will be with me, as well as the best and the brightest of Equestria. If you must worry,” she continued, her voice growing dire. “Then concern yourself for the citizens of Manehattan, for they will be the first to see the new shape of the world.”
Red Skye 'Mech Bay, Deck 9
Approaching unknown city, anomalous planet
The thunder of fusion engines shook through the entire compartment, and even reached up into the cockpit of the 85-ton Battlemaster that O'Connell used as his personal BattleMech. He ignored it readily, however, as it was utterly familiar whereas the feed he was getting from the Red Skye's external cameras was not. “Grimes, if you're screwing with me I'm going to do unkind things to you.”
“Major,” the ship's captain began, using O'Connell's technical title as commander of a battalion, “do you really think I would make up something like this and expect you to believe it?” He asked, his incredulity seeping through the normally dehumanizing radio channel. “I'm the one feeding you the take and even I don't believe it.”
What they saw was utterly confusing to their long cynical minds. Although the ship was several kilometers above their target that was still in local twilight, the cameras were already returning quality images, and at first O'Connell had been pleased to see them. The city they were descending upon might not be one of Terra's megalopoli, but it was large enough to warrant an extensive transport system in and around its environs, mainly roads but also rail lines. Nothing seemed to have been damaged at all, and as the Red Skye descended through the planet's upper atmosphere they had finally detected artificial radio waves. The technology being used was old frequency modulated analog, but at least it proved there was some sort of industrial base that they might loot. It had given the mercenary commander some hope that the whole affair following the misjump might be profitable after all.
Now, though, he simply stared in confounded silence as he watched an image of some sort of horse statue holding up a torch and a book, similar to an old Earth monument that had been destroyed during Amaris the Usurper's occupation. The camera panned down, shifting from the statue to a look of the large park Grimes was aiming the ship to land in, and even at this range, O'Connell could make out various shapes of pastel figures milling about, looking up. Even with the odd angle produced by looking almost straight down on them, he could tell they weren't human.
They look like the freakin' statue.
Deep below, something about the situation finally threw a switch, and the grizzled MechWarrior felt an anger building in his chest. This is a joke, isn't it? He asked himself. Some sort of cosmic joke, a giant freakin' practical joke with me as the center. His hands tightened on the armrests of his command couch as the rage grew. Thrown out of Free Skye, hunted by Loghrin, the Blakies' ROM, and forced to take a contract guarding some company's factories that doesn't give us the right to arm from them, the misjump, and now this?
Grimes said something, and O'Connell had to shake his head briefly to regain his wits. “What was that?” He gruffly asked.
“I said radar's got targets flying in from the west,” the Red Skye's commander repeated. “Coming in slow, too slow to be fighters. Too small, as well, but I've got hundreds of 'em on the scope.”
“VTOLs?” O'Connell asked.
“I wish,” Grimes replied, his voice again taking on a timbre of sheer confusion. “Those freakin' horse things are flying?”
“Give me the feed!” O'Connell barked out. Grimes didn't reply verbally, but soon enough the camera view on an auxiliary MFD switched from the downward view to one facing west. To his consternation, O'Connell saw ranks upon ranks of the hose creatures, though this had wings and were using them rather well, or so it seemed.
He didn't recognize them, mythology being one amongst many topics his education omitted. He did, though, study them as closely as the feed allowed, and despite the situation, O'Connell found himself grinning as he saw the sort of armor and weapons they carried. “Just take us down, Grimes,” he ordered. “Keep the gun crews up and tracking, but hold your fire for now. We just might be able to intimidate the locals after all.”
“Is that what you're calling those things?” The spacer asked, more in shock than in disgust. “How the frack did they build a city without hands?”
“I'm sure we'll find out,” O'Connell said. “Meanwhile, make the feed open to everyone and I'll let the boys know we seem to have finally found some sort of alien life.”
“Alien life that makes cities and statues that are parodies of real ones on Terra, on a planet that is itself a mockery of the homeworld?” Grimes asked, still sounding shaken up.
“You got a better explanation?” The grizzled major asked, and then waited in silence for a bit as the Overlord-class DropShip continued her descent. “Didn't think so. Just pass it to Greg and let me think in peace on how we're going to leverage the situation.”
Approaching Manehattan, Equestria
September 8th 1023 RC
“Must we wear this atrociously gauche armor?” Rarity asked from one of the chariots being pulled through the sky. “It's ruining my coiffure.”
Twilight Sparkle had to restrain herself from rolling her eyes at her friend. “It's necessary to protect us in case we're attacked,” the lavender unicorn told the white one, since they rode in the same chariot. “You've been told this.”
“I know,” Rarity said, pouting slightly. “But it's just so unfair. We get guards hand-me-downs that look all drab and boring – oh, no offense, good sirs,” Rarity quickly added, when one of the two pegasi pulling their chariot turned his head to give her an irritated look. “But meanwhile, all you have to do is look at Princess Celestia and see how truly fashionable you can make even plate metal look!”
Twilight felt a twinge of anxiety at the mention of her mentor in armor, but she forced it down and glanced ahead of the two chariots and two independent flying pegasi that carried – or were – her friends. Ahead by a few dozen feet was Princess Celestia herself, resplendent in armor that looked both ancient and meticulously bejeweled, and yet shined like new in the crowning sun and moved with simple ease. That the alicorn even had armor of her own had surprised the other ponies, let alone that what she possessed was so magnificently crafted. Celestia had not been forthcoming on the origin of her equipment, but the fact she had it spoke volumes of her past.
The lavender unicorn shook her head then to get her mind out of ruminating on such things when the future was at hand and uncertain. Twilight looked up and saw the glowing pillar of light that reached out from under the strange egg-shaped object that even now could barely be seen as it descended towards Manehattan's Central Park. The angle had been confirmed from reports from the city, and now that Manehattan was in sight of the quick-flying group of guards they could all see its destination for themselves. Twilight suppressed a shudder of fear as she turned her eyes away, knowing that she did not know anything about the incoming strangers, and instead she swept her eyes across the others in the group at the core of the flying guards. Applejack and Pinkie pie shared a second chariot a short distance away, while general Stonewall had a third chariot to himself. Rainbow Dash and Fluttershy, both being pegasi, naturally flew alongside the chariots holding their friends.
The chariot shifted underneath her, and Twilight was forced from her thoughts as Celestia lead them downward towards Manehattan's outskirts. The other pegasus guards remained high and noticeable as instructed as they flew onward to be ready to form a perimeter around wherever the strangers would land. The princess and her immediate consorts, meanwhile, continued to lose altitude until they leveled out well below the tops of Manehattan's more modest buildings. Twilight Sparkle blinked in surprise at this, and then goggled when she looked forward and saw Celestia turn and head for the narrow spaces between buildings, soon followed by the chariot-pullers. Her amazement turned into a cringe as the buildings came up fast, and despite herself Twilight flinched at seeing the glass and concrete towers whiz by only a few feet to the side.
It was then that she finally noticed the sound. Truthfully, she had heard it before, but she had ignored it until now, thinking it was some unimportant noise or just her nerves. Now, however, the fierce rumbling sound was too loud to be ignored as it shook the air, and through it Twilight Sparkle. She had precious little time to wonder at it before Celestia finally angled downward one more time and brought the group with her to the ground.
Unbidden, Twilight and the other ground-bound ponies hopped out of the chariots, while Rainbow Dash and Fluttershy landed near their friends. They all looked around and found themselves in the middle of Manehattan's famous Whooves Square, in a clearing of the many, many ponies who lived and worked and played in the city. Now, though, Twilight could see that most of them were carrying bundles and luggage and heading in one direction, away from the center of the city where the strangers from afar were even now landing. “Did someone order an evacuation?” The lavender unicorn asked.
“I did,” Stonewall said as he trotted over to join with the elemental ponies. “Voluntary, of course, but I'm glad to see most ponies took it to heart.”
“General, ladies,” Celestia called from where she stood. “Please attend me. Guards,” she added, looking back at the pegasi who had pulled the chariots and the few escorts that had peeled from the main group above. “Help the charioteers out of their harnesses, and then all deploy for crowd control. We will make our way forward on hoof.”
“Is that wise, princess?” The most senior ranking guard asked. “It will take longer and the crowds might clog the streets.”
“Hence the need for crowd control,” Celestia replied. “I appreciate your concern, Starbuck, but chariots are vulnerable, and some of our party cannot fly.” She glanced back at the six ponies who held her nation's fate in their hooves, and then nodded once to them before turning back to the officer. “Besides, it will do the ponies of this city good to see that the situation is not below my notice.”
“If you say so, milady,” Starbuck said, clearly unhappy about the situation but unable to do anything about it. Instead, he trotted off to oversee the other guards as they went about carrying out their monarch's orders. Meanwhile, Twilight Sparkle and her friends trotted up to join Celestia after the princess waved them forward with a wing. “Are you ready, my little ponies?” The alicorn asked, still looking down the street that led to Central Park.
Twilight glanced over her friends and met each one in the eye. Much to her relief and pride, every pony looked back with an expression of determination, even Fluttershy and Pinkie, though both of them had their respective personalities tempering it one way or the other. Satisfied, Twilight turned back to Celestia and nodded. “As much as we can ever be, princess.”
“Then let us go,” Celestia said, and then trotted off, soon followed by the others.
O'Connell felt the Skye touch down, the shock of 9,700 metric tonnes coming to rest against gravity enough to cause his 'Mech to sway a bit before the war machine's gyros stabilized it. He checked the exterior feed briefly again, noting that the pastel quadrupeds had withdrawn to a safe distance well before the backlash from the Overlord's fusion drive could have hurt them. The fact that they looked like tiny horses with huge eyes no longer bothered him, not when he saw that there was something clearly labeled as a bank just beyond the edge of the park. They've gotta use something rare to use as a base for currency. And even if it's something stupid like nail clippings, there's going to be something of worth here. You can't build a city without some some way to use energy efficiently, and some kind of wealth to make it worthwhile. Either of those can garner a few C-Bills, at least.
Part of him knew he was reaching, but at the moment O'Connell didn't care. A mercenary company ran on its bank accounts, and most outfits larger than a lance usually needed to keep paying its members regularly if it wanted to actually have them do their jobs and not jump ship with a valuable 'mech the first chance they got. A battalion like his Desperadoes needed much more than that to fund its technical crew and pay for consumables as well, and so the MechWarrior from Skye was more than willing to let himself hope that there would be something of worth on this strange echo of Terra.
The doors to the 'Mechbay started to open then, and O'Connell cut off the external feed and then opened a wideband channel to his command. “Alright boys and girls, I'm sure you've seen the imagery, so I won't bore you with details. The plan is get out, secure the LZ, and then look for loot. Smash and grab if you need to, but given what the indigs are like, I don't think we'll have problems taking the city.
“As for the locals, I know what they look like as much as you do. Frankly, I don't care anymore, so long as we get something of value. So orders are to ignore them unless they become a hassle. Or if you feel like target practice.” O'Connell knew that if the channel had been two-way that he would have heard some sniggers at the last comment. Although most of his band didn't care for cold-blooded killing, he wasn't shy about hiring those who were, and the rest at least knew to just look the other way so long as they weren't involved.
“So everyone deploy and good hunting.”
The royal entourage, such as it was, followed Celestia as she and the pegasus Starbuck cut a path straight through the crowds of ponies out to gawk. Twilight Sparkle wondered how crazy they had to be to do this, but that thought disappeared as the ground started to shake again. This time it was not from the rumble of strange energies, but from the unmistakable impact of heavy footfalls coming from straight ahead. Finally, Starbuck seemed to have enough, and he flew up a short distance to be seen above the crowd and shouted “Move aside! Make way for the princess!”
Quick looks from the ponies around them were all that was needed, and the crowd finally split apart all the way down unto its very edge. Emboldened, the group dashed forward and reached the park just as the first of the large, alien shapes descended the ramps leading down from the side of the egg-like craft.
“What in tarnation are those?” Applejack asked in shock as the group halted just inside the meadow-like park's southern boundary. Nopony answered her, as they were all staring in shock as first several, then dozens of humongous figures walked out on two legs and formed a circle around their building-sized craft. Many of them looked identical, while others seemed to be one-of-a-kind, yet all shared the same strange aesthetics and odd protrusions that marked them as nothing that anypony had ever seen before.
“I think they're machines,” Twilight found herself saying. “Look at the way the joints articulate, and the stiff way they stand,” she pointed out.
“Machines?” Applejack asked, furrowing her brows. “I ain't seen machines that do that.”
“That's kind of the point, AJ,” Rainbow Dash replied. “These guys aren't from around here.”
“Oooh! Do you think they'll want a party?” Pinkie Pie asked, bouncing easily despite the armor she wore.
Before anypony else could speak up, the machines started to move again, slowly walking forward and spreading out more. At the edges of the park ponies started to back up in mild panic as the giant machines plodded forward, seemingly ignorant of the tiny creatures at their feet. Then one machine, larger than the rest, stepped out from behind several of the others and turned its large torso and domed head together as if scanning the area. It stopped and pointed itself straight at the royal group, and then began to walk forward.
“I-I'm scared,” Fluttershy said as her knees buckled, the plate armor on her back starting to rattle as she shook.
“Strength, pony,” the general, Stonewall, said with authority. “Stand up and show some backbone.”
“General, that's like asking Pinkie Pie to not be pink,” Dash added.
“Be quiet,” Celestia said from in front of the others. She hadn't raised her voice one bit, but it commanded them all the same. “I have a feeling we are about to find understanding.”
Twilight and the others blinked in confusion, but they had little time to dwell on it before the massive machine stopped halfway between its fellows and the princess. “You look like you're in charge here,” a voice boomed out from the machine, masculine and sneering.
“I am Princess Celestia, ruler of the land of Equestria,” the princess proclaimed loudly. “And who are you who have come from so far?”
“The name is O'Connell. Major Garth O'Connell,” the machine replied. “And I'm here to give you an offer.”
“An offer?” Celestia asked, tilting her head to the side. “What would that be?”
“Give us your strategic and currency metals,” O'Connell demanded, his voice carrying a tone that would brook no argument. “Germanium, Titanium, Aluminum, Gold, that sort of thing. Also anything else you have that might be rare or valuable. Lostech might even buy you my good graces. Do this and we won't have to get nasty.”
“You want...” For the first time any living pony could remember, Celestia looked utterly confused. “You want our valuables?”
“Did I not make myself clear?” The machine boomed, and then raised its left arm, which had a giant fist and two ominous ports on its vambrace. “Shall I enhance your understanding?” With that, the arm aimed towards the ground between them, and gouts of flame shot forth. A terrible racket, like thunder and zippers combined, roared through the park as a line of stuttering lights reached out and chewed great clods of earth from the ground and sent them flying.
The demonstration lasted only a few seconds, yet as the weapons ceased their fire only an utter stillness filled the area. “Those were just little ones, too,” the voice teased, and the right arm of the machine came up, this one having a much, much larger opening. “This one is my big stick. I would say I don't want to use it, but then again, I don't really care. One way or the other you're going to make me a rich man, even if I have to capture a bunch of you to sell to the zoos back home.
“But feeding captives is expensive. Whereas a man can buy himself a small moon with just a single shipment of Germanium.” Twilight swore she could almost hear the savage grin in the voice. “I'll take whatever you've got, though. So my offer is this: either hand over all the goods we can stuff into our cargo holds, or my men and I will start ripping this city apart to get some. And we won't be nice about it.”
A few moments of silence fell over the city park then, which was itself a remarkable feat given that thousands of ponies were there, staring at the unbelievable tableau. “You came here,” Celestia said, her voice quiet yet perfectly clear in the quiet city, “to steal from us?”
“Oh, steal is such an ugly word for it,” O'Connell replied. “I prefer to think of it as a "redistribution of wealth." See, there are those who have more than others and that's just not fair, is it? And I note you have more than me and mine, so give it to us or we're going to take it by force.”
“What kind of monster are you?” Celestia demanded, her voice rising in pitch and laced with indignation. “What kind of spoiled being could stand in a park and demand wealth be handed to him when he hasn't earned it? What kind of immoral ruffian would think that they have a right to wealth just because they can use force to obtain it?”
“This kind,” O'Connell said, and in a flash the left arm of his machine swept out and aimed at a cluster of ponies that hadn't backed away from the park quite fast enough. Before anypony could intervene, the terrible sound blasted out again, and this time the stuttering trails of light intersected a number of bodies, and thereupon rendered them dead in a gruesome fashion.
If they had been scared before, Twilight and her friends could only look on in stark terror now. “They... that...” Applejack muttered, her eyes wide, while Fluttershy simply went into wordless shock.
“Just like that,” Twilight said, her voice a whisper. “Oh, goodness, how do we fight that?” The lavender unicorn was deep in fear for her life when a slight crackling was heard. Blinking away some of her terror, Twilight turned her head and saw energy starting to gather around the princess.
“You... You wretched beasts!” Celestia shouted, and most everypony in the area shuddered and turned to run in fear at seeing their monarch, a virtual goddess, shaking with rage. Bolts of magical energy started to trace over her body, and her wings seemed almost on fire as she spread them wide. “How dare you?”
A shove from the side startled Twilight out of the trance her fear and fascination had lulled her in, and she turned to see Pinkie Pie leading general Stonewall and Applejack, who were respectively carrying a catatonic Fluttershy and a fainted Rarity, while the princess' pegasus guards reluctantly followed by backpedaling in the air. The pony who nudged her was Rainbow Dash, who for once lacked any bravado. “The general said to get out of here,” Dash said, and then glanced at the princess and beyond her, the machines that were even now moving about to face the sudden, new threat. “I tend to agree with him that this isn't the best place to be right now.”
Twilight didn't say anything, but she nodded and darted off, with Rainbow Dash flying behind her. They followed the others in their group and put a building between them and the park just as the first exchange started.
O'Connell had seen and done a lot of things. Many of them had been worse than what he had just done by firing dual machine guns into a crowd of bystanders. Yet for all his experience he had never seen anyone turn into a fiery avatar of death, save that one time he set a damaged Rifleman on fire with inferno rounds and laughed as its pilot cooked in his own juices.
What he saw now, however, was no laughing matter, and he knew it. Bolts of energy crackled from the white creature that claimed to lead the others, and its eyes glowed with a power that was beyond his comprehension. Before he could give any orders to his men the horn on the creature's head glowed and suddenly chunks of earth were ripped from the ground as if by an invisible hand and thrown towards his Battlemaster at tremendous velocities.
He reacted on trained reflex, hunching forward in his seat and trusting the bulky neurohelmet he wore to translate the action into his 'Mech's control computers. There the impulse signal was processed and control orders were given to the war machine's artificial musculature in less time than it took for the chunks of land to reach their target. The armor absorbed most of the impact, its ablative properties taking the energy and absorbing it into the upper layers that vaporized, rather than transferring the whole of the kinetic energy into somewhere more important.
“Kill that thing!” O'Connell shouted into his radio, even as he triggered an alpha strike from all of his available weapons. His particle projection cannon fired first, and the artificial thunder from the stream of charged particles ripped the air apart even as it reached out to impact on the alien creature. O'Connell was only half surprised to see some sort of energy shield deflect the charged beam into several impotent streamers, but he was simultaneously gratified as he saw the creature stagger backwards under the force.
His lasers fired next as the 'mech's computers shunted energy around, and O'Connell felt the temperature in his cockpit rise significantly as the Battlemaster's cooling systems became overtaxed from the lasers and the increased output of its fusion reactor to feed the energy weapons. Sweat began to pour off of his body, but he kept his focus and did his best to keep the alien in his sights as the laser beams flashed out.
Four beams of coherent light reached out with fury, and while one missed entirely to spend its energy on a building facade the other three hit. Unlike before, the shield around the being didn't deflect but simply absorbed the light, re-radiating it as a diffused, harmless, yet ominous glow that surrounded and obfuscated the creature.
O'Connell barely had time to notice this as the heat spiked further upward as his short range missile launcher spat out six of the deadly weapons, their robotic seeker heads already directing them towards their target. At the short range the fight had begun at they had only a half second of flight time, yet to O'Connell's immense surprise a wind immediately whipped up and slammed the missiles off to the side, sending them to detonate against concrete, brick, and asphalt.
His final weapons, the machine guns, spat out their deadly streams of lead, and the mercenary was somewhat satisfied that the wind didn't bother the high-density projectiles so much, though again that infernal shield deflected them. What the frack is this thing? O'Connell wondered, feeling fear as the creature had slugged off an assault that would have torn a lightweight BattleMech into scrap metal.
Celestia had to fight her own body to keep from staggering. Although she had endured the assault, she had been surprised at the sheer volume of energy the machine threw at her, and her shielding spells had needed her direct attention to keep from overloading the crystal nodes in her armor that powered and directed them. As such she had to spend most of her time in defense, rather than on attack, though as the pieces of metal bounced off of her shield she resolved to change that.
The alicorn glanced to the side and called upon her telekinetic magic again. This time whole chunks of evacuated, empty buildings were ripped away from their parent structures and thrown at the foul beast that had dared to so mercilessly, so callously hurt and kill her beloved ponies. Dozens, then hundreds of the projectiles flew through the air, directed not only at the thing that called itself “O'Connell” but also at its cohorts. None of them, after all, had stopped their leader, nor had they any qualms with his demands. Thus her justice would reach for them, as well.
Or so she tried. Celestia could feel the creatures before her quake in surprise and fear, yet underneath that was a current of iron that allowed them to stand and take the punishment she was dishing out. Not only stand up to it, she saw, but they advanced, moving their machines forward to get a clear aim at her, and one by one they aimed their weapons and fired.
There were so many more this time, so much directed energy and mass. Celestia felt her defense spells buckling, unable to hold up against the avalanche. She launched herself into the air, flapping her wings furiously to escape those deadly attentions, and felt a momentary relief as many of her attackers lost their focus on her. Yet a good number of them retained her in their sights, and another wave of kinetic, thermal, and light energy slammed into her even as she rose into the sky. She shrugged these attacks off as best she could, but Celestia could feel her spells weakening further. This must end now, she told herself, even as she halted her upward progress and turned to look down at the enemies below. They had spread out to avoid being targeted easily, which would make her task harder though not impossible.
Celestia hovered in place for a moment while her enemies continued to fire their weapons at her. At this longer distance more of them missed, but enough hit that she forced herself to hurry the spell she planned on casting. I hope I remember it right, father.
“Keep firing, *kssh*oles!” The voice of O'Connell blared through Kilroy's radio, mutilated somewhat by the constant discharge of energy weapons in the immediate area. As if we need the instruction, you pompous son of an Amaris, Gregory thought with annoyance directed towards his overbearing commander. He, like most of the mercenary company, was completely flummoxed and not a little intimidated by an alien being that could withstand the combined firepower of an entire battalion of BattleMechs, and all of the Desperadoes wanted to see it dead lest it come for them personally.
For his part, Kilroy leaned his Marauder's torso back and raised its arms, deciding to go with a bit more overheating than use up more of his precious autocannon ammunition. Two beams of cerulean fury lashed out at a pull of his triggers, and though one missed, Kilroy was pleased to see the other impacted right after a wave of long-range missiles had spread a dirty daisy chain of fireballs around the airborne creature. For a moment, he saw it stagger, and Gregory felt a sense of triumph.
The feeling did not last long, however, as he felt his 'Mech start to shake. Confused and worried, Kilroy immediate took his attention from the holographic HUD and swept his eyes across the extensive instrumentation of his cockpit. Briefly his confusion peaked as he saw no indications of mechanical failure, but as the shaking grew worse he glanced out of the cockpit and saw the buildings around the park starting to shake.
“You have got to be kidding me!” Kilroy shouted to no one, having not triggered his radio. He looked over the HUD and its 360-degree view compressed into a 180-degree arc, and with his practiced eye he saw the other 'Mechs in the battalion break off their attacks as the ground started to tear itself apart around their feet. As he watched a Hunchback slip into one of the cracks up to its waist before the ground seemed to liquify and pour in around it.
Kilroy knew that to stay still was death, and so he punched his throttle to its maximum. The 75-ton Marauder responded like a champ, accelerating quickly to its top speed of 64.8 km/h despite being over two hundred years old. The short distance sprint saved him from a similar fate of the Hunchback and most every other ground-bound 'Mech that fell into a shallow grave.
But some 'Mechs weren't so helpless, and the majority of the Desperadoes' machines carried jump jets, which their pilots used to great effect to escape the heaving ground. Most of them did as Kilroy had done and went for the nearest pavement, whereupon they again turned their weapons up at the flying being that had to be the source of their torment.
Something moving to the side caught Kilroy's attention then, and he glanced to see that even the Red Skye was starting to sway. Then an idea hit him, and he wondered how he could have been so stupid to forget about the battalion's transport while he opened a channel to the DropShip. “Grimes!” Kilroy shouted, making sure that he would be heard despite the rumbling that seemed to permeate the entire area. “Get your weapons on that white alien and blast it before it buries the Skye!” He had no idea if that was the creature's goal, but it seemed obvious enough that its anger was profound and Gregory rather suspected that it wouldn't stop at just the battalion's MechWarriors.
Before he even finished that thought, the batteries of weapons mounted on the Overlord's sides and nose turned and fired, unleashing a wave of destruction as potent as another two companies of 'Mechs. Emboldened by this, Kilroy turned his weapons back on the strange creature and led the Desperadoes in redoubling their attack.
It had taken so much of her gathered power, but Celestia felt hope as she saw her gambit start to work. The very ground underneath the aggressors heaved as if possessed and opened up to swallow them whole. Yet even as she continued to channel the spell, she saw most of her enemies fly themselves on jets of silvery flame and escape the trap. How many more surprises can these things have? She wondered as she prepared to unleash another spell.
The surprise came not from the machines though, but rather from the massive ship they had rode in on. Celestia felt genuine panic as dozens of weapons on the egg-shaped vessel vented their fury at her, and only the automatic nature of her defenses kept her from taking the hits directly. I had no idea they would arm something like that!
Her shock made her hesitate as she considered what to do about this new threat, which unfortunately was all it took for the enemies who'd escaped her last attack to turn their weapons upon her. Another wave of violent energies tore at her, and Celestia barely had time to register this before one of the crystals protecting her finally became overstressed at the demands put upon it, and it shattered. Suddenly bereft of one of the interlocking defense spells, Celestia's armor could no longer withstand the blistering fury of energy and mass being flung at her, and the other defenses buckled and failed one by one, absorbing just enough energy to siphon off the worst of the assault. Unfortunately, the last spell failed just before a Large-class laser fired by a Phoenix Hawk landed a direct hit. Kilojoules of coherent photons blasted through shields that were no longer there and descended upon the alicorn's body with an impersonal fury.
Celestia's armor's physical component and her own magical nature acted as one last form of defense, albeit an insufficient one; she wasn't instantly vaporized, but the searing photons ripped at her like nothing else had ever done. Pain overwhelmed her, and her wings burst into actual flame as she screamed and fell from the sky.
Twilight Sparkle appeared at the top of the building behind Celestia in a blink, and then staggered as she had also teleported with Applejack and Stonewall. They had left Pinkie Pie and a resuscitated Rarity to continue back to the chariots with two guards to evacuate the catatonic Fluttershy so they could get a better view of the battle and see if they could help in some way. All three of the ponies shook off the effects of the teleportation spell and quickly trotted to the side of the roof to look upon the battlefield just as princess Celestia was hurling chunks of building at her foes. “Oh sweet mother of apples,” Applejack muttered in amazement at the sight.
“That's why I said to get clear,” Stonewall commented as Rainbow Dash and several of the pegasus guards joined them, having flown up themselves. “She's mad, and I don't want to be those strangers 'bout now.”
“Isn't there anything we can do to help?” Twilight asked. Before she got an answer, though, the enemy responded to Celestia's attack with a wave of fiery death that blasted into her defenses. The three ponies from Ponyville gaped in awe as the princess' spells deflected the assault and protected her, and then flinched as stray attacks from the enemy started ripping into the building they stood upon
“Starbuck,” Stonewall called to the lead pony of Celestia's personal detail. “Go tell the airborne to initiate attack protocol twenty-three.”
“Yes sir!” The brown-coated pegasus replied, and then shot upwards towards the hundreds of his fellow guardsmen above. Scarcely had he left when the eyes of those ponies left at the roof were drawn to a white blur racing upwards from the ground. Beams of destructive light and the other, stranger weapons blasted through the air after Celestia, and those on the roof ducked reflexively as more than a few of them ripped into the building just feet below their hooves.
“What is she doing?” Twilight asked, glancing over to Stonewall.
The latter pony just shook his head and then ducked as another weapon cut through the air nearby. “I don't have any notion, lady,” he replied. “Just hold on and be prepared for anything.”
Scarcely had he finished saying these words when the rumbling began. Everypony on the roof spread their legs wide to maintain stability as the building began to shake back and forth, though the pegasi quickly took off and hovered a few feet above the roof. “Is Celestia doing that?” Applejack asked.
“Yes,” Twilight said as she looked up and saw her mentor channeling an immense amount of magical energy. Her lessons over the past days had revealed much of magic's inner workings to her, and she could now see the force lines tracking along the local web of the Binding, reaching down into the earth below and forcing the ground to reverberate with the princess' power. “Look, she's using the ground itself against them!”
Sure enough it was as Twilight said, and the others watched in silent awe as several of the enemy machines were gobbled up partially or wholly by the fierce spell. Yet their hopes fell as they saw the majority of the foe escape, either by riding on jets of silver, or simply running for the more stable roads ringing the park. “General, where's that air support?” Twilight asked, looking over at the earth pony.
“Twenty-three takes a bit of time,” Stonewall replied. He looked about to say more, but was preempted as the invaders' ship suddenly let loose with a display of pyrotechnics that those who'd witnessed it would remember until the end of their days. It tore into the princess' shielding spells, and though they held Twilight could easily see that they were stressed to the breaking point.
Then fire erupted from below, claws of light and heat and explosives and metal reached up to swipe at Celestia as if a manticore was trying to swat an annoying insect. The fierce display of concentrated energy finally proved too much, and in the blink of an eye Celestia's defenses failed just as she was impaled by a shaft of brilliant light.
A scream sounded, and Twilight felt herself shake as she saw her mentor, her princess, a pony with near godlike power fall from her lofty position in the sky, her wings aflame.
Rainbow Dash would not have admitted it to anypony, but she had been scared almost as much as Fluttershy at seeing helpless innocents cut down like hay in a field. Only her sense of loyalty had kept her going, kept her from flying away in terror. As she watched Celestia fall, though, that struggle died as something more than loyalty burst through her, and before she even had a conscious thought the pegasus had shot away from the building at her best speed. Propelled by her duty, Dash ducked underneath the falling princess' body and in a split second took the alicorn's weight upon her back.
Searing pain met her as she did so, as Celestia's ruined armor was still partially molten from the furious energy that had rended it, and globs of slag leaked through the chainmail armor that Dash wore. The cyan pegasus let loose her own involuntary scream of pain, but it was mere instinct, as her mind had no time for such things. She flapped her wings hard and channeled as much of her energy as she could into flying, and Dash turned both herself and the princess towards the tower that she had so recently departed.
Unfortunately, speed does not always equal raw power, and so Dash felt herself losing altitude as the alicorn she bore weighed her down. She was starting to think that she would crash land and have to carry Celestia on hoof when the weight suddenly became manageable, and she spared a glance to either side to see that some of the princess' guards had caught up with her and were now helping to carry the wounded princess away from the enemies behind them.
A searing bolt of heat and light passed to the right, reminding Dash of the urgency of the situation, and she channeled more of her energy into forward movement than simply fighting against gravity. With the two guards helping it became easy enough, and they raced to put buildings between their charge and the enemies who had stricken her down.
O'Connell wanted to cheer the moment the creature took its dive, but he withheld his enthusiasm as he had seen enough by now not to become overconfident again. His practicality was rewarded when he saw several of the flying creatures race out to save their leader, and he took grim satisfaction as he aimed his Battlemaster's PPC and pulled the trigger. Sadly, the shot went wide, and the human snarled in frustration as he worked the pedals at his feet to try and get the 'Mech's legs free of the dirt that had only barely swallowed the machine up to its ankles. “After them,” he called on the all-battalion channel. “Five hundred C-bills to the man who brings me that thing's head.”
“We got other problems, boss,” his second in command, Kilroy, replied. “Skies are ugly now.”
The warning made the mercenary commander look up, and he boggled slightly as he saw a wave of the flying creatures diving straight down on the battalion. All of them seemed to be carrying something large, and they moved so rapidly that he couldn't make it out. “Anti-air formation, now!” O'Connell called, though he knew he couldn't form up himself. “Grimes, cover us,” he added, and then aimed his PPC to the sky and fired, joining in the wave of death that reached up to swat at the incoming attackers.
Several of them died instantly, vaporized or ripped apart by modern weaponry. The rest kept coming, diving until the last second before releasing their payloads and flattening out barely above the tops of the nearby towers. The large objects they dropped slammed into the ground with a heavy force, and several slammed hard into the shoulders and torsos of various 'Mechs.
O'Connell himself watched on such object, dropped by a gray-green creature in plate armor, rained down and slammed into his Battlemaster's torso. The shock was enough to send the 'mech's gryos out of sync, and O'Connell had to fight to keep the machine upright. After he was sure he wasn't going to fall, the mechwarrior spared a glance down at what had hit him, and he blinked in mild surprise as he saw that it was simply a large chunk of metal, smoothly shaped for flight.
Clever, he thought, forcing himself to admire the tenacity and ingenuity. They don't have industrialized warfare, but they know how to use their flight well enough. O'Connell returned his attention to the skies and again aimed for the attackers. Though the lead weights didn't do much damage to most 'Mechs, every chunk of armor they took off was one more that the mercenary company would have to pay to replace. Besides, I don't want a Golden BB killing me before I'm done here, O'Connell thought grimly, as he resolved himself to a more sedate campaign. This world and its inhabitants have shocked me enough. From now on I'm going to be the one shocking them.
Applejack, Stonewall, and Twilight Sparkle raced through the now-deserted streets, running back for the chariots. It doesn't feel right, Twilight thought with a glance behind and above her. In the sky the airborne guards continued to rain their lead slugs down on the foe, but they also continued to die in droves; despite being hard to target, the sheer volume of weapons firing upwards guaranteed that they would suffer tremendous losses. Yet they continued to press the attack, knowing that every minute they bought with their blood was another minute for their princess to be taken further away, and for the ponies of Manehattan to evacuate from these new and terrible foes.
Twilight remembered hearing of this dedication during the past week as she and her friends trained somewhat with the royal guards. At the time it had seemed odd, even foalish for anypony to display such a disregard for one's own being. But now as she watched it in action, the lavender unicorn could only shed silent tears as she saw more and more pegasi obliterated or swatted from the sky.
“There!” Applejack's voice broke Twilight from her silent mourning, and she turned her head back around as the trio of ponies rounded a corner and came upon the chariots. Or one, rather, as two of them had already been taken by the others to evacuate Fluttershy and Celestia. The remaining one had two pegasi waiting in harness already, their faces stoic but grim. As the trio of ground-bound ponies ran up Twilight could see the charioteers glance up to the sky, and she knew that only a greater duty kept them from flying to join their fellow guards in the suicidal attack.
“You two get on,” general Stonewall ordered as they reached the chariot. “I'll stay here and see if I can't organize a militia to slow them down if they try to leave the city.”
“General, you can't stand against those things,” Applejack rejoined. “Didn't you see what they did?”
“You bet your flank I did,” Stonewall said, and then spit off to the side. “I don't plan on standing in plain sight and letting them kill me, girl, but I'm not going to just let them take Manehattan or anywhere else without a fight. You two need to see Celestia to safety, and see if you can't get your friend to unfreeze and use that fancy magic of yours to help out.”
“General,” Twilight began, but then choked up briefly as the emotions of the scene started to overwhelm her. After a moment though, she cleared her throat and continued. “Stay safe, and good luck to you.”
“And to y'all as well,” Stonewall replied, and then smiled a grim, sad smile. “Now git!”
The two mares nodded their heads to the older earth pony and then climbed aboard the chariot. Barely had they done so when the two charioteer pegasi raced forward and built up speed until they were airborne.
Twilight looked back as the chariot turned and headed back towards Canterlot, and she saw the last pegasi finally breaking off their attack to return with them. Her heart broke as she saw barely a few dozen where there had once been hundreds, and again she wept silently. We're going to need more than luck, she thought. We'll need a miracle.