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Days of Wasp and Spider
by Luna-tic Scientist
Germ line modifications and activation of the female's breeding cycle were completed within seconds; over the next day, nine out of ten of the females were pregnant with the new species. The Pattern had made its modifications on the creatures from one geographic area; almost two hundred thousand would be born within a few days of each other. The preparations were almost complete; now it needed some way to give its new creations access to the abilities it took for granted.
=== Chapter 7 (remastered): Unintended consequences ===
Fusion whirled in shock as the objects landed -- crashed would be a better word -- around the little group of ponies. She stared at the closest; made of a dark matte material and covered with random patches of a slightly lighter grey, the thing was difficult to see in the uncertain light. A four armed biped with asymmetric limbs and a deformed conical head, it stood on wide foot pads and looked like a bear crossed with a monstrous, mutated insect. The upper limbs were long, bulging with armour and covered with blunt spikes, ending in three thick fingers with heavy claws. The upper right hand held a fat cylinder with a shiny, curved end, while the other was covered with crystals that glowed with a dim white light. The lower set of arms emerged from just above the hips; the left a mere mount for a cylindrical cluster of tubes that spun at high speed about their common centre, the right a simple crabs-claw with inner surfaces polished to a razor's edge. Her eyes widened, seeing the Sigil of Command -- that universal symbol of the Master's authority over ponykind -- on the machine's chest plate: it was Lacunae Hive military! She stared at it for a second longer, taking in the heavy actuators at each joint and the thaumic shield emitters at shoulder and hip. Then the robot shifted, right hand moving the heavy looking cylinder in her direction. For an instant she saw herself, upside down and far away, in the laser's primary mirror.
That sudden vision of something so ordinary in this bizarre situation shocked her in to motion. Fusion's reflexes took over and she joined the other two ponies in prostrating herself in front of the armoured figure. That hesitation should have hurt, the mare thought, confused. Too afraid to move her head lest she attract the wrong sort of attention, her eyes swivelled this way and that to try and understand what was going on. There were at least six of the things, two crouched nearby and four others forming an expanding perimeter around the top of the berm. Some silent signal passed between the two armoured machines and the closest moved abruptly; the spinning cylinder stilled and the arm holding it retracted to fold the multi-barrelled gun along the backpack. It clipped the laser to attachment points on the other side, then stepped close enough that Fusion could feel the static thrill of its active shield pass like a wave over her body, even though the field itself was completely invisible to the naked eye. The other machine took aim at Animal Scanner.
The thing reached out with one paw and made an awkward-looking gesture. White fire bloomed around the clawed, crystal studded fingers, then another gesture and a similar glow burst from the attachment points on the stallion's equipment harness. A sudden clenching of the paw and jerking motion had the harness roughly ripped from Animal Scanner's chest, the pony grunting in sudden pain as the straps dug into his flesh before separating.
Fusion felt the horror rise as the second machine pointed its laser at Gravity's head while the first reached for the blue mare with that same burning, clawed glove. Like her friend Packet, Fusion's special talent was related to energy manipulation; as with all such ponies this made her sensitive to the flow and concentration of the stuff, assuming there was enough of it. This was something she could do almost without thinking about it, an ability that operated at such a low level that it didn't even make her horn glow. When she really looked at the machine, she could see it was alive with power; a glittering, glowing web-work of pale colours encasing an strange core of absolute darkness. The robot's magic shield presented only a mild hindrance to her hurried examination; it was a crude thing, a polygonal cage of influence designed only to deflect thaumokinetic strikes. Like the safety shield that had surrounded her while at the bottom of the pit or in the beam dump chamber, it didn't significantly interact with normal matter -- you could trot right through it and not feel anything more than your fur standing on end. It did little more than slightly blur Fusion's shadow sight.
Bands of electromuscle appeared to glow a pale green under the armour ceramic, while the kinetic manipulator crystals in the extended hand pulsed a deep red in time with the heatless white fire that burned on its surface. Fusion ignored all of this, focusing instead on the web of almost invisibly fine violet lines that appeared to invade every part of the machine. The mare knew next to nothing about weapons, but this was a machine and she knew machines. That web was the important part, the superconducting power distribution network, without which the robot would be an immobile lump of ceramic and polymers. The cables all converged into one complex coil at the centre of the thing's back, and it was here that the mare found what she'd been frantically looking for; a tiny point of somehow familiar warmth surrounded by loops of magnetic force.
Now she knew where to look, Fusion found a similar point in the other machine. She prepared herself, plotting a route through the shields and focussing her will on the dots of deuterium plasma. One quick nudge and she could trash the hoof-sized reactors, freezing both machines into immobility without doing too much damage to them. An instant before she acted, she saw the white fire change to a flicker of green light and saw the power lines leading to the manipulator crystals fade to black. A scan, she thought, only a scan.
That green flicker turned upon her next, but Fusion's attention was held by the sight of her own reflection in the other suit's laser mirror. This brief pause allowed the rational part of her mind to catch up with her instincts and she started to tremble, burying her muzzle in the grass in an attempt to slow her hyperventilation. Maker, what did I almost do... and why didn't you punish me for it? She sent the thoughts to the deity, mind whirling with confusion. That first instant of thought to interfere with this machine should have had her warned with a flash of pain; actually carrying on and planning an attack like she did should have had her writhing in agony... yet there was nothing. How could I even think of doing that to something with the Sigil? Then the mare froze, breath halting and eyes widening as another thought struck her. That dark void at the core of each machine is the same shape as one of the People... those aren't robots, they're armour suits! I nearly attacked... Fusion felt sick, but there was still no pain; the Maker didn't see fit to punish her for this transgression.
The Master, apparently satisfied, stepped back from the ponies and retrieved the laser from its clips on the suit's back. Nothing happened for a long time and Fusion wondered what they were waiting for, but as she'd not been given permission to rise she kept her muzzle pressed firmly to the ground. Her ears flicked up at the sudden sounds of panic from the other side of the training centre complex, then there was a bang followed by a high-pitched scream of a filly in pain. Next to her Gravity twitched, but it was Animal that spoke.
"Master?" he said tentatively, cringing as the suit turned in his direction. "I am trained as a multispecies medic, may I be permitted to assist?"
The suit returned its attention to the flashes of light and noise, head moving slightly in a way that suggested it was talking to someone. "No," it said eventually.
Animal opened and closed his mouth several times, then slumped slightly and slowly closed his eyes. "Yes, Master."
Fusion climbed slowly to her hooves, ignoring shocked glances from Gravity and Animal, and stared out across the training complex. Off in the distance, she saw the chaotic panicked rush of foals being chased by a dozen dark shapes that looked a little like ponies but weren't. Gryphons she realised, why were gryphons hunting down her corral's foals? Her breath caught in her throat as she saw the largest pony -- Random Walk, she assumed -- get knocked down by one of the half avian soldiers. There were several rapid bursts of gunfire and another flurry of motion, not quite visible at this distance. When it was over, the figure she was sure was Random lay horribly still on the ground. The white mare tensed and stared out with her shadow sight, hunting for a sign, any sign, that Random still lived.
The form was heartbreakingly dark, but there was a glimmer, a faint sparkle from where horn met skull. Still alive for now, but unconscious and very weak. She could see the mare's comms disk, a pinpoint of white that flickered and twinkled as it talked to... what? The relay nodes in the training centre were all dead -- the building should have glowed like a banked fire from all the magical systems it contained, but instead it was nothing more than a black shadow. Glancing sideways she noticed that, unlike Random, her own disk was inert. Not indestructible after all then, she thought, feeling a sudden pang of loss. She'd received the thing shortly after being Blessed and it had been her constant companion ever since. The disks were built to withstand everything a young, magically clumsy pony could do to them; compared to that, the sensitive, complex machines in the centre hadn't stood a chance.
Fusion let her gaze travel across the two ponies close to her; their disks also showed no sign of life; obviously whatever she'd done had weakened enough by the time it reached Random to spare hers. She must have been ordered to stop fighting back and the gryphon had obviously taken advantage of that... If only the Master had ordered her to cooperate, the mare thought, she could have stopped all of this. This lead to some unwelcome revelations; with no Masters down there and no adults, the foals would be completely without guidance. Foals that were old enough to have significant magical strength but not the control to use it safely. Foals that were the reason the training centres were built like bomb testing facilities. Foals that thought they were going to die.
She turned to see that the armour suited Master was watching her -- which in itself was odd, as most of the time ponies were ignored, unless they were being instructed -- even stranger was the way it was standing. Tense, coiled, as if the occupant was... scared? Fusion glanced back out over the training centre field, still using her shadow sight, seeing the sudden flare of multiple powerful spells from the herd of foals. Maybe the Master had good reason; scattered and running the foals would be unlikely to have the mental discipline to perform complex magic, but confine them to a herd with their friends and half kill their teacher in front of them...
"Master, I--" Fusion flinched when the suit suddenly took a step back and brought up a glove wreathed in white fire, pointing one clawed digit at her face. She swallowed, watching uncertainly as the Master deactivated the weapon or whatever it was and lowered its arm. Steeling herself she continued. "Many apologies, Master, but I think you might be in danger."
"Explain yourself, pony," the Master said, voice only slightly distorted by the suit's speakers.
"I have just sensed at least three major spells. I don't know for sure what the foals think is happening, but it's apparent they don't know this is a force from Lacunae Hive."
The Master made an impatient motion. "This is obvious. Make your point, servitor."
"They probably haven't ever seen a gryphon before, only heard about them in the context of competitor Hive militaries," Fusion said softly, fighting to keep her voice from trembling. "They do not have any way to get new orders -- one of the soldiers has k--k--" The mare stuttered, then took a deep breath. "...knocked out their teacher and none of them have comms disks. The only alternatives are for a pony they know to talk to them or for one of the People to order them directly."
"None of this is relevant. There is a thaumic suppression vehicle on route."
Fusion's ears flattened at this. She'd never heard of such a thing, but it was obvious what it would do. It was also interesting that it wasn't here yet; perhaps these machines were slow or few in number? "Master, if the foals continue to panic you might find yourself a target of their magic. Forgive me, but if a foal doesn't recognise you as a Master... your suit's thaumic defences will not help against a ten-fold increase in the local gravitational field or a badly placed force bubble." ...and if any of the foals are flying when this vehicle arrives, they will fall out of the sky, Fusion completed the sentence in her head.
Again the subtle head movements; Fusion hoped this meant the Master was talking to his commander, a good sign that she'd sowed enough doubt in the trooper's mind to at least get him to dodge the decision. She'd never thought about it before, but the Maker's punishment only ever came when she knew she'd done something wrong; sometimes this would only be after she'd actually done the act. The Masters must know the strange way their God behaved, thus understand that there was a real risk that a foal might lash out only to discover too late the error in its judgement. The mare shelved the thought for later inspection, then sent a silent, wordless prayer to the Maker; she didn't think they would decide to use their aircraft's weapons to destroy the training centre from altitude -- ponies were far too valuable for such pointless slaughter -- but what would she do if they did?
Again, Fusion's instincts ran ahead of her rational mind and she looked up into the black sky. It was silent and hard to see, but it was there, and if she concentrated she could make out the pent up energy stored in superconducting coils running along the spine of the aircraft. All that power, ready to be converted into violence in an instant through rail guns, lasers and thaumokinetic projectors. Triggering a quench at that distance wouldn't be easy, but the mare was sure she could do it, she could make some small part of that coil resist the giga-amps of current that flowed ceaselessly within it. All that energy, enough to run a corral for a megasecond released in an instant of blinding light.
...and are you willing to fight your own sister too, filly? Fusion shivered again, pushing those treacherous thoughts away. Gravity and Animal wouldn't hesitate to defend the Masters with all their strength. Is this what madness feels like?
Shock Diamond gasped as the gryphon dropped Random's wing, leaving it to lie at an unnatural angle against her neck, then bent down and did something with its beak to leave great swathes of black across her flank. His frozen mind suddenly restarted and he turned to his captor with wide eyes, ears folded flat against the sides of his head.
"Y--you're going to eat us!" he said with a hoarse whisper.
"What! No, that's not tru--" Alfgeir's reply was interrupted by a pure, high-pitched tone, like the breaking of some perfect crystal. He stared in shock at the restraint leash, now dangling free, the ends of the woven metal fibres shining with a mirror finish. He backed away, scrabbling for his autogun's controller, as the floor gave an alarming creak. The little colt stood at the centre of a perfect hemisphere of pale blue radiance, eyes wild and horn glowing like an arc welder. The gryphon swallowed heavily as those eyes turned on him, then pulled the autogun forward and held down the trigger.
The gun chewed through a dozen rounds, with each shot the pony staggered, eventually driven to his knees by the extra effort required to keep the force field up. Not one of the shots penetrated, however, the nonlethals all bouncing harmlessly off the field's glassy surface. Seeing that this wasn't going to work, Alfgeir stopped shooting and charged forward to try and push past the field with his greater momentum.
Shock Diamond timed it perfectly. The instant the gryphon jumped, he leaped away, dropping the force field as he did so. The gryphon squawked in surprise as the circle of floor he landed on flipped up like a giant coin, dumping himself and fragments of several desks down to the level below. When he finally climbed up through the sharp edged hole to the upper floor, he saw that the pony had jumped onto one of the desks lined up against the windows. There was the bell-like sound again and another blue sphere appeared, intersecting with the window in a wide circle, then flicking out an instant later. Alfgeir advanced cautiously, beak on the autogun's bite trigger, when the colt lashed out with his hind legs and bucked a perfect circle of glass out of the window. That sudden movement disturbed the fragile balance holding the desk together, and it collapsed into a collection of sharp-edged fragments to leave the foal standing on a circle of plastic.
The gryphon suddenly realised what the pony intended. Retracting the weapon with a flick of his head he bounded forward. "Don't! Your wings--"
The colt jumped backwards out of the window, vanishing without a sound.
"...are still bound," Alfgeir finished. Not hearing an impact, he loped forward and poked his head out of the new hole in the window. "You've got to be kidding me!" he snarled, watching another, much larger, blue force bubble deposit the colt on the ground; the pony didn't even stumble as it killed the field and galloped off into the pits surrounding the training centre. Foreclaws suddenly trembling with delayed shock, the gryphon sank to his haunches, letting his gaze travel over to where the other members of his squad had been guarding the captured foals.
Something hard and cold settled in Alfgeir's stomach. "How are we supposed to fight this?" he whispered, reaching up with a shaky claw for his command collar to report to his sersjant. The pit used as an improvised holding pen was empty of ponies, but the gryphon guards were still there. The first was lying on the ground, moving weakly but somehow unable to rise. The second appeared to be struggling with a tangle of barbed tentacles, fighting to stay upright as another loop emerged from his ammunition panniers and coiled around his hind legs. The third was running off in a random direction, firing wildly over his shoulder at something only he could see, his screams fading as he crested the berm and disappeared into the darkness. As Alfgeir watched, another gryphon swooped in to investigate, then abruptly fell out of the sky with unnatural speed -- almost as if he was sucked down -- as he passed near the prone soldier. Unlike the first, he didn't move again.
On the second try he found the right key combination and opened the comms link. "Flysoldat Adigard Alfgeir requesting orders."
"Where are you -- are you secure?"
The voice of sersjant Kafli was clipped and rushed, but at least he sounded normal. Alfgeir felt his panic recede a little. "I'm secure, top floor of the training centre. I... I had one of the foals but he escaped." The humiliation caused him to cringe reflexively, but what could he have done? None of his instructors had ever mentioned ponies except in passing; they were forbidden in the active military on pain of draconian World Court penalties, only ever allowed to operate in support roles. There was no training plan to handle this event; it was unthinkable.
There was a second of dead air before the reply came. "Based on what I've seen you were lucky it did. Can you make it to the rally point?"
"Yes, sersjant. What... what about the wounded?"
"There's nothing you can do for them," the sersjant hissed, pain and anger filling his voice. "There's a thaumic suppression vehicle inbound -- don't be in the air when it arrives," he continued in a more normal tone.
Alfgeir found himself nodding vigorously. "Understood, on route." Gryphons were not overt magic users like ponies, but nothing their size could fly without it. He picked up the remains of the desk the colt had stood on, smashing it through the rest of the window. He took one more look at his fallen squad mates, then jumped out and flew off into the darkness.
In the pool of light cast by Fusion's horn, the three adult ponies galloped towards the training centre building, followed at a distance by all six of the power armoured Masters. Despite the size of the things they had all faded from view in the gloom, with their antimagic fields off they were little more than vague blurs of light even by shadow sight, only really visible when they moved. For a short while, the mare could follow their progress by the glimmer of their little reactors, but the moment she took her sight off them, they vanished. Fusion would have dearly loved to fly over the area, but they'd all been given strict instructions to stay on the ground. They'd also been given replacement communicators, heavy cylinders with an armoured look that hung from woven metal straps around the ponies' necks. Fusion's banged uncomfortably against her chest as she ran; the thing couldn't even talk telepathically, but it apparently did have the advantage of being practically immune to electronic or thaumic interference.
Ahead was a sad looking bundle of feathers and fur. It was the small body of a filly laying on the grass, her long dark mane tangled around short chestnut wings. Fusion searched for the memory of the foal; Single Crystal, daughter of Spiral Fracture and Trocar Point; she always had been a quiet one, but eager to please and friendly. Already a disk of red light was sweeping quickly along the body, first in one fast pass from muzzle to tail, then returning to her chest and oscillating between throat and shoulders. Fusion's vision blurred and she stumbled, tears running down her muzzle as she looked on helplessly. This was Random's sister, which meant both of Spiral's daughters were injured, perhaps fatally so.
"She's not breathing. Blunt impact to the throat," Animal said in a clipped, mechanical tone. "I will set up a triage area here; I'll need you to bring me any wounded," he announced to the two mares and the listening Masters. The scan switched to a fine grid, joined by a solid band of crimson around the filly's chest. "No heartbeat." More red lights appeared against the chestnut coat: head, neck, hips and withers, followed by a pure white one that hovered above and to the left of the veterinarian's head and casting harsh shadows across the still form. Gentle pressure straightened the tangled body, while the band of force started to contract rhythmically. Odd little popping and clicking noises came from Single's neck. The dark brown fur abruptly parted, then flew away from skin of the throat in a carefully controlled plume of fibres, creating an expanding circle of bare skin. The filly's smooth black hide was marred by an irregular patch of unhealthy-looking mottled flesh, collapsed inwards where there should have been gentle swellings.
"You should check on the others," Animal snapped at the two mares, startling them out of their shocked state. "I can't leave... what's her name?"
"Single Crystal," Gravity mumbled in a rough voice, shaking her head and turning to trot off to the next casualty.
Animal nodded distractedly. "Yes, Single."
With a noise like the ringing of a tiny glass bell, a small triangle of red light appeared by the unconscious filly's neck. It rotated in place for a second, almost disappearing completely when it turned edge on. Fusion's eyes widened as the glowing sliver entered Single's throat, flesh parting and blood flowing out in a steady stream. A hint of white cartilage and... the white mare squeezed her eyes shut, wheeled and stumbled away from the impromptu surgery.
Away from the frantic movements of the veterinarian, Fusion's mind cleared enough for her to think clearly, and suddenly she could hear it. A quiet sobbing, almost inaudible over her hoof beats. Ahead she could see the shadowed form of Gravity kneeling next to another fallen pony, an almost ultraviolet nimbus surrounding her horn. Another filly, this one a delicate, pale orange with contrasting blue mane, was lying on her side. Her eyes were rolled back in her head, breath coming in short gasps, each movement producing a sob as it jostled her twisted hindquarters.
Something had struck her high on the left hip, hard enough to break the bone, leaving the leg bent in a place where it should have been straight. Gravity looked up as Fusion approached, frowning in concentration as she inspected the injured filly. "She'll live, it's just her leg," she said with a whisper. "I'll take her to Animal; you go and help Random."
Fusion nodded and headed off to the remaining two figures. The first was a creature that the mare had only ever seen at a distance; pony-like dark brown wings sprouted from just behind its shoulders, the white feathers of its head and neck changing to brown and blending into fur past the wing roots. She spared the gryphon a single glance -- it was still breathing but appeared to be unconscious -- then moved on to Random.
"Sweet Maker," she whispered, kneeling down next to her friend. "What have they done to you?"
The tan-coated pony lay on her left side, right wing splayed and loose against her flank. Blood trickled sluggishly through the fur, flowing down her belly from wide spaced punctures to stain the grass carmine. High up on Random's back were four long, deep scratches, cutting diagonally from right hind leg to left wither. Fusion felt her gorge rise; the smooth lines of the mare's back muscles were interrupted by an ugly lump where the wing's humerus met the middle shoulder joint. The bone itself was displaced rearwards from its proper location, undamaged but obviously dislocated. More blood matted the secondary feathers from parallel cuts on the upper wing, but these were so minor compared to the other injuries that Fusion barely noticed them.
Fusion focused her sight through the tan fur, horn glowing white as the magic took hold. This wasn't something she had any great skill with -- in her mind Random's side remained stubbornly solid, only slowly becoming translucent to reveal the faint, fuzzy outline of the pony's bones. This was nothing like the high resolution, full colour images of her own skull she had been shown by Animal Scanner, but here the injury was simple, something even an amateur like Fusion Pulse could help with. "I'm sorry, Random," she said to the unconscious pony. "I'm going to have to hurt you some more."
She checked again, seeing the dislocated joint and the broken ribs on either side. She'd attended basic first aid courses and had even done this once before -- on a training mannequin. Taking a deep breath, she wrapped the other mare in a blanket of magical force, holding the torso still while gripping the wing from elbow to shoulder. One fast shove and... Click.
Random Walk jerked in her grip, eyes flying open and breath coming in a sudden gasp. Orange fire bloomed over her horn and Fusion hurriedly leant forward to nuzzle her friend's neck, using her own magic to keep Random from moving, as well as deflecting as many of the panicked telekinetic punches as she could.
"It's okay, you're safe," she whispered into the tan ear, spiky black mane making her nose twitch. The other mare's expression of terror faded, her magic dying away with it.
"F... Fusion?" she said. "I thought..." Her eyes strayed to the unconscious gryphon a few lengths in front of her muzzle and she gave a breathless whinny of terror, trying once again to break free of Fusion's grip.
"Shhh, he can't hurt you," Fusion shifted around to lay between Random and her attacker. "He's been knocked out."
Random clenched her eyes shut, taking one deep breath and letting it out slowly. "I don't understand any of this," she said miserably. "One second I was showing Base Pair how to..." the mare stopped with a gasp, eyes flying open and struggling to rise against Fusion's magic. "The foals!"
"...are fine," Fusion said firmly. "They've hidden themselves around the training centre to avoid the gryphons. Listen, this is important. You are not to blame for this." She said the last sentence slowly, staring into her friend's face and willing her to understand.
Random just looked confused. "Of course not, I was only defending my students." Her expression changed to one of worry. "Why would you say that?"
"The gryphons failed to identify themselves to you. They were Lacunae Hive's own."
"Then... then I attacked..." A look of horror crossed Random's face, swiftly followed by an expression of pain that twisted her muzzle into a death's head rictus. The tan mare's muscles all locked rigid, tremors running up and down her legs.
Fusion cursed, realising her mistake the instant her friend's expression changed. Leaning forward once more, she spoke loudly into the other mare's flattened ear. "The Masters do not blame you, it was the gryphon squad commander's fault." She winced inside at the partial lie, bracing for the pain that should have roared through her own body, but like before there was nothing apart from a vague feeling of guilt.
The effect on Random, though, was instantaneous. Muscles lost their sharply defined edges and her face relaxed from the clenched-jaw grimace. "Thank you," she said, breath hissing out.
"Random, I've got to go and look for the foals. If I lift you up, do you think you can get back to the vet?"
Random closed her eyes again. "Yes," she said quietly. "Broken ribs?"
"Yes," Fusion replied, her ears drooping. "Sorry." The glow around Random's torso brightened and she drifted up into the air, rotating until her legs were vertical, then sank gently to the ground. The mare's breath came in short gasps, sweat beading on her flanks as her hooves took her weight.
"I'm okay," Random said shakily, taking a careful step in the direction of Animal. "Who was hurt?"
"Phased Array has a broken rear right leg." Fusion bit her lip; better she should hear it now rather than suffer the slow dawning horror of realising who the veterinarian was working on. "Unfortunately your sister was also hurt quite badly; she's with the vet now."
Random froze, head drooping. "I... I see," she said hollowly, then broke into a slow, limping trot, wings curled protectively around her chest.
Fusion put any thoughts of her friend out of her mind -- Random would live, that's what mattered right now -- and cast around with her shadow sight for any sign of the foals. The older a pony got the easier it was to resist the herding instinct, but these were no more than twelve years old. If she could find one she'd have found them all. Cantering forward, she climbed to the top of the nearest berm, trotting around its rim to inspect as much of the training centre as possible.
There were things that didn't belong in that scene; a few adult pony sized lumps with only wing edges that glowed -- no horn glow meant those could only be other gryphons, almost certainly the targets of the spells she'd sensed earlier. There was something else, though, something strange, a faint patch of light, as if some small part of the debris ring had been transplanted into the vague and darkened landscape as seen through her shadow sight. Fusion opened her real eyes, the moonlit landscape springing into sharp relief. There... something just outside the double ring of berms. A rise in the ground where she couldn't remember there ever being one -- the mare had used the centre almost every day for a decade, and that hillock was definitely new. Without that degree of familiarity though... the illusion was really very good.
"I have found them, Master," Fusion whispered at the communicator. "They are hidden under an illusion behind berm twelve." The mare tasted an unfamiliar emotion as she said those words; guilt. She paused, thinking about that. I'm obeying a direct order, so why am I feeling guilty?
"The pony will hold position until ordered," came the tinny reply.
"Understood," Fusion said, ears swivelling as she hunted for the sounds of something heavier than a pony sprinting over the grass. She found four somethings, then, knowing the general locations she switched back to shadow sight to hunt for the faint pinpoints of their backpack reactors. I must be getting better at this, Fusion thought, following the faint glows. The suits raced out to encircle the fake hill at maybe fifty bodylengths distance.
"The pony will approach the foals. Any attempt they make to escape or employ offensive magic will be met with force."
"Yes, Master," the mare said, trying to prevent dismay from creeping into her voice.
Fusion galloped towards the illusion, cutting through the pits and again cursing her orders not to fly. She crested the last berm, sliding down the steep outside slope to trot towards the new hill. Now within a dozen paces of the illusion's perimeter she could see the join, a discontinuity in the close cut grass. Here's hoping they are all together, she thought, horn glowing as she unpicked the spell.
The hill vanished and for a moment Fusion saw a tight huddle of foals, all shades of grey in the moonlight. There were several shrill screams then, with a ringing of crystal bells, a half dozen pastel hemispheres snapped into position over the herd. Fusion's weight abruptly trebled, driving the mare to her knees with a shocked whinny, while her legs and wings disappeared under a blue and green telekinetic haze. Around her neck, the replacement communicator twitched and grew sharp points that dug into her skin as the metal strap contracted.
"Stop! It's a pony! St... yeeeeeeeeee!"
She didn't recognise the panicked shout or understand why it changed into a high-pitched scream of pure agony, until the furnace heat washed over her own skin. In the brief moment before something had set her on fire, she'd managed to make some headway with the reversed lifter spell, enough that it wouldn't break her legs, but the burning pain broke her concentration before she could free herself completely. Eyes wide, Fusion stared down amazement; she could feel the flames lick up her forelegs, but there was no yellow fire, no smell of scorched fur or flesh. Around her hooves, the fillies and colts writhed and twitched, crying out in uncomprehending pain. Unable to hold it back any longer, Fusion added her own screams to those of the foals.
None of this had much effect on their improvised attack spells or force bubbles; they would fade in time, but that could take tens of seconds without a pony actively trying to disrupt them. The pain roared on and her vision started to fade to grey as the communicator's strap tightened around her throat. Adrenalin surged through her body, the torment and high-pitched foal screams finally stepping into the background and allowing her to concentrate for the last few moments of consciousness. Eye useless, Fusion reverted to shadow sight, searching with the last vestiges of her strength for a weak point in the rainbow cocoon that entrapped her.
Something distorted the universe like a lead ball sitting on a rubber sheet. The glowing spiderweb tangle of magics stretched and bent, colour and intensity bleeding away in moments to leave the world an absolute black, absent even the glows of pony horns and wings. A moment later the fire was gone and the grip around her throat relaxed a fraction and, with breath, sound returned in a renewed chorus of screams and sobs. Fusion rolled onto her side and tried to pull the communicator off with fast, urgent motions of her forelegs and wings; her magic was somehow locked away and out of reach. Her hooves rattled off the metal, unable to get under the tightly constricted band and her vision faded out again as she tried to breath through a half closed throat. Panic started to set in and she thrashed and rubbed her neck against the grass in a desperate effort to get the thing off.
All of a sudden her horn was held in an unbreakable grip while a great weight pressed her shoulders into the grass. The band around her throat abruptly tightened and closed off all her air, then released with a sudden loud spang of stressed metal being sheared. Wheezing and coughing, Fusion sucked in great gulps of air, vision clearing in time to see one of the power armoured Masters kneeling next to her and holding what was left of her replacement communicator, the suit's claw arm pulling back from where it had cut the strap. Little clumps of bloody fur were still attached to that strap, where the metal had stretched into fibres and curled around the hairs. She stared at the distorted metal and shivered; the thing was actually beautiful, half way to becoming a piece of complex jewellery that was all spikes and sharp edges. A necklace with no actual space for a neck.
There was the sound of little hoof-beats, then a renewed chorus of screams that quickly faded to sobs and whimpers. At the same time a fierce heat washed over Fusion's muzzle, but it was a pale thing compared to moments ago.
"All ponies will remain here. Any attempt to escape will be punished." The voice roared out at enormous volume from the suit kneeling next to her, loud enough to make Fusion's ears ring. When it stopped there was absolute silence, save for the sounds of foals huddling closer together.
The suit stood up, gesturing for Fusion to rise and the mare climbed slowly to her hooves, still breathing heavily. It then lowered the arm it had been pointing out at the herd, the flat plate of a microwave antenna retracting beneath the forearm armour.
It spoke again at a more normal volume, addressing Fusion directly. "Take the foals back to the training centre. The pony Fusion Pulse has half a kilosecond to get them moving." It patted the forearm and the now concealed microwave emitter. "Do not be late. Make them understand that disobedience will have consequences. The ponies will be watched." At an unheard signal, the four suits moved away from the herd, far enough that they were invisible to the unaugmented eye.
"Yes, Master," Fusion said fervently to the retreating suit, relieved that the Masters were wise enough to let her organise the foals rather than force them into motion with that awful weapon. She wouldn't be able to forget that searing, blow-torch pain in a hurry; it had been strong enough to paralyse muscles and disrupt thought.
The mare stepped carefully over to the foals, bending down to nuzzle the trembling bundles of feathers and fur. Quiet words of comfort and reassurance, the smell and touch of a familiar adult -- and the absence of pain inducing monsters -- soon had the foals on their hooves and shuffling around her legs in a subdued herd.
"We thought you were one of them, are you alright?" said a blue colt, flapping his wings but resolutely staying on the ground. Giving up on flight, he trotted over to stand in front of her. He wore the remains of an odd harness, obviously made for a creature twice his size, with tattered straps dangling from various points. Many of the other foals were also trying to fly and with just as little success. Some still lay on the floor nursing scraped ankles, chests and jaws.
"I'm fine," Fusion said, flexing her bruised legs and working her jaw. The sensation was very strange; she felt like the world was nothing more than an image, like she was walking inside a glass bubble and completely cut-off from everypony around her. Even inside a safety field or when she'd been forbidden to use magic she'd been able to feel something. This was like being suffocated under a giant transparent blanket. "Go and help your friends -- they were flying just now?"
"Yes, we thought we'd been discovered; everypony not helping with the magic was going to scatter, try and get back home. Then those things... it hurt so much that the fliers fell out of the sky."
Fusion shook her head in amazement; these foals had planned it all, some would fly for help, the rest act as a rear guard. She did a swift count of the group pressing close around her, then started to walk back towards Gravity and Animal. She raised her voice to address the whole herd. "Don't worry about your magic, it will come back. It's safe now, we can go back home. Is this everypony? Did anypony go off on their own?"
The blue colt -- Shock Diamond, Fusion thought -- cantered to her side her before resuming the half trot required to keep pace with the older mare's stride. "This is all of us, everypony except Single and Phased." He sniffed, then continued in a small voice. "They shot them and... and... I saw one of them do terrible things to Random. We realised that they were going to eat us so... so... a few of us used our magic on them, then we all ran." The colt's words sped up, turning plaintive. "I know it was bad, but we didn't know what else to do."
"Phased will be fine and Random will heal, although both will be in the infirmary for a while. Single..." The lie she was about to utter closed Fusions throat. No. They should know the truth, even if it does them no good. "Single is badly hurt; she's with a vet now."
The colt sniffed again, wiping his eyes with the wrist of one wing. "Why? Why did this happen?"
Fusion stumbled to a halt. My fault. "It was an accident I think," she said softly. "I did something, don't really know what. The Masters thought it was an attack and sent in the military." She looked down at the colt and, seeing the look of misery on his face, extended one useless wing to stroke his back. Feeling the pressure of another two dozen pairs of eyes on her she raised her voice so everypony could hear. "Those machines were Masters from Lacunae Hive in armour." There was a murmur of distress at this, and Fusion pressed on before it could turn into anything like the pain Random had suffered. "All of this is down to decisions made by the military; none of you are to blame. It was an accident, a terrible mistake. The Masters may be perfect but their creations are not." I'm certainly not, she thought bitterly.
The rising howl of engines drowned out any questions the foals might have had. Flying low over the centre was a string of half a dozen boxy vehicles, completely black apart from the silver eye of Hive Security on their sides. Squat, slab-sided things, they flew by battering the air into submission, rather than gliding through it like a bird or insect. Fusion could see a ring of lifter crystals surrounding a turret on each underside, but they obviously weren't working at the moment. Instead, air was being inhaled through large grids near the nose and spat out through mobile nozzles on the sides, a faint blue plasma glow lighting the exhaust.
One changed course to circle over the herd, descending low enough that the jets of hot air supporting it blew the ponies' manes and tails wildly about, as well as making them wrinkle their muzzles from the electric ozone smell. A brilliant cone of light stabbed down from its underside, bright enough that Fusion raised one wing to shield her eyes.
"These ponies will return to the training centre." The voice, unmistakably that of a Master, boomed out from the machine before it peeled off to rejoin the others, all settling in a ring next to the building.
Fusion looked around for the armoured Masters, then shrugged her wings when none of them reappeared to countermand the order. Without validation of orders through her now defunct communicator, the rules were simple: obey the one with the highest apparent authority. In this case ‘soldier with Sigil’ beat ‘anonymous voice from Hive Security aircraft.’ Fortunately, they both wanted her to go back to the central building... The white mare stared after the retreating vehicle then started to move once more, the faint hope of being able to send the foals home fading completely. The rest of the walk was silent, save for the gentle thud-thud of hooves on grass.