• Published 25th Jun 2012
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Fallout Equestria x Wild Arms: Trigger to Tomorrow - thatguyvex



A young tribal pony tries to keep his moral center and ensure the survival of his friends while facing the many dangers of the Detrot Wasteland and beyond.

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Chapter 34: From Beyond

Gazing upon the shining wreck of the Veruni starship, the first question in my mind was whether or not we should just leap on inside now and start exploring, or wait until we’d reported its presence to both the NCR and Whiteheart. He was technically my boss now that I was a part of the Drifter’s Guild, so I imagined he’d want to know about the huge, crashed alien ship sitting in the middle of the Everfree Forest before my friends and I went and helped ourselves to salvaging its insides.

Still I could see Arcaidia all but buzzing with the eager need to go inside and start searching for the exact source of Persephone’s signal. Her eyes shone with energy, lit up like silver fire. I wasn’t sure I could stop her from going inside if she really wanted to, but I needed to see if I could at least get her to wait until we got the go ahead from the folks in charge.

“Hey Arcaidia, I know you want to get in there right now, but now that we know it’s here, the Ark isn’t going anywhere. We’d better report back to Whiteheart and get his okay before we do anything on our own.”

She snapped her head towards me, eyes wide pools of eager want and denial as she waved a hoof down into the valley where the Ark rested in its half buried state. “But it’s right there, ren solva! I must go inside. Does not matter what Drifter boss says. I go inside, even if he says no!”

“Look, I understand that, but we’re still technically on the NCR’s land and they got the right to decide who goes into that ship and when. I just don’t want to get us into unneeded trouble.” Even as I said the words I found myself blinking in a combination of surprise and deja vu.

It hadn’t been that long ago that Trailblaze had been standing where I was, trying to convince a friend not to rush off somewhere they shouldn’t be. Now I was the one speaking caution, trying to convince a friend not to go wandering where they might not be allowed. Amazing how much change could occur in such a short time. When had I grown a sense of responsibility and respect for the rules? Probably around the time my own recklessness started putting the lives of those I cared about in danger.

Arcaidia gave me the stink eye, but B.B put a comforting hoof on the unicorn’s withers. “Don’t ya fret, Arc. Long’s got the right o’ this. We oughta check-in wit the big wigs ‘fore doin’ nothing drastic. B’sides, ain’t like they’re gonna have a reason not ta let us check the place out. Who else would they bother sendin’ in?”

To my surprise Crossfire nodded in agreement, “She’s right on that. Whiteheart will want this ship explored, and we’re the most qualified for the job. Reporting to him first just guarantees we can secure our own salvage rights to any valuable inside.”

Right, of course she’d be focused on the money side of things. I wasn’t sure how valuable anything inside the Ark would be, given how much damage it had suffered in crashing into Equestria, but it was a star faring vessel from an alien culture many thousands of years more advanced than our own. Chances were even the broken stuff in there would be worth a lot to the right ponies. Not that I cared about any of that. My only interests in the Ark were in seeing Arcaidia finally finish her search, and of course to hopefully let Gramzanber download the information he needed to calibrate himself fully to my equine body. Any additional we got out of going in there would just be icing on the cake.

Given I’d never eaten cake before, I always thought that was a weird turn of phrase. Apparently cake was better with icing though, and looking at the Ark of Destiny, I imagined there was a lot of icing in there just waiting to be salvaged.

We started trotting back towards where we’d left the site of the battle with Roaring Metal, and the air stirred around us, the smoke from the still raging fires swirling in vast clouds. I heard the deep rumble of storm clouds and looked up to see the two NCR Raptors were descending over the scene, each one cordoning off one side of the clearing that had been burned out by the Golem.

Each dark, wedge shaped airship spewed forth dark rolling storm clouds, which I could only assume were somehow magically enchanted to keep the large metal warships airborne. Each one lowered itself to hover just a hundred feet off the ground before disgorging several smaller Vertibucks from belly mounted hangar bays. We watched as these Vertibucks flew down to land not far from where the heavily wounded Spike was resting, with Hawkeye’s Drifter team waiting alongside Lieutenant Wind Roll.

From two of the Vertibucks several teams of what I assumed to be medics, from the white garb and red crosses on their uniforms flanks, rushed out and all but swarmed on Spike. Within moments the worst of the dragon’s wounds were being treated with a combination of healing magic and more traditional medical techniques, huge rolls of gauze bandages rolling out to cover up some of his worst injuries. The burns looked especially bad, and I winced again, feeling I really needed to thank the dragon for his help in the fight.

I had no doubt in my mind that without Spike’s presence to soak up much of the damage Roaring Metal had been throwing out, myself and many of my companions would be dead. We certainly wouldn’t have survived the Golem’s final, destructive explosion had he not put himself between us and the blast.

Any thought of trying to thank him now, however, was dashed by seeing the way he all but passed out under the ministrations of the medics. I’d have to wait until he recovered before being able to speak with him. Instead I led my friends towards where I saw Lieutenant Wind Roll meeting with Whiteheart and several other ponies who’d arrived with the Veritubucks. I recognized Miss Homage and Wellspring Whistles, the former of which was looking at the injured Spike with open worry. Besides Whiteheart, there was another pony, a pegasus mare with dark, steel blue fur and a short clipped red mane. She wore a brown and gray leather uniform with a short billed cap tucked on her head, all bearing NCR military insignia. I saw Homage and Wellspring both quicky join the medics swarming around Spike, and the equal parts fear and relief were palpable in equal measures on Homage’s face as she went up to put a hoof on the injured dragon’s snout. I could see her talking to the dragon, but was too far away to hear what was being said. Meanwhile Wellspring, notebook in hoof, started to rove around the area, her eyes lit up with keen interest.

Meanwhile the pegasus mare in the military uniform wore a grim frown as we approached, her eyes focused on Spike. It wasn’t the most friendly of looks, but her voice held a crisp edge of professionalism to it as she spoke, “I want the Furious prepared to make an emergency extraction for the dragon in case he needs actual medical facilities. Lieutenant, see to it.”

Wind Roll saluted quickly, “Yes Captain Honorbound, I’ll return to the ship immediately and begin preparations.”

“Good. Now, would any of you Drifters want to explain just what the hell happened down here?” Honorbound asked, her voice never wavering from that professional cool despite her words. “Our monitors couldn’t pick up half of what was going on, but last time I checked that dragon could survive plasma cannon fire at point blank range-” her lips twitched and I got the feeling she knew this from personal experience, not just hearsay, “-so I’m trying to figure out how he’s this badly hurt. Aren’t dragons supposed to be immune to fire?”

“You can’t see the damned thing because it's currently a smoking bucking wreck thanks to us, but we were up against a forty foot tall death machine,” Crossfire said, lips pulled back in a tired but fierce glower, “Your wonder dragon kept our asses alive out there, and I’m going to label it a small miracle things went as well as they did.”

“Yes, but to be burned the way he is-” Honorbound went on, but I was fast to interject, stepping towards her.

“The Golem wasn’t using normal flames, ma’am. I don’t know much about dragons, but whatever resistance they have to fire didn’t count here against what the Golem had. We should be grateful he’s still alive,” I said with heartfelt certainty, “Without his help I don’t think nearly as many of us would’ve survived, if any.”

“Well said,” Whiteheart put in with a small, approving nod, “I’m proud of the job all of you have done, even as I regret those we have lost. Hawkeye, I assure you your team will be compensated for those killed in battle today.”

The tall, reedy stallion just gave a shallow nod, his own expression distant and distracted, “We’re all signed up for death bonuses anyway. Just see to it their family’s get the caps and that’s all the honoring they need, sir.”

“I suppose thanks are in order, regardless,” said Honorbound, her eyes shifting with laser focus onto the smouldering, smokey crater where Roaring Metal used to be. “You’ve spared us what I feared would be a very bloody engagement with that monster, and for that the entire Republic Army extends you its gratitude. Now, given you all look two breaths from bleeding out or collapsing on the spot, may I extend you an invitation aboard the Virtuous to recover?”

“That would be more than acceptable,” Whiteheart said with a gracious bow, and out of the corner of my eye I saw Arcaidia tense up, her ears flicking and one of her hooves scraping at the ground as she cast an imploring glance towards me. I took that as my cue to bring up what we found.

“Actually, before we do anything else I ought to bring up what we found after the battle was over,” I said, and both Whiteheart and Honorbound’s gazes riveted onto me.

“Oh, and what would that be?” Whiteheart asked.

“Well, it's probably easier just to show you both,” I said, nodding back towards the ravine, “If you’ve got a second, I think you’ll both want to see this.”

Honorbound looked a shade irritated, but there was clear curiosity in her eyes too, “Our radar picked up some strange readings from that area. Is this related to why that metal monster was in the Everfree to begin with?”

“I’d say so,” I replied quickly, “Can’t be entirely sure what it was trying to accomplish, but... well you’ll see in a minute.”

As a group we trotted back to the ravine edge, and in the process I saw Wellspring Whistles take not of what we were doing and the reporter mare quickly joined us, giving Crossfire and me both an intent look. “I don’t suppose anypony minds me tagging along?”

Honorbound grunted, “Not a fan of civilian press sticking their noses in things, but you’re a visiting dignitary, so I’ll hold my objections. Whiteheart?”

“I’m quite alright with Miss Wellspring’s presence. The Radio Guild provides the Drifter’s Guild with much needed and appreciated advertising back home,” Whiteheart replied smoothly.

When we reached the edge of the ravine there was a stunned silence from those who had yet to see the shining silver vessel locked within the earth, and I could see the incredulous disbelief on the face of Honorbound, the thirsty gleam that blossomed in Wellspring’s eyes as she started jotting down notes, and Whiteheart’s momentary uneasiness before the Guildmaster hit it behind a calm viel.

“This is amazing!” Wellspring’s voice broke the silence, “Somepony tell me this is what I think it is!”

“And what in the bloody blazing sky do you think it is?” Honorbound questioned, her gaze glued to the half buried ship with a purely disbelieving stare. Wellspring gave the other mare a swiftly raised eyebrow and sassy tilt of her head.

“What, the obvious huge engine pylons and space age looking metal aren’t big enough hints? Does it need to be saucer shaped to make it more plain?”

“You’re not seriously suggested that is some sort of alien spaceship?” the NCR Captain asked in a tone that while dismissive on the surface held a hint of underlying nervousness. Binge gave the Captain a thin, ominous smile, barring her yellow teeth.

“Oh but it is, my uniformed chicken bird. It’s a harbinger from the void beyond, carrying with it all sorts of tasty secrets from distant stardust. Can’t you hear its voice, calling to all of us to come inside and say hello to its empty shell?”

Honorbound blinked at her, and I put a hoof on Binge’s head, one part endearing pat, one part half-hearted bonk. “Binge, no scarring the nice military lady.”

“I’m not scared,” Honorbound said flatly, ruffling her wings, “Just understandably dubious.”

“Dang gal, what’cha need as proof, little green ponies with antenna walkin’ out ta ask ya ta take ‘im ta yer leader?” B.B said.

“It’d help,” Honorbound replied, then gestured at the ravine, “Either way I need this perimeter secured. Whatever that thing is, if the... Golem, you called it? If the Golem was digging this ‘ship’ up then it must be important, and beyond that many NCR soldiers’ lives were lost at Fort Lightbridge so I’m not about to let anything we can get out of this mess go to waste.”

“Speaking on that front I do believe it would be prudent to allow my Drifters to scout the ship’s interior,” said Whiteheart, heading off any need for me to bring it up first as he turned to Honorbound, “With the NCR’s permission, of course.”

The pegasus gave him a shrewd look, her tone hardening. “I’m hesitant to allow a civilian outfit from another nation into a clearly valuable piece of salvage that rightfully belongs in NCR hooves. How do I know you’re ‘Drifters’ won’t take anything we’d rather keep ourselves?”

“I could have it written up as a contracted job if you’d like,” said Whiteheart with a casual wave of his hoof, his eyes peering out behind his pale red mane with convincing sincerity. “Think of it as just hiring us for one more task to aide the NCR. We’ll secure the interior and ensure there’s no nasty surprises waiting inside, taking nothing from the ship. In exchange you merely pay us per a standard salvage contract and after the NCR has catalogued everything within the ship we agree to, say, a 15% salvage right to whatever technology or other useful items may be inside?”

Honorbound let out a soft grunt, “I’m not authorized to set up a deal like that, but I’ll tell you what, I’ll get on the horn and put your idea up to my superiors. If they like it I’ll let you know. In the meantime-”

“Actually, can I point something out?” I asked, and the mare gave me a sharp look. I met her gaze and after a second she relented with a slight nod.

“Say your piece.”

“Thanks. Now you can and should go ahead and put Whiteheart’s contract in as an idea to your superiors, but any time wasted might be costly. The Golem only just recently dug this ship up, which means it might have accidentally triggered security systems, even a self destruct device. For all you know while you’re waiting on approval from your bosses the ship will blow itself up, and you lose everything. Let us head in now and we’ll make sure it's safe and isn’t preparing any nasty surprises. If it turns out later your superiors don’t take Whiteheart’s deal, well the ship will still be clear and you don’t have to pay us; win-win for you.”

Crossfire frowned at me at the mention of no pay, but the mare flicked her blue tell and let out a begrudging whinny, “Buck’s got a point. You lose nothing by letting us clear the place while you’re dealing with red tape.”

“Perhaps...” Honorbound used one of her wings to rub her chin, “Still not sure I trust you folk not to run off with anything not nailed down in there.”

“Well let us hope your superiors see the wisdom of accepting my contract,” said Whiteheart, “That way you won’t have to be concerned with us deciding to acquire salvage on our own. After all the Drifter’s Guild never backs out of contract once it’s signed.”

Several long seconds drifted by as Honorbound considered, her voice low and contemplative. “You folks did take that monster down, and so far have been doing good at providing security at the negotiations. Guess you’ve earned the benefit of the doubt. Fine, go ahead and scout out the crash site and secure it if there’s anything dangerous inside. I’ll send Lieutenant Wind Roll with you to continue being a liason. That fine with you?”

Whiteheart pursed his lips, "If its all the same to you, Captain, my people do work better without having to account for the safety of the Lieutenant."

An angry flash passed Honorbound's eyes, "Lieutenant Wind Roll is an exceptional soldier."

"I'm certain he is," Whiteheart said with diplomatic calm, nodding his head "Yet if he were with my team they would still need to split their attention by trying to ensure his survival. It'd distract them from their task. Please trust that I'm only saying this for both my team and the Lieutenant's safety in mind."

Honorbound blew out a heated sigh, "Fine, have it your way."

Whiteheart nodded to her again in acknowledgment, then turned to us, “Now, I don’t want to send everypony inside. That would be a waste. Longwalk, would your team be sufficient for this task?”

Before I could answer Crossfire stepped forward, “I’m going too.”

Applegate, who’d been silently watching the proceedings up until then, turned to Crossfire and said, “There’s no reason to send more than just one team into the wreck. Likely the interior will be cramped, so having more bodies will just make things difficult. Also if Longwalk is right and the ship might self destruct, well, it’s better to risk fewer lives, is it not?”

Crossfire shot Applegate a glare, “The kid is still too inexperienced for a job like this. You want at least one A-ranker in there, and that’s me.”

Whiteheart raised one of his thin eyebrows, “I believe you’re underestimating the abilities of your fellow Drifters, however I suppose as impressive as the combat prowess of Longwalk and his companions are you do have far more experience under your belt in regards to complete jobs. Very well, Crossfire, you may go as an attachment to Longwalk’s team, but just you. Mr. Shard can remain here.”

“Fine by me,” said Shard, glancing at me and my friends, “No offense but I’m not eager to walk into an alien ghost ship, and after dealing with that Golem I could use a cold one. Or ten. Sorry boss.”

Crossfire shrugged, “Don’t worry about it. I just want to make sure the buck doesn’t accidently hit that self destruct button he was talking about.”

I blanched, giving her a snort, “I know I’m not the sharpest spear in the hunting party, but I’m not that dumb. I won’t touch any big, shiny red buttons.”

Arcaidia held her head high and proudly proclaimed, “Veruni self-destruct system not use big red buttons. Is voice activated and need many officers voice print. Impossible to accidentally trigger.”

Honorbound starred at her and I managed a polite cough and laugh as I elbowed Arcaidia, “Hahaha! That’s our Arcaidia. Always joking about having knowledge of alien civilizations that she shouldn't have.”

“Ow! Ren solva stop elbowing me! I was just...” she blinked, glancing at Honorbound, “Oh. Yes, um... is joke. About aliens. Which I am not. Ha. Ha. Ha.”

With a slow shake of her head Honorbound glanced at Whiteheart and said, “I’ll return to the Virtuous and contact command headquarters. If you come with me we can work that contract out, let your people not going into the ship recover on board, and oversee operations while your team checks the ship out.”

“Of course,” said Whiteheart, then turned to me, “Longwalk, make whatever preparations you need. You can begin exploring the crashed vessel in, say, half an hour. Agreed?”

“Works for me,” I said with a firm nod, “Half an hour will give us all time to catch our breath and figure out how we’re gonna do this.”

“Very good!” Whiteheart beamed an approving smile, “I knew bringing you into the Drifter’s Guild was a good choice. You’re taking to the work quite well. Do take this opportunity to continue observing Miss Crossfire as well. She may be rough around the edges-”

“Grrr.”

“-but she’s exceptionally skilled. Try to learn from her example. Now, Captain, shall we?” Whiteheart turned to Captain Honorbound, and with a nod the pair started to walk off back towards the distant Vertibucks.

Meanwhile Wellspring Whistles had finished jotting down notes and had taken out a small device with a black box attached to some kind of lens and silver, round protrusion. She pointed it at the crashed ship and pressed a button on the side of the box, and there was a flash of light and a snap. I blinked.

“What are you doing?”

“Taking pictures, of course. I’d have asked if I could join you inside, but I imagine both your Guildmaster and that Captain mare would’ve stomped on that idea flatley,” Wellspring said, sighing, “Such a shame. I can only imagine what must be inside there. Then again, perhaps some of us could imagine it better than others.”

That last part was said while giving a sly look and wink towards Arcaidia, who coughed and looked away.

“I have no brain notion of what you say, reporter pony.”

“Of course you don’t,” Wellspring said, then looked at Crossfire, “I don’t suppose you’ll tell me what you find in there, if I promise to slip you a bag of caps for any juicy info?”

“Show me how many caps, and I’ll let you know,” Crossfire said with a knowing smile, and Wellspring let out a warm chuckle, digging out a jingling bag and tossing it to Crossfire, who caught it in midair with her magic. I had to wonder where Wellspring kept pulling these things out from. She wasn’t wearing her dress from last night, just a simple beige vest with a few pockets and a single small saddlebag.

Checking the weight of the bag, Crossfire smiled, “I’ll tell you if I see anything interesting in there. No promises.”

“Anything I can turn into a story is fine by me,” Wellspring said, and turned her hungry, journalistic gaze upon the rest of us, “Same goes for the lot of you. Bring me anything juicy and I can make it worth your while.”

“We’ll keep that in mind,” I said, “But for now I think we need to have a sit down and talk shop, just us Drifter types.”

“I get it, well don’t let me stop you. I’ll just go see what else I can get pictures of in the meantime. Hmm, perhaps that strapping Wind Roll fellow will be interesting in giving me a quick interview...” Wellspring mused to herself as she wandered off.

Applegate remained a moment longer, looking between me and Crossfire. The senior Drifter had a momentary look of worry in her eyes, but she resumed a calm mask as she spoke, “I’m sure I don’t need to remind all of you to exercise extreme caution in this situation? You may have some experience with the Ruins around Skull City, but I... I sense this vessel is different. It’s hard to put my hoof on what but it makes me very uneasy. I suggest you proceed cautiously once you’re within, and do not hesitate to retreat in case you run into danger.”

“We know how to handle ourselves, Applegate. Don’t need to play mother hen with us,” said Crossfire in an irritable grunt.

“I’m sure that’s true,” Applegate said, letting out a deeply held breath and her face softening somewhat, “Longwalk and his companions have proven capable fighters, and with you watching out for them, Crossfire, I’m sure I needn’t worry so much.”

“I’m not ‘watching out’ for anypony!” Crossfire muttered, “This ponies get themselves killed, that’s their own business.”

Applegate laughed, as if she didn’t believe Crossfire for a moment. I was less convinced, but then again for all her bitching and grumbling my now fellow Drifter had stuck by us so far. It was strange to think back to when I first met Crossfire that the same money obsessed mercenary would be somepony I’d be relying on, side by side in battle together. I wondered if it was I that had changed, Crossfire, or both of us?

After Applegate left the six of us, I looked at each of my comrades in turn. Before anything else happened I needed to bring something up.

“LIL-E,” I asked the eyebot, “You’ve got those fancy scanners installed in you, right?”

“Yes. Why?”

I hesitated a moment before asking. I wasn’t eager to cast suspicions on another Drifter we were working with, but I needed to know just what had happened during the fight with the Golem. “When we were tackling Roaring Metal, I thought I saw a few stray shots fly by B.B, maybe aimed at her... and I thought they might’ve come from Hawkeye’s direction. Did your scanners pick up anything like that?”

“Wait, what?” B.B’s ears perked up as her eyes took on a confused light, “Are ya sure ‘bout that, Long?”

I frowned, my own ears flattening as I recalled what I saw. “Can’t be one hundred percent sure. I mean, it was in the middle of a fight, so all sorts of crazy stuff was happening really fast. But I had Accelerator going, and I could’ve sworn I saw bullets coming at you, just barely missing. You didn’t notice?”

She shook her head, brown and pink streaked mane tumblng around her face, “Like ya said, fight was crazy. Was too focused on the giant hunk o’ flamin’ robot tryin’ ta scorch us all ta notice iffin a little bullet passed me by.” She cast a violet eyed stare off in the distance towards where Hawkeye and his surviving Drifter team were being looked over by NCR medics. “Been feelin’ like he’s got some serious issues wit me, though.”

Crossfire’s narrowed to golden slits, “Why would he have an issue with you?”

B.B’s expression turned to a porceliean mask, “Could be pleny o’ reasons. Ain’t you got plenty o’ ponies who’d be happy ta put a bullet in ya, fer some ill deed or ‘nother ya did in the past?”

A snarling twitch passed Crossfire’s lips, her tail bristling, “Yeah, might be there are. Good thing none of them are here right now, right?”

“Guys, let’s not get at each over this, I just wanted to see if LIL-E had seen anything or not. For all I know I was just seeing things myself,” I said, and glanced back at LIL-E expectantly. The eyebot hovered silently for a moment before her mechanical voice buzzed.

“Going over the record of the battle, I am seeing there was a couple of shots fired in B.B’s direction, but I can’t pinpoint exactly where they came from aside from it was in Hawkeye’s general direction. Don’t think it's him, however.”

“Why’s that?” I asked, tilting my head.

“Hawkeye was using one of those sexy new railguns. The rounds that streaked by B.B don’t have the same profile, according to my data. I... got no idea what kind of round these are, actually.” LIL-E’s usual monotone gained an irritated static tone to it, “Closest I can give you is they’re lighter caliber, more like a pistol or SMG than a rifle.”

“Could Hawkpony have used other weapon?” asked Arcaidia, her own face gaining a cold harshness to it, “We should confront him and make him tell us if he attack B.B or not. Why waste time theorying-”

“Theorizing, hun,” B.B corrected.

“-Yes, that word. Why waste time doing that when we can ask direct and make him tell us truth?”

I rubbed my chin, “We might have to, but let’s not be accusing about it. Just, you know, politely inquire. That’ll have to wait until we’re done here, though. Still, B.B, everypony, let’s keep our eyes extra peeled, in case we got an invisible sniper out there who’s gunning for us.”

Binge grinned, licking her lips, “If they follow us into the snug silver coffin that’ll make it even more fun. Like hide and seek, but with bullets.”

“Ain’t that a lovely thought?” B.B sighed, “Might as well git this show goin’, eh, Long?”

She was taking the news that she possibly had a mysterious sniper aiming to kill her quite well, but I supposed after having to deal with Scythe’s actions and the weight of having to face her Family and former Mistress once more, not much was going to phase B.B. I gave her an encouraging nod, and saw her thankful smile. Whatever was coming, we’d take it on.

“I’m all for getting started,” I said, myself and my companions turning our collective attention towards the sight of the Ark of Destiny, its silver surface awaiting us, vast and silent. It very much did look like some shining, untouched tomb, Binge’s description of a ‘coffin’ somehow feeling chillingly accurate. I glanced at Arcaidia.

“Arcaidia, this is going to be more your show than ours. You know what we’re getting into. How do we do this?”

I could see Crossfire’s eyebrow raise at my words, but there was no helping it. Crossfire might not have known yet what Arcaidia’s true nature was, but there was going to be no hiding it once we entered the Ark of Destiny. We’d need to rely on Arcaidia’s knowledge of the ship and the Veruni technology within to succeed, so one way or another that cat was going to be out of the bag. I just hoped Crossfire could keep focused on the job and not ask too many question.

Arcaidia must have had similar thoughts to my own, because she didn’t even spare Crossfire a glance of concern as she started to speak, “Depends on if ship systems still active. Ark’s reactor may be broken, but ship have multiple backups that keep ship powered indef...indiffer...for very long time. Reactor make clean power, so no radiation to fear, but other hazards problem. Chemical leaks for power conduits. Don’t let fluids touch you. Very bad. Possible security systems still active. Drones, may not recognize my... estu dol ivira vi milsa.”

She tapped at the back of her neck, “Chip for knowing me. Contains information ship systems can scan. May not work if ship damaged.”

Binge giggled, “It’s okay Frosty Blue, we’ve crept around dark places we don’t belong plenty of times now. It’ll be like the Stable, but with more robots and less spiders.” She paused, tail wagging, “Unless there are robot spiders.”

“Why do ya sound hopeful fer that?” B.B mused, shaking her head.

“I’m more curious how the unicorn seems to know so much about this ‘ship’,” said Crossfire under her breath, eyeing me, then Arcaidia, “But I don’t suppose either of you are going to explain it.”

“Honestly Crossfire, it’d take too long, and you can probably guess enough yourself already,” I said, hefting Gramzanber over my shoulder, “Alright, let’s do this. I’ll take point with Arcaidia. Binge and B.B will come in behind us, then Crossfire and LIL-E act as rear guard.”

Crossfire shrugged, “I’ll let you lead, but if shit goes south, and it probably will, I’m taking charge. Got it?”

“No objections,” I said, and with that we started down the steep ravine slope towards where the Ark of Destiny waited for us.

----------

Binge was right, this did remind me of our first jaunt into Stable 104. There was the same feeling of coming across a place that was cold not because of the temperature, but because it was and old space once occupied by the living but was now silent and empty, and had been that way for centuries. The Ruin beneath Saddlesprings had the same vibe. The comparison left me uneasy as we explored around the curved underside of the ship, looking for a means of entry.

I’d lost my first friend in that Ruin, holding Shale as she’d died. I’d taken my first life in Stable 104, my spear ending Director Midnight Twinkle.

I didn’t have a good track record with places like this. I gulped, and prayed to the Ancestor Spirits the exploration of the Ark of Destiny would go much smoother than those other occasions. Up close the metal of the ship’s hull seemed of a slightly duller hue than the bright silver it gleamed at a distance. I could see patterns of geometric lines, almost like circuitry, running along the smooth, metallic walls, clean and shining even where the crash impact had buckled the metal inward. We quickly discovered what Arcaidia had meant by cable fluids, as in a few places where the ship’s damage left rent holes where piles of white fibers and gray, ribbed cabling hung out like guts there was also several pools of opaque, thick blue liquid.

Where it pooled on the ground I saw the dirt and grass nearby had been eaten away, and in some cases I saw rocks or logs that been melted together.

“Arcaidia, what is this stuff?”

Her muzzle scrunched up as she struggled for words, “Esri tu cathira dol tuvrai est hovai. Some is power fluid. Other is coolant. Like ship’s blood. Don’t touch. If burn does not melt flesh, it will still burn skin and poison blood.”

“There are a few holes here big enough to crawl into, but not without getting that crap all over us,” LIL-E noted, “My scanners are showing a larger opening further ahead, just on the other side of that big pylon.”

She was talking about one of the large, cylindrical protrusions that extended from the top and bottom of the hull, which I assumed were engines of some sort. Or maybe weapons? Arcaidia led the way, with me close behind, the rest of the party following as we deftly avoided and weaved between the still pools of blue liquid, making our way beneath the overhanging pylon of silver metal. This close I was struck by the immense size of the ship. This pylon alone was dozens of meters across and easily a hundred long, and half of it had to have been buried in the ravine floor.

“Hey Arcaidia, just how big was this ship anyway?”

“Ark of Destiny is Yivori-class deep space exploration ship, meant for long range missions. Is three hundred and fifty five meter long, one hundred and thirty five wide. Eight decks in total. Crew of one hundred and fifty,” Arcaidia’s voice dropped to a sad octave, “Far fewer now, if just me is left.”

Crossfire made a disbelieving grunt, but held her peace, for which I was grateful. She was a professional, I’ll give her that. She kept her head focused on the job rather than the mounting revelations about Arcaidia’s origins.

Beyond the engine pylon the hull of the ship curved deep into the earth, where the majority of it had buried itself deep in the terrain of the Everfree Forest. I could see clearly now various deep gouges in the dirt where the Golem had been digging the ship free. Why had the ancient, Elw built weapon been excavating this ship? Had it been following some final directive to seek out and destroy the Elw’s old, alien enemies? Or had it simply been following some corrupted programming that left it behaving erratically? Well, Roaring Metal was scrap, now, so I supposed I’d never know.

Along the lower curve of the hull I looked up to see that LIL-E’s scan was right, there was an opening into the ship, and strangely enough it didn’t look like the result of damage from the crash either. A rectangular shaped opening was about five or six meters up from the ground, as if a portion of the hull had just slid aside. Squinting my eyes I could see that it was some kind of exterior door, and a large one at that, easily large enough that a Vertibuck could pass through it. Arcaidia was looking at it as well, her silver eyes narrowing slightly.

“What is it, Arc?” asked B.B.

“Is secondary shuttle bay. It is odd it is open. Should have been closed during crash. Maybe short circuit in system make it open?”

“Maaaaybe,” said Binge, tilting her head towards the ground by the open doorway, “Or maybe we’re not treading on virgin ground. Lookie at the pretty little prints.”

“Prints?” I glanced down where Binge was indicating, and my tribal hunter training kicked in, showing me what my marefriend had already spotted. There were light tracks in the dirt by the shuttle bay door. As we gathered around I bent down and examined the tracks. These were hoof tracks, made by ponies. They were marred, as if somepony had tried to cover them up, but hadn’t had much time to do so. How old they were I couldn’t tell.

“Has anypony else been in this forest before?” I asked, “I mean, do ponies wander in on occasion? Could these be from somepony who came here years ago?”

“I don’t think so,” said Crossfire, “Last I heard the NCR kept the Everfree pretty damn well cordoned off. I imagine a few idiots might wander in anyway, but that seems really unlikely.”

LIL-E floated around the tracks, then looked up at me, “A long ways back the slaver Red Eye had a base in the forest, and there was even a Stable beneath it. But I seriously doubt he or any of his followers found this.”

I frowned in thought. If somepony had wandered into the ship, who could it be? Was it a long time ago, or would it be more recent? Would they still be inside? I shook my head with a rueful chuckle.

“Guess there’s not point speculating. Our job is to scout out the inside and secure it, so if there’s answers to be found, we’re not going to find them out here.”

Getting into the shuttle bay was easy enough. I sent my Grapple flying up to hook to the top edge of the doors, and offered Binge a hoof. “Shall we?”

She cracked a grin at me and soon had her hooves wrapped tight around me as I raised us up with the Grapple. B.B picked up Arcaidia and flew her up, while LIL-E could fly up on her own. That just left Crossfire, who with a snort let her horn blaze with crimson magic and teleported herself to the entrance in a flash.

We stood on the edge of the shuttle bay entrance, the hard and cool metal floor slanting slightly upwards ahead of us. The interior was filled with a soupy dark gloom, which was only penetrated as Arcaidia and Crossfire lit up their horns and I turned on my Pip-Buck’s light. So far my E.F.S hadn’t shown any signals, but I didn’t relax as we strode into the large chamber ahead of us, our hooves making loud and echoing clacking noises.

The walls to either side of us were curved, like we were entering a wide cylinder, and I saw that even the ceiling was similarly curved. Either wall was occupied by a set of metal alcoves, bisected by a platform about half again as large as a Vertibuck. Within some of these alcoves rested what I could only assume were vehicles, which bore a resemblance to a stretched out silver bubble. Each one had four smaller versions of the engine pylons outside, simply scaled down to the size of these “shuttles”, all mounted in a cross pattern at the back of each vehicle. The shuttles were held in place by metal clamps, but I could see where several had broken free in the crash, their forms strewn around the shadowed shuttle bay like dented tin cans.

A sticky, near solid stream of blue liquid poured from the gutted belly of one crunched shuttle, dripping off the edge of the open bay doors. Other internal components were scattered like the viscera of a slain animal across the bay floor, along with rounded silver boxes that I imagined were old supply crates stored here along with the shuttles. Fortunatelly our path forward wasn’t blocked by any of this debris so we were able to trot along unimpeded towards the back of the chamber, where a set of sliding metal doors hung partially open into a dark hallway beyond.

As we walked my companions all looked around, Arcaidia with eyes containing nostalgic sadness, while the others looked on with mixes of awe, interest, or in Binge’s case bemused curiosity.

“Goddesses, you could make a damn fortune on selling even one of those things to the highest bidder,” Crossfire grunted, looking at one of the shuttles, “If any of this tech still works, the NCR is going to be sitting on a game changer.”

“Assuming anypony alive today could figure out how any of this stuff works,” said LIL-E, “My scanners are going haywire now that we’re in here. Arcaidia does this ship have some kind of anti sensor tech that’s scrambling my scans?”

Arcaidia paused, no more than a few paces from the mouth of the darkened doorway out of the shuttle bay, and gave LIL-E a worried frown. “Should be no active countermeasures. Not unless... mas, tu mas esru ti yihafrae dol shim.”

“Arcaidia?” I asked, and she waved a hoof at me as she brought up her Pip-Buck and started switching a few buttons on it. After a moment she seemed to find what she was looking for and let out a hiss.

“Mas! Connect my device to local systems but locked out! Ship’s secondary generators powering security systems. Countermeasures make LIL-E’s sensors crazy. Defense robots may also be active.”

Crossfire’s eyebrow shot up and her expression tightened, “Robots? What kind of robots?”

Arcaidia held her artificial leg off the ground at about a pace worth of height, “This tall, many legs, climb on walls, shoot beams.” She unholstered her starblaster for emphasis, “Beams like this shoots.”

“That ain’t encouragin’,” said B.B, “Armor ain’t much good against the kind o’ energy yer blaster tosses ‘bout, Arc. How many o’ these buggers r’ gonna be active?”

A dainty shrug was all Arcaidia could muster, “Unsure. Not all may be functional after crash. Ship had full complement of thirty bots for repelling boarders or creating security perimeter if ship landed on hostile world. Now? Don’t know.”

“Clickity clack go the spider bots,” said Binge, licking her lips, “Just like old times, bucky. Spiders in the shadows, only these ones are shiny and go zap.”

“Look,” I said, “This doesn’t change anything. We still move forward, do what we can to secure this place. We run into any of these security bots, we take them down hard and fast. Crossfire, you’ve got a magic shield. Sounds like our best bet for defense against any of the robot’s energy weapons.”

“Good point,” she admitted reluctantly, “I’ll take point then, and your little blue friend joins me. She’s got the same kind of weapon, so that ought to even the odds.”

Arcaidia nodded, “That work. I cannot log into system yet, but if I get to security or administration panel, I can get into system from there. Shut down security alert.”

“Shouldn’t these robot buggers recognize ya as one o’ the crew?” asked B.B, but Arcaidia let out a sad sigh.

“Been long time for memory programing to degrade. Might not recognize facial features. Not taking risk. See bot, blast bot,” Arcaidia said with a firm nod and patting her starblaster for emphasis.

“Besides, even if the bots do recognize her and don’t shot at her, they still won’t give two fucks about us and open fire on us ‘intruders’, right?” said Crossfire, “So kinda a moot point.”

With that in mind we proceeded out of the shuttle bay and into the hallway beyond. As expected it was exceedingly dark, with only the light of our Pip-Bucks and the magical glow from the horns of the unicorns in the party illuminating the space around us. The hallway, much like the shuttle bay, had a rounded, cylindrical shape to it, and curved off to the left and right with very little to indicate what may lay in which direction. If we didn’t have Arcaidia with us we’d be lost, fumbling around blind, but fortunately the young unicorn was intimately familiar with the ship’s layout.

Without hesitation she nodded to the left, “This way. Fastest route to main security room. Best chance to gain access to ship systems.”

Shadows swallowed us as we trotted cautiously down the corridor, its rounded shape giving me the impression of crawling down the throat of some vast, metal beast. The hallway was smooth in its construction, but before long we started to encounter more damage from the ship’s blazing crash from orbit. The corridor became bent and twisted, with wires, tubes, and leaking bits of old fluids forcing us to slow our progress to a snail’s pace just to work our way around it. At one point the hallway was utterly collapsed, with a severed portion from above leading to a upper corridor.

Arcaidia stayed the course, keeping her eyes intently locked forward, making detours as she led us onward up to the next deck of the ship. We passed doorways that were nearly seamless in how they were blended into the walls, and I wouldn’t have noticed them if not for the fact that several were left silently hanging open, showing what looked like crew quarters.

Crossfire paused here, glancing into one of the open rooms. Arcaidia gave the other unicorn a disapproving glare.

“Not thinking of robbing the dead, are you mercenary pony?”

A rough snort came from Crossfire, “Oh, so when it's your own people, its ‘robbing the dead’, but when its, say, the Gobs down below Skull City, you didn’t say a damn word about me taking what we wanted off of those bodies? Hells, there aren’t even any bodies in here. I haven’t seen a single dead... whatever flew in this thing.”

“Veruni,” Arcaidia said with a chilled note, but a look of unease did skip across her features, “And I not know why there’s no bodies. Many crew escape on pods, but some would not have made it. But... have seen no bodies.”

“Maybe they were just lucky,” I suggested, “I mean, sure a few might have died during the crash, but it could be that most of them were fortunate enough to escape in time.”

“Regardless, can I take a look in here or are you going to pitch a fit, Snowflake?” Crossfire said, staring at Arcaidia.

“What are you expecting to find in these rooms?” I asked, “They just look like bunks to me.”

“Call it satisfying curiosity,” Crossfire replied curtly.

Binge licked her lips, her tail wagging behind her, “Yeah, c’mon let us defile the long untouched and private domains of your dead coworker’s homes! It’ll be fun!”

Arcaidia shot a sub-zero glare at her, and Binge held up a hoof, grinning, “Kidding! Kidding! After you were so nice to my home, it's only fair we be nice to yours.”

B.B nodded approval, and while Crossfire looked ready to argue, LIL-E was quick to interject, “Strictly speaking our job isn’t to collect salvage anyway. It's not like you’d be likely to find much worth selling in quarters like these. They look like they were for lower ranked crew. If there’s going to be any good stuff like weapons and armor it’ll be in the security station... right Arcaidia?”

With a reluctant nod Arcaidia said, “Correct. I not care if you take Veruni equipment. NCR will do the same. Just not like... my friend’s things rummaged through. That’s all. If you must look, look, but please not steal anything or I become very... upset.”

I remembered the dream of hers I’d shared of when the Arc of Destiny had arrived on my world, and ended up crashing after being attacked but unknown satellites. I recalled just how much pain Arcaidia had shown when she’d tried to save one of her fellow Veruni crew who’d been fatally injured during the attack. I wasn’t sure how long Arcaidia had served on this ship, but she’d likely had many friends and acquaintances among the crew.

And now she was essentially walking through their graves. She was putting on a strong face, clear and focused as I’d ever seen her, but being here couldn’t have been easy on her. I couldn’t imagine what she might be feeling right now, especially given we’d seen no sign of life so far. The chances we might actually find her sister here, alive after all this time, was rapidly dwindling. I reached out a hoof to her, and she responded at first by raising her artificial leg, liking using that limb out of old reflex. After a second of embarrassed and saddened surprise she lowered the metal limb and extended her flesh and blood hoof to touch mine.

“I am okay. No need for worry head, ren solva. You all my look around berths, but with respect.”

“Believe it or not I can manage to be respectful,” Crossfire said with a disgruntled twist of her lips, ears dropping along the side of her head.

“Nopony is saying you can’t,” I told her, “Still not sure what you’re looking for, though.”

“Honestly? I was hoping these aliens have something that might help Knobs,” Crossfire admitted after a quiet moment where she glanced away from all of us. That got me blinking at her, surprised by the openness from her, however brief it might be. I glanced at Arcaidia questioningly.

Arcaidia looked thoughtful, then shrugged, “Better place to search would be medical bay, but I think some crew have hover planks for sports in gym. If it for nice Knobs mare, then you may look.”

With an uncharacteristic sigh of relief Crossfire sighed and said, “Thank you.”

For expediency's sake we split up between the nearest rooms, myself and Binge taking one side of the hall while Crossfire and Arcaidia checked through the one on the other side. Meanwhile LIL-E and B.B would stand watch to make sure nothing snuck up on us while we searched.

As Binge and I entered the dark confines of the quarters I was struck by a strange sense of both the familiar and the alien. Which made sense, given what I knew of this place’s previous occupants. The Veruni were different from us ponies in many ways, yet from what little I’d gleaned of them from Arcaidia’s dreams the species still shared a lot of basic similarities to us as well.

The space was covered in a strangely springy carpet that felt much softer on my hooves than the hard metal floor of the corridors. The room was in a messy state, so it was hard to tell how it was originally arranged given the crash had thrown everything around. A smashed, glass globe about the size of my head was laying atop an overturned half-oval table of bent metal in one corner of the room. Another side of the room showed a flat counter surface with a shattered sheet of plastic above it that still sparked with small fits of semi-luminous light, making me think of a broken terminal monitor. One wall was fixed with an alcove containing an inclined mattress, a bunk I assumed, although it was large enough two ponies could easily fit in it. On the right side of the counter with the broken monitor was a rectangular box mounted on the wall, hanging off from a series of half severed tubes. There were smooth buttons on the box, but I wasn’t about to try pressing any.

Binge on the other hoof?

“Binge, what are you doing?” I said in a quick whisper as she trotted up to the box and started fiddling with the buttons.

“Why are you whispering, Longy? Afraid to scare the ghosts?”

I had no idea why I was whispering other than it felt like the right tone in this situation, but I cleared my throat and said, louder, “I don’t know and that’s not important. Just be careful with that thing. We don’t know what it is.”

“I’m going to bet it’s a space microwave. Ooooo, or maybe its a safe where the aliens kept their unmentionables? What do you think alien porn is like?”

“I’m sure I don’t want to find out,” I said, wincing as Binge started touching more buttons. Thankfully the box seemed to be out of power, and I breathed a sigh of relief as Binge lost interest in the inert thing and let it go. “Please be careful Binge. We’ve got no way to know what’s dangerous and what isn’t.”

She came up to me, baby blue eyes shining in the dark, and planted a small kiss on my snout, “No worries bucky, I ain’t leaving you on your lonesome so soon after entwining our jolly bits. The danger slinking around this big, shiny space coffin is close, yes, but we’ll sniff it before it snuffs us, trust me.”

“How can you know that?”

“Just a warm tingly I have, Longykins. Don’t worry your pretty head about it.”

With that we resumed searching the room, and with a bit of coaxing I got Binge to agree to sweep one side while I checked the other, no pressing of buttons allowed. Of course that said nothing about handles or levers, so when I found a few small handles mounted on the wall over the bunk I got curious and used Gramzanber to fish them open. A number of bundled bits of cloth and more rubber-like materials fell out as I discovered the Veruni laundry drawers. The fabric felt a lot like normal cloth, but somehow smoother, with less friction. Looking close I saw the slight shimmer of hex patterns in the clothes... the same kind that existed on Arcaidia’s blue dress.

Sorting through other drawers I found in the wall I discovered an assortment of random items, some of which seemed oddly mundane and familiar while still being quite alien. Like one object was clearly a hair brush, with a silver handle and black rubber grip, but there was a blue orb build into the back that when I touched it by accident the brush secreted a weird smelling green gel.

Binge let out a giggle, “Now who’s getting touchy with the buttons?”

“Hey, this isn’t a button, it's a weird orb thing. Big difference.”

“Wanna know what else is a big difference? This knobby thing here!” Binge cranked a metal knob mounted high on the wall on her end of the room, and a small alcove opened up in the wall. It was shaped like a tall, wide cylinder. Binge, to my relief, did back away from it just in case it did anything, but all we saw was a few sputtering blue lights try to flick on in the ceiling, then a square portion of metal extended from the top of the wall for a moment before spouting a small drip of water, then nothing.

“Huh... a shower?” I asked, looking at the square head that had dripped the water. I supposed this small cylinder would easily fit one Veruni, and if the thing was working properly maybe it’d shoot out a full spray of water.

“It’s funny. They come from the big black beyond, filled with stars and worlds we can’t imagine, but take away all the shiny space bits and they were just like us, huh Longwalk?” said Binge, voice cooing with awed musing. Then she grinned with profane impishness and elbowed me with a wagging eyebrow. “But they still probably had crazy tentacle porn.”

I sighed, laughing under my breath, “You’re impossible.”

She leaned close and gave my neck a nibble, “You know you love it.”

With that room more or less clear, near as I could tell, Binge and I moved on to the next one. I could see Crossfire and Arcaidia doing similar, methodically checking each quarters while B.B and LIL-E continued to keep watch.

“Weird,” I heard LIL-E say as we moved between rooms.

“Something up?” I asked, poking my head out of the quarters Binge and I were searching.

The eyebot was floating a bit down the corridor we came from, and didn’t turn back to me but instead kept focusing down the hall. “Sensor ghost. Had a blip for a second, now its gone. Haven’t been able to get any good readings since we got in here, so could just be my sensors acting up with all this alien tech around.”

“Yeah, because we’re that lucky,” I said, not eager to let us drop our guard. “You see it again, let me know.”

“You got it. You guys finding anything useful snooping around dead aliens’ homes?”

“Useful? Not really. Neat, well that depends on if you consider the idea of trying to decide if the green, fuzzy piece of unidentifiable biomass on an oval space plate is mold or some kind of alien cake is neat or not.”

LIL-E paused, then said, “Okay, you guys keep having fun. I’m going to continue to pretend to be useful.”

About ten minutes later we’d finished searching the rooms on our side of the hallway and met up with Crossfire and Arcaidia. My unicorn friend seemed somewhat calmer and less melancholy now, as if taking her time to go over the quarters had let her come to better grips with the long ago loss of her crewmates. Crossfire wore a faintly frustrated look, evident by the irritable tapping of her hooves.

“Didn’t find anything?” I asked, and Crossfire shook her head.

“Nothing that’d help Knobs.”

Arcaidia glanced at Crossfire, her icy expression softening, if only by a few degrees. “Best bet is Medical Bay. If anything there intact, it can be great, great cure for many problems and ailments.”

With a morose glance at her artificial leg she tapped the metal limb on the wall, “I might even make replacement for leg too. Can fix Miss Knobs up as well. Just need to make sure Medical Bay is in good condition.”

Crossfire glanced sidelong at Arcaidia, a look of reluctant gratitude there that she was trying hard to hide behind her usual hardened expression, “Here’s hoping the NCR doesn’t just try to yank all that tech for itself, then. Might have to smuggle something out if that’s what it comes to.”

She looked back at me and Binge, “What about you two? Find anything?”

I shook my head, but Binge smiled, holding up a strangely large and rounded cylindrical device with a smaller, secondary prong arcing off it. “I found this back massager! Watch!”

Binge flipped a orb-like button on the device and it started to vibrate softly, and she used it to rub her back with a pleased sigh. I shrugged, but then tilted my head in curiosity as I saw Arcaidia’s face had gone from blue to a glowing beet red. “You okay, Arcaidia?”

“Uh...um... yes, okay, very fine, thank you...” She cleared her throat and leaned towards me, whispering. “That is not a back massager.”

Blinking, I looked at the vibrating rod Binge continued to rub on her back, then glanced back at Arcaidia, “Looks like that’s what it's for to me. What else would you use something like that for?”

B.B, her face not tinged red like Arcaidia’s but rather looking like she was trying to hold in some laughter, flew up and patted me on the back, “Don’t worry ‘bout it, Long. Sure Binge’ll git some use outta it one way or ‘nother, intended purpose or not. Let’s just git ta movin’ on ‘fore poor Arc bursts inta flame.”

Arcaidida muttered something in her own language as she brushed by Binge. Crossfire just rolled her eyes and started to follow, while Binge just made a pleased humming nose as she continued to massage her back with the vibrating cylinder.

LIL-E then floated up to us, took one look at Binge, and said, “Why is she rubbing her back with a di-”

Before she could finish the sentence there was a loud, metallic groaning noise that filled the corridor. All of my companions exchanged glances, my own mane standing on end as the sound of rending metal was accompanied by a strange, gurgling wail. Abruptly my E.F.S lit up with a red dot directly behind us, just down the corridor we came from.

“The flying fuck is that?” Crossfire said, her rifle already aiming in that direction, where a vague and amorphous shape was crawling out of the darkness into the wavering light my party cast out from a combination of PIp-Bucks and glowing unicorn horns.

It was formed from the same neon blue goo that we’d seen leaking from various spots across the ship, yet this goo was living and quivering in a wave that crawled towards us with faintly limb-like pseudopods. The blue goop was filled out with hunks of sharp, jagged metal taken from the bulkheads of the ship itself, with various tubes and power cables twisting through the goo like muscles and bones.

We barely had a moment to respond before the... whatever the hell it was surged towards us, but a bare moment was enough for us. The corridor rocked with the sound of gunfire as Crossfire, B.B, LIL-E, and Arcaidia all opened fire at once. The bullets and starblaster bolts smashed into the amorphous living blob, yet it hardly slowed even as chunks of it were blown off.

I stepped forward, careful about not stepping into any of my allies line of fire, drawing Gramzanber with my mouth. The hall was too narrow to easily use the ARM with my hooves. In fact I wasn’t at all sure Gramzanber would do any good against something made mostly out of living slime. I also recalled Arcaidia’s warning about this stuff and that it’d burn and poison to the touch, so I’d need to be careful. As the thing reached us I tried to aim for the biggest clump of metal and cables inside the goo and slashed. Gramzanber cut through the slime and junk inside it with equal ease, but I had to rapidly backpedal as the creature didn’t even slow at my attack. Everypony else was backing up quick too, firing whenever they had a clear shot, but the corridor was so cramped that they were having trouble finding opportunities.

In the meantime I was forced to duck and dive aside as the monstrous living slime started slapping its pseudopods at me, blue goo splattering with every strike.

“Crapcrapcrap!” I grunted as bits of the gunk got on my armor, sizzling the ceramic plates and golden gecko scales. I cut through one pseudopod, only to get grabbed around the left foreleg by another. I felt a harsh, painful burn in my leg as the goo started to burn through the lighter armor there, and I was pulled off my hooves, the creature drawing me towards it. I swiftly fired my Grapple towards an exposed piece of metal hanging from the wall, anchoring myself in place so the beast of horrific slime couldn’t pull me any closer towards it, but that didn’t stop the corrosive goo from searing my leg. I grit my teeth against the pain, and felt a sickening feeling pass through me from whatever toxic crap was getting into my system.

Gramzamber’s voice spoke in my head with cold worry, Detecting unnatural chemical composition entering bloodstream. I recommend avoiding further contact with this entity.

“Gee, thanks for the freakin’ hint, Gram!” I shouted, slicing at the pseudopod holding me, but I had a terrible angle to get more than a surface cut as it yanked me about like a dog with a dishrag.

“Tentacles off the bucky!” Binge shouted, snarling as she flung a knife into the pseudopod grabbing me, momentarily pinning it as she jumped into the fray. She drew her chain-knife, revving it up with a deep purr, and sawed through the slimy limb holding me. Free, I limped up and slashed again with Gramzanber, ignoring the feeling of cold sickness washing through me from the toxic goo that still burned my leg. My strike severed another tentacle that’d been reaching for us. But now the bulk of the slime was rolling in our direction, and was about to overwhelm me and Binge before a burst of heat and light shot in and detonated in front of the slime, making it recoil.

“Fall back!” Crossfire shouted, firing another incendiary round from her rifle that burned apart more of the slime, “You trying to get your asses killed!?”

“No, we’re trying to keep this thing from rolling over all of us!” I shouted back, but I could see the logic behind Crossfire’s words. Bladed weapons like Gramzanber or Binge’s knives just weren’t any good for actually damaging this thing. We could cut the tentacles it was using, but I saw the goo from the severed pieces was just rejoining the main body as it kept crawling towards us.

Grunting, I grabbed Binge and together we started stumbling away from the slime, but Binge yelped in pain as a stray pseudopod grabbed her around both hind legs and started yanking her backwards. Fear lanced through me and despite the burn spreading through my leg from where the slime had touched me, making me feel sick to my stomach and causing sweat to break out on my face, I turned and grabbed Binge. I shot the Grapple again, sending the silver line out to wrap around a doorframe a dozen meters away to keep us held in place.

“Nope, not being in any tentacle porn today,” Binge said, face pale and sweat soaked as she held tight to me.

B.B’s ARM and LIL-E’s built in weapons blew chunks off the slime, alongside more incendiary rounds from Crossfire, but the slime’s massive body just kept coming even as holes were blown through it. Even Arcaidia’s starblaster, firing streaks of white death, only burned away small holes through the amorphous creature as it rolled towards us.

Binge’s hooves wrapped around me tightly, almost as if she was trying to protect me with her own body as the slime got within inches of rolling over us. I felt her breath tickle my ear as she whispered, “Love you bucky.”

Dammit I wasn’t about to let us get killed by living snot! I began to tap into Gramzanber’s power, the ARM starting to blaze with bright blue light as I prepared to fire an Impulse at point blank range. It’d leave me all but useless for the rest of the day, but that was better than letting myself and the mare I’d only just discovered I loved be eaten by space sludge.

Just before I was about to throw the spear, however, there was a intense gleam of white light from nearby. Blinking, I saw it was coming from Binge’s mane. Or rather from something inside her mane.

“What the-!?” I started to say, just as the slime closed over us.

Only instead of being devoured by a sea of toxic acid and agony, a flare of white light spread out from that gleaming object in Binge’s mane and hit the slime creature like a hammer. For a second I thought I saw a burst of white, incandescent feathers, which floated around us and then vanished into motes of light. Inside my mind I got the sudden impression of some tall, bipedal form enclosing wings around Binge and I, before the flare of white light vanished and we were left sitting in an empty corridor.

The light had blown the slime creature into shaking pieces. However it wasn’t dead. I was able to see those pieces slowly trying to pull themselves back together, gathering around the bits of junk it apparently used to form a loose skeletal structure. Then the corridor lit up with a colder, paler blue light as Arcaidia’s horn was surrounded by a complex set of crests, and a beam of arctic cold shot out of her horn. The beam lanced up and down the corridor, freezing the slime under a blanket of solid ice, finally ending the threat.

In the silence that followed I groaned, looking at my injured fore leg. The slime hadn’t burned away all the armor, but it’d gotten to my hide and I could see it burned raw in places, a unpleasant blue discoloration splotching the wound. Worry filled me as I saw Binge’s hind legs were worse, even if my marefriend was weathering her own pain with a wane smile.

“Hey bucky, would it be terribly unsexy if I barfed right now? Because I’m not feeling so good...”

I held her close, baffled by what had just happened. “Binge, what was that light?”

“Huh?” she looked at me with confusion for a moment, then she reached into her mane and pulled out an object, “Dunno. It came from this pretty statue I ‘borrowed’ from the ghouly griffin on the Sweet Candy.”

“Captain Bartholomew?” I looked at what Binge was holding and it took me a second to recognize one of the three statues of the Guardian Lords that Bartholomew had on the airship. I wasn’t sure which one it was, but the small statuette was shaped like an an armored bipedal creature with curled wings and bearing a straight blade in one gauntleted fist.

“A...Guardian?”

“Holy crap are ya’ll alright!?” B.B flew down next to us, Arcaidia rushing up as well, while Crossfire and LIL-E followed behind more slowly and carefully, eyeing the frozen slime creature.

“We’ve been better,” I said, gulping as I felt a similar urge to Binge to start upchucking my breakfast. Wait, I didn’t eat breakfast this morning, did I?

Arcaidia examined us closely, her horn staying a bright, multi-hued shade of blue as her magic coated me and Binge. Healing magic filled us as magical crests formed in complex sigils around Arcaidia’s horn. The burn marks on our limbs faded slowly, but the feeling of illness only subsided by a minimal amount, and Arcaidia frowned.

“Wounds easy to heal. Toxin harder to purge. Not kill you, but you both feel sick for some time. Stupid thick skulled ponies, both of you, fighting poison up close. May as well shove faces into it!” my unicorn friend said with a harsh, angry tone that I knew hid how worried she’d been for us. It was understandable. If that light from the Guardian statue hadn’t appeared, I wasn’t sure even my point blank Impulse shot would’ve have saved Binge and I.

It was... sobering just how close we’d just come to dying. I swallowed back bile and tried standing, helping Binge up to her hooves as well, who was still looking at the statue in her hoof curiously.

“We need to be more cautious, you’re right Arcaidia. Sorry.”

“So are we just going to ignore that light show just now or is this one of those things you and your little group already know about and are going to keep me out of the loop on?” said Crossfire, eyes narrowing as she shouldered her rifle. I looked at her, then back at the statue as Binge... sniffed at it and then licked it. My marefriend was weird.

How much should I even tell Crossfire? How much would she believe? Well, when in doubt, just hit them with the truth.

“I think that light was some kind of manifestation from a being called a Guardian. They’re ancient entities of magic that are tied to our world and protected it long ago from alien invasion. Odessa is after ways to control them, and some ponies can somehow link with Guardians as Mediums. My best friend Trailblaze is bound to one that way. Uh... crazy as it sounds I think Binge just connected to another, the one that statue depicts. Captain Bartholomew says these statues he has are keys to certain powerful Guardians and he wanted me to carry them around, but I kind of told him to hold off on that until we were done in the NCR... but it looks like Binge stole-”

“Borrowed,” she asserted.

“...stole one from his cabin before we left. Is that right Binge?” I asked, and she stuck her tongue out at me.

“I only rummaged through his stuff a few times before we hopped off the airship. I thought this statue was really shiny so I borrowed it. I was going to give it back. Eventually. What? It’s pretty, so I tucked it into my mane for safekeeping like I do most of the shinies I collect. It’s perfectly normal.”

Arcaidia was wearing a deep frown, her unease palpable as she looked at the statue, “Guardians are dangerous magic. Veruni legends speak of them as large threat, not to be taken lightly. And why one link with shivol bir and not another? Trailblaze make sense, she is amazing pony with much strength, but Binge...?”

“I feel like I’m being insulted, but lucky you I don’t care because I have an awesome new back massager,” Binge said, putting away the Guardian Lord statue back into her mane, withdrawing her ‘back massager’, and buzzing it over her spine. “Mmmm, vibrating goodness.”

Sweat still dripped from me, cold and unpleasant as If elt my body shudder. “Ugh, Arcaidia are you sure this poison is only temporary?”

Gramzanber responded first, Analyzing the toxin currently. You will experience weakened constitution for at least twelve hours, as will your mate. Arcaidia’s healing spells can lessen the effects, but I suggest limiting your combat activity until you can recover fully.

Arcaidia said much the same, only adding, “If we can get you two dumb, reckless ponies to Medical Lab on ship, we may find treatment.”

“Meh,” said Binge, shrugging, “I’ve felt worse after a three day bender. If I vomit I can use it as a projectile against our foes.”

“An’ on that lovely mental image,” said B.B “We’ve had ta detour a’ bit, but we can still make it ta the security room from here, Arc?”

“Yes, should be service tube leading back down several junctures ahead,” Arcaidia said, resuming her trot down the corridor, “This way.”

We got moving again, somewhat slower as Binge and I walked along side by side at a reduced pace. The feeling of illness was fading into a dull ache I could deal with, but I still didn’t want to push things too hard for either I or Binge. We passed several more corridor junctures in tense silence, each of us looking left and right down branching hallways and eyeing every shifting shadow as we went. We didn’t want another ambush from another slime monster.

“What do you think that thing was?” I asked, trying to imagine myself just what the living goo could have been.

“It's just a guess,” said LIL-E, “But it's probably a magical mutation. My sensors may be on the fritz, but I’m still detecting a lot of residual magical radiation around here. Not enough to worry about getting radiation poisoning unless we hit a dense patch, but there’s enough around that who knows what kind of weird mutations might have occured around here? I mean, all this alien technology and chemicals, interacting with Equestrian magic over the course of decades? I’m not that surprised we ran into a magic slime creature. Might be even more freakish things around here, so let’s keep alert.”

We continued onward on that ominous note. Every now and then there was a faint groan of metal that pulsed through the hull in a dull, ghostly echo. The stress on the hull from the dirt and rock piled atop it from the crash left the interior less table, and sometimes I thought I could feel the hull shifting from its century old deterioration. Arcaidia didn’t seemed worried, however, so I kept my growing unease at the thought of being buried under a sudden ceiling collapse to myself.

Soon we reached a four way juncture where one of the junture’s corners housed a bulging, rounded tube section going up and down. It had an open hatch revealing that there was a set of handles jutting from the wall of the inner tube. At periodic spaces the wall also bore a ring of light blue crystalline material, perfectly cut and rounded. Arcaidia paused at the mouth of the tube’s entrance, her youthful features turning quizzical and concerned.

“Something wrong?” I asked.

“Look, ren solva,” Arcaidia said, nodding towards the edge of the open hatch. The hatch itself was made from the same, light and silvery smooth metal as most of the ship, and I hadn’t really looked at it closely as we approached. Now that Arcaidia pointed it out I stepped up, peered closely, then blinked in surprise at what I saw. The hatch hadn’t been swung open naturally, instead the edges of it showed signs of having been melted away by extreme heat.

“Was this... cut open by something?”

Crossfire frowned and looked over my shoulder, yellow eyes narrowing after a moment as she said in a quiet but hard tone, “That’s the work of either a cutting torch or something really damn close to one. Hey Frosty, your ‘people’ the sort to cut open their own hatches or what?”

Arcaidia shot the mare a brief grimace, but shook her head, “No. No Veruni would need to cut open hatch. All crew have means to unlock manually.”

“Then who did this?” I wondered aloud, and then I heard B.B’s voice down one of the other hallways of the four way juncture.

“Fellas, I’m thinkin’ ya’ll wanna see this.”

I hadn’t even heard her walk down the corridor, but when I turned to look B.B was a good twenty paces away, just barely inside the range of our light sources. I could see her eyes were slightly rimmed with red, and imagined she must be using her Crimson Noble blood to see better in the dark than the rest of us could. We quickly cantered to where she was, and I didn’t have to ask what she meant us to see, because the sight was scattered about before us as our lights played over the grisly scene in dull flickers.

Blood spray marked the walls in colorful crimson, while dark scorch marks marred the metal surface of the corridor in dozens of places. Several bodies were laying in burned hulks on the floor.

Three of those bodies were monstrous looking creatures, and ones I was growing entirely too familiar with. I recognized the spindly, bipedal bodies, bearing metallic skins and long, spear like limbs. These were the same Hyadean monsters that’d attacked the Skull Guild basement back in Skull City. What in the world were they doing here!? Perhaps even more alarming than the sight of the dead alien beasts were the two other bodies we saw.

Unlike the Hyadean monsters, these two bodies belonged to ponies, and they were laid out carefully and in a respectful manner, clearly having been moved after their deaths. Deaths that couldn’t have occured very long ago, for the blood on the walls was still fresh, as were the state of their wounds. One mare’s chest had clearly been pierced by one Hyadean beast’s spear arm, while the other pony, a stallion, had half of his face burned off by some kind of energy attack, probably the same kind that marred the walls.

Both ponies were pegasi, and both wore the white colored combat armor and uniforms of Odessa.

“Oh shove a tube of toothpaste straight up our puckered plotholes, what the feathering fuck are they doing here!?”

“...Thank you LIL-E, couldn’t have said it better myself,” I drawled dryly, sighing heavily.

It was an excellent question. What was Odessa doing here? Well, perhaps that was a stupid question. This was an alien spaceship packed full of technology millenia ahead of our own. Of course Odessa would want it. But how did they get here before we did? The Elw Golem had been excavating this thing, and we couldn’t get near it without having to take out Roaring Metal first.

“Must’ve been watchin’ the whole time,” B.B muttered, and out our questioning gazes she looked back at us, her eyes still tinged red, and elaborated.

“Think ‘bout it. Odessa was there when that big ol’ Golem woke up! Them pegasi and griffin folk are obsessed with advanced tech an’ alien stuff, so stand ta reason they didn’t just ignore Roarin’ Metal after ‘e started walkin’ cross the Bleach.”

Binge opened her mouth in a wide ‘O’, “Oooooooooh, they were spying on it is what you’re saying, right bridie? All you flying sorts watching on from above like hungry little angels.”

“Creepy way o’ puttin’ it, but yeah, figure Odessa must o’ put some ponies on followin’ the Golem, tracking wherever it went. Until it ended up here.”

“Right,” said Crossfire, “Then once they saw this ship after the Golem dug it up, Odessa snuck a team in to see what they could salvage from this place. Makes sense, but what the hell are these ugly looking monstrosities doing here too?” Crossfire kicked one of the dead Hyadean beasts.

“Maybe Odessa weren’t the only ones watching the Golem,” I said, feeling a clawing feeling of fear put cold needles through my spine, “Remember that creature we ran into below Skull City? Alhazad? He, it, made it pretty clear these Hyadean aliens have been keeping watch on things. Maybe they’re after the same thing Odessa is, salvagable alien tech?”

Arcaidia eye’s widened with something approaching panic, “Arc of Destiny will not be touched by Hyadean filth! They will not have my ship!”

I could feel the temperature dropping around her, and before I could react B.B was there, putting a wing around Arcaidia and talking in a calming voice, “Relax there, Arc. Ain’t nopony here gonna let either Hyadeans or Odessa take this here ship.”

“This just became a different job,” I said with a firm nod, “We’re not just scouting this place anymore, we’re protecting it. If Hyadeans are here, then I don’t want to imagine what they might try to do with any intact technology here. As for Odessa, I’d like to hope we could talk them down, but given Arcaidia is still being hunted by them we’ve probably got a fight on our hooves.”

“You going to be capable of handling that, buck?” asked Crossfire.

Meaningfully I unsheathed Gramzanber, “I will, in my way.”

“If they’re already here ahead of us then we’re probably short on time,” said LIL-E, “They might already be securing key points like the bridge or engineering. We should pick up the pace.”

“If they cut their way through the same tube Arcaidia led us to, then they’re probably already in the security room,” I said, eyes pinched in thought. “Do you think that’s why we haven’t run into any security bots yet? Could Odessa have shut them down already?”

Arcaidia shook her head in a rigorous display, “No chance! They not able to hack Veruni systems! Not possible.”

I glanced at her, “Are you certain? I mean, I get that all this Veruni stuff is super advanced, but is it really impossible that Odessa could figure out a way to do it?”

There was a flash of doubt in her eyes, but she remained resolute as she looked at me and said with firm certainty, “I not see how. If possible, then they not have control yet, otherwise they already see us coming on monitors.”

“The ice bucket has a point,” Crossfire said, “If those flying nut cases had control of the ship’s systems then they’d be sicing those security robots on us already. My guess is that they’re either already dead, or still trying to take control of whatever systems they’ve reached. Either way, the eyebot is right, we need to move.”

That shelved any further discussion and got ourselves moving quickly back to the service tube. B.B went down first, using her wings to slowly hover downard with her new ARMs at the ready. Arcaidia went next, followed by Crossfire. They used the handles in the wall to steady themselves, then Arcaidia touched a button on a side panel beside the tube’s entrance. The crystal rings hummed to life, becoming suffused with a soft blue glow. Suddenly both Arcaidia and Crossfire started to float.

“The hell?” Crossfire said, and Arcaidia chuckled.

“Null gravity field. For moving cargo and other heavy things between decks.”

“Oh, then I guess Longwalk will be able to get his fat head through here just fine,” Crossfire said with a snort, and started to descend.

“Better a fat head than a fat flank,” I shot back in a flat tone a I hopped into the tube, feeling the weightlessness come over my body as I started to use the handles to pull myself downard.

“Careful buck, I got a real nice shot at you from down here...” muttered Crossfire, then Binge jumped into the tube, letting out a joyful titter as she tucked and rolled down the tube like a bouncy ball.

“Weeeeeee!”

“Binge,” I called after her, “Be careful. We’re both still feeling-”

I heard a retching noise down below followed by the unmistakable sound of barf splattering the walls of the tube.

“-...sick,” I finished with a grunting sigh, hoofing my face.

Crossfire rolled to the side as Binge went flying by, still trailing vomit, and the Drifter mare let out a withering sigh an scowled, “Arcaidia, could you turn the gravity back on, for just a few seconds?”

“Stop complaining greedy pony and keep climbing,” Arcaidia said flatly, and our descent resumed, LIL-E floating in last and bringing up the rear of our procession.

“I swear its like working with a bunch of foals,” the eyebot said, and I just grinned up at her.

“Bet this is still more fun than spending time getting poked at by Doctor Whatshisname.”

“Yeah, I suppose so,” LIL-E replied, a hint of hesitance in her response as she added, “It might not be all bad to get some maintenance done by somepony who actually knows and understands my design specs and construction, though. Doctor Breakthrough knows my specs inside and out.”

An uneasy feeling crept into me, “Except he doesn’t want to ‘do maintenance’ on you, he wants to take you apart and figure out why you are the way you are.”

“Longwalk, I want to know why I am the way I am,” LIL-E said, and that gave me a moment of pause, long enough that we reached the bottom of the tube and the moment to respond passed. But I didn’t forget, and mentally made a note to talk to LIL-E about this more later.

At the bottom of the tube I found Binge floating in a groaning heap, a few bits of vomit still floating around her. I ignored the smell and floated down to grab her, patting her mane.

“Feeling better, Binge?”

“Not really,” she said, “My insides want to go play tag.”

She smiled, then, and gave me a quick kiss, which admittedly was a shade gross given the upchuck, but I was well beyond caring about those details. “I’ll be fine, Longy. Like I said, I’ve been worse, and I can deal with all the sick feelings in the world if I know I got you around to be my comfy pillow tonight.”

I smiled back, nuzzling her, “Same here. Let’s just try to be a bit more careful, okay?”

Above us Crossfire made a slight gagging sound, “You two done making out? We got work to do.”

The tube dumped us out into what looked like a large, oval shaped storage room. I assumed it was a storage room mainly from all the metal cubes floating around of various sizes. Some floated alone, while others were clamped together in blocks or other patterns. Why they did this I had no idea, but I was more focused on the fact that I, along with my friends, were still floating as we left the tube.

“Hey, waitasec, what’s going on? I thought only the tube had the floaty thing going on?”

“Does it matter as long as it's fun?” Binge said as she glided around, more slowly now as she took my advice and kept her pace down as she gently bounced from one floating box to another, giggling slightly.

Arcaidia, using her magic to pull herself to the ground, scrunched her muzzle in consternation and checked her Pip-Buck after plugging a small black cable she pulled from it into a wall console. “Crash damaged other anti-grav systems across random parts of ship. Making pockets of zero gravities. Be careful when floating-”

As she spoke Binge had launched herself towards the other side of the room, but about halfway she abruptly stopped in mid-air and proceeded to flump onto the floor, face-first, with a loud, “Oof!” and Arcaidia cleared her throat with a small, amused smile.

“-because anti-gravity ends at random and silly ponies might get hurt.”

“Aww, screw off, gravity, I was enjoying myself,” Binge said in a muffled voice, waving her hoof without getting up, her face still plastered to the floor. “Ugh... no more fun times for me.”

B.B, using the floating metal cubes to push herself to the floor and pull herself along it, using her wings like extra limbs to haul herself forward, reached the gravity holding section of the room and said, “Reckon we oughta stick low ta the ground an’ let Arc tell us ‘bout when there’s pockets o’ null-G. Is it just this here deck that’s like this?”

Arcaidia’s eyes scanned the readouts on her Pip-Buck, “Parts of this deck only. Anti-grav systems only damaged locally, so fluctuations only near here. Still, make getting to security extra anger making.”

“At least I seem to be able to hover around just fine,” said LIL-E, floating on by us towards the storage room’s only door out, “Hooray for having my own magic-based propulsion system.”

Glancing across the room, I aimed my Grapple towards a set of metal cubes that looked like they were attached to the wall. The Grapple line fired out and hooked to the cubes, letting me pull myself across the room with relative ease, even past the gravity pockets. Glancing back at the others still making their way across, I said, “We’ll just take it slow. As long as nothing gets between us and the security room we should be fine.”

Crossfire shot a pointed glare at me, “I swear to the Goddesses above if you just jinxed us...”

I was about to blow off her sentiment, but past experience told me that I probably should have just kept my mouth shut. With a sinking feeling I went to the sliding metal doors that’d lead out of the storage room and hit a few random buttons on the side panel to get them to slide open. I fully expected to get a face full of security bots shooting death lasers at me for my transgressions in tempting fate, but as it turned out I was only half right.

It wasn’t Veruni security robots waiting for us outside the storage room, but a quartet of Odessa soldiers; three pegasi and a griffin. All four were already aiming their weapons at me before I had the door fully open and I had all of one second to react before a withering hail of magical laser and plasma bolts filled the doorway. I rolled to the side as fast as I could, but even then I felt the searing pain as I was struck several times. My gecko-hide reinforced Stable security armor absorbed some of the blows, especially from the lighter, crimson laser beams, but one green bolt of plasma still burned through and left a painful welt of seared flesh on my shoulder.

“Wait!” I shouted as I took cover on the side of the doorframe, “We’re not here to fight!”

More energy bolts was my only answer, and Crossfire appeared on the opposite side of the doorway from me, eyes hard.

“They don’t much sound like they want to talk, buck,” she said as her horn lit up red and smoothly floated her rifle around to fire a few blind shots around the edge of the door, which forced the Odessa soldiers to back up and halt firing for a moment. This gave the rest of my friends cover to make their way to the side of the storage room with the door, hunkering up against the walls.

“The pretty birdies do like to screech and fling their magic disintegration poop at us,” Binge said, licking her lips as she reached into her mane and yanked out a large, wicked looking chain knife, “There are easy solutions to that problem.”

“Was really hoping to avoid this,” I growled, taking in and letting out a deep breath. The last thing I wanted was to see yet more people getting killed, especially if I was risking my friends lives in the same fight. But these soldiers were clearly not interested in chatting, as evidenced by the small, metallic *tink* of a small apple-shaped metal object that rolled into the room beside us.

“Shitcakes! Greande!” LIL-E shouted in warning, and Arcaidia reacted faster than any of us.

Her horn flared and one of the metal cubes attached to the wall beside us flew off with a hefty thudding noise. Her telekinesis hit a button on the cube and one side of it opened up a circular hole, which Arcaidia used to slam the cube down atop the grenade, trapping it inside.

“Will that even hold-” I started to ask, when a flare of green plasma energy erupted from beneath the cube, held down by Arcaidia’s magic. The plasma still burned along the ground, forcing us to jump and dance on our hooves to keep from getting burned, but the explosion itself was contained.

“Gonna go ahead an’ say that the time fer diplomacy has kinda passed, Long,” B.B said with an apologetic look.

With my heart feeling heavy as stone I nodded, “Alright, let’s do this. Let me hit them first. There’s only four of them. One good run with Accelerator ought to be enough.”

“Uh, Long, did ya even notice they was floatin’ around out there?” B.B said, and I blinked, chancing a quick peek. I didn’t get to look long before a splash of laser fire forced me to duck back, but I did see what B.B was talking about. The four Odessa soldiers had floated back down the hallway outside the storage room, back behind a curve in the corridor which they now used for cover. Floated, as in at least part of the hall was hit by the anti-gravity effect.

That’d make using Accelerator difficult. I kind of relied on having traction to move around, and if I was stuck floating through the air then having amplified reflexes and speed wouldn’t let me float any faster. If I was going to charge in on this I’d be a sitting duck the moment I hit the zero-G area. At the very least I’d need to get close to the Odessa soldiers first before Accelerator could do me any good. And there was no way I was going to try using Impulse. I’d already used it once today fighting the Golem, and was still feeling the drain on my strength from that. It wasn’t bad enough to disable me yet, but another use might have me barely able to walk, instead of just feeling tired.

Crossfire was watching me closely, and it was as if she’d picked up on exactly what my train of thought was, because she rolled her eyes and gestured at me, “I can already see you’re going to make this hard, so let me make the stupidity as painless as possible. Everypony grab onto me. We’re going to surprise the hell outta these assholes.”

“What’re ya plannin’?” B.B asked, poking one of her hooves around the side of the door to let off a stream of high-powered shots from one of her dual ARMs. Up close the sound of the Twin Fenrir firing sounded like the scream of a berserk war maiden mixed with that of a buzzsaw chewing through steel. I still marveled at how perfectly the gun-like ARMs fit B.B’s hooves like seamless gauntlets while still providing the range and punch of some kind of souped up submachine gun.

From the sudden swearing from the other side of the corridor I imagined the Odessa soldiers were just as impressed, albeit in a different manner. Crossfire just pointed at her already glowing horn.

“Going to port us right on top of them. Just get ready for a close range beat down,” she glanced at me with a flaring snout and grimace, “Disable if you can, but fucking kill if you have to.”

We all nodded, and with a few of us quickly dashing over to Crossfire’s side of the door we all touched her with our hooves, or in LIL-E’s case an extended robotic arm.

“Wait!” Binge shouted, using her hind leg to drag over the cube Arcaidia had used to contain the plasma grenade. She hugged to herself while wearing a devilish smile as she winked at me, “Okay, now I’m ready, along with Cube Buddy!”

“Is this a replacement for Mr. Happy?” I asked coyly.

“Bah, nothing replaces Mr. Happy, but since I’ve had a nice mental stress valve added in the form of a very sexy coltfriend with lots of stamina, Mr. Happy can take a bit of a vacation,” Binge said, and Arcaidia groaned.

“Crossfire pony teleport us into enemy’s faces now, before I bash shivol bir’s head with bat made of ice.”

“With pleasure,“ Crossfire said, and her horn sparked with bright, blood red light.

For the length of a mere millisecond I could feel my body being warped as that crimson light filled my vision and my senses were at once both torn apart and then merged back with reality before I could even properly register the event. As disoriented as teleportation was it did help that we all knew it was coming. The Odessa soldiers on the other hoof were taken completely by surprise as we popped into existence practically on top of them in a sparkling flash of red light.

Total chaos ensued for the span of a few seconds. We were in an anti-grav field now, but Crossfire had popped us out close enough to the wall and ceiling that we all had a means to propell ourselves forward, and we did so like a school of pouncing geckos.

I had Gramzanber out and clutched around my forehooves, and laid a hefty smack with the flat of the blade across the face of the nearest Odessa soldier. The mare’s eyes went cross as she spun around, her body floating along through the zero-G air to smack into and bounce off the opposite wall, completely dazed.

Binge, squealing like an entirely too hyped up foal, slammed her newly dubbed ‘Cube Buddy’ atop the head of another unfortunate pegasus soldier and proceeded to start smacking the cube, with the soldier’s head inside, like she was ringing a bell for dinner. I felt a stab of sympathy for the poor fellow and the headache he’d likely have later on, but I was also surprised and proud of Binge’s restraint. She could have just as easily carved into the soldier with her chain-knife, or any of her many other sharp objects, but she was-

Perhaps I spoke too soon. While the soldier was still stunned by the cube pummeling, Binge whipped out another knife with her tail and proceeded to pin it through the pegasus’ shoulder. Not a fatal wound, but I could only imagine the pain. Actually, scratch that, I knew exactly what having a sharp object shoved into me felt like, and I winced in even deeper sympathy.

But at least the soldier would survive. Probably. If he didn’t bleed out too quickly.

I suppose with Binge I had to be grateful for any slow steps of progress I could get.

Meanwhile B.B had taken full advantage of the anti-grav field to fly circles around the griffin soldier, bouncing from one wall to the next. The straight edged blades that sprouted from the bottom of the Twin Fenrir cut silver paths through the air, and in short order the griffin’s plasma guns mounted on a battle saddle on either side of his combat armor fell apart in sparking pieces. Soon too did the straps of his armor, his helmet falling off as B.B sent a buck straight into the side of his head. The griffin hit the wall, but rather than float away from the ricochet, a curtain of ice formed around his body, all the way up to the neck, from a beam fired by Arcaidia.

Three down, one to go, and Crossfire was already tangling with the last pegasus stallion. Crossfire’s first swing of her rifle sent the bayonet crunching through one of the Odessa soldier’s laser guns, and her follow up strike hit him across the gut with the butt of the rifle. Hes propelled to the floor while Crossfire’s motion sent her momentum back towards the ceiling. The two hit their respective surfaces at about the same time, and the Odessa pegasus twisted to get his other laser rifle to bear on Crossfire just as she was getting her rifle swung around as well.

I could see the calculation in Crossfire’s eyes and knew what was coming before she even pulled the trigger. The heavy rifle round found its mark in the soldier’s chest, punching through his armor and making goblets of blood sputter out in a sickening flurry. His eyes widened briefly as his mouth left the trigger for his battle saddles laser rifle and he became still, body floating limp in the air.

Crossfire took a deep breath and snorted, pushing herself back down to the floor while the rest of my friends hurriedly went about securing the other soldiers. I had some rope in my saddlebags, as did B.B, so we had little trouble tying up the survivors. Arcaidia went over to the soldier Crossfire had shot, or rather used her magic to pull him to her, and examined his wound and checked his pulse. After a moment she gave me a flat, emotionally controlled stare and shook her head. I sighed, but nodded.

Arcaidia turned her attention to the soldier that Binge had stabbed, as his injury was far more manageable. Bleeding like crazy and adding to the bizarre haze of floating globs of blood in the air, but as Arcaidia went to work with her healing magic I knew the soldier would survive. Out of the four soldiers only the griffin was still conscious, and he was silently glaring at all of us as we worked. I couldn’t quite tell what he was thinking, but the rage in his eyes wasn’t hard to miss.

I ignored the griffin’s angered stare for the moment as I looked around at everyone, “Anypony injured?”

“You, ren solva,” Arcaidia said, nodding towards my exposed shoulder. With the adrenaline fading from me now that the brief scuffle was over I could now feel all of the pain shooting into me from the raw wound. I’d had much worse in the past, however, and did my best to just grin and bear it.

“It's not bad. I’ll pop a healing potion in a second. How’s your patient?”

Arcaidia looked the soldier over, where her magic was slowly closing the knife wound in his shoulder. The pale blue aura concentrated around the torn flesh, knitting it gradually back together. A few globs of floating blood stained Arcaidia’s blue furred face, but she didn’t so much as flinch at it.

“Much blood loss, but he will live.”

“Good. B.B, could you cover the corridor ahead for us? I’m going to talk to the one who’s still awake.”

B.B waved a wing at me and floated off down the curved hall, the anti-grav field cutting out about seven or eight paces ahead as she dropped to the deck, landing on her hooves. She then took up a guard position further down, scanning the corridor for any further Odessa soldiers or other threats. Meanwhile Crossfire had approached the iced up griffin alongside me. She gave me a sidelong glance, gold eyes hard and unreadable. I wasn’t expecting her to say sorry or anything. A part of me didn’t even blame her. Her opponent had still been armed and had been aiming at her with lethal intent. In that circumstance she’d had no reason not to respond in kind, after having already chanced trying to disable him. Honestly I hadn’t expected her to try even that much, and much like I had with my other companions since practically day one of this journey I didn’t judge their actions in battle.

If anything a part of me still felt I was being too soft. But if I was going to keep getting blood on my own hooves I at least wanted to make sure it was on my terms.

“I know what organization you’re a part of,” I told the soldier, “I imagine you know who we are too. My first question is if you fired on us before you recognized us, or were you under orders to kill us on sight?”

I wanted to make sure I knew, one way or another, if the Odessa soldiers in the Arc of Destiny would consider us kill-on-sight, or if this was a matter of us surprising these four and they fired without thinking about it. From the tight beaked look the griffin gave me he wasn’t going to give up any answers without convincing. I briefly considered threatening to turn Binge lose on him, but dismissed the thought just as quickly. For one, I wasn’t interested in getting information that way, and for two, I didn’t want to encourage Binge to backslide.

Crossfire on the other hoof didn’t have my compunctions. I had an unpleasant flashback to being her prisoner outside the Saddlespring Ruins as Crossfire gained a thin and harsh smile on her face as she sauntered up and placed the point of her bayonet just short of the griffin’s eye.

“Look featherduster, the buck here is a sweetheart, but I have absolutely zero patience for any ‘tough and proud soldier’ bullshit. Start answering questions, or get used to the idea of flying blind from now on.”

A blob of spit smacked into her face, hocked from the griffin’s mouth, and that was all he opened it for as he continued to glare murder at us. Crossfire casually wiped the spit off with the cuff of her jacket, looking starkly unimpressed.

“Suit yourself. Better start looking into getting an eyepatch, polly.”

I raised my hoof, about to stop her from taking this too far, when a static crackle filled the air followed by a faint voice. I couldn’t make out the words, but the noise was coming from the helmet of the griffin, which was laying on the ground. Crossfire and I both looked at it, then at each other.

“Hold on the eye stabbing?” I asked, and she relented with a begrudging shrug and gestured at the helmet.

“Knock yourself out. He ain’t going anywhere. Just don’t screw us over.”

“Oh, whatcha going to do bucky?” asked Binge.

“It's probably somepony checking in with these guys,” said LIL-E, “They were standing sentry here. Be careful, Longwalk. If we don’t respond then it’ll at least buy us a few minutes while they work out why their sentries aren’t responding. You get on the line with them, and we lose any element of surprise we might still have.”

“I know. I just... think I recognize this voice,” I said as I picked up the helmet.

It was true that I couldn’t make the voice out in regards to what it was saying, but the tone of it was one that was familiar, and if I was right then it might be possible to still reason with the soldiers on this ship after all. Taking a deep breath I placed the helmet on my head and took a moment to find where the helmet had a small mic to speak into. As I did this I heard a young male voice speaking with greater concern through the helmet’s small speakers placed by the ears.

“Private Gabriel respond, what is your status, over? I repeat-”

“Hello Glint,” I said, cutting the voice of Sunset’s son off mid-sentence.

The silence that followed was heavier than a mountain. I waited with stomach knotting tension, for a few moments only hearing dead silence on the other end of the line. Then with a voice clipped to a fine edge of self-control, Glint said, “What have you done with my squad, Longwalk?”

Taking a deep breath I kept my own voice level and straight, with no attempt at sweet talk. Glint wouldn’t buy any of it, so there was nothing to do but lay it out bluntly, but honestly.

“We ran into each other and I don’t know if you gave them orders to fire on anyone they saw, or if they knew it was us, but they didn’t give me any chance to talk or explain. They fired on us, we defended ourselves. Three of them are still alive.”

Another moment of silence, then, “Who was killed?”

“None on my side. On yours,” I took a moment to look at the body of the slain soldier, “He has a purple tinted coat, brown mane, cutie mark of a... uh, forked stick thing with a band of some sort around it?”

“Slingshot...” Glint was silent for another few seconds, but I could hear him take in a gulp of breath and let it out in a slow, steam-like gust. “This is the second friend of mine you’ve killed, you know.”

It was hard not to feel a potent and sharp combination of both guilt and equal anger, both of which crept into my attempts at a calm tone as I said, “Do you want to compare losses, Glint? Your comrades gunned down one of my tribesmates right in front of me as we were trying to escape the Varukisias. Her name was Snowdrift. Should I hold her death against you? Should I make a vendetta out of every one of my tribe killed when Odessa attacked them, unprovoked? I’m sorry Slingshot is dead. Wasn’t trying to kill anypony here, but when the shooting starts, its not always possible to stop it before somepony ends up that way.”

Another long pause followed, then, “What are you doing here?”

“Probably the same thing you are. We’re here for the ship. The NCR has an army parked outside, and we’re just the team sent in to make sure things are safe. Which clearly they aren’t, since I saw the bodies of even more of your comrades, plus some slain Hyadean monsters a deck or two up. Now the real question is will you accept a truce so we can maybe both get what we want, or are we going to potentially lose more ponies we care about by pointlessly fighting each other?”

There was a strain in his voice, a mixture of pain and regret, plus a weighty tiredness as Glint replied, “It's not that simple, Longwalk. The NCR cannot be allowed to claim this wreck. I’m here with... a superior officer who is going to want to take the entire ship.”

Surprise washed through me, and my tone wavered, “Th...the whole ship? How? It’s half buried and near falling apart already. It can’t fly again.”

I glanced back at Arcaidia, “Right?”

Her own eyes mirrored my surprise as she shook her head, “Imposible. The Arc of Destiny is much damaged, with engines broken to many pieces. Even Veruni repair docks not fix her.”

Glint responded quickly, and I could hear in his voice he was regaining his composure, “The Vesuvius is nearby, using cloaking magic to remain hidden from NCR radar, or the SPP tower’s view. As soon as we can secure the ship from Hyadean influence and get its systems under control, the Vesuvius can use telekinetic tractor guns to lift this ship clear and take it back to our main base. Even if we can’t repair the ship, the technology here is priceless to our cause, Longwalk. There’s no way we’ll let it fall into NCR hooves without a fight. Even if that means fighting you.”

“There’s got to be a better way,” I said vehemently, jaw clenched, “Dammit Glint don’t you remember what we did for you and your squad!? You know I don’t want to fight you! Or anypony. Can’t we-”

“Longwalk, relax,” Glint said, taking another deep breath, “I’m just making it clear to you that whatever we... work out, you have to understand that Odessa isn’t letting this ship go. That being said, I’m under orders from my superior that if you did happen to show up that I’m to offer you an escort to the bridge.”

“Wait... huh?”

“She suspected you might turn up here. You have that Veruni with you, don’t you? The higher ups concluded way back when we first ran into the two of you that your Veruni friend might be leading you here. This ship is the only logical place she could eventually be trying to go, and once we were able to search its signal out after tracking the Elw Golem, well, it wasn’t hard to dispatch a team using Stealth Bucks to sneak in here past the Golem and start securing the place. She said that if you did make contact, to try and pacify the situation and bring you to her. I’m... sorry my squad attacked you. We’ve been repulsing Hyadean attacks, and they probably were on edge when you surprised them. What’s done is done. We still have problems securing this place. The team in engineering has gone silent and I haven’t been able to raise them. I’m trying to get the security systems under control, but by now we’ve blown up most the bots the ship sent after us. Now all I can do is take you to her and hope you two can work out a deal.”

My face screwed up in confusion as I absorbed all this, quickly asking, “Her? Her who?”

“The lady in charge. She wanted to command this mission personally. Odessa.”

----------

Under Glint’s orders the survivors of his perimeter team “escorted” us to where Glint and the rest of his squad were holed up in the Ark of Destiny’s security room. The room itself was an oval shaped affair, something I was starting to notice was common for Veruni designs. Consoles lined the curved walls, their monitors long vacant and dark. One corner of the room was under the effects of the random zero gravity spreading through this deck, as several chairs and one of the monitor desks were floating in slow, lazy spins in mid-air.

The center of the room had a raised platform with half of it encircled by a railing from which several consoles and smaller monitors and strange node-like devices sprouted. One of these consoles was active, the node attached to it glowing with faint blue light that expanded into a holographic viewscreen upon which a menu with sharp alien text could be seen.

Cables were snaking from the console to several other devices, these of a more conventional Equestrian make. One was a generator of some sort, chugging along with a low hum of magic, and supplying the long dead alien console with power The other device was a cloud built Odessa terminal, at which sat one Odessa griffin whose talons pecked at the keys. She was rather small for a griffin, with blue tinted feathers and a dark gray coat on her lionine body. She barely glanced up from her owk at the terminal as my friends and I were brought in.

The rest of Glint’s squad was far more tense, energy weapons pointed our way the moment we entered the room. One mare in particular, a pegasus who I recalled was named Springbreeze, looked ready to open fire then and there.

“Are you sure about this Glint?” she asked, eyes locked like lasers onto me, “We’ve already lost too many because of this guy. We take him down now, even Odessa would have to see reason on it.”

Crossfire blew out a snort, taking in the sight of the Odessa squad. Besides the three survivors of the perimeter team there were only five others in the room. Other than Glint and Springbreeze I recognized the short, pale yellow form of the squad medic, Stitch, who looked far more uneasy and frightened than he was angry. I also recognized Nosedive, although the pegasus stallion had been little more than a wounded and delirious lump when we’d run into him at Silver Mare Studios. He looked better than he had then, but I winced slightly upon seeing the metal wings he now had in place of the flesh and blood ones. Seemed like the injuries he suffered back then had been too severe to save his wings. The last was the female griffin at the terminal, a new face in the crowd.

At Springbreeze’s words Glint held up a hoof, “Lower your weapons.”

The others did so, some with less than pleased looks. Springbreeze bristled but at a sharp look from Glint she obeyed and pointed her energy weapons down at the floor, but she never stopped fixing me with an red hot glare.

“I think she likes you,” Binge said teasingly, and I gave her a quick elbow.

Glint cleared his throat and took a step towards us. He was much as I remembered him, which I supposed was to be expected. It hadn’t been that long since the escape from the Varukisias. He still wore the simple white combat armor of an Odessa soldier, mounted on either side with the bocky shapes of laser-based magic energy rifles. His rust red face, very much like his mother’s, regarded me cooly.

“If you don’t mind, Longwalk, I’d like most of your companions to remain here with my squad, while you, me, and your Veruni friend there head up to the bridge to speak with the Colonel.”

“An’ why should we be agreein’ ta somethin’ like that?” asked B.B, “So ya can seperate us n’ make it easier ta take us on, that it?”

“I wouldn’t worry about that,” said Crossfire with a small, viper-like smile as she patted her rifle, “Honestly having Mr. Hero out of the way just means we’d get to cut loose more, if these bird brains are really dumb enough to try anything.”

“That kind o’ thinkin’ might work fer a arrogant cutthroat like you, but I ain’t keen on two o’ my best friends gettin’ marched off to chit-chat wit the leader of an army that turned my home inta a bunch o’ smokin’ craters.”

“All I can promise you is that Colonel Odessa has given her own word that none of you will be harmed unless you initiate an attack first,” said Glint.

“Then why does she just want to talk to Longwalk and Arcaidia alone?” asked LIL-E, “If she’s in such a reasonable mood I don’t see the point in separating us.”

Glint turned a raised eyebrow towards the floating eyebot, “Let me ask you this; if you were the leader of Odessa would you want to take the risk of meeting with an entire cadre of individuals who might have every reason to want to either kill you or take you hostage? She’s taking a big risk just talking to Longwalk and the Veruni. Having the rest of you there constitutes too big a risk. As far as I know, she just wants to talk.”

“And if we not like what words she speaks?” Arcaidia asked, and Glint sighed.

A heavy silence followed, ending when Glint admitted, “I don’t know. Might be it’ll become a fight. Might be she’ll decide to let you go for now. I just don’t know.”

“We’re not going to find out by standing here, so we should probably get a move on,” I said, trying to soften my voice somewhat and offer Glint a small smile, “I wish we could’ve met under better circumstances, Glint.”

“Yeah, me too. Springbreeze, you’re in charge here. Gale, keep trying to crack into the security system. I don’t want any more damned bots creeping up on us.”

The griffin at the terminal made an over the shoulder wave, not so much as twitching her attention away from her work. When she spoke it was in a light, scratchy voice, “I’ll get through one way or another, Lieutenant.”

Lieutenant? He must have gotten a promotion since last we met. Looking closer I suppose there were a few more lightning bolts on his uniform insignia. As his squad settled into various guard positions around the room, I looked to my own team.

“Okay, Crossfire, let’s try to keep it cool while me and Arcaidia are chatting up Odessa. I don’t want any firefights starting that aren’t for self-defense. If this area gets hit by security bots or Hyadean critters, then pitch in to help them defend this room.”

She didn’t quite scowl, but it was close, “You’re getting awfully comfortable with giving the orders, aren’t you?” She held up a hoof to forestall me as I opened my mouth to reply, “Don’t bother. I won’t pull any pre-emptive strikes here, and play all nice with the sky terrorists.”

Her golden eyes flashed dangerously, “But if they start shit, I’m ending them.”

I swallowed past a dry mouth, “Fair enough.”

Binge slid up to Crossfire, smiling with devilish delight, “I like the way you think. Why don’t we hang out more often?”

“Because you’re a dirty ass Raider with terrible hygiene and I hate you?” Crossfire said, and Binge blinked, nodding slowly.

“Oh yeaaah, and you’re a uptight bitch with no sense of humor who keeps threatening my bucky. Why are we hanging out, again?”

I ran a hoof over my face, “Please, you two, behave.”

“Don’t worry Longwalk, I’ll keep an eye on them. If Binge does anything strange I’ll bonk her on the head,” said LIL-E, then turned towards Crossfire, “I guess I could just shoot her if she gets out of line.”

“Any day, any time, you’re welcome to try, tincan,” Crossfire said.

Glint gave me a sidelong glance, “They always get along this swell?”

“It's been a rough day. Giant fire Golem tried to kill us. Then a mutated slime monster tried to eat us. Then your people shot at us. Tends to put ponies on edge when they hit three life-or-death experiences before lunch.”

Glint stared at me for a second, then just nodded, “Then let’s do this before somepony twitches wrong and does something we’ll all later regret,” He sighed, “As if we don’t got enough of those already.”

“Hey,” spoke up Nosedive rather suddenly, taking a hesitant step towards me. He looked distinctly ill at ease with the way he fidgeted with his hooves, his ears half drooped. He gave Glint a neveros glance, as if asking permission to speak, and Glint wave a slight tip of one of his wings in some silent signal. Nosedive cleared his throat and met my eyes.

“Just wanted to say thanks for yanking my ass out of that Hellhound’s lair. Whoever’s side you end up on, I wanted to get that out before anything else went down.”

Springbreeze made a deep sighing sound, “Did everypony just forget these guys just killed Slingshot? We really just going to pass over that like its nothing?”

“Spring, drop it,” Glint said, and as she began to protest he spoke with heavier emphasis, “I’m not going to make it an order, but for sky’s sake just let it go for now. We fight here and now, even if we win, we’ll lose more squadmates. This was my fault for not telling Slingshot and the rest of you on perimeter watch to hold fire if another pony breached the perimeter. His death is on my shoulders more than theirs, so if you want to lay blame, put it on me.”

Springbreeze’s features twisted with conflict, clear caring for Glint mixed up with her equally obvious hatred for me. “Dammit Glint you know you couldn't have known they’d show up like that. Why do you cut these landbound so much slack? First my sis, now Slingshot... not to mention that damn robot shot me last time.”

“Damned straight I did,” said LIL-E, “You were a threat to the group. You pull anything here and I’ll do it again, only this time I’ll make sure it's between the eyes so none of that fancy Odessa medical tech can save your scrawny ass.”

“Enough!” my voice cut across the conversation as thoroughly as Gramzanber’s blade could cut steel. I felt my body shaking slightly from the residual effects of the slime beast’s poison touch, and had to strain to keep from throwing up on the floor then and there. I gulped, hardening my voice, “We’re not getting anywhere antagonizing each other, especially over what can’t be changed. Glint, let’s go. Sooner we talk to Odessa, the sooner we can be out of each other’s manes, one way or another. Arcaidia, follow me, the rest of you, for the love of the Ancestor Spirits, don’t start anything.”

If I looked half as ragged as I felt I wasn’t sure I struck much of an impressive figure, but my words seemed to sink in and my companions all gave murmured agreements and settled in against one wall of the security room while Glint’s squad backed off and gave them their space. Nosedive looked at me with one final, silent nod of thanks before joining Springbreeze and Stitch in quiet, whispered conversation with their squadmates while Gale kept working on the terminal.

Glint led us back out into the ship corridors, Arcaidia and I keeping pace with him as he started to take a route moving deeper into the ship.

“I’m sorry about Spring’s attitude,” said Glint, “But she’s got plenty of reason to feel that way. We lost two others besides Slingshot earlier, and she’s taking those losses pretty hard. Sling was our new recruit...” His eyes grew a tad more sunken and exhausted, “Kid was just out of training and didn’t even belong on an op like this, but we’re growing hard pressed to fill out squads after the losses we’ve taken lately.”

I exchanged a look with Arcaidia, then said, “We saw the bodies of the other two you lost. Looked like there are Hyadeans here, or were at least. Did you guys clear them all out? Do you even know what they’re doing here?”

Glint flinched, “Doubt we’ve gotten them all, but there’s been no word of further contact from the other teams. As for why they’re here, we don’t know. Might be the Hyadeans found this ship a long time ago and just posted some sentries to watch the place. Or they found it recently like we did and sent a group in to secure the ship. Either way, we see them, we shoot first, because these xenos aren’t much for answering questions.”

“They must be new,” Arcaidia piped in, “Security system would have destroyed them otherwise.”

“You folk run into any security bots?” I asked, “We didn’t on our way in. Just that freakin’ slime monster.”

Just thinking about it made my leg ache. Arcaidia’s healing spell had done plenty, but those residual toxins were still playing hell with me, making me feel feverish and half-dead. I hoped Binge was doing better. She had a solid amount of stamina, and we’d handled the scuffle with Glint’s perimeter team alright, so I was willing to believe Arcaidia’s assessment was corect and the poison wasn’t going to be fatal, just really, really aggravating until I had a chance to either sleep it off or get treated in the ship’s Med-Lab.

Glint’s eyes roved over me with partially disguised worry, “We ran into a couple, but not nearly as many as I thought we would. Odessa herself took care of most of them, and... and my father took care of the rest.”

“Hammerfall is here too!?” Great, not just the big griffin herself, but one of her Cocytus special forces agents was also here. I recalled Hammerfall’s artificial ARM was a giant chain-saw, and tried not to look as intimidated as I felt. Granted I’d fought a lot of tough battles lately, from Scythe’s crazed machinations to a Golem’s fiery fury, but I still didn’t look forward to possibly crossing blades with Glint’s dad.

A wry smirk lit up Glint’s otherwise haggard features, “Forgot you’ve met my father already. Yeah, he’s here. He took another squad to go secure the engine room while Odessa took the bridge. If there are any more Hyadeans here, chances are he’s already taken care of them.”

I could believe it. Hammerfall was a musclebound beast of a pegasus, and I didn’t doubt his lethality. If things did came to a fight with Odessa, our odds were looking less and less favorable. Here's to hoping that negotiations went well. Or as well as they could, considering I had no real idea what Odessa wanted to talk about. The last time we spoke she had offered a place for me within her organization. I’d flatly refused on moral principles.

If she made the same offer again, I couldn’t see myself having a reason to accept it, other than to avoid a fight. I still couldn’t approve of Odessa’s methods, even if after seeing far more of what the Hyadeans were capable of and realizing how much of a threat they might pose I also couldn’t fault Odessa for its goals. Perhaps I could convince Odessa herself to cooperate with me and my friends without needing to pledge myself to the cause? Surely she had to realize not that much had changed since we last spoke that I’d just join Odessa.

Unless this actually was a trap. I took a deep breath, preparing myself mentally for that possibility.

As we reach a branch in the corridors that had a ramp down one of its turns that lead upward, Glint paused and looked at Arcaidia. She looked back with a hint of budding annoyance at the scrutiny.

“What?” she asked, and Glint shook his head.

“Just... trying to decide if you really are a pony. We know Veruni use artificial bodies to infiltrate societies they target. It's what they did during the Equestrian war against the zebra. Its supposed to be possible to spot the fakes if you look at how they behave. That there’s just something slightly off about their mannerisms in a pony body. Got to admit I’m not seeing that with you.”

Arcaidia turned her head up, huffing, “I am pony, but that not matter. I am also Veruni.”

“She’s from our world, Glint,” I said, “She was just raised by the Veruni.”

Glint frowned in thought, “Why would the Veruni raise a pony? If they can already infiltrate with false bodies, seems redundant to train a spy from our own species.”

“I no spy!” Arcaidia snapped, “Sister Persephone take me from here because...” she paused, hesitating as she glanced at me. I recalled that Arcaidia had watched those memory orbs Bartholomew had given her, and had wanted to visit that orphanage back in Manehattan. What had she seen in those orbs, exactly? Taking a deep breath Arcaidia said, “Because my sister owed favor to my mother. Mother couldn’t raise me, so instead Persephone took me to give me life with her people. I was just tiny foal, never knew pony parents or life on this world. I was raised Veruni, so that is what I am. My flesh is pony but my spirit is Veruni.”

“Which means at the end of the day your loyalty is with your xeno origins, not with this world or its people,” Glint said, tone flat, resuming trotting forward, “Good to know.”

“Hey,” I said, catching up to him, “So what if she sees herself as a Veruni? Between them and the Hyadeans do the Veruni really seem like the bad aliens, here?”

“Frankly they both seem pretty bad to Odessa,” said Glint, “Both conquer worlds and reshape the planet and its inhabitants to suit their needs. Whichever race ended up conquering us, it’d spell the end of any freedom the species of this world would have, one way or another.”

I shook my head, tail twitching, “I’ve seen what the Hyadeans do to ponies. And I’ve spent a lot of time with Arcaidia and seen the kind of pony the Veruni raised. If I’m going to choose which group of aliens I prefer, the Veruni win that contest, hooves down.”

“Maybe they’re kinder in their conquests, but that doesn’t make it any less conquest,” Glint said, then sighed and shrugged, “I don’t know. Life was a lot simpler just a few months ago. Then I run into you and suddenly life gets way more confusing. I want to believe Odessa is doing what's right and necessary to protect the world. But with what the rumors coming out of Heimdal Gazzo are, and what happened with your tribe... I don’t really know what feels right anymore.”

“What rumors?” I asked, and his frown deepened and darkened.

“I shouldn’t say anything. If Colonel Odessa wants you to know, she’ll say it herself. We’re almost there, anyway.”

That was good news, because I was starting to get a fresh wave of dizziness and stumbled slightly in my walking. Arcaidia nearly stumbled herself, her artificial leg giving her a moment of trouble as she moved to steady me with her shoulder. Sweat beading my brow, I smiled at her.

“Thanks.”

“Poison not getting worse?” she asked, “I can heal you more.”

“No, its fine. Its not worse than before. Besides I’d feel bad using you to heal me when Binge is probably feeling just as bad and doesn’t have you nearby,” the thought actually bothered me quite a bit, “Hopefully we can get to the Med-Lab soon to get something to flush our systems with.”

Glint looked at me, hiding his concern poorly, “What’s wrong?”

“Stupid damned slime monster attacked us as we were exploring the ship. Blue goo it was made from was pretty toxic, and both me and Binge soaked up a dose. Nothing that’s going to kill us, but left us feeling like crap. You guys run into anything like that?”

“No,” Glint said, and he shuddered slightly, “But we did run into a real horror show when securing the ship’s medical facility.”

Arcaidia’s eyes narrowed, “Is Medical Lab intact?”

“Huh? Oh yeah. Well, most of it anyway,” Glint gave us a sheepish grin that didn’t seem to fit his otherwise tired and grim features, “Nosedive and Springbreeze both went a little hog-wild with the laser fire, and Slingshot...” a sad look crossed his face, “Slingshot saved me from getting my neck chomped by... well I think they were ghouls.”

Ghouls? Here? “Wait, how did ghouls get inside the ship?” I asked.

“They weren’t pony ghouls. They were Veruni,” Glint said, and Arcaidia faltered in her step, blinking at him incredulously.

“No... how many?” she asked.

“Maybe a dozen? The medical facility was intact, but still pretty wrecked from the crash. There were a bunch of xeno corpses lying around. It never even occurred to us they might have become ghouls from magical radiation seeping into the ship. When they struck the squad was taken totally off guard, and it was just quick reflexes, good training, and better armor and guns that let us deal with them.”

I took a deep breath as I saw Arcaidia’s eyes glisten with wet moisture, “Was one of them... purple haired? Female?”

Glint paused, thinking, “Uhh, I don’t think so. At least the ones that still had hair didn’t have any that was purple.”

Arcaidia let out a heavy sigh of relief. She must have been worried her sister might have been among the dead. We still lacked confirmation on that front, one way or another. I offered her a comforting nod as we continued on. The corridors became shorter and more narrow as we reached the front portion of the ship.

While I didn’t know the full shape of Ark of Destiny I got the impression of a half-saucer as one straight corridor abruptly became a sharply curving path that created a long quarter circle leading up towards an impressive set of doors. Structural damage was more severe here than in other parts of the ship, and we had to duck through several narrow gaps of broken hull and cables, but the doors themselves were intact. The large silver double doors were wedged open by a steel beam, and the doorway was covered by a pair of Odessa troopers in heavy power armor, their orange eye slits gleaming at us as energy weapons pointed our way.

“Don’t shoot,” said Glint, “I radioed ahead. Colonel Odessa is expecting us.”

One of the troopers tilted his (her?) head at us, before speaking in a female voice, “Go in, but you’d better let the damned Veruni bitch know if she so much as twitches wrong, she’s not leaving here alive.”

Arcadia snorted at that, and Glint let us past the two door guards and onto the Ark of Destiny’s bridge.

The bridge looked like one part disaster area, one part construction site. It was still the same basic shape I remembered from Arcaidia’s dream, but the damage from the crash had made a wreck of the place. Consoles were burst and left as nothing more than dark wounds in the walls, glass and shattered components littering the floor. The front viewscreen was a smashed mess, and most of the chairs had been tossed around, one embedded in the back wall. However it was obvious Odessa had been working to clear and repair what they could. A large portion of the center of the room was clear of debris and from here several cloud terminals were set up in similar fashion to what I saw in the security room, with cables lacing out like tendrils to plug into the few still intact consoles inside the bridge. Everything was lit by either the soft green glow of light from the terminal screens, or several stark flood lights that had been set up in the corners of the bridge.

I saw blood splattering the floor, ancient and dried to a stained dark brown, and remembered from my dream of Arcaidia’s memories where at least one Veruni crewmember had bled out. Yet other blood stains seemed out of place. My hunter’s mind kicked in, piecing together the sight of claw marks on the floor, and the way the walls were marked by both bullet holes and the more corroded markings of energy weapons fire. There’d been several fights here. One very recently, and another much longer ago, but both after the ship had crashed.

That struck me as odd. I could imagine Odessa had fought their way here, and maybe had to defend the bridge against security bots... but who had fought here before that?

As we entered the bridge I heard Gramzamber speak in my mind.

Longwalk, whatever else occurs here, it's important I inform you that the computer systems of the Ark of Destiny can be accessed by me from this bridge. I’ll need you to put me in physical contact with one of the intact consoles, if possible.

Wanting to keep my conversation with the ARM private I spoke back with my own thoughts, This is about that data you needed to download for being able to sync with me better, right? I haven’t forgotten. Just been seriously distracted by literally everything else happening right now.

I didn’t imagine you had forgotten, but yes, I can access the information I need to calibrate myself to your physiology better from the computer here. I detect at least one of the consoles is intact and active, and... Arcaidia is likely aware of this but the signal from Persephone is being broadcast from here.

Really? Does that mean she was here, sometime after the ship crashed?

Before I could ponder that question further my attention was drawn to the griffin standing in the center of the room, right beside the overturned captain’s chair in the middle of the bridge. While there were other Odessa soldiers present, a full squad of them in the heavy power armor, it was hard to pay attention to anyone other than Odessa herself. She simply had an intense presence, even standing still.

She looked just as I recalled from when we spoke on the Varukisias, yet this time she wasn’t a holographic projection, but here in the flesh. Which only made her presence hit harder as she moved to regard Glint, Arcaidia, and myself as we entered. Her eyes, a striking shade of sky blue, pierced right into me.

She was wearing a similar uniform to what I’d seen before, star white with golden tassels on the shoulders, but this one was covered in small, flexible ballistic plates of a polished metal sheen. She carried her sword at her right hip, along with a large semi-automatic pistol with an ivory handle in a shoulder holster. The blade was the same as I remembered, a silver handled artificial ARM with an X-shaped crossguard set with an emerald gem in the center, sheathed in a scabbard of blue and gold.

Upon examining us for the briefest of moments Odessa spoke in her shocking young yet resonant and intense voice, “I understand you ran into some difficulty upon encountering my troops. I apologize, I thought I’d given orders to ensure that if you appeared here, Longwalk, that you’d be conducted to me without incident.”

Glint, expression sullen, said, “The fault is entirely my own, Colonel. I failed to properly convey the importance of checking targets before opening fire to my perimeter team. As a result we’ve lost another soldier. I accept all consequences for this.”

“The death of another of our own is consequence enough, Lieutenant Glint,” Odessa said, her own expression showing genuine sadness, yet also iron firmness, “Punishment enough you’ll live with the memory of losing one under your command. Remember the feeling and use that pain to motivate yourself to do better.”

Glint saluted sharply with one of his wings, “Yes Colonel, ma’am.”

“Good. Now, Longwalk and... I’m to understand your name is Arcaidia?”

Arcaidia thrust her chin out in defiance, her whole posture radiating a certain level of aggressive assertion from the short filly, and I certainly couldn’t blame her. Here stood the leader of the organization that’d hunted and hounded her ever since we first set out into the Wasteland. Odessa was responsible for a lot of the trouble we’d had, actively hunting and trying to kill Arcaidia and anyone who’d chosen to travel with her. I imagined that between having to wander the corridors of her destroyed ship, contemplating the many possible fates of her sister, and now meeting her mortal enemy face to face, Arcaidia’s mood was probably less than stellar.

“I am Arcaidia. This ship is Veruni Empire property. You do not belong here.”

The soldiers around us visibly stiffened, and more than a few turned weapons towards us, but Odessa raised a talon and they backed off. The young griffiness regarded Arcaidia cooly, meeting my friend’s frosty stare on even terms.

“We belong here as much as the NCR, and you don’t seem bothered by serving them from what I’ve seen, Arcaidia. Estu vi curvae shae vai.”

Arcaidia took a step back as if slapped, her own voice dropping into her own language instantly in shock, “Esru dol venti mas. Ti mas, estu loshim golvir Veruni?”

Odessa smiled with a polite bow, “I’m not very well practiced, but Odessa does have sufficient records of your species’ language that we can get by. How do you think we got our computer systems linking with your ship’s if we didn’t have a grasp on your language? As to your question of ‘how’, you do realize you’re not the only Veruni who survived this ship’s crash, don’t you? Others landed on this world via escape pods like yours, only unlike yours they didn’t keep their occupants in stasis for decades. Most are dead by now, but we keep a few of the prisoners we picked up over the years in Heimdal Gazzo.”

Arcaidia’s jaw clenched tight, “You keep some of my shipmates prisoner? You will release them!”

“That’s not going to be a simple thing, I’m afraid,” said Odessa, turning her attention to me, “Before this devolves into pointless bickering, let’s get right down to the point of why I wanted you brought to me, rather than just ordering my people to shoot you on sight. Longwalk, I know you’ve already refused to join Odessa, and I accept that. What I want is to establish, if only temporarily, a truce with you.”

I looked at her with what I hoped was a halfway decent poker face. I’d been hoping for some kind of truce, but hadn’t actually expected Odessa to offer it first.”What would be the terms of this truce? Hate to say it but you do have an advantage of numbers of us, and if it came down to a fight you’d probably win.”

Odessa nodded in agreement, placing on talon on the hilt of her sword, not in a motion to draw it but rather what looked to me like a nervous gesture, “True. If we were to fight, here and now, with the way your group is split, and with the numbers I’ve brought with me into this ship, we’d emerge victorious. In some ways its still tempting. It’d ensure you’d no longer be a threat to my army, it’d eliminate the last free Veruni agent on the planet, and it’d ensure we could continue to salvage this ship in peace... at least until the NCR realized the mercenaries from Skull City weren’t coming back out.”

She took a deep breath and let it out slowly, her eyes roving over the other soldiers in the room, Glint himself standing up straighter as she looked at him briefly before returning her piercing, yet somehow tired gaze to me. “The bottom line is that if I can avoid a fight that’d cost the lives of too many soldiers, I’ll take it. Odessa is being bled, bit by bit, by other battles elsewhere, and we need to marshal all our might for the larger fight to come. We don’t have lives to waste dealing with you, or Arcaidia, so if there’s even a chance I can reason with you and establish a short term truce, I prefer that over engaging in a battle I may know I can win, but will see many good soldiers lose their lives.”

“Alright... that’s a fair reason. More than fair, actually,” I said, my own exhaustion tinting my voice, “Believe it or not I don’t want to fight either, and I don’t want to see any more of your people die. But if we’re doing a truce there’s a lot of issues that need to be hashed out, Odessa. You have my tribe, including my mother as prisoners at your headquarters. Now I learn you’ve also got some of Arcaidia’s people held there too. How are we going to do a truce without some guarantee of their release? To top it off, we’re here on business from the Drifter’s Guild and NCR to secure this ship. Just letting you take it runs counter to our whole purpose in being here.”

I could tell the Odessa soldiers around me were agitated by my words, with only Glint seeming to maintain a relaxed stance while the others shifted aggressively, some wearing scowls on their muzzles. Odessa herself looked at me with her face bearing a deeply thoughtful, and somewhat troubled, look. Her voice kept steady, however, earnest but also sharp.

“Concerning your later point, just because you were sent in here to scout this vessel doesn’t mean you're beholden to stop us from taking it from under the NCR’s noses. You could easily just claim that once you saw how many of us were in here you decided the danger was too great and beat a retreat... which wouldn’t exactly be that far from the truth, would it?”

Her eyes hardened to steel pools, one talon pointedly tapping the hilt of her sword.

“Keep in mind, Longwalk, that if you choose to fight us, win or lose, you’ll likely lose more than we will, so it's in your best interest to seriously consider staying out of our way here. That said, here’s another point; we can make better use of this ship than the NCR can. The New Canterlot Republic is just scraping by and is hardly in any position to properly study this xeno-tech, let along reverse engineer it. However, if we acquire this ship, we can learn its secrets far faster and reproduce its technology much sooner than any other group in the world could.”

Arcaidia’s jaw tightened and I could all but hear her teeth grinding, “You use that technology to make war on my people, that is your brain plan, yes? Why let you do this?”

“Do you really think your in a position to stop me?” Odessa asked, “If you do, feel free to draw that Veruni blaster and take your best shot at me. Even if you got lucky, and managed to kill me, Odessa itself would go on. You and Longwalk would likely die here, along with most of your companions, and we’d still take the ship. I’m just trying to avoid unneeded bloodshed by offering a truce at all.”

“Arcaidia...” I said, touching her shoulder. She looked at me with a mixture of fierce desperation and boiling anger that was contained by a growing realization that we weren’t in a good position to make a fight of this. I could see her pain brimming in her silver eyes. She hated this. Hated having to let Odessa have the run of her ship, her home. Yet Arcaidia was an intelligent mare. She’d always had a bright head on her shoulders that usually could think things through faster and more clearly than I could ever match.

I could see her reaching the same conclusions I had, that talking things out with Odessa was better than risking it all on a fight we had only slim chances at winning. She hissed out a breath and looked away, saying nothing. I took a deep breath myself and turned back to Odessa.

“So you’ve made your point you can do more with this ship than the NCR, but this still doesn’t change the fact you have my tribe and Arcaidia’s surviving shipmates prisoners. Even if we can’t take you on easily here and now, you have to know I won’t stop until I free my tribe.”

“Yes, I do know that,” Odessa said, a helpless, small smile curving her beak and strangely warming her eyes, “I’d do the same in your place. I... regret that at times we must do things that are less than ethical in order to pursue the protecting of our world. Taking your tribe was, perhaps, a mistake. However I cannot so easily free them, and freeing our few Veruni prisoners is out of the question. At least for now.”

“What do you mean?” I asked, eyes narrowing.

“I mean that for the time being our truce has nothing to do with them,” Odessa said firmly, “I can’t give you any promises that I can’t keep. I am Odessa’s leader, yes, but my authority is not absolute. Things are complicated, Longwalk, and I can’t afford to go head to head with the other members of the Council of Colonels. Yet. Look, its as simple as this; our truce means we’ll leave you alone. I will cease all pursuit of you and Arcaidia and rescind any orders still standing to do so. You’ll be free to do as you please... as long as you, in turn, agree to not interfere with any further Odessa operations. Including ceasing any plans you may have to try and rescue your tribe.”

“What, I’m just supposed to leave them as your prisoners!?” I shouted, now my own jaw clenching tightly in mirror of Arcaidia’s expression a moment ago.

Odessa shook her head, “Not forever. Give me time, Longwalk. With the Ark of Destiny as a prize, I can make a push against the other Colonels and perhaps get your tribe freed. They’re not much use to us anyway, since all of them tested negative for linking as a Guardian Medium. Just give me time, and I can get your tribe returned to you.”

“What about Veruni you have?” Arcaidia said with angry heat in her voice.

“That... would be more difficult. Most of them have been our prisoners for decades. We’ve learned all we can from them, true, but getting the other Colonels to agree to letting those xenos go is unlikely.”

Arcaidia’s eyes flashed like silver lightning, “Is one of them purple haired?”

Odessa’s head titled curiously, “I don’t believe so. It’s been awhile since I’ve checked those records, but I don’t remember any of our prisoners having purple hair.”

My unicorn friend’s shoulders sagged, perhaps partly in relief, or maybe just as much under the weight of still not knowing what had happened to her sister. If only we could get to the bridge computer, Gramzanber could possibly download some useful information on that front besides just getting the calibration data needed to keep me alive.

“Odessa,” I said, “If I agree to this truce, there’s two stipulations that I’ll need, otherwise I can’t do it.”

“What?” she asked, feathered brow raising.

I raised a hoof, “First, if you can’t get my tribe and Arcaidia’s shipmates free within two weeks, the truce will be off and I will be coming for them. Count on it.”

Her eyes flashed with a dangerous light, but I saw a hint of respect there as well, “Fair enough. If I can’t negotiate their freedom in that time then things would be going so poorly with the Council of Colonels it might actually benefit me if you and your allies stage a raid, if only because it would help illustrate to the other Colonels that their position is not as unassailable as they seem to think.”

I raised by own eyebrow at that. Just how poor was Odessa’s relationship with the other leaders in her organization? I couldn’t afford to give her any hint about how my friends and I were going to reach Odessa’s headquarters, but if she was fine we us making the raid to free my tribe then I wasn’t going to question that bit of good fortune. However I noted she hadn’t said anything about helping us, so if things did reach that point I imagined our truce would be off. For all I knew she might want me to make the raid just so she could capture me and Arcaidia then, and use that to pacify her fellow Colonels.

Regardless, I still had one other stipulation to address.

“Whatever your reasons, just glad we’re on the same page. Now, the other thing is that I want you to allow me to connect my ARM to the ship systems. Gramzanber needs to download some information that’ll keep my bond with him from eventually killing me.”

Suspicion wafted across the griffiness’ eyes, “If your ARM can access the ship’s computer, what’s to stop you from targeting us with its security systems, or erasing data we might want, or just outright activating a self-destruct system?”

“You’re just going to have to trust me, Odessa, the same way I’ll have to trust you won’t shoot us in the back the moment it's convenient for you,” I said, “This truce won’t work if we can’t show even a little trust. Besides, this is kinda life and death for me. Without that data, Gramzanber will eventually kill me from the strain of using him.”

She went silent, ruffling her wings and rattling her talons on the metal deck as she thought things over. Eventually she blew out a sigh and said, “You’re right. No point to this truce if I’m not willing to try trusting you. Very well, it's agreed. You can have your ARM access the bridge computer. Once that’s done, you and your group can leave the ship.”

“What about the NCR? How exactly do you plan to get the ship out of here with those airships in the sky?” I asked. I’d spent too much time trying to help the Drifter’s Guild make the diplomatic mission a success to just let Odessa create an incident. Odessa seemed to grasp my meaning, her expression turning a shade smug.

“You needn’t worry. It will take the NCR at least a day or two to mobilize sufficient personnel to begin salvaging this ship, and while I know they’ll leave some forces here to guard the area, when night falls I can use the Vesuvius to extract the ship with minimal difficulty. As far as I’m concerned you can report to your employers you didn’t find anything in here, and we’ll be long gone before they send their own troops in to check. Then when we take the ship, as far as the NCR will know there will be no connection between you and the sudden disappearance of this vessel.”

It sounded reasonable enough, although I couldn’t imagine how the Vesuvius was going to ‘extract’ the Ark of Destiny. My memory was more than a tad fuzzy, but I remembered the Vesuvius was the Odessa airship that had bombarded Saddlespring. I’d only seen it as a distant, sword-shaped, silver object in the sky back then. At a rough guess I estimated it was larger, and of a very different design, than the Varukisias. If Odessa rode it her personally did that mean the Vesuvius was the flagship? Well, larger or not, I still didn’t see how the ship was going to carry the Ark of Destiny out of here, but it was clear Odessa was completely confident. Ultimately it wasn’t any of my concern... well, aside from letting a ship of ridiculously advanced alien technology fall into the hooves of a military that didn’t think twice of destroying innocent lives in pursuit of power.

I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have some serious reservations about that. I just didn’t see any other way to do this without starting a fight I wasn’t sure I could win. Sometimes you just don’t have the luxury of easy choices.

“Okay then, looks like we’ve got a deal,” I said, nodding towards one of the active ship consoles, “If you don’t mind, I’m going to let Gramzanber do his thing. Is it alright if Arcaidia accesses the computer as well? She came here following a signal that stems from here. I owe it to her to make sure she can finish what we started, before I ran into you Odessa folk.”

“If she so much as twitches a button that looks suspicious...” Odessa said, talon gripping her sword hilt tightly, “She’ll be dead before she has a moment to blink.”

“Well, that wasn’t a ‘no’,” I said with a dry chuckle, glancing at Arcaidia and making a gesture towards the console, “After you. I promised you I’d help you find your sister. She might not be here, but that signal is. Let’s see what she left behind.”

Arcaidia looked at me, a hopeful light in her silver eyes as she started to trot towards the console, me following beside her. It made me think of that night, what felt like so long ago, when we fled my tribal home together. Back then I didn’t know what we’d face, or how long our journey together would be. I just knew I owed this filly my life, and the life of my best friend, so helping her was just as natural as breathing.

We’d gone through a lot, just to get to one derelict ship in the middle of a forest, to access one computer console where the source of Persephone’s signal was located.

I watched as Arcaidia sat at the flat screened console beside the chair that had once been her station, before the crash. She raised her Pip-Buck and pressed a few buttons, its screen flashing a series of crests. The soldiers around ust tensed, and Odessa watched us with hawkish eyes, but Arcaidia ignored them as her Pip-Buck screen matched the screen on the console, which then hummed to life and projected a holographic image of a menu screen. I couldn’t read any of it, but one of the icons was blinking, and Arcaidia touched it with a shaking hoof.

The menu screen vanished to be replaced by a perfect holographic image of a Veruni woman. I recognized her curved, saturessque bearing, with the long mane of deep purple hair and intense red eyes. Her bodysuit, white and purple, was torn in places, and she was clearly wounded, with several deep cuts along her side seeping crimson blood. She held a large, silver colored starblaster in her right hand, a bulkier model than the one Arcaidia bore. She was breathing heavily as the hologram recording began, but quickly composed herself, looking down towards Arcaidia.

“Tivir, estu vol ti ren parvia est hurin...”

Persephone’s recording spoke in the Veruni language, but Arcaidia’s Pip-Buck started to pump out a synthesized voice that translated the words into Equestrian. That must have been why she had connected the PIp-Buck to the console.

“Sister, I really hope it's you listening to this recording...”

Persephone coughed, and there was blood on her lips. There was a distant sound like screeching metal and she looked up at something off screen, frowning and shaking her head.

“It wasn’t my smartest move, coming back to the ship, but I had to try and recover one of the nav satellites. They got here ahead of me. The Hyadeans,” Persephone’s eyes narrowed, “Arcaidia, listen to me. If you’re there, listening to this recording, then you’re the last free Veruni on this planet. Captain Feredyone was captured by a local military force that is aware of our kind and seeks to hunt us all down. Every other surviving crew member is either dead, captured, or... or worse. The Hyadean presence on this world, it’s being led by one called Zeikfried.”

The recording went fuzzy for a moment, and there was the sound of a distant explosion from the recording’s audio. Persephone grimaced.

“He’s... different than Hyadeans we’ve faced before. He intends to use this world as some sort of ‘testing ground’ for... I don’t know what. Conquest doesn’t seem to be his goal. He and his right hand, Alhazad, have been experimenting with this world’s native magic. I wasn’t able to find out what their end goal is, only that it has to do with an Elw facility in the Detrot region. A tower, beneath a place called Skull City. Arcaidia, whatever happens, do not let them access that tower. Use whatever means you can.”

There was a loud crashing sound, followed by a bellowing laughter that sounded too deep and warbling to be natural. Persephone aimed her starblaster at something outside the hologram’s ability to show. Pain lanced her face, and a deep sadness as she glanced towards where Arcaidia sat.

“I’m sorry to put it all on you, Arcaidia. You deserved better than this. You deserved to see your homeworld green and beautiful as I remember it. You deserved to see your mother. I wish... well, no point lamenting now, is there? We’re Veruni. We do our duty. Arcaidia, don’t forget who you are. Your best chance are those nav satellites. Failing that, the ship’s power core would carry enough yield to get the job done. Do me proud, sister. I love you.”

A final, titanic crashing sound combined with the whine of twisting metal was accompanied by a deep, gruff voice laughing off screen.

“Hah! Those security robots were a real fun warm up, but I’m hoping you can put up more of a fight, Veruni.”

Persephone smiled at the off screen speaker, “Oh don’t worry, you’ll get all the fight you want and more right here, Hyadean.”

The very last of the recording was Persephone firing her starblaster, which emitted powerful, thick bars of stabbing light, then the image faded away, leaving all of us on the bridge to sit in all encompassing silence.

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Footnoet: 50% to next level!

Author's Note:

One of these days I'll manage to get a regular update schedule going for my oldest story. I am dedicated as ever to finishing this, though. This chapter is laced with things being set up for what's going to be the rapid approaching climax of the NCR arc, ranging from Longwalk and Odessa meeting in the flesh, Arcaidia receiving the message from her sister, and Binge revealing a connection to the Guardian Lord statuette.

I want to thank all of you for your patience waiting so long for me to get these chapters done. I really appreciate it and hope you're all still enjoying the ride.

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