• 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 36: Flying in the Midst of the Storm

I hadn’t fully lost consciousness, but I was fading in and out, getting only echoing images and faint sensations of what was happening around me. I was laying on sompony’s back, Binge’s. I could tell by her scent, sweat soaked, enticing, but the few snippets of noise my faded consciousness could make out forestalled any intimate thoughts.

In my experience, explosions are rarely a sign that things are going well, and the reverberation of distant booms of thunder left me wondering what was happening while I was doing my best impression of a sack of rocks.

Frustrated, I mentally reached out towards Gramzanber.

Gram? Gram!? What’s happening?

My ARM replied with relieving swiftness, although what he had to say didn’t exactly set my mind at ease.

Ah, you’re recovering. Good. It seems Odessa and the NCR are having an... altercation over possession of the Veruni vessel.

Like a claw of winter I felt a chill run through me at those words. I really didn’t want Odessa and the NCR fighting and had been hoping to avoid that very result. I shouldn’t have been that surprised by it. It would have been impossible for the NCR forces stationed nearby to not see the fight on top of the Ark of Destiny, and if they moved in, then Odessa would have countered in order to secure what was left of their salvage.

Ugh... I feel so heavy. Where are we? I need to get up!

Gramzanber’s response was calming in some ways, alarming in others, When the NCR sent soldiers to the ship, yourself and your companions were being taken into the Ark by Odessa. I believe Glint was trying to make it look like we’d been taken prisoner, as to provide a cover story to the NCR once we rejoin them. We’re currently inside the Ark’s medical bay, where Arcaidia dosed you and Binge with some antitoxins. She then left to secure us a shuttle while Odessa holds off the NCR troops, and Crossfire is arguing with the Cocytus officer over ownership if the regeneration tank. Those booms you heard were Crossfire arguing via use of her rifle.

Oh for fuck’s sake! Come on body, wake up! I started actively struggling to move, feeling the tingling wave of needle pricks across my limbs as I started to regain consciousness. Heavy eyelids rose like cement bricks had been attached to the, but slowly my bright green eyes managed to open and my ears flicked about as I could finally hear clearly again. Crossfire’s voice was in full snarl mode.

“Either you back the fuck off right now, or the next shot is going through that piss poor excuse of a mane style on its way out the back of your skull.”

In response to this I heard Hammerfall’s boisterous tone, which was good because I hadn’t been sure if he’d been alright after getting smacked into the ravine wall by the Golem as if he’d been a buzzing fly. Looked like Glint’s father was made of stern stuff.

“You think that peashooter scares me, Drifter? I’ve got orders from Odessa to make sure we recover everything we can before jetting out of here, and lady, you’re not even a bit of turbulence on the flight path, if you catch my drift.”

“Grab whatever alien bullshit you want from here, but this thing here is coming with us,” Crossfire said, and I could now make her out as she tilted her head in a pointing gesture towards the regeneration tank.

I was laying on one of the medical beds on one side of the lab. Hammerfall and about half a dozen uneasy but very serious looking Odessa soldiers were facing off with Crossfire, who had her rifle floating at her side in a wreath of crimson magic, its barrel still smoking from several holes she’d put in the wall by Hammerfall’s head. Behind her B.B was standing with her weapons holstered. Beside my bed, Binge was watching the unfolding confrontation with one hoof casually bouncing a knife. She must have put me on the table not too long ago, for me to remember the feel of laying on her back.

How long had I been out? It couldn’t have even been an hour.

“Enough!” I shouted, leaping off the bed.

Or rather, what came out was closer to, “Unuufh!” as I ungracefully flopped out of the bed and smacked into the floor.

“Bucky! You’re awake!” Binge tossed her knife back into her mane as she wrapped spindly hooves around me in a hug, while I just sort of flopped in her grasp like a half-dead gecko.

“Hah, knew he wasn’t dead,” Hammerfall said as he held out a hoof to one of the Odessa troopers next to him, who reluctantly hoofed over a few bills of Odessa currency. Hammerfall then looked at me with a jovial grin, as if he didn’t have a rifle in the grip of an irate mare pointed at his head. “How you feeling, kid?”

“Like my mouth is made of sand and I haven’t slept in a week. Now what in the name of the Ancestor Spirits are you two doing wasting time arguing?”

“This dumbass thinks he can keep us from taking what’s ours, and I’m re-educating him on the matter,” Crossfire said with finality, and Hammerfall looked back at her with a smirk.

“Do you really think we’re letting any landbound take a piece of xeno medical tech that’s that hot? Thing is straight up growing new limbs. I got a wife who could use that kind of tech.”

“And I got a friend who needs it too, so sorry about your wife, but fuck off, the tech is ours,” Crossfire said, “And I’m not opposed to walking over your corpse to make a point of it.”

“Crossfire...” I said, struggling to my hooves. Binge helped me, supporting my side as I got my legs under me. I still felt unsteady, but whatever Arcaidia had pumped into me from the medical bay’s supplies had clearly done some good, because that sickly weakness from the slime monster’s toxin was gone. In its place was a more clean, natural exhaustion, one I knew would go away with enough rest. Clearing my throat, I approached Crossfire, who looked at me sharply.

“Don’t try any of your peaceful diplomacy crap on me, Mr. Hero. There is no chance I’m giving up this little miracle machine...”

I leaned close to her so I could whisper in her ear without being heard by anypony else, “If we fight, there’s no guarantee we can win. I know why you want that machine. Trust me, I want it too. Here’s the thing... my ARM has downloaded parts of the ship database.”

Gram, do we have the regeneration tank’s schematics?

We do, he replied, I had to cease the download when the ship power core was stolen, to avoid dangerous feedback, but among the information downloaded was the schematics for building the regeneration tank. I believe the residents of Stable 104 could replicate it, given time.

Hearing that, I continued to whisper to Crossfire, “If you drop this, I swear to you I’ll make sure Knobs gets her legs back. I know people who can likely build their own version of this regeneration tank. So please, back down for now. If Odessa and the NCR are fighting, then we need to get off this ship fast so Odessa can pull out. Please, Crossfire...”

Her eyes bored into me like a pair of yellow corkscrews, searching for any hint that I might be lying to her. Since I wasn’t, it was easy to keep a straight face, although I was worried she might still stubbornly refuse to give up. I saw the frustration run through her like a tremor, her body shaking before she gave a harsh shake of her head and growled out, “You’d better be right, buck, otherwise you’re dead.”

“Fair enough,” I said, wondering if I should start keeping a mental tally of the number of times Crossfire had threatened my life. It had to be getting to the double digits by now. I turned to Hammerfall, breathing a sigh to relief.

“We’ll go peacefully, Hammerfall. Where’s Arcaidia?”

Gramzanber had already told me, but Hammerfall didn’t know that, so I had to keep up appearances. Besides, I didn’t know if the Odessa forces were even aware Arcaidia was going to get a shuttle.

“Your Veruni pal ran off with that eyebot of yours the second she dosed you and the green mare there with some funky xeno goo. Didn’t say where they were going, but my orders ain’t to detain you guys now that you’ve agreed to play nice with the Colonel,” Hammerfall said, shrugging his huge shoulders. It was only now, looking at him closely, I saw how battered he was, and i was amazed the pegasus was still standing. He held his own chainsaw shaped ARM over one shoulder easily, yet his whole back and left side was like one dark bruise. His mouth showed blood trickling down his chin, and one eye was swollen shut. He’d taken a real thrashing from that Golem, yet he was still alive, somehow standing, having fought that monster solo.

It honestly frightened me a little. Shattered Sky had been dangerous, but as far as Cocytus members went, it looked to me like Hammerfall was on a different level altogether. Was he even a normal pony? Might he have cybernetics underneath that skin? I didn’t think so, but I was at a loss to explain his obvious toughness and strength other than he was clearly more gifted than I.

I knew time was of the essence and we needed to get out of here, but I had a few more questions I wanted answered. “How about Glint and his squad?”

Hammerfall’s expression darkened, “Glint’s fine, save for the fact he lost another squad-member. Poor Suture didn’t really stand a chance, losing that much blood. Real shame, kid had talent as a medic.”

I nodded solemnly, saying a silent prayer for the pegasus medic’s soul. I hadn’t known him well, but he’d survived Silver Mare Studios, only to fall here. Shaking off the depressing feeling, I asked, “Once we leave, how is the Colonel going to contact me concerning my tribe?”

“Don’t you worry about that,” Hammerfall said, winking at me, “When she needs to talk to you, she’ll find a way. She’s good at that. Now you lot better get your asses clear of the ship, unless you want to hitch a ride when the Vesuvius breaks through the Raptors to pick us up.”

I suppressed an urge to groan, “Please try not to blow those ships up, will you? The NCR soldiers are just doing their jobs.”

“So are we, kid,” said Hammerfall, neither boasting nor sugarcoating the situation for me, “One way or another, what’s left of this ship is coming with us.”

There clearly wasn’t anything more to be said. It left a sour taste in my mouth, but there was no helping it. Soldiers on both Odessa and the NCR side of this conflict were going to die before the day was done, but there was nothing more I could do to stop that. I had to get myself and my own friends out of here, and hope for the best. Flexing my legs, I got more feeling back into them, and looked at Crossfire, B.B, and Binge.

“Let’s go catch up with Arcaidia and LIL-E.”

Crossfire’s face was still set in a stubborn half-glower, but she nodded silently and was willing to follow me as I led everypony out of the medical bay. Hammerfall watched me go, and said over his shoulder, “Try not to die out there, Longwalk. Wouldn’t mind taking a crack at you myself, one day, and see how strong your Gramzanber is against my Nidhogg.”

I assumed that was the name of his artificial ARM, and I just shook my head, similarly calling over my shoulder, “No offense, but after seeing you fight, I’d just as soon never have to find out.”

His deep and booming belly laugh followed me and my friends down the hall.

----------

I called Arcaidia on my Pip-Buck and she told me to meet her back in the hangar bay we’d entered the Ark of Destiny from. I didn’t ask exactly why she’d left earlier with LIL-E, but I had a feeling she was up to something. I trusted Arcaidia with my life, but I was worried about her. Being here in the Ark had already been rough on her, even before she’d learned about her sister joining the Hyadean aliens. I still couldn’t get my head wrapped around that.

Why would Persephone join the very aliens the Veruni had been fighting for countless generations? What had happened to her in the years between landing on this world and Arcaidia waking up from her escape pod that would have convinced Persephone to be on the Hyadeans’ side? She hadn’t seemed to be under any mind control, like what Scythe had done to Binge. Persephone’s words and actions had looked to be very much of her own free will.

She’d hinted at there being reasons for her choice, but certainly hadn’t explained any of it, and if I was confused and distressed over this, then I could only imagine how hard this was hitting Arcaidia.

My worries weren’t assuaged at all when we finally worked our way back through the tangled, mangled innards of the Ark of Destiny and returned to the hangar bay. I could hear the popping cracks of gunfire from somewhere outside the bay, and knew that Odessa’s soldiers were fully engaged in keeping the NCR troops at bay. There were more distant, yet heavier discharges that sounded like energy weapons fire. I assumed those were the Raptors firing on the Vesuvius, which was probably descending from wherever it’d been hiding.

Hadn’t Glint or somepony mentioned some kind of levitation beam that they’d use to move the Ark of Destiny? We needed to be off the ship before that happened. I didn’t want to be a guest on board another Odessa airship if I could help it.

We found LIl-E floating around by one of the shuttles still strapped into its scaffolding on the right side of the bay. The eyebot turned to use as we rapidly galloped up, and said, “Good timing. Arcaidia almost has this thing powered up, but... Longwalk, I think there’s something off about her...”

“Off?” I asked, and B.B mirrored my worry, flying up with a concerned etched all over her face.

“What’re ya sayin’, LIL? Is she hurt?”

“No, nothing like that. Just... look, when we left you in the medical bay, she had me follow her so I could watch her back as she did something. Instead of coming straight here to the bay, we diverted to some side chamber a floor up. It had all these tubes in it and she pried one open, pulling out this weird device.”

LIL-E led us to the back of the shuttle. It looked to have two compartments, not unlike the Ursa ATW. The front compartment looked to be the cockpit, while the back compartment was separated into a large cargo bay and a small seating area with two smooth rows of four metal seats on either bulkhead. On the floor, strapped in to the left side of the cargo hold was a device that looked like a silver flower pot from which sprung a conical shape of equally silver metal that looked vaguely like a missile tipped with a deep blue crystal.

“Oh, shiny,” said Binge, “What’s it do?”

“Luna’s teats if I know,” said LIL-E, “But Arcaidia refused to leave the ship without it. She didn’t even make a peep about leaving the regen tank behind and it’s got her new leg in it, but this thing, she insisted she needed it. Wouldn’t say why, and I didn’t think there was time to argue.”

LIL-E moved around, scanning us, “I see we don’t have the tank. How’d you convince Crossfire to give it up?”

“None of your business, you flying beer can,” said Crossfire, trotting into the shuttle and glaring at nothing in particular, “Let’s just get out of here.”

I looked at LIL-E and shook my head, silently pleading with her to drop the subject. LIL-E did so with a casual bob in the air that was her equivalent of a shrug, and soon we were all inside the shuttle, the metal doors sliding closed behind us with a silent hiss.

“I want ta check on Arc,” said B.B, and I nodded to her, both of us going to the cockpit while the others got comfortable in the passenger seats.

A simple button on the side of the door opened the cockpit, which was surprisingly spacious, with five seats arranged two up front with the controls, and three behind them. Arcaidia was at the main helm, her horn glowing bright as she manipulated the shuttle’s hologrpahic helm interface with her magic. When she turned to look at us I felt a rush of unease. Arcaidia’s eyes held an intense glow to them, their silver depths filled with an almost manic focus.

“Ren solva, B.B, good you’re here. Was going to come back for you if you not show up by now.”

“You were secruin’ our way out, Arc, so no worries,” B.B said, coming up to the co-pilot seat and settling into it as I trotted up to the middle seat of the back row and stood there, watching Arcaidia carefully.

“Arcaidia, are you okay-”

“I am fine! No need for talking about things right now, ren solva. We leave ship, then... then we talk. Much. With all of you,” Arcaidia’s eyes wavered as she gazed at nothing for a second, then shivered and shook her head, “But first, we leave.”

B.B’s light violet eyes wavered with uncertainty, and she cast a questioning glance at me. I could only just shake my head in unknowing concerning myself, as I said to Arcaidia, “Alright Arcaidia, when you want to talk, we will. Are we good to leave right now?”

“Almost,” Arcaidia said, “Shuttle attached to ship energy filler tubes. With main reactor core gone, very little energy left in ship. Not enough to fuel shuttle for long, but enough for... going where need to go. Just another minute until done.”

“Okay, so, um, what’s with that device you had LIL-E help you bring here?” I asked, and Arcaidia flinched, turning her eyes sharply towards me.

“Explain later, Longwalk. Soon, but later.”

So that was that, then. I wasn’t about to force her to answer. I trusted her, but this whole situation felt off, LIL-E was right about that. I left Arcaidia to continue with prepping the shuttle for launch, and B.B stayed with her. Checking back in the passenger/cargo area I saw LIL-E floating around the back, while Binge was playing with what appeared to be sliding windows on the wall of the passenger seating area. It looked like touching a button opened a long, thin viewport and Binge was having a blast opening an shutting it.

Crossfire was strapped into the passenger seat opposite from Binge and gave me a level look as I came in.

“You’d better be right about what you told me,” she said, eyes fierce.

“If I’m wrong, you can feel free to take it out of my hide. Pretty sure Begonia will still pay you for me, even if my official bounty got taken down,” I replied curtly, going past her into the cargo hold.

LIL-E was floating around, back and forth, not unlike when I paced around when nervous.

“What’s up?” I asked her, and the eyebot swiveled around to face me.

“Not sure. When Arcaidia and I were bringing this thingamajig onto the shuttle, I got more ghost readings on my sensors. Been trying to do a detailed scan before we leave, just in case. Haven't found anything, but it... bugs me. I’m convinced someone or something’s been following us the entire time we’ve been on this ship.”

“Could it have just been that slime monster? Maybe another one’s roaming around out there?”

“No, I don’t think so. Look, never mind about it Longwalk, it’s probably nothing.”

At that moment there was a shudder that ran through the shuttle. At first I thought something might be shaking it from outside, but I heard the hum of the shuttle’s engines and realized it was just Arcaidia warming them up for takeoff. I quickly returned to the cockpit, strapping myself into the middle seat as Arcaidia manipulated the controls with practiced ease.

The cables attached to the shuttle let go, and the scaffolding holding the shuttle in place slipped away back into recesses in the floor and wall. Then, under its own glowing blue drive engines the shuttle smoothly pulled out into the hangar bay’s main area, then turned and flew out of the open bay doors. I was surprised at how smooth the ride was. Once the engines were warmed up, the shudders ceased and I barely felt a hint of tremor in the deck beneath y hooves. The view port of the cockpit showed the bright afternoon outside. It’d been morning when we’d entered the ship, and I estimated maybe four or five hours had passed since then.

Of course the clear blue sky was the least of the noteworthy sights outside the shuttle. As we climbed out of the ravine, I could see the tracers and magical beams of exchanging weapons fire. NCR soldiers were stationed along the top of the ravine and were firing down on several portions of the Ark of Destiny where Odessa soldiers had set up barricades in open portions of the hull.

I couldn’t tell which side was winning, or if there were any casualties, and before I could Arcaidia pulled the shuttle into a sharp climb that took us up into the sky. I felt a sense of vertigo as I realized the shuttle was somehow generating its own gravity, making the upward climb feel as if the shuttle was still level. It made my stomach churn a bit, but I could hardly pay that any mind, because I saw the Vesuvius.

In the past, I’d only seen it as a distant outline, vaguely sword shaped. Now I had a much closer view as it descended from the sky, no more than three hundred feet off the ground.

It was easily around two hundred meters long. It’s ‘sword’ shape was more pronounced than I’d recalled, with a wide, delta-shaped hull that grew thinner to a point towards its bow, while the stern actually rose up several decks until it’s ‘hilt’ extended into two long, V-shaped wings from which clouds billowed out, forked with purple lightning. An oval shaped bridge caped the top of the back deck, and behind it extended a long shaft that I took for some sort of extra propulsion engine, given the way the shaft glowed with magical violet light that trailed sparks like tiny wisps.

The main deck on either side veritably bristled with weapon ports. I saw missile pods and stubby, round barreled energy canons tracking left and right as they fired thick gobs of energy or swarms of missiles. Their targets were not just the two Raptors that had arrived with us this morning, but an additional three of the NCR airships which had the Vesuvius surrounded. A brilliant storm of green plasma cannon fire was being thrown back at the Odessa ship, but unlike the Raptors the [Vesuvius seemed to have some kind of energy barrier protecting it, absorbing much of the Raptor’s incoming fire. The Raptors themselves were taking a beating, although I noted that for some reason the Vesuvius was not using its its most impressive looking weapon.

These were a set of a dozen, long, octagon barreled cannons lining both the upper and bottom hull of the ship. Each cannon had to have been around ten meters long by itself, and I suspected these were the ‘railguns’ that Shattered Sky had been so proud of when they’d rained destruction down on Saddlespring.

I didn’t know why Odessa wasn’t employing those big guns, but I was grateful for it. The Raptors wouldn’t have stood a chance against that kind of firepower.

“What’re they just sittin’ there fer?” asked B.B.

“Charging tractor beam,” Arcaidia said as she leveled the shuttle out and turned it so we could see both the Vesuvius and the Ark of Destiny on the ground. “I detect big energy readings from bow of ship.”

As she said that, I saw the tip of the Vesuvius bow light up with a bright purple light, and saw four prongs extend from it. Then a sheet of light wide enough to engulf the Ark of Destiny reached down from the bow and coated the entire Veruni vessel. My eyes went wide as I saw the ravine walls shake, several NCR troopers falling off it like ants shaken from a basket. Then the ravine walls crumbled and the Ark of Destiny, in all its mangled, silver glory, was pried free of the Equestrian earth and hauled upward into the sky.

“What do they even need the Ark for, if they have a ship that can do that?” I breathed, and Arcaidia snorted.

“That ship just fancy sub-orbital cruiser. It’s guns no match for proper Veruni ship. Even Ark just explorer-class, and it easily destroy that shiny can of nothing. They need what inside Ark.” Her face turned into an angry sneer, “Only good thing about Hyadean taking reactor is Odessa not get power source big enough to supply ship, even if they rebuild it.”

I wasn’t sure if that was necessarily a good thing. Odessa might have spent all this time hunting us, but with the Hyadeans becoming more active, I would have preferred Odessa have that power source over those alien tyrants. But what was done was done, and we had little choice but to watch as the Vesuvius raised the Ark of Destiny like a corpse from its grave, and floated it up to the underside of its hull. There, I saw clamps extend down from the ship’s lower hull and attach to the Ark.

The NCR Raptors didn’t let up their fire, pouring bolt after plasma bolt into the Odessa’ ship’s shields. In one or two places the shields did buckle, opening up ragged holes where a few plasma shots penetrated. However those shots did little more than superficial damage as they splashed against the Vesuvius armored hull. The Odessa ship wasn’t even slowed down as it turned its bow upward and began a rapid rise into the sky. The Raptors turned to give chase, all but one which remained circling over the site. From what I could see, the Vesuvius was too fast for the Raptors to catch, even when hauling the Ark’s bulk. I saw the ship heading north, and gain ever more altitude as it went, and as much as Odessa had been enemies in the past, and may be again in the near future... I silently wished them luck.

Against the alien threat, we all called this planet home, after all.

“Well... that’s that,” I said, letting out a deep sigh, “Suppose we should land and report back to Whiteheart and-”

My words stumbled as Arcaidia shook her head and with a few swift motions had the shuttle flying upward once more.

“Whoa, Arcaidia, where are you taking us? The ground is the other way!”

“I know, ren solva,” she said, not taking her eyes off the console’s holographic display as we soared ever higher, until all I could see through the viewscreen was endless blue.

“Arc, hun, what’re ya thinkin’?” B.B asked, “Where are we goin’?”

“Explain in a minute. Just wait, please,” she said, and a moment later Crossfire was poking her head into the cockpit, eyes wide like yellow headlights.

“I can’t help but notice we’re going up instead of down, and way faster than we should be. What the fuck is going on?”

“Uh... Arcaidia seems to want to take us on a joyride?” I said, utterly confused by the turn of events myself. At Crossfire’s less than amused, and quite frankly slightly alarmed, look I just tried to smile reassuringly, “She has a reason for it.”

I hope.

Crossfire did not look reassured, and she gripped the side of the doors into the cockpit with one hoof as if afraid she might fall, despite being perfectly safe in the shuttle, “She’d better have a damn reason! Whiteheart’s going to flip his shit if we bail on him in the middle of a mission!”

“Just wait, okay?” I said, although I was feeling a distinct sense blood draining from my face as I realized the blue sky was turning awfully dark, awfully fast. Could... could Arcaidia seriously be taking us where I thought she was?

It didn’t take long to receive an answer. Veruni technology was a scary thing, as the shuttle took less than a minute to get into the upper atmosphere, and half a minute later the ‘sky’ was no longer the sky, but a void of infinite black that I only knew because I’d seen Arcaidia’s dreams.

Space. We were in space. My stomach did a flip-flop and I gulped down bile in the back of my throat. This was too abrupt. I was not ready for this. Why were we in space!? Was Arcaidia out of her mind!?

I mean, okay, we were safe, sure. The shuttle was designed for this kind of thing, and I didn’t think we were going to just randomly explode for no reason. But... but... space!

“Dear sweet Celestia, Arc, whadd’ya doin’ bringin’ us up here?” B.B whispered, clearly just as uncomfortable as I was.

It probably spoke volumes that Crossfire was utterly silent, eyes wide, her face pale beneath her dark fire as she gripped the door-frame even tighter.

As if it was the most normal and casual thing in the world, Acaidia adjusted the shuttle’s orientation, checked a few monitors on the holographic display, and then smoothly rose from the pilot seat and said, “Good. We in stable orbit. Perfectly safe here. Okay, now we talk.”

----------

Arcaidia gathered us in the shuttle’s cargo compartment. She was standing next to the device she’d taken from the Ark of Destiny and had it propped up on its bowl-shaped bottom. The rest of us stood in a rough semi-circle in front of her, either exchanging curious and confused looks, or starring at Arcaidia and the device with similar expressions.

“So... it’s a satellite?” I asked, trying to get clarification on what Arcaidia was telling us.

She nodded, “Yes. More like beacon-”

“Bacon?” Binge perked up, and Arcaidia glared.

“Bea-con. Beeeee...coooon. Nav beacon to be most of accurateness. Sends signal beeping that ships can use to navigate. Without nav beacon, ships not know how to chart course to location. Ark of Destiny was exploration ship. Only ship capable of finding planets and dropping nav beacons so other ships can follow. When Ark crash, failed to drop nav beacon, so no more Veruni ships find Equestria.”

“But if I’m hearing this right, if you launch this thing, that means more of these... Veruni can find our planet?” Crossfire asked, her face a hard mask that made it very difficult to read what the mare was thinking. She’d been quiet through most of Arcaidia’s explanation, and her deep yellow eyes hid any hints as to what her feelings were concerning this.

I’ll admit I was conflicted. What Arcaidia was proposing...

“Veruni can find planet, yes,” confirmed Arcaidia, “May take bit of time, but signal of beacons strong. Reach all the way to heart of Veruni Empire. They come. Come with fleet. Many ships, filled with troops, food, supplies, make all Equestria better place. No more Wasteland anywhere. No more Odessa. No more Hyadeans. All problems solved!”

“At what price?” asked LIL-E, mechanical voice buzzing with something close to anger, “What’s it going to cost the ponies and other creatures of this world to let the Veruni sweep in an ‘solve’ all our problems?”

“Nothing,” Arcaidia said, but there was a hesitant note in her voice as she looked at the deck, “Small bit of freedom, that’s it.”

“A ‘small bit of freedom’? What does that mean, Arcaidia?” LIL-E pressed, floating forward, “Because to me it sounds like you’re talking about conquest, not cooperation. It sounds to me like your alien Empire is going to sweep in, dominate this planet, and make everypony march to whatever tune they want. Well, I’ve already seen what a slaver empire looks like, and I’m not keen on seeing it with a shiny coat of sci-fi paint! I say we trash this nav beacon and call it a day!”

I held up a hoof, “Hold on a sec, let’s at least hear the details before we decide anything.”

LIL-E turned to me, “Longwalk, you can’t seriously be considering this.”

“Look, Arcaidia has never once given me a reason to doubt her,” I said, “Before I met anypony else here, she saved my life and the life of my best friend, when she could have just as easily saved herself and only herself. During this entire journey she’s never hesitated to throw herself into danger to protect us from harm. At one point or another I’m pretty damn sure she’s saved the lives of everypony standing here right now.”

I took a deep breath and then looked at Arcaidia, “I won’t lie. I’m just as concerned as LIl-E is about what you’re suggesting, but you’ve earned my trust, Arcaidia. You’ve earned my friendship. So you’ve earned the right to explain the details before we make any snap judgments. Just... just what would the Veruni Empire coming here entail?”

She licked her lips, suddenly looking more nerve wracked than I’d ever seen her, including the time she’d lost her leg. Her eyes darted to B.B’s, and the pegasus, who was remarkably calm, simply nodded, “It’s okay, Arc, just tell us what yer thinkin’, hun. Whatever happens, I’m with ya, an’ ya know Long is too.”

B.B’s words appeared to help Arcaidia relax, although she did give me a thankful look as well before she took a deep breath.

“In Veruni Empire, Veruni are at top of social rank. All other species lesser ranked. Not slaves, just lesser in view of Veruni. You still have freedom to choose job. Freedom to choose mate. Much more freedom than those who are slave like in Labor Guild. But no position of power. No command in military, no leader in government. That all belong to Veruni.”

“So, second-class citizens, basically,” Crossfire said, “Free, but not equal. What do we get in exchange for that loss? Just how good is Veruni tech and how much of it can non-Veruni gain access to?”

“Almost all, and very, very good technology,” Arcaidia said, eyes regaining their luster, “Ponykind able to travel stars, live centuries without disease, no more worry for hunger, and enjoy many luxuries even as lower ranked Empire citizens. So much suffering avoided, and...”

“And?” I asked, sensing the emotions boiling beneath Arcaidia’s eyes, “It’s okay Arcaidia, you can tell us.”

She gulped, “...and maybe my sister see sense and come back to Veruni side. I not know why she work with Hyadean, but if anything make her come back, it be Veruni Empire arriving.”

The pain was naked in her voice, even as she clearly tried to hold it back. I could literally see her fighting to keep her eyes from tearing up as she blinked several times rapidly and took an unsteady breath, “And besides that, if all of you keep going to fight Odessa, or Hyadeans, then eventually somepony die. Hyadeans powerful, ren solva. My sister very powerful too. You keep fighting, I not know if I am strong enough to protect you all. So please... please let me launch nav beacon. It save all of you!”

Thick silence hung like a fog for several long moments. I could feel the uncertain, charged tension among my companions. B.B’s marble white face was carved in a deep crease of concern, violet eyes focused with warmth and sympathy for Arcaidia, but also worry. Crossfire’s unreadable poker face was cracked only by the manner in which her blue tail twitched against her soot black fur, but I could see in her eyes that she was thinking at a furious pace about Arcadia’s words.

I felt Binge at my side, leaning against me. Of all of those here, she seemed the least worried, giving me a wink and a smirk that told me, whatever went down, she’d be with me the whole way. My love for her pulsed warm within me and I have her a little nuzzle, to which she giggled softly in response.

LIL-E remained silent, but she hovered lower, almost as if hanging her head in deep contemplation.

Her eyes darting furtively between us, Arcaidia waited for somepony to respond, a look on her face as if she were holding on desperately to a lifeline while teetering over the edge of a cliff. I couldn’t take that look for long, and was the first to speak my mind.

“Arcaidia, I understand exactly how you’re feeling. It’s a fear I’ve had pretty much since day one this whole journey started. I’ve lost track of how many times we’ve come close to dying out there, and I’m constantly worried about the moment our luck runs out. So trust me, what you’re offer... it’s tempting. The idea that the Veruni could just sweep in and fix everything? A part of me wants nothing more than to say go for it and launch this beacon. Your people could save my tribe, put an end to anything threatening us, and we might all be able to finally have peaceful lives.”

I swallowed past a dry mouth, shaking my head, “But you’re also talking about making a choice that will affect every single creature living on our world. Even if we’re ready to sacrifice some freedom for the sake of a peaceful future under Veruni rule, do we have the right to make that choice for everyone else on the planet?”

“For once in his damned life, the buck is speaking some sense,” Crossfire said, her own face breaking its unreadable mask to show a remarkable amount of regret and torn feelings in her eyes, “Nopony more than me likes the idea of having some hotshot alien tech come in and give back... give back things that’ve been lost. I’ve done some dirty jobs, scraping together what I needed to help a friend, and like Mr. Hero here, it’s is tempt to just say fuck it and let the aliens take over, as long as they bring the goods in terms of technology we can benefit from. But here’s the thing, the only pony I truly give a damn about would probably hate me for life if I sold out the planet to give her a new pair of legs... so, much as it shocks me to say this, I agree with Longwalk.”

I could see our words were striking Arcaidia like physical blows, her eyes growing more downcast with each sentence. Yet all of us hadn’t given our thoughts yet, and LIl-E spoke next.

“I’m not saying I don’t sympathize with your feelings, Arcaidia, but what you’re talking about is letting your people conquer this world in exchange for some gifts of technological advancement that won’t ever buy back the freedom we’d be giving up. I want to stop Odessa and the Hyadeans as much as anypony, but I’m not about to replace them with another enemy.”

“Is that... how you see me?” Arcaidia asked us, “Am I an enemy?”

“No!” I shouted, “Never! It’s just... your people, the Veruni, we don’t know them like we know you. Your a friend, Arcaidia, that will never change. But try to see things from our point of view. What you’re talking about would change everything, for everypony. Are we really the right ones to be making this choice?”

Suddenly Binge laughed, loud and hard. Everypony turned to stare at her as Binge held her sides, her tingling, chiming laughter filling the shuttle.

“Uh, is she cracked?” asked LIL-E.

“When was she not cracked?” shot back Crossfire.

“Um, Binge, you okay there?” I asked, not entirely concerned, but not unconcerned either. After all, Binge was still Binge.

“Ohehehe, sorry, heh, just thought that you guys are super funny the way you’re all agonizing over this choice like ‘oh noes, the fate of the world is in our hooves!’ when it’s not even a big deal.”

“Not a big deal?” B.B said, who hadn’t really given Arcaidia her own thoughts yet on the matter, “We are talkin’ ‘bout a choice that’ll decide whether hundreds o’ thousands o’ lives’ll be changed by bein’ ruled by an alien empire. Maybe one that’s friendly-ish, but also one that even Arc’s admitted will treat most o’ us like lesser life forms. An’, Arc, just so ya know, iffin’ it came down ta it, I might just be on yer side, but I’d wanna know a heck o’ a lot more ‘bout the Veruni culture an’ how they’d treat us all ‘fore we committed to this.”

Arcaidia nodded solemnly, but Binge just giggled again, smiling her madcap grin of yellow teeth.

“You sillyheads have some holes in your brains sometimes,” Bringe tapped her skull with a hollow, knocking sound, “Think think think! Why make the choice now?”

“Huh?” I asked, and Binge just smiled at me like I was the crazy one as she trotted up to Arcaidia and put a hoof around the unicorn’s shoulders.

“Frosty Blue, you know how to rig this beauty up with a remote trigger, right?”

Arcaidia blanched at Binge’s close presence, but calmly nodded, “I... yes, I could. Not hard at all, actually. Could modify here on shuttle to react to signal from Pip-Buck, both mine or Longwalk’s.”

“Then hey, here’s Binge’s crazy plan,” my marefriend said, “We stop worrying like a bunch of old nannies, let Arcaidia hook this puppy up with a remote trigger, and we push it on out the airlock. Let it sit up here with the stars and starbirds and starclouds, all nice and innocuous. Then, once we do as much soul searching, existential thinking, and whatever weird self-growth things we should be doing instead of nearly getting killed all the time, then we can decide when to pull the trigger on this here choice about the future of all ponykind or whatever.”

“Basically... we put it off until later?” I asked, and Binge nodded.

“Why not? Not like this nav becaon is gonna go anywhere. You wanna involve the whole world in the choice? Then why not do it? Once we kick everypony in Odessa ass, and put the hurt on the other alien bozos, we talk to all the big wig world leader types and be like ‘Hey, we got this thing that could totally help us out, but also enslave us to a bunch of aliens; pull the trigger? Yes? No? Maybe?’”

“Is it me, or does the crazy are actually make a lot of sense right now?” said LIL-E.

“What do ya think, Arc?” asked B.B, “Are ya willin’ ta wait on this? We set up the beacon now, but hold off until we know fer sure which way we wanna play this before makin’ a choice?”

I could see the uncertainty warring with desire on Arcaidia’s face. She so very desperately wanted to activate the beacon now, I could see it. I couldn’t say I didn’t understand. The desire for home, for certainty, to know that her sister, her friends, her family would be safe? Unlike the rest of us, Arcaidia had lived her whole life among the Veruni. She knew their ways, and was raised to accept them as normal and correct. To her it was probably not even all that bad a thing, the way Veruni treated other races as second-class. To her it’d be normal.

Yet she’d lived among us now, traveled with us, and seen much of this homeworld she never got a chance to know before. That new sense of friendship and familiarity was warring with her sense of Veruni pride and duty, and I wasn’t sure which way that struggle would go until she spoke again.

“It is... good compromise. Maybe... maybe if you take time to think, see how powerful and dangerous Hyadeans truly are, maybe later you see importance of Veruni help. I will set up remote trigger, then we deploy nav beacon, yes?”

“Yes,” I nodded, and went up to her, giving her a firm hug, “It’ll be okay Arcaidia. We’ll figure this all out, eventually, together.”

She returned the hug with strong, but shaking hooves, her voice whispering to me, “I hope so, ren solva, I hope so.”

With the choice made, or rather the choice delayed, it didn’t take Arcaidia long to jury rig the remote trigger to the nav beacon. The shuttle was a utility craft, and equipped with a fold out workbench in the cargo hold, complete with various parts, and Arcaidia took to the task with a furious focus. In less than half an hour we stood before the back hatch of the shuttle.

It was open, but a force field kept the air, and us, inside, while we all gazed out at the gleaming magnificence of our world stretching out below us. It was painfully dull in some places, the horror of the Great Fires and the Wasteland still leaving so much of it desolate and without color. Yet as I looked upon my home, I could see the places where life was returning, gradually. Streaks of green and blue upon mountaintops, the pale glisten of lakes and rivers. Even the oceans, incomprehensibly large to my mind, stretched out like a sapphire carpet, promising new life to a world struggling to recover.

With almost reverent hooves, Arcaidia pushed the nav beacon through the force field, which buzzed as it allowed the device out of the shuttle. It floated there, small and innocuous, holding steady in orbit...

A trigger to a tomorrow that we had not yet decided to pull, but one day... who knew?

----------

We were returning to the world below, the shuttle shaking slightly from the turbulence of atmospheric re-entry. I could see heat blossoming into a stream of orange fire that we rode upon as the sleek, silver shuttle cut down into the upper atmosphere once more. Arcaidia was steady hooved at the controls, her expression now back to the collected yet vibrant focus I remembered her for. It was as if launching the nav beacon, even if we hadn’t activated it, had lifted the brooding clouds of doubt from her back.

I smiled at her, and she smiled back, the filly I knew once more. Beside us, B.B grinned as well, but then frowned as she pointed at the console in front of her.

“What’s that flashin’ light there mean?”

Arcaidia and I both looked to where a soft blue light was blinking in a circular pattern among the many symbols and buttons on the shuttle control console. I gave Arcaidia a questioning look, and her own eyes were wide with shock.

“It is a com signal,” she said, “Someone is hailing us!”

“Hailing? As in, trying to talk to us?” I said, adding a confused, “Who would even know how to contact the shuttle?”

Arcaidia took a deep breath, steadying herself as she said, “Only one person know frequency.”

Without another word, face set in a grim cast, she touched the blinking button and a holographic screen opened up, displaying the now familiar face of Persephone. The Veruni female’s pale features looked at us past the purple bangs of her hair, her expression still difficult for me to read due to her alien features. Her voice, however, was stuffed with tension over a layer of steel hard self-control.

“I figured that had to be you in the shuttle, sister,” Persephone said, “There’s not much time for explanations, but I need to know if you’re returning to the New Canterlot Republic’s capital.”

“We are, what that mean to you?” Arcaidia replied tersely, clearly reigning in her emotions as she looked at her sister with torn eyes.

“Arcaidia, please listen to me. Do not return to the city. Divert course and come north to these coordinates,” Persephone said, and a few numbers appeared on the display. “I can explain everything once you arrive.”

“If by ‘explain’ you mean ‘ambush us’, then sure, why not?” I said with a hint of sarcasm, “You haven’t given us a single reason to trust you, least of all Arcaidia!”

Arcaidia put a hoof on my leg, and she gave me a small nod, but said, “It’s alright, Longwalk. I know. Let me say things to her now.”

“Okay,” I said, keeping my peace as Arcaidia turned her attention back to Persephone.

“Even if I trust you, sister, which I am not certain I do, it not matter. Shuttle does not have enough power to make it to coordinates, only enough to get back to NCR. There is much that need doing still, there. So no, we will not meet. Not today...” Arcaidia’s eyes hardened, staring like implacable silver moons at her sister, “One day soon, we meet again, Persephone. If you still my sister, that day you put down weapons and surrender. If not, then...”

Persephone’s jewel red eyes met Arcaidia’s silver ones, and a silence hung between them for a short span, then the Veruni said, “I can’t do as you ask, and I can’t expect you to understand yet. All I can ask is that if you can’t meet with me, then land somewhere outside of the city and stay distant from it.”

“Why?” B.B spoke up, “What’re you n’ yer creepizoid pals plannin’ ta do?”

“It’s already happening. There’s nothing you can do to stop it, so for your own safety, and the safety of my sister, I’m asking you to stay away,” Persephone said, “That’s all the warning I can give.”

With that, Persephone cut the feet and her image vanished from the screen. However before we even had a moment to glance at each and ask what that warning was about, the console lit up with more flashing lights, this time with a sharp, chiming beep.

“Now what?” I said, and Arcaidia’s hooves started to fly over the console, changing viewscreens rapidly as they brought up images of the NCR from the shuttle’s height and viewpoint. My breath caught in my throat as I saw what looked like storm clouds starting to form over Manehattan, only the sky had been clear and blue a moment earlier. These storm clouds boiled black and gray, forked with flashes and arcs of neon violet lightning. There was no way in hell this was natural weather.

“What in tarnation is goin’ on?” B.B breathed, and an instant later Crossfire, Binge, and LIL-E, who could hear us through the open door to the cockpit, came in to see for themselves.

Shit,” Crossfire whispered as the image of the storm on the screen continued to expand, cover the entire city, “Knobs is down there!”

“So are a lot of other ponies,” LIL-E said, “Arcaidia, what’s happening down there? What’s causing that?”

Arcaidia’s eyes were looking over her screens. We were still descending, and had leveled out at a height of several thousand feet while flying south and east towards the Everfree Forest. I could see on another screen that the Raptors the NCR had deployed over the spot where the Ark of Destiny had been were now coming back from their failed pursuit of the Vesuvius and were instead making headway towards Manehattan. Arcaidia was adjusting our course towards the city as well, but she wasn’t punching the engines yet to full speed as she scanned the shuttle’s sensor data of the storm.

“It is spacial disturbance,” she said, “Powerful magic and science combined making storm of spacial rifts.”

“Rifts? Wait, do you mean portals?” I asked.

“Yes, these energies same as kind Hyadeans use when making portals,” Arcaidia said, shaking her head in amazement, “But this much bigger scale than what any can do by themselves. It require huge power source...”

She trailed off, and both my eyes and hers went wide at the same time as we both came to the same conclusion at once.

“The Ark!”

“They took reactor core!”

So this is what the Hyadeans had wanted the Ark of Destiny’s power source for. They were using it to empower a massive influx of portals. But why center it over the city? Why Manehattan? What were the planning to do to the ponies living in the city?

“Look,” LIL-E said, “At the streets. Can this thing ‘zoom and enhance’ or whatever?”

Arcaidia nodded, touched a few buttons, and a second later the viewscreen zoomed in upon Manehattan, focusing on one of the central boulevards cutting across the center of the city. There, we could see the milling, multi-colored crows of hundreds of curious and frightened ponies. The citizens of the NCR were looking up at their boiling sky in obvious confusion and fear. And why wouldn’t they? They were used to the weather being on their side, controlled by the legendary Lightbringer. The skies over Equestria were meant to be clear and blue, now, not filled with angry black clouds thundering with alien energies.

Then we saw them, the portals. Just like the ones that had disgorged the Hyadean bio-monsters onto the Odessa ship I’d been captured on, these portals were like thin, circular shimmers of wavering light in the air. They appeared by the dozen, all over the streets. To my horror I saw one poor pony get cut clean in half by the appearance of a portal, other nearby ponies screaming in horror at the grisly sight.

The screams only increased when the Hyadean monsters came pouring out.

They were of all the varieties I’d seen on my deadly journey so far. The strange skeletal creatures that were vaguely shaped like ponies, and I knew were made from the ‘seeds’ that Redwire had once used, all armed with swords that hacked into the nearest innocents, or used Hyadean magic to cast black beams of light that cut ponies down where they stood. There were the spindly, metallic creatures with drill-like claws, hopping about and impaling the nearest ponies. Bizarre flying monstrosities with wings like diseased butterflies and tails like the stingers of scorpions took to the air, diving upon the now fleeing populace. Then finally, the giant brutes of metal armor and cyclopean eyes, what I had once termed a B.A.T (Big Ass Trooper) for their size, more than twice the height of a pony. These things carried massive halberds that hacked ponies into quivering pieces, smashing apart walls of buildings with ease as they moved into the city.

In the span of a horrifying half a minute, I saw the city of Manehattan being invaded, yet the horror wasn’t over.

The sky still roiled with dark clouds, and from that, I saw the air cracking and falling open like rotten eggshells. Within the hole being torn in the sky was a scintillating space of warped, purple energy. From this hole four pillars of light shot down, impacting upon the vast green courtyard in front of the Capital Building. I couldn’t make it out, but I saw four figures emerge, each from one pillar, and approach the Capital Building while NCR soldiers swarmed about to respond.

And indeed the NCR was responding. Even before the first minute of the attack began the streets, filled with panicking ponies running every which way, were also appearing squads of NCR soldiers. Before long the Hyadean bio-monsters were fully engaged by ponies of all races and even some griffins, all firing back with fierce abandon while also trying to evacuate citizens. In mere moments Manehattan was a blazing battlefield, and we were just a few short miles from it, flying right into the midst of the storm.

“Soooo,” said Binge, “Who’s up for a vacation? I’m thinking somewhere sunny.”

I shook my head, “Not the time, Binge. Arcaidia, how long before we get there? We have to do something to stop this!”

“Minutes,” Arcaidia said, licking her lips, “Shuttle energy very low. Can’t increase speed or we drop like toaster. Not even make it to center of city.”

“How are we even gonna make a’ difference in all that?” B.B asked, but LIL-E was quick to respond.

“This attack isn’t happening the same time all those Skull City Guild leaders are in town by accident. These bastards might be slaughtering innocent civilians, but I’d bet anything that’s a distraction so they can focus on taking out both Skull City and the NCR’s leadership, all in one go.”

“Fuck that,” Crossfire said, “Knobs is probably in that same building! We’re gong there, and murdering the faces of literally any alien fucker that gets between us and the Capital Building.”

“Not that I don’t generally agree with that sentiment,” I said, “We have to save as many ponies as possible. Wherever we end up landing, clearing out as many Hyadeans as we can is what we do. More than that, we need to call in some help.”

“Help!? From who?” Crossfire asked.

“Arcaidia, can you detect where the Vesuvius went?” I asked, and she gave me a startled look, but slowly turned and touched a few more buttons before pulling up a holographic screen showing a marker somewhere in the lower atmosphere about a hundred miles north.

“There,” she said, “It using magic to cloak itself, but Veruni scanners too good to be fooled, so we see it just fine. What you thinking, ren solva?”

“Contact them.”

“Are you nuts?” Crossfire asked, “What do you expect them to do!?”

I found my face creasing in a stern grimace, “Their damned jobs.”

A few moments later Arcaidia had brought up a communications screen, signaling the Odessa ship. Seconds ticked by, my stomach tying itself in painful knots. Ponies were dying down there with every passing moment, and it was killing me that the only thing I could do was wait for the shuttle to get ever closer to Manehattan while waiting to see if Odessa would even answer us.

When they did, it was Odessa herself, the young griffin appearing on the screen with a look that likely mirrored my own pained expression.

“Longwalk,” she said, and I could see from the background on the screen that she was standing on the bridge of her ship, it’s design similar to what I saw on the Varukisias. “I can guess why you’re contacting us.”

“Then what are you doing just sitting there?” I asked, struggling to keep my voice under control, “Manehattan is under attack! Innocent lives are being slaughtered!”

“I know that,” Odessa replied, voice tight with strain, “I ordered the Vesuvius to halt so we could turn around and engage the Hyadeans, but I’m also in contact with the Council of Colonels. They’ve given an override order that vetos my power. They want us to return to Heimdal Gazzo immediately with the Veruni ship.”

Odessa spat, anger boiling into her voice, “They believe the technology is too valuable to risk by sending the Vesuvius into battle, and since they’ve outvoted my authority...”

My own anger spilled over, “That’s bullshit! What’s the point of your tribe if you’re not going to do the very thing you exist for!? You people hounded me and Arcaidia across the Wasteland! You destroyed Saddlespring! You captured my tribe! And for what!? Everything you’ve ever told me to justify those actions was that you were doing it to protect this world from alien threats! Well... there’s one right now. Do something about it!”

“Longwalk, if I go against the Council’s veto, there are many who would follow me, but just as many would remain loyal to the Council,” Odessa replied, pain tearing across her words, “I’d be splitting Odessa in half. It’d be civil war. I can’t do that to my people.”

I wracked my brain, and I felt somepony shove past me. It was Crossfire. The mare’s golden eyes blazed as she stuck her face against the holo-screen, eyeing Odessa straight on.

“I don’t give two bloody shits about your people, but that’s not important right now. If you want to get your feathered asses down there and into that fight, then use your fucking brain and loophole that shit! This dumbass ‘Council’ only ordered that fancy ship of yours not to engage, right?”

Odessa looked ready to explode from anger at Crossfire’s insults, but she controlled herself and nodded, “That’s right... wait...”

“Yeah, no shit,” Crossfire said at Odessa’s look of realization, “Then don’t send your ship in, just deploy every single Vertibuck you’ve got and get your troops on the Goddess damned ground!”

“That would work,” Odessa said, her eyes suddenly lighting up as she looked to somepony off screen, “Hammerfall, prep all Vertibucks for launch immediately! Take only volunteers, but we’re deploying down there now! The Vesuvius is to remain here, cloaked, and on standby until further notice.”

I heard Hammerfall, off screen, swiftly say, “Yes ma’am! You heard the lady, boys and girls, anypony that want’s to ice some xeno scum, gear up and get your butts to the hanger bays, pronto!”

A flurry of activity could be heard over the holo-screen as Odessa looked back at us, relief and a new light of purpose flaring in her eyes, “We’ll be on the ground in no less than ten minutes. I presume you’ll be in the thickest part of the fighting?”

“That’s a fair bet,” I said, “We’re going to try to get to the Capital Building. Looks like that’s going to be where the most action will be.”

“Then we’ll meet you there...” Odessa said, offering a thankful nod, “Sky’s favor be with you.”

“Ancestor Spirits watch over you, too. See you on the ground,” I replied, and Odessa nodded, cutting the fed.

“Good thinkin’ there, Crossfire,” B.B said, and Crossfire just grit her teeth.

“Save the praise until we get through this shit alive,” the mare said, nodding at the viewscreen, “We’re flying straight into hell.”

It had only been a few minutes since the invasion started, but Manehattan was rife with pillars of smoke as fires began to burn across the city. The streets were filled with ponies screaming in panic and fear, running every which way to escape the slaughter and find safety. Meanwhile squads of NCR troops were erecting blockades and cutting off streets, caught between pitched battles with Hyadean bio-monsters and trying to save as many civilians as they could by herding them to any pocket of safety they could create.

Energy beams, spells, and conventional weapons tracer fire were criss-crossing the whole city, lighting it up in a hellish storm of explosions and carnage.

“You know...” Binge said, voice subdued to a whisper, “I might’ve once looked at that and thought, ‘wow that looks like a fun party’. Now... I really, really wanna stop it.”

“We’re going to do everything we can,” I told her, and she looked at me with a small smile that radiated an echo of her old madness, but was filled with a fresh strength of purpose.

“I know, bucky. Let’s get down there.”

I nodded, then turned to Arcaidia, “Is there any clear spot for us to land that you can spot?”

“Too much chaos to land in streets,” Arcaidia said, and she pulled up a zoomed in image of a location about a third of the way into the city proper, southeast of the Capital Building. I saw an old, dilapidated building of worn brick and slopped, shingled roofs, about two stories tall, and shaped like a big L. The building looked unused, with boarded up windows, but it had a large front parking lot that was mostly empty.

Arcaidia frowned at the image, “Old orphanage. Parking lot there closest I can get us. Energy in shuttle nearly gone. Can’t even activate shields or weapons.”

“Just get us on the ground. We’ll take it from there,” I told her, and B.B looked back at me.

“Don’t ‘spose we got an actual plan?”

Crossfire snorted, “Are you kidding? The plan is to make a straight gallop for the Capital Building, and try not to die on the way there. Anything more complicated than that is going to fly out the window the second we start having to fight our way through.”

“I was more thinkin’ fer when we got to the Capital Building,” B.B said, “There’s multiple Guild leaders there, plus the NCR reps and President. How are we gonna protect ‘em all?”

“If we’re lucky, they’ve already got a means of evacuating themselves,” I said, “All we have to do is buy them time.”

Suddenly the shuttle heaved to one side, a metallic crack sounding through the compartment. I was slammed into Binge and we both hit a bulkhead painfully. It bruised me a bit, but I managed to get my hooves back under me and helped Binge up, but I smelled smoke in the air.

“The hell was that!?”

“We get hit by ground fire,” Arcaidia said, “Hyadean spells. With no shields, shuttle can’t take much damage.”

I could see what she meant. On the screens several bio-monsters were flinging bolts of electricity or lances of shadow from crests not unlike Arcaidia’s Crest Sorcery. Their aim wasn’t great, but there was enough fire coming our way that a few spells struck the shuttle again, rattling it. I felt the shuttle lurch under my hooves, and the Manehattan skyline suddenly got a lot closer.

“Can’t maintain altitude,” Arcaidia said, looking back at us with a dire expression, “Better cover heads and hold onto something. We are landing hard, um, hitting ground fast... hmm, B.B, what is word I’m looking for?”

“Crashing, hun.”

Arcaidia brightened up a bit, “Yes, crashing. That is word.”

We all braced ourselves. The seats had safety straps, and there were just enough for all of us, except for LIL-E who, being an eyebot, wasn’t really shaped for the seats. Not that we ponies were either, but close enough that we could get the straps clicked into place. I grabbed LIL-E and held onto her like a ball, which was about the best I could do for her.

Arcaidia tried to keep the shuttle level as best she could, still aiming for the parking lot outside the orphanage, but we ended up skipping off the top of a three story apartment building across the street, taking out part of its roof. The blow jolted me, making my vision spin. Then I saw the street rush up to meet us and we leveled out just enough to hit it like a skipping stone. The shuttle sparked across the ground, spun around like a top, then smashed through a low brick wall encasing the parking lot.

Sparks exploded from a cracked console, and acrid smoke filled the cockpit, and I heard all of my friends groaning. Which was a good thing, because if they were groaning, that meant they weren’t dead. Coughing, I called out, “Everypony okay?”

“There aren’t words that adequately describe how much I hate working with you,” Crossfire said. So, she was fine.

One by one my other friend’s chimed in, confirming that while battered, they were all intact. No broken bones or anything, just a lot of sore, aching muscles. I unstrapped myself from my seat, as did the others, and we all made a hasty, awkward shuffle into the cargo area. There, I paused as I saw something I didn’t expect.

“What in the...? Iron Wrought!?”

Laying against the side of the cargo hold, clearly having been flung there by the crash, was Iron Wrought! His dark green frame was laying on his side, his short black mane plastered to his face with blood. He wasn’t wearing any of his usual leather armor or weapons. He wasn’t wearing any gear at all. But what was he doing here!? How had he gotten onto the shuttle!?

I shoved those questions aside, rushing to his side to check if he was alright. He was breathing in shallow breaths, and his head bore a nasty wound from where he must have hit the shuttle bulkhead. “Arciaida!”

At my call, she was there in an instant, eyes filled with the same questions I had, but not asking any of them as she started to cast a healing spell. The wash of soft blue magic illuminated Iron Wrought as Arcaidia’s horn was surrounded by a Crest, and in that light I saw something I couldn’t explain.

Iron Wrought’s body was flickering with green flames. The flames weren’t hurting him, but they seemed to change patches of his body from green fur, to black chitin, like that of an insect.

“Huh, that’s weird,” Binge commented, “Has he always been here and I just didn’t see him because I’m still crazy?”

“You’re not crazy, Binge, none of us knew he was here. How is he here?” I asked, and Crossfire looked at him, and grimaced.

“I have an idea, but we don’t have time for me to explain it,” she said, “Hey, Ice Maker, once you make sure he’s not going to croak, tie him up with something.”

I looked back at her, “What? We can’t just leave him here!”

“He’ll be safer here than out there,” she replied curtly, “We can’t drag him with us, and if he is what I think he is, then he can take care of himself. We’ll be lucky if he’s even still here by the time this is all over.”

“And you’ll explain what this is about then?” I asked.

“If we’re both still alive, sure. Right now, we need to get out of here and get moving before the assholes that shot us down home in on us.”

I couldn’t deny Crossfire’s logic on this one. In short order Arcaidia finished her spell and confirmed to me that Iron Wrought wasn’t likely to die, but his head had taken a serious hit. He’d be out for awhile, and she wasn’t sure even her magic would be enough to wake him up. Just in case we put him in the cockpit and sealed the door. I didn’t want to leave him tied up, so I vetoed that notion, but Arcaidia reassured me the cockpit was the most reinforced part of the shuttle, so if he was going to be safe anywhere, it’d be in there.

I was flabbergasted as to how to explain his presence on the shuttle, but as we gathered up at the hatch to the cargo hold, LIL-E said to me, “You remember those sensor ghosts I kept getting back at the Ark? I think that might have been him.”

“But how? He’s an earth pony, so he couldn’t use magic to turn invisible.”

“Longwalk, I don’t think he’s an earth pony,” LIL-E said, but before I could question her further, Crossfire unslung her rifle from her shoulder and approached the button that’d open the shuttle's back hatch.

“Enough chatter! We’re moving out. The second we hit the streets, keep moving! Shoot back at any sunuvbitches shooting at us, but don’t stop for anything. It’s going to be hell out there, and if you get lost in the chaos, you’re on your own!”

I didn’t exactly agree with her sentiments, but I understood the urgency of the situation. This wouldn’t be my first time running through a burning city, thanks to Saddlespring. I unsheathed Gramzanber and held the ARM in my mouth, body tensing up to break into a gallop the moment the hatch opened. My friends all got ready as well, preparing weapons, eyes grim but determined. However it was impossible to not notice how worn down we all looked as well, blood and sweat matting our fur, everypony’s breaths more than a little labored. I was so used to the sensation of feeling exhausted and hurt that it barely registered to me, but if I really paid attention it was easy to tell my body was reaching its limit.

Which made sense; we’d been fighting practically all day, with only limited time spent resting and recuperating. Sure there’d been healing spells and potions used to restore wounds, but wear and tear was accumulating. Arcaidia might have cleared the toxins from Binge’s and my own bodies, but the amount I’d been using Gramzamber’s powers today had left at probably half my usual strength.

It didn’t change what we had to do, but I was suddenly all too aware of how close my friends and I were riding the edge of our endurance. I sent up a silent prayer to the Ancestor Spirits to watch over us and give us whatever strength they could to help us see this day through to the end, because there certainly wasn’t time to take a break. The hatch opened with a sharp hiss, and we all galloped out into the smoke and flames of a burning, war-torn Manehattan.

----------

The harsh scent of smoke was accompanied by a continuous background noise of gunshots and screams. Our hooves pounded down the streets, our course set to take us several blocks north until we hit a main street that’d lead all the way to the courtyard of the Capital Building. We only got half a block before a group of NCR civilians came rushing through a side alley to our left, several dozen ponies galloping in a full panic. The reason for their headlong flight was barreling right after them, a pair of the hulking Hyadean bio-monsters bearing halberds and cyclopean single eyes. One practically smashed out the wall of the building on the right side of the alley’s mouth, sending a shotgun-like blast of brick shards and mortar into the fleeing crowd.

Chunks of brick crunched bone and cracked skulls with equal brutality, and at least three ponies dropped from the shower of debris. The other bio-monster stomped forward on feet as wide as heavy crates and clad in thick, metallic plates of gray armor grated over red, pulsing muscles. As the monster raised its halberd to strike a stallion who’d fallen with a broken leg, but was still very much alive as he screamed in terror, I spun in place and targeted the Hyadean creature with S.A.T.S.

I knew these things were too tough to take take in one hit from anything short of a head strike, so while I rarely ever used my Pip-Buck’s S.A.T.S given I usually was trying to disable my opponents rather than kill them, I wasn’t remotely concerned about that in this case. The bio-monster’s eye lit up in my vision as time slowed to a trickle, and I liked my chances to hit. Triggering the spell, my body moved practically on its own as I whipped my head into a swift spear cast that sent Gramzanber flying.

The ARM struck like a silver lightning bolt, splitting the bio-monster’s head directly through its single eye, pouring out a shower of blood and gore from the gaping wound.

Flailing in spastic death throes, the monstrosity refused to drop in a dignified manner, despite having several feet of shiny space spear lodged in its cranium. The twisted metal halberd in its over-sized meat-sack hands glowed with dark eldritch energies and started firing blasts of black cosmic rays, essentially larger versions of the beams the skeletal creatures could summon.

“Oh crap!” I had to throw myself into a forward roll to avoid a beam that turned the street behind me into a melting pool of bubbling slag. Then blinding streaks of white energy slammed into the Hyadean bio-monster as Arcaidia unloaded into it with her starblaster, roaring in a dainty yet fierce warcry as she drilled enough holes in the thing to see out of it’s back.

As that beast fell, LIL-E and Crossfire opened fire on the other one. Bullets ripped chunks off of its flesh, or sparked off its armor, but thick as the armor was it didn’t cover every part of the creature, a fact Crossfire took full advantage of by swiftly teleported to pop in and out of existence to end up landing on the bio-monster’s back. With a deft twirl of her rifle, she inverted its humongous bayonet and thrust it through a joint on the back of the creature’s neck, the large blade bursting out of the front of the monster in a bloody shower.

B.B and Binge then finished it off, both mares coming at it from opposite sizes. Binge’s ripper blade growled as its chain spun, digging into the bio-monster’s stomach, while the extendable blades from B.B’s Twin Fenrir cut a deep gouge from its chest.

I would have felt elated we were able to dispatch the two creatures so fast, except even as those two creatures fell and I rushed to help up the wounded civilian, a smaller black beam cut in and took the poor stallion’s head off. Pulling up short, I let out a startled gasp as a small horde of deformed skeletal bio-monsters came charging down the street.

“Arcaidia! Ice wall!” I shouted, dodging to the side as several skeletons pointed blades my way, dark crests forming around the weapons to fire cutting beams of shadow at me. I narrowly dodged as Arcaidia’s horn sparked to life and she shot out a icy beam that formed a short wall of solid ice to act as cover.

I dove behind it and fished into my saddlebags. I had a few smoke and flash grenades left. I wasn’t sure these things used normal vision, but it seemed as fair a bet as any, even if they didn’t have eyes, per se.

“Flash out!” I warned my companions as I yanked out a properly colored, apple-shaped grenade and gave it a toss after yanking the stem out. I then reached out with a hoof and called Gramzanber back to me, the ARM flashing as it teleported to my waiting grasp. Crossfire and Binge got behind cover with me and Arcaidia, while LIL-E and B.B flew higher up, nearly reaching roof level. There was a sharp bang and flash of bright light as my grenade went off, and my friends took immediate advantage of the disorientation among the Hyadean skeleton monsters.

LIL-E’s rifle mount and pistol turret poured a hail of fire down alongside B.B’s ARMs, cutting down half a dozen in an instant. The skeletons recovered fast, firing black beams into the sky after the pair, who immediately went into evasive maneuvers. That gave the rest of us an opening to attack, Arcaidia conserving her magic as she opened fire once more with her starblaster, and Crossfire working the bolt on her rifle with smooth efficiency as she nailed one skeleton after another with accurate head shots.

Binge, still having plenty of explosive surprises tucked in her mane or tail, produced a frag grenade and used it to scatter a few more skeletons. The things weren’t all dry bones. As they’d been when I’d faced them on the Odessa airship Varukisias awhile back, these things had organic components, like purple, ropy muscles that interwove the bones, and pulsating, seed-like hearts. So when they exploded, they tended to splatter purple gore all over the place along with their bones.

My friend’s attacks had opened up enough of a hole in the skeleton’s ranks that I saw my chance to close to melee, and I hopped the ice wall and launched into a headlong charge. I held off on using Accelerator. I was tired enough that I knew I needed to conserve my ARMs powers for when we ran into the ones leading this attack. So it was just my own muscles and speed that let me barrel into the remaining skeletons, some ten or so, and I started layng about with Gramzanber.

The bastards were quick, but were disorganized. My spear severed two in half with one blow before they even got a chance to react. The others turned on me, bringing their blades to bear, and for a second I was stuck amid a prickly storm of sword chops and thrusts that left me twisting around like a slippery eel to parry and dodge. Several cuts struck my reinforced security armor, but the suit held up, leaving me with bruises but no serious cuts as Gramzanber sliced a silver rampage through skeleton after skeleton.

It pained me to think of how many ponies must have been killed to make so many of these things. I knew Redwire had been planning to build an army like this with the seeds she’d been given, but it seemed clear the Hyadaens had been building quite a force on their own, even without her help. How many hundreds of these things were swarming Manehattan already?

My exhaustion was showing, and despite the adrenaline high, I was definitely moving slower than normal. A back hoof slipped on some of the fallen skeleton’s purple goo and I missed a parry, one of the skeleton’s swords managing a heftier blow that got through my armor and cut a bloody line down my side. I cried out in pain around Gramzanber’s shaft, and whirled the spear into my forehooves as I got up into a bipedal stance. It was easier to shift my body’s weight now, and I spun the spear in a defensive pattern, shoving back several skeletons while turning the spear’s hefty edge to decapitate one behind me.

Then a black and green pair of blurs struck the skeletal host, Crossfire and Binge rushing into the melee fray. Crossfire’s rifle spun in her crimson magical grim, the bayonet shattering skeletons as easily as the rifle butt. Binge cackled gleefully, whipping her tail around to fling knives into one skeleton while goring another’s spine with her ripper-blade. With them relieving some of the pressure on me I was able to catch my breath then step forward into the skeletal mass, swinging Gramzanber in a blurring whirlwind of severing silver devastation.

Panting, I paused as I realized the last of the skeletons had been defeated, my friends and I standing amid the ruins of what had probably been around thirty of the damned things. I teetered on my hooves until I felt the cool breeze of Arcaidia’s healing magic flow over me.

“I said we can’t afford to stop and fight every single monstrosity we come across,” Crossfire growled at me.

“What did you want us to do? Let those civilians get slaughtered?” I said, and the mare just snorted at me, looking away.

“I hate to agree, but Crossfire not all wrong,” Arcaidia said, finishing her healing spell and pulling out a glowing blue Veruni magic potion to sip on, “We run out of energy if we fight constantly. Must learn to pick battles.”

“Whatever we do, we need to do it while moving,” said LIL-E, floating about ten feet above us, “My scanners show enemies tracking all over the place. I can try to lead us down paths with fewer of them, but that might take longer than just fighting our way through.”

I couldn’t disagree with her assessment. My E.F.S was so choked with red blips I was pretty much mentally tuning it out.

“Why don’t we use the tram?” suggested B.B, pointing off to our left. Down one of the streets in that direction I could make out the raised, concrete railway for Manehattan’s tram system. Miraculously, it looked intact, as if the Hyadean bio-monsters hadn't thought to attack it.

“Would that work?” I asked, “We don’t even know where the tram currently is.”

“I can pick it up on my scanners,” said LIL-E, “It looks like its parked along the main street to the north, and a few blocks east. Can’t tell what condition it’s in, though. We could go for it, but if it’s already been fucked up by something, then we’d have just wasted time for nothing.”

“If we’re gonna make a’ call, best do it fast,” said B.B, her nose twitching as she hovered next to LIl-E, “I’m smellin’ lots o’ nasty beasties nearby an’ our butts are still exposed out here.”

Eyes turned to me, and I made a swift decision, knowing every second counted, “We head for the tram, and if it’s operational, we use it to cruise right up to the Capital Building! Let’s move!”

Even Crossfire accepted the decision without complaint, although she still gave me a sharp eyed glare that said she wasn’t going to be tolerant of too many more delays, civilians or no civilians. I wasn’t sure at all if I cared what she thought. I knew time was of the essence, but I couldn’t leave ponies to die when there was any chance at all I could save them. It was the very essence of my cutie mark, dammit!

We resumed our headlong gallop, and quickly had to maneuver around a partially collapsed building blocking our path. Fire and smoke churned out of the fallen rubble of the building, searing the air with heat. With the smell of blood thick in the air, I saw charred bodies from ponies that had been caught by the building’s blaze, and burned meat made my nostrils cringe at the rank odor. My stomach was thankfully mostly empty at this point, but it was hard not to feel the need to vomit bubbling up my throat.

LIL-E used her scanners to chart us a new course, taking us down a alley that had smoke clogging it like a fog. We kept our heads low to try to avoid most the smoke, but we still ended up coughing like crazy as we rushed down the mostly obscured alley. With the heat and the sound of screams echoing off the alley walls, it felt like trying to stumble through a shrouded layer of hell. This sensation was only reinforced by a screeching sound, an undulating and unnatural wail, as several bio-monsters came bounding along the walls towards us, emerging from the fog like demons.

These creatures were the spindly limbed, quadrupedal types, their gray metal skin gleaming with sharp edges, their hands tapered to drill-like points they used to scramble along the walls. Wedge shaped faces bore maws of sharp teeth and swept back, pointed crests along the back of their skulls. They were already covered in blood from previous victims, and sought to add us to the number as they leaped upon me and my friends.

Unfortunately for them, we were helpless civilians.

The adrenaline was still going strong from our last skirmish, so we struck at the creatures like a moving blender. I’m not even sure the monsters had time to register that we weren’t unarmed, easy prey before one of them was frozen solid by Arcaidia’s magic, stuck to the wall like a modern ice sculpture, and another was blasted to bloody chunks by a combination of B.B and LIL-E’s gunfire. The third and last of the bunch was impaled in mid-leap by Crossfire’s bayonet, and with a purely tired-of-this-bullshit look on her face, Crossfire fired her rifle into the impaled creature at point blank range and blasted its chest clean out and flung its corpse to the ground without breaking stride.

We may have been wounded and tired, but the desperation of the situation was adding a whole new level of intensity to our movements and bringing strength to our forward momentum. Yet I feared when this rush might run out.

The alley turned a corner and we found ourselves crossing a small park between several apartment buildings. I heard screams coming from the right, and saw the dwelling there had its bottom floor caught up in an inferno, but the upper floors had yet to catch fire. On the roof a group of ponies cried for help, at least four or five families with foals desperately looking for aid, as there was no way off the rooftop, and the fire was steadily raising higher. I saw a pair of NCR pegasus soldiers were trying to ferry the civilians off the roof one at a time, but there too many civilians. They’d never rescue all of them in time before the fires caught the rest. The soldiers were wisely carrying the foals to safety first, but if we left things as they were, each of those foals was going to be an orphan before the day was done.

My companions all saw the situation as well, and I could all but see the hackles rise on Crossfire’s neck as she tensed up and shot a glare at me, “For fuck’s sake, Longwalk, we don’t have time.

She almost never used my name. What caught me was the torn sound of her voice, the struggle in the pain lacing her words. Crossfire wasn’t heartless. She wasn’t a monster. She knew exactly what was at stake, and didn’t want those ponies to suffer any more than I do. But she was laser focused on the fact that her best friend was out there in this besieged city, probably in need of just as much help. Crossfire needed to find Knobs and keep her safe, and it wasn’t as if I could blame her for feeling that way.

I knew that there were ponies all over this city right now that needed help, that would be desperate for somepony to swoop in and save them. If I stopped to help all of them, then there would be no Capital Building left by the time we got there. Yet to turn away from anypony that needed help was so fundamentally against who I was, the thought of moving on while those trapped ponies screamed for help was akin to ramming a rusty blade between my ribs.

“Go!” B.B said suddenly, looking at all of us with a hard expression of understanding.

“What?” I said, and the pegasus shook her head, looking at me as if I were slow in the head.

“I’ll help these folk out! The rest o’ you lot, git goin’! I’ll catch up later!”

“By yourself?” Arcaidia said, looking at the flaming building with wide eyes, “There too many ponies! You never make it for all of them!”

“Tch, don’t go underestimatin’ me, Arc,” B.B said, licking her lips, “I’m a Crimson Noble, remember? I’m faster n’ stronger than I look. I’ll save them. I promise. Just stop standin’ around gawkin’ and move yer asses already!”

I grit my teeth but nodded, “I trust you, B.B. Make sure you catch up to us as soon as you can, and be careful.”

“No worries there, Long. Arc, keep an’ eye on everypony fer me ‘till I git back.”

“I will. Please not get hurt while alone, okay? I not losing friends today!”

“Cross my heart, hun,” B.B said, drawing an X over her chest with one hoof, then without another word she zipped off, flying in a white streak towards the rooftop of the burning apartment building. I didn’t wait to see exactly what she was intending to do, although from the look of it she might have planned to rip out some debris to use to make a bridge from one roof to the next. Instead I just told everypony else to follow me, and soon we were rushing across the park and making our way onward towards the tram.

We managed to avoid any further skirmishes with Hyadean bio-monsters until we reached the main street that ran the west to east course of the whole of Manehattan. It was utter chaos here. The street was choked with bodies, both civilian, soldier, and bio-monster. A clear look at the sky showed a blazing storm of energy weapons fire as the NCR Raptors dueled with swarms of flying bio-monsters in the sky, one of the Raptors already in flames and listing to the side as smoke boiled out of it like black blood.

Where’s Odessa? I wondered, coughing on smoke, and a if in summons to my thought, the storm of dark clouds above Manehattan was pierced by a squadron of swiftly descending Veritbucks. Alongside the Veritbucks were several hundred forms in white Odessa armor, pegasi and griffins that flew in tight formation and with quick precision split off into teams to start hunting the Hyadean bio-monsters that were dominating the air.

Soon the NCR Raptors were having the pressure taken off them by the flight of Odessa troopers, who’s long training, experience, and superior magical weaponry started to make the fight in the sky an more even match. Meanwhile the Odessa Vertibucks made a quick descent to the city itself, splitting off in twos or threes to land at critical points. The Vertibucks laid down supressive fire with missiles and gatling lasers, clearing landing zones as more Odessa pegasi and griffins exited the vesicles to engage the Hyadeans on the ground.

One such Vertibuck descended right towards our location. Its side weapon pods disgorged a swarm of missiles that streaked overhead to blast into a group of several dozen bio-monsters that had been surging up the street. Alien flesh and metal flew in chunks, and the Vertibuck’s nose-mounted gatling laser finished off anything still moving with a stream of crimson heat. The Vertibuck didn’t so much land as adjusted its hover-jets to remain a good thirty feet off the ground, stirring our manes in its artificial wind as side hatches opened and a squad of pegasi flew out.

They landed and formed a perimeter near us, looking outward for danger rather than pointing their weapons at us. One pegsus approached, and I recognized her in an instant from her distinctive cybernetics.

“Sunset?”

Her scarred face cracked a humorless, small smile, the artificial wings on her back now folded down as the engines mounted underneath them let out a magical buzz of energy.

“Seems I owe you twice now for keeping my boy Glint alive. Heard from my husband you’d be down here, somewhere,” she lowered her tone and winked at me, “Homed in on your Pip-Buck signal. Don’t tell anypony else. Now what can me and my squad do to help out?”

I blinked several times, “Weren’t you on the Varukisias?”

She rolled her red eyes at me, “I transferred to the Vesuvius after the Varukisias was called back to headquarters. Wanted to stay in the field. Now enough questions, kid, what’s the plan?”

“We’re heading for the tram, and then to the Capital Building,” Crossfire said, hefting her rifle and giving Sunset and her squad a suspicious look, “If you’re seriously here to help, then keep any of this alien freaks off us while we move and help civilians out. This idiot buck keeps trying to stop to help every pony in need.”

I cast a frown at Crossfire, but she just gave me a drool look as if challenging me to say anything. Sunset looked between us and gave a swift nod, “Got it,” she turned to her squad, “Okay boys and girls, we’re giving the landbound cover from the air. Clear a path to this tram. Don’t shoot any NCR troops, and if you see civies in trouble, provide support. Move out!”

The engines under her wings flared to life, miniature rockets that pivoted in their frames mounted under her wedge shaped metal wings, and Sunset took to the air much like a Vertibuck itself does. Her more flesh and blood comrades fluttered their wings and also went airborne, the squad taking up positions in the air above my friends and I to give us a field of cover fire as we began our rapid gallop down the center street, making our way to the tram station several blocks down.

It was less than a minute before we were engaged practically on all sides. Hyadean bio-monsters were crawling out of every corner, bursting from alleyways, leaping from rooftops, and rushing up from inside ruined buildings. There were skeletal foot soldiers, swift leaping quadrupedal skirmishing beasts, and the huge hulking B.A.T’s with their potent halberds. Too many to count, so I didn’t bother, I just tore into the first of them to get close with Gramzanber’s edge.

Sunset flew overhead like a thunderbolt, the engines on her cybernetic wings screaming like twin demons as she unleashed plasma bolts from side mounted energy rifles. Her squadron followed her lead, moving in a swift, flying wheel that unleashed energy weapons fire in a curtain all around us, doping bio-monsters like flies.

Yet my friends and I were still heavily embattled. One B.A.T swung a halberd down at Binge, making me gasp as I thought I saw my marefriend get hit, only Binge had simply sprung to the side and rolled beneath the hulking Hyadean’s legs, slapping her blade entwined tail across the back of it’s right leg to hamstring it. Then LIL-E unloaded both barrels of her mounted weapons into the B.A.T’s face, driving it back.

Arcaidia covered our rear by unleashing a swift combination of both ice and earth elemental spells, causing the street to erupt with rock spikes from below while raining shards of hardened frost upon a line of skeletons from above, simultaneously freezing and shattering half a dozen of them in one go. Yet there were still enough enemies to fire back with rays of black magic, forcing Arcaidia to dodge and erect barriers of ice in defense.

Crossfire was at the head of the charge with me, her bayonet twirling in spectacular displays that matched my prowess with Gramzanber as we worked to dissect another B.A.T. It would swing at one of us, freeing up the other to strike, which in turn would give the former a chance to dodge the blow coming their way. In such a tag-team fashion we were able to make short work of one, but then a pair of the brutes took the first one’s place and forced us to slow our forward momentum.

“Keep them busy a second,” Crossfire told me as she worked to switch out the magazines on her rifle. I nodded and leaped forward, standing upright in a bipedal stance as both massive bio-monsters bore down on me.

Their weapons descended like sharp edged comets, and it was all I could do to spin Gramzanber in deft parries, remembering the maneuvers Applegate hat taught me to redirect the force of the physically superior foes. Each hit felt like trying to push aside an avalanche, yet I held form, silver sparks flying as Gramzanber’s edge caught the halberds and turned them away from my vulnerable flesh.

“Get clear!” Crossfire yelled, her rifle freshly reloaded, and with high-explosive rounds this time.

I threw myself to the side, narrowly avoiding both halberds as Crossfire unleashed a swift series of shots. The high-explosive shells detonated on the B.A.T’s, ripping armor and flesh asunder. Both remained stubbornly standing, despite their grievous wounds, and aimed their halberds at Crossfire, preparing to unleash magical blasts at her. Only a second before they fired, Sunset streaked by, inverting herself in mid-air and spinning around to fire her plasma rifles point-blank into the wounds rent open by Crossfire’s previous shots. Both bio-monsters shuddered and melted from the inside out in puddles of green slag.

This opened the way forward, and with Sunset’s squad continuing to provide cover fire, we were able to get clear enough from the Hyadeans dogging us that we finally reached the block with the tram station. It was little more than a pipe-shaped building built along the side of the street between two tall, former office buildings now turned shelters. The tram itself was parked there, and surrounding the station’s base was a barricade formed from concrete barriers, overturned wagons, and stacked crates. Around forty NCR soldiers were holding the area, taking cover behind their barricade as they fired into ranks of Hyadean bio-monsters hounded them from the west side of he street. Other NCR troopers were funneling civilians past the barricade to what appeared to be the relative safety on the east side of the street, but the bio-monsters weren’t making it easy.

My friends and I, along with Sunset’s squad, were able to hit the Hyadean’s rear flank like a ton of bricks made out of explosives. The bio-monsters were so focused on trying to break through the NCR defenses that they didn’t notice us coming up from behind, so the barrage of bullets, grenades, and energy weapons fire, combined with Arcaidia’s spears of ice, all but broke right through the Hyadean ranks within moments. Granted the moment didn’t last, and in seconds we were stuck in a whirlwind melee.

Amid the confusion I ended up back to back with LIL-E, using Gramzanber to fend off three of the drill-armed bio-monsters while the eyebot was running her barrels so hot that both the rifle and pistol were glowing red at the tips.

“Hate to admit it, but I’m nearly out of ammunition,” LIL-E said, “Once I run dry, I’m going to be about as useful as a strap-on out here.”

I grunted as one Hyadean’s drill arm nearly stabbed into my shoulder as I blocked it and I had to plant Gramzanber and pivot to buck the bio-monster in the face, driving it back just in time for me to spin around and tear the spear out of the ground, chopping upward with it to split another monster in half. Panting, I said, “Don’t worry about it. When you run out, just hang back until we catch a breather, then maybe you can borrow ammo from some of the NCR soldiers.”

LIL-E’s rifle shot the head off a skeleton, while her pistol turret pivoted around to blast a flying bio-monster that had swooped low to strafe us with metallic spines it was firing from its tail. The pistol rounds drilled holes in its wings, causing it to spin out and crash to the ground in a flopping tangle.

“Better yet, if we reach the Capital Building, I know where the Professor’s lab is. It’s in a restricted access area beneath the building, and I still have the codes in my databanks. I can get in there and use the facility to rearm, maybe even upgrade myself.”

I bobbed my head down to duck a leap from another bio-monster, thrusting Gramzanber up into it’s belly to impale it’s dog-like form. Brackish, acrid smell purple blood showered over me, but I grit my teeth and flung the impaled monster around to throw it into another monster that was hounding Binge.

“If you can do that, freaking fantastic! We still need to get to the Capital Building first!”

A stray beam of dark magic caught me in the side, bowling me to the ground. My armor took a lot of the blow, but my flank burned with agony as the residual black beam scorched my flesh. I rolled onto my back, and chucked Gramzanber at the B.A.T that had fired at me, the spear lodging itself in the monster’s shoulder. It barely slowed down as it barreled towards me with thunderous steps, but LIL-E floated up to its head level and unloaded at it from a mere ten feet away. Her shots tore half its head apart in a gore-filled splatter, but I heard the eyebot’s weapons click on empty magazines afterward.

“Celestia blowing a fucking goat, I’m out,” LIL-E swore, and I staggered up to retrieve Gramzanber from the B.A.T’s corpse.

“Then just focus on keeping clear until we get through this,” I said, and flinched as I saw the Hyadean bio-monsters were now converging on my friends, having realized their rear was being attacked. Even with the help of Sunset’s squad, we would be quickly outnumbered and overrun.

Before I could give a shout to make a run for the NCR barricade, however, the NCR themselves took action. Around twenty troopers came pouring over the barricade, charging and firing as they came on. And they weren’t alone, they were being led by a semi-familiar figure wearing thick power armor. This power armor, seemingly old and enameled with bronze and gold, bore a stout gatling gun on its left flank, but a huge and sparking electric lance on it’s right.

It was Phalanx, Royal Knight of Neighlesius and bodyguard to Princess Purity. I had no idea why he was here, but he was leading the NCR charge intot he Hyadeans as he bellowed, “For Neighlesius, Applehyde, the Twin Thrones, and the Princess!”

He certainly lived up to his name, battering through and bowling over several bio-monsters as his gatling cannon roared streams of destruction into the enemy. His electrified lance impaled and fried a hulking B.A.T while his piston driven limbs crushed skeletons into bone fragments and purple gore. With him acting as a wedge, the NCR troops were able to cut a hole through the battle to link up with us, and in short order my friends and I were able to catch our breath while Sunset’s squadron and the NCR forces combined their firepower to drive back the bio-monsters.

The street was still clogged with dead, and smoke still obscured the sky, but for the moment, for however many minutes it lasted, we had a bit of a reprieve.

Phalanx stomped over to us, his face hidden behind the stern stare of his power armor helmet, but his voice managing to match the helmet’s sternness almost exactly. “I see you Drifters yet live. Well timed, arriving when you did. These metal demons keep coming.”

“We’re trying to get to the Capital Building,” I said, “We think the enemy is targeting the Guild leaders and NRC President. Is that tram working?”

“It is, but it’s being held in reserve as a means of evacuating mares and foals from the city,” Phalanx replied, “Any who are too wounded to move or too young to make it to the shelters. Princess Purity herself has insisted we remain here to aid these soldiers in guarding the evac zone until the tram is full and can be safely escorted out of the city.”

Well, that shot down the idea of using it to get to the Capital Building ourselves, but I sure as hell wasn’t going to argue with the use they intended for it. “Good,” I said, “We’ll get the rest of the way on hoof if we have to. You protect those civilians, no matter what.”

“Hmph, that goes without saying, young stallion.”

Crossfire eyed the knight with a measuring eye, “So the Princess is still here?”

He barely turned his head to look at her, “Yes, at her insistence. I’d have preferred she have gotten to a shelter by now or joined the evacuation, but she refuses to leave while others are in danger.”

“That idiot...” Crossfire muttered, then her eyes grew sharply intense, “Does she have ‘it’ on her?”

It? What was she talking about.

“I don’t see how that’s any of your business, ba-” Phalanx began to say, but Crossfire growled at him.

“So that means she does have it. You thick skulled moron, don’t you know she’ll use it if she thinks innocent ponies are in danger? Let me talk to her.”

“Now see here-”

“Take me to her, or get ready to take a bayonet up the ass, bucket brains!” Crossfire said with an air of authority that felt distinctly different than anything I’d heard before. She always had a bossy ‘my way or the highway’ attitude, but this was more a hard but noble edge of authority that simply commanded others listen, cracking not like a whip, but cutting like a blade.

Phalanx was silent a moment, then turned and said, “Very well, be it on your head.”

As we followed him back to the barricade the NCR troopers covered us, and one earth pony in an officer’s uniform looked up at Sunset’s squad hovering overhead and said, “Who the hell are they?”

“Is okay,” said Arcaidia in a reassuring tone, “They on our side for today. Tomorrow, who knows?”

“Seriously, no friendly fire today,” Binge chimed in, “Any other day, you pretty ponies can shoot deep, dark holes in each other all you want, but today all the pretty violence needs to go towards our shiny extraterrestrial guests. They’ve come a long way across the sparkly stars to be shot by you today, so show them Equestrian hospitality at its finest and purge the xeno filth!”

I gave her a weird look and she smiled at me, wagging her tail. I decided not to question her on the matter and let Binge be Binge.

The NCR troopers looked between us and the Odessa soldiers overhead with dubious expressions, but given Sunset and her squad had only been shooting up the Hyadeans, it seemed the NCR was willing to let bygones be bygones for the time being.

Behind the barricade a small camp had been set up beneath the tram rail, with marked medical tents where NCR medics were treating wounded civilians and soldiers alike. Crates of emergency supplies were being distributed, soldiers reloading weapons swiftly in the brief lull of battle. In the sky above I saw that at least two of the NCR’s Raptors had formed a protective circle above the center of the city, possibly providing protecting ot the Capital Building itself. Swarms of pegasi soldiers in both the darker uniforms of the NCR and the white uniforms of Odessa were no cooperating to keep the Hyadean flying monsters at bay, but it felt like there was no end to the creatures pouring out of the portals.

I did notice that while the sky above Manehattan was still a dark cloud broiling with purple lightning, there was another storm brewing around the city’s perimeter. This storm looked more... natural, for lack of a better term. Somehow the lighter gray storm clouds seemed smoother, more directed. From the edge of that natural storm I saw forks of blue lightning take form, and those bolts would streak out and annihilate any Hyadean bio-monster that strayed towards the edge of the city. There were so many bolts of indigo lightning, striking with such precision, it could only be directed by a conscious will.

I heard NCR troopers raising up a cheer as they say this, many of them calling out the name, “LIghtbringer!”

“Looks like the NCR’s hero is finally getting in on the action,” I heard Crossfire say, “If she can keep the edge of the city clear, some of these ponies might have a chance of getting out alive.”

“Let’s hope so,” I said as Phalanx led us towards the largest medical tent, “But what about you? What do you need to see Princess Purity for? I thought you said we didn’t have time for distractions.”

“We don’t, but I know her, and what she’s likely thinking, and I can’t ignore this. Hell, if she listens to me, then maybe...” Crossfire trailed off, her face gaining an oddly contemplative, even hesitant expression I wasn’t used to seeing on her face. Then she shook it off with her usual, arrogant snort, “Whatever, it doesn’t matter. Couldn’t stay a secret forever, and I’ve got bigger shit to worry about. I’m not letting Knobs down again. Not again.”

I sincerely wished I knew the details concerning what had happened to Knobs, however many years ago. All I knew was that she’d somehow lost her hind legs during some incident after having met Crossfire, and ever since then Crossfire’s driving goal had been to restore her friend as best she could. Yet this situation with Princess Purity was unrelated to that, save for it seemed Crossfire saw this as another instant where she might fail to protect Knobs. But how did the Princess of one of the Protectorate’s two kingdoms relate to all of this?

I knew Crossfire was from Neighlesius, but that was about it.

Still, I knew Crossfire well enough by now to know there was no arguing with her once she was set on a course. The mare was nothing if not driven.

We followed her and Phalanx into the spacious medical tent, and we were assaulted by the thick scent of blood. The place was packed with wounded, stretched out on cots and mas as desperate NCR medics tended to those they could. The physical brutality and power of the Hyadean bio-monsters was ever more evident here, a I saw too many ponies with missing limbs, or grievous wounds too severe to likely be survived. The moans and cries of the suffering dug at me and I fought to keep my eyes clear of tears a we approached the back of the tent.

There, Princess Purity was using her magic to seal up a wide laceration on the side of a foal of no more than eight or nine years, gasping for breath a the Neighlesius Princess’ horn cast a steady stream of healing energies onto the wound.

None of us interrupted her as she worked, her own young face, no older than myself, strained in focus as she maintained her spell. A short minute later the wound was mostly closed, though the healed flesh was bare, red and fresh scar tissue. The foal thankfully had fallen unconscious, breathing shallowly. Purity’s sweat stricken face turned towards us, eyes blearily blinking.

“Phalanx? And... Crossfire? What are you doing here?”

“I’m going to ask you straight, Purity, do you have Iskender Bey with you?” Crossfire asked, and Princess Purity gave a reflexive glance towards a long metal case laying on the ground against the side of the tent. Crossfire saw the glance, and nodded with resolve, “I’m taking it.”

“What!?” Phalanx shouted, stepping between Crossfire and the case, “You cannot do that! It is forbidden for any but the Princess to wield it!”

Purity looked at Crossfire with wide eyes, “Even if I gave it to you, Crossfire, it’d kill you to use it.”

“And?” Crossfire snorted, “Don’t try to be noble here. It’d kill you to use it too. It doesn’t matter what your blood is, the thing drains anypony who takes it into battle.”

“Yes, but it’s been the duty of the Neighlesius royal line to fulfill that duty since the Protectorate’s inception,” Purity replied, gaining some measure of strength in her tired voice as she stepped forward, a pained yet determined look in her eyes, “And you’re not of the royal line. At least, not in the same manner I am. You’ve done nothing but rebuff my attempts to bring you into the family, so why do you now suddenly seek to wield Iskender Bey? Not for any sense of duty to your country, surely.”

My friends and I were exchanging confused looks, none of us having any clue what Purity and Crossfire were talking about, but we didn’t dare interrupt as Crossfire stepped closer to Purity, nearly getting in her face. Her tone was low and dry, like hard, cracked stone.

“You’re right, I don’t give a shit about ‘duty’. I paid my dues to Neighlesius and the Protectorate as a soldier, and when I left, I ever once intended to come back. I still don’t. But right now my friend needs me, and... and fuck it, I’m not strong enough as I am now to beat the real monsters that are raising hell out there. I need power, and Neighlesius’ national treasure is that power.”

Phalanx spat inside his helmet. I assumed he had some kind of filtration system to clean it up, otherwise, ew.

“Pfah! You’re a selfish knave of a mare! You’re not worthy to touch Iskender Bey’s hilt, let alone wield it! Princess, say the word and I’ll throw this ungrateful charlatan out.”

Purity held up a hoof towards Phalanx to stay him, her eyes remaining fixed on Crossfire, “You just wish to save your friend? Nopony else? You see this suffering around you? These ponies need protection. All of them, not just one.”

“Oh, and you’re doing a great job of it, sitting here healing wounded, but keeping that blade locked up here. Were you planning to use it when you were already too exhausted to fight? Do you even know how to fight?” Crossfire shouted, and Purity didn’t back down, her own voice raising in a sharp crack.

“I was taught by the head of the Fenril Knights, the same as you were. I may not have your experience as a soldier and Drifter, but I can still use Iskender Bey when the time comes.”

“Hate to break it to you, but that time has come, gone, and moved to another fucking time zone. If you’re too scared to take it up and get your royal ass out there to fight, then give it to somepony who can.”

“You insufferable cur-!” Phalanx moved towards Crossfire, but Purity stood in his way.

“No, Phalanx... she... she has a point.”

“Princess?”

Purity looked back at Crossfire, expression drawn into a tired, self reflecting mien, “The truth is, I don’t want anypony wielding that ARM. I don’t want to die, and I don’t want you to die, either. I don’t want anypony losing their life. Maybe... that’s cowardly of me. Are you certain you wish to wield it, Crossfire. Knowing what it will cost?”

Wait, ARM? Hadn’t I heard Applegate or someone mention something about this? I thought back, trying to remember. Iskender Bey... OH! I remembered then! It was an ARM the royal family of Neighlesius kept on hoof to defend the country in times of great danger! Applegate had mentioned it back on the journey on the Sweet Candy. Hm, but if it was an ARM, then what Purity was talking about was similar to what Gramzanber had been doing to me, slowly killing me due to lacking compatible data on pony biology to properly synchronize without side effects.

But Gramzanber had downloaded the calibration data on the Ark of Destiny. So couldn’t he...?

Yes, Gramzanber said in my head, If I interface with this ‘Iskender Bey’, if it is a genuine Veruni ARM, then I can upload the equine calibration data to it and prevent it from causing harm to any pony wielders.

“Fuck yes!” I shouted out of nowhere, and everypony turned stunned eyes towards me. Blushing, I coughed in embarrassment and said, “I, um, might have a solution to this problem.”

“Oh?” Princess Purity looked at me, “Please tell us, if you know something.”

“Okay, so it’s like this. Iskender Bey is an ARM, right? Just like my Gramzanber here. ARMs are weapons made by these aliens, the Veruni, and we were just on a Veruni ship earlier. While there, Gram interfaced with the ship computer and download a whole buttload of information, inducing data that’d let any Veruni ARM be used by a pony without any ill side effects. Or at least, not fatal ones. I still get a bit of backlash when I use Gramzanber’s powers, but I’m not going to die from it anymore. He’s telling me he can give Iskender Bey the same information, so Crossfire or you could use it without a problem!”

The look on Purity’s face was disbelieving, but her voice was more wondering, “Are... are your words true? I don’t wish to sound doubting, but what you’re saying sounds fantastical, to say the least.”

“I can confirm most of it,” said Crossfire, “We were on an alien ship, and these ARMs come from them. If the buck says his shiny spear can make Iskender Bey work without killing its wielder, then we’ve got neither reason nor time to lose. Purity, let me do this.”

“...Very well, but on one condition,” Purity said, and Crossfire grimaced.

“What?”

“You acknowledge who you are, and come home with me to Neighlesius. Help me put our country back to rights. Please... sister...”

Uh...what?

Half-sister,” Crossfire growled in a stilted reply.

Uh... huh?

“It doesn't matter to our mother, Crossfire. It never did.”

Come again?

“Then she shouldn’t have sent me to live on that onion farm. Or hell, she should’ve never banged my dad in the first place. It was her choice to have an affair with the Captain of her Royal Knights, then send the foal away. I’m not her kid, or your sister. I’m just Crossfire, former Protectorate solider, now a Drifter who’s trying to save her friend and keep this city form burning. You want me to come ‘home’? My home is Skull City. Feel free to write, or visit whenever, but I’m not going back to Neighlesius.”

Purity hung her head, fresh pain entering her voice, but also resignation. “I suppose that’s the best I could have hoped for. So be it... take Iskender Bey. Use it as you will, and may its shining edge bless you with victory, sister.”

“You need to stop calling me that...”

“Consider it the last time I’ll say it openly, but I will always think of you that way, no matter what,” Purity said with resolve, and Crossfire just shook her head.

“Whatever. Longwalk, get over here, and let’s get your ARM talking to this other one. We’ve wasted enough time already.”

She went over to the long metal case and set it down lengthwise, using her magic to unlatch it. As I came to her I said in a quiet, whispering tone, “So, you’re a princess-”

“If you finish that question I’m going to tear your balls off and feed them to your marefriend,” Crossfire spat, opening the case, “I’m nopony but a mercenary. My parents are irrelevant. What is relevant is that I can use this to make a difference today, and you’re going to help me do it.”

Resting within soft black velvet inside the case was a weapon nearly as large as Gramzanber. It was a sword with a circular hilt, a red handle mounted within the circle, with silver and black metal making up the hilt itself. Two partial curves of metal extended from two sides of the hilt, like flanges, their edges coated in gold metal. The blade itself was a thick leaf shape, growing slightly narrower from the hilt before widening again to a heavy tip. The metal was a silver just like Gramanber’s, except towards the center the metal became gold, then black at the core with a single line of crystalline blue. Four nodes of similar blue were mounted near the tip of the blade itself. The entire weapon had a hefty look to it, emphasizing its weight, and its sharp angles and gleaming metal certainly gave it the alien appearance of a weapon of advanced technology.

I held out Gramzanber, asking my ARM, So what do I do? Just put you against the sword?

Yes, he replied, If this Iskender Bey is active, I will communicate, and transfer the necessary data.

“Alright, here goes nothing,” I said, and touched Gramzanber’s tip against Iskender Bey’s cold, shining metal.

Everypony watched as Gramzanber was suffused with a cobalt blue aura of light, a light which then transferred over to Iskender Bey. Soon both ARMs were glowing a soft, radiant blue, filling the tend with its ethereal light.

“Is it working?” Crossfire asked.

I shrugged at her, “How should I know? I’ve never done this before. Just let Gram do his thing.”

She narrowed her eyes at me, but waited patiently as everypony else continued to watch.

Soon, Gramzanber’s voice spoke again in my mind.

It is done. Iskender Bey has received the data, and is calibrating itself to function properly with a pony wielder. It’s intelligence component is not as refined as mine, due to lacking long term and regular exposure to a consistent wielder as I have, but it understands the situation and is eager to be used against the Hyadean foe.

“Good to hear,” I said and turned to Crossfire, “Iskender Bey is ready.”

Crossfire nodded, and reached out a hoof to the sword. There was a moment of hesitation, as her hoof hovered over the ARM. I wondered what might have been going through Crossfire’s mind at that moment. She may have vehemently denied caring about her lineage, and I believed her when she said her only motivation for doing this was so she could better protect Knobs. Duty or nobility had nothing really to do with this, for Crossfire. But I imagined she must have realized that, even if she didn’t care about ever going back to the Protectorate, that word of what she was about to do was going to spread.

If she survived the day, then likely everypony in Neighlesius and beyond would hear about the Drifter mercenary who took up the kingdom’s royal treasure, their fabled ARM, and used it against the alien invaders. Even if she wanted to avoid it, pretended it never happened, the knowledge of her true lineage would get around. She’d never really be just Crossfire ever again. She’d be Crossfire, Drifter, mercenary, and bastard daughter of the Neighlesius royal family. Changes to her life might come whether she wanted them or not.

I saw her confront that fact, take a deep breath, and move past it as she grabbed the sword and lifted it from the case.

I half expected there to be some kind of light show, but she just held the sword for a moment, balancing it on her hoof as she tested its weight.

“It’s lighter than I thought it would be,” she said.

“It’s the same with Gramzanber,” I told her, “The real weight comes later.”

“Don’t try to get poetic with me, buck” she said as her horn lit up and she held Iskender Bey with her magic, floating her rifle out so both weapons floated at her sides; the Sniper Shark XR on her right, Iskender Bey on her left. “Not used to dual wielding, but I’ll manage. This thing better pack the punch the legends say...”

“Be careful, Crossfire,” Princess Purity said with genuine worry, “Even if Longwalk has managed to make it so you can wield the sword safely, it may still have adverse effects. In times past, the blade’s wielders would perish within the day of taking it into battle. Please, if you feel it draining you, don’t overuse it.”

“I’m not even sure how i’m supposed to use it,” Crossfire said, glancing at me, “Did your fancy spear come with an instruction manual or something?”

I laughed dryly, “No, it just sort of... came to me as I used Gram to fight. It’ll probably be the same with you. Just do what you’d normally do, and when you start feeling a pressure in your had, and hear a voice talking to you, then you know your synchronizing with the ARM.”

“Hmph, fine, trail by fire it is,” she said as she turned around and starting marching for the exit, “Let’s get moving. We’ve used up too much time already.”

However, even at her words, she paused, and turned a strange look towards Purity.

“I don’t want you getting the wrong idea, Purity. We’re never going to be family. But... I’ll toss you a bone, this one time.”

Crossfire closed her eyes, and her horn cast a small stream of crimson magic towards her flank. The magic struck her cutie mark of three onions, and before my eyes, the cutie mark changed. It flowed like running paint, until the onions were gone, and a tear shaped, blue gem was left in its place. It was nearly identical to the cutie mark on Purity’s flank.

“I’ll wear my real cutie mark, just this one time. Just this one day, I’ll accept I’m your half-sister.”

Purity made a soft choking sound as her eyes watered, “...Thank you.”

Crossfire looked away from her, expression focused as a laser as she resumed marching out of the medical tent. My friends and I followed her, prepared to head out once more in the flaming, besieged city.

----------

Footnote: Progress to Level Up 50%

Companion Perk Added! "Princess of the Sword" - Having come to partially accept her lineage, Crossfire has taken up the ARM Iskender Bey. While you have Crossfire in your party and she is equipped with Iskender Bey, both you and her generate Force at an increased rate of 25%.

Author's Note:

Titles are a funny thing. When I named the story "Trigger to Tomorrow" it was one part 'silly anime title' and one part 'foreshadowing of important scene'. Just as I eventually envisioned the characters would arrive at Arcaidia's ship, I also knew she'd salvage a nav beacon from it and want to deploy it. I might not have planned everything else in detail leading up to that point, certainly not when I first started this story at any rate, but I knew the scene of the group talking on a shuttle in orbit about the virtues and drawbacks of deploying that beacon was something I wanted to do. It's an oddly simple scene for something that's essentially the characters trying to decide the fate of the planet with what would essentially be the push of a button, or the pulling of a trigger.

And there's a lot of other stuff that happens in this chapter besides. The attack on Manehattan is meant to be very much an homage to the attack on Addlehyde in the first Wild Arms game, and its far from done. Then there's the reveal of Crossfire's background, which I think some people might have already guessed at, but its essentially confirmed here, along with her acquiring the sword ARM of the Neighlesius royal family:

Iskender Bey is straight out of Wild Arms XF, and while in that story its kind of a Mcguffin, here it'll be a bit more active.

At any rate, while I know chapter updates are slow as heck, I remain ever committed to finishing this story, one way or another. With us entering the finale of the NCR arc, we're definitely getting there. Thanks for reading folks!

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