November 25th, 2551
Unknown planet, unknown space
Twilight came up short, staring wide-eyed at the eight strangely-dressed, mostly hairless people standing over the corpse of a timber wolf. They seemed to be wearing armor of some sort and were all holding long items that she had never seen before. Behind her, she heard panting.
“Really, Twilight, you can’t go running off into the forest like that! We shouldn’t be here. What could possibly have possessed you to –”
As Rarity rounded the corner, she too stopped, but only because Twilight had put a hand out to keep her friend standing behind her.
“Oh my . . .”
“Don’t move.” The command had come from the person standing by the head of the timber wolf. At least, Twilight assumed it was a person. They were clad head to foot in armor and stood head and shoulders above both her and Rarity. In two quick strides, the being was standing over them, one arm extended and pointing some unknown device directly at Twilight’s chest. “Identify yourselves.”
Neither she nor Rarity spoke.
“Do what the Spartan says, ladies,” advised a gruff-sounding man from the group. “We’re not here to hurt you, but we need to make sure you’re not here to hurt us. We’re from the UNSC.”
“M – My name’s Twilight S – Sparkle.” She hated how her voice shook. She’d faced much more frightening things than this. “I’m a student of P – Princess Celestia. This . . . This is my friend Rarity.”
The man who had spoken walked over to them as the other being – the ‘spartan’ as it had been called – lowered its extended hand. Twilight heard the other men and women break out into muttering.
“Well, at least they’re not Covenant.”
“Princess? There aren’t any princesses in the galaxy.”
“How did we not know about this? Bossman said this place wasn’t on any of our star charts.”
The man extended one hand. “I’m Staff Sergeant Marcus Stacker. This is my team. And this is Spartan Li zero-zero-eight.” He gestured at the hulking figure beside him. “Can you tell me what planet we’re on?”
Twilight and Rarity both glanced at each other. What planet? What could he possibly mean by that? There was no way to reach the other planets in the night sky.
“Er . . . we’re on Equis, of course,” Rarity piped up, her voice perhaps a little squeakier than usual.
“Equis, huh?” The man, Marcus, muttered. “I’ve never heard of it before.”
“What is the UNSC?” Twilight asked, unable to help herself.
Marcus and Li glanced at each other. Though Twilight couldn’t see under the former’s face-mask, surprise was no doubt on his face just as much as Marcus’.
“We should contact the Vice Admiral,” Li said.
“For sure,” Marcus agreed. He turned to the rest of the group. “Wilkes; you’ve got the radio equipment. Get over here.”
One of the men from the group trotted over. He moved gingerly, cradling one of his arms.
“Oh dear,” Rarity said. “Did the timber wolf do that? Come here; I can fix you right up.”
Wilkes paused for a moment, giving Marcus a quizzical look. He didn’t answer for a few seconds, his face unreadable. Then he nodded.
“Go ahead, son.”
As Wilkes came closer, Twilight looked at Marcus. “How did you kill the timber wolf?”
“Grenades,” Li answered.
Twilight raised an eyebrow. What in Celestia's name were 'grenades?'
“Are you sure you can fix my arm?” Wilkes was asking as Rarity placed both her hands gently on the man’s twisted appendage.
“Oh of course, darling,” Rarity said. “I’ve made entire dresses with my eyes closed. I’m quite sure I can handle a broken bone.”
She shut her eyes as a look of serene concentration crossed her features. Her horn glowed a brilliant light blue and her fingers sparked. Wilkes’ entire arm glowed with the same color of Rarity's Magic.
“Ow! What the hell?” Wilkes flinched and stepped away from Rarity, clutching his arm.
“What? Oh now don’t tell me you’ve never felt magic before,” Rarity chided, hands in the air.
Wilkes slowly moved his newly healed arm, a look of absolute shock on his face.
“I . . . I think she fixed it,” he said, dumbfounded as he flexed his fingers.
“We really need to contact the Vice Admiral,” Li said.
_ _ _
Aboard UNSC Pony Express, unknown space
“Sir, the ground team has just made contact again!”
Vice Admiral Whitcomb looked up from the holotable he’d been looking at, trying to figure out exactly where in space they were. He frowned.
“It’s been twenty minutes since their last check in,” he growled. “I told them to keep in constant communication. Whatever they have to say, it better be good. Patch them through.”
The young technician tapped a few buttons on his data pad and a video screen appeared on the holotable. On it, Whitcomb could see the face of Staff Sergeant Stacker and in the background, the golden visor of Li.
“Staff Sergeant, you have a lot of explaining to do,” Whitcomb began, folding his arms and scowling.
“Sorry sir, but we ran into some trouble. Some of the strangest shit I’ve ever seen.” The Staff Sergeant’s voice came in over a wash of low-level static.
“We ran into some huge wolf made of wood. Acted just like the real thing too. Wounded one of our guys and killed another. If it hadn’t been for the Spartan, we might’ve lost a whole fireteam.”
“A wolf made out of wood?” Whitcomb wondered aloud. “And here I thought I’d heard everything.
“We found aliens, too,” Li broke in.
That made Whitcomb sit up straight and uncross his arms, leaning closer to the holotable.
“We . . . think so, sir,” Stacker replied. “They look . . . kinda like us. But there’s a few things, uh, different about them.”
Whitcomb raised an eyebrow. “What do you mean, ‘different’?”
“Well, they've got fur and tails for one thing," Stacker told him. "The two girls we encountered have horns coming out of their heads. One of them actually fixed our wounded man’s broken arm just by touching him for a second or two.”
Whitcomb had been wrong before. Now he’d heard everything.
“There’s something else, sir,” Li said. “Neither of them seem to know anything about the UNSC, modern weapons, space travel, or the Covenant. We’ve asked about all of it, and they don’t have a clue.”
Things were just getting stranger and stranger, weren’t they?
“Do you have a plan, Staff Sergeant?”
“Yes, sir,” Stacker said. “One of the girls mentioned a 'Princess Celestia' who seems to be the ruler of these people. I’m gonna try and get us a meeting with her so we can start figuring out what the hell is going on around here. In the meantime, the girls have agreed to take us to a nearby town because this forest we’re in is dangerous. I’m going to radio back to our Pelican and send them back up to you.”
“A princess? Well, I suppose that does sound like a good plan. When you’ve made it to the town, contact me again. I’m gong to log this planet in our star maps and try to reach someone else in the fleet to let them know where we are and what’s going on so we aren’t all labeled MIA.”
“Will do sir. Over and out.”
The video feed went dead, and Whitcomb sat back in a chair by the table. A new planet, previously undiscovered humans with strange abilities and no knowledge of the rest of the galaxy, and a wolf made entirely of wood.
He wondered if things could get any stranger.
“Ensign,” he said, pointing to a nearby deck officer. “Divert full power to communications. I want to hear someone else’s voice within the hour.”
_ _ _
“I’m really startin’ to get worried.” Applejack leaned over the railing on the front porch of Rarity's boutique. “They should’ve been here hours ago. And you know how crazy Rarity gets about these galas; if one of us were this late, she’d be havin’ a panic attack.”
“Looks like you’re not the only one who’s worried,” remarked another mare who was standing by the door. She was small and athletic, with a messy, rainbow-colored mane and a concerned expression on her light blue features.
She was pointing at the path leading back toward the town. Following her gaze, Applejack saw something that made her stand up in surprise. Marching toward the boutique was the tall, imposing figure of Princess Celestia, followed closely by eight golden-armored royal guards carrying spears.
Tara turned back to the other girl. “Dash, go back inside and get the others,” she said. “If the Princess's here, something definitely ain’t right.”
Rainbow Dash nodded, turning back into the boutique without another word. Applejack waited on the porch, watching as the princess and her entourage approached. As they neared, Applejack sank to one knee, looking down at the ground.
“Princess Celestia,” she said. “What brings ya all the way out here?”
“Hello, Applejack,” the princess intoned in her low, gentle voice. Yet Applejack noted that there seemed to be some underlying tension. “You may rise.”
She did so. Applejack was tall, but she was nothing compared to the almost seven foot being that was the princess. Even standing on the porch, she had to look up slightly to take in the mare, whose normally serene, white features were clouded with worry. Applejack had only seen that look on her face once or twice before, and those were only during very dire circumstances.
“What’s wrong, your majesty?”
“Have you seen Twilight anywhere?” the princess asked, glancing about as if hoping her student would materialize out of thin air. “I’ve been seeing some . . . strange things recently, and I must confess myself a tad concerned for her safety. As well as all of ours. I've already been to her library, but she is nowhere to be found.”
Now that was certainly no good. For the princess to actually say that she was worried was reason enough for everybody else to be concerned as well.
“Well, ma’am,” Applejack started, glancing back at the boutique. “Twilight and Rarity were actually supposed to be here a couple hours ago, but we ain’t seen either of them since this mornin’.”
The princess appeared to bite her lip. Before either of them could say anything else, however, there was a rustling in the forest beside the boutique. Out stepped ten figures. There were eight bipedal creatures dressed in what seemed to be armor and holding strange looking objects. The other two figures were Twilight and Rarity, right in the middle of the group.
Rarity waved. “Hello, Applejack! I’m terribly sorry we’re late, but –”
The princess was taken aback. “My word . . . Guards!”
The eight guards that had surrounded Princess Celestia sprang into action, raising their spears and closing in on the group. Within seconds, they had converged on the newcomers in a half circle, weapons raised. The strange beings responded by tightening into a small wall, their backs to the forest, and raising the objects in their hands to point at the Princess' guards.
“Twilight!” Princess Celestia called. “Come over here at once! Get away from them; these creatures could be dangerous.”
“Uh, your majesty,” Twilight called. “I think they’re alright. They don’t want to hurt anyone, they just want to –”
“Do as the princess commands,” asserted one of the guards – probably the leader –waving his spear. “As for the rest of you . . .” He made to move forward, spear pointed directly at one of the shorter creatures.
It was over so quickly that Applejack barely registered what had happened.
The tallest of the group – an imposing figure clad all in green – reacted quicker than anyone Applejack had ever seen. It yanked the spear from the guard’s hand and promptly neutralized all seven of the other soldiers. In no more than a second or two, the figure had one foot on the lead guard’s throat, had another in a headlock, and held the spear in its other hand aimed at another guard that was lying, stunned, on the ground. Everyone else in the Princess' squad had been knocked to the ground in a single sweep on the spear’s blunt end, and were all slowly getting to their feet, rubbing the places in which they had been hit.
“Oh, sweet Celestia,” Applejack breathed. “That was . . .”
The door behind her burst open and out stepped Rainbow Dash, along with the two other mares that had been inside the boutique.
“Holy crap, did you see that?” blurted a short mare with a frizzy, dark pink mane. “That was crazy!”
“Pinkie, shhh,” a mare of a similar stature, with cream colored fur, soft features and a long, light pink mane quieted the other. Fluttershy held one of her arms, preventing Pinkie Pie from running out onto the porch.
One of the males in the group stepped out, his hands raised. “This doesn’t have to get violent! We didn’t come here for a fight.”
“Then what have you come here for?” the Princess demanded. She appeared to be on the edge of intervening; one hand was raised and Applejack could see golden sparks dancing across her fingers and her long horn.
“We found your world by accident; we didn’t know anybody inhabited this planet. We’re just here to explore and make peace.” He muttered something to the tall figure clad in green.
Without a word, it released the guard it held in a headlock and lowered the spear. The guard stumbled back toward his compatriots, rubbing his throat and muttering. The figure also took its foot off of the leader’s neck, who immediately struggled to is knees, gasping and cursing. The figure the broke the spear using nothing other than its hands and dropped the pieces at its feet.
The guard leader looked up at the figure, eyes wide and no longer containing the cockiness they had a minute before. “Wh – What are you?”
The male who had come forth from the group nudged the tall figure.
“Stop lookin’ so damn threatening, Spartan; that’s not going to help relations much,” he said.
The ‘spartan’ nodded and stepped back in line with the rest of the group.
The male stepped forward, joined shortly by Twilight and Rarity. Applejack, curious, stepped down off the porch and moved closer as Princess Celestia did the same. Behind her, she could hear the other three mares following them. This was all so crazy. Who were these things? Where had they come from? Were they telling the truth? Why were Twilight and Rarity with them?
“I’m sure you have a lot of questions,” the man said. “Probably as many as I do. But we’re not gonna get any answers by buttin’ heads right now.”
“Er, Mr. Stacker,” Rarity piped up. “It is customary for subjects to kneel before the princess.”
“All due respect, ma’am,” the man said, extending one hand towards Princess Celestia, “but we aren’t from your planet, so we aren’t subjects.”
Applejack watched on as the male held his hand toward the mare, who was at least half a foot taller than him, if not more. Princess Celestia had her eyes narrowed, and it seemed to be that she was sizing him up.
“Applejack.” Applejack jumped at being addressed directly by the princess. It wasn’t often that they had spoken, and she normally only focused her attention on Twilight. “Do you believe him?”
Not only was the princess speaking to her directly, but she was asking for her advice! On something as important as this, too. She was known for her ability to detect when people weren’t being honest, but she usually used it on ponies she knew, not total strangers. Still, seeing as she was the Element of Honesty, she may as well give it a go.
Applejack narrowed her eyes and looked at the creature; Stacker, Julia had called him. He had a thick build and tan skin. His eyes were shaded by the green cap he wore over his head, which made him hard to read. However, nothing in his body language portrayed anything besides honesty, and he was looking directly up into the princess' eyes. The way he acted reminded Applejack loosely of how members of the royal guard behaved.
“I . . . I think he’s tellin’ us the truth,” she finally said.
“Very well,” the princess nodded, extending her hand and shaking Stacker’s. “My name is Princess Celestia. I am the ruler of the Equestrians. It seems you have already met my student, Twilight Sparkle.”
“That we have,” said Stacker. “I’m Staff Sergeant Marcus Stacker of the UNSC marine corps. It’s good to meet you; we weren’t sure this planet was inhabited.”
“You speak as if you’ve been to many other planets,” the princess remarked. The guards that had surrounded the newcomers gathered themselves and returned to stand behind their ruler. “How is that possible?”
“Ma’am, we invented the means for space travel six centuries ago,” Stacker answered. “The human race has spread out pretty damn far among the stars.”
“Human race?” Twilight asked. “You call yourselves humans? What makes you different than us? Other than not having any fur or tails?”
“That thing you did back there with Wilkes’ arm? Humans can’t do that.”
“None of us have horns or wings, either.” Applejack glanced over to the group of humans and saw the Spartan gesturing in her direction.
Momentarily surprised, Applejack glanced behind her and saw Rainbow Dash using her large, light-blue feathered wings sprouting from her back to shield Pinkie Pie and Fluttershy. She was eyeing the ‘humans’ suspiciously and looked as though she were ready to move at a moment’s notice.
“Listen,” Stacker said. “As much as I think this is a good first step, you should probably be talking to someone higher up the chain of command than me. If you give us a few hours, we can get in contact with our commanding officer and he can come down here to speak with you personally.”
“Are you a military organization?” the Princess asked, raising one eyebrow.
Stacker glanced back at his companions. “Well, yes. Things aren’t going so great out there in the galaxy right now. Like I said: our CO can probably explain it to you better than we can.”
“Very well,” Princess Celestia nodded. “You may come with me to the capitol. Then we may receive your commander in a more formal setting.”
“Uh, your majesty?” Twilight piped up, stepping up to stand in between Stacker and the princess. “May I come with you to the palace? I’d like to see how this plays out. I’m sure it will be beneficial to my studies if I get to see peace negotiations first hand.”
Princess Celestia glanced down at her student, silent for a few moments. “Yes,” she finally said. “In fact, I believe you and all your friends should be present, seeing as you all seem to be involved now.”
Apparently, trying on dresses was not going to be the most exciting thing Applejack did today.
_ _ _
Bridge of DAV-class Light Corvette, slipspace
General Roth ‘Lukomee sat in the command chair of his ship, the Inquisitive Intent. He stared out at the blue and black slipspace through the viewports, wondering if he had made the right decision to follow the human vessel. He knew the key priority of the Covenant to winning the war was to find and decimate the humans’ home world, but no one had seemed to be able to find it.
So many planets glassed. How many worlds did it take to eradicate this plague upon the galaxy? If he became the one to finally find the humans’ home planet and start the end of this long war, he would be hailed as a hero by the whole Covenant. Taking a risk and following a lone human ship into slip space clearly was worth it.
“Shipmaster,” called a subordinate operating a control panel off to his left, “we’re coming out of slip space. No threats detected.”
“Good,” Roth said, leaning forward. “Ready the weapons systems regardless. We must be prepared for an ambush.”
“Yes, shipmaster.” The other Shangheli went back to operating his panel, relaying the order to others that controlled the ship’s weapons systems.
Roth looked on as the blue and black outside the viewport resolved itself into the black of space, with stars dotted randomly throughout the background. Ahead of them, he could see a planet, covered in sea and land. He stood, his long fingers gripping the sides of his seat.
“Is there life on this planet?” he demanded
Another subordinate glanced up. “We’re not sure, shipmaster. We have not encountered this system before. It is in human space.”
Roth sank back into his seat. Before any action could be taken, he must confirm that the planet was both inhabited and done so by humans.
“Shipmaster!” called another operator. “Our scanners are detecting a human vessel, just on the other side of this planet!”
Roth rounded on him. “Only one?”
“Yes, shipmaster. One ship; a small one. I believe it is one of the few that escaped us in the previous battle.”
So, the humans had found this planet first. But they did not seem to have colonized it, or their scans would have detected more of their inferior constructions. They must have found this system through a random jump to escape their last engagement. Perhaps he could strike now and end their involvement permanently. Then he could explore the planet at his leisure, and perhaps uncover some intelligence or even hidden sacred artifacts to help speed the Covenant on their way to the Great Journey.
That was when the operator shouted again. “Shipmaster! Another human ship has entered the system. This one is much larger.”
Roth’s hands curled into fists. More humans. He was only in command of a light corvette. Alone, he could take on a small human ship easily. But that in addition to a large one would make things much harder. There was a larger chance that, while he could defeat the humans, his own ship would suffer great damage in the process. Precautions would have to be taken.
“Log this planet’s coordinates into our systems, then prepare to exit the system,” Roth ordered. “We shall return later with more forces and seize this planet.”