Chapter 11: And into the shit storm.
-Prior to the crash of the UNSC Cloak 'n' Dagger
42 stood before a large oak table with a map of the local area spread before him. Twilight had been running him through the basics of the local terrain which he had picked up all too quickly and were now onto the marking of tactical defensive and choke points. Twilight didn't know much about conventional Human or even Pony tactics but she provided what help she could. Twilight continued to map points on the parchment and explained him as 42 listened intently.
“Right there is an area known to most Equestrians as Crystal Cave.” She pointed to a small area surrounded by shallow hills to create a bowl effect with forests surrounding those hills. The place looked like it naturally was supposed to deter curious onlookers just from the terrain itself. Twilight continued with her explanation. “The reason for its name and danger is a large abundance of crystal structures that tower into the air. They contain a dark magic no pony, not even Celestia herself has fully grasped and understood yet. The place was garrisoned by the local Ponyville guard until it was overrun with changelings and left for abandon by powers higher up.” Twilight looked up to 42 who was brushing his hand across the faceplate of his Warrior class helmet as if in deep thought. He picked his sniper up from its resting position against the table and slung it across his back along with his storm rifle.
“Sounds like my first port of call then.” He turned to move outside via the front door but was blocked by the other members of the small group. The orange one who he remembered as Applejack stepped forward.
“Sugar-cube, this here is as much our responsibility as it is yours. We're coming with ya.” The other ponies nodded in agreement while the purple dragon gave him the thumbs up.
“Absolutely not. Mission command has given me a direct... request for your safety. I intend to maintain good relations by meeting those parameters.” The ponies stood before him defiant against his declaration for them to remain in the town. Twilight was the first to reply in verbally.
“Unfortunately for you Mr 42, you don't have enough err... hands to keep us all here and we know the way better than you from personal experience. We're going to help you whether you like it or not.” She topped the statement off with a daring and adventurous glare, hoping to boost his confidence in them.
42 was in a tough situation. He couldn't bring them with him for risk of loosing them and destroying all diplomatic progressions made so far. However he couldn't force them to remain without getting violent. “Fine.” He grumbled. “But only on the condition that you follow my directives and commands to the exact letter. I don't want some green horns messing this situation up.” Twilight and Rarity sat there trying to inspect their horns at his comment while the other nodded their heads vigorously in agreement. Pinkie had one more question though.
“What's a green horn?” 42 ignored the question and walked towards the door in small, controlled strides while the ponies followed behind in an eager fashion. 42 couldn't help but feel like this was going to crash and burn in no time.
- - - -
Dust floated in the air of vast metallic corridors as machinery moved and floated around in a quiet whisper. Some machines performed mundane tasks while others guarded the catacombs with brilliant lances of light when the time required. These machines had not seen use in thousands of millennia. Their now moving forms had previously been hibernating until an event occurred. An event so significant, so integral to the great plan that only when that event occurred could they finally fulfil the main priority of their existence. The catacombs traced for miles upon miles and many places were sat in a state of disrepair and neglect as time had worn on these once magnificent constructions. Many devices glided about the place like a swarm of organised and harmonious bees. Moving through the vast spaces and cramped access vents was one device with a task of critical importance. The ancient machines had picked up faint sensory data which could mean many things but the more higher up and intelligent machines concluded that one thing must have happened. The event. And per protocol, appropriate measures must be taken to ensure the great pan was properly conducted.
The small device darted down a side access way, away from its peers and continued on for minutes before reaching a large chamber with a lone device floating in the centre. The device in mention was in deep hibernation and was kept afloat via a small gravity beam.
The other device floated around it fellow machine to check for any damage. Once satisfied with its conclusion of no harm enacted upon the small orb it proceeded to beep its tiny circular, orange coloured eye in a pattern of hundreds of blips in mere moments. The device waited there a few moments before repeating the strange display flashes. This time a dull hum could be heard as the small orb's own eye began to slowly light up into a rich purple. The gravity beam cut out and the small orb floated there on its own accord for a moment. It turned slowly on its axis, observing the chambers around it before settling its singular eye on the other device who had delivered the message. The device played its strange message to the purple one once more. It sat there contemplating the data which had been given to it before it finally did one thing. It burbled in a joyous yet metallic tone. “The time has come. Oh splendid.”
- - - -
The hike towards Crystal Cave had taken much longer than 42 would have liked with these equines in tow, especially the white one. While joyous to help at first she had quickly settled into a routine pattern of complaining about the dirt, weather and generally anything else she found at odds with her personal taste. They had cleared the surrounding forests without incident and were no descending the hill towards the point designated Crystal Cave.
42 could see why it looked so terrifying to most citizens of this world. The area around the large cave entrance was covered in black charred rock as if a volcanic eruption had happened here in the last few years coupled with an earthquake not too long after to send all the rocks at jagged angles from the ground. It reminded him of the surface of any world which had recently taken a glassing back during the war. The thought sent his rage bubbling inside but he suppressed it quickly and turned back to the ponies. “Okay. You said this place was infested with Changelings...” 42 had learned as much as he could from Twilight on the journey about these things but she couldn’t tell him much other than what she had encountered. They were quite a reclusive group for obvious reasons. 42 continued after his short pause for thought. “These things will see us coming if we trek the rest of the way. I want everyone to hug the dirt and follow me.” The ponies gave him confused looks from his idiom. He sighed and rephrased. “It means keep low and keep stealthy.”
Everyone obliged but one. 42 should have seen this 'one' coming. “Are you mad! The dirt will ruin my coat why you would want to 'hug' it is beyond me” The white one complained. 42 had taken enough of her consistent complaining and got right in Rarity's face spooking the daylights out of her.
“Where I come from, the dirt is one of your best friends. If you didn't hug the dirt when you needed to you ended up dead or worse...!” Rarity wasn't sure what was worse than death but she didn't want to find out. She whined slightly but followed his orders and pushed herself closer to the floor while attempting to ignore the massive amount of OCD which was blaring in her head about the filth below. She feigned a small, sheepish smile and motioned him to continue on.
Nodding in response he turned back to face the destination and drew his Magnum for easy use coupled with ranged capabilities on the sloped terrain. The rest of the trek down was rather uneventful and they soon stood before the stretching land of charred black rock. 42 turned towards the others.
“Wait here. Move up when I give you the signal, you'll know what it is when you see it.” The ponies nodded and 42 activated his active camouflage module as he moved into the labyrinth of jutting ledges and rocky spines.
The girls stood around for what seemed like minutes before any of them spoke. Applejack was the first. “What do y'all suppose he wants to know so badly about this place?”
“Beats me Applejack but I know when he needs us to move in we get to show him we're not weak and get to kick some changeling but at the same time.” Rainbow boasted this loudly while miming some air punches in the general direction of the cave entrance which was obscured by the large spires of natural mineral formation. Twilight began to walk backwards and forwards.
“It doesn't make sense. Of all the places to explore, why here. There are thousands of easier to defend, less dangerous locations all around and in Ponyville. He knows something... something he's not telling us.”
“Are you sure Twilight. I don't think he's a very mean pony... I mean person.” Fluttershy interjected in her usual timid tone brought on by the surrounding landscape.
“I'm sure Fluttershy. We just need to find out what it is without him realising.” Twilight's train of thought was cut off as a small rock flew through the air and crashed in front of her hooves coming to a rest between her forelegs. Picking it up with her magic the other girls huddled around the object as she inspected it. Floating it around she eventually spotted and arrow hastily carved into the rock from some sort of blade. She showed this to the girls and they agreed it was the signal they were waiting for. Slowly they began to advance in the direction the rock had flown from.