With a final grave glance at each other, the celestial sisters resume their walk to the pegasus guard barracks. It takes only a few minutes to reach a sparsely decorated hall with a single wooden door at the end, from which the sounds of laughing and chatter can be heard. Celestia trots up to the door, followed closely by Luna.
Without bothering to knock, she opens the door with a dull flash from her horn. Immediately, the sounds of loud, vulgar conversation and the musty smell of dried sweat assail the senses of the sun goddess. Celestia wrinkles her nose and lays her ears back in distaste, but immediately erases the expression from her face in favor of the concern she currently felt.
Under normal circumstances, the proud and elite guards of Canterlot Castle’s airborne force would never show any sort of alarm, regardless of what life can throw at them. It is after all, a virtue of the royal guard to remain impassive in the face of adversity. But having not only Celestia, but also Luna burst into their living space with expressions that bore only ill tidings makes a wave of concern practically flow through all of them, freezing the myriad of ponies in the middle of whatever activities they were doing.
So rare is it that either of the diarchs let their true thoughts be seen on their faces, that the naïve would assume there is never anything wrong. If a single glance is anything to tell by, then something of incredible magnitude must have landed right in Equestria’s lap.
All of the guards are caught flat-hoofed by the sudden intrusion and can only stare the rulers with confusion.
A pegasus identical to the rest in the barracks detaches himself from his fellows and steps forward, snapping to a smart salute immediately afterward. It takes hardly a second for the others to immediately form up in a flurry of scrambling hooves and salute as well. It can never be said that members of the royal guard aren’t experts at saving face.
“My Princesses,” the pegasus in front begins with a serious tone, “what is it that we of the Airborne Guard can do for you?”
“At ease, Lieutenant Highwind,” Celestia says gently, making the pegasus in front of her relax slightly. “We do have something for you. We require your swiftest and most stealthy fliers to be fitted in surveillance armor and ready for an immensely important mission within the hour.”
Highwind blinks in astonishment. “Your highness? Less than an hour, you say? I don’t mean to speak out of turn, but that seems like so little time. We normally have at least an hour of preparation.”
Luna takes the moment to chime in. “Indeed, Lieutenant, but this is a matter of national security. Maybe something even more if certain details are correct. Time is of the essence, so we need to act quickly.”
The pegasus guard quickly crumbles under the combined argument of the diarchs. There is almost no room for speaking out anymore.
Looking over his shoulder, he barks: “Alright, guards! Form up! Covert ops, front and center!”
In a split second the whole room erupts into movement. Feathers fly everywhere as the guards quickly rearrange themselves, leaving four standing in front of the rest.
”You have your orders. Get outfitted and report back here for your briefing.”
You squint your eyes as you look up at the sun high in the sky. By your estimate, it should be close to one in the afternoon. That means that you’ve been walking for about an hour now. Taking a forlorn glance at the DatPad on your wrist, you pray to whatever higher power may be out there and once again press the ‘map’ icon on the watch like device.
A loading bar pops up in its place, and as last time, it totally refuses to move. After almost a minute and a half of inactivity, the DatPad beeps, flashing the message
[Unable to establish satellite uplink. GPS feature disabled. Would you like to try again?]
With a dejected sigh, you press ‘No’ and send the little gizmo back to its main menu. Of all the places to get stranded, you’re on a planet where the satellites aren’t compatible with your standard issue DP. After some thinking, you realize that the DP could be the thing that’s defective instead. It certainly wouldn’t be the first time the Frontier Laboratories had screwed you over.
You sigh and raise your hands toward the sky in a languid stretch, only to wince as the action pulls at your scab-ridden back, exposing little bits of the laceration to the stinging air. Putting your arms down, the castle in the distance comes to the forefront of your mind once more. Who in their right mind would ever build an olden style castle like that? It had to cost a fortune.
The tall spires of the superstructure still seem to be as far away as ever, but now you can make out tiny dots slowly flying back and forth between various points. Could those be more of the winged horses you had seen earlier? It would certainly make sense that whoever owns the precariously positioned castle would have enough money for genetically altered pets.
The feeling of eyes on your back makes itself known, and you immediately whirl around to meet the offender face to face. Nothing greets you back.
The back of your head stings as your chip cycles through a number of jamming transmissions through a multitude of frequencies.
Still nothing to show for your efforts. Paranoia must be slowly setting in.
“Ease up, Anon. All you’re doing is just freaking yourself out,” you say aloud to yourself, even if you don’t believe it.
Several hours pass as you make your way along the dirt road, not seeing another soul the entire time. No matter what, though, you can’t shake the feeling that you’re being watched. More than once you stop to look around and send out a multitude of jamming and virus signals from your comlink implant, only to come up with nothing. You swear you saw distortions in the air more than once around you, however.
“Why even build a the road if no one is going to use it?” you gripe irritably.
Bringing a hand to your face, you gently prod it to find that you lack any sort of sunburn. How odd, you’ve been out in the sun for hours now, and yet you don’t seem to have even a hint of any sort of UV damage.
The sun seems to be the usual yellow one that is associated with most human inhabited planets. Tiberias II has a yellow sun, if you remember correctly. You don’t mean to complain, even if it is internally, but why are you not burning?
Things are just getting stranger and stranger.
You pad along the dirt road for several more minutes before sudden realization dawns itself upon you. After all this time, you had yet to see about trying out your nanomachines. Pulling a canister from your pants leg, you unscrew the top which lets out a faint hiss of depressurization.
You take off the cap and find a silver, shining liquid within. Giving the can a small shake, you find that it seems to have the same viscosity as a sticky syrup. What exactly are you supposed to do with this? Emma told you that you can use it for a myriad of tasks, but the directive of ‘control it with your comlink’ seems really vague and unhelpful.
The chip in your head warms up as you try to send the equivalent to a ping to the metallic goop, which surprisingly one send back after a moment. Taking it a step further, you try to connect to the canister.
You grit your teeth as the nanobots resist your attempts to connect to them. What in the world could be wrong with them? A standard comlink should be enough to interface with most, if not all computers. This stuff is just a mass of them! This should be easy!
Then... something flashes within your mind. It’s never pleasant or very straightforward trying to interpret the messages from your comlink, as it tends to be a vague flash of intention rather than a clear message.
This time, however, the meaning is plain as day.
Is this really happening? Did you really get this stuff only to find it useless? Does that mean you’re out in the wilderness totally unprepared?
Yes... yes it does.
You’re outside, injured, and without any tools... It’s official, whatever gods there may be have decided to forsake you. It’s you versus the wide world, for a week at least.
Giving the metal goop another mental prod, its security remains steadfast and once again prompts you for a password.
This is horrible. Just how are you going to get around this? You could use a ‘brute force’ password guessing hack, which is where you have your comlink cycle through every possible combination of characters to find the password, but that would put unbelievable strain both on your implant and your brain. A dictionary password guesser would likely put much less strain on you, but it’s also immensely unlikely that any of the researchers back at Frontier would ever use whole words for any password.
Still, you’re not left with many options either way. Starting the chip up once more, you link it to the nanobots and begin inputting every conceivable word you can into the password field. Fat messages, all of them playing an annoying chime and saying ‘Access Denied’ pass through your head at a rate of about twenty a second. It’s times like this you wish that the com has a mute function.
You rub your temples as you feel a simply monstrous headache beginning to build. This had better be worth it. A sudden sharp pain from your back makes you cringe and reminds you that you need to pick up your pace.
Looking back up at the sun, you note that the bright star has hardly moved all this time. How odd, but you have more grave things to be worrying about.
So you set off once more.
Four pegasi in a diamond formation lazily circle the castle, on the lookout for the mysterious ‘traveler’.
For the sortie leader, Corporal Nimbus, this seems like one big wild goose chase. They had to go through all the trouble of putting on the surveillance armor and being briefed with such vague details.
Really, the surveillance armor is what bugs him the most. The damn thing offers no protection and has cameras on the underbelly, the lenses of which reflect light and make them far too easy to spot.
The white pony sighs and raises a foreleg to his neck. Around it is a choker with a small, crystal bead set into it, which sends out multicolored flecks of light in the sunlight. As emasculating as the accessory is, the usefulness of the enchantments set into it cannot be denied.
A special communication rune had been sewn onto the inside of the choker, letting their voices carry over the wind to anypony else with another choker.
The runes, how mysterious things they are. Nopony truly knows where they came from or where they draw their power. It’s been estimated that the earliest discovered one’s date back to the era of Faust, over 10,000 years ago. Any rune can be crafted from anything and will work, so long as the arcane symbol is fed a steady amount of energy as it is created.
Too much, and you may overpower the rune or simply make it explode. Too little, and it simply will not work.
There are some that transcend simple enchantments, some so dangerous that the princesses have found it necessary to lock them away. It’s said that the forbidden runes are only ever called upon in times of true crisis. The bead on the choker, however, is nothing but a simple crystal embedded with a manually activated enchantment. In this case, optical camouflage. It costs some energy to maintain, but the enchantment bends light around the user so they appear invisible. It does nothing to impede a possible opponent’s auditory or olfactory senses, but it still has quite a few uses.
Although, Nimbus is sure that he, nor his team are going to need the invisibility.
“Sir?” a voice calls up from his choker, “I think I see something!”
The corporal focuses on his choker to reply and feels the runes heat up against his neck
“Nonsense! I think those weirdos in the cloaks just spooked their majesties. There’s no way that...”
The words die in his mouth as he spies a figure standing on two legs beneath him... Perhaps the princesses have something to worry about after all..?
“...On second thought...” Nimbus says, his voice unsure as he talks into his choker. “Come in low and begin a surveillance run on the target. Keep optical camouflage up at all times.”
The small flock of pegasi yaw to the side and slowly begin to drop from the sky as they all disappear from the visible realm with shimmers of light. It takes hardly thirty seconds before the odd creature is within viewing distance, and it’s a nasty shock to the surveillance team.
All of them quietly marvel to themselves over the sheer unfamiliarity of it, as well as the offputting alien vibe that the bipedal creature gives off.
The first thing that is noticed is it’s freakish height of what had to be twelve hooves tall, then the fact that it stands on its back two legs without any sort of tail to act as a balance. Bipeds don’t work like that, anypony who passed basic biology knows this. So why can this one do so?
Up on its upper body are two long forearms that terminate into paws with long, dexterous looking digits on the end. Its head is devoid of hair with the exception of the top, sides and back. The face that it sports thankfully has a semblance of normalcy. Two eyes, a triangular protrusion that must serve as a nose, and a pair of lips that must serve as its mouth.
With a closer look, Nimbus can see that the creature has a huge laceration on its back, exposing scabbed flesh through the clothes that cover most of its being. That must be painful; perhaps the creature is seeking out help?
Attached to the side of its legs are glass cylinders capped in metal that contain what looks to be mercury. What use could jars of mercury possibly hold? Perhaps this creature has some sort of medicinal use for it?
All of that pales in comparison to the worrying pace that it’s setting to Canterlot. It’s been moving at what many would call a brisk jog towards the mountain city without any signs of exertion on its part. This thing needs to be investigated.
Right as he thinks that, the creature stops on a dime and whirls around with such blinding speed it’s a miracle it didn’t break its neck.
The pegasi freeze in fright and hover in midair as the creature’s beady eyes rake over their cloaked forms. For a moment it seemed like it would attack, then the strangest thing happens. The feeling of static electricity runs over their skin, then to the team’s collective horror, their camouflage begins to flicker.
Quick as their nimble bodies would let them, the four guards scatter and regroup just above the creature, who seems confused by the lack of confrontation. For a few tense seconds, it almost looks as if the mysterious biped would continue searching around itself, then the creature turns on its heel and begins its trek to the castle once more.
Nimbus quietly lets out a breath he did not realize he was holding. This thing is DEFINITELY not of Equis.
The corporal quietly mutters an order into his choker to follow the beast and remain out of sight, making his team reform themselves into a diamond pattern behind him. With the button on the side of the cumbersome surveillance armor, the four ponies quietly snap pictures of the dimensional traveler as per their orders.
More than once it suddenly stopped to turn and try to spot them with its unnatural speed, only for the guards to get out of the away just in the nick of time. Once, it stopped to inspect one of the canisters attached to its leg, only to replace it shortly afterward and mutter lowly to itself in a masculine voice. The rough, quick language it spoke may as well have been gibberish.
Well, that immediately eliminates trying to communicate verbally with it, Nimbus thinks ruefully to himself. But would that even be an option? For all they know, this thing could be hell-bent on the total destruction of everything on the surface of the planet. He can feel it in his fellow guardponies: all three of them would much prefer to try and do away with this threat despite how frightening it is rather than give it a chance to do wrong.
But the very nature of that statement is contradictory to the Oath of the Guard, which states that the royal forces are strictly for peacekeeping, leaving Nimbus and his team in a serious catch 22. With a silent sigh, the corporal looks up at the sun to see that their hour time limit for the mission is almost up.
It seems that time flies when pondering on the state of your home’s safety.
The stallion focuses on his choker once more. “Alright, our mission time is beginning to wane. Redirect course for the castle and consider this sortie over.”
He gets three “Yes sir”s in reply.
With powerful yet silent beats of their wings, the four ponies rocket back towards the palace as quickly as they can to report their findings. On the way, however, Nimbus can’t help but mull over everything he had just observed. Interdimensional aliens, jars of liquid metal, doomsday prophecies from cloaked freaks... it’s all enough to unsettle those with weaker constitutions.
The alien himself, in particular, worries Nimbus to no end. The thing is plain unnatural, no if’s, and’s, or but’s about it. But that’s not the most unsettling thing about it.
Nimbus had caught the creature’s eyes for a split second. The tales of old have weaved much lore about the articulation that connected eyes can produce, and it seems they hold true. That split second was all the guard needed to see the most disconcerting feature that the biped possesses. The shine, the spark, the power that the highest of living beings possess.
To most, it wouldn’t seem to be too much of a problem. After all, what is a single being against the entire superpower of Equestria?
The ones who dare use that and expect it to be a valid argument are the most naïve. They don’t realize it only takes a single rationally thinking opponent to devastate an entire army. With that disturbing thought in mind, the corporal doubles his pace, determined to deliver this precious information to his princesses.
Your pace slows to a crawl as exhaustion begins to set in. You should have been able to keep going for longer, but the wound on your back is sapping at your endurance. Shortly after the feeling of eyes on your back had left, you begin to notice something extremely strange.
The clock on your DatPad said it was about six in the afternoon according to the standard times of most planets, meaning you had been walking for almost five hours now. A glance of the sun, however, told you that couldn’t be right, as the shining orb hasn’t moved anywhere near as much as it should have.
You push all thoughts of the strange anomaly to the back of your mind; you have more important things to be doing right now. Looking up, you see that the mountain with the castle is far closer than when you began. It will only be another handful of hours before you’re at the base of it.
Something that catches your eye is the metal and wood track wrapping around the mountain to the castle. It’s obviously a track for some sort of vehicle, but you can’t place your finger on what exactly. Strangely enough, you haven’t spotted any sort of vehicle along the tracks or any other beings around, with the exception of the winged horse you had seen earlier.
Your head snaps up to the summit of the mountain when the unmistakeable sound of a disaster siren rolls down the slope like a wave. Worry begins to gnaw at your stomach. What sort of emergency could warrant the use of a loud siren like that? Did the castle’s occupants mistake you for a trespasser? Or is there something else at play here?
Only one way to find out.