• Published 14th Mar 2014
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XCOM: Enemy Advanced - Swordomatic

Humanity has failed, and the Ethereals yet live. Armed with the knowledge of their predecessors, it falls to Equestria to finish the job.

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Chapter Four: The Clean Cuts Reach the Deepest

XCOM: Enemy Advanced

The Clean Cuts Reach the Deepest

Location: Royal Palace, Canterlot
Date: 24th Mayfly, 1006 PDE
Time: 19:49:32 (Canterlot Standard Time)

“Sister.” Celestia turned from her watch on the balcony to Luna, the Princess of the Night landing lightly on the railings with all four hooves. “Rest now. I will watch the night.”

“I shall leave our ponies to you, then.” The elder alicorn turned away, wincing with every movement. If one looked closer and saw the signs, they could see the discomfort went deeper. Her body was constantly tensed and her limbs shook. Imperceptibly, yes, but still they shook.

Hopping onto the balcony floor, Luna reached out with a wing. “Sister, are you alright?” Even over a month after the attack on Canterlot, long after the damage to the city had been repaired, Celestia was still hurt. She had taken plasma bolts all over her body, drawing fire away from her ponies and saving dozens in the process. Yet, she paid heavily for each life.

Celestia waved her off with a hoof, the bandaged left foreleg. “I’m fine, Luna. Just… weak.”

“‘Weak’ is one way to put it. ‘Crippled’ would be more appropriate.”

“I’m fine, Luna,” Celestia insisted, voice raising just slightly. “I have all my functions.”

“And only some of your blood,” Luna added dryly. “Your armor was fused to your skin, sister, and your insistence on removing it cost you half your life fluids and likely significant organ damage.”

“It’s not so bad.”

“It’s bad enough that after more than a month you still wear bandages. Or are strips of woven material used to bind up a wound or to protect an injured part of the body fashionable this part of the century?”

“Nothing some bedrest can’t fix,” Celestia insisted. “Luna, please. I’m alright. Our ponies need your attention more than I do.”

“I wouldn’t be so worried if you had actually gotten bedrest, sister. Alicorns we may be, you require more than an hours sleep every night if you want to recover in good time.” Luna frowned in reminiscence. “During the Reunification War, you would slumber for days on end after harsh duels and recover from mortal injuries like they were nothing. Without magical assistance.”

“This isn’t the Reunification War, Luna,” Celestia pointed out, “This is the Alien War. The conditions have changed, and my vigil must be eternal if Equestria is to survive.”

“Your ‘eternal vigil’ won’t help anyone if you don’t recover properly,” Luna huffed. “We’ve been over this before, Tia. Have you forgotten what happened with Starswirl?”

Celestia grit her teeth, but remained still and even. “This is different. This concerns our world, Luna. I cannot rest.”

“It’s precisely because it concerns our world that you must rest. What use are you if you’re delirious from blood loss and laying in bed from infection?”

“Luna, please.” She closed her eyes and sighed, looking up at the full moon. “I… I failed them once. I can’t fail them again.”

Luna shook her head. “You never failed them. You saved them in Canterlot. You took their blows so they could live.”

“Not all of them.”

“As much as our ponies exalt us as such, we are not Goddesses. It is impossible to save every single one.” A moment passed, and Luna looked up at her moon as well. “They fight well, you know?”

“You see them?”

“No,” she responded, “But they are. They have suffered losses, but they fight on regardless. Their resolve will be rewarded. I know it.”

Location: First Light, Crystal Mountains
Date: 24th Mayfly, 1006 PDE
Time: 19:55:34 (Canterlot Standard Time)

“Starlight, are you sure you’ll be fine? I can’t use injured soldiers.”

The unicorn mare scoffed, tightening her boot laces with a sharp pull and tying them up with ease. “I’m fine, Captain. Stop being a worrywort.”

Shining Armor laughed softly, but the truth was he did worry, and not just for Starlight. The mission was going to be in Fillydelphia, around and within the Pears Pavilion storehouse on the city edge. There were no windows, which meant no sniper support, and there could be abductees to rescue, which meant no leveling the place. And Strike Two was pretty much decimated, so he only had three squads left.

And, considering that it was a storehouse, he had to assume that the aliens left all kinds of traps and prepared all kinds of ambush sites and fallback locations. Which meant that, most likely, whoever was on point would turn to goo in moments. And as Field Commander, he was barred from taking point, for fear that his death causes the entire operation to fall apart. Shining trusted his soldiers to be better than that, but it was a legitimate fear.

“It’s in my nature, Corporal,” he replied in jest, though his expression did not sell it very well. The white unicorn mare huffed and checked the sights on her rifle one last time. “You can sit this one out, Starlight. I won’t hold it against you.”

“I’ve sat out a mission already. I think that counts as my holiday.” She pulled the tab, smiling at the satisfying click of the action. “Come on, Captain, afraid of rough mares? You’re better than this.”

Starlight, though, probably was not worth his worry. He served with the mare in the Royal Guard, though female guards were rare due to occupational stigma, and Starlight had proven to be one of the hardest flanks he has ever known. They even went to school together and developed a strange friendship. The nerd and the hooligan, becoming friends. It was strange then, and it got stranger when they both applied into the academy. And passed.

He was still obliged to worry for her, though. Starlight was with him on the mission to Manehattan, and suffered enough injuries to sit out for the past couple weeks. And apparently, it only made her angrier. “Alright, Starlight, but don’t be risky. We’re expecting heavy urban combat, and we aren’t leveling the place.”

“Works for me,” she grinned. “I get to nail X-Rays between the eyes instead of letting boring explosions take the fun out of it.”

Shining smirked, and pushed his concerns to the back of his mind. “Then get to Hangar One. We leave in five minutes.”

Location: Pears Pavilion Storehouse, Fillydelphia
Date: 24th Mayfly, 1006 PDE
Time: 20:19:53 (Canterlot Standard Time)

Operation: Tutti Fruiti

“One-Actual, this is Storm Leader. We’ll be taking over sky duty from Talon Squadron today. Give a shout if you need Close Air Support, over.”

“Storm Leader, this is One-Actual. We’ll hold you to that promise. Over and out.”

With an outsider’s perspective, the Pears Pavilion storehouse looked normal, if abandoned. ‘Pears Pavilion’ was still emblazoned on one side in italics, if lightly faded, and the doors and shutters looked otherwise untouched. And yet, behind those walls, ponies were being held hostage by aliens, being prepared for transport. For what purpose is unknown, though it is believed to be experimentation.

How? Shining Armor didn’t know. But it probably involved something about probes that made everyone squeamish.

The Skyrangers hit hard and fast, squads flying out or sliding down ropes onto the ground. Strike Four, lead by Sgt. Mosaic, hit the rooftops, while Strike Three and One hit the ground. Shining Armor nodded to Sgt. Iron Hoof and the minigun bolted onto his side and flipped the safety on his shotgun. Nightvision goggles went live, and the world was painted in varying shades of black, white and grey as dark-clad operatives took up positions behind carts and shrubbery.

“Strike One, we have access. Permission to enter?”

“Negative, Four. We’ll make the scene first. Your task is rescue, not retaliation. Wait for my go.” Shining Armor paused. “Or the explosion. That works too.” The plan was to draw out the aliens into the open, where they lost the advantage of close quarters. He doubted that they would all emerge, but it would reduce risk. Then it was up to Strike Four.

“Captain, this is Three-Actual,” Iron Hoof radioed. “Strike Three in position.”

“Shining,” Starlight transmitted, “One-Two here. Strike One’s ready. We’re ready to blow, sir.”

“Copy that, everyone.” The Captain plucked the pin from the egg-shaped grenade in his hooves. “Hit it.”

The hail of rockets followed soon after, completely destroying the shutter doors in moments. Shining Armor hurled the grenade right after, watching it and dozens of others bounce and roll right through the hole that was once a wall. Clicking sounds were heard, presumably of confusion.

The grenades detonated, shredding everything inside apart in a hail of plastic shrapnel. Smoke wafted from the charred ashen hole, and silenced reigned.

Shining Armor grinned, but winced inside at the collateral damage. He could see the paperwork already. “Strike Four, you’re clear to proceed. Everyone else, stay put.” As if on cue, a bolt of plasma shrieked far overhead. Popping his head over the cart, Shining Armor blinked and held back his astonishment.

Over two dozen sectoids. This was a large scale operation. They hit the jackpot. Now it was up to Strike Four to rescue the abductees.

As an abandoned structure, the storehouse lacked power and thus, light. The aliens had to bring their own light, though apparently not many. This was to Sergeant Mosaic’s preference. After all, as a Shadow Walker, he belonged to the darkness.

He flew into the darkness behind a door, watching with judgemental eyes as the rest of Strike Four followed. As befit their specialty, Strike Four also had other zebras. Most of First Light’s zebras, actually; the few that joined were Shadow Walkers, though he was best. They lived with the darkness, became one with the darkness, and moved amongst the shadows within his expectations. They were not a problem.

The ponies. They were the problem. Folk who shunned the moon and exalted the sun were not meant for the shadows. Captain Shining Armor seemed a respectful one, but he should know better. One does not leave stealth work to ponies, and the performance of these two was proof of that. To his trained eyes, they were like cripples at a dance competition. Painful to watch.

“Mosaic.” The sergeant turned, looking where one of his zebra soldiers pointed at. A duo of sectoids, at the other end of the walkway overseeing one of the storage blocks. Down below, other sectoids tended to abductees in green ooze, preparing them for transport.

The sergeant bit back a curse. They were on the far end, down below had lights, and the walkway was metal and the only way down. They could not hide bodies. They could not sneak around. Their guns were silenced, but not enough. It appeared that the Captain’s distraction was not good enough. A pity.

“Iyya. Explosive. Qara, get your gun. The rest of you, quiet.” He pulled out a rifle, silencer thick and secured over the barrel. “Iyya, your count.”

“Throwing, Mosaic.” The corporal fished out a yellow-striped grenade and plucked out the pin, dropping it to the depths below. It bounced once, catching the sectoids’ attention. The three below turned to look, as did the two above.

Qara and Mosaic fired twice, each at a Sectoid. They fell to the ground, each with two holes in the head.

The grenade went off, a loud boom shaking the room. A sectoid exploded outright into gibs of purple flesh, and another fell limp to the side. The third stumbled, and caught a bullet through the back of the head. Mosaic turned, and saw one of the ponies - pegasus named Pitch - with a pistol out. He fired again, then unloaded twice on the other intact sectoid.

“Princess always said to make sure,” the other pegasus - Shade - said, nodding to the Sergeant as he produced a knife that shimmered blue, the Feather constellation branded on its hilt. “And to always prepare.”

An enchanted shortblade? Interesting. “Your Princess Celestia is wise,” Mosaic mused.

“She is, but we serve Princess Luna.” Mosaic arched an eyebrow at the name. These ponies follow the moon? Very interesting. “Since her return, the Night Guard have been restored. We are among their first.”

“So it seems.” Perhaps they could be salvaged. They seemed excellent with a gun. Still, for stealth work they were like foals at play. Worse, depending on the foals. “Keep moving, Strike Four. We come back later.”

“Aye, sir.”

“Hey, what’s with the barricade?”

Sergeant Blue Shift of the Fillydelphia Police Department looked at the mass of ponies gathered before the cordon, carts blocking access down the road, officers in riot gear lined up in a row and what passages remaining marked by long strips of illuminated barricade tape. He wanted to tell them everything he knew, he really did. Aliens were running a suspected abduction campaign in one of the old abandoned warehouses, and government forces were being dispatched to deal with it. He couldn’t, though. It would be another Panic.

He clicked on the megaphone and took a deep breath. “This is for your safety, everypony. Until a further time, no one is allowed to go past us.”

The protesters began to harp. “If it’s for our own safety, we deserve to know!”

“This is an affront to our freedoms! We demand free passage or an explanation!”

“It’s happening all over the city, too! What gives?!”

Don’t panic, Shift. Go through the lines. “We detected a large gas leak in the southeastern part of the city, and until teams come in from Cloudsdale to deal with it nopony’s allowed to go in. We apologise for the inconvenience.”

Just then, fighter jets flew right overhead, nearly deafening all with the roar of their engines. Dammit, of all the times why now?

"A gas leak? Oh no! It might spread! Save the foals!”

“It’s not a gas leak, it’s a bomb! It’s a bombing! A bombing!”

"Fighter jets? What kind of gas leak needs fighter jets to contain?!"

“What kind of gas leak needs the entire police department to cordon off?! Why so many ponies? Why so many barricades?! What is going on?!”

“The aliens! It’s the aliens! It’s always the aliens!”

Blue Shift rapped twice on the megaphone, and as one his officers struck their shields with batons loudly twice. The crowds silenced, but only slightly. “Do not panic!” Shift urged. “The gas leak is harmless! So long as nopony gets past us, everything will be fine!”

The crowd grew louder, and seemed a moment from melting over. The sergeant sighed and pulled down the transparent faceplate down. This was going to be a long night. Whoever was dealing with the aliens had better hurry up.

The command deck was surprisingly empty this time of the day. Sergeant Ivan had went off to get a snack, Dr. Sparkle was busy doing who-knows-what in the labs, and Central Officer Applejack was off taking a well-deserved break. It was just the General, the technicians, and the Flight Commander.

Two red hexagons flashed on the hologlobe, and Rainbow Dash reached for her headset. “Storm Leader, be advised. Two scout UFOs are headed for the city.”

“I see them, Blue Thunder. Orders?”

She turned to the General expectantly, and he shook his head.

“Blast them into the ocean, Storm Leader,” Blueblood ordered. “I have no men or patience to spend on recovery missions tonight.” With three squads committed and two UFOs? He’d sooner fight Discord with his bare hooves while lathered in honey and ham.

“Aye aye, Azure High. Blue Thunder, permission to use the Night Haunters?”

Dash nearly sputtered in astonishment. “Denied, Storm Leader. You know the regulations.”

Which, as General Blueblood recalled, basically amounted to ‘no nukes over domestic areas period or I stick my hoof up your hindquarters so hard Equestria sees a new sun’. Princess Celestia had been quite clear on this with all her Generals ever since the first arcano-atomic was created, though she was more eloquent, more subtle and alliterated.

“Acknowledged, Blue Thunder. Pulling them out to sea. Storm Leader, out.”

The link killed and Dash sighed in disappointment, looking up at the indicators on the hologlobe. “Still think I should be out there, General. Not in here.”

Blueblood snorted. “I sympathise, Rainbow Dash, but you are too important. The risk is too high.”

“It still blows,” she pouted. “I signed up to fight aliens, General, not sign paperwork and look at screens.”

The General chuckled softly, and said nothing in response.


“Nothing,” he replied, smiling softly. “You just sound exactly like someone I know.”

Dash looked funnily at him, but paid him no heed. “Hey, where’s Applejack?”

“She took a break after manning the CiC for twelve hours strai… hold on.” the General tapped on his earpiece. “This is Azure High.”

“This is Four-Actual. We found abductees, eight of them.”

“Good work. Leave a beacon and clear the site. A dozen or two to go, Sergeant.”

The zebra grunted. “Four-Actual out.”

Dash arched an eyebrow. “Not one for talking, is he?”

“I prefer to think he’s professional.” Blueblood tapped on his earpiece again. “One-Actual, report.”

“Well, sir,” the Captain whispered, as Specialist Verdant opened the door gingerly, “Strike One’s moving into the storehouse while Strike Three handles mop up. Strike One has an injury, but he should be fine for a few hours.” Strike One breached, and Shining Armor followed with shotgun drawn.

“Good, good. Mosaic reported in, found some abductees. He left a beacon.”

The interior of the storehouse was as big as he expected, Shining Armor noticed. The ceiling was tall. Very tall. Tall enough to need walkways. And though it was nothing compared to Hangar One, there was still enough space to get lost within the rows upon rows of abandoned crates and boxes. And this was only one room of five. “Yeah, I know. Strike Four called me just a while ago. We’ll rescue them once the structure is clear.”

“Acknowledged. Sensors detect a dozen or so contacts still active. Readings aren’t clear, but we expect two or three Outsiders to be active.”

“Roger that, General. We’ll call in when… hang on.”

Clank, clank, clank. Sounds of… walking? Shining Armor looked up, and his eyes went wide.

Sectoids. Many sectoids. Too many sectoids. There was only one conclusion. One word.


His horn lit up like a second violet sun, and the Shield of Equestria threw up the largest planar barrier he could conjure. “X-Rays! Up top!”

Strike One dove into cover, and the plasma began to fly. Five bolts struck their mark, and Shining Armor’s horn split open with pain.

He shook it off. There were still some exposed. He had to cover them. He had to be their Shield. He had to hold.

He blinked repeatedly, sweat beading into his eyes. This was intense. The strain was nothing like he felt before. Layered ablative shielding was one thing, but a constant barrier of such size and complexity against this much power was… No. He had to hold.

Hold dammit.

A second wave of plasma splashed against his shield, and it shattered into jagged ethereal shards that faded away instantly. His horn redoubled in agony, nearly blinding him. He saw nothing, heard nothing, felt nothing. Just him and his pain.

It was like looking into the fury of the sun and not being able to turn away.

Shining Armor was yanked back under a cargo container roughly as the third wave of plasma shrieked, and bursts of gunfire began. His helmet was stripped off quickly, and he saw a unicorn working over him frantically. Starlight?

“Who brought the medkit?! Who brought the sky-damned medkit?!

Definitely Starlight. He blinked away the sweat again, and tried wiping at it with a hoof. It came back stained in red.

“--ptain, please respond! Shining Armor, respond!”

His radio still worked? Interesting.

“A-Azure High,” he whispered, his horn throbbing with pain and burning. “T-This is Strike One. W-We’re engaging the enemy.” Darkness clouded at the edges of his vision, and he bat them away with a determined glare. “S-Starlight, d-do something for me.”

“Stay down, Shining!” He heard the familiar sizzling of plasma, and smelled something acrid. A pony slid in right next to him, panting audibly. “About time, Pulse!”

“Berate me after I get the Captain stable,” the earth pony growled. “Captain, hold on, I’ll try and stem the bleeding. Stars, there’s a lot of blood…”

“G-Get air support,” Shining urged. The darkness swelled, and stars dotted his vision. “R-Right on top of us.”

Starlight lost her panic and looked at Shining flatly. Even through the opaque visor, Shining could feel the incredulity emanating. “What?”

“He’s delirious, Corporal,” Pulse said. “He’s lost a lot of blood.”

“J-Just do it,” Shining wheezed, oddly calm. He had gone through this before. Overextending mana was not life-threatening. He was just… tired. So tired. Everything was dark now. He didn’t have much time. “G-Get everyone to cover… Strafing run…”

“No, it’s sound. The Captain’s right.”

“We’ll get shredded on the ground!”

“Better than getting melted into goo!”

“And how are we going to transmit coordinates? There’s no skylight! No smoke! No strobes! Certainly no beacons!”

He was tired. And in pain. Tired and in pain. He would sleep. Yes, sleep was nice. So very nice.

One more message, and he would rest. He had to rest. By all counts he should be unconscious right now.

“IFF tags… s-should work… Yes… IFF tags…”

So tired. So sleepy. Sleep now. The rest is up to them.

On the tactical overview of the storehouse One-Actual’s tag turned yellow, and the General practically lunged for his headset. “Starlight, report!”

“Just feedback, Azure High,” Starlight responded. “Actual’s out, but he’ll live. Right now, we need an airstrike on our position, pronto.”

He heaved a sigh of relief internally, but grunted discontentedly. What was the Corporal even thinking? “Denied. I’m not dropping a Sunburst on your position. Three-Actual!”

“Da, I heard everything. Strike Three moving into position now.”

“Thank you, Sergeant.” Well, that was a reliable one. Iron Hoof has a bright future ahead. “One-Two, hold position. We’ll come to you.”

“We don’t have time, Azure High. It’s airstrike or bust. The Captain said so!”

How is this even a discussion. “The Captain just suffered violent magical feedback,” Blueblood growled. “He’s not in his right mind. Wait for Iron Hoof, Starlight. That's an order.”

“...Understood, Azure High. But I want that airstrike ready.”

Well, a little insurance never hurt anyone. “Fine. Flight Commander?”

Dash nodded, having stayed silent the entire time. “Storm Leader, gimme a sitrep.”

“Lost three birds, Blue Thunder, but chalked two UFOs. Sounds like a good trade to me!”

Dash twinged with annoyance, but kept her cool. “And the pilots?”

“Dropped recovery beacons. They’ll live.”

“Good. Get back to Fillydelphia ASAP and maintain overwatch.”

“Aye, Blue Thunder. Firing afterburners. Storm Leader, out.”

The General sighed, and looked up at the overview. Engineering’s secret project couldn’t come sooner.

Another group of abductees, and again no aliens to guard them. The Captain's plan worked after all. "Qara, report."

“No aliens here, Mosaic.”


“Nothing over here. Room is clear, Mosaic.”

The sergeant nodded and headed over to Shade, delicately trying to pry open the green membrane that coated the abductees. It obscured the expressions, but did not leave much to the imagination. These ponies were frightened when they were captured. These ponies were screaming. “Can you cut it?”

The former Night Guard extracted the knife from his mouth with a sigh. “No. It can cut, but I’ll hurt the pony inside.”

“Then we leave it for the recovery teams,” Mosaic grunted. “Strike Four, form up. We move.”

His troopers pulsed back their acknowledgements, moving onto the next grid of the warehouse. Mosaic lead the pack and was followed by the rest, with the two former-Night Guard in the back with their rifles raised. It seemed the best arrangement. His Shadow Walkers weren’t the best shots, Qara and himself excepted, and the two Night Guard appeared to have skill with it. He’ll give them that much.

They slipped through the door, floating guns around corners in case of alien contact, but never encountering so much as a sectoid. It had been like this ever since the first room. They had cleared three by now, and was onto the central node where they were supposed to rendezvous with the Captain. Not a single alien. Only abductees.

This was not relieving. This was unsettling. Mosaic clamped down hard on his emotions, but still it barked at the back of his mind. This lack of response was unnatural. He knew the Captain had walked into a trap (the tell-tale rumblings and echoes through the storehouse were unmistakable signs of a struggle), but there had to be more. There was always more. Especially for such a large-scale operation.

The last room had the Outsiders. A single Outsider is known to be capable of taking out half a Strike Team. A single one killed a third of Strike Two and crippled all the rest.

There were at least two detected, potentially three.

Mosaic was not looking forward to taking it on by himself, but it looked like he would have to. Up ahead was the closed door to the central rooms. The Outsiders were probably inside, if alien logic worked anything like their logic.

“We’re here,” he said finally, coming to a stop before the door. He gestured with a hoof, and Strike Four assumed breaching positions, himself next to the door. Protocol could go kiss the night sky. “Everyone, prime your explosives and ready your weapons. When I give the signal, open fire.”

He slammed the door open, hurling it off its hinges, and he saw what was inside. Three dull yellow crystals that began to suffuse with light once the door came flying off. One was bigger than the others. Strange. “Go!”

The grenades flew in followed by a hail of gunfire, and in mid-form two of the crystals went dull and shattered. The third continued formation, assuming the form its alien masters had directed it to hold.

Amid the firepower, Mosaic looked up at it. He looked up… and up… and up…

Oh dear.

“Strike Four! Pull back!”

The Outsider roared, and the wall exploded.

"Pulse, hit him with the stims!"

"Alright, alright," the earth pony sighed, producing a syringe and uncapping it. "Let's hope its feedback and not burn out."

She grunted and turned to her radio, noticing a hail. "This is One-Two, plsase acknowledge."

"Strike One-Two, this is Storm Leader. I hear you called for an airstrike?"

Well, the General actually got it for her. How courteous. "Yes, but we-" Starlight winced at the blast of hot air, a plasma bolt landing too close for comfort. "We need you to wait for my signal!"

"Roger that, One-Two, but we'll need markers for accuracy."

"Use our IFF tags and hit around them. That should be enough." Shining groaned and began to stir. Welp, better get ready to receive him. "One-Two, signing off."

"Roger roger, One-Two. Don't keep us waiting."

Shining groaned, and they all winced at a nearby bolt of plasma melting through stone. “Starlight, did you…” He paused. “Starlight, where are we?”

“Still the storehouse. We shot you full of stims, Captain.”

“Starlight’s idea,” Pulse clarified defensively.

“Was my leadership that important to you?” He grinned. “Finally, some recognition.”

“More like we need to run and it’ll be faster if we didn’t have to carry you,” Starlight replied dryly. “Alright, Storm Leader, ready when you are.”

Shining blinked, still looking flatly at the unicorn when he put on his helmet. “Starlight, you’re calling an airstrike?”

“...Starlight I was delirious why did you think this was a good idea.”

“...I don’t know.”

“Final checks, One-Two,” Dust chimed in. “Lining up for a run.”

“This is One-Actual! Abort run! Abort ru-”

A low growl, akin to a bear, filled the air, drowning out the plasma as a stream of tens of thousands of rounds per minute displaced the sectoids bit by bullet-shaped bit. Starlight heard anxious clicking and bullets deflecting off pillars, and the roar of two missiles connecting with both catwalks at once.

“Sorry am late, Captain,” Iron Hoof voiced over the radio. “Need fight baby aliens.”

“You’re excused, Sergeant,” Shining laughed, crawling out the container and beaming all the way. “Bless you for showing up when you did.”

“Fire mission aborted, Strike One,” General Blueblood rumbled. “Corporal Starlight, in the words of a less eloquent pony, the fuck were you thinking?”

Starlight almost shot back a snarky remark, but caught herself. She looked at Shining, then at Pulse, then at Shining again. Oh wow she did not think this through. She completely forgot that a hypersonic jet wouldn’t be able to line up a shot with their rotary cannons within a city.

“I have no idea,” she admitted. “It seemed like a good idea at the time.”

“We’re talking about listening to me when I’m compromised after all this is over,” Shining sighed. “Alright, everyone, rest up and get ready to move on in three. Mosaic’s-”

The far wall exploded into a cloud of green and brown, and six forms came tumbling out. They bounced once, twice, and skidded to a stop in the middle of the room. Strike One moved forward, meeting Strike Three at that spot. It was Strike Four, charred black and groaning softly.

“They’re alright,” a medic said evenly, and started helping them to their hooves. Mosaic looked at Shining and cracked a weak salute.

“Sir. You survived the trap.”

Starlight blinked. They knew about the trap? Nah, they probably just heard the plasma shrieking.

“...Well,” Shining said, head tilted just so. “That’s a surprise.” His head snapped back straight in realisation, and the Captain drew his shotgun. “Weapons ready! Mosaic, what did you find?”

A shimmering golden giant stepped through the broken wall, wielding the largest plasma weapon they had ever seen. The gun itself was as big as a pony if they laid down with legs spread, and the giant was twice the size of a minotaur.

“That,” Mosaic said dryly.

All eyes were glued onto the screen, looking at a frozen picture of the Outsider that marched through the broken wall. Flight Commander Dash was looking. Central Officer Applejack was looking. Sergeant Ivan Sharpeyes was looking, steaming cup of coffee rapidly cooling in his talons. Even General Blueblood was looking at it and nothing else.

“What,” said Dash.

“That’s not fair,” mumbled Applejack.

“I am not fighting that,” whined Ivan.

All eyes looked to General Blueblood for his reaction. Surely the stoic commander’s steely demeanour has a limit?

Instead, he rumbled. “Strike Teams, get outside. Now. Prep pink smoke.”

“A-Aye, sir!”

“Storm Leader, prime for airstrike. Hit the pink smoke on Shining Armor’s word.”

“Acknowledged, Azure High.”

His measured response was comforting to some, disappointing to others. The leader of XCOM showed strength, but no equinity. Also his reaction would have been priceless.

And then he closed the channels.

“Right. So,” he said, turning slowly to the rest of the bridge staff, stony faced and eyes leveled. “I might have nightmares tonight. Who’s with me?”

Everypony raised their hooves.

The distance to the exit was four, maybe five hundred meters away, Shining Armor recalled. XCOM’s operatives could probably make the distance easily within minutes. With the looming threat of the largest Outsider ever on record right behind them, they could probably do it even faster. Especially since their response had been less than effective.

“How the hell did grenades and rockets do nothing to it?!” Starlight wailed. “Everything! We literally threw everything!”

Pulse, for his part, let out an exasperated groan. “If you can scream while running you can run faster!”

A bolt of plasma struck behind the three, a cushion of hot expanding air hitting them all by surprise. they stumbled, only slightly, but a look behind confirmed that the Outsider was gaining on them.

A rocket slammed right into its empty face; a direct hit. Flakes of bright yellow energy flaked off. Iron Hoof grinned and threw the rocket tube to the side. “Direct hit!” The smoke cleared, and its head was absolutely unharmed. “половой акт!”

Shining Armor looked straight ahead. The doors were right there. They were almost clear.

“Keep running!” he shouted, using the voice of command his years as a Captain have taught him, and pulled a gas bomb from his vest, striped pink. “Storm Leader, are you ready for fire mission?!”

“We’re loitering, One-Actual. Waiting for pink smoke.”

“Good! We’re almost at the exit!” His muscles burned, and his heart raced at a hundred miles an hour. Stims were flooding his system, and if he crashed he wasn’t getting back up again. He had to make it. They had to make it.

The Outsider accelerated ten-fold, moving towards them as if they were standing still. Oh, what the fuck. That was not fair. Something that big should not be that fast.

A knife embedded through the crystal in its core, punching right through the thin membranes that obscured it slightly. It pulsed blue and stumbled over, falling into a clumsy roll. Somehow. That was fortunate. But who threw the knife?

“Shade,” Mosaic radioed in, “Good throw.”

“Thank you, Sergeant,” the former-Night Guard replied evenly. Ah, that’s where it came from. A gift from the Princess, then? Maybe it could survive the missile strike.

The door was mere meters away now. Shining Armor grinned determinedly, and pulled the ring on the smoke grenade as he became awash in Luna’s light. He slowed down just enough, counting off everyone who passed him. Iron Hoof. Mosaic. Starlight. Within minutes, all of Strike One, Three and Four were out. He tossed the smoke bomb behind him, the clip flying loose, and a cloud of pink smoke flooded the air.

“Keep running!” he barked, pumping his legs like never before. “We’re not clear yet! Storm Leader, you are clear for missile strike! Repeat, you are clear for missile strike!”

“Roger roger, One-Actual. Storm Squadron moving in for missile strike, round one.”

The Captain slid behind a cart and looked behind him, spotting the slight shadow of a giant gaining depth. “Please hurry.”

The Outsider emerged from the cloud, plasma gun crackling with green lightning. Reactions were varied. Some sighed, some sobbed, and some looked on defiantly in the face of death.

A flight of four Thunderclouds flew over the city, and four missiles struck down on the crystalline titan. It deformed slightly, small pieces of its body disintegrating into light and struggling to reform.

“Still alive, Storm Leader! Hit it again!”

Another hail of missiles struck down, and it disintegrated, leaving only two halves of an oversized crystal and the broken pieces of its giant gun. It didn’t spark, it didn’t shimmer. It just laid there.

Could they… Could it?

“One-Actual, this is Azure High. We’re not detecting any readings from the crystal fragments. It’s down.”

Shining could not believe it. It was actually dead. But was it over? “Azure High, do you detect any further readings from inside the storehouse?”

“Absolutely nothing, One-Actual. Recovery teams should be arriving soon. Good work, soldier. Mission success.”

Mission success? The mission was a success? Shining Armor turned to the operatives behind him, counting heads one by one by one. Eighteen heads, including his. Eighteen operatives, alive and ready. Eighteen out of eighteen.

Everyone survived. Everyone lived.

“...One-Actual? One-Actual, please respond.”

“I’m here, General. I’m just…” He blinked. This seemed unreal. “Acknowledged. We’ll be back soon. One-Actual, out.”

This felt impossible. A perfect mission? Even against a giant Outsider? Wow.

“...Sir?” He turned, and saw Starlight and the others looking at him. “Sir, what’s the prognosis?”

“Mission success,” Shining replied, face blank. Realisation creeped in. It was actually happening. It was real. “Mission success, everyone. Mission success!”

The reaction was unanimous. Everyone cheered.

Location: First Light, Crystal Mountains
Date: 24th Mayfly, 1006 PDE
Time: 22:18:45 (Canterlot Standard Time)

General Blueblood still couldn’t believe it, even as all the members of Strike One, Three and Four emerged from their Skyrangers and departed, but he was very pleased. A clean mission. No one died and they even recovered one of Princess Luna’s Constellation Set, too. The one that was gifted to Specialist Shade.

“General.” Shining Armor went up to him and saluted smartly, helmet placed on his back and held steady. “I can have the reports on your table by tomorrow morning.”

“Very good, Captain,” the General replied, smiling for once, and saluted as well. “Excellent work on the mission. Dismissed.”

The two stallions nodded, and left in opposite directions. One to his quarters, to reassure his wife. The other to the command deck, to maintain the eternal vigil of XCOM. Both, to enjoy a peace of mind for the first time in weeks.

Frosty entered the labs and found Twilight Sparkle hard at work. Likely trying to make heads or tails of their power generation, most likely. This ‘elerium’. The mare was so dedicated. “Dr. Sparkle,” he said, just loudly enough to get her attention. “Just thought you might want to know. We have news on the ground operation.”

“Oh?” She looked up from the microscope and reengaged the barrier around it to ensure no accidental tampering of the sample. “Oh! How’d it go?”

He shrugged. It was nice, but he didn’t have strong feelings either way. “Mission success, as you’d expect. Also everyone survived.”

“Everyone lived? That’s… That’s incredible!” In a flash Twilight Sparkle was wearing her labcoat, ready to leave. “I should go congratulate Shining! But… I also have my work.” She looked at the door, then at the elerium, then at the door again. “Ugh, why does alien technology have to be so interesting?!”

It really was. Dr. Frosty sympathised. “I suggest you leave the thanks for tomorrow, Dr. Sparkle,” Frosty suggested. “Last I checked, Shining was going to see Princess Cadenza.”

“Oh,” she soffed, “He does that everyday. What’s so different about today?”

Despite spending two years studying friendship and writing a thesis on it, she was still oblivious to social cues? The mare needed an outdoors hobby. “Well, the Captain got knocked out from violent magical feedback during the mission and then brought back with stims. That’s kind of a traumatic incident, Dr. Sparkle.”

“So? What does that have to…” She looked out at the wall abruptly, the gears grinding in her head. Frosty knew that look. He knew it too well. “Oh. Oh.” She grimaced. “Oh ew. Ew.

“Yeah, it’s never not awkward,” the unicorn said in sympathy. “We’re all grown up here, so these things are to be expected. But knowing that your brother and your sister-in-law are about to go and…” Twilight Sparkle was still squeamish about such things. You need another way of expressing it. No bluntness she’s your boss. “...And make babies.”

She blushed luminescent red all over her face and he slapped himself. That was dumb. That was incredibly dumb. That would be the worst euphemism he could have used.

Moments passed, each one more awkward than the last. “Well,” Twilight said finally, still blushing brightly, “At least I might get a nephew?”

“Yes,” Frosty encouraged. “Think of the cute baby. Think of how cute the foal will be.”

“...Anyways! Yes!” She flashed again, coat flopping emptily onto the floor, and she was back to studying the strange crystaline structure. “Elerium! Research! Busy busy busy! I’ll just... visit him in the morning! He knows what I’m doing, he’s not going to hate me for not visiting him after he lands.” Her eye twitched. “Probably. Maybe?”

Wow that mare’s imagination went far. Frosty cleared his throat loudly. “Focus on the task at hoof, Doctor. Block out all extraneous thoughts.”

“Right. Of course.” She took a deep breath and nodded. “Thank you, Dr. Frosty.”

“My pleasure,” he bowed, and went about to his own lab within the research block. It was late at night and a good time to sleep, but dammit he saw those lenses. He knew those circuits. Those fragments gave him ideas and he was going to make it work dammit.

Location: First Light, Crystal Mountains
Date: 31st Mayfly, 1006 PDE
Time: 13:18:45 (Canterlot Standard Time)

Before the pale glow of the screen, General Blueblood bowed. “Princess Celestia. Princess Luna.”

“General Blueblood,” they both nodded. Celestia looked slightly better for wear - her wings were no longer bandaged - but even now she looked haggard. Princess Luna, on the other hoof, looked at her sister with a mixture of disdain and worry. The General couldn’t figure out how much of which.

Luna began. “I trust that my Night Guard have done well, General?”

“Pitch and Shade have been impressing Mosaic, Princess. They have done well.” He grinned. “We even recovered one of the Moonblade Hundred from the wreckage. The hilt and pommel were damaged, but the blade itself remained intact. With luck, it should be restored in whole soon.”

“It pleases me to hear that one of my artifacts has been beneficial to the cause, General,” Luna smiled. “But while it pleases me, this meeting is more than just to shower praise upon me. Tia?”

“XCOM has done very well this past month, General,” Celestia said, holding herself with every bit of regality and poise she had in her. Which was a lot. “Three UFOs captured in Equestria and a large-scale abduction mission foiled. Casualties were had, but those were expected. Tragic, but expected. You have done well, General Blueblood. I knew that you were the right choice.”

“You flatter me, Princess,” he said, looking straight at the Princess. “The credit goes to my operatives, Captain Shining Armor especially. He has been a reliable and trustworthy lad, and has a good head on him. I like him.”

“The Captain is a born leader, General,” Celestia pointed out. “He was once Shield of Equestria, after all. Though, the deaths must weight on him.”

“He’s a tough one. He’ll get over it. Unlike another stallion his age I know.”

“He still misses you, General,” Celestia said, eyes couched in concern. “He seemed genuinely regretful.”

“I maintain that this is a phase,” Blueblood spat. “I would like to move on from the topic, Princess. My son is hardly my favourite subject.”

Luna frowned, but spoke in her sister’s stead. “Nonetheless, General, the fight goes on. As agreed on, the Council is transferring your funding into XCOM’s accounts. In addition, we have found additional research and engineering personnel found worthy of aiding the cause, as well as more suitable operatives from within Equestria’s military arms. All these staff should be arriving on the 4th, along with additional Skyrangers for the new squads. With this, XCOM should now have ten Skyrangers to do as it wishes.”

Blueblood grinned. “You know me so well, Princess. It’s like my birthday was early.”

“I safeguard your dreams even now, General Blueblood,” Luna said with a wink. “I should know a thing or two about how you work.”

Celestia rolled her eyes and laughed. “She’s not too old for you, General. The opposite might be true, but I’m sure Luna wouldn’t mind.”

Blueblood laughed where Luna sputtered. “S-S-Sister! The gall! We are at war! This is hardly the time to find a stallion!”

“Oh, but you get so lonely at night, Luna,” Celestia teased. “I simply hoped to ease your burden!”

Oh Celestia. Such a tease. “I’m still a married man, Princess,” Blueblood mentioned. “I never renounced my vows even after Azure died.”

“Very romantic, General,” Celestia said, half-trying to get a rise and half-impressed. “I never knew you were the sort.”

“I couldn’t find a mare like Azure again. We were perfect for each other.” He nodded. “No offense, Princess Luna.”

“Oh, not you too! Is this the time or place to discuss or make such advances, General?!”

He suppressed a chortle, one that Celestia did not. “Of course not, Princess. Now, onto more serious matters. Like the state of half the Sky Guard.”

“I heard from Twilight, General.” Celestia cocked an eyebrow. “Meld, was it?”

He nodded. “Priority remains for XCOM operatives, Princess, that remains a fact. But we might be able to give them a new lease on life. Literally, for Slider.”

“An intriguing prospect, General. But would it be worth it to give up precious assets and not get any return on your investment?”

“If it means saving Sky Captain Slider? Yes.” His eyes narrowed. “I cannot simply stand by and watch him die slowly to infection, Princess. He might be mostly robot, but he will live.”

Celestia smiled, and nodded in agreement. “It appears that you remain a pony, General, not a machine. That is good to hear.”

“That’s what you taught me,” he replied with a bow. “Now, on the topic of cybernetics...”

Within the Ghastly Gorge, what was once Spectre Mountain, home of the once-great now-dead wyrm Hok, life carried on as it always did. In a place where even ponykind has not tamed entirely, where animals were ruled by their beastial natures and primal urges to their fullest, nature did what it did best: Ensure that the fittest survived.

Here, manticores hunted cockatrices, hawks preyed on woodland mice, and whatever was brave or foolish enough to dive into the canyons were snapped up by quarray eels.

Here, in a place where cruelty and beauty stood side by side, it was like the war never happened at all.

Here, within the deepest caves of a long-dead quarray eel, the darkness shifted.

Here, the mission set its eyes on the little hamlet of Ponyville.

XCOM Codex
Project: Cherub (Sectoid Autopsy)
Dated: 28th Mayfly 1006
Project Head: Dr. Torque Butterfingers

The alien (henceforth referred to as the Sectoid) is a small bipedal alien shorter than the average pony, with large empty eyes and no discernable mouth to speak of. Of the Sectoids that have been analysed so far, all of them have had near-identical genetic structures, and every single one has been augmented cybernetically. This implies that they might all be clones. Cybernetically-augmented clones. The implications are troubling.

The head of the Sectoid is very large in proportion to the rest of the body, and combined with the lack of a mouth it is not known how or even if the alien gets any sustenance to maintain respiration. Of note is that the brain appears to have the most cybernetic enhancement of all, and coupled with their physical fragility it is likely that these implants are for the explicit purpose of improving their capabilities in combat, though it is just as likely that such aliens were not designed for frontline combat, a troubling possibility indeed.

In comparison to what records we have of the Sectoid in the Codex, there appears to be some difference in the capabilities of these aliens. The Sectoids of old have displayed the ability to ‘mind merge’, while so far these aliens have not shown any ability to do such a thing. Only time will tell if it was worked out as a design flaw or improved further by the Ethereals.

Head Researcher’s Notes: Dr. Metal Hands has already expressed several possibilities for the use of these implants and is interested in trying them out. Though I disdain the need to rip out the implants from preserved corpses for potential future use, it appears to be a necessity and will continue to be necessary for the duration of this war. Perhaps he could design an automatic extractor?

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