• Published 13th Mar 2014
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Fortitude Amicitia - Arad



The Dusk Guard's first joint operation alongside XCOM turns out to be far more complex than anyone anticipates. (Stardust/Dusk Guard crossover)

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XCOM and Its Allies

What have we gotten ourselves into? Captain Steel Song couldn’t help but ask himself for the fifth time in as many days as he continued to immerse himself in every scrap of information he could get on the conflict that the Dusk Guard found themselves involved in.

It had been just over a week since Shining Armor and Star Shot, Steel’s counterparts in the Royal Guard and Night Guard respectively had been summoned by the recently crowned Princess Twilight to the memoratorium chamber. As neither Star Shot nor Steel had been properly introduced to the new royalty, they had simply assumed the gathering was for that reason, though the choice of meeting place was odd. While introductions were made by Princess Celestia and Luna, what they did not expect was the impassioned plea from the newest princess about the plight of the 'humans' that she had spent the last two months with. The memoratorium was filled with her memories as she spoke about the friends she had made there as well as the horrors that they were fighting; horrors that she herself had fought.

The princesses had maintained their stoic expressions throughout the entire presentation, no doubt through centuries worth of practice. Star Shot's reaction was subtle, but her clenched jaw and wide eyes betrayed much of what she was feeling. Shining Armor showed just as little, though the mask cracked when he embraced his sister at the end of her request. That was all Twilight had: a request that the Guard be mobilized to assist. With the Royal Guard being under Celestia's command, the Night Guard under Luna and the Dusk Guard jointly under both, the newest princess had little in the way of authority over them.

Such authority wasn't necessary. Shining Armor had immediately agreed, as had Star Shot and Steel Song.

Contact and formal agreements had been made with the humans, more specifically a division of the human guard that identified itself as 'XCOM'. At first the distinction hadn't seemed to matter to the captain until he had immersed himself in the mountains of information they had been provided. Much like Equus, each nation on the world maintained its own standing army to protect itself and its interests, and while several multi-national organizations were created with the expressed objective of presenting a united front against any threat, these were often bogged down by bureaucracy and more often than not heavily supplied by a mere hooffull of nations as opposed to the dozens who were officially members.

XCOM, however, was something that Steel Song both respected and feared. The organization was created to combat threats from outside their world, and was not publicly supported or endorsed by any nation that they protected. On the one hoof, this freed them from the crushing bureaucracy of oversight and approval from those nations, but on the other hoof they were an armed organization that launched operations around their world without any permission given. Song's brief conversation with Commander David Bradford had done much to alleviate his concerns about potential misuse of this extraordinary organization, but when asked about the 'Council' that had originally created XCOM he had evaded the subject.

To Steel Song, who was so used to a completely transparent and accessible chain of command, not knowing exactly who was above Bradford was something that bothered him greatly. But like any good captain, he didn't speak ill of this arrangement. Steel's research had shown that XCOM had thus far been the most effective force in fighting the monsters that were attacking their world, so he bit down on his complaints and resumed his research.

A three-tone chime issued from the door to Steel's office and he lifted a hoof to tap a button on his desk. The door opened a moment later and a tan coated pegasus in casual uniform cantered in before shutting the door behind him. “Have a seat, Hunter. How are the others adjusting?”

Hunter looked around the mostly barren office before trotted over to Steel's desk and gave the hard metal chair a glare before hopping up into it. “Is it bad for me to miss your office back home already? This place feels so... cold.”

“It's summer outside and it's nearly eighty degrees in here.”

“You know what I mean,” Hunter brought his attention back to Steel. “This place just doesn't have any personality to it, and the metal walls make me think of a prison cell.”

“From what I understand, the humans didn't spend as much time with the surface buildings as most of their work takes place underground to maintain secrecy. They're taking quite a risk allowing us to occupy the buildings on the surface; I expect it's a rare concession to any comfort but it's a welcome one,” Steel explained as he pushed his research material aside and turning to address Hunter directly. “And you still haven't answered my question, Lieutenant.” As Steel finished his statement he pulled the pendant and necklace around his head and set it on his desk. The translation pendants are convenient, but if the humans have a way of hearing our conversation I’d rather not share too much of my thoughts with them.

The mention of rank made Hunter straighten up just a bit and clear his throat as he removed his own translation pendant. “Dawn's currently down in the Medical wing running tests on healing spells as well as familiarizing herself with the humans' medical equipment to make sure that we don't accidentally kill each other trying to render first aid. I'm afraid you'll have to wait for her report into the specifics but the humans don't seem to have much in the way of healing in the field beyond bandages and pain killers. If anyone gets seriously hurt it'll be up to Dawn to keep us alive long enough to get back here.”

“Understood, continue.”

“Sky Bolt's about ready to lose her mind over all the technology the humans have. She apparently found her way into one of the testing centers in the base to--”

“She was trespassing?” Steel interrupted with a sigh as he brought up one hoof to rub his temple, “We've been here less than a week. If we're going to help the humans at all they have to trust us and they won't do that if we barge into places they don't want us.”

“Understood, though I don't think it will be a problem again.” When Steel raised an inquisitive eyebrow, Hunter continued, “The area she got into is where the humans apparently test their golems and she had a bit of an episode.” Steel's wince was all the confirmation Hunter needed that the point had been made. “Things may have worked out in the end though, the chief engineer was present and was able to calm her down. He helped me escort her back to the upper levels where he set her up with one of the 'computer' things like what you've got there. She's been splitting her time between researching everything she can access in it and upgrading our helmets to share information with the humans.”

“What's the status on that?” Steel asked before adding, “And did you get a chance to see the golems? I'm afraid I haven't gotten to their more recent developments...”

“Basic information is now shared between our helmets and the humans, friend and enemy tagging as well as radio communication too. I heard it's something like the minotaurs cooked up recently. You can talk to anyone who also has a radio that's dialed in apparently,” Hunter looked down and to the side as he approached the other question. “Regarding their golems, I didn't get to see much other than they're big and loud. Weapons are similar to the other humans except for scale. The few targets I was able to see at the firing range were in various states of rubble. Apparently they're using Princess Twilight's petrified monsters for target practice.”

“They let you into a testing area? That's surprising considering how zealously they've guarded most of their restricted areas. Wait, Bolt got into there, didn't she?” Again the hoof rose to Steel's temple. “When she makes her report about the helmets, tell her to give it to me personally. She may have learned her lesson, but I want to be sure.”

“Understood. And speaking of zealously guarding secrets, I asked the chief engineer how the golems were controlled, and he rather poorly tried to dodge the question. I’m afraid I don’t have a clue but the process isn’t very pleasant.” When Steel again raised an eyebrow, Hunter could only shrug.

The pegasus cleared his throat and continued. “Sabra's adjusting quite well. He's asked his question of several of the humans and got various answers, though from what I understand he's down in the mess still talking with a couple of them about it. Kang? Chang? Zhang... Zhang, that's it. The one with the scars. The other one looks like a bear, though I didn't catch his name.”

Steel glanced to his own notes on the humans he had met so far before nodding. “And Nova? Of all the Dusk Guard I had assumed he would be the most likely cause for trouble.”

“Nova Beam was last seen in the company of one of the soldiers from our last drill. The short one.”

Steel again glanced at his notes. It's been less than a week but it feels embarassing that I don't have the names down yet. “That would be Major... Fujikawa?” He asked while enunciating every syllable in the name.

“No no, the other short one. With the metal arm? Silly grin? Apparently she's a bit of a practical joker which might explain why they're getting along so well.” Hunter explained.

“Perhaps you should have Nova report to me also...”

Hunter's face broke out into a grin. “Way ahead of you boss. I actually warned Captain Harris about the potential mischief they would get into and he was surprisingly accepting of it. He said so long as their jokes don't affect base security or the health of base personnel the policy is to let things slide. Apparently it's good for morale.”

Steel took a moment to process that bit of information before nodding. “Be sure to inform Nova that if he conspires with this person to perpetrate pranks, the same rules apply here as back home. If he's caught with black or white paint, or photography equipment, he's going to be assigned to kitchen patrol until the end of time. Make sure he knows the humans eat meat, too.”

“Duly noted,” Hunter said with the smallest of smirks, and Steel had no doubts that his second in command was taking just a brief moment to relive the aftermath of that particular prank. “Well, as for me, no issues, though my weather control is all out of whack. I don't think I'll be able to manage precision lightning strikes but with the Mark III armor I should be able to stay in my usual form and I suspect the others will be too if the recent exercises are any indication.” Hunter took a moment to run a hoof along the collar of his uniform. “I am feeling a rash of insubordination coming on about these uniforms. I know we have to wear them because of the culture clash with the humans to make them comfortable, but what about our comfort? Or more specifically my comfort?”

Steel chuckled at the expected complaint. “Would you prefer having conversations with the humans without the clothes? You read the cultural primer and you know what their culture associates with a lack of clothes. If it makes you feel any better, when Princess Twilight got the cultural primer she apparently turned red as a tomato and couldn't speak in coherent sentences for an hour. She didn't have a scrap of clothing the entire time she was here.”

“If she can get away with it, then why can't I?” Hunter asked petulantly before throwing his hooves up in surrender when Steel fixed him with a flat stare. “How are you doing, boss? I know you put on the strong front, but how are you really doing?”

How am I doing? Steel couldn't help but ask himself as he leaned forward and took a moment to collect his thoughts. “These people scare me, Hunter. I see a lot of what makes us great in them, but I also see what they've become because of what they don't have.” He looked up to see Hunter was again sitting straight up and all joviality in his expression was gone. “We've had Celestia watching over us for over a thousand years. She's watched over our development culturally as well as technologically and she's kept an eye on the other nations of the world as well. This has kept our technology from reaching the level of the humans but Equestrian culture has stayed mostly positive and harmonious for a significant amount of time.”

“I can sense a ‘but’ coming,” Hunter stated as much as asked when the moment of pause dragged on.

“Do you remember how Bolt is when she's working on the Hummingbird? And how long it's taken our culture to make airships?” Steel asked, and when Hunter nodded he continued. “These humans created their first flying vehicle just over a century ago. Now they have airships capable of flying higher than the eye can see that can carry enough conventional explosives to destroy every square inch of land from Canterlot to Ponyville. They invented cannons less than a thousand years ago and now they're effective enough to hit a target the size of my house in Canterville from beyond the horizon. And that’s their technology from over thirty years ago. Celestia knows what they’ve come up with since then.”

“I thought the humans had some form of higher power to answer to,” Hunter asked as he briefly closed his eyes. “The cultural primer mentioned several gods that influence their lives. Certainly--”

Steel shook his head slowly which stopped Hunter mid sentence. “They are nothing like Celestia or Luna or even Discord. From what I can tell they exert their influence through a series of texts that are thousands of years old, and don’t care to correct their followers when they stray from their teachings. Almost every one of those gods also tries to assert that he is the only one that is real, and their followers frequently do barbaric things to each other in the name of their chosen god.

“The one thing, the only thing that consistently brings the humans together is a perceived threat. The last great war on this world was started by a man who’s rhetoric about a particular group of humans convinced his country that they would be doomed if they didn’t strike at them. He and his friends killed millions before they were stopped, Hunter.” Steel paused to emphasize his point, and Hunter’s wide-eyed expression was confirmation that the number had registered with the Pegasus. “If it weren’t for the monsters that are attacking the humans now, I would fear for Equestria and Equus as a whole if they became aware of us.”

“Why’s that?” Hunter whispered the question, as though he was afraid of the answer.

“Then we would be the perceived threat.”

Nearly a minute passed as the two simply sat and digested the conversation before Hunter finally spoke. “Boss, do you know the difference between a pony and a herd?”

The question gave the captain pause and he leaned forward in his chair. “I suspect the difference is more than numbers?”

“Yep. A pony is an intelligent creature. It can be reasoned with, and most ponies are inherently good folks. They’ll do the right thing when the time comes because it’s in their nature,” Hunter explained. “A herd of ponies, however, is a panicky and mindless monster that’s liable to stampede for the slightest excuse. I think these humans are the same, though they might not admit it. Each one is a rational individual but when put in a group they surrender just a little bit of their free will to it. Someone with a proper amount of charisma could turn the mindless mob into a monster capable of just about anything.”

“That’s rather insightful of you.” Steel said, though he arched an eyebrow as Hunter raised one hoof to interrupt him.

“Your own description of us fits into this analogy. We’ve become an inherently good culture because Celestia is also good. But before her there was the Unicorn Council, and before that was Queen Solaria. You might not know this but a few years back one of my ranger contacts let me in on what’s probably the discovery of the century. They found the abandoned ruins from Solaria’s time, and the archaeologists that got there were able to identify it as one of the late queen’s dungeons. Do you know what they found inside?” Hunter asked as he looked Steel in the eye.

“Bones of prisoners?” The captain stated as much as asked.

“Statues. Over ten thousand petrified ponies, with their list of crimes etched into their bodies. Further analysis showed that the etchings were cut into the ponies before they were petrified. Some of those crimes were as simple as ‘gazing upon the queen without permission.’ My point is, well, it’s just something else we have in common with the humans. They have their heroes and monsters just as we do, and the monsters don’t always look like something that grew up in Everfree,” Hunter finished before hopping down from his chair and grabbed his translation pendant with one hoof. “I’ll admit what you’ve found is cause for concern, but we have some of our own skeletons in the closet, so to speak. I should probably head back out to make sure Nova’s not getting into too much trouble. We know what he can do, but the human might be a bad influence on him. Anything else, boss?”

Steel couldn’t help but chuckle before he spoke. “Just one thing, Hunter. You were right, I hadn’t heard anything about that dig site, and I would have suspected such a find would have made the papers in some form. Do you know what happened?”

“Princess Celestia shut them down,” Hunter answered, and he continued when he recognized disbelief on his superior’s face. “The moment word of the discovery reached her; she offered the researchers posh teaching positions in the schools that she manages for an extremely limited time. Most of the researchers jumped at the opportunity, and the ones that were left couldn’t get the funding or interest to continue their dig. One of them even had the backbone to ask her during the Day Court why she gutted the expedition using such means. She told him, ‘past sins should stay buried and forgotten’ before the Royal Guard escorted him out.”

“Thanks, Hunter,” Steel said sincerely as he felt a bit of the building tension in the back of his mind disappear. “I guess I just needed some perspective. Don’t forget to remind Nova of the rules. If the princesses can make Twilight into an immortal alicorn then I’m pretty sure I can convince them to do the same to Nova.”

“Kitchen patrol. Forever!” Hunter laughed as he headed to the door. He had almost made it before one of the communicators on Steel’s desk buzzed.

The captain slipped his pendant back on and tapped one of the buttons on the desktop communicator with a hoof. “Captain Steel Song here, go ahead.”

“Captain, Dusk Guard has the green light,” Shining Armor’s voice reported crisply and both Steel and Hunter straightened. “Armor up and report for deployment in ten minutes. You will be briefed in the air. Good luck, Steel.”

------

Six helmets of various colors, but similar styles all sat neatly in a row beside Sky Bolt. The cluttered remains of several radios peppered the rest of the table’s surface, though the Pegasus didn’t pay them any attention. Her gaze was locked firmly on the computer screen as she tried to gorge herself on the mountains of information the humans had provided.

Joining the Dusk Guard had been a means to an end in the beginning, a way to fund her true passion. Sky Bolt’s ambitious mind had seen the creation of the airships, the Dusk Guard’s armor as well as several other inventions that would leave her hoofprint in Equestrian history for hundreds of years. Should she choose to she could live the rest of her life off of the royalties and profits that her inventions had born without lifting a hoof to ever work again, not that she intended to. She was Dusk Guard now, to her core.

And as she looked at the humans’ achievements, she felt… humble.

Looking back on their history, there’s a slow and steady progression, but then they just seemed to jump ahead, Bolt thought as she tapped the touch screen with a hoof to start a video of one of the humans' airships in action. In her eyes it was just a bit ugly, all edges and flat surfaces and looked about as aerodynamic as a brick with wings. Despite its lack of aesthetics, it still lifted off the ground easily and then shot off like an arrow and disappeared into the distance before turning and flying past the camera at full speed.

In her mind’s eye, she imagined the Hummingbird, her pride and joy, getting passed by the human airship as though it wasn’t even moving at all.

Challenge accepted, Bolt said to herself before closing the video and pulling up everything she could find about the human’s aircraft. Part of her mind, her pride, rebelled at the thought of making breakthroughs with her own inventions by standing upon the already proven methods the humans had used. An even bigger part of her mind, her curiosity, won out.

Her research was interrupted by a hoof gently tapping her on the back, which startled her enough to almost fall out of her chair. She whipped around and was immediately greeted with an apologetic-looking Sabra.

“Samahani. I did not mean to startle you, Sky Bolt,” The Zebra said before looking over to the helmets on display on the table. “Did you finish your work on the helmets?

“Helmets? Uh… yes?” Bolt floundered before she followed Sabra’s gaze and to the table. “Oh, yes! I’ve finished the modifications and additions to allow the helmets to talk with the humans helmets and electronics. Friend and foe ID is shared, and they are now capable of radio communication as well! I also worked with one of the engineers to work with the humans targeting systems as well. Since they rely almost exclusively on ranged weapons while you, Steel and Hunter like to get a bit closer, your helmet will warn you if you’re near an area the humans are targeting nearby you by pinging the enemy they’re shooting at.”

“Very impressive,” Sabra said as he walked over to look down at his black and white Mark III helmet. “Is there any change in the weight?”

“Nope!” Bolt answered before amending it, “Well, not that you’d notice. The only addition to the helmets in terms of hardware was the radio bits, and the humans have managed to miniaturize it to a surprising degree. I was able to further cut down the weight by removing the humans standard electronic power supply and rigging a converter so it will draw magic similar to the armor mods and never run out.”

Sabra nodded and picked the helmet up in his hooves and turned it over to inspect the interior. Unlike the Royal Guard and Night Guard helmets, which were simple beaten metal with a few enchantments for durability or comfort and had open faces, the Dusk Guard helmets were a cut above in virtually every measurement. Formed from a complex lattice of crystal layers, the Dusk Guard armor plates and helmets boasted unprecedented levels of magical resistance. The under-suit that the plates were attached to also enhanced the strength of the wearer more than enough to allow the wearer to move as though they were wearing no armor at all.

The most obvious difference from the armor of the conventional forces was the appearance. Unlike the identical armor that the Royal and Night Guards, which were used to reinforce uniformity and organization, each of the Dusk Guard’s armor suits mirrored the pony that would be wearing them.

“Hunter informed me that there was some… trouble earlier. Is everything alright, Sky?” Sabra asked as he looked back at the Pegasus.

A human strapped to a table screaming against the restraints. A half dozen observers doing nothing to help. The body goes limp and the massive metal golem beside it starts to rise. A shadow falls over her, followed by a harsh metallic voice. “YOU AREN’T SUPPOSED TO BE HERE.”

“Fine! Everything’s fine!” Bolt answered perhaps too quickly as she mentally kicked herself for allowing herself to be so easily distracted by a computer. Should I tell Sabra what I saw? She asked herself before waffling. What was really happening back at that lab? If I raise a fuss over a misunderstanding then it’ll just cause more problems than I already have. “Everything’s perfectly fine!” Bolt stated again before deciding to change the subject. “How was your conversation with Mister Zhang? You and he were talking for almost an hour. I take it his answer to your question wasn’t a simple one?”

“Indeed, it was not,” Sabra answered after a brief moment and a smile.

Not willing to let the change of subject go, Bolt asked, “What was his answer, if you don’t mind me asking?”

“Purpose,” Sabra closed his eyes in thought. “That was his answer. All creatures are given life in the world and can maintain it by meeting its body’s needs, but finding one’s purpose and fulfilling it allows them to live as few dare to dream.”

“That’s… well, I gotta say that’s impressive,” Bolt said truthfully as she recalled the scarred and somewhat aloof human.

“Wisdom is born from experience, and Zhang has experienced much,” The Zebra opened his eyes and nodded. “He came across this piece of wisdom when he felt he had lost his own purpose and found himself down a dark path. I apologize that I cannot explain further as it is not my story to tell. He did express a small amount of envy over the marks we earn, though he was very… what is the word? Indirect?”

I suppose we’re lucky that way. We come to realize our strengths and earn our cutie marks because of them, but what do the humans get? I suppose it does make a world of difference when somepo—somebody finds their purpose in life and is able to use it, Bolt thought as her eyes drifted to the cutie marks on the neatly stacked armor to the mark on Sabra’s flank.

The door to Bolt’s workshop whooshed open and Steel Song galloped in, followed shortly by the rest of the Dusk Guard. “Specialists,” The earth pony captain said with a brisk nod to both before heading to his armor. “We’ve got a mission. Is the armor ready?”

Both the Pegasus and the Zebra straightened upon being addressed by rank, and Bolt had to suppress a blush as she realized she had been staring at Sabra’s flank. “Yes sir! I’ve also tested the hard points for the undersuit with the weapons the humans send over to us, and it will work with the modified foreleg armor for most of us. I’m afraid I couldn’t get it to work with your gauntlets without significant changes, and I don’t know enough about the human weapons to safely try that. I also figured you didn’t want me to tinker with your gauntlets without approval…”

“That’s fine, I’ll make do with the shockwave mod,” Steel nodded as he removed his uniform and donned the armor undersuit. The armor plates followed next, which attached to the undersuit to cover his vital areas and limbs, followed by the helmet. The foreleg gauntlets stood out from the rest of the armor, being made of more conventional steel than the crystal lattice of the rest of his armor as well as showing significantly greater wear through hard use despite impeccable maintenance.

The rest of the Dusk Guard equipped their armor just as quickly. Hunter’s was a mix of Mark II and III armor, and his chosen weapons were a pair of retractable claws on his foreleg armor as well as a ranged weapon the humans had called a ‘plasma pistol’ attached to his right foreleg. Nova Beam had chosen to pass on melee and ranged weapons in favor of relying on his magic and other tricks. Dawn Triage had originally refused the use of any weapons, but chose a plasma pistol in the end after the first briefing about what they might face in the field. Sabra (who Bolt tried and mostly failed not to eye as he put on his armor) had politely declined the offered weapons in favor of his fimbo staff. This had earned some odd looks from the humans, which the Zebra had either not noticed or ignored.

As for Sky Bolt, her weighted wrench was stowed within easy reach in one of the pouches on her armor, but she intended to use the plasma pistol she was given. Like Dawn, the Pegasus hadn’t intended to use anything she wasn’t already familiar with until she had seen some of the recordings of what they would be fighting. Steel is a master of such fighting skill that even the Griffons recognized it, Hunter can easily strike and retreat with impunity and I almost pity any enemy that came within striking distance of Sabra. But me and my wrench? Bolt asked herself and she suppressed a sigh and double checked the hardpoint connections to the plasma pistol as her thoughts drifted back to her earlier conversation with the Zebra. With the human emphasis on ranged fighting it might be better to adapt and let the masters handle the close fighting.

“Radio check,” Bolt heard Steel say through the tiny human electronics in her helmet as she slipped it on. The enchanted visor activated as soon as the helmet was secure and began to display information about her surroundings which included floating tags above the other Dusk Guard marking them as friendly. “Radio check, acknowledge.” Steel asked again, and the captain’s tag pinged as he spoke. A chorus of return messages was heard and all the corresponding tags pinged.

“Radio’s looking good, sir. All green,” Bolt reported.

“Good. Form up on me. We’ll be briefed in the air,” Steel ordered as he galloped back out of the room with the rest of the Dusk Guard not far behind. Pony volunteers from both the Royal and Night Guard made way for Steel’s group as they galloped to the base’s hangar access. The hangar was bustling with human technicians that swarmed around the aircraft that sat in the center. Idling engines filled the cavernous chamber with a dull roar that drowned out anything that might have been said but one of the humans standing at the ramp at the back of the aircraft waved them forward.

“Captain Song? Sergeant Eversman,” the human shouted to announce himself as he walked up the ramp. “I’m crew chief of King Fisher. We’ll be delivering you and Strike Two to the mission area then overwatch for the duration. Do you have any questions?”

“Not at this time, just the mission details,” Steel answered as he took his seat on the right side of the passenger bay. Sabra and Dawn took their seats beside the captain, while Nova, Hunter and Bolt filed into the seats on the left.

“No questions? Good, cause then I might be worried,” Eversman chuckled as he secured the safety restraints around the captain and those beside him before turning to the others. “Mission details are sent to us by Bradford mid-flight. I don’t know the specifics but Interceptors were scrambled earlier and scuttlebutt has it that they took down a scout. We’ll know more once we’re near the mission site. So, ever flown in the Skyrangers before?” the question was asked as the human turned to the left side.

“No, sir. Just airships back home,” Bolt answered as she felt the restraints come down on her.

“That so? Well, what King Fisher lacks in comforts it more than makes up for in speed and power. We’ll get you there, keep you covered and get you home. All you have to do is put up with the prima donnas in the cockpit and you’re fine.”

“I heard that, Eversman,” a disembodied voice said over the radio.

Any further banter was cut off as four more humans walked up the ramp and into the passenger compartment. Unlike Eversman, who was wearing cloth fatigues and an armored vest, the new arrivals were clad in heavy plate armor. Flat deflective surfaces covered their chests while curved plates covered the shoulders and thighs and armored gauntlets and boots completed the armor. All four had a weapon slung over their right shoulder and a helmet in their left hand, though the last in the group had a few noteworthy differences.

The last in the group was half a head taller than the rest of the humans and a prominent brow and strong jawline that translated into grim features even for Equestrians, which was completely at odds with the bright smile that appeared once he caught sight of the other passengers in the cabin. The armor and gauntlet on his left arm was also stripped down and replaced with a different type of glove and a bundle of cables that ran up his shoulders and into his armor. A purple stripe and starburst emblem also adorned his right arm.

“Aha, Dusk Guard!” The last man in the line laughed. “It’s Yuri, from last exercise! Heard this mission was going to be little fish, so it makes sense for this to be first mission for you, yes?” Yuri asked as he took his seat beside Sky Bolt. The Pegasus had just enough time to wonder if her translator wasn’t working quite right before he started talking again. “Introductions! Yuri Romalov you know, this is Captain Uther, Sergeant Briand, Corporal Roland.”

The three other humans ran the gamut of emotions that Sky Bolt had seen when first meeting the humans. Captain Uther was tight-lipped and avoided looking at the Dusk Guard, Sergeant Briand had a dazed look on her face, and Corporal Roland had broad grin on his face to rival Yuri’s. Before anything else could be said, Yuri made the last introduction.

“Ah, and here comes Beowulf.”

The clank of metal feet on the ramp caused Bolt’s heart to skip, and she turned to see one of the human golems stomping up the ramp. Unlike the matte black armor that most of the humans wore, the golem was painted in vivid red with black and white highlights. A massive triple-barreled weapon rested in its metal hands while a belt feed wrapped from the weapon to a drum on its back. Human lettering was scattered all across the golem but the most noticeable ones were the letters ‘B-E-O-W-U-L-F’ stenciled across its chest and ‘O-L-D” “I-R-O-N” across its left fist along with three neat rows of stylized alien heads beside it. Its head was armored and with a gold visor like the other humans, and it looked at each of the Equestrians before finally settling on Sky Bolt.

“YOU AREN’T SUPPOSED TO BE HERE.”

“Bolt, are you alright?” Dawn’s voice was quiet in the pegasus’s ear, and it took her a moment to realize that she had opened up a private radio channel to ask the question.

“Yes, ma’am. One hundred percent,” Sky Bolt answered as she forced herself to look straight forward and ignore the golem that was still staring at her. She took a long breath before letting it out again. “Thanks for asking though.”

“Fischer, Eversman. We’re secure back here and ready for transit,” The crew chief said as he finished strapping in the last of the humans and stepping past the golem to the ramp controls. The ramp slowly rose and the bustling hangar was eclipsed as it locked into place.