• Published 22nd Mar 2014
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Iron Hearts: Book 3 - The Sept Lamman - SFaccountant

MLP/Warhammer 40K crossover, part 3. As relations between Equestria and 38th Company wax and wane, the Tau warriors of the Sept Lamman put the final phase of their plan into action.

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Uninvited Guests

Iron Hearts

Book 3

The Sept Lamman

Disclaimer: I claim no responsibility for your sanity. You read this nonsense at your own risk.

Legal disclaimer: My Little Pony is the property of Hasbro. Warhammer 40K is the property of Games Workshop. The many human and Iron Warrior OC's were made my me, but I think Games Workshop owns them anyway. All their lawyers carry plasma weapons and have 3+ saves; I'm not messing with those guys.

Punctuation key: "Speech in Gothic" *Speech in Tau language* +Speech in binary+ Non-aural communication, such as telepathy

Dramatis Personae

Iron Warriors 38th Company:

Solon - Warsmith (high commander) dedicated to Nurgle

Sliver - vice-commander dedicated to Nurgle

Tellis - Raptor Lord dedicated to Khorne

Serith - Sorcerer

Tolken - Armsmaster

Dest - rhino driver

Cyrus Gnoss - human mercenary General

Wyatt Daniels - human mercenary

Norris Delgan - human trademaster

Virgil - human Chaos Priest

The Great and Powerful Trixie - entertainer

Suuna - assistant(?) to the Great and Powerful Trixie

Dark Mechanicus:

Kaelith - Dark Magos and executor

Gaela - Dark Acolyte

Tau Lamman Sept:

High Commmander Voidsong - Shas'o

Commander Wraithstar - Shas'el

Jerriha - Fireblade

Fennin - Earth caste master engineer

Helenis - human fleet advisor

Dear Journal:

It's been four days now since I first laid my hooves on the human dataslate Crystal Cheers bought. Since then I've visited the shop she told me about every day. I've been so busy with the things I've seen and purchased there that I haven't been properly making note of all my observations and acquisitions, so I'm taking extra time now to make note of what I've bought. First, obviously, was my own dataslate that was "calibrated for ponies" as the shopkeep told me. It's an electronic, touch-sensitive device for storing and accessing information, and came with a book already loaded in it titled "Principles of Darkness". The next day I bought a respirator mask with optics array that had likewise been modified from its original form to fit ponies. Then there was the plasma cutter the next day. Unfortunately, this device needs far more machining than was convenient to make it easy to use for an earth pony due to the humans' fondness for "triggers" that fit their hands. Still, even if it's not useful for work (yet), it's still a remarkable piece. When I came in today to purchase something, the shopkeep discreetly asked if I wanted to look at their "specialty items". There was no way I could refuse. In the back of the shop they have a grand collection of weapons, more exotic machines, and strange, arcane-looking things that seem to boast a lot of those eight-pointed wheels everywhere. I ended up buying an augmetic arm from a collection of limbs that were literally stuffed in a barrel like a bunch of brooms or umbrellas! The Shopkeep explained to me that the humans actually attach these limbs to their bodies, and that they somehow make them work as entirely new, fully functional extremities! Obviously it's impossible for any pony doctor to do something like that, and the shopkeep said that even the humans residing in Ponyville don't have the facilities to install augments there. So for now the arm is just a nifty hunk of metal hanging over my work bench. But she also said that there were certainly such facilities in Ferrous Dominus to install the arm. Perhaps I should charter a trip there? How does one do that? I'll need to look into it soon; rumor has it the humans are only going to be here for a couple months.

As fascinating and thrilling as these artifacts are, they are proving to be very expensive. I make decent bits, to be sure, but I'm not sure it's wise to start dipping into my savings just to fill my house with random alien knick-knacks. I've never been much of a collector at heart and I want the things I buy to do things or serve a need. That said, what I'd really like is one of those servitor or automata things that the shopkeep said she could get on order, but those things are completely out of the realm of possibility for what they're asking.

Besides the cost, there's also the little matter of the royal family. It's not a huge secret that the meeting between the Iron Warriors and Princess Celestia went down like a drunken pegasus. Yesterday when I was using my dataslate at a cafe, a royal guard actually interrupted me and asked where I'd got it! I lied and said that it was a gift from a cousin in Ponyville. I'm even writing this on normal parchment rather than the dataslate because I'm afraid that it might be outlawed soon and taken away. Right now there are no laws about the purchase or ownership of human artifacts, but the guards have been really busy recently, and they've been putting up all these posters. The posters have a picture of that wheel symbol, and tell the reader that if they see it they need to report it to the guards right away. I think it's weird that all the hubbub is taking place here in Canterlot, though. Everypony knows that the humans are most active around Ponyville, but none of our troops have been dispatched there at all! Huh.

I heard from Golden Chalice that apparently all humans are forbidden from entering Canterlot since the meeting. That explains why there's a pony running the shop selling alien things, at least to an extent. It also means I'll need to take a train ride to Ponyville if I ever want to actually meet a human without traveling to their fortress. I'd really like to go, but I'm kind of scared. I heard all the ponies in that town are crazy!

- Gear Works

Iron Hearts

Chapter 1

Uninvited Guests


Ponyville - Sugarcube Corner

One week after the diplomatic conference

Gaela's laser welder sparked furiously as it ran along a seam of metal, fusing the metal edges together while Gaela's servo claw held the walls of the oven tight.

Beneath the crackling welder, her mechadentrites carefully aligned heating elements in a pair of dispersal rods, shifting the magnetic field with the arrangement of crystals and determining where future heat emissions would be ejected.

The more sensitive work occurred under the considerable magnification of her optics array in her helmet, and the lens whirred softly as her view was magnified or expanded as necessary.

"Primary frame integrity is at acceptable stability thresholds," the Dark Acolyte said as she softly nudged her servo arm and glanced at the seams, "Sparkle, open the gas valve and turn the oven on."

There was a considerable pause after she gave her order.

"Uh... with your head still in it?" Twilight asked from outside the appliance.

"Yes. I need to make sure none of the thermasilicate arrays fall out of alignment when pressure is applied. Anyway, the oven is currently set at only five percent of total output."

"Um... but... you just installed that control dial. What if you made a mistake?" Twilight asked.

"If the temperature rises so catastrophically that it causes damage despite my armor and cloak, then I will suffer for my error, as I should," Gaela said with strained patience, "now turn it on."

Twilight took a deep breath that was audible from within the metal box, and then Gaela heard the sound of a valve squeaking open.

A moment later the dispersal rods below lit a bright red, casting the hooded, armored woman in a wreath of soft heat and crimson light.

"... Excellent. Everything is functioning within acceptable parameters. Sparkle, turn it off."

The dispersal rods quickly went dark as Gaela drew her head out of the oven.

"I have to recalibrate the output dial and install the door. Then I can complete the rites of assembly and anoint the gas feed," the Dark Acolyte said as she clutched the dial in a servo claw, "then the new baking unit will be ready for service."

Behind Gaela, Twilight, Pinkie, and the Cakes were watching the process with varying degrees of awe.

"I can't thank you enough for having your alien pirate friend come and help us out with this," Mrs. Cake said to Twilight, "I don't know what we would have done otherwise."

"When I bought that thing the human sales guy swore it was easy to assemble," Mr. Cake grumbled, "but I couldn't make heads or tails of the directions."

"The directions are simple," Gaela insisted as her servo limbs rose and fell over her current project, "but they don't take into account your limited access to basic tools."

Mrs. Cake frowned. "The first few pages described lighting incense and praying."

"Yes, precisely. You didn't even have the burners handy. It's a wonder anything in this shop still works."

Pinkie Pie glanced over to the incense burners that had been set up on the bakery counter. "Maybe that's why that assemble-at-home furniture is so hard to build. They always skip that step."

Twilight stood off to the side, marveling at the scene.

Over the past week, strange as it seemed, things had somehow settled into a sense of normalcy with the Company that had set up shop in Ponyville.

Delgan's flea market had become a quick success, and had grown to take up more and more room on the edge of Ponyville as it set up booths and small kiosks to sell its wares. It had even started attracting ponies from other towns in Equestria.

However much influence Delgan had with the fleet, however, it hadn't been enough to get him more Mechanicus personnel, which left Gaela as the sole human engineer-cultist outside of Ferrous Dominus. With a whole lot of human tools and items floating around nowadays, that had made her quite popular despite her utter lack of social grace and her basic contempt for everypony she met.

Twilight followed her as much as possible. Not just to observe the construction and repairs of the human machines, but also so that she could catalog all of Gaela's "good" deeds for her letters to Princess Celestia. Even if the Princess despised the 38th Company in general for its affiliation with Chaos, Twilight was convinced that Gaela wasn't a bad human, and she desperately wanted to prove this to her mentor.

Sending the letters had itself become something of a hassle recently, though. She still didn't know how Serith had intercepted her previous messages, and Spike had emphatically suggested that she send them by ordinary mail from now on. It wasn't a big problem in itself, but it aggravated Twilight to no end that she couldn't rely on the basic magical abilities that she had used for so long.

Gaela pulled away from the new oven and then placed her hands upon the top of the frame, her head bowed.

Then she spewed a long litany of Binaric Cant, and the crackling noise grated on the ears of every pony present.

The two lumen indicators on the front of the appliance flickered briefly, and then dimmed again as the device registered its inactive setting.

"Are you sure it's necessary to invoke those prayers when you work with a machine?" Twilight asked after the chant of machine language came to an end. She felt a bit silly questioning the Acolyte considering that Gaela obviously knew more about human technology than she ever would, but she couldn't help but wonder at the awkward combination of high logic and devotional mysticism.

"Yes," Gaela said simply, declining to explain further as she turned toward the Cakes and Pinkie.

"Is it necessary to carve that Chaos Star on the door?" Pinkie asked.

"No," Gaela said just as curtly, "the cooker is complete. You should see an increase on energy consumption efficiency of approximately seventy-one percent over your other appliances of identical function."

"Thank you so much!" Mrs. Cake exclaimed. "I really feel like we should pay you something for having you do this."

"If you insist on paying, give it to Sparkle," Gaela said dismissively as she walked past the bakers, "I have no need of your money and no desire to carry it around. I'm only performing engineering tasks for your people because it is a better use of my time than reading in the library or performing engineering tasks for Trademaster Delgan."

Pinkie suddenly brightened. "Hey! I know how we can pay you back!"

Gaela halted and turned her head around, suddenly on her guard. "Don't touch me. No! Stop! No hugs!"

Pinkie Pie ignored her, jumping up and clamping onto the Acolyte's hip as the human woman spewed profanities in Binary.

"C'mon everypony! Let's give Miss Grumpy Metal Pants a big, fuzzy Ponyville snuggle!" Pinkie shouted, rubbing her cheek against the rough rubber material of Gaela's cloak.

"Cease at once! This is not appropriate compensatory action!"

Before she had even completed that sentence the Cakes had each glommed onto one of her legs, effectively immobilizing her as her lower half was seized and surrounded by earth ponies.

Twilight giggled as Gaela fumed silently. Despite her protests the Dark Acolyte didn't offer any actual resistance, simply hanging her head and arms as she waited for the equines to let go.

It was quite a charming scene, and one that she would eagerly include in tonight's letter.

It made Twilight wonder if things might have been different somehow, if not for the taint of Chaos. Every human and post-human serving under the 38th Company was considered a tool and weapon of that malevolent power, almost all of them willingly serving a force that sought destruction and violation for its own sake. And yet it wasn't especially hard to see past the spikes and grim outlooks to the people underneath.

Well, except for Serith, at any rate. He could burn in Tartarus forever for all she cared.

Aside from the high Sorcerer though, she didn't find it very hard to imagine living alongside humankind as friends and equals in the long term.

And if it was only the threat of Chaos that spoiled their coexistence, wasn't it possible, somehow, with all the power of magic and friendship and tolerance, to eliminate or negate that threat?

"Sparkle, are you coming?" Gaela asked, snapping Twilight out of her musings. "The bakers finally released me. Let's go to the next job."

"Oh, you don't have any other jobs," Twilight assured her, "we can head back to the library."

"I see. Hopefully another pony with a task for me has arrived while we were out," the Priestess muttered.

Twilight snorted and tapped a hoof against the metal thigh of Gaela's armor. "You're such a workaholic! Let's go home."


Canterlot - The Iron Chest

The bells on the door jingled as Rarity stepped into the storefront, her horn glimmering with magic to hold it open ahead of her.

The mare at the counter immediately looked up from the dataslate in front of her, a greeting already on her tongue.

That greeting changed instantly when she saw who it was.

"Hello, boss," the unicorn mare said, her posture straightening instantly, "welcome back."

The unicorn had a cutie mark consisting of a bouquet of flowers and a dark green coat. She also had a short-cropped black mane in a bob cut. It was a very plain style for a Canterlot pony, but considering her accessories Rarity reasoned that it hardly mattered. She had a large metal visor over her eyes with a single, rectangular lens, and the face of the black-tinted eyewear displayed a glowing red band that would sweep from one side to the other constantly. Her legs had small belts wrapped around them, and attached to those belts were several small devices like laser scalpels and mini-drills and even the odd bullet. She wore a necklace of chains interlaced with wires to complete the ensemble, such that it looked like she was literally dressed up in the store's wares.

Rarity personally couldn't understand how a perfectly decent-looking pony could do that to herself, but Orchid Flair had enthusiastically chosen to wear such a tacky ensemble, claiming it would help sales. It seemed to work, too.

Rarity looked from side to side, taking in the state of the shelves.

"The shop is looking rather bare," she mumbled as she approached her employee.

"Business has been pretty brisk," Orchid agreed with a toothy grin, "when those solar cells came in I could barely restock the shelves at the rate they were going! The portable cryo-chambers were a hit too! I sold out of them yesterday!"

Rarity nodded absently. She was happy enough that "her" business was successful, but in truth she had no great interest in its operations. As somepony who made most of her money from commissions and artistic expression, the fine points of tracking inventory and managing shelf space were painfully tiresome to her. On top of that, nearly all the profits went straight to Delgan anyway.

"I'm just here for a copy of the accounts," Rarity informed her employee, "my... partner wants me to bring him the daily inventory counts since opening. Just some generic management tedium. Could you get that for me?"

"No sweat," Orchid said as she levitated a heavy binder out from beneath the desk, "let me just run them through the auto-scribe for you."

She put the entire book into a device in the corner, and then the device started scanning each page and flipping to the next one while an array of pens drew a copy onto a blank page.

Then Orchid turned back to the white unicorn and glanced at the object hanging in her saddlebag. "Hey, is that a new bolter? Lemme see!"

Rarity grimaced slightly as the shopkeep grinned. "Miss Flair, do restrain yourself. You're on the job."

"Aw, c'mon boss! I just want to take a look! And then, you know, test fire it. If you don't mind."

"I DO mind," the white unicorn said dryly, "unlike you, I've seen what a boltgun can do to a body. Don't treat it like just another human trinket."

The other mare pouted. "Well, can I have your first boltgun, then?"

"This IS the first boltgun. Sort of. Delgan just had it modified to cut the weight of the blasted thing. It was beginning to strain me to carry it around everywhere. He said it can't fire bursts anymore, but-"

Rarity promptly fell silent when she heard the back door open, not wanting to be overheard discussing firearms, of all things.

Orchid tilted her head slightly to see who was coming in. "Oh, hey Gears. Back door's open."

A slate blue earth pony with large, rectangular glasses walked into the shop cautiously, his head turned to look behind him at the streets he had just left.

"Hi, Miss Flair. Do you have any of those portable refrigerators left?" the customer asked, finally turning his attention to the counter.

"Completely out, I'm afraid," Orchid answered regretfully, "they sold like fresh apple cider."

"Drat. All right, I'll be in the back then," the stallion mumbled, casting only a brief glance at Rarity before he walked past the counter.

As the door to the back area closed behind him, Orchid leaned in toward Rarity. "He's a regular. Guy's been here almost every day since we opened."

"I'm surprised we have 'regulars' in a retail outfit," Rarity mumbled.

"Well, we do keep getting new stuff, so there are a few ponies who keep checking back in," Orchid shrugged.

The auto-scribe had finished its work by then, and Orchid Flair levitated the stack of parchment over to Rarity.

"Well, good. The more ponies come through the door, the better," Rarity mumbled as she quickly skimmed each page of the accounts.

"Yeah, well, that isn't QUITE true..." Orchid admitted, leaning forward again and lowering her voice. "We've also been getting a lot of visits from the royal guard, boss. And not to pick up autolighters."

Rarity paused and quirked an eyebrow.

"They never make any accusations or charges or anything, but yesterday THREE of them showed up in one day. And they all ask the same questions: who owns the shop, where the inventory comes from, if we sell anything with those wacky wheel symbols..."

Rarity wet her lips. "And what do you tell them?"

"That it's some unicorn lady I don't know, Ponyville, and what wheel symbols? Respectively," Orchid groused.

Rarity frowned. "Even if it happens to be in my immediate best interests, I don't approve of lying to the guards. They're only trying to protect us."

"Protect us from what? Making a decent living?" the other unicorn griped. "We're just trying to sell tools and trinkets fairly and competitively on an open market! What's wrong with that?"

"The most immediate answer would probably involve the guns, explosive charges, and amasec piled in the back room that you're apparently selling without the knowledge of the authorities," Rarity deadpanned.

"It's fine. Back room is 18 and up only," Orchid said, scoffing, "but anyway, can't you do something about the guards? I thought the Elements of Harmony outranked them or something."

"It doesn't work like that," the white unicorn replied, rolling her eyes, "being an Element doesn't entitle us to special treatment, and certainly doesn't place us above the law. I'll talk to my partner about possibly moving some of the more questionable items back to Ponyville." She levitated the copies of the accounts into her saddlebag, content that they were all in order.

"Tch! All right," Orchid mumbled, "but make sure you get lots of extra stuff to replace it. There's plenty of demand here for the more exotic gizmos."

"I'll be sure to do so," Rarity said with a curt nod, turning around and heading out the door, "thank you for your time, Miss Flair. Have a fine day."


Ferrous Dominus - sector 21

"What do you mean you can't get any more shipments to me?!"

A group of men and women clustered around a vox receiver winced at the enraged question.

"I've got the horses eating out of my hand, here! They can't get enough of this stuff! I've even got a contract opening up with an art gallery to show off a few of the billions of pict-captures we have of star systems and basic cosmological phenomena!" crackled the vox receiver.

"You can still do that," one man was quick to point out, "you'll have to use local frames, but we can still send the pict-captu-"

"THIS ISN'T ABOUT THE BLOODY PICT GALLERY!" the vox roared, causing the assembled humans to flinch back. "Explain to me why I can't get resupplied!"

"Yes, Master Delgan," an older woman with bionic eyes said before clearing her throat, "the Iron Warriors have been laying down tighter and tighter deployment restrictions all week. As I understand it, they come from Lord Sliver himself, Sir. This morning it was declared that no transports are allowed to leave Ferrous Dominus at all without prior authorization from a ranking Iron Warrior, and all vehicles and personnel on deployment are to return upon completion of their immediate missions. He's even recalled the perimeter patrols back behind the palisade."

"That's absurd!" barked the vox. "An entire verdant, rich, populated planet to explore and exploit, and we're to stay locked inside our walls twiddling our thumbs until ready to leave?!"

An aide sighed. "Lord Sliver reacted very poorly to the loss of several dozen Tau slaves during that strange celebration a week ago. They've been replaced in the slave pits by over a hundred mercenaries that were supposed to be on duty at the time."

"Good! That's the least they deserve for provoking this nonsense! I need a supply drop! I'm almost out of inventory!"

"There's nothing we can do except try to deflect any inquiries as to why you're still outside Ferrous Dominus yourself, Master Delgan," a heavily scarred seneschal noted, his arms crossed over his chest, "the allowance for deployments that are on-mission will probably excuse your convoy, but the moment any of your transports enter the fortress, they'll be locked down."

"All this over a bloody PARTY?" the vox sputtered. "I thought we served Chaos, not the fragging Ministorum!"

"I know, right? It really doesn't make as big a difference as you'd think," mumbled another aide.

"I don't suppose the Warsmith has provided an opinion on this," grumbled the voice from the vox.

"No, Master Delgan. Warsmith Solon has been keeping an even lower profile than usual since he got back."

A frustrated groan, scrambled by vox static, came from the receiver.

"There's nothing I can do then. The Warsmith isn't going to go against his second just so I can hawk more trinkets to the aliens," Delgan grumbled.

"Should we prepare for your return, Sir?" asked the head seneschal.

A long pause followed his question. "No, not yet," the voice finally answered, "I still have quite a stock of these 'bits' that I need to spend, and I can't do that behind the macrocannons. I need to see about their more exotic resources and ore stockpiles; see if I can't get some points with the Warsmith by actually turning this into a useful exercise."

"Oh, see if you can get some of that 'cider' of theirs, too," interrupted a woman who was organizing a dataslate list, "I tried some at the party, and it was really good!"

She got a few annoyed looks from the other aides as the vox replied. "Yes, sure. In the meantime, see if you can't find a way to get an officer's blessing for a supply drop! There must be something that can be done!"

"We'll try, Sir. Good day," mumbled an aide before switching off the vox.

"He took that better than I thought he would."

"Certainly. When the Iron Warriors are against you, there isn't much you can do but swallow the medicine or put a lasblast through your own head."

As the aides mumbled their general agreement, the door behind them slid open.

The group straightened immediately. Standing at the door was an Iron Warrior, his weapons sheathed.

"Welcome, my lord. Is something wrong?" the head seneschal asked politely, hoping that the Chaos Space Marine hadn't overheard them. Even if their intention of getting the proper permissions to release a transport hardly amounted to a punishable act, one never wanted to attract extra scrutiny from an Astartes.

"Not as such, no," the Iron Warrior rumbled from behind his vox grille, "I have a pair of xenos to see you."

The gathered administrators and tradesmen shared a confused glance.

"What about, Lord?"

"I'm surprised they're still letting ponies into the fortress after the party."

"They allowed a complete security screening of themselves and their possessions, so they've abided by the proper procedures," the Chaos Marine said, "as far as I've been told, it's up to you now to decide whether or not they can stay, and for how long."

"We were given that duty, weren't we?" mumbled an aide.

"Even so, I'm surprised. But all right, let's see them."

The Iron Warrior turned around, walking back out into the hall.

"You may proceed," he said as he left.

As expected, a pair of pegasi stepped cautiously into the room after he left, their eyes glancing every which way as they looked around in fascination.

"State your name and business, please," the head seneschal said stiffly, his eyes narrowing. He had nothing against the ponies, but he and his aides were currently acting as the face of the 38th Company, which was a war fleet first and foremost. It would do both the ponies and the Iron Warriors a disservice to mischaracterize Ferrous Dominus as a warm, friendly place.

"Right! Hi!" one of them stiffened immediately. He was a light gray stallion with a white mane, while the other was a dark purple pegasus mare. "My name is Snowstride, and this is my wife Cinnamon Skies."

"Hello!" the mare chirped happily, obviously far more excited about being in a war fort than anyone had a right to be.

"As for our business here," Snowstride began, clearly a bit nervous, "we were here last week with the party, and we talked to a few of the humans here while we had the opportunity."

"All right... so you're here to visit someone?"

"No, no, it's not that. We heard from them that this entire city doesn't have a dessert shop, so we want to open one!" the stallion blurted.

There was a long, awkward pause as the humans digested that.

"What's a 'dessert'?" one of the women finally asked.

"We are going to make SO MUCH money!" Cinnamon giggled, almost dancing from hoof to hoof.

"Wait a minute," muttered the seneschal, "you can't possibly mean to commute into Ferrous Dominus every day, flier or not. So when you say you want to open up a shop, you mean you want to... immigrate? Here?"

The pegasi nodded enthusiastically.

There was another long pause.

"WHY?" asked another aide.

"We think your dark space city is really cool!" Snowstride said happily.

"I was way into Goth metal as a filly," Cinnamon Skies said, pressing a hoof to her chest, "seeing those skulls hanging from looped chains under the streetlights makes me feel ten years younger!"

"Plus, you have, like, NO crime," Snowstride pointed out.

"Don't forget that infrastructure! Cloudsdale doesn't even HAVE real plumbing! For obvious reasons."

"And with all the nutty monsters and random calamities that happen in Equestria, it will be nice to have a massive wall, heavily reinforced buildings, and an army of ruthless super-soldiers to keep us safe!"

"And we can go to space! Whenever we want! Just think of it!"

"Did you know the last time a pony even left the planet's atmosphere was over one thousand years ago? And I hear she doesn't even like to talk about it!"

The humans, quite reasonably, felt stunned by the litany of reasons ranging from practical to stupidly naïve.

"So... the evil religion doesn't bother you?" asked one man, holding up a pendant with a Chaos Star.

"Hey man, where I'm from, you live and let live. You can pray to any Goddess you want," Snowstride assured him.

"That... That's not what... I mean..." the aide struggled to think of what to say to that bizarrely sunny outlook.

"What about the warfare? The constant industry of battle and bloodshed that would surround you and color your commercial efforts?"

"Are you kidding? The Tau are a menace!" Cinnamon insisted, her expression souring. "They attacked pony land without provocation and placed suspicious devices all over Equestria! We're on your side!"

"What about the slavery?" the seneschal asked, his eyes narrowed. "I thought that was a big deal to your people."

"Oh, we finished being indignant and outraged about that long ago," Snowstride said, rolling his eyes, "besides, if you're going to try to change an unjust system, it's better to do it from the inside, right?"

The humans again shared a long glance, unable to believe that any sane and decent creature would want to leave their idyllic settlements to live in their hell-fortress of their own will.

Granted, as Chaos forces went, the 38th Company offered mortals a decent living, but that was mostly an issue of relative comparison. Many Chaos Legions sacrificed their human cohorts by the hundreds and bought their obedience with fear and brutality rather than money. Additionally, it was much easier to thrive in a Legion that was run with military discipline rather than religious fervor, as soldiers weren't required, or even asked, to worship Chaos themselves as they served its interests. But even taking this into account, none of the humans could imagine seeing Ferrous Dominus as a fine place to live.

"Oh, I have a question!" Cinnamon said suddenly, raising a hoof. "How's your school system? We're definitely going to be having foals!" the pair of pegasi chuckled bashfully as she leaned against her mate.

"You have your choice of your spawn being trained to be a logic-driven cyborg whose only joy is work, an insane preacher sowing mutation, brutality, and madness, or an administrator locked in thankless, meaningless minutiae forever, tallying the ill-gotten spoils of murderers and rogues."

The pony couple took that in for a moment, glancing at each other.

"First one," said Snowstride.

"Yeah. I mean, if it doesn't work out they can always help out with the shop, right?"

"I see," mumbled the seneschal, "if dark powers and militant brutality don't dissuade you, then I suppose there's only one good reason remaining why you might not want to settle here."

"What's that, friend?" asked Snowstride pleasantly.

"The entire fleet is going to be leaving the planet in a few months," another aide pointed out, "we're only here to construct new Warp engines, and then we're going back to our normal trade of interstellar piracy."

This, as opposed to everything else that had been brought up, seemed to stop the couple short.

"What? But then we won't have any neighbors or customers!" Snowstride complained.

"Boo!" Cinnamon stuck out her tongue.

"Precisely. So as you can see, there's really no point in us accepting settlers if you're just going to be abandoned here alone in a few months."

The pegasi fell silent, thinking that prospect over.

"Wait a minute," Snowstride said suddenly, raising his head, "what's going to happen to this city when you leave? Are you going to pack it up or something?"

"No, not really. We'll salvage as much as we can, but much of the fortress will be left behind when we leave."

"So, that means that anypony left over after you leave could, in theory, claim the whole place?" the stallion asked with a sly smile. "They'd have their own fortress city, all to themselves?"

"Ooh! I could be a princess!" Cinnamon Skies perked up instantly.

The humans were again silent for several seconds.

Then the head seneschal turned toward one of his assistants. "Well, I do believe our new residents are quite sold. Let's get them a set of respirators and find them a place to set up, shall we?"

"Hooray!" the pegasi cheered.


Ponyville - outside Fluttershy's cottage

Obviously, not all ponies were so pleased with their co-existence with humans as were Twilight and the odd Equestrian emigrant.

Celestia and the royal order aside, Fluttershy had found her trip to Ferrous Dominus a singularly awful experience, and the 38th Company was pretty much the same. Sure, some of them like Daniels and Delgan weren't openly hostile, but they were still servants to an army that was. The Company may have made machines with the souls of animals (or so she thought) that she had rather liked, but they had also twisted those souls into vile war machines hungry for violence and destruction.

Suffice to say, she had been overjoyed to get back home and away from the toxic industry of the Iron Warriors and their human servants.

Which wasn't to say that she was completely free of the humans' influence even here.

"Lunch time!" Fluttershy called softly as she approached a durasteel drop-bunker with a sack of seed on her back.

Approaching the door, she rose up onto her hind legs to press a hoof against the button next to the blast doors.

The doors slid open as the button beeped and turned green, revealing dozens of fluffy-feathered bird chicks wandering about the metal floor.

Fluttershy scattered some seed onto the floor at the feet of the chirping swarm, and soon a few of the older birds perched on the firing slit hopped down to eat with their young.

Fluttershy finished and then tapped the button again, letting the door slide shut.

As she moved on to the next group of animals she reflected upon the new structures that now littered her property.

She didn't especially mind the bunkers that had been left behind themselves, and so far she hadn't seen any sign that the bolt casings or discarded energy cells that littered the forest had harmed any of the animals that lived there. But they were still an inconveniently sturdy reminder of the deadly space craft orbiting the planet and their just-as-deadly payload that was still mingling with her friends.

She sighed as she passed by a stripped-down turret mount that had a lizard sunning itself on top. Terrible as her experience had been, she was confident that now she could leave things up to her friends that seemed to get along with the humans. In a few months they would be gone, and she couldn't imagine anypony needing her help to deal with them anymore.

She might see another Company soldier in passing, perhaps, but in all likelihood she wouldn't actually have to deal with another Iron Warrior ever again, Fluttershy thought as she opened the door to her cottage.


An irritated grunt came from Tellis as he was roused from his slumber by the ear-piercing shriek behind him.

"Cripes, Shy, I thought you were supposed to be the quiet one," grumbled the Raptor Lord.

He was currently splayed out on Fluttershy's couch face-down, his armored bulk threatening to break the frame of the furniture. His flight pack was sticking up over the rest of the Marine's body, and its modified booster jets hung in the air like great metal claws.

Fluttershy stopped screaming immediately, but she still gaped at the Iron Warrior in confusion.

"Uh... what... what are you..." Fluttershy stuttered, cringing as she stared at the super-soldier.

"I'm trying to sleep," Tellis answered, cutting the pegasus off, "and you're not making that any easier."

There was a long pause as Fluttershy slowly worked up the courage to ask the next of the obvious questions she had for him.

"D-Don't you have y-your own r-room? Somewhere else? F-Far away?" Fluttershy asked. She hadn't budged from the doorway to her cottage, too terrified to enter and too concerned to flee.

Tellis sighed, twisting to sit up on the couch as he resigned himself to the interrogation.

"Yeah, well, I can't get to it right now."

Fluttershy blinked. That was a strange answer. "Why not?"

"Okay, so, you know that party last week at Dominus, right? Total hit, you should've been there," Tellis began, jabbing a thumb vaguely in the direction of the fortress-factory, "anyway, when it was over I escorted Dash home. You know, to be a gentleman. It's not safe out there at night, what with military aliens and violent freaks prowling around."

Fluttershy quickly pointed out that Tellis was both of those things himself. Meekly. In her head.

"That part went off without a hitch. But then when I fly back, the bloody anti-aircraft guns open fire on me!"

Fluttershy blinked again. That was odd. "Your own people attacked you?"

Tellis threw his arms up. "I know, right? At first I thought it was a joke, and in retrospect it IS pretty funny, but we have some serious anti-air covering the base perimeter. I can't go home."

"Why would they do something like that?" Fluttershy asked, feeling some small measure of genuine sympathy for the bloodthirsty maniac. Even he didn't deserve to be attacked by his allies and driven out of his home.

"I think the second-in-command is pissed at me for something," Tellis mused, "probably for defying orders, punching him in the face, and humiliating him in front of our men during the party."

Fluttershy was forced to revise her earlier presumption.

"So after that I flew all over the place around here. You know, to kill time. And a bunch of other stuff. Did you know this planet has alligators made of ROCKS?"

"Uh, can we get to the part where you broke into my house? If that's okay with you?" the meek pegasus asked.

"Okay, so, after about a week of constant jetting around and non-stop sport killing, I'm starting to get a little tired. Even a Chaos Space Marine needs to stop and rest EVENTUALLY, you know? So then I considered where I could stay."

The Raptor Lord planted his hands on his knees. "First choice was, obviously, with Dash. But her house is built on clouds, and clouds can't support my weight for some reason. I could probably get some space to myself in the tree library place with the Dark Acolyte, but I don't wanna hang out with those nerds. A hotel is right out of the question, since I don't carry money. So I don't really have any choice but to crash at your place."

"What about with Mister Delgan?" Fluttershy asked desperately.

"I don't even know who that is," Tellis confessed, "anyway, you were out when I showed up, so I showed myself in. I don't know how long I'll be here, but it won't be longer than the Company's deployment here on Centaur III. Hope that's cool with you." The Chaos Marine leaned back on the couch, his helmet tilting upward to stare at the ceiling before he let out a tired sigh.

Fluttershy whimpered incoherently as she remained rooted in the doorway, trying to figure out a way to explain politely that no, this arrangement was far from cool.

Then a puff of smoke burst over her right shoulder, dissipating to reveal a tiny image of Fluttershy with the Element of Kindness around her neck.

"Fluttershy, how can you be so cold?" chided the tiny simulacrum. "Whatever his faults, Tellis has only helped you in the past! Does Angel Bunny's life mean so little to you? If it weren't for Tellis, our precious little friend would be nothing but a snack!"

The yellow pegasus hung her head in shame as she was berated by her conscience.

"Is this the same pony that reformed the mighty and terrible Discord, ancient enemy of all of Equestria? Mister Terrifying Murderer has been turned away by those he had considered his comrades, and all he asks of you is your couch! How can you deny him so little and still call yourself the Element of Kindness?"

Another puff of smoke on the other side of her head revealed a tiny version of a certain blue, massively muscled minotaur.

"You can't be serious!" growled Iron Will, his enormous arms crossed over his mighty chest. "Being treated like a doormat outside your house is bad enough, but here is where you have to draw the line! A pony's home is her castle, and you don't owe nopony nothing!"

The imaginary minotaur snorted noisily. "Say it with me! 'You break in my home, I bust up your dome!'"

Both Fluttershys gave the more assertive aspect of Fluttershy's conscience an incredulous look.

"Have you actually SEEN this guy's 'dome'?" demanded the tiny Fluttershy. "Not only is my advice the kind and righteous thing to do, it's also a lot less likely to get us stabbed to death."

Iron Will scoffed, his head turning toward the couch. "Oh, please! That kind of weak-kneed, pacifistic-" then his eyes bugged out of his head. "SWEET MOTHER OF MINOS!! He's even bigger than I am!"

"And you haven't seen the claws!" the tiny Fluttershy mumbled, shivering. "I was talking to Fluttershy's repressed memories earlier, and let me tell you, she's been putting in overtime since this lunatic showed up!"

"So, just to be clear," Fluttershy whispered quietly so as not to be heard talking to herself, "we're making this decision mainly out of fear, not morals?"

"Hey, there's a lot of convenient overlap in this case, so I'm in the clear," the mini-Fluttershy insisted.

The miniature Iron Will placed a knuckle against his chin. "Be careful with what you say, and live to see another day."

With a nod of agreement, the two aspects of Fluttershy's conscience vanished in puffs of smoke.

Fluttershy finally stepped forward from the doorway. "Uhm, Mister Tellis? You-"

"Whoa, what's with that?" Tellis interrupted, turning his head again toward the pegasus. "Don't feel like you have to be all polite just because an armed and bloodthirsty killer broke into your home while you were away. Call me what you always call me."

"Oh. Uh, okay. Mister Terrifying Murderer, you can stay here, but I'm a little worried about what you're going to eat."

"That won't be a problem; there's plenty of animals around here! I helped myself to a few muskrats and a bear when I showed up, so I won't need dinner," Tellis reassured her.

Fluttershy's face turned absolutely ashen through her fur and her jaw hung open in shock.

Then Tellis laughed. "Ha! I'm just messing with you! I don't really eat anything; my daemon armor provides me with all my necessary energy so long as I provide it with my boiling hatred and the blood of the fallen. It's pretty neat!"

Fluttershy's expression didn't change.

Tellis waited for several seconds for the pegasus to speak again, but she did not.

Then he shrugged and fell over onto the length of the couch, a yawning noise coming from his vox grille.



"We've got two enemy cruisers moving on our starboard flank!"

"Fighters incoming! Void shields holding..."

"Target lock on the enemy frigate. Lances charged. We are ready to fire on your order, Captain."

Princess Luna looked over the hololithic displays, her brow furrowing as she saw her own fleet coming apart before the might of the Imperial battle group.

"We shalt open fire on the little ones whilst moving closer to the cruisers," Luna decided, pointing a hoof at the frigate, "remove this threat, gunners."

The alicorn princess was seated in a captain's throne as large monitors and displays relayed the tactical situation to her. All around the busy deck were human officers and technicians in defaced Imperial uniforms, all of them busily seeing to the operation of the battleship and none of them apparently bothered that their captain was a pony.

"Fire the initial spread to take down their shields, then cut it open with the lance batteries."

"Enemy frigate is taking evasive maneuvers!"

"Stay on target! She won't get far; she's still boxed in."

As pulsing diagnostic readouts showed the buildup of energy for their weapons, Luna glanced back at an alcove near the rear of the bridge.

"Dost thou have any advice on this formation, Warsmith?" the dark blue pony asked, her hoof steadying the captain's hat perched behind her horn.

"You're doing fine." Solon mumbled, paying little attention to the affair.

The Warsmith was hunched over an engineering console, staring critically at a small lens and the incomprehensible circuitry mounted behind it. He was unarmored, as was usual in his dreams, although he now had an augmetic right arm and a bionic optical array built into his face.

"We have a hit!" the gunnery master declared, drawing Luna's attention back to the battle. "Now! Cut it apart!"

The hull of the ship groaned as massive energy discharges shook the sub-structure, and Luna watched intently as the hololith displayed a beam of energy stabbing into the smaller enemy ship.

"Another hit! Confirmed penetration of the primary munitorum deck!"

Luna grinned as the flickering hololith showed the enemy craft splitting into two from the middle.

"Huzzah! The enemy hath been halved!" Luna declared proudly, lifting a hoof in the air.

"Enemy cruisers are opening fire! Void shields are holding!" barked another technician.

"CAPTAIN! We have a new energy signature! Battle Barge at our six!"

Luna clenched her teeth as her bridge crew started to panic.

"They're launching boarding torpedoes! We don't have enough turret or fighter cover in that quadrant!"

"Calm thyselves! Art thou not men of war?" Luna demanded, subduing the noisy shouting briefly. "Continue our assault upon the enemy craft! We shalt gather thine Iron Warriors and lead a charge to repel boarders!"

"Aye aye, Captain!"

Luna's horn flared as she stepped down from the command throne, and a power sword flickered into existence in front of her, supported by her levitation magic.

"Once more, into the breach!" the dark alicorn shouted, galloping toward the bridge's exit.

As the door opened before her however, she slowed her pace and then glanced over to Solon. The Astartes was still crouched over his device, mumbling to himself as his optics array kept adjusting itself to get the best view.

Another flash of magic came from Luna's horn, and suddenly all activity ceased. The men on the bridge froze in place, the flares of energy outside dimmed and remained still, and the myriad noises of a battleship on combat alert fell silent.

Solon noticed something was wrong right away, and he gave Luna an annoyed look as he pulled his hands away from the device he was holding. It remained sitting in the air, waiting for normal time to resume.

"What now? I told you not to pause the simulation if you can help it! I'm trying to work here!"

Luna seemed unmoved by his complaints. "We wished to ask if thou might accompany us for the imminent swashbuckling," she asked, her power cutlass swinging back and forth in the grip of her levitation, "it is thy dream, after all."

"No, I'm fine," Solon grumbled, "as I've explained, I use these cycles to research new devices, not engage in combat sport."

"Aye, clearly," Luna agreed, "but would it not be a pleasant change to leave thy labors for one night to indulge in such diversions?"

"My labors have been distracted for more than 'one night' thanks to your intrusions," Solon groused, drumming his artificial fingers on the engineering console, "I thought that I would be free of you after that calamitous meeting with your government, but you keep showing up and interrupting my work. And then you wanted to be able to fight in the scenarios simulated here, so I had to make the necessary modifications to the logic engines, which took up productive time during my waking hours, too!"

"'Twas entirely worthwhile," Luna said happily, still swinging her sword left and right with a fierce smile, "We cannot believe thou hast dreamt like this for so long without making such modifications thyself!"

"I'm ever so glad that my work meets your approval," Solon rolled his eye before he turned back to the floating lens, "you're much easier to please than your sister."

"Tia is burdened by the responsibility of the Equestrian state and the darkest secrets of the Equestrian royal family," Luna said somberly, "We, on the other hoof, art free to take a more flexible stance on thy presence, at least so long as our peoples remain at peace. Thou may expect many more visits until thou departs our world."

"Lovely. Would you care to restart time, Princess?"

Luna's expression shifted into a more dour one as she approached the Iron Warrior. "What is so fascinating about thy trinket that it demands thy complete attention?"

Solon pointed to the lens, his annoyance lifting somewhat as the topic moved to his work. "This is the psykant occulus, the device I put into Serith's arm. It acts as a psionic damper, breaking psychic energy that has manifested into physical energy back into its less tangible and dangerous form in order to foil direct attacks."

"Aye, We remember it now. Quite a useful device," Luna admitted with reluctant approval.

"Yes, indeed. I suppose I should thank you for providing such a strenuous test run for its first field use," Solon said with a chuckle.

Luna brightened. "In that case, thou can thank us by accompanying us to smite the foe!"


Luna's expression fell immediately. Then she turned her head away sharply, her nose in the air. "Very well. Enjoy thy tedious labors as We obtain glorious victory in thy stead!" Her horn flared, and in an instant the flow of time resumed as normal in the dream world.

"Have fun," Solon mumbled, catching the psykant occulus and then turning it over again.

As he concentrated on the resonance array and puzzled at how to increase its sensitivity, the sounds of combat and barked orders all around the ship began to meld together into a constant stream of white noise.

It was a comforting sound to him, and the main reason why he did his dream-tinkering during recordings of ancient battles rather than the silence of a sterile lab space.

He entered something like a meditative state, submerging his senses until they were only distantly aware of the sounds of the crew shouting, the macrobatteries firing, the hull substructure groaning, or the sound of a bolt pistol firing less than a meter away.

With his attention so keenly focused, he was able to make out every single minute detail on the psykant occulus, even as it shattered into bits from the detonation of the bolt pistol round.

"Hey! What in the-" Solon turned around toward the source of the shot. Standing over him was a Space Marine in yellow armor, a crackling power fist already cocked back.

The Warsmith didn't get the chance to say anything more before the fist hit him with the force of a cannon blast. His body was reduced to little more than a dark smear as it was sent flying across the bridge, and the scent of ozone filled the recycled air from the crackling discharge.

Solon's body instantly began to reform, the bones reassembling themselves and his sinews wrapping around them with absurd speed. He felt no pain from the devastating impact, either; this was a dream and simulation, after all.

Within seconds Solon's body was completely restored, and the Iron Warrior growled as he got to his feet. "Luna!"

"We cannot converse at the moment!" the dark blue alicorn sang as her power sword clashed against the boarding shield of another Imperial Fist. "It seems thine enemies hath made it to thy bridge!"

She stuck out her tongue as her horn flared with magic, wrenching her enemy's shield away so that she could plunge the sword into his gorget.

"No, they didn't! They boarded too far from the bridge! You're not fooling anybody!" Solon shouted angrily as the Marine Sergeant charged him again. "You created copies of them yourself!"

"We cannot hear thee! We art engaged in glorious combaaaaat!" Luna said with a grin as bolts and sword blows crashed into her personal barrier to no effect.

Solon dodged to the side as the dream construct swung at him again, the utterly lethal energies of the power fist humming noisily as they passed by him.

Solon aimed his augmetic hand straight for the neck in a knife-hand strike, the points of his adamantium fingers tearing through the stiff rubber hosing that protected the Marine's throat.

As he struggled to subdue the dying Imperial, Luna laughed.

"See? Is this not more entertaining than playing with thy gadgets?" she asked, her power sword clashing against another Marine's thunder hammer.

"Dammit, Luna!"


Sweet Apple Acres - the following day

Applejack hummed to herself as she tapped a hoof against the access plate leading outdoors, a pair of buckets mounted on her back.

The blast door slid open and she stepped out into the cool morning air, smiling pleasantly.

As she stepped outside, she took a moment to glance back at the bunker complex that had become her home. It was now painted over a bright red like the rest of the buildings and had a wind mill planted on top, in addition to several wind charms, a weather vane, and a few other decorations. The wind mill didn't power anything (as they already had more energy capacity than they could ever use), but it went a long way toward making it look less like a bunker hardpoint.

Big Macintosh was already out in the fields, plow attached to his harness, and she could see Apple Bloom dashing over to the automata bay where Crabapple rested now during the night. She was pulling a customized harness behind her, which the automata used to carry bushels of apples and other crops about the farm in baskets. Truth be told, the sentient machine wasn't good for much besides hauling things, but given that it didn't accept wages or eat food it was still helpful.

"Another fine day, Apples! Let's buck some fruit!" the orange mare barked as Winona ran past her into the fields.


Sweet Apple Acres - main orchard, several minutes later

Apple Bloom grunted as she pushed a basket of apples across the ground with her head, shoving it up against Crabapple's body and over the hook of its harness.

The probe automata beeped and then tilted its body to secure the hook on the basket. +Current load has reached capacity. Beginning preservatory run,+ Crabapple blurted in Binary before it raised its leg actuators and started walking for the silos.

Apple Bloom turned back toward the trees. There were several baskets under them partially full of apples, but many of the precious fruits had missed the containers and fallen on the ground. Normally Applejack would have collected them herself, but with the additional help available she could leave the tedious, simple work of collecting stray apples to Apple Bloom and some of the heavier labor of hauling the goods to Crabapple.

"Hey, Bloom! Whatcha doing?"

Apple Bloom glanced to the side as she placed an apple in a basket, spotting Scootaloo approaching on her scooter with Sweetie Belle riding behind her.

"Ah'm workin'. Sorry girls, but Ah don't got time to play today," Apple Bloom said as she retrieved another apple from the ground.

"Still? I'd think you'd have caught up with all the farm work by now," Sweetie said.

"Naw, it took days just to paint all the new buildings, and Mac's been decoratin' inside and whatnot, too," Apple Bloom replied, dropping another fruit into the basket, "plus, Sis has been talkin' to that human guy in Ponyville to see if she can pawn off that gunship wreck onto him."

Scootaloo cocked her head to the side. "But wasn't it the humans' to begin with? Do you even own it?"

"Yeah, Ah think that's what he said too," Apple Bloom said with a shrug, "if they wanted it back, Ah think they woulda come fer it by now. Anyway, we're behind on the harvest and seeding still."

"Yeesh. Running a farm sure is tough," Scootaloo grimaced as she got off her scooter, "well, mind if we help a little bit, then?"

"Help yerself, girls!" Apple Bloom said with a chuckle.

As the three fillies started collecting fallen apples, Sweetie Belle spoke up again.

"Actually, I wanted to ask if you've made any progress on our new cutie mark mission," said the young unicorn.

Apple Bloom's expression soured. "Naw. Sis won't tell me any more about the human fort no matter how much Ah ask. She says it ain't for me to worry about."

"It's the same for me," Sweetie Belle griped, "I can't even bring up the fortress without Rarity complaining for a straight ten minutes, and then she'll end by telling me she doesn't want to talk about it. And she's been really tight-lipped about her meetings with Mister Delgan."

"What about that thing you got from Applejack? The auspak,"Scootaloo asked.

"AUSPEX," Sweetie Belle corrected as she tossed another apple in the basket, "and I can't make any sense of that thing. For starters, the buttons and dials and stuff are really hard to use with hooves. Those humans must get a lot of use out of those fingers of theirs."

Scootaloo frowned. "Well, how about we go to the human fortress ourselves, then?"

The other two fillies slumped immediately, their faces darkening.

"Mah sis said no," Apple Bloom mumbled, irritably batting about an apple on the ground, "she wouldn't even let me go to the party last week with her'n Mac."

"My sister said a lot of things that ultimately added up to 'no'," Sweetie Belle groused, pouting, "and then she warned our parents to make sure they didn't give me permission either."

Scootaloo hummed thoughtfully. "So should I go by myself?"

"Okay, even Ah think that's dumb," Apple Bloom noted dryly, "even if Sis is bein' overprotective, ya don't wanna get stuck out there all that way on yer own."

"Well, how else are we supposed to practice being xeno-biologis?" Scootaloo complained, tossing an apple in a high arc into the bucket. "I already looked in the library and asked Twilight if there were any books on aliens or by aliens. She just started mumbling to herself constantly about 'access' something-or-other while her eye twitched and then Spike made me leave. And forget about Gaela. She just ignores me."

"What about Lyra? Don't she have a human?" Apple Bloom asked as she rubbed an apple clean with her hooves.

"Well, yeah, but... I don't know, something about those two seems really OFF," Sweetie said, scratching at her neck, "I'm pretty sure humans aren't supposed to be pets."

"Well, from what yer tellin' me, we don't have a lotta options if we wanna make this work," Apple Bloom noted.

"What about Crabapple?" Scootaloo asked as she spotted the automata returning from the silos. "She isn't a human, but she's built by humans. That has to be worth something, right?"

+Warning! Sensors detect incoming self-motivated mechanical! Reading active weapon signatures!+ Crabapple blurted as it walked back up to Apple Bloom.

"It'd be worth a lot, but how are we gonna study her? We can't even understand her!" Apple Bloom pointed out.

+Mechanical signature is registered as friendly IFF. There are no such current units on deployment according to Company noosphere registers. Caution is advised!+

The newest incomprehensible string of noise to come from the probe emphasized her point, and Sweetie Belle rubbed her chin.

"Well, maybe that's a good place to start? Like, instead of trying to understand what she says, we figure out her body language?"

Crabapple paused. +Body language: non-verbal physical cues or mannerisms that relay information to observers in lieu of spoken words. Related terms: posture, expressions, pose, stance. Unit Crabapple shall now attempt this new form of communication.+

Shifting slightly so that it could balance on three of its four legs, Crabapple lifted the fourth leg and then moved it as firmly horizontal as it could so that the point of the limb was aimed in the direction of the approaching sensor signature.

The fillies stared intently at the outstretched leg.

"Yeah, I've got nothing," Scootaloo said.

+Oh, come on!+ Crabapple blurted.

As the fillies stared critically at the automata to no useful end, another group caught sight of them through the trees, advancing silently on their helpless prey despite the futile warnings of their probe.

"Hey, it's the blank flanks!"

The three fillies jumped in surprise, whirling around to confirm the presence of two familiar classmates behind them.

"Diamond Tiara? What're you doing here?" Apple Bloom asked, more puzzled than annoyed to see her usual schoolyard bully. Silver Spoon was behind her, as usual.

The two wealthy ponies approached confidently, boasting smug smiles.

"Oh, I just wanted to stop by to ask how you enjoyed the party last week," Diamond Tiara asked, "it's too bad we didn't meet up with you, it was a blast! And surely you three would have been SOME help decorating the transit train like a pirate ship! We could have tied you to the flag pole or something, I'm sure. But we didn't see you there! Why not?"

The three markless fillies fumed, and Apple Bloom hung her head as she picked up another apple.

"We didn't go. Ah was workin'." Apple Bloom grumbled. Sweetie Belle and Scootaloo looked even more annoyed; unlike Apple Bloom, they didn't even have an excuse. They simply hadn't received any invitations.

"Why're you bringing this up now? Haven't you had all week to rub our noses in it?" Scootaloo asked, quirking an eyebrow.

"Oh, well, it hardly occurred to me!" Diamond Tiara said with mock surprise. "Surely the Apple family - the ENTIRE Apple family, that is - would be involved in any event that featured the humans!"

"I thought you would be the first to be there! Why, up until now, weren't you the only pony with her own automata?" Silver Spoon asked, furrowing her brow as if it were a difficult question.

"Yeah, as a matter o' fact..." Apple Bloom trailed off as she stood on her hind legs against the basket, and her head snapped toward the two aggravating ponies. "Wait, whaddya mean 'up until now'?"

"Oops!" Silver Spoon giggled, holding a hoof up to her mouth.

Diamond Tiara tsked. "Well, it looks like the secret is out. Glass Cannon, get out here!"

Then it appeared, stalking through the apple grove with surprising swiftness. It had a quadrupedal chassis with the legs mounted in an X-pattern, although its four legs were flat-soled and mid-jointed, unlike Crabapple's long, pointed legs. This new automata had a humanoid torso base, with a reaper autocannon for its left arm and a hefty three-fingered claw for its right. Its sensor suite was built into a mostly blank metal mask that boasted an optics visor and a small slit for a mouth.

+Unit scan complete. Corrupted automata detected. IFF signal indeterminate. Engage target?+ barked Glass Cannon, its visor glaring a bright red. Unlike Crabapple's harsh, static-laced squeal, the guard automata spoke in a noisy hum that was much easier on the ears, if precisely as incomprehensible to the ponies.

Scootaloo and Sweetie Belle stared slack-jawed at the machine as it aimed its autocannon menacingly at the other automata.

Apple Bloom couldn't help but notice that the business end of the machine's very prominent gun was aimed squarely at her pet, which left her less than impressed.

+Do not engage! Unit Crabapple is not hostile!+ the probe insisted.

+Unit Crabapple designated as a class two daemonic sentience. Threat indicator yellow. Any aggressive action will result in summary termination.+

"Hey, Diamond! Get yer tin can to point that thing somewhere else!" Apple Bloom growled, spreading her legs apart and clenching her teeth like an angry cat.

Diamond Tiara snorted, but beckoned to her mechanical servant with a hoof. "Glass Cannon, stand down. We are on somepony else's property, after all. Show some manners."

The automata responded immediately, and the reaper autocannon lowered its muzzle to the ground. +Order confirmed. Alert status green.+

"I don't... but how did..." Scootaloo was flabbergasted as she walked around the new machine, taking in the details of the device.

"How did I get one?" Diamond finished for her. "I told you I could get one if I really wanted. Nothing is out of my reach."

Silver Spoon chuckled. "Besides, human technology is all the rage, nowadays! So I suppose the Apple family is still SLIGHTLY ahead of the curve. Not all of us were lucky enough to have our homes demolished by aliens so that they'd build us new ones!"

The two wealthy fillies chuckled to themselves.

"Why is it called 'Glass Cannon'?" Sweetie Belle asked.

Diamond smirked again. "It was something Mister Delgan said about this model. I'm not sure exactly what he meant; it has something to do with the armor, I guess. But I liked the name, so I decided to call him that!"

"Great," Apple Bloom grumbled, "is that all ya came for?"

Diamond and Silver's smug expressions slipped a bit. "What are you going on about now?"

"Ya come out all this way and even started roamin' the orchard just to find us to show off yer new toy and prove it's as good as Crabapple?" Apple Bloom asked, rolling her eyes while she pushed a basket full of apples onto Crabapple's harness. "Well, ya did that. Congrats. Now unless yer gonna help harvest, get lost, Diamond."

The pink pony grit her teeth in irritation. Now that she thought about it, it was quite obvious that she had come here just to clear her envy of the youngest Apple sibling. She had expected her to be more in awe of her clearly superior automata.

"Pft! Me, harvest apples? Why would I do that when I have Glass Cannon around?" Diamond Tiara asked with a derisive chuckle. "He's a bodyguard model, of course - not a throwaway scouting probe like yours - but he can do plenty of other things!"

The pink filly turned and tapped a hoof against the combat automata's leg, eliciting a questioning burst of machine-code. "Glass Cannon! You see that basket of apples over there?" Diamond asked, pointing to a container sitting in front of an apple tree off to the side.

The thunder of autocannon fire met her query, and every one of the young ponies jumped in fright as the basket vanished under a volley of armor-piercing explosive shells.

"Wait! Stop! Cease! Halt!" Diamond shouted, her ears flat against her head as shell casings the size of juice cans bounced onto the ground at her feet.

The barrage stopped in an instant, and Diamond Tiara found herself the subject of three angry glares.

"He, uh, gets a little trigger-happy, it's true," Diamond laughed nervously as the heavy clunking sound of ammunition hoppers came from behind her, "but a pony couldn't ask for a better companion!"

There was a creaking noise as the apple tree next to the target basket, largely gouged out at the trunk from taking several direct hits, started to tremble under the weight it could no longer support.

A loud snapping noise came from the hapless flora, and Diamond and Silver winced as the tree's trunk buckled and it collapsed onto the ground.

"Ah think y'all should probably head on outta here," Apple Bloom said flatly to the two intruders and their machine.

Diamond Tiara puffed up her cheeks. "I don't take orders from you, blank flank!"

"This is mah family's property!" the redheaded filly retorted.

+Topic analysis: unit utility and capability,+ Crabapple buzzed as the fillies argued, +Unit Crabapple is clearly superior in matters of detection, communication, and abstract thought thanks to incident of sentience.+

Glass Cannon didn't respond, largely because the other automata didn't have any ego it felt the need to protect.

+Deploying demonstratory sensor scan,+ Crabapple blurted before its sensor array started whirling actively.

"What? You want me to get mah sis and have her kick ya out instead?" Apple Bloom growled, almost nose-to-nose with the pink filly. "If Ah call Mac, he'd be happy to junk that heap o'trash of yers too and add it to the scrap pile in our barn!"

"Don't even joke about that!" Diamond snapped back. "Glass here is probably worth more than your whole stupid farm!"

An ear-rending Binaric squeal shocked the ponies out of their confrontation, and all the fillies turned toward Crabapple as the probe started rotating wildly and wailing machine code.

+Warning! Warning! Active sensor scans have detected anti-gravity drive emissions within local engagement range! Tau Empire units detected!+

This got Glass Cannon's attention immediately, and the automata's visor glared brightly as its autocannon swung up into firing position. +Red alert issued. Tactical command overrides engaged. Relay target coordinates.+

"What're they doing?" Silver Spoon asked as she watched Glass Cannon step over in front of Crabapple as if it were guarding the probe.

"That's the noise she makes when she's found somethin'!" Apple Bloom said, running up behind Crabapple.

+Enemy location confirmed. Mapping... complete. Uploading to noosphere link,+ blurted the probe.

+Confirmed,+ replied Glass Cannon, turning toward the denser interior of the orchard, +hunting.+

Diamond Tiara gaped as she watched her mechanical bodyguard walk off without her, followed by the automata probe. "Hey! Glass Cannon, come back! I didn't tell you to leave!"

+Tactical overrides are engaged. Target elimination protocols given priority.+ The combat automata didn't stop.

"What? What's going on?" Diamond asked, confused and more than a little frightened that her bodyguard wasn't listening to her.

"I think Glass Cannon is interested in whatever Crabapple found," Sweetie Belle pointed out as she followed Apple Bloom and the machines.

"Maybe it's treasure!" Scootaloo said excitedly as she followed as well.

"Maybe it's another wrecked vehicle!" Apple Bloom guessed.

"Maybe it's more aliens?" Silver Spoon surmised, hesitantly following as well. This wasn't how their encounters with the Cutie Mark Crusaders usually went at all, but she found the situation too interesting to leave alone.

"W-Wait, if it's aliens, shouldn't we call the humans or something?" Diamond Tiara asked. She followed as well, but it was mostly because she didn't want to be left alone.

"Well, we don't know what it is!" Apple Bloom replied.

+Detected units are Tau Empire military. Scans suggest presence of two craft, likely armored vehicles. Armed engagement is expected. Reinforcements may be necessary,+ Crabapple answered.

"So it could totally be treasure!" Scootaloo said brightly, pushing along on her scooter as her tiny wings flapped.

Crabapple made the machine-code equivalent of a frustrated sigh as it followed behind Glass Cannon's heavier gait.

+Relaying broad-spectrum vox signal. Searching for active receivers...+



"I swear, it's impossible to find a competent pony roofer in this town! I've had Shingles repair my house three times already this season, and the ceiling STILL leaks every time there's so much as a drizzle!"

Gaela stared up at the two-story house silently as the home's owner complained, her mask up. The superior optics suite of her helmet, designed to work in tandem with her bionic eye and complement its own unique sensory capabilities, had already isolated minute air flows that were clearly not part of the intended architectural design.

"Anyway, I'm not sure what you can do about it, but-"

"The leak isn't originating from the roof, which explains why subsequent attempts to repair it have failed," the Dark Acolyte explained, interrupting the mare, "it appears that there is a breach in the gutter, which is aligned almost directly with a fissure in the wall. Has your home been subjected to any gunfire or shrapnel within the time frame in which the leaks began?"

"Er..." the pony tilted her head to one side. "Not quite, but there's enough havoc around this town that it wouldn't surprise me if something put a hole in the wall."

"The repairs should take but a moment," Gaela said as her servo tool shifted into laser welder mode, "the prayers of sealing will take longer, but..."

Gaela trailed off as she saw an incoming vox signal, and raised an eyebrow when she saw who, or rather what, was sending it.

"Just a minute, please," the Dark Acolyte said before switching off external voice transmission.

+Speak,+ she commanded as she opened the vox link.

+Tau armor augur intercepts have been detected within the area of Sweet Apple Acres,+ Crabapple said immediately over the vox, +the enemy units are moving with minimal engine and weapon power to affect maximum stealth. We are moving to engage and request combat support.+

+Excellent,+ Gaela replied, +make sure to drop a signum beacon once you are within visual range of the enemy.+

+Acknowledged. What is unit Gaela's ETA?+

+I'll give the grayskins about an hour to finish you off and move on,+ Gaela said as she looked up at the house again, +maybe another half-hour if another pony has a job for me in the interim. Then I'll be along to salvage what's left of you.+

The vox link was silent for a few seconds. +... Requesting clarification of tactical decisions.+

+Delgan has been running low on parts. He said something about a supply problem. Try to take a direct hit early on so that they don't feel the need to completely disintegrate you.+

Gaela cut the vox link as she spotted Twilight approaching with a ladder levitating behind her.

"That will do adequately. I was slightly concerned that you wouldn't have ladders, simple as they are," Gaela said in Gothic as she reactivated her external voice module.

"Give us SOME credit," Twilight said with a smirk as she placed the ladder against the wall, "how would we get to high places without ladders or stairs?"

"A third of your species can fly, and another third can violate the laws of physics at will. Not including the small minority that can do both."

"Oh. Right. Well, it's still important for earth ponies!" Twilight pointed out.

"Indeed," Gaela mumbled as she leaned against the first step to test its capacity to hold her weight. "Let's finish this quickly. I already have another job lined up in about an hour."


Sweet Apple Acres - main orchard

The scuffling of feet and cloth moving over leaves and dirt was the only noise to be heard as the Pathfinder team moved through the orchard, their pulse carbines held tight against their chests.

The entire squad was hooded in camoline cloaks scavenged from Imperial scouts; primitive equipment compared to the Tau's stealth technologies, but they were light, portable, and far more energy-efficient than the more sophisticated systems of their own race. The cloaks shimmered in a slowly shifting blend of browns and greens, along with the occasional spot of red when the cloak captured the image reflected from a fallen apple.

Suddenly the squad leader snapped a hand up, halting the entire unit. They froze without a word, their heads twisting slowly back and forth to cover all nearby vectors.

Soon they could hear what had halted the leader; the sound of heavy footfalls and conversation. It was still some distance away, but definitely coming closer.

The lead Pathfinder made several hand gestures, and his team moved to cover themselves behind the apple trees, making sure they had the most complete view possible in the direction that the sounds were coming from.

*This is Ranger squad to Gheist Two, we have incoming,* whispered the squad leader, his voice muffled almost completely by his helmet, *contact type unknown. Stay outside of engagement range until the threat has been neutralized.*

He cut the communications link and then activated the directional microphone in his recon helmet.

The first thing he heard after do so was a blast of squealing Binary, and the Tau Pathfinder flinched visibly from the noise blasting into his ear.

"Ah'm just sayin' Scoots, Ah think Ah'd know if there were treasure in mah own orchard."

"Really? You have so much space out here you couldn't have explored ALL of it."

"Glass Cannon, halt! Why won't you listen to me?"

+Tactical override engaged. Target elimination-+

+All units heard you the first time, Unit Glass Cannon. Additional explanatory statements will not advance useful communication. Unit Crabapple has tried.+

The Pathfinder leader winced again at the shrieking noise, but kept himself from flinching this time.

Whoever was approaching, they were making too much noise to be aware that there were hostile guns nearby, or simply too stupid to try to stay unnoticed. He recognized the Gothic speech right away, even if he wasn't fluent himself, but the voices certainly didn't sound like human males, which made up most gue'la combat teams. The machine language he couldn't make any sense of whatsoever, and that made him nervous.

A few more hand signals had his squad holding their carbines straight up, ready to fall into firing position on his order. According to his helmet readouts of the sonic intercepts the approaching units were still out of range, but they were definitely on a course that would intersect with them if not stopped.

"Ah still say that it's probably another wreck."

"There has to be a limit to how much junk the humans are willing to drop onto your farm."

"Hey, they stopped!"

"Glass Cannon? Hello? What's going on?"

"Should we start digging? Look for an 'X' or something!"

+Life-forms detected by high-intensity thermal scans. Relaying targeting data.+

+Affirmative. Target locked. Kill the xeno.+

The Pathfinder leader was getting tempted to peek around his tree when he saw that the sonic intercepts weren't getting any closer. The approaching creatures weren't getting any quieter or tenser in their conversation though, so he was fairly sure they hadn't yet found his squad. Keeping the element of surprise was of utmost importance; either the target would come close enough for them to wipe out in a single salvo, or it would pass them by and they'd avoid any ugly confrontations.

The autocannon shell that blasted through the tree he was leaning against surely proved otherwise. Unfortunately he didn't get to learn from that particular lesson as it stabbed into his torso and detonated with tremendous force.

The Pathfinders ducked down as their squad leader was reduced to a pulp, trying to cover themselves more completely with their camoline cloaks while the bark of the reaper autocannon boomed through the orchard.

A stream of explosive shells stitched a devastating line through the orchard, sweeping past the first dead Tau to the next tree that was protecting a Pathfinder.

That tree proved to be no protection from the mighty autocannon, and the targeting data from Crabapple's sensors were more than a match for their camoline accessories. The next Pathfinder was blown away, and the soldier next to him knocked down from the concussive force and shrapnel. The next shot was just as accurate, and that Pathfinder vanished in a burst of dirt and gore.

*Forget this! They can see us! Fall back!* screamed one soldier as he made a mad dash away from his cover.

The rest of the squad found it hard to argue the point, and the Pathfinder unit bolted back toward the convoy.

The distant thunder of the twin-linked autocannon followed them as they ran, and although mobility proved a better defense against the automata than camouflage, the barrage of heavy cannon fire cut down another quarter of the squad before the remaining six soldiers put enough trees between them and the gun to spoil Glass Cannon's line of fire entirely.

The combat automata ceased fire, smoke pouring from the barrels of its reaper autocannon as Crabapple blurted a combat summary.

+Confirmed hit on target six. Enemy unit is fleeing combat area. Engagement successful. Generating pride...+

The ponies that were with them, however, stared with wide eyes at Glass Cannon.

"Now what was THAT all about?" Sweetie Belle demanded. They were too far away from the ambush site to see the bodies, and all of them had ducked when the shooting started.

"Diamond, your stupid hunk o'metal better have a darn good reason for ripping up our orchard some more, or mah sis is gonna tan yer hide!" Apple Bloom said angrily.

"Hey, this is NOT my fault! He's not even listening to me anymore!" Diamond Tiara protested.

"Well, you're the one who brought him here! Now get him under control!"

As the other fillies argued and Glass Cannon reloaded his primary weapon, Scootaloo and Silver Spoon cautiously drew closer to what had attracted the combat automata's lethal attentions.

+Ammo supplies at seventy-one percent. Pursuing,+ barked Glass Cannon as it started heading down the slight incline toward the kill zone.

"Hey! What's that thing on the ground?" Silver Spoon asked, moving more quickly once the combat machine was in front of her.

"Oh, that? That's an 'arm'," Scootaloo said, adopting an authoritative tone, "they're really popular with aliens. They're so popular that some of the humans attach extra ones to their bodies with machines!"

Silver Spoon glared at the pegasus. "I know what an arm is, you flightless dope. I also know that they're supposed to be attached to shoulders."

The other fillies cringed as they approached the dismembered limb, and then Apple Bloom gasped as she saw a pulse carbine lying on the ground nearby, splattered with blood. Bright blue, alien blood.

"Ah recognize that weapon! These're Tau!"

"Ah-ha! I was right then!" Silver Spoon said triumphantly as Scootaloo grumbled.

"What? Tau? Sh-Shouldn't we go get help, then?" Diamond Tiara had never seen one of the increasingly reviled "grayskins", but she'd heard plenty of stories about their lightning raid on Ponyville and read about their attack on Ferrous Dominus. After seeing what kind of damage Glass Cannon was capable of, she wanted nothing to do with any kind of army that thought to stand up to that kind of power.

"Well, tell that to your automata," Sweetie Belle pointed out. The bodyguard was still advancing through the orchard ahead of the others, Crabapple moving behind it in lockstep.

"I've been TRYING!" Diamond Tiara protested angrily. "What am I supposed to do when he doesn't listen to me?"

"Well, then we might as well follow them, right?" Scootaloo asked as she pushed off after the mechanicals.

"This is kind of exciting!" Silver Spoon confessed, moving into a light gallop to catch up. "It's almost like we're really space pirates!"

Diamond wasn't nearly so eager to follow the others, but did so anyway. "I think I prefer playing pretend..."

+Warning: enemy contact imminent. Combat estimates place enemy unit strength considerably beyond our tactical abilities.+

Glass Cannon didn't slow its advance despite Crabapple's warning. +Request reinforcements and continue feeding sensor data. Target elimination is designated priority level primus.+

+Unit Crabapple's primary objective is survival of command unit Apple Bloom and other equine bio-forms designated as "friends". Priority secundus is self-preservation,+ the probe explained.

+Does not compute. Requesting reinforcement update.+

Crabapple reluctantly let the previous matter go. +Reinforcement requests have been denied. Neither Harvest of Steel or Ferrous Dominus are accepting unit Crabapple's vox access codes any longer. Local units have been equally unhelpful.+

+Acknowledged. Command priorities unchanged: Confirm location of xeno armor. Engage. Exterminate.+


Sweet Apple Acres - 0.3 kilometers away

*We came under accurate heavy fire before we could even make visual contact. Enemy numbers are estimated to be small, but there was definitely at least one heavy weapon.*

*How did they penetrate your stealth? Typical gue'la combat systems aren't good enough.*

*Unknown without even getting a look at the enemy. But whatever they had with them, it was good. They took out the Shas'ui without even a clear line of fire.*

The Pathfinder conversed with a Fire Warrior as they stood in front of their Devilfish transport.

To them, at least, it was a transport. Anyone else would have seen a large distortion in the air, similar in appearance to a cloud that emitted an obnoxious humming noise. The infantry transport used the Lamman Sept's most sophisticated stealth technologies, scaled up from the not-very-humble Stealth Suit to conceal an entire vehicle from long-range sensors and ranged heavy weaponry. The power draw from such systems was enormous, requiring upgraded power cores and precluding the use of any weapons on the vehicle, but with them equipped such a unit could pass within earshot of most ground patrols without being noticed.

The Fire Warrior turned toward his transport, considering his options. Behind the Devilfish was a similarly cloaked hauler. Narrower than a Devilfish, and much, much slower, it was nonetheless their key mission objective.

*Is it possible the gue'la know of our cargo?* the Fire Warrior asked.

*We must assume so. The chances of them stumbling upon us at random when they're still not conducting regular patrols is unlikely.*

*Then they must be eliminated with extreme prejudice,* the Fire Warrior decided, *Shas'la, deploy and prepare for enemy contact. Squad Nightfall, prepare to flank after we engage the enemy.*

*Roger, Shas'ui,* responded his squadmates as they started hopping out of the Devilfish.

*On your mark,* replied a static-laced voice from his headset.


Sweet Apple Acres - 100 meters away

"Do you know why your walking garbage tin keeps making those awful noises?" Diamond grumbled as she followed behind the others.

Apple Bloom rolled her eyes. "That's just the way she talks, okay? It's not like y'all can make sense of what Glass says neither."

+Warning! We are outnumbered by a factor of ten! Advise tactical withdrawal!+ Crabapple blurted desperately.

+Negative. Confirm presence of enemy units for target lock,+ hummed Glass Cannon.

Sweetie Belle rubbed her chin with her hoof. "Actually, she sounds a bit more... screechy than usual. Maybe something IS the matter."

"Of course something's the matter! There are killer aliens in this orchard and we're heading TOWARD them!" Diamond Tiara shouted.

"Oh, don't be such sissy," Scootaloo said with a haughty chuckle, "weren't you all proud of your new bodyguard up to now?"

"That was when he was listening to me!" the pink filly shouted.

"Yeah, yeah, we heard ya," Apple Bloom rolled her eyes as Crabapple wailed another string of binary.

+Targets identified. Advise-+

+Cease advising, probe,+ Glass Cannon replied, +target lock confirmed. Engaging.+

The shooting began just as before: the roar of Glass Cannon's reaper autocannon smashing through an apple tree and pulping a Tau soldier that was covering behind it.

The ponies all ducked at the noise and stuck close to the ground. Some may have been braver than others (or at least played at it), but none of them actually wanted to have their head poking out when there was gunfire going off nearby.

The twin-linked autocannon continued pounding away at the distant enemy, the gun relying on its sheer power and penetration to rip through the intervening trees and retain its advantage in range.

There were, however, a lot of trees in the way. And Tau pulse rifles weren't lacking in range.

"WHOA!" Sweetie Belle shouted as flare of blue zipped past Glass Cannon's arm and carved into an apple tree, blasting apart a good bit of the trunk. The shot clearly wasn't as powerful as the reaper autocannon's round, but they probably wouldn't need to be.

+Second kill confirmed. Relocating,+ Glass Cannon barked as it backed away from its firing position to cover behind a tree itself. Flares of blue followed its path, but none struck home as the combat automata left the primary line of fire.

+Enemy units closing. Tactical shift engaged.+ The machine's claw clamped open and shut experimentally as a pair of cartridges popped out of its base and bounced along the ground.

The cartridges sparked and then started to spray a special highly ionized smoke out of both ends, quickly filling the local area with a puffy white fog designed to foil multi-spectral optics as well as the naked eye.

"Hey! What's it doing now?"

"Is this stuff dangerous?"

"I can't see!"

*Smoke screen! Clever device!* barked a Fire Warrior as he searched for the automata in the fog.

*Shas'la! Surround it! Pulse carbines, take the center and-*

*HWAAAUGH!!* a scream came from the side as a pair of autocannon rounds detonated near a soldier's legs, dropping him onto the ground on the periphery of the rapidly expanding smoke cloud.

And then it emerged.

Glass Cannon swiped its arm at the nearest Pathfinder as it sprinted through the smoke with surprising speed, swatting away the warrior's pulse carbine. The soldier was then seized around the torso before he could react.

*Fire! FIRE!* screamed the captured Pathfinder as it was dragged back into the cloud. The autocannon barked ferociously next to him, spitting death at the Tau trying to take aim.

Another Fire Warrior was gutted by the reaper, but pulse rifle shots chased Glass Cannon back into the cloud, closing on him from multiple angles. One such blast cut into the automata's gun arm, and the weapon servos hissed and squealed as the barrel was cut open and the firing mechanism ruined.

Glass Cannon broke the captured Fire Warrior with a twist of its claw, and then discarded the body like so much garbage as it stomped through the smoke away from the enemy.

+Primary weapon disabled. Scenario victory possibility has now dropped below minimum allowable threshold. Retreat advised,+ Glass Cannon hummed as it approached Crabapple and then scuttled past it.

+That is what Unit Crabapple said at the beginning. Query as to your malfunction?+ the sentient machine barked back as it followed after the non-sentient one.

+Primary weapon, designation: reaper autocannon.+

+That is not... never mind. Augurs show equine units converging at twenty-nine degrees left of current position at twelve meters. Releasing distress call on all available vox frequencies.+

The fillies coughed as they dashed out of the smoke cloud, having wisely chosen to run in the opposite direction as all the gunfire.

"Did you even know he could do that?" Silver Spoon asked as she pushed up her glasses to rub at her eyes.

"No! Nopony told me about this!" Diamond Tiara complained between coughs. "Although I admit I kind of skimmed the owner's manual..."

"He came with an owner's manual, and somehow he's still harder to handle than Crabapple?" Sweetie Belle asked condescendingly.

The pounding of metal on dirt and the rapid whir of servos alerted them to the automata rushing through the smoke screen, and the ponies glanced behind them as they saw the machines stomping away from the obscuring cloud.

+Retreat! All units, retreat!+ Crabapple squealed, its instruments whirling about wildly.

+Cease excessive communication. All units are withdrawing.+

"Hey, Ah think they're leavin'!" Apple Bloom shouted as she raced after them.

"And I think they might have the right idea!" Sweetie Belle said as all the ponies began galloping after the mechanicals.

"I didn't think we should've been here in the first place!" Diamond Tiara spat. "Wait, did those brutes hurt Glass Cannon? His arm is broken!"

"Those scoundrels!" Silver Spoon growled.

The group of fillies and automata dashed in the general direction of the Apples' home, the young ponies trading complaints about the Tau and barbs about Diamond's bodyguard as they ran.

Crabapple lagged behind slightly in the retreat, as its leg configuration was less suited for sprinting than that of the ponies and the combat drone. It was also making sure to run active scanning as it ran, checking on the progress of the Tau soldiers through the smoke screen.

On that matter, there seemed to be no problem. The Tau, having already suffered significant losses, were in no hurry to chase the enemy into a cloud of visor-fouling chaff.

Unfortunately, a new energy surge on Crabapple's sensors, coming from the emissions of a jet pack, meant that they probably didn't have to.

The shriek of machine code giving warning of the Stealth Suits came too late. The air shimmered into the visage of an armor suit painted black with blue trim as a burst cannon released an entirely visible volley of pulse shots into Glass Cannon. The inadequate armor plating that had become the automata's namesake folded quickly under the barrage, and a fan of sparks blasted from the torso plate as its core processor was fried inside its body.

The combat automata didn't get the chance to release a final statement of mission failure or warning to its command unit before its systems went dark, and the combat machine buckled and fell onto the ground in a smoldering heap in front of the stunned ponies.

It was a fate Crabapple was determined not to share as a second stealth suit swung its burst cannon toward it, barrels already spinning.

+Command unit Apple Bloom, continue retreat. Please. Run.+


Author's Note:

I think this is the only way I could manage to fit in a gamer Luna while still being faithful to the technology level I've established in Equestria.
As before, the list of characters provided above could shift as I go forward and decide to create new ones on the spot or not to use others.