• 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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Cloak and Dagger... and Lots of Guns

Iron Hearts: Book 3

Chapter 4

Cloak and Dagger... and Lots of Guns


Ponyville - Sugar Cube Corner

"A sheet cake and four dozen cupcakes have been completed as scheduled. Will you require assistance in transporting your purchases?"

A pair of finely dressed unicorns stood at the counter of the bakery, their heads craning upward to make eye contact with the Iron Warrior standing on the other side.

"Oh, no, we can handle it," said the mare of the couple, her voice wavering only slightly as she stared up at a face that could well have been made of stone slabs.

"I must say, when I'd heard that Ponyville hosted some of the alien invaders as guests, I didn't really know what to expect," the stallion said with an uncertain chuckle.

Dest's armor had been mended since the Tau attack, but he was working without his helmet at the Cakes' request. It was strange and unsettling enough seeing an armed and armored Chaos Space Marine in a bakery, but evidently the ruby glare of the helmet visor really put off the customers when they had to deal with him. The Rhino driver didn't really get it, but it was no great effort to accommodate their request.

"That'll be sixty-eight bits, please," Mister Cake said as he worked the register.

"Certainly. Let me just have a look at the sheet cake," the male unicorn said as his partner levitated her purse up to the counter.

He opened the box, and his brow arched as he saw the top of his purchase.

"I presume this is your handiwork, am I right?" he asked of the Iron Warrior.

"It is. Is it satisfactory?" Dest asked.

Frosting had been placed onto the sheet cake in thick and irregular lines, and behind them small plastic pony soldiers had been placed as if taking cover behind barricades. Other plastic figures had been placed atop a ridge formed with apple slices to survey the imaginary battle, and some of the pony dolls had even been laid on their sides in splattered puddles of red gel frosting.

The unicorn mare hesitated as she stared at the cake. "How avant-garde. I love it!" She spilled the contents of her purse on the counter, and then snapped it closed with magic. "Keep the change, my good pony. This is going to absolutely stun those stuck-up ninnies at my croquet club!"

The unicorns levitated the boxes of baked goods away as they walked out the door, chatting enthusiastically about the things they had seen at Delgan's market that day.

"Thanks again for helping out in the bakery, Mister Dest," Cake said as he counted out the money to figure out how much had he had been given, "my wife has been really busy with the twins, and Pinkie couldn't have chosen a worse time to... uh... what did you say she was doing again?"

"She was assisting a fallen comrade in the Apples' latest stand against the grayskins," Dest reminded him.

"Right. That. I'm really glad you could find time to help out!"

"I will be unable to assist you for long. I wish to return to the Apples' farm this evening and assist in removing the corpses from the property," the Iron Warrior grunted before he picked up a lemon tart and popped it into his mouth. "I must admit that this work is strangely... satisfying," he admitted after swallowing the treat, "although I think I prefer it when the pink lunatic is around."

Cake chuckled as he spilled the pile of bits into the cash register. "Yeah, Pinkie really livens things up, doesn't she? Any idea when she'll be back?"

"It is difficult to estimate," the Chaos Space Marine admitted, "checking on Macintosh should not take any great length of time, but these things have a way of becoming... complicated."


Ferrous Dominus - Solon's forge

"You're uh... You're looking... better, Big Mac," Twilight fumbled her words as she stared at the armored stallion, trying to process what she was looking at.

"Eeyup," he replied, cracking his neck back and forth.

Several more seconds of awkward silence followed the exchange, and then Pinkie rolled her eyes.

"Okay, I'm just going to ask what everypony else is thinking: why did you build him a suit of armor?" the pink pony asked.

Solon chuckled deeply, his mechatendrils quivering. "That'sh kind of a funny shtory, actually. You shee, when I cobbled together a reactor core for implant to power Macintosh'sh new augmeticsh, it generated far more energy than the implantsh needed. Conshidering that he hadn't woken up yet, I decided to pash the time by deshigning an exoshkeleton frame to make ushe of the excesh energy."

Solon stomped over to Big Macintosh, who tilted his head away warily.

"I shtarted adding weapon uplinksh and plating, and before I knew it the project had shnowballed rather shpectacularly. Eventually I even opened him up again and inshtalled nerve shocketsh and a modified black carapace interface."

The Warsmith raised his legs over Big Macintosh in order to stoop over him.

"The power armor is Ashtartesh-equivalent and augment-integrated, with a complete multi-shenshor loadout and Crine-pattern miniature data core. The environmental shealsh are void-rated and capable of reshishting shumbmerged or atmoshpheric pressuresh of up to shix hundred kilogramsh per shquare centimeter."

The screens over the walls flickered in tandem, and then they displayed the different aspects of the power armor design schematics. Some concentrated on the specific qualities of the materials, such as alloy makeup and plating construction, while others features notes on mini-servo designs, power disbursement, nervous system uplinks, and even more esoteric aspects of the technology.

Solon shifted to the side slightly, and one of his mechatendrils slid across the heavy bolter.

"The heavy bolter is Grendel Pattern. Shorter-lived than mosht modelsh, and shorter range, but far lighter for a lesh robusht mounting."

Then Solon tapped the top of Big Mac's harness, which now had a thick spool of metal cable rather than the pegs that adorned his last one.

"I had the dishtinct impression that Macintosh shpent a great deal of time hauling thingsh, sho I modeled the shuit appropriately. The shervo arm is mainly for ammunition reloading, but integratesh a magnetic harpoon attached to the adamantium cable shpool."

Big Mac restrained a grimace as the Warsmith loomed over him and listed the features of his new, entirely unsolicited armor. He didn't really feel comfortable being prodded and shown off like a science project, but under the circumstances he could hardly bring himself to complain.

"I think that coversh the armor," Solon said as his servo claw opened and closed eagerly, "now let'sh show them the resht. Dishengage the shuit'sh primary locksh, Macintosh."

The stallion thought briefly on how to do that, and in response numerous clicking noises came from the power armor around him. Solon's mechatendrils went to work immediately, stripping the armor off piece by piece and carefully placing each component on the floor by Mac's hooves.

"So let me get this straight: in that armor suit, Big Mac can go into outer space AND under water?" Rainbow Dash asked. "That's awesome!"

"It'sh shtandard capability for any proper power armor deshign," Solon said as he reached down and pulled Big Mac's harness off.

"How long can it protect him in those kinds of environments?" Twilight asked, deeply intrigued.

"In hard void, he'll lasht two-point-shix hoursh provided nothing goesh wrong with the shuit itshelf," Solon explained, "shubmerged, he can potentially shurvive indefinitely depending on the fluidsh. Hish reshpiratory engine can procesh oxygenated water."

"He can breathe underwater?" Twilight asked, blinking rapidly. Big Mac made a face.

"Hish reshpiratory shyshtem ish shtill technically inferior to Ashtartesh shtandard genetic equivalentsh, but yesh."

The rear plate that covered Big Mac's tail was removed, and then the final pieces of the main torso carapace were lowered onto the floor.

Big Macintosh shifted and stretched uncomfortably, feeling dozens of sore points and small, sharp pains along his body. Hopefully they were just temporary remnants of his extremely recent dismemberment and extensive surgery, although he supposed he could still count himself lucky even if they were permanent.

Now that he was effectively naked once more the others could see the modifications far more easily as they stood out against his slightly damp red coat rather than a shell of gunmetal and gold. Aside from his left legs, a long patch of his skin and coat on his chest stretching across his side all the way to his hip had been replaced by thinly segmented metal plates. The area that covered his chest had a deep seam that clearly marked out a hatch, while a large socket stuck at the edge of his rib cage marked where the heavy bolter assembly apparently plugged into his body. A few other smaller nerve sockets could be seen on his back and biological legs, and his hip augmetic had a large wheel assembly that whirred softly within the socket.

"How... How's it feel, Mac?" Applejack asked cautiously as she approached her brother ahead of the others.

Big Macintosh hesitantly took a step forward, his bionic leg humming as he lifted it up and put it down. Then he stared down at the limb as he twisted it back and forth, testing its range of motion.

Finally, he pulled his left foreleg up and twisted it around to stare at the bottom of his metal hoof.

"It'll do," the stallion said finally, smiling slightly as Apple Bloom and the other fillies crept closer to get a better look.

Applejack managed to muffle a sob as she burst forward to hug her older brother, wrapping her forelegs around his reconstructed body. Apple Bloom joined her a moment later, hugging his right leg happily.

Solon backed away, his heavy chassis banging noisily against the iron flooring.

"Warsmith, if I may ask," Gaela began, standing aside from the Apples with her hand pressed against her cranial implant, "what is the material you used to construct the augmetics? It's confusing my optical scanners."

"Well, the shkeletal frame is adamant-3, a lighter variant. Given that I didn't have the opportunity to reinforce hish shpinal column, the weight of the biological and bionic limbsh could only vary sho much. The leg plating and torsho carapace I whipped up with shome Necron living metal I had lying around."

Gaela was too stunned by the admission to comment further, but Twilight had her dataslate and stylus out, taking notes.

"Could you expand upon that, please?" Twilight asked.

"Certainly. Living metal ish a fluid alloy coagulate that maintainsh sholid form through gluon overlay matricesh. It hash remarkable energy abshorption propertiesh and when damaged will attempt to return to the form eshtablished by the energy matrix."

"Okay, can someone translate that into Gothic for us non-eggheads?" Rainbow Dash asked under the false assumption that even Twilight understood it.

Solon shifted his torso around to face the Apples. "Mish Apple, if you would shtep back?"

Applejack finally retreated from her brother, giving him a reassuring smile before she wiped her face with her hoof. "Go 'head, Solon. We're done." Apple Bloom also stepped away, although she was staring at the Warsmith suspiciously.

A bright red laser beam came from one of Solon's mechatendrils, and the ponies watched uneasily as the stream of hot crimson light cut a shallow burn across Big Mac's metal flank. The stallion turned his head and watched mutely, noting only a slight tingling sensation from the region.

The beam halted, and then before the ponies' eyes the burn started to vanish from one end to the other, disappearing completely within seconds.

"Ash fashinating ash it ish, the living metal ish shtrictly xeno technology, no creation of my own," Solon said to his speechless audience, "what I'm really proud of ish the circulatory core."

Several wall screens shifted content to display Big Mac's augmetic schematics now, although none of the occupants in the room were paying much attention with the real thing in front of them.

"It combinesh a miniature fusion reactor with an augmetic circulatory center of my own deshighn! Total blood flow efficiency hash been increashed by thirty-eight pershent, and it can detect exceshive losh of blood pressure and enter a hibernation shtate in cashe of catashrophic bleeding." Solon stepped toward the monitor bank and started tapping at the hololith screens. "The liver wash alsho damaged and replaced, though it doesh nothing sho impreshive. Also, since there was shtill shome room in there, I put in a combat shtimulant injection driver and hooked it into the endocrine shyshtem. That will take shome getting ushed to, I'm sure."

"But, Warsmith..." Gaela trailed off briefly, glancing at said driver's schematics on the wall screen next to her. "WHY?"

Solon looked up from a graph readout displaying Big Macintosh's heart rate, his metal-clad fingers dancing across the hololith screen. "Well, firsht off, thish may not be the lasht time Mishter Macintosh has a run-in with our little gray friendsh. Shecond, I musht admit that after deciding to implant living metal into the augment shpecificationsh for an injured pony I had never even met before, I had obvioushly and completely losht pershpective on what I wash doing. Building it wash fun, though."

"This is going to be so awesome," Rainbow Dash said, almost giddy as she stood up against Mac's new hind leg, "now you can come with us on our quests to save Equestria and stuff!"

Neither Applejack or Big Macintosh looked especially excited at the prospect.

"Dash, let's not go draggin' him into anything, all right? He was chattin' up the Reaper just yesterday," Applejack said with a frown.

"Come on AJ, he even has his own armor now!" Rainbow countered.

"Mister Solon, may I ask you something?" Rarity asked as the other mares were distracted, walking up between the Warsmith's piston-driven legs and beckoning to him with her hoof.

"Yesh? What ish it?" Solon swiveled his torso around and stared down.

Rarity continued beckoning silently, casting a furtive glance toward the other ponies.

Solon eventually understood, and he leaned his hulking body over so that the unicorn could whisper into his helmet.

After a few seconds, he stood up straight again. "His genitalia were unharmed. They should function ash well ash before," the Warsmith said, ignoring Rarity's frantic hushing gestures, "I shupposhe that the augmetic legsh may be uncomfortable for hish partner, though. I had not conshidered it."

Rarity was keenly aware that everypony else had stopped talking and were now staring at her wordlessly.

"What? It's an important question!" she insisted, glad to have her current expression hidden by the respirator mask.

The staring continued.

"Oh, AS IF I was the only pony thinking about it!" Rarity huffed, turning her head away sharply.

"If you're finished over there, I'd like to begin the final calibrationsh," Solon said suddenly as more hololith screens flickered into place around him.

"Eeyup," Macintosh said with a nod.

"Shprint down the hall until I shay shtop," Solon instructed, his optics viewing half a dozen diagnostics screens at once.

Big Mac glanced down the length of the hall toward where the other ponies had comes from, and then he took off.

Sharp aches came from his shoulder and hips as his much-abused muscles struggled to hold on to the hefty actuator joints, but he was somewhat glad for the pain. They were a firm mental reminder that something was there under the left side of his body, which he sorely needed what with the lack of any familiar sensation coming from those limbs.

He built up speed as best he could, his augmetic hooves spitting sparks as they pounded against the metal flooring. They seemed sluggish at first, but after the first twenty meters or so they seemed to speed up and move in better sync with his natural limbs.


Big Mac slammed his bionic foreleg down and locked it, and then his entire body swung around the limb as his other bionic leg cut into the floor. The screech of metal filled the air as sparks spewed from the contact, and his hoof left an arced groove in the iron flooring as he steadied himself.

"SO cool," Rainbow Dash said gleefully as she clapped her hooves together.

"Yeah, well you feel free to get yerself shot up and maybe you'll get a pair of yer own," Applejack said with a snort, "Ah think Ah'll stick with the legs mah momma gave me."

"Good, everything ish functioning within operational parametersh," Solon mumbled as the hololiths around him streamed ever-more diagnostic data, "no doubt you're feeling shome mushle pain at preshent. It will fade over time as your ligamentsh recover from the shurgery and your body becomesh accushtomed to the implantsh. The harsh buzzing shenshation you feel from the bionicsh ish from your nervoush shyshtem'sh confusion over the new nerve connectionsh. Ash you become more familiar with your new body, they will become dishcrete impulshesh and shenshationsh that you will come to ashociate with pressure and impact."

He drew a line across one of the hololiths, and Big Mac glanced behind him as a thick barricade wall rose up from the floor.

"Kick that wall with maximum force. Left foreleg firsht," the Warsmith commanded.

Macintosh hesitantly brought his leg up, and then he wet his lips briefly before thrusting it at the metal barrier, banging against it noisily.

"Good. Now turn around and do it again with the rear bionic."

Big Mac turned around as instructed, and then lifted his back left leg in preparation for a kick.

A loud whirring came from the hip joint, and the wheel set in it started to spin rapidly as the limb left the floor.

There was a tremendous cracking noise as Mac's metal hoof met the armored barricade, and the barricade proved wanting. Metal shrieked and tore, and the stallion almost fell over when his leg succeeded in ripping through the armor plate rather than stopping dead as he expected.

The ponies were busy gaping at the sight, but Solon nodded. "Good. Impact pressure ish within expected tolerancesh. How doesh it feel?"

Big Macintosh frowned as he wiggled his rear bionic in the air. "That one hurt a lot more. Kinda stings back there," the stallion mumbled.

"I shee. It may have looshened the nano-shtitchesh. Refrain from doing that again for a few daysh until you've recovered further."


"Ah think ya should probably stick to yer fleshy leg when ya get back to applebuckin', too," Applejack said as she approached her brother, "you could split a tree in half with that thing."

"Or an alien tank." Rainbow Dash said, hovering over Applejack. "Eh? Eh?"

"Mish Apple," Solon said, causing the orange mare to freeze.

"Yeah, Warsmith?" she turned back to look at the hulking Space Marine uncertainly as the Iron Warrior continued jabbing at the hololiths.

"Thish concludesh the bashic calibration teshting. Ish everything to your shatishfaction?"

Applejack nodded quickly. "Of course! Ah mean, Ah was overjoyed just to know that he'd survive! This is incredible! Thank you!"

Solon's optics flickered, and the hololiths vanished. "Macintosh. You are hereby dishcharged from my care. I advishe you wear your power armor ash much ash poshible over the next few daysh, ash the pressure shealsh and shervo-ashishted motion will aid in your recovery. Your heavy bolter is locked on shafety mode until you have been cleared by the Armshmashter as proficient."

Big Mac listened carefully, and then nodded silently.

"Dark Acolyte Gaela," Solon continued, seizing the Acolyte's attention, "I've compiled an inshtructional archive in data clushter nine-shix-shix-two-eight. Ashisht Macintosh with hish armor and then shee to it that he, the younglingsh, and their automata friend are houshed for however long they chooshe to shtay here."

Gaela dropped to one knee, slamming a fist against her breastplate. "As you wish, Warsmith."

"The resht of you," Solon said as he turned away and started stomping down the hall, "follow me."

Twilight glanced at her friends pensively, but nodded. Applejack and Rainbow Dash hadn't bothered to wait for any affirmation, rushing off after the Chaos Lord immediately, but Pinkie, Rarity, and (eventually) Fluttershy followed the alicorn's lead.

As they left earshot of Big Mac and the younger ponies, Rarity sped up a bit to get closer to Solon.

"May I presume that we're to discuss 'payment' for your services now?" the unicorn asked.

"Hey now," Applejack said immediately, "Ah'll do whatever ya want to repay ya fer fixin' up Mac, but this is MAH debt. You ain't gotta drag mah friends into it."

"Unfortunately I do, Mish Apple," Solon said as he continued lumbering down the halls of his forge, "the payment I have in mind ish quite beyond you to produce alone." He swiveled around, his blood-red optics casting a crimson light over the following equines. "Ish that a problem?"

"No way!" Rainbow Dash barked, thumping her chest with her hooves, "I'd help out whether she wanted me to or not!"

"B-But-" Applejack started to stutter a protest, but Pinkie suddenly jumped on her back, nearly staggering the farmpony.

"You heard her, Jackie! We're on your side whether you like it or not!"

"We're definitely on board with this, but I'm surprised there's anything you'd really want our help for," Twilight noted, "what can we do for you that you can't accomplish on your own?"

"It'sh true that the objective I have for you ish hardly out of our reach," Solon agreed, "but you poshesh certain traitsh which make you eshpecially well-shuited to it."

"Is it because we're nice?" Fluttershy asked.

"It's because of how awesome we are, right?" Rainbow prompted.

"Is it our magic?" Twilight asked, recalling that psykers were rare among the humans.

"It'sh becaushe you're all perfectly expendable," Solon informed them.

The ponies' expressions darkened.

"That was my guess, actually," Rarity mumbled, "but I didn't want to say it out loud." She'd had a more cynical mindset about this encounter from the outset, although even she had to admit that Solon had definitely earned their assistance.

"That'sh not all, of courshe," Solon allowed, "you're familiar with thish world and alsho quite reshourceful. You're alsho not part of the Company, and thush an unexpected threat to the Tau."

Applejack's ears perked up. "Did you say we're gonna be takin' on the grays?"


"Well, Ah was already sold," the farmpony admitted as she pulled her hat low over her eyes, "but now things got interestin'. Lay it on me, Warsmith."

Solon halted in front of a largely bare area of flooring, and he pointed toward the middle of the space.

"Shome time ago we determined the general location of two Tau Empire bashesh here on Centaur III, ashide from the one we've already overrun outshide your village."

A large hololithic display flickered into existence from Solon's chassis projector, and the ponies were treated to a topographic map of Equestria and the surrounding lands.

"One ish shurprishingly closhe to our fortresh, and sheemsh to be the main center of military power for the Tau," Solon said as a red circle appeared in the wastelands, "an ashault on thish location ish entirely feashible, but loshesh would be grievoush. We have decided it ish not in our intereshtsh to attack it."

This got a raised eyebrow from Applejack and Rainbow Dash. They hadn't expected such a timid calculation from an army of corrupted murderers. Twilight was more understanding. After having confronted and threatened the Iron Warrior (and having survived the encounter), she was keenly aware that logic still drove most of their actions.

"However, there ish another bashe. A hangar, far on the other shide of your bordersh."

Another red circle appeared on the map, this one very far away from Ferrous Dominus and encircling a vast breach in the landscape.

"It's in Salt Lick Canyon?" asked Twilight, recalling the terrain feature.

Solon's optics flickered as he registered the name, and new words appeared over the chasm in the map. "Indeed. Thish ish the only nearby topographical feature capable of holding a shtarship in anything reshembling shecrecy, and we've alsho gathered corroborative data from interrogation. The Tau craft musht be here. The problem ish we don't know what elshe is with it. Our auger arraysh can find nothing, and a Company recon team ish almosht certain to be ambushed and eliminated without accomplishing anything worthwhile."

Solon turned his head so that his optics stared directly into the glass lenses over Twilight's eyes. "Sho inshtead, you shix will infiltrate, reconnoiter, and, if poshible, shabotage the enemy bashe sho that we may take it with minimal reshishtance."

The purple pony gulped, but Applejack and Rainbow seemed almost delighted to hear the actual objective of their mission.

"In thish tashk, you will be acting directly in the military intereshtsh of the Iron Warriorsh," Solon warned, "you will be expected to dishable, degrade, or kill the enemy when it ish found, and with prejudice."

Rarity sighed wearily at the prospect, while Fluttershy cringed.

"Ah got enough prejudice in me by now fer more than one measly mission," Applejack insisted, "you gotta plan, or are we playing this by ear?"

"We are lucky enough to have captured the perfect veshel for your job," Solon assured her, "the cargo vehicle you came in on. I've looked into it'sh shyshtemsh and programmed it remotely to take you back to it'sh relay point in the hangar bashe, and I've inshtructed the Techprieshtsh to place shielding on the interior plating to block shcanning."

"So their own vehicle will deliver us right into their base, and they won't be able to tell we're in there?" Rarity asked.

"Not until they open it up and look, anyway," Solon admitted, "which they probably will after sheeing that their shcansh didn't work. You'll have to manage on your own from then on."

"Lovely," Rarity mumbled irritably.

"Do we get suits of power armor too?!" Rainbow asked excitedly.

"Hah, hah, hah, no!" the Warsmith answered, causing the pegasus to start sulking. "That would take far too much time. Beshidesh, the Tau shenshor shyshtemsh can eashily detect power shignaturesh from our armor. You'd be dishcovered immediately. Bio-readingsh are far lesh reliable, and you're not eshpecially larger than many other native creaturesh on thish world. And only shpecially calibrated combat shyshtemsh will be able to identify psionic energiesh."

"Fine," Rainbow Dash grumbled, "can we have some bombs, at least?"

"Shure! Take all you like!" Solon said, gesturing to a box behind him. Pinkie and Rainbow both whooped happily and rushed for the crate, while Rarity followed after them at a more lady-like pace.

"Look for more bolter magazines, would you?" the unicorn asked. "I'm completely out after that fiasco at Sweet Apple Acres."

"So you really have no idea what we'll be facing when we get there?" Twilight asked as she stepped up closer to the Warsmith.

"Well, Tau only have sho many toolsh available to them," Solon admitted, "you won't be facing mad Shorcerersh or wild beashtsh in a Tau facility. And I have one more thing to ashisht you."

Twilight felt something prod her in the rear, and she twisted her head around.

Rainbow, Pinkie, and Rarity all jumped in surprise as Twilight let out a loud shriek, and then the former two giggled as they turned and saw another servo skull hovering over Twilight, who had fallen over.

Solon seemed unperturbed by Twilight's shout. "I've modified thish shervo shkull with a Tau power cell and communicationsh arraysh sho that it will regishter on shecurity shenshorsh ash one of their automated dronesh. It will be able to transhmit what you shee and hear within the bashe back to me by hitching a shcrapcode shignal on the grayshkin'sh own network broadcasht, although I will not be able to shend any information back. You should conshider it'sh preshervation to be of utmosht importance. Obvioushly the Tau will deshtroy it on shight, and without great difficulty."

"That's... well, thanks," Twilight mumbled, staring up awkwardly at the hovering, jawless skull as it peered back through metal rods tipped with glowing sensors.

"If you undershtand the tashksh required of you, then you may depart at will," Solon said, "the cargo vehicle will leave once you all are aboard and the cargo hatch ish engaged."

Twilight glanced over at Fluttershy, who was chewing her lower lip nervously. Then she glanced over at the crates of ordnance that Rainbow and Pinkie were happily pillaging.

"Well, you certainly could have asked us to do worse things than this. I guess we're as ready as we'll ever be," the alicorn admitted.

"Actually, Ah got one more request," Applejack said, rubbing a hoof against her chin, "ya said ya couldn't send anyone along with us, right? How about just one soldier?"

"Jusht one?" Solon asked, his optics whirling in his helmet. "That dependsh. Who did you have in mind?"

"Gaela!" Twilight said immediately, smiling brightly.

"Absholutely not," Solon replied, "beshidesh the issue of her power armor shignature foiling your attemptsh at shtealth, she'sh far too valuable to rishk on a recon mission."

Twilight pouted as her ears drooped, but Applejack smirked. "Actually, Ah think the fellow Ah have in mind is just 'expendable' enough to join us. Whaddya say to lettin' us borrow Wyatt Daniels fer a spell?"

Solon's optics flickered as a hololith screen appeared before him, listing new reams of personnel information.

"...... Affirmative. Will that be all?"

"That'll be all, Warsmith," Applejack said as she twisted her hat back and forth atop her head.

"Then prepare yourshelf for deployment. May the Dark Godsh lend their poishon to your weaponsh and crush the very shoulsh of the hated xeno," Solon intoned.

Applejack chuckled as she started walking back the way they had come. "Thanks, but Ah think we'll do just fine without their help. Let's git'r done, girls."


Ferrous Dominus - main gates, one hour later

"... and that's why he needs us to break in and scope the place out!"

Wyatt Daniels stared down at Applejack as she finished giving him an abbreviated briefing, holding a large bag under one arm and a rifle case over the other.

Daniels glanced up at the blue and black vehicle hovering in front of a security station. Rarity was in the back grumbling to herself while shifting around her respirator mask, and Pinkie was on her back underneath a servo skull while batting at its dangling cables and giggling. Twilight, Rainbow Dash, and Fluttershy were simply waiting silently, albeit with very different levels of patience.

"So Mac's okay, though?" Daniels asked as he tossed his cargo into the lifter.

"Better'n okay, in some ways," Applejack admitted as she followed the mercenary into the cargo bed of the vehicle, "Ah woulda liked to spend more time talkin' to him first before leavin', but the Warsmith wants us to move out lickety-split."

"Well, what the Warsmith wants, the Warsmith gets," Daniels mumbled as he sat down next to the bag. He still remembered seeing that looming, augmented terror for the first time; an unholy fusion of Mechanicus technology, Astartes superiority, and daemonic influence. He doubted he could ever forget it.

Twilight levitated a lever closed on the outside edge of the lifter, and the shell enclosure over the cargo bed started to close over them.

"I hope it's not too much trouble asking you to come with us," Fluttershy mumbled uncomfortably.

"Well, I rather like the idea of going on mission with you girls," Daniels said with a smirk, "but I'm not crazy about the mission itself. Recon on a Tau base? I'm a rifleman, not an infiltrator."

"Yeah, I agree," Rainbow Dash said as she settled down next to the man, "it'd be way faster to just point Tellis in the right direction and send us to back him up, but the old man is playing the long game, I guess."

The cargo shell finished closing, locking into place with a clicking noise and casting the bed into total darkness. Then a lumen strip attached to the ceiling of the shell flickered on as the vehicle started to move.

"FINALLY. I thought I'd never get to take this blasted thing off!" Rarity said as she stripped off her respirator mask and shook out of the rubber Mechanicus robes. "Twilight, darling, magic me up a mirror, would you? I don't want those alien scoundrels to see my mane like this before we destroy them."

Twilight rolled her eyes before her horn lit up, generating a reflective plane in front of Rarity so that she could fuss with her hair.

Daniels noticed a monitor attached to the side of the cargo bed and switched it on. He was promptly treated to a view that was taken from what would be the front cab in an ordinary, piloted truck, and he watched the massive gates of Ferrous Dominus grind open to let the transport leave.

"Wow, those DarkMech boys thought of everythin', didn't they?" Applejack said with a grin.

"Except how a handful of a ponies and a single gunner are going to fool and evade an entire base's security," Daniels grumbled.

"Ya leave that part to Twilight," Applejack insisted, "but if things do get dicey in there, Ah'll be glad we have two guns rather'n one."

A sharp click came from Rarity's bolter as she pulled back the slide with her magic, and she peered into the ejection chamber even as she levitated a brush through her mane at the same time.

"You've gotten pretty used to this, I see," Daniels mumbled.

"I blew up a bomber!" Rainbow Dash said brightly.

"I, uh, crashed into one," Fluttershy admitted meekly.

"She got it anyway, though!" Pinkie added as she interjected herself into the conversation. The servo skull was now sitting on her head, like a hat, with its cables hanging down over her face.

The cargo lifter had accelerated to its generally unimpressive top speed by now, skimming over the wasted ground while moving between the mine fields of the security cordon.

"Do you think we'll really be okay?" Fluttershy asked, her hooves running down her mane nervously.

"Of course we will!" Rainbow Dash said immediately. "We've faced way worse enemies than the Tau!"

"Debatable, but slightly reassuring," Rarity mumbled.

"I do kind of wish Solon would have given us all weapons and stuff, though," Pinkie said, "I don't even think Morty has a laser beam!"

Twilight sighed. "Did you just name the servo skull?"

Pinkie nodded rapidly, causing said servo skull to chitter and warble noisily as it was swung along with her head.

"The Warsmith did plenty, even puttin' aside Mac's healin'," Applejack noted, "if he helped us any more, he might as well have just gone himself!"

"Yeah, I've gotta say that Solon is actually a super cool guy!" Rainbow Dash piped up. "I don't know what Celestia was so worried about in the first place!"

"She was afraid that Chaos would seize this world and throw it into anarchy," Daniels clarified, "that it would infect and corrupt you all, and that this entire planet would be harvested to fuel our material war effort or burned in a mass sacrifice to the Gods of Chaos."

The ponies stared wordlessly at the mercenary as he spoke, and a dark silence hung in the air after he finished.

"But yer not gonna do that, right?" Applejack asked.

Daniels shrugged. "Probably not. I mean, we could, but the Iron Warriors have other battle groups for that sort of thing."

"Sweet! Ponies and humans for-evah!" Pinkie Pie cheered, holding up a hoof to high-five Daniels.

Twilight was a bit more concerned about the concept, but decided to hold her peace this time. Whatever was wrong with the Iron Warriors and the humans they employed, it had nothing to do with the task at hand. Their cooperation for the current mission had been purchased with Big Mac's life.

"Well, I guess I'd better start suiting up too," Daniels said as he unzipped the large bag he had carried on board.

Within it were several pieces of a bulky outfit done up in a mottled gray camouflage pattern.

"Whatcha got there?" Applejack asked as Daniels started setting out a pair of boots with hard plates covering the foot and shins.

"Carapace armor. They handed me a suit when the Captain told me I was shipping out without a squad."

He took off his coat and then slipped the torso piece on over his head.

"Is that like power armor?" Rainbow Dash said, jabbing at one of the boots with her hoof.

"Not even close. But it's a lot better than a flak vest under an overcoat," the human admitted with a shrug.

"You really lookin' to nab a suit of space plate fer yerself, Dash?" Applejack asked. "You know you won't be able to fly in it, right?"

The blue pegasus looked skeptical. "Tellis wears power armor and HE can fly," Rainbow pointed out, "so do the rest of the Raptors."

"The other Space Marines use what's called a jump pack, Rainbow Dash. They don't actually fly, they make rocket-assisted leaps," Twilight pointed out, "as for Tellis himself, he certainly flies, but whatever they put in his armor to let him do that I wouldn't want anywhere near me."

As Rainbow clicked her tongue in annoyance Daniels finished securing the gloves to the armor suit.

"This thing's much lighter than I thought it'd be," he admitted as he banged a fist against his forearm guard to test it, "we probably cobbled it together from Tau combat armor pieces."

"Lot of that stuff lyin' around nowadays, huh?" Applejack asked with a malicious smirk.

Daniels picked up his weapons case and then took off his glove to sweep his hand over the gene-lock. With a weak hiss the case opened.

Twilight quirked an eyebrow. "Those don't look like the weapons you had before."

"I got an upgrade after that little scuffle in the fusion core," Daniels said as he took out a sheathed mono-edged sword and clipped it to his belt.

"You mean the one Ah took down?" Applejack asked.

"Yeah. Thanks for that," Daniels said with a chuckle as he placed a pair of grenades on his belt and then started attaching spare ammunition, "hope you don't mind. Not like you'd get much use out of a rail rifle anyhow."

"There's got to be a way to make a gun that non-unicorns can use," Rainbow Dash mumbled as she stared at her hooves.

"You mean besides grafting one to your body after a horrific injury, I hope," Twilight said, "I suppose you could always ask Pinkie how she used a flamer without any fingers, and without having ever touched one before."

"I did what now?" the pink mare asked, quirking an eyebrow.

"You burnt them grays outta mah storage room," Applejack reminded her, "just after swearin' revenge fer Dest, remember?"

Pinkie snorted as tried to restrain laughter. "That's silly! Desty isn't dead!"

As the ponies stared and/or sighed at Pinkie, Daniels finished holstering his pulse pistol and reached into the case for the rail rifle.

Applejack whistled as he hefted it up, displaying a line of Gothic text that had been cut into the side: Love & Tolerate.

"Nice touch," Rarity said with a smile, her own combat rifle floating above her head.

"Well, it's a fine motto," the mercenary chuckled as he closed up the case, "all right then, settle in girls. We have a long trip ahead of us, and a lot of trouble waiting at the end."


Ferrous Dominus - sector 8 training grounds

Big Macintosh lumbered behind Gaela as he was led through the training areas, his sleepy gaze filtered through the electronic filter of his helmet optics.

It was... different. He attracted a lot attention, as would be expected, but he was also fairly new to the fortress and fully engrossed in the grim and darkly industrial surroundings. His foray into Ferrous Dominus during Pinkie's party was brief, and he wasn't much of an explorer or socialite under any conditions. Being taken through the factory-city as a quasi-resident rather than a guest was actually quite interesting.

When something caught his eye his visor would detect the shift in attention automatically, drawing a box around the object and generating a blurb of explanatory text. Machines had their basic functions described. Buildings were labeled and rated for their defensive qualities. Soldiers were named and had their ranks and squad data explained.

+Unit Crabapple has detected inbound orbital dropship. Main cargo appears to be fuel processing engines and food supplies.+

Big Macintosh watched his visor translate Crabapple's buzzing, text scrolling across the bottom of his field of vision. He had been surprised and quite pleased to learn that his helmet could make sense of Binaric Cant, finally knocking down the language barrier between him and the Apple family's robot/pet. He was much less surprised and pleased to find that little of what Crabapple droned on about was really worth translating.

"Miss Gaela, what does the manufactorum build, anyway?" Scootaloo asked. She and the other Cutie Mark Crusaders were sitting on top of Crabapple as it followed just behind Big Macintosh.

"Whatever we want it to. At present the major task before is constructing several Warp engine systems, a daunting task, but at the same time it's also producing Rhino and Chimera transports and a constant flow of ammunition supplies." Gaela was playing the part of tour guide whenever a pony had a question, which in practice meant whenever one of the fillies had a question.

"Hey, maybe we can use it and get our manufacturing cutie marks!" Sweetie Belle said excitedly.

"No," Gaela said bluntly, neither turning to face the young ponies nor slowing her walk through the training grounds.

"Awww... can we at least watch them work to get our cutie marks in human studies?" Sweetie Belle asked.

"Nope," Big Macintosh said. He didn't want his baby sister and her friends anywhere near heavy and/or dangerous machinery. Well, aside from himself, anyway.

"There's the Armsmaster's kiosk," Gaela stated, pointing her servo arm toward a raised platform that oversaw the main gunnery ranges, "come with me, Macintosh."

Big Mac did so, his gaze lingering slightly as he glanced over at the gun range. Many human mercenaries were practicing their marksmanship, and his visor identified each weapon as he focused on it.

"Armsmaster Tolken. We require your assistance," the Dark Acolyte said as she stepped up onto the raised platform next to the kiosk. The Armsmaster, an Iron Warrior with a bionic arm and great metal spines coming out of his armor, turned to meet her.

"Acolyte. Here for the energy weapons range?" he asked, his voice a thick, distorted growl.

"Negative. I'm assisting Macintosh in achieving his heavy bolter proficiency."

Big Mac walked up onto the platform, his augmetics clanking noisily against the metal surface.

Tolken stared down at the armored pony. Big Macintosh stared back, crimson lenses meeting crimson visor.

"This is a joke, right?" the Armsmaster said after several seconds.

"Are you suggesting that the Dark Mechanicus possesses a sense of humor, my lord?" Gaela asked.

It took several more seconds before the Chaos Space Marine heaved a sigh and turned back toward his control console.

"First guests, then settlers, and now we have bloody ARMSMEN ponies. If this keeps up we'll soon be taking orders from the damned horses," he grumbled.

Gaela made a face from behind her metal mask. "I don't think you need to be worried about that. Their leadership is actually quite pitiful."

Tolken spent a few more seconds working the keys of his console. "All right, his safety lock has been disengaged. You've been registered to heavy weapons range nineteen. First drill is level one basic targeting and reloading. Ten successful practice cycles must be completed until level two is accessible. Level ten represents acceptable battlefield proficiency," the armsmaster said, glancing back at Macintosh, "be advised that I will be watching closely, if only to see how you actually use that thing, xeno."

A clicking noise came from the heavy bolter plugged into his side, and new symbols started flashing over Mac's visor as his power armor detected that his weapon had been unlocked. A navigation arrow also conveniently directed him toward his designated firing range, and he turned away without a word.

"Is that one mute or something?" Tolken asked Gaela as the stallion stomped off.

"No. He's just very quiet," the Dark Acolyte explained, "I find it rather endearing, actually."

The Armsmaster grunted and turned away, dismissing the augmented woman.

Gaela stepped down to follow Big Macintosh to the firing range, only to see that he had stopped moving and was staring intently at his little sister and her friends.

It didn't take long for Gaela to figure out why.

"Ah don't know, Scoots. How do ya even USE a grenade?" Apple Bloom asked.

"It's easy! Tellis taught Rainbow Dash and Fluttershy how to do it before they rescued Sweet Apple Acres!" the young pegasus insisted. "You just hold the lever down to suppress the magnet-thingy, stick it onto something, let go of the lever, and then twist the top! Then it explodes!"

Sweetie Belle frowned as she stood up on top of Crabapple to stare at some men at the grenade range. "I don't think that's how they're doing it, though."

"Well, however you do it exactly, it can't be THAT hard," Scootaloo insisted with a roll of her eyes.

+Unit Crabapple suggests that all units consult with the on-duty Armsmaster on proper use of ordnance before training to become, quote, "Cutie Mark Crusader Grenadiers".+

"Ah. I see," Gaela mumbled, "it might be wise to remove them from the premises."

"Eeyup," Big Mac said as he started to move toward the young ponies.

"I'll take care of it," Gaela said suddenly, stopping the stallion short.

The Dark Acolyte could feel the skeptical look on Big Mac's face even while it was completely hidden by his helmet.

"You have drilling to do, and that will divert you from keeping the younglings away from anything explosive," Gaela explained, "I have tasks of my own to complete, but they are short affairs and I can arrange a safe environment for the young first."

Big Macintosh glanced over at his little sister as she and Sweetie Belle gazed into a crate of laspistols. He didn't really want to leave them with Gaela, but that was mostly because they were currently his responsibility and because Gaela had done plenty for the Apple family already. Between her fixing up Crabapple, assisting his rescue, and helping protect Sweet Apple Acres, he felt like it was more than simply rude (and probably kind of demeaning) to ask her to foal-sit.

He had made up his mind to refuse when he realized that the Dark Acolyte was already walking away from the gunnery ranges with the fillies and probe in tow.

Before he could chase after them (shouting for them to stop was, of course, not an option he considered), his in-helmet vox crackled.

"Macintosh, stop wasting time and begin your heavy bolter drills," barked the Armsmaster directly in his ear, despite the fact that the Iron Warrior was still within earshot, "apparently I've been tasked with turning you into a decent gunner, and if you fail it will be because you're not good enough, not because I was lax in my oversight!" the arrow directing him toward the heavy weapons range reappeared, seeming all the more insistent.

The draught horse sighed and turned around, annoyed that things had slipped so far out his control and so quickly. He had already troubled his family, their friends, the humans, and even (apparently) the big boss of the Iron Warriors themselves, all because he had gotten careless in the middle of a battlefield. He didn't even know what Applejack was off doing now after seeing to his recovery, but he'd bet his last bit that a fresh set of bionic legs didn't come cheap.

At the very least, Big Mac supposed, he could prepare himself so that the next time the grayskin bastards set hoof on his farm he could properly defend his family.

With a heavy snort, Big Macintosh started heading for the targeting range, his heavy bolter twitching in anticipation.


Ferrous Dominus - sector 7

"Thanks fer takin' us around the place, Miss Gaela," Apple Bloom said as Crabapple walked after the Dark Acolyte, carrying the fillies atop it, "Ah'm surprised ya wanted to help us."

"Yeah, I kind of got the impression you didn't like us," Sweetie Belle admitted.

"You are absolutely correct," Gaela said blandly, "there are few of you equines that I actively dislike, but you three certainly rank among them."

The Cutie Mark Crusaders wilted at the admission, though only one of them could count herself reasonably surprised.

"Wait, what do you have against me? I think this is the first time we've even talked or anything," Scootaloo pointed out.

"Again, you are correct," the augmented woman replied, turning her head to glare at the orange pegasus through her optics, "however, you're friends with both the other two younglings AND Lord Tellis. Thus if I am to judge you by association - and I'm doing precisely that - you're probably the worst of you three."

Apple Bloom quirked an eyebrow. "Boy, our sisters were right about that guy, huh Sweetie?"

"In any case," continued the Dark Acolyte, "right now Macintosh has training to attend to, so I'm seeing to your safety and diversion as a matter of practicality, in spite of my personal feelings. Continue following me."

Crabapple continued its clanking gait after the woman, occasionally blurting something in Binary that Gaela would reply to sharply in the same language. The somewhat subdued fillies continued riding atop the automata silently, at least for a time.

Eventually Apple Bloom decided to try talking to her again. Gaela wasn't very nice, but she WAS doing them a favor by supervising them. This just seemed to be the way the cyborg woman did things: with bitter resentment.

"So do ya think ya can help us get our cutie marks, then?" the rural filly asked.

Gaela halted, giving the ponies a sidelong glance. "Your skill brands? You're seeking to acquire them?"

"Yeah. We figure that if we study humans, we'll find our special talent in... uh..."

"Alien biology," Sweetie Belle finished.

"Xeno biologis," Gaela corrected.

The young unicorn rolled her eyes. "Fine. That."

"Is that how those marks are acquired? I was under the impression that they represented areas of natural proficiency or preternatural skill, not study," Gaela remarked.

There was a pregnant pause as the ponies glanced at each other.

"No, I don't think... that's not how it works... is that how it works?" Scootaloo asked pensively.

"It might be different for different ponies, I suppose?" Sweetie Belle asked, scratching her head with a hoof.

"I can't claim to know more about the topic than your people," Gaela admitted with a shrug of her metal-sheathed shoulders, "and if you seek to study homo sapien, then that by itself is a laudable goal."

"Heh heh. Homo," Scootaloo snickered quietly.

Gaela soon halted in front of a pile of metal containers, each one a three foot metal cube.

"So you're gonna help us?!" Apple Bloom asked excitedly.

"Indeed," the Dark Acolyte replied.

Then she took Sweetie Belle in her left hand, Scootaloo in her right hand, and clamped her servo arm over Apple Bloom's ribbon to lift her up as well.

Then she dumped all three fillies into one of the open cubes.



"What the hay?!"

Gaela ignored a bout of Binaric squealing from Crabapple, picking up a container lid that had a grated opening to allow air flow. "From here you will be able to observe the comings and goings of this sector all you wish from a safe vantage point."

She placed the lid on top of the crate, and the fillies grew increasingly alarmed as they heard the crackle of her laser welder sealing the container.

+Unit Gaela, desist in confining Command Unit Apple Bloom and associates at once!+ Crabapple blurted, shuffling awkwardly around the armored woman for want of any physical way to stop her.

"Yeah! What Crabapple said!" Apple Bloom yelled as she stood up against the wall of the container.

"It said for you to be silent and accept confinement like a good little girl," the Dark Acolyte lied.

"She did not!"

+Indeed, Unit Crabapple did not!+

Gaela ignored them and finished sealing the crate. Then she stared down into it such that the dreadful gaze of her helmet mask was the only thing visible through the lid grate.

"You will remain here until I am finished with my own errands. I'll then bring you some water and nutrient paste. Then you will remain here for some time after that, until Macintosh is finished for the day."

"This is filly abuse!" Sweetie Belle cried angrily.

"Is it, now?" Gaela asked, her servo tool swiveling around and shifting to reveal a set of prongs. "Shall I put you down for a nap instead?"

The prongs crackled ominously, a whip of electricity lashing about the tips.

"I officially retract my previous statement," Sweetie said with a fearful gulp.

"Wait! How are we supposed to study humans like this?" Scootaloo protested. "We can only see straight up!"

"Ah. Excellent point," the Mechanicus Acolyte conceded.

She grabbed the edge of the cube and then tipped it over onto its side, causing its contents to fall over with a surprised yelp.

"You're welcome," Gaela said dryly as she turned around and left.

"Nice one, Scoots," Apple Bloom grumbled as she pushed herself up, her face mask hanging off her ear.

"I can't believe she did that! What an awful foal-sitter!" Sweetie Belle complained as she adjusted her own, more elaborate, protective wear. "If Rarity knew about this, she'd... well... she would..."

Scootaloo raised an eyebrow. "She'd what?"

Sweetie frowned as she thought it over. "Actually, we probably shouldn't tell her about this. She might get ideas."

Crabapple stepped over to the container and banged a leg against the lid, testing its strength.

"Ya think ya can get us outta here, Crabapple?" Apple Bloom asked, looking up at the heavy metal legs of the probe.

+Ferric alloy strength exceeds possible force output to breach grate bars,+ Crabapple noted, +attempting to rupture containment unit seal.+

Crabapple positioned its body against the container at an angle, and its sample drill emerged from its carapace.

"All right! She'll have us out in a jiffy!" Apple Bloom assured her friends.

The drill whirled into action, and then stabbed into the seam where the grate lid met the rest of the container.

There was a brief grinding noise before a loud crack issued from the point of contact.

The fillies were quite disappointed to see the broken fragments of the drill bounce away across the ferrocrete ground, leaving a trail of sparks behind it.

+Unit Crabapple is beginning to tire of the Iron Warriors' penchant for armoring every single thing in their inventory,+ the probe burbled.

"Ah know! Go get help!" Apple Bloom said, standing up against the grate. "Ah bet lots of people 'round here can get us out!"

+Command received. Unit Crabapple deployed.+ The automata quickly scuttled away, blaring machine code loudly to try to attract attention.

Scootaloo looked skeptical as she watched the machine walk off. "Do you really think that anypony will come?"

"Anyone, Scootaloo. The correct term is 'anyone' when you're referring to humans too," Sweetie Belle corrected.

"Oh, shut up, Sweetie."


Salt Lick Canyon - outskirts

Short black spires planted in the ground next to lush tree cover presented the first indications of advanced technology in the area as the Tau cargo lifter slowed its pre-programmed course toward the canyon. As it came close enough to the sensor towers to be subjected to deep scans, the spires unfolded their sensor fins and an electric hum came from the devices.

After a few seconds of detecting nothing in the cargo vessel to trigger an alert - or anything at all, for that matter - the lifter was cleared for entry and the spires folded up again to their less obtrusive and interesting form.

The cargo vehicle started moving forward again, gently sliding from side to side to wind about the trees and the occasional automated turret housing. The latter was identifiable only by a small patch of hardened black material set into the ground, and all but invisible to the vehicle's sensors.

Eventually the cargo lifter reached another patch of artificial material set into the ground, this one covered with a bland camouflage pattern on top to fool distant observation. Gears and pistons started moving as the vehicle approached, and the metal hatch opened up to allow access to a steep incline that led further underground.

The lifter floated down into the hatch, and then the opening slowly lowered itself shut again.

The cargo vehicle moved down the passageway into the facility below, the path eventually widening before meeting with a pair of heavy blast doors.

The blast doors slid open smoothly, revealing half a dozen Fire Warriors and twice as many drones.

*This is the alert?* one Fire Warrior asked as the lifter floated by them into the armor garage.

Dozens of APCs, cargo lifters, and Piranha attack skimmers were parked in the underground garage, each one secured above the ground with heavy mechanical clamps. A pair of Hammerhead gunships were stationed in the back as well, representing the heavy firepower held in reserve here.

The Tau soldiery followed the lifter as it slowly crept toward an empty set of clamps in the middle of the garage.

*Something wrong with the scanners, I think. There was an error when they searched the interior, so it was flagged for a search.*

A Fire Warrior with her helmet off frowned at an electronic reader in her hand. *No, that's not all. This lifter wasn't scheduled to return here today.*

*So the problem is with the vehicle AI, then?* asked another soldier as the cargo lifter lowered itself onto the clamps.

*Don't know. First we search the interior, then report it to Earth Caste,* mumbled the female guard.

The clamps took hold of the lifter chassis with a whirring noise, and one of the Fire Warriors walked up to the cargo vehicle and pulled the hatch lever.

The soldiers waited with carbines at the ready, although none of them bothered aiming them at the cargo lifter. The drones were more vigilant in their security procedures, and their twin-linked carbines were all ready to bombard the lifter interior if necessary.

*... Nothing. False alarm,* said one of the Fire Warriors as the hatch finished opening. There was clearly no one inside the cargo bed, and the drones promptly dropped their combat alert status to green.

*Hold on,* mumbled the female, peering at the interior, *do these things normally have monitors inside?* She climbed into the cargo bed, searching the floor. There was an empty duffle bag stuffed in a corner, and a closed rifle case next to the monitor. *Does this belong to someone? It doesn't look like standard issue gear.*

*What's inside?* asked another.

She started searching for a button or switch to open it, but when her hand passed over the gene-lock it beeped rudely and flashed red.

*Strange... let's go get that Earth Caste team to look over this thing. Keep it on priority lockdown until it's been completely searched an analyzed.*

*Roger that. Let's go, Shas'la.*

"...... All right, they just left. There's still those floating wheel things left, though."

Rainbow Dash was crouched next to a set of mooring clamps under a Devilfish transport, peeking out between the arms of the mechanism as the guards left the garage.

The others were clustered behind her with varying levels of fearful tension: Fluttershy was quivering in terror while hiding her eyes, while Applejack had been forced to smack her hat over Pinkie's face to keep the other earth pony from humming the theme song to Mission Impossible. Morty hovered over Twilight's head, rotating slowly to take in as much of the garage as possible.

"Nice work with the snap teleport, Sparkle," Daniels whispered as he crouched next to Rarity, "now we need to move out of this area quickly."

"How worried should we be about the drones?" Twilight asked.

"Worried enough to stay out of their line of sight. They don't have great sensors or sophisticated AI, so they won't react like a guard to sound, I don't think. As long as we don't make a target of ourselves, they won't pick us up."

They duly crept behind the numerous parked vehicles toward the rear of the garage, ears perked for footsteps and Applejack's hat still suppressing Pinkie's voice.

There was a smallish door behind the pair of Hammerheads, and Daniels jabbed a hand toward it as he kept his rail rifle up and searching for targets.

The ponies grouped up next to the door, and Rainbow Dash placed her ear against it.

"... I don't hear anything." Then she pulled her head back and noted the lack of knobs or handles. "How do you open this thing?"

"Probably the console next to it. But so long as Sparkle can magic us through doors, we should do that," Daniels mumbled, "hold on a tick, though. Pie, stay still."

Pinkie raised her head slightly before stiffening to indicate that she heard, as her face was still otherwise covered by Applejack's hat. Daniels crept over and unbuttoned her saddlebags before retrieving a pair of melta bombs.

Rarity winced. "Isn't a little early in our super-sneaky mission to start setting off bombs?"

"Signum detonator," Daniel mumbled as he slipped a remote detonator from his belt and keyed the melta charges appropriately, "they won't go off until someone presses the button."

Pinkie immediately pushed Applejack away, freeing her mouth to speak. "We should probably have someone pink hold on to the detonator. You know, just to be safe."

Applejack promptly put her hat back over Pinkie's face. "That ain't happenin', sugarcube. Daniels knows what he's doing."

The human carefully attached a charge to the engine mountings of the first hammerhead. "Actually, it wouldn't be a bad idea to let one of you hold on to the trigger. I don't want to jinx anything, but I'm pretty likely to be the first target if we end up in a gunfight."

Pinkie's tail started wagging back and forth rapidly.

"Good point. Rarity, can you hold it?" Twilight whispered to the unicorn.

"So we're pretty much just assuming you're going to die here?" Rarity asked dryly as she magically plucked the detonator from his belt and levitated it into her own saddlebag.

"We're in a war zone, Miss Rarity," Daniels explained as he secured the second charge and then twisted the handle to arm it, "completely cut off from reinforcements, surrounded by enemies, and without a clue as to what we're up against. We're only assuming I'm the FIRST to die here."

The unicorn clicked her tongue. "You'd be quite dashing if you weren't so fatalistic, darling. Try to be more positive."

"And you're fine just the way you are, Miss Rarity, but do be ready to mash that big red button if and when things go tits-up," Daniels replied, stepping closer to the equines and the floating skull, "hit it, Sparkle."

Twilight nodded silently, her horn flaring as she summoned the energy to teleport the group to the other side of the barrier.

Applejack suddenly looked up at Daniels. "What're 'tits'?"

Then they vanished in a flash of purple light.


Ferrous Dominus - sector 11

"All right, I'm lishening. What is thish shignal you've detected?"

Solon was sitting at his forge in front of a jumbled mess of Tau battlesuit parts, and in front of him stood several Dark Techpriests.

+Explanatory: We were contacted by the crew of the Harvest of Steel just yesterday. They explained that the Harvest had become irritated and that it was cycling an unfamiliar energy pattern through its cogitator banks that it had apparently picked up on its own,+ began one of the black-robed cyborgs before another began speaking.

+Expansion: We've run our own tests, but we have failed to identify or decipher it, Warsmith. Apparently it is a Warp-bound, wide-spectrum broadcast. This would be unusual enough, but it uses no encryption that we've ever encountered. We cannot unravel the message carried by the signal. Modification: If there is, in fact, a coherent message to be observed.+

"A Warp-bound shignal? Well that'sh intereshting," Solon noted, his mechatendrils rising up higher, "but I'd be shurprished if any shignal could make it through the Warp without decaying beyond the point of decryption. It'sh not the shame as putting a shignal through the Materium."

The walls flickered as Solon accessed the relevant noosphere data nodes, bringing up the raw signal data and analysis.

+Ancillary: As you know, the Harvest alone maintains equal presence in the Warp and the material universe simultaneously,+ noted a Dark Techpriest as Solon stomped up to the wall panels and observed them, +only it was able to detect this signal outside of Warp transit.+

Solon silently studied the hololiths for several minutes, moving from screen to screen as his mechatendrils hissed quietly.

Finally, he turned back to the Dark Techpriests. "I recognize thish shignal. What you're sheeing here ish not encryption, it was shimply badly jumbled in the firsht place, and made worshe for traveling through the Immaterium. It'sh an Ork shignal."

The cyborgs looked quite startled to hear that. +Confirmation: Ork?+

"Yesh. I've sheen it before. During large offenshives, many resherve groupsh in an Ork army will shplinter off from the main army to find new targetsh and shpoilsh not in the path of the main force. Some of the more clever greenshkin Meksh, lacking Ashtropathsh, generate a shignal and broadcasht it directly into the Warp, drawing shtray warbandsh shearching for prey back to the main force when it ish ready to move on. It alsho luresh in nearby Orksh that have not yet joined the war effort; a handy shuperluminal recruiting tool for a prominent Waaaugh."

+A method of non-psionic Warp communication?+ chittered one Dark Techpriest. +Such a capability would be extremely useful if harnessed by a wiser species.+

"To call it communication ish technically accurate, but givesh it too much credit," Solon reasoned, "it ish only good for announcing one'sh preshence to others in Warp transhit, the equivalent of shcreaming in the dark. There'sh no way to direct the meshage toward a certain recipient, and the Empyrean decaysh the shignal quickly, making it short-ranged in comparishon to ashtro-telepathy. Shtill, for the greenshkinsh it should count ash clever."

+Interrogative: Does this mean we should prepare for possible conflict with Orks, Warsmith?+ asked another Dark Techpriest.

"Negative. Thish shignal came from sheveral shyshtemsh away. If anything, it would draw any nearby Orksh away from thish planet. Good to know about greenshkinsh on the move, though. Check the captured Tau shipsh' databanksh for any information about local warbandsh. The data could prove usheful if we ever return to thish shector."

The heavy thump of a terminator armor suit walking through the cavernous halls was audible by the time he finished speaking, and some of the Dark Techpriests became visibly more nervous as they noted a hulking, highly toxic body approaching.

"You may go now. I have another appointment," Solon informed the Dark Techpriests, who quickly bowed and scurried away.

Sliver maintained his unhurried pace up to his Warsmith, hammer in hand. It was completely unnecessary, not to mention rather impertinent, to carry a weapon into a private meeting with his superior officer, but it was an easy way to indicate his mood to others.

Unsurprisingly, it was not a sign of calm temperament.

"I finished sspeaking to Acolyte Gaela," slurred the Nurglite Lord as he approached, "she wished to explain her decission to overrule my ssecurity orderss."

Solon tensed uneasily. Sliver was far more lenient on the Dark Mechanicus personnel than the soldiers in the Company, so it was unlikely he had harmed her, but at the same time he had been in an unusually poor mood as of late.

"She claimed that TELLISS was evacuating wounded," Sliver snarled.

"Thish ish true. I wash there," Solon pointed out.

Sliver froze, and then his helmet budged up to make optics contact with the Warsmith.

"The Mad Angel is resscuing wounded fighterss now?" Sliver asked incredulously.

"No. It wash one of the pony xenosh," Solon corrected, hesitating after he said it, "... I'm not sure if that makesh it lesh abshurd or more."

Sliver spent several long seconds pondering this.

"I desspisse thiss world," he said finally, turning his gaze away to stare at a twitching battlesuit assembly, "it iss verdant and clean. And the... tolerance of itss inhabitantss unssettless me."

"You have a problem with the horshesh?" Solon asked curiously. "I find them quite pliable and tolerable compared to the xenosh we've dealt with before."

"They have a... curiouss appeal to ssome of the men," growled Sliver, "even Telliss and Sserith sseem fond of the beasstss. And I needn't bring up that celebration and the fiassco that ressulted."

"No, you need not," Solon agreed, "in any cashe, what did you do with Mish Gaela?"

"Nothing," Sliver assured the mechanized Iron Warrior, "I know better than to harm your favorite sservant. I let her ssputter her excussess and then ssent her away."

"Ah, good!" Solon said, his mechatendrils drooping slightly in relieved sympathy. "Then I shupposhe we should get to bushinesh, Shliver."

"Yess, Warssmith," growled the vice-commander, "you sspoke of a misssion? And how many of my brotherss face death and injury for the ssake of thiss new venture?"

"None sho far!" Solon said happily. "Although there'sh a very high chance that it will get shome of the poniesh killed."

Sliver once again turned his helmet up so that his fisheye optics lens glared into the clustered arrays set in Solon's helmet.

"... Tell me more."


Salt Lick Canyon - underground facility

"Are you sure there's no way to disable this thing?" Rarity asked as she stared up at a small box set on the wall and connected to a long trail of wires.

None of them could read the Tau text next to it, but the red coloring and the prominence of the giant red button on the box made it quite obvious that it was an alarm of some sort.

"I'm not sure, actually," Daniels admitted as he glanced up at the cables running along the ceiling, "I don't know enough about grayskin tech. But I do know that if I was setting up an alarm system, I'd want one that would alert me immediately if one of the alarm triggers were tampered with. That's what ours do."

Morty floated near the box, its sensors coming very close to touching the button. Then it turned away and started floating further down the hall. The rest of the group followed it, eyes and ears searching for any sign of the base's inhabitants.

"This place looks strangely..." Twilight trailed off as she stared at the hall they were in. The walls and ceiling were rough-hewn stone with the occasional polyceramic paneling to cover up a cracked surface and small self-contained lights drilled into the ceiling earthworks.

"... Well, I wouldn't exactly call it low-tech," the alicorn continued, "but it certainly doesn't mesh with their technology level like Ferrous Dominus does yours."

"Different purposes, I guess," Daniels admitted, "the grayskins are hiding out here. We needed to set up a factory-city big enough to produce ship engines."

"You getting all this, Morty?" Pinkie asked as the servo skull floated along ahead of them toward the next door.

"All right, everybody bunch up," Twilight said as her horn started to glow, "we have to-"

Twilight's heart leapt into her throat as the door slid open ahead of them, revealing a trio of Tau soldiers waiting on the other side. The aliens were not wearing their combat armor or carrying rifles, and their eyes widened at the sight that greeted them behind the door.

Rainbow Dash was the first to take action, bolting hooves-first through the air into one of the Tau and knocking him down.

Daniels and Applejack were right behind the pegasus, the former slamming the butt of his rail rifle into his target's face before dropping it to draw his sword. Applejack simply charged into the last alien like a bull, knocking the stunned soldier down next to Rainbow's victim before angrily trampling him.

*What the blazes is-AAUGH!*

Daniels slashed deep into his target's throat before kicking him away, and then turned to the next body on the ground before driving his blade into its chest.

"Not bad for a Tau sword," Daniels admitted as he drew the blade out of the second corpse. It was lighter than he'd have preferred, probably owing to the fact that most Fire Warriors treated combat blades as dead weight, but still of excellent quality and much less cumbersome than a chainsword.

Turning his attention to the only Tau he hadn't cut open, he was slightly perturbed to see Applejack pinning it down while pounding on its face with her front hooves repeatedly.

"Hey. Hey! AJ, calm down!" the mercenary hissed, stepping over and pushing the farmpony off of her victim.

Applejack seemed surprised at first. "What? What'd Ah do?"

Daniels promptly stomped his heel down onto the neck of the dazed Tau, breaking its neck and causing most of the ponies to flinch back.

"Kill them quick and move on," Daniels explained as he swung his sword to the side to shake off the blood, "I know you're upset at the grays personally, but if you start getting mad and treating this mission like an opportunity to vent you're going to start making mistakes. Mistakes that you won't survive." He leaned down to pick up his discarded rifle.

Applejack didn't look convinced, but she didn't bother to argue.

Twilight, meanwhile, was glancing back and forth in a panic. "Are we detected? Should we run?"

"Should we activate the bombs?" Pinkie asked eagerly, the signum detonator in one hoof with her other foreleg poised over it.

Rarity sighed. "No, Pinkie, we don't need to-" then she snapped her head around, her eyes wide. "Hey! Give that back!"

Daniels shook his head as he leaned down over the Tau corpses. "No. These three are Fire Caste, but they have no weapons besides sidearms and they were obviously very surprised to see us. We're still clear."

"And the door is open!" Rainbow Dash noted happily.

"Yes. Great," Twilight murmured as she stepped past the blood slick that was slowly growing in the middle of the hall.

Rarity finally managed to get the signum detonator away from Pinkie Pie and levitated it back into her saddlebag. "Well, let's hurry along then, before they find these bodies. Fluttershy, you can stop covering your eyes now."

"Actually, she might want to hover forward like twenty feet and THEN uncover her eyes. And not look back," Rainbow Dash advised.

Fluttershy gratefully took Rainbow's advice as they all crept further down the hall, even further on edge now that they had encountered the enemy.

Well, all except Rainbow Dash and Pinkie. The latter seemed completely oblivious to the tension in the air, while the former was if anything quite happy at the prospect of running into more foes.

They encountered no one else until the reached a fork in the hall. One path turned away into another hall, while a security door blocked a path in the other direction. There was a large sign on the door labeling it, but naturally it was quite useless to the Gothic-speakers.

"So what now?" Rainbow asked, turning toward Daniels. "Which way do we go?"

Daniels briefly lifted up his helmet mask to squint uselessly at the sign. "Well, ideally we want to find good sabotage targets, like the base reactor or cogitator cores. Barring that, the central security station would be a good bet. We clear that out and we won't have to worry about a strong security response for a while."

"All right..." Rarity trailed off. "So how do we find those things?"

Daniels shrugged.

"Then it's time to play 'follow the creepy robot skull'!" Pinkie cheered, pushing Morty to the front of the group. "Go on, Morty! Which way do you want to go?"

The servo skull floated up into the fork in the path, its many sensors flickering. It turned down the hall, then turned again to face the door.

Then one of the cables trailing under it curled up and scratched at the door like an animal that wanted to go outside.

"We have a winner!" Pinkie grinned. "Twilight?"

"All right, fine. I hope we can trust that thing," Twilight mumbled as her horn started to glow.

With a purple flash, the ponies, human, and augmented hunk of bone vanished from the hallway.

In another purple flash, they reappeared in a large room overrun with large equipment set into the walls and ceiling. The first thing they noticed was that this room held a pair of Riptide battlesuits, each one kneeling in a large maintenance bay surrounded by power cables and automated repair systems.

The second thing they noticed was the Tau kneeling beneath one of the massive armor suits turning her head around, having heard them appear.

"Got this," Applejack snapped as she bounded over to the stunned alien and twisted about to aim her hind legs.

The back kick struck the hapless engineer like a thunderbolt, shattering her body and flinging it across the room.

"See, that's how you do it," Daniels said approvingly, "quick and clean. No need to make a show of it."

"Oh, I remember these things!" Fluttershy said as she pointed to the battlesuits. "I think they're dangerous. The daemon engines didn't like them very much."

"Right. I'll set a charge in each cockpit," Daniels agreed.

"And then we'll blow them up?!" Pinkie asked, holding up the signum detonator.

Rarity growled as she wrenched the detonator away. "Stop going through my pack!"

Twilight crept up to the corpse of the Tau that they had happened upon, staring (with some discomfort) at the alien's bare head.

"This one must be Earth Caste," she mumbled as she recalled the notes on the different segments of Tau society and their biological differences.

"After we're through burying them, they'll all be 'Earth Caste'," Rainbow Dash snickered before bumping hooves with Applejack.

Twilight rolled her eyes. "What I mean is that they're not fighters. We don't need to kill these ones."

"They don't need to be fighters to pull an alarm," Daniels noted, "besides, if we're talking about crippling the grays' war effort, Earth Caste are actually worth more than the Fire grunts. A single engineer can supply hundreds of soldiers." He finished setting the melta charges in the gaping cockpits of the Riptide suits, stepping back from the hulking weapons.

"But we don't need to kill them!" Twilight insisted. "I can put them to sleep with a spell! Or you can just knock them out!"

"Twi, ya know what Solon said," Applejack reminded the alicorn, "right now, we're fightin' fer the Iron Warriors. If we see a grayskin, it dies. He laid it out nice and simple fer us."

Twilight didn't look mollified. "He said 'Disable, degrade, or kill,' remember? Besides, I'm as grateful as anypony for what he did for Big Macintosh, but that doesn't mean we have to stop thinking for ourselves and become just another squad of soldiers for him!"

Applejack rolled her eyes. "Oh, sure. You'd be singin' a different tune if the same order came from Princess Celestia."

Twilight's eyes narrowed. "What's THAT supposed to mean?"

"Girls, please! Stop fighting!" Fluttershy begged, glancing around nervously. "We're in enough trouble as it is!"

Rarity nodded. "Agreed. If it's a point of contention, let's compromise: Daniels, dear, since you ARE just another soldier of the Warsmith, why don't you do the murdering of the non-combatants?"

Daniels shrugged. "Sure. Whatever."

"There, see? Everybody wins!" Rarity said brightly.

Twilight seemed to reluctantly accept the decision, admitting to herself that this wasn't a good time or place to start arguing with her friends over an attack of conscience.

Applejack seemed downright annoyed by the judgment. "Ain't exactly fair to Daniels," she spat, "as if he ain't doin' enough fer us."

"Oh, come now. He's being paid for this!" Rarity reminded the apple farmer. Then she looked up at Daniels. "Right, darling?"

"I'm still operating under the assumption that I'm going to die here," the mercenary deadpanned.

"Hey!" Rainbow Dash shouted, startling the others with the sudden and totally unnecessary burst of noise. "If you guys could wrap up all the drama over there, we found something cool!"

Rainbow Dash was hovering next to Morty in front of a window that had been cut into the wall. The other ponies and Daniels moved up to join her and see what had attracted Rainbow's attention.

Stretching out in front of the window was a cargo dock full of crates and containers, along with several large cargo robots waiting on standby. Behind that was a huge, crested bow that loomed over the platform and was easily the width of a city block, although it was hard to grasp its full dimensions from the relatively small window.

"Ladies and servo skull, we have our starship," Daniels mumbled, gripping his rail rifle tightly.


Ferrous Dominus - sector 7

"Bored, bored, bored, bored, bored, bored..." Scootaloo chanted, lying on her back as she kicked her hind legs into the air in time with her rather uncreative litany.

Apple Bloom was lying down next to the pegasus, nursing her aching legs. Scootaloo had earlier suggested that the youngest Apple sibling might be able to smash the lid off the crate with brute force, given her family's farming methods and reputation for strength. That logic had failed to impress their current prison, which had suffered the attempted breakout much better than her legs had.

Sweetie Belle was up against the grated lid, deciding that if they were going to be stuck here, she might as well get as good a look at "here" as she could.

"I don't get what Rarity thinks is so dreadful about this place. It doesn't look that dangerous to me," the young unicorn said as another truck rolled by carrying a load of menials and a trailer full of building materials.

They had tried calling out to some of the humans wandering by, but all of them had given little more than a curious look before ignoring them and moving on. None of the mercenaries or human workers were willing to risk punishment by tampering with the containers, and it wasn't as if the fillies were in any danger.

"Well, there must be SOMETHIN' dangerous out there," Apple Bloom mumbled, "this is where guys like Dest and Tellis come from, right?"

"I guess. All I see out there are normal humans, though. Some of them don't even have weapons," Sweetie noted.

Then she leaned to one side as she spotted a small group of people in black robes.

"Oh, hey! I think it's more of those Mechanicus people! They're coming this way!"

The other fillies glanced up to watch as a trio of augmented humans walked directly up to the crate, their black rubber robes brushing the ground around their feet. They were all wearing powered armor, and all possessed extremely obtrusive and extensive bionic components replacing various parts of their bodies.

The one in the lead was a Dark Techpriest with half a dozen augmetic arms and a long coil of tubes and wires feeding from his back up into the dark shroud covered by his hood. The other two were noticeably less modified, being of the Acolyte rank.

"Confirmation: the probe supplied correct coordinates. Extrapolation: one of these xenos must constitute its current command unit," said the Dark Techpriest. It was hard to tell given the deeply electronic quality of his voice, but the Cutie Mark Crusaders definitely got the feeling that he was speaking with amusement rather than sympathy for their plight.

"Crabapple sent ya?" Apple Bloom asked, standing up. "Can ya get us outta here?"

"Affirmative," barked one of the Dark Acolytes, "however, Dark Acolyte Gaela has tagged your containment unit with a warning not to unseal it."

The fillies winced.

"But we don't wanna be stuck in here!" Scootaloo protested.

"We'll be good! We won't break nothin'! Promise!" Apple Bloom said with a smile up at the cold, iron masks dotted with flickering lights and hissing tubes.

"Expansion: I am of higher rank than Dark Acolyte Gaela, so I may disregard her warning if I see fit," the Dark Techpriest noted, one of his augmetic claws spinning slowly and clanking shut.

"So you'll let us out?" Sweetie asked, smiling brightly.


The fillies wilted at the blunt refusal.

"Awww! Why not?" Apple Bloom demanded.

A laser sight immediately appeared from within the hood, painting a red spot on Sweetie Belle's nose.

"Explanatory: psykers are dangerous and their abilities unreliable and difficult to contain. Having such a creature free to roam the fortress at will would constitute a risk to the manufactorum that is impossible to estimate. You will remain contained."

The young ponies looked startled at the judgment.

"But she can't even use magic! She's harmless!" Scootaloo protested.

"As long as ya don't let her in a kitchen!" Apple Bloom amended.

"Hey!" Sweetie shouted, glaring at Apple Bloom.

The personnel of the Dark Mechanicus weren't listening, however, and were already walking away while discussing the strange encounter in Binaric Cant.

"Wait! Can you at least let me and Bloom out, then?" Scootaloo shouted after them.


The fillies watched helplessly as the three augmented humans left earshot, their reinforced prison still depressingly intact and fully secure.

"Way to ruin everything for the rest of us, Sweetie Belle," Scootaloo groused.

"Well excuse me for being born a unicorn," Sweetie snapped, "what kind of reasoning is that, anyway? As if unicorns are more dangerous than any other kind of pony!"

Sweetie wasn't very happy about the silence that followed her complaint.

"Ah don't remember the last time a pegasus or earth pony spread chaos throughout Ponyville 'cause of a messed-up spell," Apple Bloom mumbled, "just sayin'."

"Twilight doesn't count! She's not even a unicorn anymore!" Sweetie Belle insisted.

"Sure Sweetie. Whatever you say," Scootaloo sighed.

"Ah, good. You three seem to have kept yourselves occupied while I was absent."

The voice had come from behind the crate, and thus out of their line of sight, but by now all the fillies had come to recognize the unique vox-distortions and irritated tone that set Gaela's voice apart even from her equally aggravating and unsympathetic peers.

"Let us out of here, Miss Gaela!" demanded Sweetie Belle as she banged a hoof against the wall of their prison, albeit much more lightly than Apple Bloom had attempted.

"No," the Dark Acolyte said as she stepped in front of the crate, "as I explained before, my errands have been completed, and I've returned with sustenance." Held in the crook of her biological arm was a canteen and a single ration tin, the latter of which was being opened by her servo arm.

"Can't you at least just lock us into our rooms?" Scootaloo groused.

"Again, no. Such facilities are constructed specifically for ease of access and exit, and for obvious reasons. You surely would have escaped such confinement by now."

Scootaloo clicked her tongue. That was, after all, the point of her request.

"Big Mac ain't gonna be happy that ya locked us in a box while he was busy just so ya wouldn't hafta deal with us," Apple Bloom warned as the Dark Acolyte slipped the opened tin between the bars of the grate.

"I'm sure I will suffer gravely under his silent disapproval," Gaela admitted dryly as she slipped the canteen through the bars, "but not nearly as much as I would having to tolerate you three for an extended period of time."

Deeming her duty to the young ponies complete, she turned on her heel. "I have no other pressing matters to attend to, but there are numerous tasks I could complete that are less unpleasant than listening to you complain and beg. I will return once Macintosh has completed his drills and is available to supervise you personally once more."

"Wait!" Sweetie Belle shouted, getting an idea. "I have to go!"

Gaela halted, turning her head slightly. "Have to go where? And for what reason?"

The young unicorn flushed, shrinking in on herself slightly. "I have to use the little filly's room," she lied in a much more subdued tone, "you don't seriously expect us to just use the corner or something, do you?"

Gaela was silent for a few seconds, still facing away from the fillies.

Finally, she turned around.

"You have a point. The short-term risk of complications from inadequate sanitation facilities is low, but unnecessary. I do have a responsibility to your kin," the Dark Acolyte admitted.

"Right! So just let us out and point us to the restroom, and we'll be back in... uh..." Sweetie Belle trailed off as Gaela picked up the crate with her bionic and servo arms, carrying it in front of her as the fillies stumbled around from the unexpected movement.

After moving barely more than three meters, Gaela dropped the crate back onto the ground, causing its contents to stumble again.

"This should be adequate," the Dark Acolyte decided, moving in front of the grate.

"What are you talking about?" Sweetie demanded as she stood up. "How does moving us to a different spot help if we're still stuck in here?"

Gaela pointed down at the ground next to the crate.

Sweetie's face darkened as she saw that their prison had been placed on the edge of a storm drain that had been built into the ferrocrete surface.

"You're a terrible person," the unicorn filly said as she looked back up into the hooded mask that contained Gaela's face.

"Another contribution of mine to your studies of humanity," Gaela quipped as she began walking off again, "you're welcome."


Salt Lick Canyon - main security nexus

*So what's the deal with this lifter, now?* mumbled Jerriha as she leaned back in her chair, a pulse pistol hanging loosely in her grip.

In front of her stood a pair of Tau males: one Earth Caste, the other Fire.

*The deal is a bit murky, Fireblade,* admitted the Fire Warrior, *a cargo transport floated in about an hour ago, but the scans didn't work on it. We checked it over and found that it had been modified.*

The Earth Caste member continued as Jerriha quirked an eyebrow. *Specifically, it was modified with gue'la devices. Internal shielding and a monitor to display the front exterior to anyone in the cargo bed. The automated guidance system showed signs of tampering as well. We also found a weapons case, but it was empty.*

The Fireblade immediately sat up straighter, her hand tightening around the pistol. *Are you saying that we let a vehicle that had been in enemy hands simply float in here without even a proper security scan?*

The Fire Warrior shook his head. *We put it on lockdown and searched it the moment it got in the base. There was nothing inside besides what's already been mentioned.*

*After we searched it more thoroughly, we also found no sign of traps, explosives, or contaminants,* the engineer added quickly.

*So you're telling me that the gue'la nabbed one of our cargo lifters, upgraded it, and then sent it back to us?* Jerriha asked skeptically. *I don't suppose they left a friendly note in there too, did they? Maybe an apology letter for ambushing our fleet?*

The Fire Warrior rolled his eyes. *At the moment we can't ascertain why, exactly, it was sent here. Or if it was intentional. But that isn't the most interesting thing about it.*

*Go on,* Jerriha said, leaning forward.

*This cargo lifter left Black Point after being assigned to attack group 13, codename "Gheist",* the Fire Warrior continued as the Earth Caste member brought up some squad information on the primary monitor, *you may not know this Shas'vre, since you were reassigned to security head for this facility, but one of our convoys to Black Point never arrived. As it was carrying mission-critical equipment, attack group 13 was deployed to hunt down the equipment and bring it in. They were maintaining long-range comms silence to minimize the chances of detection.*

He paused, wetting his lips. *This is the first anyone has seen of any of the dispatched units. Black Point has written off attack group 13 as KIA and have been considering new measures to recover the equipment.*

Jerriha frowned deeply as she checked on the mission details in the system log. *That was a dangerously large attack group to run so close to the gue'la base. Or perhaps dangerously small, considering it apparently didn't survive.*

*The lifter did not have a combat recorder, and its system logs have been deliberately corrupted,* added the engineer, *we won't be able to learn much more from the vehicle.*

Jerriha tapped her pistol against the arm rest of her chair for several seconds as she mulled over the information. *What was the equipment to be recovered?*

*The kind that's described on a need-to-know basis, Shas'vre,* the Earth Caste Tau said calmly, *discretion is more important than ever with these strange gue'la renegades about. Especially considering your... unique interrogation experience.*

Jerriha couldn't fault that judgment, even if it annoyed her that her rank didn't entitle her to as much mission data as it used to.

*All right, here's what's happening,* Jerriha commanded, leaning forward, *you keep that lifter on lockdown. I don't care how many scans come back with nothing; I want it surrounded by drone guns at all times until the Shas'el himself says otherwise. Keran, you take two fire teams and search the turret perimeter. There's a chance whoever was in the lifter bailed nearby to scout this place. Get a pair of Stealth Suit teams to trace the lifter's path to the edge of the forest, searching for any signs of enemy movement. I'll be putting the base on combat readiness alert effective immediately.*

The others nodded their heads and left the room as Jerriha turned toward the primary command console and hit a switch to link her comms receiver to every speaker in the building.

*This is Shas'vre Jerriha speaking. As of this moment we are to maintain combat readiness due to increased likelihood of enemy contact. All Fire Caste units besides battlesuit pilots and units on their sleep rotation are to armor and arm up until the alert is dropped. This is not a drill.*

Jerriha hit the switch to deactivate the comms, and then sighed as she leaned back in her chair.

*Jittery, are we?* asked another female Tau who was surrounded by monitors in the corner.

*After escaping from the gue'la mines only thanks to absurdly lax security procedures, you bet I am,* the Fireblade murmured, *considering the mood at Black Point, things are far too peaceful here.*

*Black Point could literally be smashed at any moment by an army of super-soldiers and storms of artillery,* the Fire Caste technician said with a grim smirk, *we have it a little easier here.*

*I'd rather be over there,* Jerriha said darkly, *this place is too lightly garrisoned. If the gue'la decided to attack there's nothing we could do to repel them. There aren't enough heavy units to mount a solid defense, the escape routes all lead to dead ends in the canyon, and we can't take the ships out without having them intercepted and wiped out by the so-called "freighters" that caused this disaster.*

*You're a real ray of sunshine, Fireblade,* mumbled the technician sarcastically, *way to work that morale.*

*MY POINT is that this facility was never built to fend off an assault, even after our mission changed,* Jerriha complained.

*It didn't change. It just got more complicated,* the other female said as she hit a few switches under her monitors, *I really hope the gue'la didn't nab that component, or this whole campaign could be a wash.*

The Fireblade frowned, her eyes narrowing. *You know what it is?*


The technician snickered softly at her superiors' incredulous glare.

*Those Earth Caste types melt like maruuk when a Fire girl gives them the time of day. It's cute, really. If you asked around they'd spill the details eventually.*

Jerriha made a disgusted sound. *Whatever. If I'm not supposed to know, then I'll just keep on not knowing.*

*Sure. But for the sake of the Cadre, I hope the gue'la aren't as observant as you about our defenses. We NEED a launching point off this rock. That's probably why you were assigned here and smuggled out of Black Point in the first place.*

Jerriha stewed on that silently as she turned back to the mission data of attack group 13.

*Tch! Got another malfunctioning drone. Third one this week,* the Fire Caste technician grumbled as she hit a key on her console repeatedly to no effect, *I swear, they'll attach stealth fields to APCs in this Sept, but we're still using drone software from two generations ago. It's pathetic!*

*Where is it?*

*Down in the Riptide bays. Just wandering around obliviously and not responding to signals.*

*Is Nairen down there? She can fix it.*

The other Fire Warrior designated the particular comms system and frowned at her monitor. *She's not at her console. Nairen? Fio-vre, are you there?*

After several seconds of silence, Jerriha shook her head. *I'm sure her head is stuck in the inner workings of a battlesuit if she's not at her station.*

She activated a different comms frequency. *Fio'el Fennin. We require your assistance.*

There was a brief pause, and then the commlink crackled a response.

*Ugh. Confirmed, Shas'vre. What is it?* the voice at the other end sounded like it had been awoken from a deep sleep, although if that were the case it had likely been Jerriha's announcement to rouse him rather than being contacted directly.

*We need you to track down and repair a malfunctioning drone. It's not responding to command inputs,* the Fireblade explained.

*A drone? Make someone else do it. I'm busy.*

Jerriha's jaw tightened, and then she changed her comms channel.

*Shas'la, I have a mission for you,* the Fireblade said to the Fire Warrior she had selected at random, *head to the Earth Caste quarters, find Fio'el Fennin in unit R-9, and then give the esteemed engineer a solid kick out of bed.*

*Affirmative, Shas'vre. I'm leaving now.*

The Fire Caste technician smirked. *You've certainly got a way with the grunts, Fireblade.*

*Hitting things and telling others to hit things are my specialty,* Jerriha grumbled.

*Don't sell yourself short! Escaping from a gue'la death fortress is no mean feat, lax security or not!* then she smirked. *Hey, tell me again how you got captured in the first place!*

*NO,* Jerriha growled. She hadn't lost much in the way of respect for her failure to cripple the Iron Warriors' fusion reactor, but it was still a source of amusement to her peers that an esteemed Fireblade had been outwitted by a human and then clobbered by a pony.

*OW!* the cry of pain over the comms immediately brightened Jerriha's mood, and she leaned in toward her microphone again.

*Well, Fio'el, since you seem to be fully awake now, won't you see to that drone?* the Fireblade asked pleasantly. Muffled cursing came from the speaker before she continued. *It seems to be heading toward the fabrication plant. I offer you the Fire Warrior as a personal escort. Get to work.*

*Best to be safe!* the technician chuckled. *Who knows what dangerous creatures could be down there? Ha!*

Author's Note:

Okay, so I think we've reached the point where it's worth keeping a running tally of Mane Six kills.
But this brings up the issue of whether Fluttershy should get assist credit for daemon engine kills that happen under her guidance, since otherwise she won't see a lot of action.