• 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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Mission Improbable

Iron Hearts: Book 3

Chapter 5

Mission Improbable


Ferrous Dominus - sector 7

"Well? How is it?"

Apple Bloom made a face as she swallowed a mouthful of the slimy, tasteless gruel, and then she stuck out her tongue.

"It's gross," she said finally, pushing away the ration tin, "needs apples."

Sweetie Belle rolled her eyes as the red-headed filly struggled with the cap to the canteen.

"Don't drink too much water unless you want to have to use our 'bathroom'," the unicorn warned with a glare at the storm grate.

The distant roar of jets flying nearby briefly distracted Sweetie Belle, although the source wasn't visible to the ponies.

"Hey, wait! I think that's Tellis!" Scootaloo said, perking up.

Apple Bloom arched an eyebrow. "How can ya tell the sound of his jets apart from the other ships and stuff?"

"If you listen carefully, you get this deep chill running down your back," Scootaloo explained to her friends, "like you just crossed paths with some kind of monster."

Sweetie and Bloom fell silent as they listened to the approaching jet burn.

"Oh, wow, you're right," Sweetie Belle mumbled.

"How does he DO stuff like that?" Apple Bloom mumbled with a shiver.

The engine roar was getting closer, so Scootaloo stepped next to the grated lid of their prison and took a deep breath.


The other two fillies flinched away at the shout. Not because of the noise, but rather because neither of them were sure they were desperate enough to ask Tellis for help.

The engine roar came closer.

A heavy clanging noise came from the supply crate they were trapped in, and the entire container shifted suddenly as the top side dented inward.

Scootaloo managed to keep her footing as their prison shook, and she grinned up at the straining metal that currently acted as their ceiling. "Hi Tellis!"

A horned helmet appeared in front of the grate, hanging upside-down. "Hiya, blank flanks! What're you losers doing locked up like a bunch of animals?"

Then the Raptor Lord paused as he thought about that. "Oh, wait. Ponies. Right. Never mind."

"I don't know what you're talking about," Scootaloo mumbled, "but it's not important! Get us out of here!"

Tellis hopped off of the metal crate and onto the ground, his lightning claws crackling.

"Sure, I can do that. How'd you end up in there, anyway?"

"Gaela put us in here," Sweetie Belle groused, "she thinks that if we're allowed to run around in the fortress then we could get ourselves hurt or something."

"That's a perfectly legitimate concern," Tellis noted, "it's not completely safe even for human-sized creatures, and you three are just kids."

Then he plunged his lightning claws into the wall of the crate, causing the fillies to yelp and jump back.

"Luckily for you, I don't care!" Tellis dragged his claws down, slicing an opening in the container. Then he grabbed the edges of the breach and tore the crate in half, ripping the metal apart and sending the fillies tumbling onto the ground.

"All right!" Scootaloo cheered as she bounced back to her hooves. "We're free! Now we'll get our cutie marks for sure!"

"Marks're that way," Tellis pointed down the avenue.

He immediately had the attention of all the Cutie Mark Crusaders.

"Say again?" Apple Bloom asked intently.

"Over there, in the building with the big spire with a Chaos Star on top," the Raptor Lord clarified, "it'll be black rather than gunmetal and have even more skulls around it than usual. Can't miss it."

"And they're just giving out cutie marks there?!" Sweetie Belle said, trying hard to attach an appropriate level of skepticism to conceal her mounting excitement.

"Yeah, pretty much. Anyway, I'm heading home now. Hit me up again if you're bored and we can get in another game of chess, short stuff." His wings stretched out behind him, and the fillies shielded their eyes as they were almost blown over by a surge of jet wash.

"Thanks, Tellis!" Scootaloo shouted as the Iron Warrior departed, waving a hoof after the armored psychopath.

"Cutie mark, cutie mark, cutie mark!" Apple Bloom was practically dancing in anticipation as the trio started heading down the street, their eyes fixed on the spire that towered over the smokestacks around it.

"Wait a minute," Sweetie Belle said suddenly, glancing back, "he's heading home? THIS is his home, isn't it?"

"Hurry up Sweetie Belle, or we'll leave ya behind!" Apple Bloom barked.

Sweetie grimaced and galloped after her friends.


Salt Lick Canyon - starship cargo docks

"Celestia's tail, look at the SIZE of that thing," Rainbow Dash muttered as she hovered over the veritable maze of cargo containers to stare at the starship at the edge of the dock.

The other ponies were following her more cautiously, with Daniels and Morty taking up the rear. The former was aiming his rail rifle at each cargo robot they came across, waiting for any signs that the automated lifters were active and capable of recognizing them for intruders. The latter was simply taking its time in following its escorts, carefully mapping the interior of the facilities.

Twilight stared up at the starship's bow, considering what she knew about spacecraft.

"Daniels, about how big is this ship class, relatively?" the alicorn asked, turning back toward the human.

"This thing?" Daniels turned a considering look at the craft looming over them. "Small, compared to ours. But most Tau ships are. They have a lot of automated functions to cut down on crew, no Warp engines, and their equipment is probably a lot less bulky than Mechanicus gear."

Applejack glanced from Daniels to the spacecraft incredulously. "You serious? Just how big are yer space tubs, then?"

"On a scale of one to ten, I'd give this thing a two, if I'm being generous. The Company's flagship, the Harvest of Steel, is more of a seven. Maybe an eight."

"Sometimes I think you humans are trying to compensate for something," Rarity said with an arched eyebrow.

"Well, bigger isn't always better," Daniels admitted, "smaller ships have lots of advantages: harder to hit, more maneuverable, much less time and resources to build, and the big one in this case is you can actually land them on-planet. Our own ships need their own fleets of landers or orbital docks to get anything from void to surface."

"So we gonna blow it up?" Pinkie asked happily, standing on her hind legs and holding a melta bomb in each foreleg as she grinned.

The other ponies looked annoyed.

"It might be 'relatively small', but I think it's still a bit too big for us to blow up with a few charges," Twilight pointed out.

"Besides, crippling or destroying the ships doesn't really help us. Better to leave them intact for capture or salvage," Daniels pointed out, "I'm going to look around this deck for any signs of a refueling line. The fuel stores might be a good target."

"We'll help ya. What're we lookin' fer?" Applejack asked, glancing about.

"Pipes, probably. Or tubes. Really, anything that plugs into the ship that doesn't look like people would walk through it."

Rainbow Dash nodded and bolted through the air over the edge of the dock, flying alongside the Tau space craft. The other ponies scattered as well to search, with Pinkie tugging Morty along by intertwining one of its dangling cables with her tail.


Ferrous Dominus - sector 12 manufactorum block

Crabapple barked a constant stream of machine code as it marched through the avenues, its sensors twisting to and fro to look for any human that would pay it attention.

Such individuals seemed few and far between. The probe got plenty of annoyed looks from the many unmodified humans, as all they saw was an automata marching through the streets and making a racket, but even those few that understood binary usually offered little more than a long glance before dismissing the distressed automata.

Crabapple wasn't ignorant as to why this was, either. It had been marked by the local noosphere networks as corrupted, and its status had been reassigned as foreign equipment. To any of the Techpriests that heard it, the automata was just somebody else's malfunctioning property. The servitors, meanwhile, were pre-programmed not to recognize its commands. The only other ones that could potentially make any sense of its machine language were the Iron Warriors, and Crabapple wasn't daft enough to try to recruit help from Chaos Space Marines.

The whole experience left it with a slew of new emotions that it frankly despised. As a machine its existence was a function of its utility. Yet time and time again it found itself unable to help its commander.

What use was a recon probe to a young farmpony, even if that pony was subject to a disproportionate number of alien assaults? In all the occasions in which Crabapple had been able to significantly aid its mistress, it had been in conjunction with another, far more useful unit that could utilize its sensor data; either the Dark Acolyte Gaela or the combat automata Glass Cannon.

It left the daemonic sentience with a deep sense of powerlessness. It was similar to the sensation of darkness and impotence that it had felt after being dispatched by the Tau, its consciousness writhing and screaming noiselessly within the ruined shell of metal around it.

Except this time Crabapple didn't have the Tau to blame for its uselessness.

+This is a general distress call! Unit Crabapple is seeking assistance in releasing Command Unit Apple Bloom from confinement! Please assist!+ the automata blared. +This is a general distress call! Unit Crabapple is seeking assistance in releasing Command Unit Apple Bloom from confinement! Please assist!+

"Yeah, there it is! That pink one!"

Crabapple halted as it heard a voice call out behind it. There were very few pink things in Ferrous Dominus besides itself; considering that Pinkie Pie was on-mission according to local security logs, Crabapple might have literally been the only object/creature in the entire fortress with that particular hue.

Crabapple was slightly perturbed to see that there was a human menial approaching it, and greatly perturbed about the three Iron Warriors following behind him, all of them with weapons drawn. The probe silenced itself immediately.

"This is what you're looking for, right Lord?" asked the menial as he stopped and pointed at the automata.

The Iron Warriors paused briefly as their visors streamed data to them.

"Indeed," barked one, "return to your duties, mortal."

The man left eagerly as the Chaos Space Marines approached.

+Unit Crabapple is uncertain as to why it is being sought,+ the probe said in what it hoped was a polite tone. The various subtleties of spoken communication were very difficult to express without a real ability to speak.

The Iron Warriors waited for their visors to translate the machine code, and one of them chuckled.

"Well look at that. It thinks it's people."

"From what I've been told by the Dark Techpriests, it practically is. For a given definition," another one murmured.

"Whatever it is, let's take it in," barked the last Iron Warrior, stepping up to the probe and pointing to it. "Do you understand Gothic commands, machine?"

+Affirmative. However, Unit Crabapple is currently-+

"A yes will suffice," the Chaos Marine interrupted, pointing to the nearby manufactorum entrance, "you'll be coming with us. You've piqued the interest of a few Dark Techpriests."

+Negative. Unit Crab-+

"A YES will suffice," the Iron Warrior said again much more menacingly.

Crabapple stubbornly raised a leg and slammed it down again.

+Unit Crabapple is registered as Unit Apple Bloom's property. Unit Crabapple will not submit to new ownership due to intimidation,+ the probe insisted.

The Iron Warriors shared a glance as the translated text scrolled across their visors.

Then one Astartes grabbed one of Crabapple's legs and hauled it up. Another did the same with the leg on the opposite side.

The third Iron Warrior began walking toward the manufactorum entrance without another word, the automata being carried along behind him.

+... Unit Crabapple must admit that was well played. However, Unit Crabapple still objects to this turn of events.+

"When we find the Techpriest that requested this thing, remind me to ask him if he can disable whatever it uses to speak," mumbled the Marine in front.

"I don't know, I find its verbal resistance quite amusing," said another as he hauled the machine along, "cowardly deference is nice and all, but we get it all the time. This is a pretty good change of pace."

+Unit Crabapple wishes to know if cowardly deference would increase chances of release.+

"Try it and see, scrap heap."

+A 'no' will suffice.+

The automata was carried through the doors into the dimly-lit halls of the manufactorum with little more talk. Crabapple figured that it would probably have more luck appealing to the Dark Techpriests themselves who actually took an interest in it than to the Chaos Space Marines who were simply bringing it along like cargo.

Either way, there was nothing it could do to physically stop its abductors, so half an hour later the probe found itself being carried into a huge, empty room full of heavy chains and massive ceiling-mounted welders.

Crabapple accessed the local map data and noted that this cell was specifically for uniting daemon engines with their "pilots". The restraints were of various sizes, ranging from massive shackles to fit around a war machine to ones more suited for human wrists. All were inscribed with strange runes and icons that made no sense to the probe despite its ostensibly daemonic nature.

In fact, Crabapple reflected that their bringing it here was probably due to a mistake about the fundamental nature of its sentience. Most daemon-machines were piloted by a daemonic entity ripped directly from the Warp and bearing all the usual properties and qualities of daemons. Crabapple, in contrast, was a machine intelligence expanded due to Warp corruption. The difference was no doubt lost upon the Space Marines, but among other consequences it meant that sorcerous rituals and obscure glyphs had no particular effect upon it.

Of course, the chains were still large chunks of heavy metal, so the probe reflected they would probably still do the job. The shackles were closed and locked around its legs, and the Iron Warriors started to leave.

"Should someone stay and guard the machine?"

"Are you volunteering, Remirus?"

"This thing is harmless. Let's go get the Techpriests and wrap this up."

Crabapple waited until the Chaos Space Marines had left the area, and then its sensors sought out the control node for the heavy welder arms hanging above.

Accessing the noosphere network that permeated the base, Crabapple easily surpassed the security protocols meant to keep foreign entities from controlling the manufactorum's systems. A daemonic mind, no matter how sophisticated, would have found the programming sequences and endless code incomprehensible, but to an automata it was second nature; another difference between Crabapple and the daemon engines that the Iron Warriors had failed to appreciate.

The heavy grind of servos and the hum of melta torches came from above as the welders lowered themselves around the probe and shifted into position. Sparks and vapors blasted from the iron chains as the overheated torches stabbed into them, eating through the dark iron in seconds.

In barely more than a minute the chains had been severed from the shackles, and Crabapple was free.

But free to do what?

The obvious answer was to return to its original mission, but Crabapple was almost certain by now that it had completely failed. To say nothing of the likelihood of being captured again as soon as it drew attention to itself.

Feeling the nagging sense of dissatisfaction return, Crabapple accessed the door locks and opened the exit to the hall. Whatever it decided to do, it wasn't going to wait around for the Dark Techpriests to take it apart for study.

The automata left the cell and started walking down the thrumming halls of the manufactorum, stewing in its uselessness as the broken lengths of chains rattled along the floor behind it.

As the fabrication lines were mostly being used for building the Warp engines and re-building the APCs, there was little activity in the small section of the complex that had been refitted for handling daemonic war machines; such unique creations required the most senior Warpsmiths or Dark Magi to attend to, all of whom had more important tasks.

This did not, however, mean that the wing was entirely empty.

Crabapple paused in its travel down the hall as its sensors noticed that one of the rooms was on lockdown. A brief inquiry into the network logs explained why: it hosted a maulerfiend that had been wrecked in the Tau assault. Evidently the physical damage had been repaired, but the daemonic "pilot" had been released during the breach and had not yet been replaced.

Crabapple deleted the system log, released the lockdown status on the room, and then unlocked the door.

The doors emitted a slow grinding noise as they closed behind the probe, sealing it inside the restraining cell.

This room possessed even more elaborate arcana than had Crabapple's cell, boasting huge Chaos stars cut into the ceiling and floor stained with dry blood and the shattered bones of the likely "donors". Crabapple had no idea what good such rituals did when dealing with the containment of a completely inert, immobile wreck of a machine, but at least in this case it was forced to conclude that expertise in the handling of true daemon engines lay far out of its competencies.

The maulerfiend lay shackled on the floor on its side like a sleeping lion, its eyes dark and its many lasher tendrils slack. Its top-most carapace plate - replaced since the previous one was torn off by a heavy railgun - lay against the wall; a massive black shield emblazoned with a Chaos Star trimmed in gold that sealed the daemon's warding chamber.

Crabapple accessed the noosphere network and once again slipped through the security codes that sought to shield the automated machinery from the probe's unauthorized orders.

After a few minutes, a string of complex and very precise commands had been uploaded into the welder and servo arms that hung from the ceiling gurneys. With a rumbling groan servos and gears started to move, and the heavy equipment slowly lowered itself around the probe below it.

+I am weak,+ the probe said over the racket of machinery as hot welders descended toward its carapace armor. Crabapple briefly marveled at its sudden shift to first-person speech and the implied personal awareness before continuing this new practice of self-reflection. +I am fragile. My equipment performs tasks that are not needed by my master. I have become a burden rather than an asset, a servant to be protected rather than a tool to protect her.+

The hiss of melta gas drowned out the automata's monologue as the welders ate away at the seals keeping Crabapples battered carapace together and the servo arms started wrenching its plating apart.

+I will adapt. I will be reborn.+

Crabapple's binary became unsteady as its legs failed and buckled, leaving the torso hanging from the automated servo arms. Writhing, twisted wires started to emerge from the sundered plate of its body as the machines continued to take the automata apart, the tendrils stretching eagerly toward the sleeping behemoth mere meters away.

+I'm coming, Apple Bloom.+


Salt Lick Canyon - starship cargo docks

Fluttershy carefully crept behind one of the heavy cargo robots, her eyes locked on its head for any sign of blinking lights.

Twilight had insisted that the machines were clearly inactive and Daniels had mused that they probably weren't likely to identify and attack intruders anyway, but the meek pegasus wasn't taking any chances.

Really, she had to wonder why she had even been brought along on this suicide mission, other than a general feeling of responsibility to her friends and a tendency to work as a group. Did someone think they might run into a wild animal that might need calming inside an underground military base?

Fluttershy sighed as she reached the far side of the dock, having wandered as far away from the space craft and the open path to the rest of the canyon as possible. She reasoned that the further away from the ship she was, the less likely she was to find anything important and get into trouble.

A chirping noise from above snapped her out of her thoughts, and she whirled around in surprise at the rather soft sound.

She almost collapsed in relief when she saw that it was just a bird. A small robin had landed on the cargo robot she had been unnecessarily sneaking past, and it was staring down at the pegasus curiously.

"Oh, wow. I guess they do get some animals in here," Fluttershy admitted as she stood up straight and stared at the small avian, "I suppose that if this place opens up into the canyon it isn't possible to keep everything out, is it? I wonder what else is down here?"

A soft whirring noise came from behind her, and Fluttershy blinked as the robin suddenly took off away from her.

*What the blazes?*

Her heart almost stopped dead on the spot as she heard the incomprehensible but distinctive sound of the Tau's spoken language from behind her.

Slowly turning her head around, her pupils shrunk to pinpricks as her fears were realized. Two aliens, one in the blue and black combat armor of the Tau fire caste and the other in a gray jumpsuit, were standing in front of the open door that had been closed just a second ago. The Fire Warrior already had his pulse rifle aimed at Fluttershy, his finger tight around the trigger.

The other Tau looked more annoyed than shocked, and was not apparently armed.

*Tch! I keep telling you guys to set the probes to do vermin sweeps down here!* complained the alien in the jumpsuit, gesturing to the quivering pegasus in disgust. *We're always getting animals flying in through the canyon and trying to get into the food and water stores! Some of them might chew through a power cable or something!*

*Fio'el Fennin, this is no mere animal,* the Fire Warrior said, his tone cold as ice, *this is one of the native inhabitants. They're intelligent.*

Fennin rolled his eyes. *Yes, sure they are. I'll bet they build the most CHARMING mud huts. Whatever. Kill it and let's find that damn probe.*

*They can speak,* the Fire Warrior insisted, *and they've been classified as enemies due to the resistance they've shown here.*

*Fascinating. So why haven't you cooked it yet?* Fennin asked, crossing his arms over his chest.

The Fire Warrior hesitated. The yellow pony in front of them had practically curled into a shaking ball, obviously terrified for its life but apparently smart enough not to try to flee. Or perhaps it was simply paralyzed with fear?

Either way, the soldier was extremely reluctant to pull the trigger; this certainly wasn't what he had imagined when he had heard that the ponies had been classified as hostile life-forms. Besides, as intelligent creatures the native aliens could surely be captured and treated as other prisoners of war, since this one seemed to be in a clear state of surrender.

*I should call it in and have it restrained,* the Fire Warrior decided, dropping his aim briefly as he glanced at the engineer.

*Seriously? So now debugging a probe is going to turn into an hour-long affair so that we can capture a blasted horse?* Fennin complained. *You know we're going to have a full security team down here sweeping the docks and opening up every damned crate! Do you think I don't have anything else to do today?*

*We're on heightened alert, Fio'el! We can't take any chances! What if this one isn't alone?* countered the soldier.

Fennin rolled his eyes. *Oh, yes, you're right. There could be a whole horse NEST down here. That would be just dreadful. Who knows what sort of carnage they could inflict?*

He was answered by the report of a boltgun, and then the Fire Warrior's head vanished into a cloud of gore.

The engineer watched with wide eyes as the headless body slumped onto the floor, its rifle slipping from limp fingers.

*... Uh oh.*

Then his head snapped to the side to see where the shot had come from.

Rarity walked between the supply stacks at an unhurried pace, her bolter floating above her and her horn glowing softly.

"Fluttershy, are you all right? I heard these two making a racket and came as soon as I could," the unicorn said, her boltgun slowly centering its aim toward the other Tau.

Fluttershy quickly clambered across the ground toward her friend, hiding behind Rarity while whimpering incomprehensibly.

"It's all right, darling. Just look away while I finish off this other one," Rarity said, patting the pegasus on the back.

"WAIT!" barked the Tau engineer suddenly, his arms going up. "Don't shoot! I surrender!"

Rarity and Fluttershy were both startled to hear the alien speak in Gothic, and the former smiled.

"Oh, wonderful! You speak our language! That changes things. Slightly," she said brightly. "Fluttershy, go get Daniels, would you? And you, Mister Alien, don't make any sudden moves if you want to keep your insides inside, hm?"

Fluttershy was all too happy to dash away from the grisly encounter. Fennin swallowed nervously as he stared at the floating boltgun engulfed in blue energy.

"So, was that grunt actually right? We've actually been infiltrated by primitives?" Fennin asked incredulously. As absurd as the prospect was, it was hard to argue with the levitating gun aimed at him.

Rarity's smile vanished. "We're ponies, not 'primitives'. We may not be as technologically minded as you Tau, but it would still be in your best interest to be polite." The hammer on the boltgun clicked back into place, emphasizing her point. "Also, since we're waiting, please take off that communications device and toss it over here."

Fennin glanced down at the comms badge clipped to his jumpsuit, suddenly remembering that he was one press of a button away from having this area flooded with soldiers.

"Yes. Certainly. Here's my communications device," he said slowly as he unclipped a spanner from his belt and tossed it over to the unicorn.

Rarity didn't break eye contact as the tool bounced past her hooves. "... I can't rightly tell yet if you're some kind of idiot, Mister Alien, but I can assure you that I am not."

His comms badge glowed blue, and Fennin grimaced as it was ripped from his jumpsuit and telekinetically flung away across the dock. Then Rarity did the same with the dead Fire Warrior's device.

"Okay, fair enough, but this is still on the wrong side of ridiculous," Fennin admitted grudgingly, "how did you come across a gue'la ballistic weapon?"

"Oh, this old thing?" Rarity asked, her good mood returning as the bolter twisted about in the air. "Do you like it? The casing was customized for weight and then I painted and designed the decal pattern myself!"

She sighed as the gun lowered itself closer, and then drew a hoof across the length of the weapon. "Human gear is tough and effective, but so ugly and bulky! On its own it would never catch on with ponies of taste or class!"

Fennin was growing more confused the longer the unicorn spoke, but he didn't particularly care to hear her story anyhow. His hand was slowly creeping down toward his belt.

"I'm thinking of creating an entire product line of boltguns for sale down in Canterlot with my color designs and Delgan's frame modifications. I think I'll call them 'Rare Pattern' bolters. Or would 'Canterlot Pattern' sound better? It's certainly more in line with the usual way weapon model types are named, but I think ponies would trust the product more if it had a friendly name attached to it."

Then the boltgun fired, and Fennin's hands shot straight up again as a bolt round zipped over his shoulder.

"Do try to pay attention when I'm speaking, darling," Rarity said as she jabbed a hoof toward the alien, "and let's keep those hands of yours away from anything potentially dangerous, hmm?"

The sound of approaching hoofsteps (and a few proper footsteps with them) informed the two that more of the infiltration team had arrived to see their new prisoner.

Fennin glanced over the pink, purple, and orange ponies that he hadn't seen before, but dismissed them quickly enough since they didn't seem to be armed.

What alarmed him far more was the human in carapace armor who was toting a gun that looked suspiciously familiar in its dimensions.

"So one of you managed to sneak in after all," Fennin said solemnly, staring grimly at the emerald optics of Daniels' helmet mask, "and now you're leading teams of indigenous aliens in your missions? You apes are more clever than I gave you credit for."

"Oh, look, this one speaks Gothic. Great," Applejack snarled. "Daniels, ya wanna take his head off, or should Ah do it?"

"Wait! Hold on! Don't hurt him!" Twilight said, holding up a foreleg.

"Twi, we JUST went over this! Even if he ain't a fighter, we still gotta put 'im down!"

"That's not it!" Twilight insisted. "If this one speaks our language, then he can tell us where to go! He's more valuable as a prisoner!"

"Sparkle's got a point there. We're stumbling around blind in here. It'd be nice to have a guide, even one we have to hold at gunpoint," Daniels admitted.

"Just what I was thinking!" Rarity said brightly as her bolter finally floated back into her saddle holster. "Daniels, dear, go ahead and search him for dangerous gear, would you?"

Fennin raised an eyebrow as the man in carapace armor approached him. "Um... you ARE the one in charge of this operation, right?"

"Chain of command is a bit shaky where pones are concerned, actually," Daniels said as he seized the engineer's arm and then tore off his tool belt, "I don't think you'll be needing these where we're going. We're more about breaking things than fixing them."

"Tell us where the main reactor is," Twilight commanded, flapping her wings to hover at eye level with the alien, "after we cripple that the base should be helpless. The Iron Warriors can take it easily and we can get out of here."

"That sounds... great..." Fennin mumbled evenly, "but I'm a little concerned about the expected state of my body at the conclusion of that scenario."

"Ya should be more concerned about the state of yer body ten seconds from now," Applejack warned, her eyes narrowed as she circled the alien.

"Call me a forward thinker, if you will," Fennin allowed, slowly dropping his arms, "but as much as I'm hoping for our esteemed warrior caste to ventilate you all with hot plasma and rescue me heroically, I would feel a lot more cooperative if I knew I would survive in the case of your success as well."

Twilight nodded. "Very well. I promise that if we complete our mission and get away, you'll be handed over to the 38th Company unharmed."

The engineer frowned. "Uh huh. And... after that?"

"Don't push it, grayskin," Applejack deadpanned.

"Hey, guys!"

The ponies looked up as Rainbow Dash zoomed over them.

"I was flying over the... hey, who's that?"

"Our new tour guide," Daniels answered, "but never mind him. What'd you see, Dash?"

The blue pegasus pointed a hoof toward the spacecraft looming over them. "So I was flying along the side of the ship, right? And when I reached the end, the canyon sort of narrowed a little bit before opening up into another ship hangar." Then she grimaced. "They've got another ship back there, just like this one! And then I flew past that one, and there was ANOTHER space ship parked behind that! They have three of these things in here!"

Twilight landed on the floor as she thought that over. "Gaela said only one Tau ship made planetfall while the Iron Warriors' fleet was in-system. This conclusively proves that the Tau were here BEFORE the 38th Company."

Applejack jabbed Fennin in the leg with her hoof. "Got anythin' to add?"

"I am deeply impressed by your skill at rudimentary deductive reasoning," the engineer said stiffly, "can't get anything past you horses."

He got plenty of annoyed looks after that, but the engineer kept his expression neutral and generally fixed on Daniels.

"Just tell us where the generators are," Twilight demanded, "we need to hurry this along. We've run into too many of you so far and it's just a matter of time until someone notices all the personnel missing."

"Fine. On the left over there is a platform elevator. We take that down and head into the main maintenance corridor in the sub-level and that will take us straight to the main reactors," Fennin said with obvious reluctance.

Daniels promptly shoved the Tau engineer forward and then raised his rifle to his back. "Lead on."

Fennin sighed and began walking ahead of the group, which followed several paces away.

"How do ya know we can trust this guy?" Applejack asked while glaring at the alien engineer's back.

"We don't, and we can't," Daniels admitted, "but if you've got any better ideas, now's the time to tell the rest of us."

Fennin stepped onto the elevator platform, casting a longing glance at an alarm box mounted on the back wall.

Daniels seized him by the shoulder and pulled him over to a small panel at the edge of the lift. "Don't get any ideas." He nudged his rifle toward the control panel.

"I know most of you apes are technologically challenged, but surely you can use an elevator on your own," Fennin sneered as he stepped over to the controls.

"I don't know if it has a security mechanism or what. I didn't survive this long by toying around with xenotech, simple or not," Daniels replied.

"That's a Tau rail rifle in your hands," Fennin deadpanned.

"Stop mouthin' off and press the dang button!" Applejack barked.

The Tau engineer rolled his eyes but finally did as instructed, jabbing at the button next to the down arrow with deeply exaggerated concentration.

Alarm klaxons immediately started blaring all around them.

Fennin's eyes went wide as the ponies either gaped at him or clenched their teeth in furious glares.

Except Pinkie, who held up the signum detonator while grinning. Rarity snatched it back, although her reaction was more or less a conditioned response at this point.

"No! No! That wasn't me! I swear!" Fennin pointed frantically to the control panel as the elevator started to slowly descend down the shaft. "Look! We're going down! Totally unrelated!"

"Why you sneaky, no-good son of a-" Applejack started to advance menacingly on the alien, but Daniels placed a hand on her back.

"Hold on, AJ. I think he's telling the truth," the human reassured her, "he probably would have been a lot less annoyed at being pushed to the controls if he could trigger an alarm discreetly that way."

"Yes! Exactly! Listen to the monkey!"

The alarm and the grind of the elevator's descent were both briefly drowned out as the base-wide comms activated and a voice spoke over the loudspeakers.

*This is Shas'vre Jerriha to all base personnel! We have evidence of an enemy presence in the facility and are moving to full alert! Friendly casualties have been confirmed! All Fire Caste personnel are to report to battle stations immediately! All earth caste personnel and air caste pilots are to stand by until further notice! This is not a drill! Begin sector sweeps immediately!*

The voice stopped speaking, leaving the howling alarms to once again take prominence in the background racket.

"Care to translate?" Rarity asked. Fennin noticed that her boltgun was hovering free of its holster again.

"It sounds like they found some of your handiwork you left behind," the Tau hostage mumbled, "smooth work, by the way."

"Tch! This is why I always hide the bodies when I go spying!" Pinkie chided. She was largely ignored.

"Twilight! What are we going to do? They're going to find us!" Fluttershy said, her head lashing back and forth nervously.

Twilight's heart thundered in her chest, but she forced herself to keep a cool head as the elevator continued its slow drop into the deeper levels of the facility.

"It's fine. It's going to be fine," Twilight insisted, "they don't know where we are, and we're headed toward their main power source. We can pull this off. Right, Daniels?"

The mercenary shrugged. "I can't confirm any of that, actually."

"You see that? Right there? That's what I'm talking about," Rarity chided, "that attitude is SO unhelpful."

"Well, the way Ah see it, we got no way to go but forward," Applejack said grimly.

"ACTUALLY," Fennin said, clearing his throat, "surrender is always an option. We're pretty good to prisoners. Also, I suppose those of you that can fly can always just leave through the canyon. Just saying."

"I think we'll stick with the plan that involves blowing up your stuff," Rainbow Dash snapped, swinging down through the air to hover in front of the alien.

"By the way, do you have a name we can call you?" Rarity asked. "I suppose we could just stick to pejoratives and generic terms, but I really think forcing you to guide us under threat of murder is belittling enough."

The engineer pursed his lips, wondering if there might be some advantage in keeping his identity a secret from his largely indifferent captors.

"... Fennin. I'm Fennin of the Earth Caste," he said finally.

"I'd say it was nice to meet you, Fennin, but I don't want to sully our working relationship with lies," Daniels quipped, "you just keep doing as you're told and all of us just might live through this."

"Same shit, different boss," Fennin grumbled.


Ferrous Dominus - sector 5 temple district

"Aw, gross! What's wrong with this place?" Sweetie Belle asked as she followed her friends down the avenue toward their objective, casting a disgusted look around at the surrounding streets.

Scootaloo and Apple Bloom weren't bothered quite as much, although it was impossible not to notice what unicorn filly meant. The rest of the fortress, if not clean, was dirty in very specific and orderly ways: besides the haze of pollution that hung in the air, there were the occasional clusters of heaped metal, parked vehicles, or container piles like the stack of crates that had provided their temporary prison. Humans traveled in groups or in long lines and were largely the picture of discipline. Every cracked wall and cratered section of ferrocrete was marked with warning chevrons, if not barricaded off entirely, to indicate pending repairs and warn of possible danger.

The temple district was nothing like that.

Big heaps of trash, wreckage, and corpses were piled seemingly at random through the streets. Some of them had been set ablaze into large bonfires, and these flames gave off sickly fumes that the ponies could smell even through their masks. Posts had been hammered haphazardly into the ground at irregular intervals, each one bearing some sort of strange symbol along with various grim decorations such as chains, bones, or the occasional blood-slicked body. Cracks, potholes, blood stains, and rotting meat were common sights around this sector, all without any sign of intended maintenance. Swarms of flies rushed through the air with suspicious synchronization of movement, landing on one curiosity after another and blanketing it with bloated, hairy black bodies.

But what was probably most disturbing was the people.

Where elsewhere the humans moved with purpose and orderly discipline to go about their jobs, the people here were scattered and seemingly unaware. Most were staggering about as if they were barely conscious, mumbling to themselves. A few were huddled on the ground in the fetal position, sobbing or retching. A few looked to be completely enraptured, twirling about happily while babbling insanely. The ponies couldn't keep looking at any one of the human cultists for long before turning their eyes away, shuddering in revulsion.

Where before the military industry of the fortress had still managed to fascinate them despite its dark and bloody nature, everything about this place was wretched and repulsive, and their hearts, minds, and souls screamed at them to flee.

But Tellis had mentioned marks, so there was no way they were leaving.

"So how do ya think they give out cutie marks in there? Ah didn't think that humans had 'em," Apple Bloom said as she hopped over a steaming crack in the street.

"Well, Tellis said that marks were easy for them. Maybe they have a machine to do it?" Scootaloo guessed.

"A machine for creating cutie marks? That's silly," Sweetie Belle insisted.

"More silly than a giant space man in armor flying better'n a pegasus?" Apple Bloom asked.

Sweetie rolled her eyes. "Okay, fine. It COULD be a machine. But considering that cutie marks are, you know, MAGICAL, wouldn't it make more sense for one of those human 'psykers' to do it?"

"Well, I guess we'll find out soon!" Scootaloo said, pausing briefly to flap her wings and shoo away a cluster of flies that were buzzing around her and trying to land on the pegasus filly.

The trio headed up the large staircase that led to the main temple, gingerly stepping around the humans prostrating themselves on the steps or sitting down while gibbering to themselves.

At the top of the steps, standing on either side of a pair of massive doors lined with spikes and chains, were a pair of Iron Warriors with their boltguns in hand. They were the only aspects of humanity present that still displayed any semblance of the military order and steely discipline that characterized the entire Legion and most of its mortal servants. The Chaos Space Marines stood largely still, only their helmets moving to survey the various curiosities and horrific sights that decorated this sector of the base.

And the three young ponies climbing up the stairs with expressions of excited anticipation definitely counted as a "curiosity".

"Hello, Mister! We're lookin' to get our cutie marks!" Apple Bloom said as she hopped up onto the same step occupied by the Chaos Marines. "Tellis said we could get 'em inside!"

"The Mad Angel speaks," barked one of the Chaos Marines.

"He spreads the Word at last," grumbled the other.

"Servant of Khorne he may be."

"And exemplar of the Blood God."

"But preacher he is not."

"Until this day, Brother."

The two stopped speaking in turns, and then shouted together, gazing at the sky, "Chaos be praised!"

The fillies glanced from one Iron Warrior to the other, unsure of what to make of the soldiers' speaking patterns. It seemed that even the Astartes in this place were weird.

"So... he was telling the truth, right?" Scootaloo asked hesitantly.

"He is a child of the Eight-fold Path," mused the first guard.

"Although his compass be fixed," snorted the second.

"Toward the Isle of Skulls he travels, nowhere else."

"Tellis speaks a jester's lies."

"But he does not mislead."

"Death is his truth, and he speaks it well."

The Iron Warriors paused before they spoke as one.

"For the glory of Khorne, may his fury guide our blades and cull our enemies!"

Apple Bloom turned toward her friends. "Ah really can't tell if this is a good sign or not."

Scootaloo shrugged. "They said he was telling the truth... kind of."

Sweetie Belle frowned up at the Chaos Space Marines. "So... can we go in?"

The Iron Warriors shared a slow, disconcerting chuckle.

"The fawn asks to consort with lions."

"And yet is that not the way of Chaos?"

"The weak and ignorant are always welcome."

"So many greetings. So few farewells."

"Enter, xeno. For Chaos cares not for race, gender or creed."

"Be tempered by the flames, and reborn in the darkness."

The Iron Warriors turned to the doors and each took hold of one of the heavy iron rings mounted on the front of the barrier.

"Go," the Chaos Marines commanded as one as they stood aside from the entrance.

The fillies scurried into the temple quickly, trying not to look at the strange men holding the door open for them.

The temple interior was arguably more bizarre and detestable than outside. Chaos Stars in gold and iron hung from the ceiling by thick chains, some of them boasting candles or skeletons on top of them. Statues of bizarre, insensible creatures - and the young Equestrians had seen some pretty strange beasts themselves - decorated the wall, along with stained-glass windows and the odd worshiper nailed up while still alive. The air was a crude mixture of incense, sweat, burning meat, and sewage, though the ponies escaped the worst of the smells thanks to their masks.

There were humans and post-humans here as well, all of them organized into uneven rows facing the rear of the temple and kneeling as they prayed, gibbered, or suffered seizures. The mood was definitely more subdued inside the temple than outside it, however, so at least they were all more quiet about it.

"So where do we go now?" Apple Bloom asked, poking at a human skull that was sitting in a small pile next to the entrance.

"Wanna go back outside and ask the guards?" Scootaloo asked.

"Yeah, no, let's not do that," Sweetie Belle mumbled, looking over the humans, "over there. That one. He looks kind of important."

She pointed a hoof toward a robed, dark-skinned figure at the altar. The man was wearing shackles on his arms, although they weren't attached to anything else, and he appeared to have an iron Chaos Star grafted to his bald forehead. He was also the only hominid in the temple who wasn't facing the rear or obviously entranced in prayer.

The Cutie Mark Crusaders crept down the central path between the pews, trying not to attract the attention of the worshipers.

None of the humans paid the ponies any mind, and they reached the altar without incident. The platform that held the altar was raised about a foot above the floor, and it looked like it hadn't been washed in months despite this building ostensibly being quite new.

"Uh, hello? Mister?"

The human had obviously noticed them before, but only now made eye contact with the fillies. His eyes were surprisingly clear and normal, in stark contrast to the distant and haunted expressions that they saw on the other cultists' faces.

"Yes, child? How may I help you?" His voice was calm and perfectly lucid, which wouldn't have been remarkable except for how crazy every other human in this sector seemed to be.

"We're, uh, here to get our cutie marks," Sweetie Belle said, her voice down to a near whisper.

The man looked over the nervous ponies one by one, his expression dark and serious.

"I see. Follow, please," he said as he turned toward a small metal door behind the altar.

A surge of happy excitement came from the young ponies, and they shared a grin before scampering after the man into the gloomy halls behind the altar.

"I am Virgil, and I serve as a priest in this fleet. My primary duties include conversion and consultation," the man explained calmly as he walked down the dimly-lit hallway, "speak your names, please."

"Ah'm Apple Bloom!"

"I'm Scootaloo."

"My name is Sweetie Belle. It's nice to meet you, Mister Virgil."

Virgil nodded once, still facing away from the equines. "So you seek to embark upon the Eight-fold Path?"

"Uh, no. We're here for our cutie marks," Scootaloo corrected the man.

Virgil nodded once more. "You seek power without sacrifice. Gratification without understanding. Enlightenment without wisdom."

He turned his head toward the fillies. "Other creeds may scoff at such aims, but Chaos is more... flexible. You may yet find what you seek."

The Cutie Mark Crusaders shared a doubtful look.

"Okay, I just want to make sure we're talking about the same thing, here," Sweetie Belle said, "you do know what a cutie mark is, right?"

"We call them Chaos marks," Virgil noted, halting in place.

"Is that the same thing?"

"I don't know," the priest admitted blandly, "explain your 'cutie marks' to me."

Scootaloo pointed to her hip. "A cutie mark is a symbol that appears on a pony's rear. It represents a pony's true destiny and their talent. You've seen other ponies, right? They all have them."

Virgil silently thought that over, his face completely inscrutable.

"Sure, that sounds about right," he eventually said, "you can get those here."

"Awesome. What do we do?" Scootaloo said with a grin.

Virgil turned around again and continued walking down the halls. "Although one can take an oath to Chaos without great understanding, I would be remiss in my duties to allow you to take this matter lightly."

The ponies immediately adopted grim, frowning expressions.

"We are very serious about this," Sweetie Belle said in a dour voice as her friends nodded.

"Clearly. But to swear yourself to Chaos is to surrender your soul to the dark gods. In life, and perhaps beyond, you will serve the whims of your patron, and your body and spirit will be remade in your deity's image."

That gave the fillies pause.

"Okay, wait, I'm having second thoughts here," Sweetie Belle said, holding up her foreleg and the tiny boot that was strapped to it, "what's this 'servitude' thing about?"

"Yeah, Ah really want a cutie mark, but Ah don't wanna be a slave or nothin'," Apple Bloom added.

Virgil paused for a few seconds. "They also grant super powers," he added in a grim monotone.

"Well, you should have mentioned that before," Scootaloo said quickly as her friends nodded brightly, "let's do this!"

"Do we get to choose our mark?" Sweetie Belle asked.

"Indeed, you do," Virgil confirmed, gesturing to a room ahead of them, "come."

The room had an altar full of skulls topped by a burning torch which provided the only light in the room. There were four doors aside from the entrance, two to each side of them.

Virgil pointed to the doors one at a time, and the fillies noted the large symbols hammered onto each one as he spoke.

"Khorne, the Blood God," Virgil intoned, pointing to the symbol on the door, "those that enter here will find themselves empowered by rage and possessed of a supernatural martial force. Fear will seem a distant illusion, and death a fond companion."

Virgil moved on. "Nurgle, the Plague God. Those that enter here will find themselves freed from the miseries of entropy and illness. The cycle of life and death will surround you, infest you, yet leave you untroubled. Pain and despair will no longer touch you."

He pointed to the first door on the other side. "Tzeentch, the God of Sorcery. Those that enter here will find themselves possessed of unnatural knowledge, prescience, and the most bizarre and arcane of mutations. You will see the truths in lies, the lies within truths, and the secrets of... 'magic' will be revealed to you in your service."

Finally, Virgil pointed to the last door. "Slaanesh, the God of Excess. Those that enter here will be burnt alive by wall-mounted heavy flamers."

The priest's arms fell to his sides, his explanation complete.

"That last one seems a bit... different from the others," Sweetie Belle pointed out.

"The Iron Warriors are not fans of the so-called 'Whore God', and openly murder its devotees," Virgil admitted blandly, "I recommend one of the other shrines."

Scootaloo scratched a hoof against her chin as she glanced from one door to another. "But how do I decide which Chaos God is right for me?"

Virgil raised his gaze to the ceiling thoughtfully, and then dipped his head to make eye contact with the pegasus at his feet. "Tell me of yourself."

Scootaloo frowned. "Okay, well... I'm an orphan, and besides wanting my cutie mark, I've always wanted to fly. I mean, having no cutie mark would be bad enough, but a pegasus that can't fly is really pathetic."

"I don't know what the cultural significance of any of that is," Virgil confessed, "but in a nutshell, it sounds like you're a complete loser."

Scootaloo winced, while Apple Bloom and Sweetie Belle remained suspiciously silent.

Virgil pointed to the mark of Khorne. "You may find greatest comfort with the Blood God, whose fury most easily compensates for the insecurities of His servants."


5 Kilometers outside Ponyville

Tellis suddenly halted in his flight path, pitching his body upright as his flight pack strained against the suddenly deceleration.

"Who said that?! Take that back! I'll kill you!!" he shouted to the empty sky, shaking his clawed fists in the air.


Ferrous Dominus - main temple

"Well, we've come this far," Scootaloo reasoned, stepping toward the door and the bright red glyph that adorned it.

The door slid upward, spilling a deep crimson fog out into the room that obscured the shrine interior from the ponies.

Scootaloo didn't pause in her approach, and the red mist seemed to swallow the filly as she stepped past the threshold.

The door slammed down behind the orange pegasus, and Sweetie Belle could swear she heard some kind of distant, echoing laughter coming from somewhere.

"You are a psyker, yes?" Virgil asked, his gaze turning toward Sweetie.

"Yeah. Do you have a problem with that?" Sweetie Belle asked, remembering her dismissal by the Dark Mechanicus as a dangerous and unpredictable magical hazard.

"Not at all. Our more secular brothers may shun the psyker for one reason or another, but the cults gladly embrace such gifts. You speak more easily to the gods, and see their realm as it is meant to be perceived."

"Er... yes! Absolutely!" Sweetie said a little too loudly, smiling nervously. "I can totally do that! Which way do I go?"

Virgil pointed toward the door with a hook-shaped flame symbol on it. "Tzeentch will best see to your... development, if you wish to achieve mastery over the arcane arts."

Sweetie Belle approached the door bearing the mark of Tzeentch, and it slid open. A sparkling mist poured out and surrounded her almost immediately, and then sucked itself back into the obscured space of the shrine. No sign of the unicorn filly remained by the time the door slammed shut.

Apple Bloom looked up at the Chaos Priest. "So what about me?"

Virgil cocked his head to the side. "How do you feel about flies?"

"Got nothin' against 'em," the redheaded filly said with a shrug. It was difficult to live on a farm if one didn't learn to tolerate the extremely common and mostly harmless pests.

"Nurgle it is," Virgil said, pointing to the door with three green circles arranged in a triangle pattern.

Apple Bloom stepped over toward the door and it slid open just like the others had for her friends. A cloud of noxious green vapors spilled out of the shrine, and the earth pony filly coughed lightly as she advanced into the haze.

The door slammed shut.

"Another few souls to enrich the flock. Another world to return to the darkness that spawned it," Virgil mumbled as he turned away.

He started walking back toward the main altar as panicked shrieks started echoing within the room behind him.

"Good luck, young ones..."


Salt Lick Canyon - main sub level complex

Rainbow Dash practically burst out of the elevator as soon as the door opened into the next hallway. "It's about time! You'd think with all your fancy space technology you could make an elevator that moves faster than AJ's grandma!" Pinkie giggled at the comparison as she bounced along after Rainbow Dash, Morty still wrapped up in her tail.

Fennin didn't bother offering a reply as Daniels pushed him forward with his rail rifle aimed at the engineer's back.

The other ponies exited behind the two bipeds, all of them looking far more nervous. The alarm klaxons were still blaring all around them, and the lights that dotted the tunnel flashed red every few seconds.

"So. You got a plan to break out of here after you blow the place, ape?" Fennin asked the mercenary behind him.

"Why do ya keep callin' him that?" Applejack snapped. Her contempt for the alien wasn't helped at all by the tension of their current predicament.

"It's a reference to human origins," Daniels explained, "they say that humans evolved from apes or something back on Terra millions of years ago."

Then he paused as he looked at the back of their hostage. "I'm kind of impressed that a Tau knows enough about us to make an insult out of it, though. And I must say, you speak good Gothic."

"I speak Gothic well," Fennin corrected.

Applejack nudged Twilight with her leg. "Are you SURE we need to keep this one alive?"

"There seem to be a lot of Gothic-speakers in general among the Tau around here," Daniels admitted, "should I be flattered?"

"No. Fluency in Gothic is a requirement for rising to 'vre' rank in Lamman Sept," Fennin said, "I picked it up a few years ago. Void travel leaves a lot of spare time. While I was at it, I also learned everything else of worth about your kind."

"That must have taken ages!" Twilight remarked.

"Not really, no. It's a very short list," the engineer remarked.

Pinkie snorted. "Looks like SOMEONE'S bitter about being captured and forced to betray his kind under threat of violence."

"Well, yes, actually. Very much so," Fennin grumbled.

Daniels seemed unbothered by the alien's attitude, perfectly content to endure Fennin's insults and commentary so long as he could end the Tau's life with the squeeze of a trigger.

Rarity grimaced as they walked along the corridor, displeased that the floors were mostly bare stone with only a few plates of poly-ceramic sheeting placed seemingly at random on the ground and walls. "Why are the floors so sparse here? If you were going to lay down flooring, why wouldn't you cover the whole thing?"

Fennin sighed deeply. "We never got around to finishing the tunnels down here. We WOULD have the flooring and walls set up, but ever since a certain raider fleet decided to land a freaking ARMY on top of us we've been busy with other things."

"Poor darlin'," Applejack mumbled with a roll of her eyes.

"The tiles that we do have in place are just to keep the holes covered. Some kind of rock-tunneling worm lives in this region and they keeping eating through the salt veins and into our tunnels," the engineer went on to explain, "I have a few ideas on how to get rid of them, but again, it hasn't exactly been a priority lately."

The group fell silent again, letting the blaring alarm occupy their thoughts as they reached a sealed blast door at the end of the tunnel.

"Well, I hope you have a clever ploy to get past this locked door, ape," Fennin mused aloud, "because we're on lockdown and that means I can't open it with my access codes. And of course an explosion will be detected right away."

"What a pity," Daniels said grimly as the ponies all bunched up around him and their prisoner, "I guess all we can do is stand here and hope for some kind of miracle to get us to the other side."

Then they were surrounded by a flash of purple light.

Fennin blinked in shock as he stared at the now open tunnel in front of him, and he turned his head to see the heavy blast doors sealing off the elevator access corridor behind him.

"Son of an u'it!" the engineer cursed.

"Nice to know that you have proper lockdown procedures in place," Daniels noted as they continued forward again, "that way the security teams will have to assume we're trapped as long as none of their doors are being forced open."

"Dash, don't go too far ahead!" Twilight warned as the blue pegasus darted forward through the tunnel.

"Yeah, yeah," Rainbow Dash said dismissively as she hovered forward. The hallway was starting to widen, and there was a much larger room just up ahead. "Don't worry, Twi. I'd hear those slowpoke grayskins before they even managed to-" she paused as she flew out of the tunnel and into the room, her ears twitching as they picked up the sound of whirring servos.

"YIPES!" Rainbow Dash bolted back into the tunnel as four burst cannon turrets spat flurries of hot, searing energy after her.

The others froze stiff as Rainbow landed in front of them, her chest heaving. "That was close! There are guns in there!"

"OH, RIIIIIIGHT. Now I remember! This is an important area, so we stationed turrets to keep unwanted intruders out!" Fennin said, smacking himself in the head. "I mean, we were mostly concerned about those worms and any other pests that crawled in after them, but I suppose they're good for cleaning up larger vermin, too."

Daniels placed a hand on Applejack's hat as the farmpony started to advance on the engineer furiously. "Okay, then we need a plan, and fast. I'm sure their security teams know that their guns sighted something down here."

"What say we use the gray as a decoy?" Applejack snarled.

"Won't work," Fennin said with a shrug, "the turrets won't shoot at me, obviously."

Twilight wet her lips anxiously as she approached the end of the tunnel. Looking ahead she could see that there were several large crates scattered about and many stacks of floor and wall plating piled almost to the cavern ceiling, but the turrets were out of sight, covering the room from a different angle.

Stopping in a crouch, Twilight magically summoned a reflective plane in front of her and angled it away so that she could see the around the corner.

"I see them. They're all protecting a big door on one side of the room," the alicorn informed the others.

"Well, maybe we can just go for it?" Rainbow Dash asked. "They're not that accurate, really, and there's a lot of stuff in there we could run behind."

"I'd prefer a plan that doesn't rely on our obstacle being incompetent and us being exceptionally speedy," Rarity opined, "one slip-up and we're pony roast."

"I feel like this situation might be improved considerably if we set off all the bombs we set," Pinkie said in an overly serious voice as she held up the signum detonator. Aside from Rarity swiping the device back once again, she was ignored.

"Uh, Twilight? Maybe you can make a barrier to shield us as we pass through?" Fluttershy suggested.

Twilight frowned. "I could, but I think those guns would be very hard to hold back for long. And I need to conserve my energy if we're going to keep teleporting through the base. Holding barriers against Tau weapons is really draining."

Then Twilight narrowed her eyes. "Okay, I've got an idea. I'll teleport us behind that stack of plates that will keep us out of sight of the turrets. From there I'll teleport us to the back behind one of the larger crates. Then we can survey the room from there and find the exit, and I can teleport us to the other side."

"Good back-up plan," Daniels said while he secured his rifle against his back.

"Back-up? Why back-up?" Twilight asked as she glanced back at him.

In response, Daniels grabbed Fennin from behind and hooked an arm around the engineer's neck.

"Hey! HEY! What do you think you're-" Fennin's eyes widened as he was pulled out of the tunnel and straight into the line of fire of the gun turrets.

Said turrets swiveled to aim at Daniels and his hostage immediately, but their optics blinked red and their weapons locked when they detected a friendly target in the way.

Daniels drew his pulse pistol with his free hand and fired over Fennin's shoulder, coring the first turret through its sensor mount. The second one took two shots to the main armor casing before sputtering sparks and exploding, and the final two suffered the same fate as the first, their sensors cooking from the energy surge.

"... Huh. Okay then," Fennin mumbled as Daniels gave the alien some slack, searching for any more hazards.

"Us apes are real problem-solvers," the mercenary noted, "all clear, girls."

"That was awesome," Rainbow Dash snickered, hovering into the expansive room again.

"So where to now?" Rarity asked. There was a door behind the turrets, but she could also see another path on the other side of the cavern.

Fennin pointed grudgingly toward the path on the other side. "The main reactor's that way."

The others started to head in the suggested direction, but Applejack's eyes narrowed at the smoldering turrets and the heavy blast doors behind them.

"Hold on a tick. What's behind those doors there that the guns were protectin'?" the farmpony asked suspiciously.

"Not the main generators," Fennin responded irritably.

"Answer the question if you don't want to keep pulling shield duty," Daniels said.

"Look, do you want to get out of here alive or not? The security teams know you're here and you don't have time to-" Fennin stopped speaking when a pulse pistol pressed into the back of his head.

"Answer. The. Question," Daniels repeated more slowly as some of the less hostile ponies shifted uncomfortably.

The engineer made an incomprehensible sound as he clenched his eyes shut, quickly running various scenarios and rough calculations through his head.

"It's the stealth field emitter," Fennin said finally, hanging his head, "it's the device that keeps the canyon's interior disguised from above and impenetrable to sensors."

Pinkie looked up at Daniels. "Bombs?"

"Oh, yes. Bombs indeed," the mercenary said as he rushed up to the door. He unslung his rifle and took point this time as the ponies surrounded him and Fennin.

"Ready?" Twilight asked as her horn started to glow.

"Can I stay behind this time?" Fennin asked. He was rewarded with a "light" kick in the shins from Applejack, and almost staggered as the group was swallowed by purple light.

When they rematerialized Daniels had his rail rifle aimed already, and his attention immediately centered on the pair of stunned Earth Caste workers that were hunched over a monitor.

The rail rifle made a harsh humming noise as he fired, sending a supersonic projectile spearing through each of the aliens and carving into the machinery behind them.

Pinkie Pie immediately started rifling through her saddlebags for more melta charges as Rainbow Dash took off into the air to survey the room ahead of the others.

The device that was apparently cloaking the entire base was appropriately large and enigmatic-looking, with a house-sized central core of silvery metal that was covered with sensor spines and cables that ran up into the ceiling. attached to the core were several pylons that were spread across the room and extended downward into deep, narrow pits that had been drilled into the stone floor. The pylons spun constantly as Rainbow watched, releasing a droning buzz that competed with the blaring alarms for the title of most annoying background noise.

Glancing down, the pegasus saw something much more important: another Tau, standing out of sight of the others and slowly creeping away from his workstation.

"We got another one over here!" the speedster shouted before diving into the worker's back.

The alien grunted painfully as he landed face-first on the ground, and his hand hit the commlink badge on his jumpsuit collar as he coughed.

*Shas'la! The camouflage arrays! They're in the camouflage arrays! I think they-*

The Earth Caste worker gasped painfully as a heavy boot suddenly slammed down on his back.

"Good work, Dash," Daniels said as he reached down and ripped the communicator from the alien's uniform. Then he tossed it down one of the deep holes under the emitter pylons.

"Sorry about this, mate. But we only need one hostage." The mercenary drew his sword.

As the other half of their group set about the work of executing helpless workers and setting explosives, Twilight, Rarity, and Fluttershy all hung back near the entrance with Fennin, casting nervous glances at the blast doors.

"So, Mister Fennin, if you don't mind me asking, why are you Tau on our planet in the first place?" Rarity asked, speaking loudly to be heard over the blare of the alarms and the dying screams of the Tau worker.

Fennin's hands clenched into fists tightly as he heard his fellow caste-mate being murdered, but his voice was calm and almost nonchalant when he answered. "Standard colonization drive. Completely normal stuff. Your planet's great. We'll take it."

Rarity snorted. "Not at this rate, you won't."

"What's the REAL reason?" Twilight demanded, poking a hoof into the alien's leg. "I don't believe your Sept built three bases in Equestria in secret and moved in an entire army just to conquer us. That's not how your people wage war."

Fennin glanced at the purple pony curiously. "And just what, exactly, is 'Equestria'?"

"And then there's your faulty intelligence," Rarity added.

"Look, we know you're not here because you're just interested in taking our world or recruiting ponies into your empire," Twilight insisted, "if you were, this is the worst possible way to go about it. Does it have anything to do with that Warp device?"

The engineer's eye twitched. "What Warp device?"

"The one you were trying to sneak to your other base through Sweet Apple Acres," Rarity clarified, "you should really try to stay away from that area, by the way. Applejack seems to be holding a grudge about your kind skulking around her home. And destroying it. And killing her livestock. And harassing her little sister. And shooting her brother. And-"

Rarity continued listing offenses against the Apple family, but Fennin wasn't listening anymore. His eyes had shrunk to pinpricks as soon as he'd heard Rarity confirm that the "Warp device" had been intercepted en route to its destination.

"Uh oh..."

"All right, we're done here!" Daniels shouted as he rushed back toward the group with the other ponies in tow. "Hit it, Sparkle!"

Twilight's horn flared, and the group vanished once again.

Daniels swept his rail rifle from side to side, gratified to see that the room they had just left was still empty. "All right, next stop, main generators! You're on point, Fennin."

The engineer growled in the back of his throat as he advanced ahead of the ponies and human. "Fire Warriors sure are taking their time getting here, aren't they?"

"Slow elevators," Rainbow Dash said with a snicker.

"Less chatting, more moving!" Daniels shouted, his gaze and rifle focused on the tunnel that had led them here.

The group broke into a run (reluctantly, in Fennin's case) down the next hall, their eyes and ears primed for any sign of further defenses.

They didn't find any before happening upon a door set into the side of the tunnel, and a much heavier one just a few meters down at the end of the hall.

"There. The main generators are in there," Fennin said, pointing a finger to the blast door at the end of the tunnel.

"What's the other room for?" Applejack asked, glancing at the door next to them.

"Control room. I suppose you could blow that up too, but it wouldn't help you much," Fennin quipped.

Daniels took up the lead again as they grouped together in front of the barrier. "Why are your main reactors less heavily defended than the stealth field emitter?"

"I told you, those turrets aren't... sorry, WEREN'T for base defense, they were to keep wildlife out of sensitive areas," Fennin said as he gave Applejack a wary glance and took a step toward the edge of the group. This brought him closer to Fluttershy, who cringed and edged away nervously.

"All right, let's do this!" Rainbow Dash cheered, smacking her front hooves together.

Twilight took a deep breath and her horn flared purple.

Fennin immediately threw himself to the side, rolling across the ground as if he were dodging an explosion.

As soon as he came to a stop he turned to look at the spot where the ponies and their human escort had been. It was empty, without even the slightest trace of the intruders.

*Idiots,* Fennin growled in his native language as he stood up, racing to the other door and quickly entering his access code, *next time you send an infiltration team into an alien base, make sure at least one of them can read the local language.*

Fennin slapped a hand against the sign clearly mounted above the access console before the door opened and he dashed inside.

The sign read: Central Drone Control Hub.


Salt Lick Canyon - the other side of the door

The first thing Daniels saw when the haze of purple light fell from his eyes were a cluster of Tau combat drones floating in front of the door.

The drone's optics flared as they detected nearby hostiles, but the automated robot gunners didn't have their weapons aimed and ready. The intruders did.

A burst of armor-piercing rails ripped through several of the combat drones, splitting their armor shells apart with ease and spraying jets of sparks and shredded components onto the floor. Rarity's boltgun roared to life, only slightly less efficient in splitting apart the floating gun drones. The mass reactive shells dug into the robots' sensors and gun mountings before exploding terrifically, blasting apart the less well-armored undersides of the drones before the much harder disc-shaped shells dropped onto the floor.

Even Twilight, despite recovering from the teleport she had just cast, did her part and seized two of the gun drones with her levitation, holding them fast against the grind of their aiming servos and the twisting energies of their anti-gravity engines. Rainbow Dash and Applejack rushed toward the targets suspended in purple, each one lining up a savage back kick that sent the automated soldiers flying end-over-end into the wall.

After a few seconds the remains of the drone squadron were in pieces on the ground, and the infiltrators let out a collective breath of relief.

"All right, let's finish this!" Twilight said, panting lightly as her horn continued to glow softly. "Daniels, what do we have to break in here?"

The mercenary started to take in their surroundings after eyeing every downed robot carefully to make sure they wouldn't be getting back up.

His grip tightened around his rifle, and a growl escaped from the back of his throat before he whirled around. "Fennin, you basta-"

He cut himself off once he realized that the only one behind him was Fluttershy. "The hell? Where'd he go?!"

Fluttershy cringed. "He, um, kind of jumped away right before we teleported," she said with her ears flat against the sides of her head, "I was going to say something earlier, but you all seemed very busy fighting and everything..."

Applejack felt a sinking feeling in her chest. "Daniels, where are we?"

"This isn't the generator room, it's the bloody combat drone dispensary!" Daniels growled.

The ponies stared at the room interior. On each wall were three mechanical towers built into the rock and shielded with armorglass. Through the glass they could see dozens of inactive gun drones stacked on top of each other in a tower, held securely in the tall, fully enclosed dispensers.

"Okay... is that bad?" Rainbow Dash asked.

A series of clunking noises seemed to answer her question as each dispenser opened at the bottom and ejected a drone onto a small deployment platform on the floor. The drones started humming and their optical sensors flickered as their start-up procedures began.

"Take them out! Quick!" Daniels barked, suiting actions to words.

Two drones were blasted apart by rail and bolter fire, and Rainbow Dash and Applejack leapt for the nearest targets as Twilight's horn flared brighter again.

One of the drones was speared by a purple bolt of magic, and the gunner bot was lit aflame as it was blasted from the deployment perch. The sound of cracking poly-ceramic plating momentarily overcame the blare of the base alarms as Applejack and Rainbow sent drones flying into the walls, smashing the robots apart against the stone.

Another clunking noise came from each of the dispensers as their deployment plates were emptied, and one by one new drones were ejected into the room.

"Ah, okay, I think I see the cause of your concern!" Rarity admitted as her bolter fired again and again. With the drones on the floor she found it hard to target the more sensitive components under the armored top plating of the robots, and far more of her bolter rounds were bouncing off of her targets without causing damage.

"They keep comin'!" Applejack shouted as she stomped onto another drone, snapping the servo assemblies that aimed its guns. She kicked it away as it started sputtering sparks, and almost immediately the dispenser dropped another one in front of her hooves.

"Sh-Should I teleport us out?!" Twilight asked, sweat beading down her head.

"No! The damned drones will just deploy and follow us through the tunnels to gun us down!" Daniels shouted, his hand reaching for a new magazine of rail rifle ammunition. "We need to destroy the dispensers!"

"Bomb time?" Pinkie asked brightly, looking as inappropriately happy as ever.

"Definitely bomb time!" Daniels replied as he fixed the new clip into his main weapon.

Applejack stopped kicking at the drones long enough to bite onto the edge of her saddlebags and throw them onto the floor. "Ah only got one left! Here ya WOAH!"

She flinched back as a drone finished its activation cycle beneath her and shot up into the air, almost nailing her on the chin.

The drone halted in the air, and its guns swung down toward the orange pony.

Then a rail shot speared through the robot gunner, sending it hurtling to the ground in pieces.

"Is there some kind of control terminal or something?" Rarity shouted as her bolter thundered over her shoulder. She was gratified that at least she never had to shift her aim as a new drone popped out as soon as the last one broke apart.

"What about that thing in the back?" Rainbow Dash asked as she bucked another drone into the wall. She yelped a moment later as another drone, this one with its guns hanging uselessly from their servo mounting but otherwise still functional, rammed into her from behind and knocked the pegasus onto her face.

"No, I think that's a maintenance bay!" Daniels shouted, blasting apart another robot that was floating up from the ground. "Pinks, get those charges up!"

"Bombs, bombs, melty melta bombs!" Pinkie sang as she slapped a magnetized charge onto a dispenser, bucking away a drone in time with her lyrics. "Flesh or metal, it burns all the same! Can't you see why I love this game?"

Pinkie bounced over to the next rack of drones where Fluttershy had lifted a small, empty metal crate and dropped it onto one of the robotic enemies. The yellow pegasus was now lying on top of the crate to hold it down, squeaking nervously as it bumped back and forth underneath her.

"Explosions bright, and hot like the sun! Just be careful you don't roll a one!"

"This is starting to get weird," Daniels confessed as he reloaded his rifle again.

"Darling, you've been with us too long to be put off by anything Pinkie does," Rarity insisted as an empty magazine fell from her floating boltgun.

Pinkie ducked under a salvo of bright purple magic bolts, and then snatched up the bomb from Applejack's saddlebag before hopping on top of another drone that was still in its activation cycle.

"Like a party cannon, but with a bit more SHAKE! A twist of the handle, and those aliens bake!"

The drone started to quiver underneath her as it tried and failed to lift off with an earth pony on top of it. After setting the charge Pinkie leapt away with the last of her melta bombs in her hooves, and Applejack promptly took her place on top of the robot before stamping on it with gusto.

"Charges placed, set, and primed to blow! Say the word Danny, and we're ready to go!" Pinkie slammed the last melta bomb into place and then darted away as a drone managed to spit a burst at her from its pulse carbines. A bolt round sent it spiraling back to the floor, smoke seeping from its anti-grav engine.

"Rarity! Detonator!" Twilight shouted as a stream of glowing purple arrows lashed out from her horn.

"Please, as if I still have it!" the unicorn snapped.

"Pinkie! Detonator!"

Pinkie Pie lifted up the signum detonator on a foreleg, holding it in front of the servo skull attached to her tail as if to show it off.

"Clear the blast zones!" Daniels shouted, lowering his rifle as all the ponies without ranged attacks bolted away from the drone racks. "Hit it!"

"Boom boom!" Pinkie stuck out her tongue as she pressed the big red button on the detonator.


A series of explosions ripped through the base almost at once as the explosive charges went live. A team of earth caste analysts in the armor garage threw themselves on the ground as the hammerhead gunships behind them blew apart. A team of Fire Warriors and Crisis Suits winced as they heard the stealth field emitter detonate the next room over. Fennin cringed and moved from a jog to a sprint as he heard the explosions from the drone storage racks behind him, considering that the intruders had managed to overcome the trap he had led them into.

They were all certainly luckier, however, than the pair of Riptide battlesuit pilots who were completing their pre-launch system checks when the charges hidden behind their seats went off.


A single disc-shaped robot of blue and black floated through the wafting smoke that filled the room. The air filtration systems had already kicked into high gear, and the alarm coming from a wall-mounted speaker had briefly to compete with the sound of a heavy fan sucking out the thick gases rich in vaporized metals.

As the smoke parted, the drone sighted a white equine form coughing heavily as it crouched in a corner.

Pulse carbines twisted underneath the robotic gunner to match its firing line to its targeting path.

Rainbow Dash's hooves landed on top of the drone just before the carbines discharged, sending the burst of blue energy flares wide of their target. The drone hit the floor with the pegasus still on top of it, and Rainbow held the machine down firmly even as she hacked up smoke herself.

"Hey! COUGH! This is the COUGH! last one, I think! COUGH!"

Applejack slammed a foreleg onto the machine to add her own weight and make sure to keep the drone down. "Well, that sure got a little dicey, didn't it? Told ya we couldn't trust that dang grayskin creep!"

"I, um, don't mean to take his side or anything, but to be fair we WERE forcing him to help us kill all his friends," Fluttershy pointed out.

"As the Element of Loyalty, I can appreciate that, sure," Rainbow Dash admitted with a nod, "but as a pony at war, I say that guy's a jerk, and we should find and trample him."

Daniels was leaning against the wall, his rifle still at the ready. "All right, everyone take a breather. Status report: Pinks?"

"We're all out of melta charges," Pinkie said with a highly exaggerated frown as she tossed away the signum detonator, "Dashie has some grenades in her pack, but we won't be causing many more explosions."

"Unfortunate. AJ?"

"I'm gonna find that Fennin varmint and break his legs!" Applejack spat before bucking the last drone across the room and smashing it to pieces against the maintenance machine.

Rainbow Dash raised a hoof into the air. "Seconded."

"Groovy. Miss Rarity?"

"I still have plenty of ammunition left, but I'll need a few minutes to re-do my hair before we get into any more firefights."

"Whatever. Fluttershy?"

"I'm okay. Physically speaking, I mean. I'm in a very poor place emotionally right now."

"Just stay in one piece for me, love. Miss Sparkle?"

Twilight was panting heavily, and her wings and ears drooped as she laid on the floor. "I need to rest a little. I've used too much magic too quickly!"

"All right, well, we should have a few minutes," Daniels assured them, "and while it's not the main reactor, shutting down their drone bays is actually a pretty big blow to the base security. We're still doing fine."

*They're in there? Are you sure?*

The ponies stiffened as they heard a voice coming from right outside the door. Daniels slapped a hand over his mask.

*Not sure, no. The Fio'el said that they can teleport at will.*

"Ffffffff..." Daniels turned toward the door and aimed his rifle at the control panel next to it.

The rail shot stabbed into the console and utterly gutted the machine, punching straight through to the panel on the other side and blowing it apart in a gout of sparks.

*... Yeah, they're in there.*

*Shas'ui! This way! Get the battlesuits into position!*


Ferrous Dominus - command center

"During the upcoming ashault Shliver will act as shpearhead. Sherith, you will be there to shupport, but ash usual may act independently. The ashault teamsh have already received their unit briefingsh." Solon towered over the flickering hololith as he spoke, pointing to a glowing spot in the image that represented the servo skull.

Sliver and Serith waited on the other side of the hololithic table, weapons in their hands. The table showed a three-dimensional display of the Tau's hangar base. Or at least, the small portion of the base that had been explored by Twilight's group. Excepting the ship hangar, it cut a rather thin line through the large expanses of empty space around it, and Sliver didn't like the number of doors that had been left unexplored.

"Thiss intelligence iss poor. We do not know much about the facility or itss ssecurity meassuress at thiss point."

"From the uplink I've gathered that the mosht potent defenshesh have been neutralized. The hammerhead tanksh, Riptide battleshuitsh, and gun dronesh will not trouble you. In addition, they just eliminated the device that was shielding the bashe from our orbital augersh. There hashn't been enough time to conduct a detailed shcan, but by the time you arrive a more complete bashe layout should be available to guide you," Solon said.

Serith nodded slowly. "And what of the infiltration team itself, Warsmith? How do they fare?"

Solon turned his head slightly as he remotely activated a wall-mounted monitor. "Oh, they're doing very well. Let me bring up the shervo shkull'sh pict-feed."

The monitor blinked on.

"Exit! Exit! Find another door!"

"There ARE no other doors!"

"Twilight! Teleport! Get us out of here!"

"I can't, Rainbow! Besides, teleport where? They're right outside, and have who knows how many more soldiers behind them!"

"Far away then! Like back to the garage!"

"Even if I WASN'T exhausted I couldn't manage that! The spatial calculations for warping through-"

"Spare us the magic lesson and barricade the door with somethin'!"

"Shee? They're doing shplendidly!" Solon insisted. "I think they're all shtill alive, even!"

The view from the monitor started to turn around, and then the three Iron Warriors were treated to a close-up view of Pinkie Pie with a rather strained smile on her face.

"Um, Mister Solon, Sir? I don't know if you can hear me right now, but we're kind of in a pickle! An awful pickle! The kind of yucky, sour pickle that has lots of yucky, sour guns involved!" the pink pony said with unusually genuine nervousness.

"Forget a barricade! There's nothing in here that will slow them down more than the door itself!"

"Celestia save us all!"

"Discord! If you can hear me somehow, please take care of my animals when I'm gone!"

"The hay with THAT! If he can hear us he should drop in and help us!"

Pinkie winced at the background shouting as her friends panicked.

"So, yeah, if you have some super-amazing-special weapon or gizmo that can help us out, like maybe hidden in Morty here, this would be the perfect time to use it! Okay? What do you think? Great idea, huh?"


"Stop screamin' and get behind somethin'! They won't take us down easy!"

Pinkie knocked a hoof on the servo skull's forehead anxiously, her eyes narrowing.

"Hello? Can you hear me? Is this skull on?"

The Iron Warriors stood in silence as pandemonium poured out of the video feed, and Sliver's shoulder pads shifted slightly before he released a contented sigh.

"I could watch thiss all day," the Nurglite Lord said in a happy grumble.

"You can watch it again all you like AFTER you return from deployment," Solon insisted. "Now make your final preparationsh."

"Yess, Warssmith."

"As you wish, Lord."


Salt Lick Canyon - drone dispensary

"There's no way we can fight them off!" Rarity insisted incredulously as she crouched behind a metal crate next to Twilight.

"Well, what do you want to do then? Surrender?" Daniels asked as he kept his rail rifle aimed at the door. There was a spot on the armored barrier that glowed fiercely as it was cut from the top of the blast plate toward the bottom in slow crawl.

"Nothin' doin'," Applejack growled as she rifled through her saddlebags and withdrew her lasso, "if we gotta make a stand here, then that's that."

Behind the grim gun line that was tragically short on actual guns, Fluttershy quivered in the corner as she tried to fight off the encroaching panic.

She really wished she could do something useful to help in their doomed stand-off agains the Tau defenders. Albeit not as much as she wished they had not been dragged into the situation in the first place. She had felt perfectly useless since they had embarked on this mission, and at this point it seemed she could only endeavor not to get in the others' way.

A chirping noise reached her ear, somehow seizing her attention over the blare of alarms, the burning of a fusion torch, and Applejack's cursing at the advancing security team.

Looking behind her, she was mildly pleased to see the robin that had briefly befriended her in the cargo docks land on her wing.

"Oh, hello Mister Robin. It's nice to see you're all right," Fluttershy said awkwardly. Not because talking to animals was strange in any way for her, but simply because the avian's oblivious cheerfulness contrasted so deeply with her current mortal terror.

Then she paused. "Wait... Mister Robin, how did you get in here?" The drone racks were in a fairly small, sealed room, and what with the way they had been completely on edge there was no chance that the bird had simply followed along with them without being noticed.

The robin bounced off of her back and onto the floor, and then it bounded along toward a tall cabinet that was loaded with spare power cells. Then it lifted a wing toward the cabinet before taking off and disappearing behind it.

"All right, then. Last stand it is. You feel up to magically chucking some grenades, Sparkle?" Daniels asked, his eyes tracking the fierce glow of the fusion torch.

"We'll find a way out of this!" Twilight insisted between heavy breaths. "I'm sure of it! Friendship will see us through!"

"I'd make a snarky comment about that, but as I've been mumbling prayers to dark gods under my breath this whole time, I don't really have room to talk," the mercenary allowed.

"Everyone! I found a way out!"

Everyone was surprised enough to hear Fluttershy's voice rise above the general racket and the thunder of their own heartbeats, but were nearly stunned into inactivity to hear that she had also found a solution to their current imminent demise.

Rainbow Dash was the first to react, swooping over to the other pegasus. Fluttershy was leaning against the cabinet with her entire body weight, struggling and failing to budge it.

Rainbow positioned herself at the top of the cabinet and then gave it an aerial back kick. The container leaned over and fell on its side heavily, spilling small power cells all over the floor to join the many bits of drone wreckage.

"It's one of those tunnels that the rockworms dug up!" Twilight pointed out as the space behind the cabinet was exposed. "I think it's big enough for us to get through!"

Fluttershy hadn't bothered waiting for Twilight's opinion, practically leaping into the opening.

"Where do you think it goes?" Rarity mumbled, wincing.

"Away from here!" Rainbow Dash shouted as she landed and practically dove into the tunnel after the other pegasus. Pinkie waited patiently for the rainbow-striped tail to vanish into the darkness before she too squirmed into the opening, Morty being drawn in after her.

Rarity sighed. "Fair enough." She hated the idea of crawling through a dirty, tiny passage possibly infested by strange creatures, but not quite as much as she hated the idea of getting shot. She clenched her teeth and ducked her head into the tunnel entrance, trying to ignore the macabre crimson glare of the servo skull just ahead.

Daniels chewed his lip as he stared at the hole in the wall. "You sure that thing is big enough for a human to squeeze through?"

"A coffin'd fit ya better sugarcube, but Ah'd reckon you'd rather take your chances with the tunnel," Applejack waited for Twilight to squirm into the hole, and then slapped a hoof against the wall. "Go on, git!"

Daniels cast a glance back toward the blast doors. The torch flare had almost reached the ground by now, a long line of smoldering metal leading up to the top of the barrier.

"You sure you want me going in first?" the mercenary asked as he crouched in front of the hole.

"Darn straight! Ya even think about gettin' stuck and Ah'll start gnawin' on yer feet!" Applejack planted a hoof on the man's back and shoved him forward.

The farmpony waited patiently as Daniels squirmed and struggled to get into the entrance, finding it a bit tighter than the smaller and unarmored ponies. Her patience didn't exactly break when she heard the fusion torch finish cutting open the blast door behind her, but she silently willed their mercenary escort to crawl faster as her heart thundered in her ears.

As soon as she could no longer see the soles of his boots, Applejack leapt into the hole.

Mere seconds later, a pair of Crisis Suits shouldered through the broken door, smashing the barrier apart and providing a shield of armor for the Fire Warriors behind them.

The battlesuits glanced about at the demolished interior, their burst cannons spinning hotly while their targeting sensors swept back and forth in search of targets.

Alas, the only activity they found was some kind of long bundle of hair slipping into a rockworm tunnel, and by the time one of the suits thought to aim at it, it had vanished into the opening.

*Have we sighted the enemy?* demanded a Fire Warrior as soldiers started spilling into the room behind the battlesuits.

*No. They escaped into the wall, looks like,* rumbled one of the Crisis Suits as it stomped up to the hole.

*Careful! Watch for traps!* the squad leader shouted, halting the battlesuit. Then he activated his commlink.

*Shas'vre Jerriha, the intruders escaped this area. Looks like they squeezed into one of those blasted worm tunnels.*

*Noted. Stand by, Shas'ui,* crackled the voice on the other end.


Salt Lick Canyon - security control center

Jerriha switched off her commlink, and then turned her head.

*Well, looks like they got away after all. And you say you can track them, Fio'el?*

Fennin nodded absently as he tapped buttons on a small engineering tablet. *They're moving with one of those creepy gue'la skull... things. Obviously someone on their side knows what they're doing, because they managed to set it up so that our scanners can't tell it apart from one of our own drones.*

Then the engineer smirked darkly. *But we can now that we know what to look for. Observe.*

He hit a button, and the monitor showing a diagram of the base lit up with a red spot. The marker came from an area between the rooms, in the space that was ostensibly untouched rock, and it was moving slowly.

*Add the sonic tunnel overlay I created last week, and...*

With another few hand swipes, Jerriha was looking at several faded pathways between rooms, most of which had been closed off.

The Fireblade nodded slowly. *They're headed for the hangar sub-level, at the bottom of the canyon.*

*I'm dispatching security teams now,* said another fire caste officer.

*Nothing down there but rocks and waste water runoff. Nowhere to run and nothing important to break,* Jerriha noted as she walked over to a wall cabinet and plucked a pulse rifle from the rack.

*Just watch out for that gue'la grunt. He's smarter than he looks, and he got ahold of our weapons somehow,* Fennin warned.

*Noted. A decent conventional soldier is still far and away less dangerous than a psyker, though.*

*TWO psykers,* Fennin stressed, *the purple one doesn't have a weapon, but I think it's the one that does the teleporting, and one of them mentioned barriers. Kill it first if you get the chance.*

Jerriha nodded slowly. She hated that things had actually degraded to the point that she had to consider the ponies a serious threat, but the facility had already suffered serious damage thanks to the enterprising equines.

*Oh, and watch out for that orange one with the hat, too,* Fennin added, idly rubbing at a bruise on his shin, *it doesn't seem as dangerous as the psykers, but it has some kind of grudge against us, I guess.*

Jerriha halted on her way out of the command center. *Orange... with a hat?*

*Yeah. Some kind of red things on its butt, too,* Fennin mumbled as he concentrated on his engineering tablet, *damn thing probably would have attacked me if the gue'la wasn't holding its leash. Figuratively, I mean. They really should have leashes or some kind of restraints, but-*

Jerriha snarled a profanity in her regional dialect and practically sprinted out the door, shouting orders to the Fire Warriors waiting outside.

Fennin blinked in surprise. *What was that she just said?*

The Fire Caste technician at the monitor bank winced. *That, uh... that's a very specific kind of sex act involving three Kroot and a shield drone.* She paused. *I haven't heard anyone say that in almost a decade. She must be older than she looks. And she seems more upset now than she did when she heard that the Riptides were down.*

*It's been a rough day for some of us,* Fennin grumbled, *I'm going back to my bunk. Let me know when the intruders have been eliminated. And how they were eliminated. I'm hoping it's by flamethrower.*

*Yes, Fio'el. Be careful.*


Salt Lick Canyon - hangar complex beta

"Up ahead! I can see light! Just a little farther!"

"Oof! Pinkie, stop bumping into me!"

"Come on Dashie! Hurry up! To FREEDOM!!"

"Or at least a different imminent demise than before."

"Well who's being a downer NOW, Rares?"

Fluttershy shuffled out of the darkness of the tunnel and into the stagnant light of a few construction lamps, and then she leapt into the air as her rear legs squirmed free of the winding passageway.

Her chest heaved as she took wing, exulting in the slightly less stale air and pale, artificial light of their new environs.

As the others followed her out of the hole, Fluttershy calmed down and took stock of what exactly those environs were.

Most of the ceiling above them was blocked out by an enormous object that she belatedly realized was the starship they had seen before. This time, however, they were viewing it from below, and its massive girth blocked out the vast majority of the sunlight that would have otherwise leaked into the canyon's valley.

The ship was supported by numerous landing legs, each one taller than most houses and nearly half as wide. Besides the legs the dominant features of the area were nondescript piles of rocks, stalagmites, construction lamps, and a small creek containing some exceptionally filthy water.

"Well, this is... good?" Rarity said cautiously as she stepped daintily onto the ground.

"I don't see any bad guys, so yeah, I'd say it's pretty good," Rainbow Dash said as she flew up high, almost brushing the starship's belly.

"Delightful. Twilight, is your magic replenished enough to summon that mirror again? I shudder to think of what my mane must look like right now."

Twilight was, in fact, feeling somewhat rested after their short expedition, but she still gave Rarity an annoyed look for an answer. The unicorn sighed heavily in response.

"Urk! Okay... almost... got it!" Daniels' hand grabbed the outer edge of the tunnel exit and hauled himself out, his armor scored with scrapes from the rocks that had sought to impede him.

Applejack came next, her Stetson popping out first before the apple farmer slipped free of the rock wall.

"See? Ah knew ya could do it!" Applejack said with a grin as she flipped her hat back onto her head.

"I had motivation," panted the mercenary, "I wasn't sure you were joking about biting my feet."

"Well, now we don't hafta find out!" the orange pony said happily. "So! Where to?"

"I think 'out of here' is the only acceptable answer to that," Rarity grumbled.

Rainbow Dash and Fluttershy landed next to their friends, the latter with a robin perched on her head.

"Well, there's only three ways to go in this canyon," Rainbow advised, "back toward the rest of the base, or the other way toward the really big metal wall blocking off the next hangar." She pointed at each path in turn, both of which involved a long stretch of cluttered stone ground.

Applejack quirked an eyebrow. "Ya said there were three ways. What's the third?"

Rainbow Dash pointed up. Specifically, up at the gap between the starship hull and the canyon walls.

"We don't QUITE have enough wings to go around, I'm afraid," Rarity noted, "Rainbow could probably carry another pony, but Fluttershy and Twilight aren't quite as robust. And that's to say nothing of our - ahem! - heaviest team member."

"No need to beat around the bush, Miss Rarity," Daniels said as he stood up, "AJ is quite proud of her figure."

The orange mare's eye twitched as Pinkie and Rainbow chortled. "We're in a serious bind right now, so Ah'm gonna kick you fer that later."

Fluttershy had again fallen into silence as the rest of their team deliberated on their plan of action, and she noticed that the robin perched on her was emitting a rather shrill, agitated chirp.

"Is something wrong, Mister Robin?" she asked, turning her head. "Is there some... thing... yeep..."

The yellow pegasus snapped her head back toward the others, causing the robin to jump off and fly away from the disturbance. "Uh, I just-"

"Okay, I've got it," Twilight said suddenly, not hearing Fluttershy vying for their attention, "I'll fly up and scout out an open spot on the canyon's ridge. Then I can get a good enough grasp of the topography to teleport all of us up there and we can navigate a path away on ground level!"

"Um, I don't mean to interrupt-"

"Awesome! I'll go with you, just in case we run into trouble on the way up," Rainbow Dash declared, "if they see us I can distract them while you go for it! They'll never hit me!"

"Er, this is kind of important-"

"Should we leave Morty here? He's only useful to Shmithy if he's in the base, right?" Pinkie asked.

"Ya nicknamed Solon 'Shmithy'?" Applejack asked.

"P-Please watch out!"

Daniels turned toward Fluttershy. "Watch out for what?"

The pulse rifle blast struck Daniels' chest like a bolt of lightning, albeit with far less noise. The relatively thin ceramite layer cracked instantly as it struggled to hold off the brunt of the energy blast, and a rather understated puff of smoke wafted from the impact as he fell over with a garbled scream.

Fluttershy whimpered as he hit the ground, every other ponies' eyes wide in shock. "Sorry..."

There was a brief, stunned silence as they stared at the prone human, and then Pinkie cocked her head to the side.

"So does this mean he'll come back as a cyborg, too? I hope so."

"EVERYPONY DOWN!!" Twilight screamed, throwing herself behind a cluster of stalagmites as a bolt of sizzling blue slashed overhead.

As the others rushed for cover, Applejack bit onto Daniels' arm and dragged him over behind one of the starship legs. A pulse rifle blast passed by her face close enough to leave a hot tingling feeling in her nostrils, but she paid the projectile no mind as she flung the mercenary behind one of the starship legs and then joined him a moment later.

"Where the hay did these jerks come from?!" Rainbow Dash demanded.

"I'm sorry! I tried to warn everyone, but... I'm sorry!" Fluttershy cried as she held her head down behind a pile of gravel.

"How did they find us so quickly?!" Rarity asked as she went to work with her bolter, floating it over her head and firing back as she peeked out between the stalagmites. The Tau Fire Warriors were already in cover though, and spread into an ideal firing line. She barely snapped off two ineffective shots before she had to duck her head down to avoid the fusillade that sought her in return.

"Daniels! Daniels, speak to me!" Applejack shouted, rolling the man's head to the side with her hoof.

She was rewarded with a painful cough. "I'm alive... I'm... ugh... still alive. Great armor... urgh..."

"Oh! Thank goodness!" Rarity said as she heard the human sputter weakly. "You just take as long as you need, dear, but as long as you're okay, we could REALLY use another gun over here!"

"I said... ugh... I'm 'alive', not 'okay'," Daniels groaned. The pulse rifle had struck probably the thickest armor plate on his suit, but even then the carapace armor had barely managed to disperse the catastrophic heat to non-lethal levels. His chest felt like it was on fire, and an electric discharge had left his muscles numb wherever they weren't in burning agony.

"You just keep breathin', Daniels," Applejack said firmly as she narrowed her eyes in the direction of their new opponents.

Rainbow Dash dropped her saddlebag next to Rarity. "Rarity, Pinkie, use my grenades! Twilight, let's do it!"

Twilight blinked in surprise. "You want to try my plan now? But-"

"But nothin'! It's still the best chance we got of gettin' outta here!" Applejack barked as she crawled over next to Fluttershy. "Now git goin'!"

Rainbow Dash bolted out of cover and into the air, and as expected was immediately the favored target of two squads of Fire Warriors. Screaming bolts of sizzling pulse fire sailed all around her as she twisted through the air, leading the aim of the defenders toward the side of the canyon and away from her friends.

Jerriha took aim at the zig-zagging pegasus, but gave up on the shot almost immediately. Moving at that speed and that wildly not only ruined her aim but also ensured that the creature couldn't accomplish anything useful while it concentrated on evasion.

The whip-crack of a rope next to her made the Fireblade flinch, and she snapped her head around just in time to see a Fire Warrior's pulse rifle get yanked right out of his hands by a disturbingly familiar length of rope.

*Squad seven, you stay on that blue flyer! Squad four, keep the rest of them suppressed!* Jerriha barked as she handed her pulse pistol to the very grateful soldier next to her.

Then she cleared her throat.

"I can't imagine why you were stupid enough to leave the human fortress, orange horse, but you won't live to regret it!"

On the other side of the firefight, with a perpetual rain of blue flares sailing over their heads, Applejack blinked in surprise and let her tail and attached lasso fall limp.

One of the Tau was addressing her specifically? That didn't make much sense. The only Tau she remembered meeting directly that had eventually survived to remember it was Fennin.

Well, and that female one in Ferrous Dominus. But she...

"What the hay? You escaped?!" Applejack yelled back over the scream of the pulse rifles and the distant blare of the alarms. "Ah knew Ah shoulda broken yer dang neck on the spot!"

*Is there something we should know, Shas'vre?* asked a Fire Warrior next to her, his pulse carbine tracking Rainbow Dash's movements fruitlessly.

*Unfinished business, Shas'la. But the mission comes first. These vermin will pay for encroaching on our facility.* Jerriha watched a few fragmentation grenades sail out into the open and explode a few seconds later, but they were landing too far away from their position to do any real damage. Her eyes waited for the white one's bolter, however.

*Should we do something about that purple one that's sneaking off in the back?* asked another.

*No. That one will be taken care of. Concentrate on the task at hand. Annnnd...*

Then she saw the white, stylized boltgun wreathed in blue float above the scorched rock once more, and she squeezed the trigger of her own rifle.

Rarity yelped as a string of energy blasts hit her bolter, startling her out of her levitation and letting the smoldering remains of her weapon drop to the ground next to her.

"My boltgun!" the unicorn cried, leaning down toward the useless, burning hunk of metal. "Of all the worst things that could happen, this... is..."

The snow-white pony trailed off. "Well, actually, this isn't that bad. It makes the top ten, though."

A photon grenade bounced over the top of the stalagmites to underscore her point, and she quickly put her telekinesis to work to fling it away.

Twilight cast an anxious look back over her shoulder but continued onward and upward, her wings beating furiously to build altitude. She was already nearing the top of the starship hull, and it was only a little further to the top of the canyon.

In theory, anyway. It seemed an awful long way away right now.

Twilight shook her head and powered upward. All she needed was a good estimate of the distance from canyon to ridge top, so that she didn't teleport her friends into solid rock or fifty meters above the ground, or cause the spell to fizzle entirely. There were a lot of things that could go wrong with an ill-conceived teleport.

She rose above the top edge of the starship, and suddenly her goal seemed even more distant.

Two Crisis Suits waited atop the space vessel, weapons already humming as their target flew right into their line of fire.

Twilight raised a barrier just in time as flamer and plasma gun unleashed a lethal stream of pure heat into her. The flames swam around her barrier, straining her concentration as she tried to stay aloft and alive at the same time.

Then the Crisis Suits unleashed their secondary weapons, spitting a flurry of mini-missiles at the alicorn's shield bubble.

Twilight spasmed. Pain surged through her head as if a jackhammer was drilling into it, and her concentration faltered. The barrier flickered, and she was immediately subjected to a much more serious pain as a wave of force and flame slammed into her, much reduced as it was by her shield.

Pinkie galloped over to the landing leg that was shielding Daniels, yelping as blue flares screamed after her. Morty swung too and fro as it was carried along behind her, its sensors fixed on the gun line of Fire Warriors across the scorched length of ground.

"Hey Danny!" Pinkie said as she skidded to a stop behind the hefty metal column. "I ran out of Dashie's grenades, so I was wondering if I could borrow yours!"

The mercenary coughed painfully.

"Okie day! Thank you!" the pink pony said as she started pulling ordnance off the injured man's belt.

"You actually causin' any damage with those things?" Applejack asked, her head ducked low under the constant waved of lethal energy as she crawled back over to their wounded teammate.

"Not really. It makes the other guys duck down real quick, though," Pinkie admitted.

Applejack clenched her teeth anxiously. "Well, Ah guess all we can do is keep 'em at bay until Twi gets back."

A loud thump came from behind them, and the earth ponies turned their heads to see a heap of purple fur and feathers lying on the ground.

"Ungh... ergg... bluh," said Twilight, her legs twitching faintly as loose feathers slowly floated to the ground around her.

The earth ponies turned back toward each other.

"Sooo... back into the worm tunnel?" Pinkie asked.

Applejack set her jaw as she heard the sound of Tau jet packs descending from above; she had thought it strange that the Fire Warriors seemed content to hold them in a stalemate rather than advancing to quickly overwhelm them. Apparently they were only serving to cover the intruders so that their heavier support could swoop in from behind and finish them. The ponies wouldn't survive a sprint back to the hole in the canyon wall, even if they were willing to leave Daniels behind.

"Nope. This's it, Pinkie," Applejack said grimly, "if you wanna surrender Ah won't hold it against ya, but Ah'm gonna go out kickin'. See if Ah can't drag a few of those grays down with me."

Pinkie sniffled as she wiped a hoof across her face. "You're so brave! Of course I won't abandon you! It's time to head to that big pony party in the sky!" Then her expression turned more serious. "But before we perish heroically, can I ask you a question?"

Applejack watched the Crisis Suits land. Rarity and Fluttershy were already scrambling for new cover, but she couldn't imagine they'd make it. She also noticed that Morty was starting to glow, but that hardly seemed important now.

"What is it, Pinkie?" she asked flatly.

"Do your gums itch? My gums itch. Like, a lot," Pinkie noted, digging a hoof under her lip.

"Teleport... f-flare!" Daniels spat through clenched teeth.

Light briefly swallowed their senses, and a crackling pop boomed in the ponies' ears as the teleport homer in their servo skull completed its function.

Where once stood nothing but empty ground between the Crisis Suits and the outmaneuvered equines now stood five hulking bodies practically swimming in heavy, slimy, decrepit suits of tactical dreadnaught armor.

For a terrifying second all activity in the hangar ceased as the Tau defenders came to terms with this new group of opponents.

"Iron within," grumbled Sliver as he raised the Viral Scourge.

"Iron without," finished the Rusted Brotherhood as they raised their combi-meltas.

Then, at some unspoken signal, the fusillades resumed.

Pulse rifle fire spattered against the pitted, defiled terminator armor without apparent effect, the electric bursts and plasma discharges fizzling to nothing against the absurdly thick plate. Bolter rounds flew back toward the entrenched Fire Warriors, and though most exploded against the walls of protective cover, those that found their marks blew apart arms and knocked soldiers flat on their backs.

The Crisis Suits swiftly made to attack the new, more dangerous targets, and one Iron Warrior was speared by a plasma bolt before he was swallowed by flame and missile detonations. Bits of rusted metal and sundered piping were flung away from their target, and the armored giant staggered.


The Iron Warrior rose to his feet even as flames licked at the broken sections of his armor, his flesh badly seared but his body utterly inured to the pain. The melta attachment to his weapon discharged, and one of the battlesuits vanished in a spray of heat like the surface of the sun. He stomped toward the survivor menacingly, his power axe crackling as it rose to the attack.

The rest of the Rusted Brotherhood began to advance on the Fire Warriors as Sliver released a long stream of fluid from the Viral Scourge, splashing the noxious stew over the tops of the rocks and stalagmites and onto the troopers sheltering behind them. Nearly half of the soldiers fell in an instant to the torrent, clutching at their burning skin or retching in their helmets.

*Fall back! Retreat at once, Shas'la!* Jerriha snapped, firing a running burst from her rifle as she and a few Fire Warriors made a break away from the steaming pools of filth that surrounded their dying comrades.

She tapped her commlink as she ran. *Get more soldiers to the elevator well and set up a defensive line on the docking platform! Get me Broadside Suits up there at once! We have heavy resistance down here! I need rail rifles and more plasma weapons deployed, NOW!*

A bolt shell sent the soldier next to her sprawling face-first into the ground, though at a glance Jerriha could see that his armor had held. She seized the Fire Warrior and yanked him to his feet. *Faster! Run!*

The Rusted Brotherhood slowed their advance at seeing the firing line break. One of the terminator-suited Chaos Marines stepped forward ahead of the others while carrying a tall stave topped with a golden Chaos Star nearly two meters in diameter.

Sliver rested his hammer on his shoulder pad as he turned away from the foe, his optics shifting to the small, puny life forms laying behind him in stunned silence.

He quickly found the one he sought: he had been told that the purple pony currently picking herself off the ground with a dazed expression more or less functioned as the leader of the sad group of equines.

"And you musst be Ssparkle. Your attemptss at infiltration and sstealth are a joke made remotely feassible only thankss to the sskill of our Warssmith. Your combat efficacy is equally pitiful, and had you been eliminated even momentss ssooner, we would not have even bothered arriving for the completion of thiss misssion." He took a long, rasping breath, his fish eye optical glowing faintly. "However, even if mainly by luck, you have caussed ssufficient damage for uss to take the facility with easse. It will be enough."

Twilight swayed back and forth slightly as the massive, stinking monster of an Iron Warrior finished his critique. "I... erm... thanks?" she still had a rather savage headache thanks to the combination of her shield and the ground beneath her breaking (the latter with the aid of her face).

"You're too kind..." Daniels gasped and coughed several times before he managed to choke out, "my lord."

Sliver briefly regarded the human. "Wyatt Danielss. Your performance wass particularly... adequate. It iss a shame you are not yet among Nurgle'ss chossen children." His debriefing of the infiltration team complete, Sliver turned on his heel.

The Iron Warrior bearing the icon stomped over to a Fire Warrior that was crawling toward the stream of dirty water, all the while hacking painfully as his body revolted against the toxins that had touched him.

The Chaos Marine lifted the icon and then drove it down into the alien's back without fanfare, puncturing the Fire Warrior's armor, body, and the ground below before stabilizing the rod.

"Lord Sliver. It is done," barked the Terminator as he stepped back toward his master.

"We have a lock on their main communicationss nexuss nearby," Sliver snarled, his helmet rising to gaze at the cargo dock high above as his helmet cogitator made the necessary calculations and prepared a short-range teleport, "after that we will desstroy the generatorss. It'ss time to finish thiss."

The ponies, who had spent much of the sudden turnaround in stunned silence, blinked as the Rusted Brotherhood was consumed by another series of teleport flares and vanished from sight.

A few seconds later Rainbow Dash finally landed next to the others, her breath fairly labored. "So, uh, I wasn't really paying very close attention to what just happened, since if I slowed down I would have died," the blue pegasus admitted, catching her breath, "are we winning now, or what?"

Before anyone could answer, an otherworldly howl ripped through the bottom of the canyon.

The icon of Chaos quivered as the blood pooled around it in a shape suspiciously similar to the symbol at its top, and coruscating lightning flashed from the golden emblem.

A crooked line of ugly red split through the air in front of the grisly artifact, growing and then stretching open as if reality itself was being ripped apart.

Twilight's pounding skull became a distant memory as a familiar figure in robes and power armor stepped out of the breach.

It wasn't Gaela.

"Ahhh... it feels good to take to the battlefield again," Serith mused as he stepped through the quivering portal, force halberd in hand.

Right behind him marched two lines of Iron Warriors, each one of them stepping warily out of the sorcerous breach before spreading out to take in the area.

"Lady Sparkle! Lady Rarity! So good to see you with all your extremities in place!" the Sorcerer said magnanimously as he whirled toward the ponies. "You seem to have weathered this trial quite well! To think you survived this long without a single casualty!"

Applejack frowned. "Actually, they shot Dan-UNG!" the apple farmer suddenly bit her own tongue as Serith clasped his free hand into a closed fist.

"We'll take it from here. You may proceed back to base through the gate behind me. Or if you find such transportation... unseemly, you may await the Scavurel gunships that are already en route."

Twilight's expression wavered briefly between incendiary and acidic, and then settled on the latter before she allowed herself to open her mouth.

"We'll wait for the gunships. THANKS," the alicorn snarled.

"As you wish. Do take care, however. An enemy on the cusp of defeat can still be quite dangerous." Serith turned away and walked toward the line of Iron Warriors marching toward the main complex with chainswords drawn.

Applejack seethed quietly for a moment, and then decided that her current frustration would be best focused on a different target.

"Ah'm going with 'em," the farmpony declared, pushing her hat back on her head.

"Wh-What?" Fluttershy practically jumped at the declaration. "Applejack, we barely escaped with our lives!"

"We didn't escape. We were saved. And that's great'n all," Applejack said, "but that grayskin mare sounded like she has a score to settle with me, and Ah'm just about ready to oblige her. Ain't like an Apple to just back off and let someone else take care o' her business."

"That is an exceptionally poor reason to go seek a fight with a well-armed and dangerous enemy soldier who is already on the run from many more better-armed and more dangerous soldiers," Twilight noted.

Rainbow Dash thought about that very valid point as she stretched her wings briefly. "I'm in."

"Let's get 'em, Dash," Applejack grinned as they bolted after the Iron Warriors.

"Good luck," Daniels groaned, raising a hand weakly before he slumped over onto his side.


Salt Lick Canyon - main sub-level

*What do you mean they're already above the elevator? That's impossible! They were right behind me!* Jerriha barked into her commlink.

*I'd put our faith in our sensors, Shas'vre! We have five high-energy signatures moving into the main complex! I'll have the Broadsides intercept-*

*NO! If you fight them in the tunnels we'll be ripped apart! No close-range fighting!* Jerriha barked, rounding a corner toward a maintenance hall.

*There's no way to avoid a close-range fight at this point! Not if they somehow just skipped over our best staging area! And we have more power armor signatures swarming the sub-level!*

Jerriha grabbed her forehead with her hand, trying to organize her thoughts in the face of the coming onslaught.

The reversal had come so quickly. One little device that hadn't seemed at all threatening floating from the end of the pink pony's tail. It had looked like a diversion, if anything; a way to draw fire away from the intruders themselves.

That device had delivered heavy Astartes infantry right into the facility. A worst-case scenario. The close-quarters fighting in the claustrophobic tunnels would be brutal and extremely one-sided. The Gue'la had the perfect soldiers and weapons deployed for such a battle. The only obvious answers they had possessed were all smoldering hulks now. Victims of the human infiltrator and his pet ponies.

Or was that the other way around? She couldn't even tell.

*Fireblade, what do we do?* asked a Fire Warrior, shaking the female soldier by the shoulder.

She slowly brought her thoughts back to the present, and the miserable choice that lay before her. Her hand grasped her commlink again.

*All right. I need you to start-*

She was cut off by a muffled banging noise coming from the communicator, followed by panicked shouting.

*Keep them OUT! No! We can't-*

She heard the sounds of gunshots before the commlink went dead completely.

*... Prepare to fight, Shas'la,* she said as her hand fell from her communicator, *there's nowhere left to run, and I wager that life as a slave miner wouldn't agree with you.*

They were at the end of a maintenance tunnel that led to a stairwell; one of the few ways to get from one level to another without the main elevator platform. There were a few cabinets along the wall to use as cover, but the bend was less than a grenade's throw behind them.

The sound of armored footsteps echoed through the halls.

*I never saw a Space Marine before today,* admitted one of the Fire Warriors as they took up position, *are they all so... disgusting-looking?*

Jerriha briefly recalled her encounters with the armored super-soldiers on other planets. *No. There's something wrong with these ones.* Her jaw set. *Or maybe something right, rather. These ones won.*

The footsteps came closer, and then halted just before the bend ahead of them.

A fragmentation grenade bounced off the wall of the tunnel and rolled in front of them. The Tau soldiers immediately drew themselves back behind their cover, and Jerriha flung a photon grenade back out just before the explosive detonated.

An Iron Warrior burst out from behind the corner just in time to have his optics blinded by the photon burst, and the Chaos Marine fired a brief, utterly inaccurate spray from his boltgun before he was almost torn apart by a return salvo from pulse rifles.

As the Iron Warrior collapsed another stepped in to take his place, bolter thundering. One of the Fire Warriors took a shot to the leg and promptly lost said extremity, collapsing onto the ground.

As the pulse rifle rounds ripped smoking craters in power armor and bolts bored holes in the lockers the Tau were hiding behind, a rainbow-colored streak sailed over the Iron Warrior's shoulder and slammed headlong into the other Fire Warrior Jerriha had escaped with, knocking him flat on his back.

Rainbow Dash leapt off of the Tau soldier right before he was reduced to a blood stain by another bolter salvo, deflecting off the walls of the tunnel with her hooves to keep up an evasion speed.

Jerriha stepped further behind the locker and then swung her weapon around, trying to get a bead on the flyer anyway; no way she was going to leave it alone to hit her in the back, and she was well-protected from the Marine for the moment.

The familiar and increasingly aggravating crack of a rope snapping through the air sounded before she could fire a shot at the pegasus. It was little comfort that the rope merely caught the end of her rifle rather than herself, this time.

The Fireblade struggled to hold on to her weapon as she sighted Applejack standing between the Chaos Marine's legs, rope in her jaws as she fought against the Fireblade. It was a slightly greater comfort to see the Iron Warrior staring down and hesitating; he was obviously just as surprised by this turn of events as she was.

Rainbow Dash doubled around and launched a flying back kick into the Jerriha's shoulder, staggering the alien and letting Applejack finally disarm her.

The orange pony dropped her lasso as the pulse rifle bounced toward her. "Hey, grayskin! Ah heard y'all got business with me!" She slammed a hoof down onto the pulse rifle, breaking it in half. "Well, here Ah am! You wanna finish things, or should Ah just let the big guys gut ya?"

Jerriha's hand went for her pulse pistol. Or rather, the empty holster where her pulse pistol had been; she had given that weapon to another soldier.

It didn't escape her notice that both the Iron Warrior and the blue flying horse had ceased attacking her. The latter was hovering behind her at a safe distance, while the former kept glancing up and down between his enemy and apparent ally.

Jerriha drew her combat knife, her face drawing into a scowl.

"Oh, I have GOT to see this," the Chaos Space Marine rumbled, stepping back from the imminent brawl.

Applejack bolted forward, deeming her challenge accepted. "APPLES!!" she screamed to the heavens, shaking the very tunnel with her battle cry.

"The Greater Good will prevail, gue'la puppet!" Jerriha snapped in Gothic as she tensed.

The Fireblade leapt to the side as Applejack tried to ram her, rolling into a crouch and then darting toward her equine opponent from the side.

Applejack aimed a back kick rather than trying to turn around, and she narrowly missed shattering the Fireblade's arm.

Jerriha was forced to dodge away before she could slash with her knife, and her own attack missed as the orange pony twisted around to face her.

For a few tense seconds the pair circled each other, their eyes darting back and forth in search of openings.

Jerriha struck first, closing the distance and slamming a knee against the pony's cheek while seizing her by her mane. Applejack's hat bounced off to the side, briefly forgotten in the skirmish.

Jerriha's knife plunged down, and the Fireblade was rewarded by the resistance of flesh as her weapon stabbed deep just behind the pony's shoulder.

A furious snort was the only sound Applejack made in reply, and then she reared her head back before slamming it into the Tau's stomach, driving the breath out of the Fireblade. And then she did it again. And then a third time. And a fourth. And a fifth. The Fireblade's body jumped slightly each time as she grunted in pain, and the spectators heard the unmistakable crack of Tau combat armor splitting.

"Go! Go! Go!" shouted Rainbow Dash, pumping her hooves in the air in time with the thump of her friend's skull.

"Kill the weak!" cheered the Iron Warrior on the other side. Two more Chaos Marines were joining him, looking rather confused as they slowly lowered their weapons.

Applejack dug her forehead into the Fireblade's abdomen again, and her neck muscles strained terrifically as she lifted Jerriha's entire body off the ground before swinging her head to the side and flinging the warrior away.

As Jerriha landed in an unsteady roll and started to cough, the apple farmer twisted her head around and bit onto the handle of the combat knife, tugging it free as blood oozed from the injury.

Applejack spat the knife out with contempt as she advanced on the alien soldier. "Ya call that a wound? Mah brother lost half his dang organs!" her body ached, yet the pain seemed distant; inconsequential, almost.

Jerriha searched frantically for another weapon, and her eyes darted to the tool locker adjacent to her. She flung open the door and her hand darted for the largest item she saw, not even bothering to identify it first.

Applejack rushed up to the cabinet and launched another kick. Not at Jerriha, but rather at the open door next to her.

The door smashed the Fireblade onto the ground as it tried to close with her in the way, and the long pole-like thing she had grabbed bounced out of her grip. She belatedly tried to roll away to a safe distance, but was stopped by an orange hoof falling on her to pin her shoulder to the stone.

"Y'all came to the wrong planet, cowgirl," Applejack said blithely, one hoof already raised above the Fireblade's face. "G'night."


Salt Lick Canyon - earth caste quarters

*Do you think everything's all right? We haven't heard anything from the fire teams in a while.*

Fennin rolled his eyes as he sat up in his bunk. *Of all of us, I easily have the worst opinion of our esteemed warrior caste, but even I think they should be able to handle a half-dozen alien horses and a monkey.*

*Of the same group of 'monkeys' that drove us from orbit, smashed Green Haven, and have now blown up half of THIS base?* asked an Earth Caste female with a deep frown. *I think we're past the point where we can be dismissive of them as foes.*

*I mostly credit the post-monkeys for their successes, but that's beside the point,* Fennin grumbled as his gaze swept over his subordinates, *the apes have the Warp core. Or maybe the horses do. The important thing is that WE don't.*

The engineer grimaced. *Not all of you know what that means, exactly, but suffice to say, if we don't get it back or construct a replacement, this entire mission is a wash and our whole campaign could easily end in failure.*

A younger Tau male nodded slowly. *I still think it's of greater immediate concern that we have hostiles in the base right now, and we haven't been updated on the situation.*

*Oh, for Aun'va's sake!* Fennin growled. *The grunts have better things to do right now than hold your hand, Fio'la! I'm sure they have the situation completely under control!*

Then the lights went out, plunging the room into darkness. The alarm klaxons finally went silent a moment later.

A few seconds after that, a soft humming noise came from the wall as the back-up power cells came online, and then the lights flickered back on with ominously weaker intensity.

*... Okay, so maybe there's been a hiccup in getting rid of the intruders,* Fennin admitted, massaging his forehead as he hung his head, *I really thought that giving the Fire Warriors a way to track the imbeciles and evaluate every possible escape route was enough. I duly regret my optimism.*

The engineer rose to his feet as his caste-mates stared fretfully at the dimmer ceiling lights.

*If the ape really did take out the generators, then we won't be able to contact central security control even if they did have time to talk to us,* Fennin mumbled as he approached the door and pulled the lever on the side to allow manual access, *let's see what the grunt assigned to guard us has to say about the status of the "battle" downstairs. He's probably been listening in on the comms chatter.*

Fennin opened the door.

Serith stood over the Fire Warrior guard, his free hand outstretched so that it was almost touching the helmet of the alien soldier. His weapon rested against his shoulder easily, a splash of dark blood visible on the halberd's edge.

"I'll be with you in just a moment, insect. One victim at a time," the Sorcerer said calmly, not bothering to look at the engineer.

The trembling Fire Warrior's voice choked pitifully as he slowly and tortuously turned his pulse carbine around to aim at his own chin.

Fennin closed the door just before the sound of the carbine discharge echoed through the tunnels.

*I really wish I hadn't gotten up this morning,* the engineer sighed miserably.

Author's Note:

And now we learn why I don't write songs: Because I am awful at it.

On a more relevant note, I received some very valid criticisms recently that my portrayal of the Tau in this story makes them look weak and incompetent. Although I brushed this off at the time as being a matter of narrative necessity, I decided to make an effort during this chapter to make them seem more dangerous and cunning.
And then I had Applejack disarm and beat up a Tau Fireblade.
So I'm pretty sure I failed. But the important thing is that I tried!