• Published 12th May 2014
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Mente Materia - Arad



Twilight’s trip to Earth and friendship with the humans brings new friends and enemies to her peaceful world. With the specter of war hanging over them, Equestria will have to form an alliance like no other to fight the menace from the void.

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27 -- Pyrrhic

We shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.
--Winston Churchill

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06:00, 12/08/2015, OUTSKIRTS OF APPLEWOOD

For probably the longest stretch in her life, Pinkie Pie had remained silent for hours as the chariot had ferried her towards Applewood. Neither the pegasi chariot team or the earth pony riding alongside her seemed keen on holding any conversation, but the party mare didn’t hold it against them. Truth be told, she didn’t really feel like talking much either. The last thing she had done before leaving was lie straight to Twilight’s face, and that was enough to put a damper on Pinkie’s normally chipper mood.

Applejack would probably say it’s a lie if I don’t actually answer the question, she thought as she cast a look out into the gloomy night. Twilight asked if I was going to make it through this alright, and I told her that she shouldn’t doubt me. I told her what I could predict if I didn’t volunteer, but I didn’t tell her that I couldn’t predict anything of the outcome if I went through with this. Any further worrying was interrupted when the wagon pitched slightly sideways as the chariot team banked for a different direction.

Pinkie, Fujikawa,” the radio in the party mare’s ear crackled. “Local assets on the city outskirts may have found a better infiltration path than we originally planned, and you’re being diverted to take that now. Pathfinders and the local assets will meet you when you land. Enemy forces can track your signal, so only use the radio if absolutely necessary. Fujikawa out.

Pinkie had just started to reply when the radio went silent again, and she couldn’t suppress a grin as to the probable reason. When they had first tested the radios, Pinkie Pie had started an exchange that lasted for nearly five minutes involving a place called ‘First’ and the improbably named human who resided there. As much as I would like to lighten the mood for everybody and everypony on the radio, something tells me that the humans wouldn’t appreciate it when we’re so close to a fight. They take their serious business seriously.

The chariot descended from the sky and came to a rolling stop near a modest-sized home out in the country. The giant buildings of Applewood could be barely seen on the horizon as Pinkie hopped off the back of the chariot. A pair of cloaked figures detached themselves from the shadows and beckoned the party mare towards the entrance of the house. The door creaked open to reveal a diamond dog in a dirt and dust caked miner’s outfit. Pinkie hesitated at the threshold, then looked over her shoulder. The chariot she had rode in on had already ascended to the early morning sky, and the two cloaked escorts had vanished back to wherever they had been hiding earlier. I guess there’s no going back now, she thought before finally entering the home.

The diamond dog didn’t comment on Pinkie’s black-on-black attire or anything else as he held the basement door open. She trotted down the stairs and was greeted with a rubble-strewn room barely lit by a string of faintly glowing crystals strung by a string. The string itself led into a rough-cut hole in the floor, which opened into a tight tunnel that extended on for some distance if Pinkie was any judge.

“Go, now,” the diamond dog whispered as he closed the door and pressed his eyes up to a hole in its center. “Tunnel leads to Applewood. You must hurry. Go, now.”

Pinkie Pie lifted one hoof to wave goodbye to the diamond dog, but hesitated when she saw his attention was entirely on the doorway. She turned and began to trot down the hallway. The tunnel was deserted, and every hooffall seemed unbearably harsh and loud. She continued at her trotting pace for what felt like nearly an hour before the tunnel sloped upward. The mouth of the rough-cut tunnel opened up into an underground passage that was drastically different. Smooth stone walls with an almost perfect slope spoke of an earth pony stone mason’s efforts, and small posters and advertisements could be seen in the low light.

A trio of diamond dogs hunkered down behind a makeshift wall made of excavated stone, their attention focused entirely in the opposite direction. A pair of cloaked zebra also lurked nearby, and one detached itself from cover to approach Pinkie. “It is good that you are here. The enemy is gathering all of the residents into one area of the city, though we know not why,” he explained quietly. “I suspect that whatever terrible purpose they have will come to fruition soon, so we must hurry.” A small moment of hesitation followed before he pulled his hood back. The majority of his coat and mane was black, with only a pair of vivid white stripes on his face to mark his race. He gave the party mare a small frown and said, “If you wish to stay here, I can--”

“No,” Pinkie interrupted. “I can do what’s necessary.”

The zebra held her gaze for a hooffull of moments before pulling his hood back over his head. “I understand. My pathfinders and I will hold this position until you return. Beware the towers. They will sap your strength as you approach them. Do not tarry any longer than necessary, or you will find yourself too weak to even raise a hoof.”

Pinkie nodded and followed the pathfinder to the mouth of the tunnel. She froze when he raised a hoof and glanced around the corner. The hoof slowly fell back down to the ground, and Pinkie Pie crept past and into the occupied city. It was eerily silent given the size of the buildings and streets, and the horrible drain from the EXALT towers seemed to leech all of the energy and even the color from the air.

A creeping sense of paranoia began to claw at the back of Pinkie’s mind as no enemies made themselves apparent as she crawled further away from safety. You can do this, Pinkie! You are more than your Pinkie Sense! You aren’t helpless without it! she told herself as she resisted the temptation to whip her head around in every direction looking for enemies. Without the helpful hints from that special skill, every shadow looked like a lurking enemy and every sound was the approach of an army.

Pinkie ducked into an alley and sank down behind a dumpster. Is this my limit? I was so certain I could do this, but now I feel so… weak. Hopeless. I’m not like that! I’m nothing like that! Why am I feeling like this? she thought as she looked down the alleyway, and the look quickly turned into a glare. Well, that would explain it.

The alleyway cut through several blocks of Applewood and was littered with dozens of dumpsters, forgotten carts and other various obstacles. One of these obstacles stuck out like a sore hoof, the orange stripe running up its side visible even in the early morning darkness. What was perhaps more telling was the pair of human silhouettes standing atop a nearby building with binoculars to their eyes.

Pinkie pressed herself against the nearest building to break line of sight with the observers before creeping forward. She approached the edge of the building and glanced around the corner. The two guards were now looking upwards into the sky, though the earth pony wasn’t certain what they could see besides the impenetrable wall of black clouds looming overhead. She wasn’t going to complain, though, as their distraction served her purposes as she moved across the street and into the next alleyway.

The majority of her friends made a big fuss about the ‘Pinkie Sense’, but the Pinkie also possessed another impressive skill honed through years of practice and playing around Ponyville. Like the odd feelings she got warning her about what would happen, most ponies simply assumed her ability to seemingly appear out of thin air at any place and time was also some form of magic and left it at that.

While Pinkie couldn’t exactly say how much of this skill was magic, she was certain only Twilight would appreciate the amount of practice and work it took to instinctively know where somepony’s attention was at. Different races had different levels of patience, and different individuals had their own quirks that might affect their attentiveness. Through observation (and a level of physical ability that might make Applejack pause), Pinkie had the ability to move when nopony was looking, hide where nopony was looking, and wait longer than anypony would think to so she could pull off her normally silly hijinks.

The next street was traversed just as easily as the first. The two rooftop guards hadn’t even glanced down to street level, and there wasn’t even a perimeter guard set at the mouth of the alleyway. I bet they didn’t think anypony would want to go near the towers, so they don’t have anyone watching closely. I know I don’t want to be here... Pinkie thought, and she struggled with suddenly weak legs as she stopped around a dozen body lengths from her objective. She pulled out a small package from her saddlebags and took one step towards the tower, before pulling her head back to toss the package. It soared through the air and came to rest beside the tower, and to Pinkie’s eyes it was indistinguishable from the broken stones that sat at its base.

The mare had to retreat more than a block before her legs would stop shaking. She took a moment to steady herself before closing her eyes. That was the tower behind the Paso building… the next closest one will be just off of Mane and Seventh in the park. Pinkie opened her eyes and took a steadying breath before weaving her way through the abandoned city towards her next destination.

The route had been mostly clear, but Pinkie had been forced to cut through several buildings to make it safely to the park in question. She had just entered a local coffee shop through a rear window when the sounds of voices greeted her. She dove for cover behind a countertop as an EXALT soldier stepped into the back room.

He looked much like the humans that Pinkie had met in Canterlot, but all comparisons ended as he shrugged off his trenchcoat before folding and placing it on the countertop. The skin in his face and neck was deathly pale, and several unhealthy-looking veins could be seen standing out around his eyes and forehead. He unbuttoned his shirt sleeves and rolled them up as he approached the coffee machine, revealing muscular arms covered in jagged tattoos. He asked a question in the human language as he started the coffee machine.

Pinkie noted the number of voices from the front of the shop, and she also took note of the staticky voice coming from somewhere on top of the counter. She carefully reached up and snagged the radio from where the EXALT soldier had left it. I have a feeling I might need this, she thought after turning down the volume., She pocketed the radio and crept to the end of the counter.

The party mare slowly stalked into the front of the coffee shop, and she froze as she saw four more EXALT humans sitting on the countertop with their backs facing her. I know our tables and chairs are probably a bit too small, but sitting on the counter is rude! I should— Pinkie thought before common sense asserted itself. Focus! There are bigger things to worry about!

The EXALT soldiers were easy to avoid as she passed through the shattered front door and out into the street. The second tower was within sight, standing next to a damaged tree and a water fountain depicting the princesses. Pinkie offered a silent apology to the diarchs as she brought out the second package and tossed it toward the gap between the fountain and the tower. Her aim was off, and it collided against the tower with a hollow thunk!

A voice came from within the coffee shop, and Pinkie had to scramble for a new hiding spot as the humans emerged from within. She cowered behind a street cart and stayed perfectly still as the EXALT soldiers spoke. A small amount of fear wormed its way into Pinkie’s mind as she heard more footsteps heading toward the tower. Sensing the opportunity, she bolted from the street cart towards the nearest alleyway.

She had almost made it to cover when a shout sounded from the humans, followed by an avalanche of footfalls following her. The party mare had made it about three quarters of the way into the alley before diving behind a dumpster. Her heart hammered in her chest as she caught sight of her pursuers in the reflection of a half-broken window.

Not a single sound could be heard from them as the apparent leader gave a series of hand signs. The humans then assembled into a paired formation and began stalking down the alleyway. Their rifles swept every corner and behind every obstacle in the alleyway, while their peers covered the rest of the narrow pathway. There was no way she was going to be able to hide from their search unless she did something… drastic.

As quietly as she could, she felt in her saddlebags for anything that could be of use. A half-dozen of the packages meant to deal with the towers were still there, plus a few odd tools the humans had entrusted to her, and a few of her own trinkets that she thought might be useful… and the radio she had pilfered from the coffee shop.

An idea formed as she brought the radio out onto the ground and retrieved one of her favorite toys. She carefully wedged the radio underneath the dumpster so that the ‘send’ button was depressed. A quick glance at the reflection showed the lead human had raised a fist and halted, while the others put a hand to the side of their heads. The smallest of smiles entered her expression as she held her toy in her hooves before jamming it under the dumpster right beside the radio’s speaker and jamming the switch into the ‘on’ position.

The toy in question was an air horn, and all the humans struggled to yank the earbuds out to reduce the earsplitting noise. They were quick to recover, as only a bare second had passed from her bolting out of position had passed before the shouting started. Bolts of searing light lanced over her withers as she bounded around the corner and hopped onto a street cart. Another hop brought her to a shop awning, and another to a fire escape. More laser shots cut through the night as she leapt from the fire escape to a rooftop.

Pinkie, we’re seeing laser fire near your position,” Fujikawa reported through the radio. “EXALT has been alerted to your presence. I recommend you trigger the packages you left and find someplace to hide. Party Crasher will be available for support shortly.

“I can get at least one more!” Pinkie huffed as she made a flying leap across an alleyway and onto the next rooftop.

The radio was silent long enough for Pinkie to hear rather angry shouts from street level. “Green light!” Fujikawa said, her tone becoming increasingly tense. “The nearest tower is two blocks north in a partially collapsed building. Stay on the rooftops and you can make a drop off as you pass by. After that, keep your head down. Fujikawa, out.

A million flippant or funny things came to mind in response to the order, but she was interrupted as she caught sight of a hand reaching up to grip the building edge she was approaching. The head of an EXALT operative appeared next, and just in time to provide a perfect springboard for her leap over to the next block.

Just as her hooves touched down on the next building, an EXALT soldier leapt up on the opposite side of the building. He caught sight of Pinkie as she charged forward, but he didn’t fire his weapon. The enemy soldier’s right hand produced a thick metal rod, which crackled with electricity as he swung it at the party mare. She did her best to avoid the blow but couldn’t avoid it brushing against her flank as she passed.

Pain unlike anything Pinkie had ever experienced gripped her body, and she couldn’t resist the impulse to scream. Her rear hoof lashed out instinctively, and she was rewarded with a crunch and a cry of pain from the EXALT soldier. She didn’t dare look back as the number of human voices behind her continued to grow, and Pinkie juked to the right. A hooffull of laser shots passed her and disappeared into the night sky where she had just been.

Her hooves found unsteady purchase on the partially destroyed building that the third tower sat in. Rather than take the time to retrieve another package to leave, she opted to kick the saddlebags off of her back and drop them into the ruins. She didn’t pause to see where the bags landed as she dove off the side of the building and onto the fire escape of the one next door. She whispered a small apology to the owners as she broke a window and crawled into the dark building to escape her pursuers. She made it to the other side of the building and dropped down to the alleyway with far less fanfare. “I’ve just passed the third tower, Fuji,” Pinkie whispered into the radio.

Understood. Fire in the hole.”

BLAM!

Every window in the building that Pinkie had just exited shattered from the force of the blast, and the effect was almost immediate. The party mare could feel magic returning to the area. “Fuji! It’s working!” she cheered as she galloped down the alleyway with renewed vigor. She had just made it to the mouth of the alleyway when her good cheer fled.

Cobblestones cracked under metal hooves, and it took every ounce of Pinkie’s willpower not to skid to a halt as one of the minotaur Toys stomped into the mouth of the alleyway. The glowing red eye locked onto Pinkie, and the machine let out a howl that reminded the party mare more of metal being torn to pieces than anything else. Fear fuelled her run as she darted in between the machine's legs, but her opponent was quicker. It leaned backwards and pivoted on its waist joint just as Pinkie passed beneath it, and there was nothing she could do as the Toy’s left arm swung down and connected squarely with her barrel. The blow lifted the party mare clean off the ground with enough force to send her flying through the plate glass window of the nearby office building.

Searing pain raced through every inch of Pinkie’s body, and she had to blink away tears as her body argued with her intent to keep running. Pieces of glass littered the floor around where she landed, and a pair of glass shards were lodged into the side of her barrel. Fear overrode those arguments as that evil machine glared into the darkened office and growled like a rock grinder. Human voices could also be heard as Pinkie limped towards the exit on the opposite side of the office. The party mare spotted her salvation as she left the building: an underground tunnel entrance just like the one she had entered the city from.

If I can make it there, I can use the underground to get back to the others… Pinkie thought as she stumbled across the street and into the tunnel entrance. As her eyes adjusted to the darkness, her plan disappeared with her hopes. The tunnel was collapsed and unpassable. She tried to turn back the way she had come, only to stumble and fall to the stone floor. Any attempts at rising again were hampered by a coughing fit. One hoof came up to wipe her muzzle, and it came away bloody. Her vision blurred but it was clear enough to see the enemy approaching slowly.

“Command, we have the saboteur. Confirmed as HVT,” the lead human said as he approached the wounded mare. He raised the weapon in his hands towards Pinkie and continued, “No, sir. I don’t think she’s going to make it.”

Pinkie’s eyes drifted shut, and she tried to smile. I did my best, she thought as she drifted off. The party mare didn’t have enough strength to even open an eye to see what all the noise was about before the darkness consumed her.

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06:30, 12/08/2015, AIRSPACE OVER APPLEWOOD

“You know, Lana,” Firecracker said, piercing the awkward silence that had reigned over the chariot since they had lifted off from Canterlot. “I haven’t figured out why you wanted me to tag along with you on the ride over Applewood. Captain Harris didn’t seem to know the reason, either.” The disguised changeling plastered on an easygoing smile as she looked out into the night sky and the dark shapes of the other chariots idling in the clouds. “If it’s assassination you’re planning, you might want to reconsider. If I have to I can sprout wings and fly, and there are a troubling number of witnesses to the act.”

Lana, or rather, Beowulf hunched down at the far end of the chariot. She didn’t immediately respond beyond continuing to look the changeling’s way. The golem’s stare was doubly unnerving for Firecracker, who had no facial cues, eye movement or emotions to interpret from her conversation partner. To the changeling’s perspective, she was having a conversation with something as expressive as an empty suit of armor.

“You’re here for a couple of reasons,” the golem started to explain in that artificial voice Firecracker had trouble associating with the woman she knew. “The first is that if we can talk like this, you can’t do your creepy emotions thing. And I know you’ve been doing that every time we talk.”

Firecracker started to reply, but paused, then nearly facehoofed. She doesn’t like being around ponies that can feel her emotions? You had one job, FC, and you didn’t realise this until now? Given what you’ve seen, can you blame her?

“Second, if you’re here, then you’re not back in Canterlot. I can’t properly defend myself so long as I’m in Beowulf,” Lana continued.

Firecracker gasped dramatically. “I’m wounded, Lana. Wounded! I would never do anything to anypony who was in such a state…” she denied, before adding with a whisper, “... without their permission.”

“There!” Lana declared as she levelled one of the weapon-laden arms at Firecracker. “That look you have right now. It’s creepy. Stop it.”

The changeling held her hooves up in mock surrender, but she couldn’t help but feel just a little anxious about what was being pointed in her direction. I know I said the assassination plan wasn’t very good, but that doesn’t change the fact that she can murder me quite thoroughly if the mood strikes her…

Lana’s arm slowly lowered back to its original position, and the awkward silence began to creep back in before she continued. “Last… we have to talk.”

The pensive tone was enough to replace Firecracker’s fear with curiosity. “Oh,? Talk about what?”

“What do you want from me?”

The curiosity gave way to confusion. “What do you think I want from you?”

“I don’t know!” Lana snapped back, frustration easily heard in the artificial voice.

The answer as well as the heated reply was like a corner piece to the puzzle named Lana Jenkins. It didn’t solve the puzzle, but it gave a clue. Firecracker looked down before taking a deep breath to speak. “Lana, I’m not sure I understand, so I’m going to ask you a few basic questions. If you don’t want to talk about it, just say so and I’ll never bring it up again. If you answer my questions, then I promise whatever we discuss will remain between us.”

The golem didn’t move for several moments, before giving a simple nod.

“Okay then,” Firecracker started, before closing her eyes to concentrate on choosing the right words. “I’ve been spending a long time going over our conversations and what has happened recently so I can understand what is bothering you. You showed very predictable reactions when I approached you on Earth, but that changed after I adjusted my appearance. You also stated that it isn’t because of what I am that you’re reacting the way that you are. That leaves only one real explanation as far as I can tell. Why does the concept of being approached make you afraid?”

“I’ve got a better question,” Lana replied, and it wasn’t hard for Firecracker to imagine the synthetic voice with a terse tone. “Why are you so set on approaching me?”

Changing the subject? Hrm… Firecracker thought, before letting it slide. “Why wouldn’t I? You’re a brilliant example of your species; clever and capable in equal amounts. I’ve also noticed that you have something of a sixth sense for when others are in distress and you try your best to help them forget about what’s bothering them. You’re also one of the few creatures I haven’t been able to figure out even after extensive study. Why wouldn’t I admire someone with those traits? I’ll admit that my nature makes me less predisposed to placing emphasis on race in my partner, but you said that wasn’t what was bothering you. Is it really so hard to believe that I might be legitimately attracted to you?”

“Yes, it is!” Lana snapped, and Firecracker was silently grateful that their words wouldn’t carry past the chariot’s passenger box due to the wind. “What is it that you want from me? A quickie? A one night stand? Tell me what you want!” What the artificial voice lacked in nuance was more than made up for by body language. Both of the mechanical hands were clenched into fists, and the slightest tremors could be seen in them as well.

Why is she so convinced that all I want is something so shallow? “Lana…” Firecracker started slowly. “Lana, have you never had someone approach you to simply enjoy your company? Have you never known someone who wanted nothing but the experience of knowing you?”

Silence fell between the two for nearly a minute before Lana spoke. “Once,” was all she said.

That one word was another piece of the puzzle in Firecracker’s mind. “What ha—”

Partycrasher, Command.

Curse you to all the hells that will ever be, Fujikawa! Firecracker raged internally before tapping the radio in her ear. “Command, Partycrasher. Go ahead.”

Our field operative has been spotted. Beowulf is to deploy immediately and neutralize the remaining towers, then provide cover for the operative until the city is secured.

“Solid copy, Command. I’ll be dropping in ten seconds,” Lana said as she rose from her hunched position and began to walk to the open rear of the chariot. She hesitated for just a moment before turning slightly to regard Firecracker. “Whatever it is you want from me, I don’t think it’s going to end well for either of us,” she said before stepping off the back of the chariot and into the cloudy abyss.

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06:40, 12/08/2015, AIRSPACE OVER APPLEWOOD

The altimeter ticked down on Lana’s HUD as she fell away from the chariot, and she couldn’t help but wish she could leave the changeling’s words behind just as easily.

Beowulf, Command. Medical is reporting your heart rate is spiking at around 150, but your connection is still at around ninety percent. Are there any problems on your end?” Fujikawa’s disembodied voice asked.

I just jumped out of a transport that has no feasible means of flying so that I could fall several thousand feet to fight XCOM’s evil twin brother and the steampunk robot army. This was still a better choice than staying around and talking to Firecracker, so I’m just peachy. “All green on my end, Command,” Lana said as she focused on her HUD. “Do we have eyes on the remaining towers?”

Updating your HUD now,” Fujikawa reported, and three glaring red dots appeared on the display, followed by a green dot some distance away from the reds. “Your primary objective is to neutralize the remaining towers, then see to the safety of the operative until friendly forces can extract her.

“Civilians?”

A blue field appeared in the distance on Lana’s hud as Fujikawa continued, “EXALT has rounded up most of the residents and restrained them to a specific area. There are a few stragglers that show up during our scans but they’re few and far between. It’ll be just you and a target-rich environment once you hit the ground.

“Collateral damage?”

Princess Luna has given us her blessing to do what’s necessary, but try and keep it to a minimum.

The thick clouds that Lana had been falling through abruptly ended, and the dark cityscape opened up beneath her. Low light vision enabled her to identify the shapes of buildings and streets… and figures running into position. The first of the jammer towers was barely visible between a pair of buildings, but it was enough. “I’ve got eyes on the first tower, Command. I’m prepared to engage on your order.”

Copy, Beowulf. You are weapons free and clear to engage. Good luck, Command out.

Lana straightened her left arm as best she could in free fall and pointed one of the thick metal fingers at the first tower. The MEC systems responded and the heavy laser behind her left shoulder swung into place. A targeting reticle appeared over her target and for a brief moment Lana’s hearing was overwhelmed by the bass hum of the laser charging. Her finger twitched, and the early morning sky was split by the blinding laser beam.

“First tower is down. I’ve got no angle on the others so I’m going to have to reach them on the ground,” she reported as the low light vision recovered enough to see the melted remains of her target. Well, time for stage two… Lana thought as she lowered her left arm. The laser cannon retracted to its standby position as she twisted in the air. Once her feet were beneath her, the parachute packs on her shoulders deployed. Shots began to reach out towards Lana as she fell, but most missed as she continued her descent. The parachute packs detached as she neared the street, dropping her with a loud crunch!

The intensity of laser fire increased but did nothing to slow Lana as she darted through a nearby business with all the grace of a truck. The brick and mortar masonry on the opposite side of the building didn’t slow the MEC down for a second as she burst into the alley behind. Rockets flared beneath her metal feet and launched her up to the roof of the next building. A pair of very surprised EXALT operatives were the only thing barring her way to the next building, and a swipe of her right arm sent them both flying off the building.

“I’m coming up on the second tower now,” Lana reported as she leapt to the next building. The distance to the next tower vanished with every running step.

She didn’t notice anything was wrong until she was practically on top of the next tower. A creeping numbness began to press in all around her, and her mechanical limbs failed her. Is my signal being disrupted by the jammer? No! The forward momentum she had built wouldn’t be so easily thwarted, causing Lana to tumble head first into the skylight of her target building.

Crash! Crunch!

The numbness subsided almost immediately as Lana regained her senses. Well, that was snatching victory from a potential disaster, she thought as she surveyed the wreckage of the jammer that had broken her fall from the skylight. “Command, the second tower is down. If anyone tells Captain Harris how I did it, then I will get you.”

Radio discipline, Beowulf,” Fujikawa said, though Lana would swear she could hear the grin on the major’s voice. “It may be advisable to not engage the next tower at close range.

“Copy that,” Lana said, and she would have huffed in annoyance at what had just happened if she were able to. Matt’s never going to let me live this down. ‘Why bother giving you guns when you can just fall on your target?’ ‘Are you taking up sumo wrestling for your next fighting style?’ She let out a growl and ignored the door in favor of plowing through the wall to exit the building.

Several minutes of rushing through the streets and alleyways finally deposited Lana near the last of the towers. The accursed jammer sat in a partially shattered greenhouse on the opposite side of a park, a stark metal structure among the trees. Before she could take a single step towards it, however, she was bracketed by laser fire from the rooftops.

Don’t want me coming near the tower? Fine, I don’t want to go over there, anyway! Lana thought as she raised her left arm. The laser cannon swung into place much like it had during free fall and the targeting reticule locked on. The beam that Lana shot was an order of magnitude greater than those that were being shot at her from the buildings across the way, and it reduced the tower to a pile of molten slag.

“Command, Beowulf,” Lana said, and she would have grinned as the dark city gradually became brighter, and not just because of the coming dawn. Several elements of her HUD also winked on, most notably the twin KS module indicators. “All towers have been eliminated and I’m proceeding towards the last known location for the covert operative.”

This is where you belong, Lana thought as she disappeared between the buildings. A pair of snap shots caught her attention, and she turned to make a slight detour. A quick boost brought her up to roof level and she spotted the two EXALT shooters. Their reaction time was quick enough to try and flee, but Lana was faster. She didn’t need to activate the KS module as she backhanded the first enemy and sent his broken body flying. The second fell beneath her charge and was crushed without so much as slowing down.

A rocket whizzed by, and Lana responded with a burst from the gatling on her right arm. This is what you’re good at. A normal person would feel fear or regret after killing someone. But you? You feel nothing.

Lana didn’t spare a single glance to the bloody mess that had been left by her attack. This is what you’re good at, not whatever it is that Firecracker wants from you.

------

06:50, 12/08/2015, STRIKE READY ROOM, CANTERLOT

“One minute!” Matt shouted as he made his way to the center of the deployment area. One hand absently checked the plasma rifle slung across his shoulder before moving to test the sword strap across his armor’s chestplate. It won’t take much fire to snap this, but I’ve got no other way of carrying the weapon into battle without it getting in the way. I can worry about that later, for now you gotta focus!

Every minotaur in Canterlot, Asterion included, was equipped with the finest arms and armor that their species could produce. Overlapping black metal plates covered nearly every inch of their bodies, and the majority carried cannons that Matt would swear looked more at home on top of an IFV. The remaining few bore hoplon shields and kopis swords, while Asterion himself had exchanged the sword in favor of the axe that Matt had seen him use during the defense of Canterlot.

Behind the clumps of gathered minotaurs were five ‘heavy’ Strike teams. Five dozen XCOM operators in brilliant white armor and golden helmets gathered and hastily checked their equipment before checking their neighbor’s armor. The towering forms of Edelweiss and Gespenst could be seen on the far side of the ready room being swarmed by technicians making last minute checks.

All of the assembled soldiers of both species turned to face Matt, and he stopped fiddling with his gear and stood straighter. “We’ll be teleporting directly into Applewood. The jammer towers that were active are destroyed, but we have to prevent any others from becoming active while the bulk of the Guard descends on the city.” A tech on the far side of the room flashed a series of handsigns, and he nodded in response. “Fifteen seconds! I’ll see you all when this is done.”

I’m not one for grand speeches. I certainly hope they weren’t expecting something to rival Churchill or anything, Matt grumbled to himself as he assumed his position. That sour thought crumbled as he caught sight of Twilight giving him a wave from her position among the unicorn teleporters. Once his helmet snapped into place, he gave the alicorn a thumbs up. Don’t worry, Twily. You still owe me a book reading and I intend to collect! When Matt’s mental countdown reached five, the collected unicorns began casting their spells. A flash of light blinded him even through his helmet, followed by the sense of vertigo and lightheadedness. A crack of displaced air could be heard, and Matt struggled to maintain his balance on the now uneven ground. They were now in Applewood.

“Command, Harris! Transition to Applewood was successful! We are moving to engage now!” Matt reported as he stood. The cloud of friendly IFF markers around him began to disperse into the city, and Matt ran to pursue. Satisfied that enemies weren’t immediately apparent, he ducked behind a building and looked up into the cloudy sky. “Zhang, Harris. How do things look up there?”

The enemy is on alert. Several ‘Toys’ are advancing on Beowulf’s position. EXALT appears to be fortified around several structures at the center of the city, and that’s where they’re mobilizing from,” the Chinese soldier reported, and a wash of red icons appeared throughout the city. “I’m also seeing MH-6 gunships launching from the city center.

“Understood. Harris out,” he said before switching to his group channel. “Finch, Durand, Spiegel, attach yourselves to a Strike team and be prepared to go where you’re needed. We are the only magic support on the ground until the Guard arrives. Priority targets are Toys and EXALT aircraft.”

A trio of acknowledgements echoed in Matt’s ear as he ran to catch up with the nearest Strike team. He retrieved a trio of tungsten projectiles from a pouch on his belt and levitated them beside him. His eyes drifted from the telekinetic weapons just in time to catch sight of the Strike team engaging an entrenched position two blocks away… and the door to the building behind them flew off its hinges. Time slowed as a quartet of EXALT barreled out and into perfect flanking position for the Strike team.

Matt launched all three of his TK projectiles at the new hostiles, and was rewarded with two clean headshots. The third missed by less than a finger’s width as the intended target pulled his head back at the last moment. A small amount of annoyance crept into Matt’s thoughts as he fired his plasma rifle at the man who had dodged. To his Gifted senses, the green plasma bolt travelled lazily through the air and was on par to miss its target. Unfortunately for the EXALT operator, the plasma bolt was far trickier to dodge. The superheated projectile ignited the black coat he wore and boiled the flesh on his left arm as it passed, leaving him in no condition to avoid the follow-up shot that struck him square in the torso, carving out a smoldering cavity almost two handspans wide. He dropped without a sound.

The last of the EXALT operators brought his laser rifle around, and Matt had just long enough to mentally shout No! before the shot rang out. The laser beam vanished through a silver dollar-sized gap in reality just in front of Matt’s face and emerged from a similar gap right in front of the EXALT agent. The shooter’s corpse crumpled to the ground, his face and most of his head taken by the shot.

Did I do that? When did that become a thing? Matt asked as time snapped back to its normal flow. Worry about that later. Focus! He sprinted to catch up with the Strike team, and was pleasantly surprised as he recognized Lieutenant Carlock’s shouts. “Pat, this is Harris! Running into problems?”

The Strike One leader didn’t turn to acknowledge Matt as he took his position on the line. “EXALT position is dug in at one of the buildings at the intersection, and they have beautiful line of sight on our angle of approach. They’ve also got damn good snipers, too.” Carlock said, and he tilted his helmeted head toward another Strike operator being tended to by the medic. The white armor plates were pristine save for the matching burn marks on the shoulder and chest armor plates.

The sniper got a trick shot between the armor plates and into the undersuit at this range on a moving target? Matt concluded, and he had to suppress a whistle. That’s Zhang-level accuracy. “Do you need to to take a shot?” he asked once he turned back to the lieutenant.

“The minotaur hoplites and peltasts are attempting to flank but are getting bogged down in the alleys. If you can neutralize their position, we’ll be able to help them out and move onto the next site.”

Matt glanced out from cover to survey his target. True to Patrick’s description, the street was almost completely devoid of cover leading up to the coffee shop that sat in the crook of an awkward ‘Y’-shaped intersection. That moment’s glance was all he could get before a pair of high-powered laser blasts lanced out from the shop’s second story windows. The first scored the brickwork he was hiding behind and the second scorched the side of his helmet.

“Jesus, you weren’t kidding about those snipers!” Matt said as he stumbled back into cover. He took a deep breath and let it out before continuing. “I’ll need a grenade.”

Carlock pulled an explosive from his belt and handed it to Matt. His tone was doubtful as he said, “It’s a bit far to throw… you going to TK it over there?”

“We’ll see,” Matt said as he looked down at the grenade, then took a deep breath. In one smooth action he primed it and stepped out to hurl the explosive. He was immediately greeted by another pair of sniper blasts just as the grenade left his hand, and he didn’t have time to watch the results as he scrambled back into safety.

Patrick’s helmeted head looked to Matt, and for a long moment the pair simply stared at each other. “Did you throw it?” the lieutenant asked, but the distant krump of a detonation preempted any further discussion. He glanced out into the street before ordering, “Strike One, advance! And for God’s sake keep your head on a swivel!”

Matt stepped out into the alleyway behind the lieutenant, his eyes locking onto the now-burning coffee shop. No sniper fire lanced out towards them as they began to advance down the street, though sounds of fighting could be heard close by.

Scratch close by, that’s just on the other side of these buildings! he realised with a start. “Contact left!”

A hail of laser fire poured out of the buildings they had just passed, but that wasn’t Matt’s biggest concern. The street shook beneath his boots as a minotaur Toy leapt from the roof of a neighboring building and advanced on their position. Even as Matt levelled his plasma rifle and fired a blast, the armor plates around the Toy’s left arm shifted and formed something not unlike the hoplon shields that the minotaurs wielded. The plasma blast caught the upper portion of the shield and melted it, and the shield rotated on its mounting to catch the next four blasts on undamaged sections. The second Matt stopped to let the rifle cool, the Toy charged.

The cannon on its right arm spoke and one of the rookie Strike operators, Louis, was blasted off of his feet. The Toy fired three more times in rapid succession, the white-hot projectiles pounding their target to the ground. Matt didn’t need to see through the smoke to know that he was dead despite his armor.

Those concussive blasts aren’t hurting the Titan plate, but they’re turning the wearer into mush, Matt realised. The Toy had begun to turn to its second target even as the XCOM and EXALT soldiers exchanged fire when Matt evaluated his options and settled on the most absurd. If this works, I’m going to buy that kid a drink and to Hell with diplomatic procedure, he thought as he reached up to the sword on his back and charged.

The Toy spotted Matt’s advance almost immediately, and it let out a horrific screech as it brought its cannon to bear. Time slowed as the first shell spun lazily out of the barrel, and Matt’s muscles burned as he forced himself to continue forward despite the time dilation. The shot arced over his left shoulder as he drew the sword, and his confidence grew as the the robot spotted the movement and began to backpedal. The second shot burst forth as Matt entered point blank range, and he was nearly knocked off of his feet as it clipped and tore the shoulder armor plates clean off. The shield arm descended to crush him where he stood… and flew free as the skysteel blade crossed paths with it.

Matt had been expecting some sort of resistance from the strike, but the griffon sword passed through the machine as easily as if he had taken a swing at a cloud. Because of this, his next step turned into a stumble and he flailed to try and maintain his balance. He lashed out blindly with the sword in an attempt to stave off any further attacks as he regained his balance.

Crash! The flow of time resumed as the torso of the Toy crashed to the ground, and its lower half followed a second later. The upper half of the robot tried to back away with is one intact arm, but Matt was quicker as he jammed the sword into its chest. The Toy spasmed and moved no more.

A roar from the buildings caught Matt’s attention, and a moment later two hoplites rushed out. Their armor and shields were pockmarked with gouges and melted pits from laser weapons, and that only increased as they closed in on the EXALT position’s flank. One enemy ducked under a sword strike only to have his head crushed under a shield slam. The second minotaur nearly bisected one enemy, only to be felled by a precision shot from another EXALT. That shooter was torn to pieces by a hail of cannon fire from the peltasts that entered the fray. With no other options available, the remaining EXALT operatives dropped smoke grenades and disengaged from the fight.

“Captain Harris, congratulations on your kill,” the last hoplite said as he stomped up to the wreckage of the Toy.

“It was dumb luck,” Matt answered, but any further conversation was lost as a familiar and entirely unwelcome buzzing began to fill the air. “Enemy aircraft! Get to cover!” he shouted as he suited action to words.

An MH-6 zoomed into view and a wave of laser fire erupted from its weapon mounts. Unlike the man-sized laser weapons, the heavy lasers on the helicopter cut through the heavy armor of both minotaur and human alike with equal ease. By the time the peltasts and Strike operators recovered, the helicopter had ceased firing to move on to other targets.

When Matt leaned out from cover to track the MH-6’s flightpath, he caught sight of other movement in the sky. “Command, Harris. Strike One has engaged but we have casualties. We will need medical support once Captain Armor and the guard get a foothold,” Matt reported as his eyes lingered on the hundreds of chariots descending from the clouds. We’ve got their attention, Shiny. Don’t waste the opportunity.

---

07:30, 12/08/2015, MEC BAY, XCOM COMPOUND, CANTERLOT

Twilight’s nerves were becoming increasingly frayed by all that was going on around her, largely because she had been told not to help. I was the central focus for the teleportation spell that sent all of the humans and minotaurs to Applewood, but the moment that was done, they said it was too dangerous to be there, she groused as she trotted towards the treatment area where Lana was staying. They said that enemy fire might unintentionally teleport back to Canterlot when the wounded return… but what are the odds of that happening?

The alicorn rounded the corner to the treatment rooms and nearly bumped into a human standing guard. She mumbled a quick apology and continued towards where Lana was staying. All three of the MEC operators were shrouded behind privacy screens, and all of the technicians and doctors were bunched up around the consoles and computer screens that ran along the walls. Nobody stopped Twilight as she parted the curtain around Lana and took a seat beside her.

“Well… I’m here, Lana,” Twilight said softly. “I don’t know if you can hear me or not, but I’m here now. You don’t have to worry about things here. Just make sure Pinkie and everypony is safe, okay?” Can she even hear me? Twilight wondered, before shaking her head. Even if she can’t, it still feels good to talk. “Lana, I know it was really hard for you to talk earlier, and I imagine it will be harder when you try and tell the truth to the people that you think you hurt. I can be there with you if you want me to, when the time comes.”

A comfortable silence fell as Twilight put a hoof on Lana’s hand. I’m sorry I can’t really do more to help, Lana. Friendship is what I’ve studied for years, and what happened with you doesn’t sound like it has a really easy answer. Still, I think the best thing to do is to come clean and apologize. I imagine this would have been a good letter to write to Celestia…

The rustling of the privacy screen interrupted Twilight’s train of thought, and she glanced over to see a doctor she couldn’t quite recognize approach Lana’s bedside. She silently produced a syringe and injected a clear liquid into the IV drip, before jumping slightly when she noticed Twilight’s attention.

The alicorn’s gaze shifted from the doctor to Lana as she asked, “Is that going to help Lana feel better?”

“In just a little bit, she won’t feel a thing,” the doctor said as she stepped through the privacy screens and out of Twilight’s line of sight.

Less than a minute later, Twilight was trying to comfort her friend as best as she could. Any thoughts she had about the doctor and her injection were long gone from her mind.

------

07:30, 12/08/2015, MANE ST & APPLEWOOD BLVD, APPLEWOOD

The EXALT soldiers that were shadowing Lana’s advance had wisened up to the fact that she was mostly impervious to their laser weaponry, and she was simply too fast to get caught by a rocket except at point blank range. And they know what happens when they get within point blank range of me… she thought, and she didn’t need to look at the blood splattered across her metal hands to affirm the point.

Unfortunately, this led to a disconcerting lack of action for the woman, and her mind began to wander. A new voice had joined the debate, and it was one that Lana hadn’t heard in over ten years. Like the darker voice that berated her, this one also belonged to Lana and it was quiet, gentle and full of hope. It was everything she had ceased to be over the last ten years.

How do you know that she isn’t sincere? It’s not her nature that bothers you: It’s the possibility that she sees the real you and accepts it.

Lana rounded a corner and was rewarded with another empty street with nothing to silence that insidious train of thought.

She’s guessed just about everything about you, stuff that not even Matt knows about, and that hasn’t stopped her at all! This is the chance that you thought you lost. Take it! Take it!

The darker voice, that of her cynicism, remained silent as Lana turned the next corner. If she were in her natural body, she would have let out a sigh of relief. The last known location of the operative was at the mouth of a tunnel going underground just ahead… and at the mouth of the tunnel were four of the minotaur Toys.

The internal debate was silenced as Lana’s responsible side kicked in. “Command, Beowulf. Approaching last known location for the operative. It shouldn’t take me more than a minute to clear out the enemies.”

Copy, Beowulf. Engineering would like an intact Toy core for study. Try and disable one of them so that a recovery team can pick up the salvage.

All four of the Toys turned towards Lana and charged. The lead Toy’s left arm split open as a massive blade swung out and into place. The second balled its fist, and soon it dangled from its arm on a long chain. Both opened up with the cannons on their right arms as they closed into melee range.

Despite her appearance as a short and spritely girl, Lana Jenkins had a certain reputation among the Strike operators in XCOM. Prior to the injury that took one of her limbs, she had been the undefeated unarmed combat champion, bar none. She had repeatedly dismantled men in the fighting ring that were more than a foot taller than her and easily a hundred pounds heavier. When she had lost her left arm, she (and the rest of the Strike teams) thought that her reign of terror had ended.

Then that mad engineer Shen had produced the Beowulf prototype, and had enticed Lana with the idea of volunteering to test it with promises of a close combat kit tailored specifically for her. She took him up on the offer only once, and then she swore off the MEC program ever since. The painful process of assuming control of the machine combined with the debilitating side effects for a week after disconnecting just didn’t seem worth it to her.

Until now.

Four enemies were approaching Lana with the intent to engage in melee, and she had a body that made her superhuman. If she were in her original body, she would have licked her lips and grinned. Lana was going to destroy them.

The MEC charged to meet the blade-wielding Toy, and she lunged forward to place herself close enough to go to work. Her right foot caught the Toy’s left hoof and crushed it, causing its charging attack to become an uncontrolled stagger. Lana’s left hand caught the sword arm as it descended while the KS module on her right arm connected with the Toy’s waist and fired. The lower half of her enemy flew apart from the strike while the momentum of its torso carried it over Lana’s head.

The flail-using Toy was next, and a half-second burst from the gatling under her arm severed the chain mid-swing. With its melee weapon suddenly removed, the Toy levelled its cannon and opened up. The thudding impacts ricocheted off of the angled chest armor as Lana charged. The Toy tried to retreat a step, but it was too late. Her right hand grabbed the cannon arm and pushed it upwards while the KS module on her left arm connected right where the floating ribs would have been on a human. The armored chassis of the Toy crumpled like a tin can and flew into the second story of the nearby office building, leaving Lana with a severed limb in her right hand.

Lana didn’t waste a moment to revel in the kills as she hurled the Toy arm at the next one in line before charging the last. A short burst from the rockets in her legs sent her flying towards the fourth Toy, who was entirely unprepared for the sudden charge. It toppled over onto its back and could offer no defense as Lana gripped its head by the horns and wrenched it free. The now-headless Toy flailed blindly on the ground, only for its struggles to end as Lana impaled it with one of its own horns.

The last surviving Toy had apparently learned the lessons Lana had been teaching as it elected to stay at long range with its cannon. The first three shots connected with her back as she rose from her last kill, destroying the laser cannon mounted there. The damage was mitigated as Lana turned and brought her forward armor to bear, but the Toy didn’t relent in its barrage.

Lana chose to respond in kind with the gatling, the dull roar of her weapon drowning out the staccato reports of the Toy’s cannon. The hail of bullets pounded the robot’s head and eye, causing it to flinch and give her the opening she needed to finish the fight. She closed into melee and obliterated the Toy’s left leg with one kinetic strike, then followed up with a second kinetic strike to its head as it tumbled down.

Not bad, if I say so myself, Lana thought as she took a mental tally of the damage. There should be two cores for salvage, but that’s something Command can worry about. Now I have to find that operative. She walked over to the mouth of the tunnel and had started to call out, but froze upon what she saw within.

The tunnel was a charnel house. At least three (or more, but she could see only heads amongst the gore) EXALT agents were dead, either nailed to the walls or ceiling by stalagmites or mashed into pulp on the floor by columns of stone. Of the operative, there was no sign.

“Command, are you seeing this?” Lana asked. “The signal for the operative ends here, but she isn’t in the tunnel as far as I can tell.” Her view zoomed in and she caught sight of bloody hoofprints moving from the scene of the massacre; the trail led from the tunnel to the mess of buildings opposite of the tunnel. “If EXALT was tracking the signal too, then she might have ditched it. Should I follow this trail?”

A minute passed before Fujikawa responded. “Green light, Beowulf. Follow the trail as best you can and report on the operative’s status. Emergency medical personnel are on standby.

“Solid copy, Command. Beowulf, out,” Lana said as she straightened.

Her pace was a brisk walk as she followed the bloody hoofsteps, and she was just about to follow them around a corner when four cannon shells collided simultaneously with her back. She swore loudly as her HUD flickered and she turned to face her attacker. “Oh, that’s fucking bullshit.”

Lana’s brothers, being the little boys that they were, always had a thing for robots. Cartoon robots, model robots, Lego robots, and by extension Lana became passingly familiar with the terminology of those that pursued such hobbies. One of those terms involved the application of different parts on different robots (or multiple parts of the same robot) to create something new. The term ‘kitbashing’ seemed oddly appropriate back then as it did right at that moment.

Apparently while Lana had been inspecting the tunnel, the first and last Toy that Lana had fought had apparently gathered various parts from the battlefield and merged together. One Toy’s torso formed a base that trundled forward on the severed arms and legs of its comrades, while the second Toy’s torso sat like a turret atop it. All four of the Toy cannons were mounted on the shoulders of the turret, and they began to volley fire on Lana with an impressive amount of accuracy for what was essentially a robotic Frankenstein’s monster.

“Command, Beowulf... so, about those cores you wanted me to salvage…” Lana said as she ducked into cover, “I think that might not be an option at this point.”

A sotto voce curse came through the radio. “Copy that, Beowulf. I’m sending Edelweiss to you to help finish that off.

“Understood, Command. I’ll do what I can until then,” Lana replied as she took cover behind the buildings. More than once she stumbled and her legs began to drag. Damn, that thing must have clipped something vital. I just have to hold out a little longer and then the big guns will show up and deal with that menace, she thought as she limped into the shadow of the next building.

------

07:50, 12/08/2015, RAS THUNDERHEAD, SKIES OVER APPLEWOOD

As much as Rainbow Dash hated to admit it, she had nearly reached her limit. For seven solid hours she had coordinated and assisted the combined weather teams of Equestria to create the densest cloud bank ever attempted. True to her statement to the pegasi that had left Canterlot, not a single raindrop or snowflake had fallen from the wall of clouds. By everyone’s estimation they had done a smashing job and none of the evil humans in the city had been aware of what had been lurking in the clouds, waiting to strike. It was an achievement that few pegasi would ever think of doing, and Rainbow Dash had been responsible for the first successful attempt.

The problem was that she was too tired to properly boast about it, and so was everypony else. The deck of the Thunderhead was mostly filled with exhausted weather team members, with a small group of other ponies providing medical help where necessary. A small group of humans and griffons were also on the airship’s main deck, looking down through the clouds with special eyepieces that apparently ignored the clouds entirely.

That’s one of Twilight’s human friends, isn’t it? Rainbow thought as she spotted a scarred human with short white hair and a small goatee. He sure isn’t like Twilight’s other human friends. I think that the world would probably end before he cracks a smile.

Rather than sprawl out on the deck and let her muscles cramp up, Rainbow chose to walk (or more accurately, limp) over to the railing. The royal airship hovered above the cloud level and Celestia’s sun could be seen rising beautifully over the horizon Just an hour earlier the entire sky was filled with chariots laden with ponies from the Guard waiting to descend into the city. I imagine it might lift their spirits if they saw the sun rising above them… she thought, and as a mental exercise she began the planning process for dismantling the cloud bank that they had worked so hard on…

Wait, that’s not right, Dash thought as she squinted into the clouds. Something’s flying through the clouds, but I can’t see it. I can’t even see a shadow or an outline, and that shouldn’t be possible. The pegasus held her eyes shut for a second before opening them again. True enough, the distortion in the clouds wasn’t a figment of her imagination, but even with her sharp eyes she couldn’t find a trace of the source.

Rainbow sidestepped along the railing until she was beside the scarred human. “Hey, uh… you. There’s something flying around the clouds but I can’t see it. Can you use one of your eye thingies and see what it is?”

The human gave Dash a sideways glance before squinting into the clouds. Then he closed his eyes and let out a slow breath… then his eyes shot open immediately. “Command, Zhang,” he said as he tapped one of those radio thingies in his ear. “Ospreys have been spotted entering the city airspace, and they are using Wallflower devices to avoid detection. Advise the ground forces to use scanners and Arcanists to detect any enemies that may be hiding in plain sight.”

“Ospreys? I’ve never seen a bird big enough to disturb that much of a cloudbank…” Dash muttered, and when Zhang didn’t elaborate, she asked, “So, what does that mean?”

“We shall see,” he replied, and he brought those eye thingies back up to stare into the clouds again.

------

08:00, 12/08/2015, CITY CENTER, APPLEWOOD

“You’re a sight for sore eyes, Captain,” Matt said to Shining Armor as they crouched behind a ruined wall. “EXALT is retreating to this location, but they’re making us pay for every inch.”

The unicorn nodded, a grimace easily seen on his face. “Any ideas on what they’re doing here? Consolidating their forces to hold their ground?” he asked as he peeked over the wall... and was rewarded with a laser beam aimed directly at his head. The beam reflected off of the shield he was projecting, but it didn’t stop him from ducking back down into cover.

“Possibly…” Matt answered, though there was little conviction in his tone.

All units, be advised,” Fujikawa said, and Matt was instantly put on edge by her tone. “Ospreys with Wallflower camouflage are approaching the city center. Zhang reports they’re approaching with doors open and no passengers.

“They’re pulling out!” Matt hissed. “Command, Harris. Do we have any assets in the area that can take those birds down?”

You’re the closest, Harris. Other ground teams are reporting that their objectives have been completed. If you see a target of opportunity, you are authorized to engage. Command, out.

Well, crap, Matt thought as he took his own chance to look out from cover. We should probably sit tight. We rescued thousands of civilians before they could be shipped off to God knows where, plus EXALT will really be hurting after losing so much hardware here. Best not get greedy. The idea was almost set in his mind when he saw someone that needed to die.

The EXALT operatives had been laying down covering fire against the ground forces, and were caught on the back foot when a trio of griffons launched themselves from the ruins and attacked from above. One of the enemies was skewered through the chest by a foot-long crossbow bolt that punctured his armor as though it wasn’t even there, while the second was nearly decapitated by a bolt. The third EXALT operative smiled and leaned to the side to avoid the third griffon’s shot. Three laser beams cut through the early morning air and all three griffons fell from the sky. When one drew a blade and tried to rise, the smiling soldier drew a pistol and shot the griffon in the head.

“Ah, my apologies,” the other person said affably as Matt turned to get a good look at him. He was tall and wearing a well-tailored business suit and tie and carried a suitcase in his left hand. His hair was far too long for military standard and was too well-styled to be a regular on the base. Wire-framed glasses sat on his nose and partially hid grey eyes while his smile was wide enough to seem sincere without being creepy. All told, the man was perfectly forgettable and wouldn’t have seemed out of place in an average civilian office.

“Command, Harris! I have eyes on priority target Vide! I am in pursuit!” Matt said as he rose from cover and fired a shot. The plasma burst missed by a wide margin as Vide dodged to the side, and his smile turned into a malicious grin when he spotted the shooter. Rather than return fire, he turned tail and ran further into the city center building. Matt didn’t need any prompting as he hopped over the wall he had been hiding behind and charged after him.

“Matt, wait!” Shining protested before he too charged out of cover. “All units, advance! Go!”

That same rage that Matt had felt all those months ago gave him more than enough motivation to charge headfirst into the EXALT position. He fired his plasma rifle until it overheated, then switched to his tried and true ballistic sidearm. Everything that his mind could touch became a weapon, and soon he had a small cloud of spent shell casings behind him that could be launched at the speed of thought in any direction he pleased.

Despite the groups of EXALT soldiers he plowed through, Vide was always at the end of the next corridor long enough to be seen but not shot. Had Matt approached the situation without his anger, he would have anticipated what came next.

He had just rounded the corner to the city center’s open air patio when he spotted Vide… and the grenade he had just thrown. Through either gene manipulation, implants, or practice and exercise, the grenade flew at Matt with the speed of a fastball. Only his telekinesis kept it from connecting squarely with his helmet, and time stopped just long enough for Matt to read the printed label on the side: ARCANE DAMPING DEVICE 87.

Click.

Pain. That’s all there was. Matt’s entire existence was pain. God, there was something important going on, but he couldn’t remember any of it save for the pain.

“Mister Harris, I’m so glad we were able to meet again. Though I would have rather done so under more… ideal conditions.”

Anger. Anger fought against the pain, and the longer Matt heard that voice, the angrier he got.

“I had actually made arrangements to host such a meeting with you in late October, but those plans fell through. It seems that the men I sent to retrieve you and Miss Jenkins were delayed by traffic, of all things. By the time they extricated themselves, you both were long gone.”

The pain was just a distant memory now, and rage filled every fiber of his being. He struggled to stand, and was momentarily confused as he realised that he was being dragged by whoever was talking.

“EXALT Vide! You are bound by law to stand down!” “Drop your hostage, do it now!” “There’s no getting away from this! Drop him or you’re dead!”

Other voices, male and female, familiar and unfamiliar. What were they saying about a hostage?

“It’s a pity that our reunion will be cut short,” the first voice said, the speaker close enough that he could almost feel breath on his neck. “I had intended to spend significantly more time with both you and Miss Jenkins before you expired. It seems that I will have to make due with the knowledge that at least one of you is dead. Goodbye, Mister Harris.”

Pain seared through his right arm and chest as Vide jammed a knife between the Titan armor plates and into the flesh beneath his right arm. Just as quickly as it had entered, the knife was extracted and Matt was pushed forward and onto his knees. Shouts and weapons fire could be heard from all directions before slowly dying back down.

Harris, Command! Status report!” Fujikawa shouted through the radio. “Beowulf, Edelweiss and Gespenst just disco—” Anything else that the XCOM officer might have said was cut off by the sounds of gunfire and screams from the radio.

------

07:50, 12/08/2015, MEC BAY, XCOM COMPOUND, CANTERLOT

One of the doctors reached out to Twilight and shouted something, but Twilight barely heard it. Her eyes were locked on Lana as her body convulsed on the bed and the increasingly frantic work of the doctors and technicians. The agitated beeping and blaring of the machines in the room only highlighted the seriousness of what was happening.

“She’s in pain…” Twilight whispered, and it took every ounce of her will to resist the impulse to charge in to do something… anything to help. The doctors efforts became increasingly panicked as they gave Lana a series of injections apparently to no avail. There must be something I can do! Some magic to help whatever she’s going through! I can—

The plethora of beeps was replaced with a solid tone, and one of the doctors produced a pair of panels. The other humans stepped away from Lana as the panels were pressed against her chest, and her entire body tensed. The panels were pulled away, only to be reapplied, and the process repeated itself. Three times the panels were applied, and three times Lana remained still.

“Calling it,” the lead doctor said, and the other medical personnel immediately moved to help the other two humans that were in distress. The lead doctor cast a fearful glance at Lana before he said, “Time of death, 7:51 AM. Cause of death…” he trailed off as his gaze fell upon the IV. One hand reached out to turn the IV bag and tube over before he raised his voice, “Notify security for lockdown! These bags have been tampered with!

A technician moved to make the call to the guards as the doctor ran over to Twilight. “Princess, you were with Sergeant Jenkins before this happened. Did anyone do something to the medical gear or her IV drip? Princess, focus!”

Twilight heard the doctor, but her mind was elsewhere.

Lana said she was afraid of being alone and she needed someone to watch over her.

She asked me to watch over her because she trusted me.

I couldn’t protect her.

Twilight’s jaw slowly began to clench as the full gravity of the situation made itself apparent.

Someone came in here and sabotaged her equipment.

That doctor did something to her IV.

I didn’t stop the doctor.

Lana’s dead because of me.

The thought was insidious and began to repeat itself again and again in her mind. Something cold and dark took hold of her as it led to the next logical conclusion.

Lana’s dead, but not just because of me.

A wave of magic pulsed out of Twilight, and she whipped her head around. The rolling wave of magic swept through the castle and the rest of Canterlot before her target was spotted. A second burst of magic teleported Twilight away from the MEC area and deposited the alicorn in the operations command center. The sounds of gunfire reached Twilight’s ears as the the fake doctor and her guard opened fire. Yumiko’s head jerked back in a spray of blood, and Chrysalis screamed and fell as several bullets cracked her carapace.

YOU!” Twilight roared, but she was just a second too late in exercising her wrath.

Both assassins didn’t hesitate in the wake of their shots, instead turning and leaping to an upper level balcony. Before their feet had touched down, Twilight teleported in front of them. “YOU!” she screamed again, and her shout was accompanied by a wave of telekinetic force. The doctor went flying over the railing and through one of the stained glass windows at the opposite end of the hall while the guard skidded backwards against the railing. He brought his rifle up to shoot, only for a wave of telekinetic force to mash him onto the marble floor. A second spell was cast and his limbs slowly turned to stone. He cried out either in pain or surprise as his arms and legs began to merge with the stone of the balcony floor, but Twilight’s attention was elsewhere.

The doctor crashed and bounced across one of the grassy courtyards that surrounded the castle before rolling onto her feet to limp away. She got less than a foot from her landing point when Twilight teleported in front of her.

YOU!” Twilight screamed as she sent the doctor flying into one of the castle walls with another burst of magical power. The telekinetic pressure didn’t relent as the alicorn stalked forward. When the doctor flexed her arms to try and push away from the wall, Twilight doubled the force of her magic. Both of her arms snapped under the pressure, and all she could do was stare as the alicorn approached.

She killed Lana! She killed Yumiko! Make her suffer! Make her pay! Do it, Twilight… it will be so easy…

“You…” Twilight growled.

All it would take is just a tiny bit more to crush her. Just a little push and she will pay for what she did.

“You…”

Twilight could hear the approach of the Solar Guards as well as their human counterparts, and Princess Luna’s soothing voice could be heard faintly. There was no way that the murderer could escape now, but she had attacked them. Nopony would object if she simply ended the fake doctor.

"You'll only be a monster when the lives of others mean nothing to you. The fact that you feel guilt now means that you're still a good person."

The memory of Matt’s conversation came to her unexpectedly, and her breath caught in her throat.

“You… are... “ Twilight struggled to say as she held back a sob, “...bound by law to stand down for crimes against Equestria and her allies.” Her magic stopped, dropping the assassin to the stone floor. She had just enough concentration to teleport herself away before breaking down.

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