• Published 2nd Aug 2014
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Iron Hearts: Book 4 - Emerald Dawn - SFaccountant



MLP/Warhammer 40K crossover, part 4. The Tau have left, but now a new threat threatens to overrun Equestria and its home planet. This time, though, hope lay with the darker powers...

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Building Bridges

Iron Hearts

Book 4

Emerald Dawn


Disclaimer: my lawyers have advised me to keep a tank of gasoline in my room and light my apartment on fire if I'm every contacted by anyone from Hasbro or Games Workshop. Or anyone from Canada or Britain. I have the matches ready, guys! Don't test me!


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


Dramatis Personae


38th Company:

Solon - Warsmith (high commander) dedicated to Nurgle

Sliver - Vice-commander dedicated to Nurgle

Tellis - Raptor Lord dedicated to Khorne

Serith - High Sorcerer

Dest - rhino driver

Cyrus Gnoss - human mercenary General

Wyatt Daniels - human mercenary

Norris Delgan - human Trademaster

The Great and Powerful Trixie - entertainer/mercenary


Dark Mechanicus:

Gaela - Dark Acolyte

Abandoned Tau:

Jerriha - Shas'vre Fireblade

Fennin - Fio'el Master Engineer

Wraithstar - Shas'el Commander


Orks:

Hazarr "Coggz" Wrencha - Ork Big Mek




Journal Log: I knew this plan was a bad idea. I knew it. I've never been comfortable using aliens as weapons. Soldiers, fine. Pets, whatever. As long as it would follow orders and kill what we want it to kill. But kiting an Ork Waaaugh through the sector to barrel them into a bunch of Tyranids? That's not just playing with fire, that's playing IN fire. There were so many things that could have gone wrong.

Like having another faction interfere and knock out our passage off-world.

The Iron Warriors... they don't fight like Imperial troops. It's difficult to describe. They have the same weapons, use the same formations and squad tactics, and yet... they're different. More efficient. More cautious. More experienced. They seem to look at warfare as a balance of risk and reward, rather than following the dogmatic "xenos-must-die-at-any-cost" foolishness of the humans I've fought before. They fight like they have something to lose.

And now they're the only thing standing between us and a category 13 Ork armada.

I can't imagine they'll be standing there for very long. Again, risk versus reward. Once they figure out what's coming they'll abandon this planet almost as fast as we did.

Ironic. If Jerriha is still alive, then she'll be carried off-world and survive as a slave of the 38th Company. Those of us that remain "free" - including the human slaves we rescued - will get to be butchered by aliens.

And then there's the rest of the sorry creatures on this rock. Before, I dismissed their coming extinction with some half-hearted pity and a reminder that this is all strictly necessary. Now that I'm in the same position as them, I find myself much more sympathetic.

And yet here I am, still guarding the damned beacon that's condemned us all.

I haven't told the men yet, although I'm sure the officers are already suspicious about the lack of an evacuation. There's going to be riots and desertions from the humans, I'm sure. Not sure what to expect from the kroot; their mood tends to shift depending on their recent fortunes, and they've been cooped up in Black Point for too long.

I know this is for the Greater Good. But from the sounds of things, the Greater Good has no more use for us.

There must be another way. There's always another way.

But what if the "another way" involves a deal with the same post-human maniacs that landed us in this position?


Wraithstar, signing off.




Iron Hearts

Chapter 1

Building Bridges


****


"This. Is. The. WORST. POSSIBLE. THING!" Rarity howled, throwing her head back as she pressed a foreleg against her temples.

The other Elements of Harmony, plus Luna, Trixie, and Big Macintosh, all looked up at her.

Twilight chewed her lip. "I know what you mean. The situation is, well-"

"Scrambled eggs and fried hay with country gravy?!" Rarity cried, thrusting her hooves at the plate in front of her. "Are you serious? This is a PALACE, not the Apple family reunion!"

"Mmph!" Applejack mumbled angrily around a mouthful of food.

As many of the ponies rolled their eyes, Luna sighed. "We must apologize. The royal chef's villa was wrecked by a war machine during yesterday's conflict, and she's off seeing to her affairs. The guards' line cook was called up on short order."

Rarity pouted as Applejack glared at her. "Well, if'n y'all had some apples, Ah coulda whipped somethin' up," she said. She didn't want to admit it, but without her favorite ingredient she probably would have come up with the same menu they were enjoying now.

"Again, We must apologize," Luna mumbled, "the castle had ordered a shipment of apples recently, but... well... received the Warp core instead."

"Which brings us back to our current topic: the irrationally-sized alien armada on a set course for our planet," Twilight said before taking a sip of tea.

There was a long, uncomfortable silence as the ponies went back to eating silently.

Finally, Rainbow Dash swallowed a mouthful of eggs and then furrowed her brow. "Okay, so, are you SURE that they actually meant 'billion'?"

Twilight gave her a flat look. "What else would they mean besides a number followed by nine zeros?"

"Well, maybe it's like 'corn'. For us, it's a vegetable. For them, it's a dark god of bloodshed and hatred," Rainbow reasoned.

Pinkie Pie gasped. "Are you saying we're being invaded by FOOD?! Omygosh! That would be the best war EVER!!"

Twilight clenched her teeth as she rubbed her hoof against her forehead. "Rainbow Dash, I am QUITE certain that we share the same concept of what 'nine-point-seven billion' means."

"Do ya have to include the 'point-seven' part? Ah mean, really, it ain't helpful. Ya might as well round down," Applejack pointed out.

"Or round up," Trixie snorted, "Trixie hardly thinks the difference between ten and nine BILLION enemies matters in this case."

"Eeyup," Big Mac agreed between mouthfuls of fried hay.

Trixie was wearing her armor - sans helmet, obviously - to the table, simply because she enjoyed the envious and bewildered looks it got her from other ponies (and even some humans). Big Macintosh had left the pieces of his own suit back in the room he had stayed in that night, seeing how it had been badly damaged in combat. He felt rather self-conscious about his reconstructed body, but to his relief the ponies around the castle had seen so many strange and awful things recently that nopony bothered him about his augments.

Twilight grimaced as she levitated a fork to tap repeatedly against the table. "... Well? Does anypony have any ideas on what to do?" she asked irritably.

Rainbow Dash immediately raised a foreleg. "We should all get Solon to make us power armor and then kick their butts."

Twilight's eyebrow twitched. "Rainbow. Nine. Point. Seven. BILLION."

"And rising, or so said the Magos," Luna reminded her before taking another bite of gravy-soaked hay. Despite Rarity's complaints, she found she quite liked this kind of food.

Rainbow Dash rolled her eyes. "Okay, yeah, but they're not gonna come at us all at once, right?" Then she frowned. "Besides, what ARE Orks, anyway? What if they're little, shrimpy guys? That Dark Magos dude could have been blowing this whole thing out of proportion."

Luna swallowed the last of her breakfast, and then spoke again. "This is not the first We hast heard of these creatures," she began, instantly having the attention of everypony in the room, "the first conflict with the green beasts was long ago, before We had even reached adulthood."

She paused to gulp down her milk, then levitated the empty glass down. "We recall that after the conflict was over, but one alien vessel was found to hath landed, yet its descent had led to three years of constant war. The turning point evidently came with a last-minute alliance with the dragons, whom had suffered a rash of egg thefts thank to the brutes. Eventually the dragons laid fiery waste to the enemy camps with such fury that even to this day, hardly a blade of grass can grow in the badlands."

She looked around at the table at the others, noting their rapt attention, and that Twilight's eyes in particular were bulging. "Thou may be interested to know that the ancient alliance is actually the reason that Celestia took to using dragon eggs for her school's magic exam. Although the training of dragons as warbeasts is a practice that has apparently fallen into disuse over the centuries. Too expensive to feed, We hear."

Twilight suddenly jumped up, her wings flared and her eyes wide. "I've never heard of anything like that! Which history book is it in?!"

Luna shrugged. "As far as We art aware, all records of that conflict were purged some time during our exile. A pity; it was by far one of the more interesting wars." Then she frowned, rewinding the conversation back in her head. "But We digress; the Orks art not weaklings."

"Well, Trixie has a plan," the blue unicorn announced as she pushed her empty plate forward. Taking a moment to savor having everypony's attention, she then provided her admittedly underwhelming explanation. "Trixie is extending Trixie's contract with the 38th Company so that if they flee the system, Trixie goes with them."

Most of the other ponies sighed or rolled their eyes, but Rainbow Dash scowled. "Seriously? You're cutting and running?"

Trixie snorted. "Trixie has found her place among the human fleet, and works for them now. And the Iron Warriors are the ones who do this intergalactic warfare thing for a living. They'll know what to do. Or, if absolutely nothing can be done, then they also conveniently offer a path of escape from this planet before everypony is up to their necks in aliens."

The armored unicorn stepped away from the table, levitating her helmet over to follow her as she headed for the exit to the dining hall (her boots squishing on a recently mopped-up blood stain in the process). "Trixie is going to find a gunship home now. If anypony wants to get in on Trixie's ticket off-world, you know where to find Trixie."


Twilight grumbled something under her breath as her head slumped against the table. Her breakfast was getting cold, but she found she didn't have much of an appetite.

"While I don't much care for her attitude toward planetary genocide," Rarity began as she tapped a hoof against her chin, "she does bring up a good point. What is the 38th Company going to do?"

Twilight grimaced as she lifted her head up. She had known this topic was coming, and had spent long, sleepless hours last night thinking on it.

"The thing is, girls... I don't think we can count on the 38th Company to help this time," Twilight mumbled, staring down at her plate.

Rainbow Dash blinked. "What? Why not?"

"Well... Rainbow, you were there at that meeting, when they were planning the attack on Canterlot. They were going to destroy the entire city because it was easier than getting soldiers in and fighting it out," Twilight began.

"Yeah, I know. So that Sliver guy is a tool. So what?" Rainbow Dash said flippantly. "We talked them out of that."

"Sure, but..." Twilight chewed her lip briefly, "for me, that was kind of a wake-up call. We only convinced them to attack and save us by convincing them that it was in their best interest." She looked around the table at her friends. "This time, it ISN'T in their best interest. At all. They have no stake in this fight. It isn't even their fight to begin with! This... 'Emerald Dawn' project of the Tau's was going on right under our noses, and it's only thanks to the Iron Warriors' pirate tendencies that we knew about any of this before it was too late."

"Well, okay, fine, but why wouldn't they help out anyway?" Rainbow asked again. "We're friends, aren't we?"

"That's the other part of my 'wake-up call'," Twilight mumbled, rubbing her cheek. "The 38th Company are not our friends. Gaela is our friend. Daniels is our friend. Dest is our friend, probably. Tellis is... well, your friend, Rainbow. And he's Fluttershy's... roommate, was it?"

"I can't be sure until I get home again, actually," Fluttershy admitted quietly, "but I hope not."

"Anyway, my point is that we can't count on an entire army to risk life and limb to help defend us out of friendship," Twilight concluded grimly.

Luna nodded. "Aye. It doth not help matters that they hath not found the warmest welcome here, in our seat of power."

"Then let's welcome them!"

The other ponies looked surprised at Pinkie's outburst, and found that the party pony was now standing on the table and grinning.

"You say we're not friends with the 38th Company? Then let's make friends with them!" Pinkie Pie bounced up and down in place, unsettling several of the table settings. "We'll throw parties! Play drinking games! Gamble! Have sexy pillow fights! Eat tons of tasty food! Hold wet mane contests!"

The other ponies looked at each other uncertainly.

"Uhm... do you... really think that would work?" Fluttershy asked nervously. Tellis being her main point of exposure to humanity, she wasn't so sure that the Company would be able to get along with most ponies.

"Of course it will work! It HAS been working!" Pinkie chided, smirking as she stood over the other ponies. "I'm already two parties in with the humans, remember? They're not so different from us ponies once you get past the back-breaking militarism and hateful cult worship! And even those things can be made into pretty cool party games if you're creative!"

Twilight brought her head up, considering. "You... You really think we can do that? Make friends with an explicitly evil army of pirates?"

"Silly filly!" Pinkie said as she leaned down to pat Twilight's head. "We already have! You just listed a bunch of our alien friends, remember? We just need to do it MORE! And FASTER!"

The pink pony jumped up onto her rear legs, grinning at the expressions of rising hope among her friends. "So let's go, everypony! It's time to turn Khorne's frown upside-down and hobnob with the Nurglites! For FRIENDSHIP!"

Luna pressed a hoof to her chin as she considered the prospect. "So, just to be clear, we art embarking upon this friendship venture for the specific purpose of convincing the humans to fight - and in all probability die - in a hopeless defense of our planet for us? A defense that - if successful - would take place just before they leave our world forever?"

Nopony said a word for several seconds.

Then Pinkie's ears fell against her head and she dropped back down to all fours.

"Wow. When you put it that way, it kind of makes us look like jerks," Pinkie admitted while wincing.

Luna blinked. "We did not mean to imply that thy plan is flawed. We were simply not aware that friendship could be used as a form of manipulation as such."

"Ya know what? Why don' we all take a day off of plannin' space wars and sleep on it?" Applejack asked with a disgruntled sigh. "We haven't even finished gatherin' up the bodies from the LAST alien invasion. Ah need to take a break from worryin' about bein' killed by space men to worry about how mah farm is gonna support mah family long enough to get killed by space men."

"Leave it to Applejack to fret about her next mortgage payment while facing interplanetary genocide," Rarity said before sipping some tea, "in any case, whether or not we're relying on them, I think we should at least ask the Company about their immediate plans, and for information about these Ork creatures."

Luna nodded. "Aye, that is wise. Which elements of their leadership yet remain in Canterlot?"

Twilight frowned. "Solon and Gaela went back to Ferrous Dominus. They had to... you know... get new limbs." Twilight squirmed in her chair, trying to resist glancing at Big Mac. The prospect of replacing body parts as if they were articles of clothing or equipment still bothered her and fascinated the hell out of her at the same time.

"Tellis took off after I talked him out of fighting with a bunch of pegasus guards that were cleaning the statues in the city," Rainbow Dash explained, "I don't know where he went, but he was mumbling about home decorating or something."

Fluttershy shuddered.

"And Dan and Dest sat out the siege," Applejack noted, "are there any other humans we know around here?"

Rarity frowned. "Delgan's probably still here."

"Then thou would best meet with him," Luna declared, standing up, "as for us, We shall retire soon. We were up early yesterday, and last night was most taxing."

"Okay. Good night, Luna. Er, good... day, I mean," Twilight said awkwardly as the dark Princess walked behind her, "Rarity, I'll go with you to talk to Delgan."

Unnoticed by the rest of the ponies at the table, as Luna approached the exit a blue glow surrounded Big Macintosh and lifted him up off the floor.

The stallion's eyes widened and he flailed his legs, but he said nothing as he was helplessly pulled through the air into the next room.

"Everypony else should head home and see to their own affairs for now," Twilight decided, pushing herself up with her front hooves on the table. "I know we can find a solution to this. And that whatever happens, we'll face it together."

"Right!" agreed the others, nodding brightly. Then everypony other than than Rarity and Twilight moved to exit the room and head to the train station.


"... Hey, did any y'all see where Big Mac went?"


****


Canterlot Castle - several rooms over


"And thy legs move at will? As if they were flesh and blood?"

"Eeyup."

"Marvelous! What wonders hath been bestowed upon thee!"

Big Macintosh tried to keep from sweating as he was poked and prodded all over. This was exactly what he had dreaded would happen once he left the jaded space-city of Ferrous Dominus to return to pony civilization: having his bionics scrutinized and toyed with roughly while being interrogated about them.

The fact that it was Princess Luna herself doing the poking and prodding amplified the discomfort severely. Most ponies he could politely ignore or turn down, and then simply leave. That wasn't really an option with the second most powerful pony in Equestria.

Actually, it wasn't an option at all. She had immobilized him with magic to keep him still.

Luna pressed her ear to the stallion's back, and then banged on his metal side and listened carefully. She didn't seem to notice that her mane swept up and covered over the stallion's face in the process.

Her hair had a strange smell, he decided. Not unpleasant, but completely unique and somewhat tangy. He decided then and there that he would never share this tidbit with anypony, as there was simply no safe way to explain how he had ended up sniffing Princess Luna's mane.

"No echo," Luna remarked as she pulled back. Then she tapped his hip joint. "Ah ha! This device turns!"

"Eeyu-yuh-yuh-yuh-yu-u-u-up!" Big Mac started vibrating violently as Luna magically forced the actuator wheel to spin while watching the part closely.

Mac felt a sudden and involuntary muscle twitch before his rear augmetic suddenly lashed out on its own. It struck nothing but air, but merely leaving the ground at such velocity had ripped a small tear in the tiling below.

Luna jerked back at the reaction, surprised that it had been able to break through her telekinesis. Then she looked unreasonably pleased as she saw a vase on the other side of the room shaking due to the shift in air pressure alone. "Such force! What fun!"

Big Mac suppressed a "Nnope." Then he felt Luna dragging her hooves over his back again, pressing at the seam between metal and flesh.

Really, all the body contact was the worst part of it: Luna was, obviously, a devastatingly attractive mare, and all the touching was getting him antsy. Yet he was being handled as if he were some science fair project up for judging. Put bluntly, he felt like a freak who had been placed on display in front of its colthood crush.

Big Mac heard a clanking noise from below, and his eyes bulged as his chest panel swung open.

"Oooooh..." Luna made an impressed noise as she stared into Mac's chest interior. There wasn't a biological organ to be seen; the entire space was a web of dark cables, humming cylinders, and glittering circuitry.

Big Mac bit his lip as he watched Luna stick her muzzle deeper into his chest cavity. Then he silently prayed to the alicorn's sister above (two rooms up and one hall over, actually) that she wouldn't touch anything important.

"Mac, there ya are!"


Luna's head snapped up in surprise, very nearly impaling Big Mac's jaw with her horn. Had her telekinesis not broken at the same time, he wouldn't have been able to dodge his head out of the way in time.

Applejack trotted into the room, raising an eyebrow as she saw her older brother standing in the center of the empty room with Luna. "What's goin' on, Big Mac? We're all clear to head home now." She saw that his chest panel was open, but didn't really know what to make of the scene.

"Ah, Miss Applejack!" Luna proclaimed, turning to face the other mare. "We apologize! We hast requisitioned thy kin without thy sanction!"

Applejack blinked at that, and she completely missed the relieved expression on Big Mac's face. "What? Nah, ya don't gotta get mah permission fer nothin'!" She laughed. "Ya need mah big bro fer some work?"

"Indeed!" Luna said loudly. Not Canterlot Voice loud, but she was still apparently excited enough that she'd momentarily forgotten the concept of "inside voice". "If it pleases thee, We would borrow thy sibling for the remainder of my sister's light, and teleport him home upon the dusk!"

Big Macintosh twitched. There was no way Applejack was going to refuse.

Then, to his distress, she did something worse.

"Golly, Princess, like Ah said, ya don' need mah permission!" Applejack laughed, gesturing to Big Macintosh. "Mac, whaddya say?"


The crimson stallion hung his head, staring at the floor. AJ was giving him the honor of PERSONALLY turning down Princess bucking Luna or submitting himself willingly to her thoughtless curiosity, roaming hooves, and reckless magic.

Big Mac's eyes narrowed as he slowly pushed his chest panel closed, hearing it snap shut with a firm click. You know what? The heck with it. Luna was a big girl. Or big immortal night goddess, as it were. His farm had been wrecked, his youngest sister had been inducted into a dark cult, and he had taken a significant beating helping liberate Canterlot. Luna could handle the idea that he had better things to do than entertain her for a day, especially as she was supposed to be sleeping anyhow.

He looked up into her eyes and opened his mouth.

His thoughts stumbled, and an "Eeyup" slipped out.

"Huzzah! Many thanks, Sir Apple!" Luna shouted, rearing up and tapping her hooves together like a young filly given a new toy.

"Well, that settles it, then. Mac, Ah'll see ya when Ah see ya," Applejack said, trotting over and giving the stallion a playful kick in his bionic leg, "now Ah know yer worried about the farm, but ya leave it all to me! 'Sides, it ain't like we don't got bigger problems on the horizon." With a surprisingly upbeat snort, Applejack turned away and cantered off.

Big Macintosh twitched. In that moment, when he had looked Luna in the eyes...

It wasn't fair.

She was even taller than he was, at least fifty times his age, and an ex-megalomaniac to boot.

How did LUNA manage the sad puppy dog eyes?


After the door shut behind his sister, Macintosh braced himself for the reckless prodding to continue. He half expected Luna to next try to magically disassemble his metal parts, like the Princesses had reputedly done to Shas'o Voidsong's battle armor. A horrific image flashed through Mac's head of his body on the floor of the palace, dismembered and immobile, sitting in a pile of stripped components and metal plates.

"Truly, Macintosh, thy body is a wonder to rival that of Equestria's mightiest magical treasures," Luna said, surprising Big Mac by speaking at a sane volume and without touching him. Looking at her, there actually seemed to be a hint of anxiousness to her, now.

There was a long pause, and then Luna spoke again. This time her voice was soft.

"We art vexed," she admitted, her ears falling back against her head and her expression souring, "and We... We hoped thee could could provide some guidance in this matter."

Big Macintosh raised an eyebrow. A Princess was asking HIM for advice?

"Putting aside the coming invasion, We find ourselves torn between the human invaders and our government. Well, mayhaps less the government and more Celestia herself."

Luna took a moment to glance around the room, as if searching for eavesdroppers. "Come with me. This would be best spoken of in private."

Macintosh started to nod, but before he could even complete the motion a flash of magic engulfed him.


Big Mac blinked the spots from his eyes before he looked around at where he had been teleported. It seemed to be Luna's bedroom, judging by the big, dark bed and the proliferation of moon and star motifs within the room. Magic glow lamps provided dim illumination, as there was only one window and it was covered with shutters and curtains.

Luna used her magic to open the window shutters and push aside the curtains, allowing some natural light into the room. Then she began speaking again.

"In truth, We had expected the aid of the 38th Company to redeem them in the eyes of our sister. It hath not done so," Luna paused briefly, pursing her lips, "if anything, she seems more troubled than before by the humans after witnessing the Warsmith in combat, and is concerned of the sudden - and some might say deserved - popularity of their soldiers among the citizens."

Big Mac furrowed his brow. All he'd heard about Solon's fight was that it had ended very badly for the Warsmith. Twilight seemed reluctant to reveal the details, and when Rainbow Dash had asked Rarity, she had simply shuddered and began a melodramatic monologue about the savagery of war. Rainbow had retracted her question before the couch had been brought out.

"Sister fears the influence of Chaos," Luna continued, pacing in front of her bed while frowning, "and she lets her fear dominate her reason. But obviously, Our sister's opinion is not easy to dismiss. We feel t'would be best to sway her on this matter, and in this thee shall be of great import."

Big Mac's expression shifted to one more skeptical.

"Thy revival and augmentation is an act of supreme skill and benevolence," Luna declared, stopping her pacing to look at him, "if thy situation is presented to Celestia, then mayhaps she will look more favorably upon humanity."

Big Macintosh grimaced. "Nnope."

Luna raised an eyebrow. "And why not?"

Big Macintosh wet his lips as he worked out an answer.

"Thing is, Highness, mah gettin' metal parts weren't no act of benevolence. It was part of a trade," Big Mac explained, "Warsmith Solon used me to get mah sister and her friends to take on some dangerous mission against the grays, Ah hear. That ain't exactly charity. 'Sides that, soon as he had the chance, Solon built me into that armor suit and turned me into a livin' weapon, just 'cause he felt like it. So Ah really don't think Ah make a good case."

Luna clicked her tongue in annoyance, idly kicking at a lounge pillow.

"Also, Ah..." Big Mac trailed off and then snapped his jaw shut, as if suddenly aware of how much he had been talking.

Luna turned toward him sharply. "Macintosh, speak." The stallion looked uncertain, and Luna's expression hardened. "We hast requested thy counsel, Macintosh, and We expect to hear it. Even if thou suspects it may displease us."

Big Mac winced, but decided there was nothing for it now. He took another long pause to organize his thoughts.

"The way you talk about it, ya don't really seem torn 'tween the humans and yer sister. Ya wanna accept the humans, and want help gettin' yer sister to agree."

"And is this wrong?" Luna huffed.

"Nnope." Another pause. "But... ya seem to wanna show her that the Company's full'o good folk. That won't work, 'cause it ain't. They're pirates and slavers, and, with respect to Miss Pie, we ain't gonna change that with a few parties."

"Oh?" Luna frowned, considering the point. "'Tis true that We hast not been amongst the humans as much as thee. Describe them to us."

Big Macintosh sat down on the floor, falling into another of his long pauses.

"Ah try not to judge, and there're a lot of different kinds in the fleet," he finally said, "the mercs're worlds different from the Tech clergy, and the Iron Warriors are an entirely different beast. But if Ah was to come up with a common trait fer all of 'em, Ah'd say it's economy."

"Economy?" Luna's brow furrowed.

"They're always thinkin' about what's in it fer them," the stallion explained, "if they can help ya, then they might do it without bein' asked, but only if they think they'll get somethin' out of it. Makes it hard to trust 'em, 'cause ya know they're always lookin' out fer number one. Gaela's a bit of an odd one out, helpin' folk because she enjoys workin', but as soon as we asked her to do somethin' she didn't like she dug her heels in."

The stallion paused, and then continued. "Thing is, economy cuts both ways. Give 'em a hand and they'll chalk up a debt, even if ya don't want nothin'. Prolly figure that if they repay it, ya might do it again. Speakin' as a businesspony, that kinda attitude can be helpful. Makes it hard to make friends, though."

Luna grimaced. Good intentions, selflessness, love, and friendship were Celestia's most treasured values. As far as she had seen and heard, the 38th Company seemed to possess none of them. "Economy" was not going to impress Celestia.

"So then thee supposes that Sister may be right about them? That they are corrupt and untrustworthy beyond hope of redemption?" Luna asked as her eyes narrowed.

Big Mac winced again, and he started looking around nervously. Clearly he had an answer, but he didn't want to share it.

"Come now, Macintosh," Luna smirked as she sat down next to him and then settled a wing over his back, "thou may speak freely here."

Big Mac took a deep breath. "Well... with respect to... her Highness, Princess Celestia... she don't always make the-" he bit his tongue before the word "right" slipped out. "... she don't always make the most PRACTICAL decisions."

Luna laughed outright, startling the stallion. Then she slapped a hoof onto his back, nearly knocking him over.

"Such nerve!" Luna giggled, grinning. "And yet thee looks to expect lightning to smite thee for thy criticism! Dost thou fear retribution from us?"

"Not so much that," the stallion mumbled as he winced at the new bruise forming on his back, "like Ah said, Ah don't right like judgin' folk. Judgin' royalty especially, as if an apple farmer has any clue what it's like to run a country, jus' don't sit well. Ah could be totally wrong 'bout her highness."

Luna nodded, still smiling. "Thy humility and prudence lends credence to thy words, Macintosh. Please, continue. Thou surely has more to share."

Another pause, and then Big Mac sighed. "Ah reckon Miss Trixie said it best, actually. Them Iron Warriors know these critters. They fight fer a livin'. When the grays swooped in and started puttin' down roots, we didn't even know they were there. But when the 38th got to 'em, they took 'em apart like a rickety shed. They know what they're doin', but we're new to this. We can't do this without their help. And speakin' from experience, their help is pretty good, even if they're right awful people."

Luna nodded solemnly. "'Tis true. But Sparkle confided that they art unlikely to aid us for this upcoming conflict."

Macintosh sighed. "Eeyup."

The Princess of the Night went back to pacing, considering the matter silently for a few minutes.

"... Very well," Luna said suddenly as she lifted her head, "firstly, We shalt write a letter!"

Big Mac blinked as he watched the Princess trot over to a small desk evidently made of polished onyx. Luna quickly levitated a sheet of parchment and a feather pen onto it.

"We shalt request a meeting between our governing agents to discuss the coming invasion and what might be done. No longer will the burden of negotiating with the alien fleet fall upon the Elements of Harmony alone. Sister may find the prospect of meeting with the Warsmith distasteful, but We art confident We can convince her to be 'practical' for an occasion!"

Big Macintosh sat patiently as Luna wrote her letter, idly wondering if she had finished with him. She had said that she'd return him in the evening, but that left most of the day ahead of them. Did she intend to keep talking to him, or was he going to be helping in the castle some more? There was certainly enough work to go around in restoring the royal property to some semblance of order.

"Complete!" Luna announced, magically rolling the parchment up and then sealing it with wax.

Luna walked to her bedroom door, and then opened it up. Big Mac got up and followed her out.

"Guard! See to the delivery of this missive to the postal service! It is to be delivered to Warsmith Solon within Ferrous Dominus with all haste!" Luna commanded to the unicorn standing outside her door.

The guard seemed surprised to see Luna step out of her bedroom (probably because he hadn't seen her enter), and his surprise doubled when he noticed a large, red, partially cybernetic stallion following her.

He had his orders, though, so he saluted hesitantly and levitated the scroll over to him. "At once, Princess. I'll see to its dispatch personally."

Big Mac watched the other stallion go as he stepped out into the hall, and then he glanced toward Luna, awaiting his next task or imminent dismissal.

The dark-furred alicorn waited until the guard's hoofsteps passed out of hearing range before she spoke, still looking down the hall and away from Big Mac. "We have another task that We would ask of thee, Macintosh. If thou would suffer our presence until the sun's waning hours."

Big Mac bobbed his head calmly. "Eeyup."

"Lay with us."

Big Mac's eyes widened, and then his chest panel blasted open, ejecting a sudden burst of steam.

Luna couldn't keep a serious composure at the sight after she turned around to look, and she burst out laughing as she watched the stallion quickly slam the hatch closed.

"Oh. Ya were... Ya were just jokin'," Big Mac said awkwardly as he looked away. He really didn't know how to feel about that.

As Luna stifled her giggles and brushed the tears from her eyes, her wing came up under Mac's head to tilt it toward her again. "Nay, We were not. We find thy company comforting, thy character pleasing, and thy body... intriguing." Her expression turned more somber. "In these distressing times, We find ourselves yearning. We would have thee sate us, dear Macintosh."

Whatever mental faculty of Mac's that normally dished out decisive yup-or-nope answers had apparently failed the stallion, and his mouth hung open silently for a few seconds.

"Ah think Ah had a dream like this once," he said suddenly, without really thinking about it, "can't remember much of it; Ah woke up in some kinda tube of jelly in Solon's place and was mighty confused from almost dyin' and all... it had the farm, and... somethin' about... a booty... somethin'." Mac realized he was babbling, and he snapped his mouth shut.

Luna snickered as she cast a smoky gaze toward her companion. "We remember that dream well. We were there." She swept her tail over Big Mac's face as she sauntered back into her room, leaving the stunned draft pony in the hall.

After a few seconds of silent contemplation, Macintosh took a deep breath, and then headed back inside Luna's bedroom with a determined expression.

"Eeyup."


****


Canterlot City - The Iron Chest


"I... I don't... really understand. Where's Miss Rarity?" asked Orchid Flair nervously as she stood up against the front counter of her shop.

Norris Delgan was standing in front of her, thumbing through the store's inventory ledger. Behind him, a small squad of riflemen clustered together, staring at the large hole that had been blasted in the shop's wall some time last night. The mercenaries weren't part of Delgan's personal team, but the Trademaster was well-known among the Company's humans, and they knew they would be entitled to a small bonus for serving as a temporary security detail.

"Is this... Is this about the guns? I'm really sorry I handed them out like that, but come on! We were in a battle!" the unicorn mare stressed to the mustachioed human.

Delgan had kept mostly silent after arriving and demanding to look over the store's records, and after perusing them to his satisfaction, he put the book down and looked up at the store manager.

"This property's lease contract is being terminated prematurely. Luckily, your people don't seem to think anything of it when I include a clause allowing for release in case of the local outbreak of hostilities," Delgan said evenly.

Orchid frowned. "Wouldn't that refer to hostilities between Equestria and the 38th Company specifically, though?"

"I'm sure that's what the landlord thought, too," Delgan noted, "this shop will be closed and its remaining inventory returned to my stocks."

"But... it... I..." Orchid shook her head, feeling bewildered. "Come on, be real! I know things have been a little intense recently, but this is an AWFUL time to shut down! Do you know how many ponies wanted to talk to me last night about guard robots and weapons after seeing the assault in action? Somepony even asked about buying a GUNSHIP! It's like all the tension from before about dealing with human gear just up and vanished! You're turning down good bits, here!"

Delgan sighed, regarding the unicorn with a slightly less dismissive expression. "The... irony of my timing is not lost on me. Nonetheless, the stock here is my property, and I will see it returned."

"But I really like this job!" Orchid complained, rapping her hooves against the counter like a filly who had been denied a piece of candy. "What exactly does Miss Rarity have to say about this, anyway? Last I heard, SHE was in charge, here!"

"Yes, that IS what you've heard," Delgan agreed, "and I assure you, her signature will be attached to all the relevant documentation. For now, however, I must recommend letting the heavily armed humans behind me do their job and empty out that back room. The unregistered inventory is too sensitive and valuable to leave here."

Delgan turned on his heel and gestured to the soldiers, who hesitantly walked into the building and headed toward the back. Being trained in tactics, firing drills, rampant looting, and the occasional ritual desecration of Imperial shrines, being used as repo men was new and strange to them.


Delgan sighed as he stepped out onto the streets, fingering the bridge of his nose. He hadn't gotten much sleep since the previous day's battle, and the strenuous physical toll of melee combat and chemical stimulants had left him quite exhausted.

Besides that, he was genuinely displeased that his ventures in Equestria had to be cut short so soon. He hadn't had many opportunities to engage in (mostly) legitimate trade and business with aliens in the past, and those few occasions had been anything but enjoyable. The sorts of alien species that were willing to deal with Chaos forces were usually just as despised and untrustworthy as the renegades and cultists themselves. Heavy security, extreme caution, and sometimes even psychic presence were necessary just to conduct simple deals. Doing business with ponies was pleasant by comparison.

Actually, he'd be willing to admit that doing business with ponies was pleasant even without comparison.

"Another investment squandered before it could bear ripe fruit," Delgan groused to himself.

"I thought I'd find you here, mumbling to yourself," said a voice behind him.


Delgan kept a grimace off his face as he turned toward the mare addressing him.

"Lady Rarity, Princess Sparkle. Good morning," Delgan said politely as he dipped his head.

Rarity was standing on the sidewalk watching the storefront, a parasol hoisted over her head by Spike. Twilight stood just behind them, looking thoughtful.

"Actually, since the planetary rotation was paused for more than half a day, speaking in terms of the current time, which corresponds more closely to our sleep cycles, it's actually-"

"Twilight, darling, we agreed to let me do the talking," Rarity interrupted, batting her eyelids meaningfully at the purple pony. Twilight cringed and fell silent.

"Thank you," Delgan drawled.

"Oh, poor Twilight is just feeling a bit excitable right now. She tends to think too much when she gets stressed," Rarity explained with a light, airy chuckle.

Her expression turned more neutral as she watched several armed men carrying crates and armloads of equipment out of The Iron Chest. "Oh, dear. Delgan, it seems as if some ruffians are looting your establishment," her light tone indicated that she didn't put much stock in that theory.

"I'm shutting down, I'm afraid," Delgan mumbled, turning to watch the soldiers carrying his inventory.

"Now? I would have thought that with the prohibition against humans lifted, you would have been doing more business than ever," Rarity wondered, touching a hoof to her chin.

"Oh, I am," the Trademaster countered, "now that I can finally stroll about your capital, I've finally gotten in touch with the owners of a few decent mining companies. I plan to buy out their stocks, and that of a few farming cooperatives that serve the city. Ores for the Dark Mechanicus and food for the Company's soldiers equals machines and personnel for me."

"Well, I suppose we probably won't need those supplies ourselves for much longer," Twilight mumbled absently.

Delgan raised an eyebrow, glancing at the alicorn. Then he turned his gaze back to Rarity.

"You know why I'm leaving, it would seem."

Rarity groaned and slapped a hoof against her face. "Twilight!"

"Wh-What? What did I do? Were we keeping that a secret? Why?" Twilight asked nervously.

"Well, it's a pity we couldn't keep up pretenses a little longer, Miss Rarity. However, I have to go. I'm SURE you understand," the Trademaster said, moving to follow after the men carrying his property.

Rarity rounded on Twilight, speaking through clenched teeth. "THAT'S why, Twilight. This is a delicate matter!" Spike was glaring at her too, although he honestly didn't have any more idea than Twilight of what she had done wrong.

Before the young Princess could figure out a response, the snow-colored unicorn had rushed past her and raced in front of Delgan, with Spike struggling to keep the parasol in place.

"Norris, wait!" Rarity said, skidding to a stop in front of the man. "We just want to talk!"

Delgan stopped short, his face carefully inexpressive. "I'm terribly sorry, Miss Rarity, but I don't have the time. I'm sure you have your own affairs to tend to as well. You should receive the paperwork soon to see to the closure of The Iron Chest. As soon as that is dealt with, your obligation to me is fulfilled."

"Good to know, but that has nothing to do with what we wish to discuss," Rarity replied evenly, "come now, have a meal with us. We won't keep you too long."

"I think there are precious few restaurants open the day after your city is put to siege," the Trademaster noted blithely.

"Then tea at the castle," Rarity said, drawing a hoof under her mane and brushing it aside, "come on, it will be fun! You can point out which blood stains you caused!"

She was hoping that a joke would lighten the atmosphere, but Delgan didn't seem amused.

He glanced up for a few moments in thought, and then glanced back down at her. "No."

Rarity restrained a frustrated growl. "Norris, please," she said seriously, once again using his first name, "we just want to talk. We're not going to ask you for anything."

He looked more annoyed at her reassurance, although this time he didn't say anything.

"As long as we're done with false pretenses, let's just be open about this," the unicorn said grimly, resting a hoof against her chest, "we're scared, and we need help. All I'm going to ask of you is to sit down with us and answer some questions. We want to know what to expect."

"From us, or from the Orks?" Delgan mumbled.

Rarity was quite pleased by the response, but tried to keep her face straight. "As much as you can divulge."

The Trademaster was thinking hard on the subject now, and Rarity knew that it was now or never.

"I'm not asking you this as a business partner, Delgan. You owe us ponies nothing, and I don't blame you for leaving," the unicorn admitted, "but I ask you as a companion. As a friend. Could you help us this much?"

Delgan couldn't restrain a snort. "And here I thought you were too cynical about that 'friendship' tripe."

"Cynical about friendship? Never!" Rarity insisted. "I was mostly cynical about you and your fleet of murderous pirates. It's an instinct that's served me well in dealing with you."

Delgan sighed, his eyes dropping to the ground. "All right, you'll have your meeting. But not here or now. Back in Ponyville, after I've returned and caught a nap." He grimaced. "I have too many other 'friends' to see to at the moment."

Rarity dipped her head to the man. "Thank you, Delgan. I mean it. I'll see you back home."

"Home," the Trademaster mumbled bitterly as he walked off, "... right."


Rarity let out a long breath as the piratical merchant left, and then turned back to Twilight with a bemused expression on her face.

"... Okay, I'm still confused as to what I did wrong," the purple pony admitted as Rarity and Spike walked past her.

"You put his guard up," Rarity answered, trying not to sound too irritated, "Delgan is surprisingly sensitive, and a merchant to the core. You have to manage conversations with him carefully, or he'll either take advantage of you or ignore you."

Twilight frowned and stared hard at a crack in the sidewalk. "... What does any of that have to do with the impending invasion and destruction of the world?"

"In this particular example, the connection is that he's abandoning this planet like a rat fleeing a sinking ship, and he expects to be treated as such," Rarity said sharply, jabbing Twilight with a hoof, "especially when confronted by the ponies he's leaving behind. I half expected him to turn those shield bracers back on, he was so nervous!"

Twilight looked at the fashionista incredulously. Nervous? That was Delgan when he was nervous? As far as she could tell, the man had been cool as winter frost the entire time. "So, wait, if we weren't supposed to let him know that we knew about the Orks, how were we going to ask him about them?"

"I was planning to lure him into revealing it himself, actually. Most likely while he was trying to probe us to see whether we already knew," Rarity mumbled thoughtfully, "after that, we could ask him anything we needed to. And even if he figured out that we had already been informed, he'd feel more in control, and more willing to help."

Twilight stared at the unicorn. "... Is there a book that explains this sort of thing?"

Rarity rolled her eyes as she turned around. "Let's depart, darling. All this dust is starting to dirty my fur, and I'm in DESPERATE need of a spa treatment."

Twilight shook her head as the unicorn trotted off toward the train station with Spike rushing to keep pace. She'd always found Delgan surprisingly hard to get along with, considering that the man was perfectly sane and mostly devoted to material pursuits rather than being a career killer or religious fanatic. But she never thought that asking him a few simple questions would be such an ordeal of diplomatic maneuvering.

"I'll catch up with you," she called as she turned back toward The Iron Chest. She could see a shelf full of informational dataslates mounted on the wall, left behind by the soldiers as very low-value artifacts. There had to be a solution to this problem, and she would search for it the best way she knew how: reading.


****


Canterlot Castle


Princess Celestia fought off a groan as she trudged down the hall, her head hung low. Predictably, her lack of sleep had exacerbated the stress of her capture and the subsequent siege considerably. Her constant worrying about the the Chaos soldiers rummaging through the ruins of her city had done her no favors, either.

Logically, though, she had to admit that the recovery was going very well. Kibitz had been worried about Celestia's reluctance to meet with the human and post-human Captains that practically controlled Canterlot at this point, but as before the pony and Company objectives had found a curious and helpful synergy. The humans' main concern now that the battle over was salvage and looting. As it so happened, the Tau had left plenty of both behind, and the ponies wanted it gone from their capital. So the 38th Company had been given free reign over the city to dig through the rubble and recover weapons, bodies, and equipment. As for looting the city itself, few of the soldiers of Chaos had much use for shiny baubles or art pieces, and were suspicious of anything magical by default. Most of the objects scavenged from pony homes were bottles of alcohol and food. Most of the Chaos troopers didn't even bother with that much, as they got plenty in celebration for having liberated the city.

As before, the 38th Company saw to its affairs and left the ponies alone, working with smooth efficiency and palpable expertise. The ponies, meanwhile, tried to help them as much as they could, offering space for temporary hospitals or barracks in their gutted homes. The royal guard, still smarting after being rendered inconsequential during the invasion, had offered up its troops to help comb through rubble or carry things, since Iron Warrior vehicles were impossible to drive through Canterlot's narrow streets. Some considered that adding insult to injury, as they were serving one alien army as free laborers after having been locked up by the last lot, but at least they were doing SOMETHING.

Celestia's day had mostly been spent hearing about new proposals for human/pony relations and integration. Some advisors thought Equestria should contract the humans themselves for rebuilding, considering the efficiency as which they labored. Others had proposals for new laws making it easier for humans to live and work in Equestria. Some had ideas on new defensive measures for Canterlot. One pony wished to acquire some land for a museum dedicated to Equestria's first contact and conflict with alien life.

That particular matter had felt like a kick to the gut. She hadn't informed anypony yet that they would be expecting a second conflict soon.


Celestia reached the door of her lounge, and then took a deep breath. It was time for a break, and she desperately needed a nap. Then it was back to emergency measures, budget approvals, and the ever-more-difficult task of trying to keep her people from being too welcoming to the army of bloodthirsty maniacs roaming Canterlot's streets. All while silently fretting about an impending genocide.

She opened the door, and her heart stopped on the spot as she suddenly heard the voice of Shas'o Voidsong.


"I suppose you thought the 'hidden dagger' descriptor was just a metaphor... Die, monster."

"HA! Oh, that was PERFECT!" Discord laughed as Solon's head separated from his shoulders and tumbled onto the floor.

On the holovid projector, that is. The holovid projector that was mounted on the wall of Celestia's personal lounge. Apparently.

Celestia's heart started up again as her shock was rapidly translated into irritation.

"It was quite a turnaround," Virgil agreed, pausing to dig into a bucket of popcorn, "but then, that's the Warsmith's luck."

"What's his record for lost duels? It's got to be in the triple digits by now!"

"One hundred and sixty-seven losses. Eleven by decapitation. Thirty disembowelings. Nine occasions of having his torso ripped off of his chassis and thrown away. And two occasions of being drowned. In lava."

Discord laughed uproariously, slapping his knee.

"Arguably the worst kind of drowning," Virgil pointed out needlessly.

Celestia remained standing at the entrance, her eyebrow twitching. Discord and some dark-skinned human were sitting in her lounge on a dirty old sofa that definitely had not been there the last time she had been in this room, watching the projection of some sort of machine that shared the same distinction.

Her almost-entrance hadn't gone unnoticed, it seemed, because Discord bent his neck backward until he was looking the Princess in the eyes, albeit upside-down.

"Solon has the galactic record for the most lost duels and combats," the draconequus sniggered, "mostly because he keeps surviving to lose another one!"

"That depends, actually," Virgil pointed out, "if you include daemons and Lucius the Eternal, then it's not a record."

"But I DON'T," Discord noted, "it's MUCH less impressive if you're automatically reincarnated."

"Do Necrons count?"

"If you include them, then you'd have to put EVERY glorified toaster into the running! Forget it!"

"WHERE IS YOUR GOD NOW?!" thundered Voidsong's voice from the holovid.

"Enough!" Princess Celestia barked, scowling as she entered the room. "Turn that off!"

Virgil silently obeyed, clicking a remote control and pausing the holovid.

"I don't know what you're doing here, Discord, but I'm not COMPLETELY displeased to see you," Celestia began.

Discord leaned over to Virgil and prodded him with an elbow. "She's quite the tsundere, am I right?"

The alicorn didn't know what that meant, so she ignored it. "We have an impending crisis on our hands. There's an enormous fleet of Orks heading straight for our world."

Discord grinned. Virgil clicked his tongue in annoyance.

"Told you they'd screw up," Discord chuckled.

"I really thought we had this one covered. Pity," Virgil grumbled.

Then Virgil removed a jingling sack from his robe. Discord reached up and yanked on one of his horns, and his lower jaw jutted forward suddenly while making the sound of a cash register drawer opening. Virgil placed the sack into Discord's waiting mouth, and the Chaos spirit immediately swallowed the sum on the spot.

Celestia could hear a strange sound on the edge of her perception. It almost sounded like a tea pot being brought to boil, but it seemed very distant.

"Discord." Celestia said, her voice hard and cold. "Did you know what the Tau were planning?"

Discord blinked, curling his head around to look Celestia in the eyes again. "Well, that depends."

Celestia took a deep, calming breath. She was tired, cranky, and extremely troubled, but she wasn't going to break now.

"Depends on what?" she asked calmly.

"Well, the phrasing of your question implies that it could refer to any one of an infinite number of distinct time periods arbitrarily labeled as 'past'," Discord pointed out, keeping his tone casual, "for example, I did know what the Tau were planning... after you told me just now. Was that what you meant?"

The Princess took another calming breath. In, and out...

"Did you know what the Tau were planning previous to Dark Magos Kaelith informing me and the other Princesses of the approaching threat?"

"Hmmm," Discord scratched at his chin with his bird talons, "well, that depends."

In, and out. "On WHAT?"

"On what definition of time you're operating under," Discord answered with a helpless shrug.

How odd. That tea kettle whistle seemed to be getting louder.

"What is THAT supposed to mean?" Celestia demanded.

"Some Chaos entities have a non-linear perception of the passage of time," Virgil explained with a tired sigh, "although in your defense, I'm pretty sure that Discord knows exactly what definition you're using."

"Discord. When did you first learn of the Tau plot?" Celestia rephrased her original question in the hopes to get around the stupid non-logic he was using.

"Just under two minutes ago, when you told me," Discord replied, "of course, I perceived that event for the first time at six PM last Tuesday. Well, actually, that was the second time. But the first time I was still a statue, so it's not like I could do anything about it."

Yes, that tea kettle was definitely getting louder. Had she put on tea? Celestia really couldn't remember.

After about ten seconds of silence, Virgil rolled his head toward Discord. "I don't think she gets it."

"Then allow me to explain!" Discord mimed pressing the button of a remote control, and the holovid recording of Solon's throne room duel was replaced with a graph. The graph had two long planes split in half by a horizontal axis, and a long, wavy line that curved up and down across its length.

"Now this point, here," Discord begin, zipping over to the display and pointing at a high point on the squiggly line, "represents me last week. At this point I was abnormally aware of future timelines."

Then he barked out a laugh. "And believe me! This one is a DOOZY! Hah!"

Sobering instantly, Discord gestured to the point where the line intersected the graph's axis. "This is me once in closer proximity to worshipers of the darker powers. Their ambient psionic presence tends to enforce your myopic understanding of space-time upon Chaos entities, and I found myself only able to see the present. I was pretty hazy on the past too, actually."

Then Discord pointed to the low arc of the line he had summoned. "Finally, this section here tells us that I wasn't really paying attention when I made this graph."

The whistling was getting distracting now; a furious, high-pitched screech in Celestia's ears that threatened to drown out her senses.

"Discord! There is a massive fleet of Orks coming to our world!" Celestia shouted,

Discord blinked. "Oh? How'd that happen?"

The Princess stared at him incredulously. "The Tau finished their beacon to lead them here! We JUST went over this!"

"Oh! Is THAT what their plan was?" Discord asked, looking surprised. "Sorry about that. I'm having some trouble perceiving the past right now."

Virgil flinched away as a beam of hot, searing light came from the white Princess, accompanied by a scream of ungodly rage. Discord barely had time to let out a fearful squeak before the magic slammed into him, wreathing his form in a halo of magical fire.

The couch lit aflame a second later, and Virgil wordlessly leapt to his feet to avoid getting scorched.

Princess Celestia's horn crackled with power as she glared at Discord's blackened body.

The whistling noise was gone now.

"You," the alicorn said, her eyes glancing over at the human in the room.

"My name is Vir-"

"I don't care," Celestia interrupted sharply, her horn pulsing yellow, "take Discord and get out. Now."

The curiously sane preacher did as he was told, grabbing the end of Discord's scorched tail and dragging him out the door.

"Can we take the holovid player with us?" Virgil asked as he passed by the pony princess.

"You will leave the holovid player where it is," Celestia instructed curtly, giving a disgusted look at the thick, black stripe Discord was leaving on her floors.

Virgil rolled his eyes and left the room, carrying Discord behind him. The door swung shut a moment later, courtesy of Celestia's magic.

With another pulse of yellow, the flames on the couch receded, and then the burnt fibers began to dissolve as the damage was spontaneously undone.


Celestia mutely climbed onto the restored sofa, and her telekinesis lifted up the remote control that had been dropped on the floor at the side.

She spent a moment looking at the buttons, and then clicked one labeled "Play".

The nonsensical graph was replaced with an image of Shas'o Voidsong holding Acolyte Gaela at gunpoint.

"I wonder if this includes the part when our powers were restored," Celestia mumbled as she watched Gaela start her chant to the Omnissiah, "I wouldn't mind seeing that again."


****


Ponyville - Sugarcube Corner


"Hello, everypony! I'm BAAAAAACK!!"

Numerous ponies and a pair of humans flinched at the sudden shout as Pinkie Pie barreled into the shop.

Dest looked up from the counter, where he was drawing frosting onto cookies in the shapes of Chaos marks. "Greetings, Pie."

"Welcome home, Pinkie," Mrs. Cake said brightly as she closed an oven. Pound Cake was bouncing happily atop her rear, giggling at the sudden excitement.

"Hey, Pinks!" Daniels greeted, waving to the energetic pony. He was seated at a table in front of some pastries, along with another mercenary. "Good to see you back in one piece! Take it the siege went well?"

"Ha ha ha!" Pinkie laughed, not answering the question. "Hey, I just thought of a joke! What's red and dead and green all over?"

Daniels glanced across the table at Gotts, who shrugged.

"Got us. What is it?"

Pinkie sniggered. "Our planet, one month from now!"

A loud rimshot came from the corner of the shop, and the customers glanced over to see Pound Cake and Pumpkin Cake in front of a drum set, each with a drumstick in their mouth.

"It took me FOREVER to teach them to do that," Pinkie confided as she walked up to, and then bounced on to, the counter.

"I don't get it," Daniels confessed, "why would your planet be red, dead, and/or green in a month?"

Pinkie paused, her tongue sticking out of the side of her mouth as she considered the question.

"Well, you know how you start a really awesome battle, and you're kicking serious flank, and then at the last minute you remember that there's actually a mission objective more important than beating up the other guys?"

"I am familiar with these frustrations, yes," Dest rumbled, leaning against the counter.

Pinkie chuckled, although now her mirth was of a distinctly nervous kind. "Well, that kind of happened to us. Canterlot is free, but they got their dumb secret machine to safety."

"So we beat the Tau, but they won anyway," Daniels grumbled, "lame. Do we know what the blasted machine does?"

"Yuppers!" Pinkie Pie chirped. "It painted a giant target on our world for like a bazillion Orks!"

"I'm out." Gotts immediately stood up from his seat and rushed out the door, almost tripping over Roseluck in the process.

Daniels glanced after his fellow mercenary, and then back at Pinkie Pie.

The Cake twins played another rimshot.

"No, no, not now," Pinkie mumbled to them, "that wasn't very funny."

"Was that Gotts?" Applejack asked as she stepped into the building, her head twisted about to look behind her. "Where's he off to in such a hurry?"

"I imagine he's looking to find the most expedient route off the planet's surface," Dest said as he went back to decorating the cookies.

Applejack turned around, and then her eyes centered on Daniels. "Danny! Good to see ya! We gotta situation!"

The mercenary looked down at his table, seeming curiously subdued. "Orks, right?"

"Naw, not Orks. Not yet, anyways," the farmer snorted, "all the livestock animals formed a circle 'round the North silo, and they keep chantin' some kind of spooky, mystical nonsense! Ah saw some kind of flickering, ethereal light comin' from inside, so Ah'm guessin' it's some kind of dark Chaos shenanigans." The orange mare explained, her eyes narrowing. "Now, Ah know it was either you or the fillies, and ya were supposed to be watchin' the fillies!"

Daniels was silent for several seconds, staring down at the pastry in front of him. "Your farm animals can talk?" he asked finally, glancing up at Applejack.

"Yeah? So?" she replied, not understanding the human's bewilderment.

A few more seconds of contemplative silence. "Can Winona talk?"

"What? No! She's a dog!" Applejack exclaimed, finding the notion appropriately absurd. Several other ponies, including Pinkie, snickered at the question.

Daniels stood up. "I... I need some air." He made a rather sedate pace for the exit, holding a hand to the side of his head.

Applejack looked concerned as the mercenary walked past her, her brow furrowing. "Daniels? Hey, ya alright?" The man didn't answer, exiting the shop as if in a daze. The apple farmer frowned, and then followed after him.

Pinkie wiped a hoof over her forehead, and then trotted off toward her room. "Welp, I've gotta prep for the NEXT alien invasion to threaten our entire planet! Toodles!" The Cakes rolled their eyes, already having planned for their helper's absence.


Dest finished with the cookies, and then slipped the tray into a glass display counter. "So now it's Orks, is it?" The Astartes grumbled, leaning against the counter.

Then he turned his gaze on a certain pegasus sitting near the corner and munching on a blueberry muffin.

"You know, when you think about it, this is actually YOUR fault for failing to deliver the artifact to the proper place."

Derpy Hooves perked up, a few crumbs dropping from her muzzle. Then her ears drooped sadly. "I just don't know what went wrong..."

"Awww, it's all right, sweetie," Mrs. Cake cooed, "Dest, be a dear and pull the fresh batch of muffins out of the oven, would you?"

The Chaos Marine sighed and headed to the back. "It's a wonder your species has survived as long as you have," he grumbled.


****


Ponyville - Fluttershy's cottage


Fluttershy had set a deliberately meandering pace back to her home. Her path wound ponderously through Ponyville's parks and markets, and contained several long breaks before eventually heading back to her cottage at a speed that could charitably be considered sluggish.

She told herself that she was merely trying to take in the tranquil, simple beauty of pony life, given the prospect of it all being exterminated soon, but she wasn't fooling herself.

She sighed and hung her head as her cottage came into view. Fluttershy didn't want to go back, but she had responsibilities. And keeping her animal friends happy and healthy took priority over her own fears.

No matter how justified those fears may be.

Fluttershy winced as she spotted the soot-stained furrows on the lawn outside her house. She swore Tellis landed that way on purpose, just to cause damage and disruption. She also saw that there were more skid marks than she remembered there were when she'd left, so that almost certainly meant that her unwanted housemate had returned.

The meek pegasus took a deep breath, allowing her sense of depressed resignation to swallow her fear of what new horrors awaited her inside. Whatever Tellis had done during her absence, and whatever he planned on doing while she was present, she would endure.

She didn't really have a choice.

Fluttershy pushed open the front door.


To her quiet approval, the sight that greeted her within her home was not so terrifying that it elicited a scream of horror. Tellis was in the living room, facing away from her, and stooped over a pile of bloody bones while muttering incoherently to himself.

Fluttershy had to stop and reflect upon the fact that the scene no longer ranked as scream-worthy to her. Apparently she had been exposed to so much real and serious danger recently that even she had become desensitized to grisly but otherwise harmless situations. She had mixed feelings about that.

"Huh? Oh, Shy, you're back. I didn't hear you scream when you came in," Tellis said as he turned around, "look, we need to talk."

Fluttershy blinked. This was new. "Uhm, okay. What's wrong?" she asked, idly pushing the front door closed with her leg.

Or as closed as it would get. It was still broken from Gaela's forced entrance.

Tellis crossed his arms over his chest, rattling the skulls that hung around his neck. "It's Mister Bear. That guy is out of control, and I think it's time you put your foot down. Hoof, I mean. Whatever."

Fluttershy wasn't given to sarcasm in general, and was constantly aware that Tellis could end her life with a whim and a swift kick. But even she couldn't keep her voice neutral after hearing that.

"Really. HE'S out of control?" Fluttershy asked flatly, an eyebrow arching.

"I'm serious, Shy! Just look at this!" he pointed toward the bones on the floor.

Fluttershy looked at the bones as requested. She wasn't as familiar with the biology of animals after they were dead, so she couldn't make a good guess at what the animal had been, but it did look fairly big. Bigger than a pony, at least.

"Okay. And what is this?" the pegasus asked wearily.

"That's my prisoner! Or what's left of it, anyway," Tellis complained.

"Gaela killed the one that you brought here first," Fluttershy noted with a slight hint of bitterness in her voice, "said that it would feed the animals that needed meat." She had briefly forgotten about that unpleasant episode, what with all the unpleasantness that had followed. Now it came rushing back to her, clouding her already low mood as she stared at its morbid results.

"Well, it worked. Worked too well, in fact," Tellis grumbled, "when I saw him eating the first one, I was surprised, but figured it didn't really matter. Thing is, Bear's developed a taste for the grays. I tried locking the other two in your room, but apparently he broke in there and ate them, too."

Fluttershy slapped a hoof against her face.

"Angel Bunny's in there too. Not to eat, but apparently he's trying to build a little bone fort. Which is actually pretty awesome, but I digress..."

Fluttershy's jaw tightened, and then she looked up at Tellis with a decidedly firm expression. "So what? Why do you care?"

The Raptor Lord was surprised by the response. "Why do I care? Shy, Mister Bear broke two major rules of the household: no killing on the property, and always clean up after you're done eating and/or completing dark rituals!"

Fluttershy's expression hardened further, and her teeth clenched. "So what? Why do you CARE?" she demanded.

"Well..." the Iron Warrior hesitated, confused by her sudden attitude, "don't you want to keep your place clean, at least? This is a flagrant breach of discipline, you know?"

"YOU'RE A FLAGRANT BREACH OF DISCIPLINE!!" Fluttershy suddenly screamed, pounding a hoof against the floor.

"...... I don't have a response to that," Tellis admitted, scratching the cheek of his helmet, "Shy? Something the matter? You're way less doormatty than usual."

"YES!! Yes, something's the matter, you psychotic nincompoop!" the normally meek pegasus shouted, leaping into the air and hovering right in front of the Iron Warrior. "We're going to die!"

Tellis cocked his head to one side. "Well, sure. That's mortality for ya. Did you stumble upon this fact recently, or...?"

"Not that, you... RRRRGH!!" Fluttershy held her head with her hooves in frustration. "YOU'RE not going to die! Just us! Just Ponyville, Canterlot, Manehattan, Cloudsdale, and every other place on this world! YOU'LL be out in space, already on your way to screw up the next planet you find!"

"... I'm not following you," Tellis mumbled, "is it something I did? I'm not used to causing planet-wide extinction by accident, but these things can happen, I guess."

"You FAILED, you idiot!" Fluttershy screamed. She knew that she was well into hysterics now, releasing emotions she never meant to let out to precisely the worst person to vent on, but the dam had broken and the outpour wouldn't stop. "They trusted you! My friends all thought that if there was ONE THING you FREAKS could do right, you could at least stop the Tau from finishing their own mission! But you screwed it up, and now Orks are going to come and kill all of us!"

Fluttershy was crying now as she raged at him, tears trickling down her sneering face as while she flailed her hooves in the air. Tellis was hardly new to having females sobbing and screaming in front of him, but normally this was both a direct and deliberate result of his actions.

"Uhm..." the Raptor Lord offered as Fluttershy gasped for breath.

"So then what was the point?!" the pegasus shrieked. "You dragged us into your stupid war and nearly got poor Big Mac killed and made us sneak into a base and destroyed half of Canterlot, and for WHAT?! What good are you and all your awful weapons and horrible gods when we can't even count on you to win?!"

"Err..." Tellis tried.

Fluttershy grabbed hold of the Raptor's helmet with her forelegs, and she glared angrily through her tears into the glowing red lenses of his visor. "You're USELESS! You didn't stop the Tau, you can't stop the Orks, and now all you worthless psychotics are going to run off into space while me and everything I've ever loved are destroyed by rampaging aliens! So YES!! SOMETHING IS THE MATTER, AND I AM QUITE UPSET ABOUT IT!! DO YOU HAVE ANYTHING TO SAY FOR YOURSELF?!"

Tellis, in his confusion and bewilderment, found himself without anything to say, in fact. So he fell back on an old default response.

"Blood for the... Blood... God?"

Fluttershy screamed incoherently, and then reared back a foreleg to slap him.

Now, Tellis may have been bested by Rainbow Dash in terms of agility and speed, but Fluttershy wasn't Rainbow Dash. In the time it took the yellow pegasus to move her hoof from the cocked position to the cheek of his helmet, he could have ripped her into three pieces, with one hand, without even using his lightning claws.

He didn't do that.

But he didn't move, either.

Fluttershy wailed in pain as her foreleg connected with the shell of daemon-forged adamantium. In her fury she had once wrestled a bear into submission, and that hidden strength hadn't budged the Chaos Lord one millimeter.

She turned away and floated upstairs, sobbing and gasping while she cradled her bruised foreleg. She didn't look back at Tellis, and although the Iron Warrior watched her go, he didn't otherwise make a move or sound.

Fluttershy entered her bedroom, and then slammed the door behind her.


****


Ponyville - Golden Oaks park


Daniels sat on a park bench, elbows resting on his legs as he stared out at the grassy fields and playgrounds.

Several fillies were playing in a space filled with sand and equipment.

He knew some of them. Sweetie Belle was talking to a small cluster of young ponies, making grand gestures and beckoning to the sky. Apple Bloom was staring at a wasp's nest at a proximity that nobody but a Nurglite would deem safe. Scootaloo was beating up some colt twice her size, slamming his head into a tree over and over while he cried for his mother.

On the other side of the playground, Jacob was helping push several young ponies who were on the swings. Lyra stood by with an expression of pride as she talked to several other mares walking their pets, oblivious to their uneasy expressions.

In the middle of the park, ponies took long, luxurious walks through the shaded paths, one of which passed right in front of his bench. Some of them stopped to point and stare at Daniels. Sometimes he'd wave to them. They always waved back.

The mercenary shifted to reach behind him, and he pulled out his rail rifle. He laid it across his legs, staring at the words etched into the side of the casing. Love and Tolerate.

A joke. A message of hope and benevolence etched into a machine made to end lives, in the possession of a man whose only passions were money and alcohol and obtained both with contractual murder. It was a wonderful irony, his own small jab at the casual cruelty of a galaxy that had raised him without either love or tolerance, and then slowly stripped him of life's other comforts. The Dark Techpriest had thought it was funny. Even more so when he'd told her that the ponies seemed to take the creed seriously.

He didn't think it was very funny anymore.


"You look depressed, soldier."

Daniels looked behind him.

"Master Delgan," the mercenary mumbled, "to what do I owe the pleasure?"

The Trademaster looked slightly refreshed from his earlier state, but still carried his weapons and xenotech bracers. Were he in a better mood, Daniels probably would have been observing the articles closely and trying to guess at their value, but he wasn't in such a mood.

"You owe it to misery, soldier, which I hear enjoys company," Delgan said evenly, walking up behind the bench and staring out at the playground, "aren't you going to join your friend in playing with the equines?"

Daniels grimaced, leaning back with his hands resting on his weapon. "Nah. No point in getting attached now. Well, more attached, anyway..."

Delgan glanced down at the man, and then clasped his hands behind his back. "You know, then. I wonder if they do," he jutted his chin toward the ponies playing in the park.

"Maybe," Daniels murmured, "Pinkie and AJ knew, and they didn't seem especially bothered."

"That will change," Delgan said calmly, watching as the mercenary in the playground helped a few colts to climb a tree, "the realities of war will reach them, and their hope will be broken. And soon after, they will be too."

Daniels didn't respond.

"You pity them, don't you?" the Trademaster asked.

"You don't?" the mercenary replied, his tone tinged with bitterness.

"Compassion is a weakness, soldier. I cannot afford to show weakness."

Daniels chuckled humorlessly. "I never thought there'd be something I could afford that you couldn't, Master Delgan."

He pointed at a tall tree. "I can see it now. That tree, covered in scaffolding to make a gun tower. Shootas and grots packed tight behind the barricade, shooting into the houses. Laughing all the while." He turned his head toward the center of town. "Rokks hitting ground in the square. Boyz spilling out by the dozens." Then he spread a hand toward the path out toward Sweet Apple Acres. "Meanwhile, a convoy of trukks and wartrakks come down the road, shooting at everything they see, whether it moves or not. Pieces of Tau and our gunships are bolted onto the sides, looted from the scrap pile in the barn. Some of the Orks are using the Tau pulse rifles as makeshift clubs."

"You've seen this before," Delgan drawled, interrupting the increasingly bleak imagery.

"The end of planets? Yeah. Twice to the Orks. Once to the Tyranids. Twice to the Imperium itself. And three times to..." Daniels trailed off.

"Chaos?" Delgan guessed, watching as the man's jaw tightened. "And which side were you on when you saw those invasions?"

"... It varied," Daniels grunted after a pause, "probably wouldn't be so damn torn up about it if it were us doing this, but it isn't. Funny, that."

Delgan considered the idea. "If we were the ones pillaging and killing Centaur III, it would be an act of purpose; we would be slaying others to further ourselves and survive by gathering resources."

Daniels snorted. "I stopped trying to justify my job ages ago, Master Delgan."

"Even so," the Trademaster continued, "the coming massacre of these creatures serves no purpose. To the Tau, it was an unfortunate side-effect of a much larger strategy. To the Orks... well, their killing is an end in itself."

"Another damn planet thrown away and drowned in blood because nobody needed it," Daniels spat, "I've seen too many."

"And you'll see many more," the Trademaster assured him, "so long as you live long enough. Such is the life of the pirate and hired rifle."

"Even so," Daniels grumbled, "this one feels different, somehow. Worse."

Delgan sighed deeply. "Well, as much as I'm enjoying this bright and uplifting conversation, I have an appointment to keep. I've been asked to detail for Lady Sparkle exactly how doomed they are, and in what particular ways. Good day, Mister Daniels."

"So long, Master Delgan," Daniels mumbled. Then, after a second, he added, "And good luck."


****


Ponyville - Twilight's library


"Ah, Mister Delgan! Welcome!" Rarity said brightly as Spike let the man in. "I'm so glad you found the time to meet with us after all!"

Delgan said nothing as he stepped into the library, giving a brief nod to acknowledge the young dragon.

"You can put your weapons over there," Spike advised him, pointing to the metal crate that had become the library's temporary weapon storage (given that so many people who came in were armed nowadays).

Delgan glanced over at the space, and then rested his hands on the grips of his power swords. "That's all right. I won't be here too long, I hope."

Rarity frowned. "You never used to wander about Ponyville so heavily armed."

"I become somewhat paranoid whenever I'm faced with an imminent doomsday scenario, Lady Rarity," Delgan explained curtly, "you'll have to forgive me my nervous habits."

Rarity gave Spike a meaningful look, and the young dragon nodded emphatically, impressed at how perfectly Rarity had interpreted Delgan's behavior from before.

Rarity was seated next to a small desk, and she tapped the top of it with a hoof. "Well, feel free to make yourself comfortable. Twilight will be with us shortly, but she's busy... well... trying to come up with a plan to save the world." She batted her eyes at Spike. "Can we get some tea going, Spikey Wikey?"


Delgan sat down as Spike rushed off to the kitchen.

"So," Rarity began promptly, "I remember you telling me some time ago that you mainly deal in trade, not murder." The unicorn raised an eyebrow, "That's not what it looked like in the throne room."

Delgan's expression was schooled more carefully than normal, and Rarity decided that her attempt at small talk was making him more nervous rather than less.

"I do not... advertise my combat skills," Delgan admitted stiffly, "they're most useful when others are unaware of them." Then he held up an arm, displaying the bracer. "Also, no small measure of my combat prowess is thanks to my equipment. Eldar-made combat bracers, reflex boosters, and power swords forged by the Warsmith himself," he explained, "in war, like all things, wealth provides a critical edge."

"Is it hard to keep up when you're surrounded by super-soldiers?" Rarity asked as Spike brought in their tea.

"It's rarely an issue," he answered, looking away, "I'm not usually delivered into active war zones. Still, combat tends to reach every corner of a pirate fleet, so it pays to know how to handle a blade."

Rarity quirked an eyebrow as she poured some tea for the man across from her. "If you're rarely deployed into combat, why did you come with us into Canterlot? Surely there was no shortage of troopers available."

Another pause, still facing away. Delgan's face was nearly inscrutable, but Rarity had largely unraveled the way his mind worked.

"Were you trying to impress us?" the snow-colored pony asked, leaning back in her seat as she poured some tea for herself.

Delgan's cheek twitched to make a half-grimace. "It seemed that it could only be to my benefit if I was seen personally assisting in the liberation of your capital. Particularly in front of the Princesses."

Then Rarity gasped as she levitated her cup up to her muzzle. "Oh! Delgan, are you embarrassed about running away from Voidsong?"

The Trademaster didn't answer right away, picking up his teacup (adorably small in a grown man's hand) and taking a quick gulp.

"I imagine it did not leave a stunning impression," he mumbled bitterly.

Rarity laughed lightly, pressing a hoof to her chest. "Mister Delgan. As gallant as it would have been for you to leap to our rescue and slay the enemy commander, let's be reasonable." She levitated her cup to her lips and took a sip of tea before she continued. "That alien harpy took apart Warsmith Solon like a piece of bad stitching. What were we going to expect you to do about it?"

Spike blinked, recalling Solon's image. Then he recalled the battlesuit that had introduced itself in the throne room.

His eyes bulged. "Wait, SHE beat Solon?!"

Rarity took another sip of tea. "Oh, yes. Quite soundly. Shot him apart piece by piece, put a few holes in him, and then cut off his head for good measure. Then she hacked up Gaela too, just because she could."

Spike was stunned. "So... they... I mean, are they... uh..."

"They'll be fine," Delgan said, tiring of the dragon's stuttering, "both Iron Warriors and Dark Mechanicus handle dismemberment with exceptional grace."

Spike probably would have asked for further details about the fight, but was suddenly interrupted by a triumphant shout from above.

"I'VE GOT IT!!"


Pony, human, and dragon all looked up as Twilight staggered down the stairs, a stack of papers settled precariously on her back. Her mane had the distinctly frayed look it possessed when she was working on something to the verge of a nervous breakdown, but she was also smiling victoriously.

"You've got what? All your affairs in order?" Spike asked.

Twilight glared at him immediately. "Spike, if an alien horde tramples all of pony civilization, then obviously all matters of inheritance and interment become a moot point! Do you think I hadn't thought of that?"

She didn't give her assistant time to answer, instead hopping down onto the ground floor. She promptly snapped her attention to Delgan and Rarity as the papers fluttered down into place on her back, settling between her wings.

"I have a plan! A grand strategy that will save almost all of ponykind for an indefinite period of time without aid from the 38th Company!"

Twilight spread her wings, and pieces of paper went flying everywhere. She didn't seem to notice.

"I've accounted for everything! Food, water, sewage, generational expansion! The latter of which was surprisingly easy! Did you know that the gender ratio of Equestria suggests a persistent population decline when modeled mathematically? It's kind of funny, when you think about it!"

"Twilight, darling, back up, please," Rarity said as she put down her tea.

Twilight paused and took several steps backward.

"No, I meant metaphorically," Rarity huffed, "you really found a way to beat the Orks?"

"No! That's completely impossible!" Twilight announced with an eerily happy voice. "But I DID devise models for several magical shelters that can be constructed within two weeks to hide the entire pony population of the planet from the invaders! Storm barriers to protect the pegasi shelter! An environmentally-modified earthen vault for the earth ponies! A massive extra-dimensional planar rift for the unicorns! Teleport gates to link them together! Subterranean farms! Mass-condensation cloud factories! We're going to be just fine, kind of!"

Spike picked up one of the sheets of paper, reluctantly impressed.

The alicorn's eye twitched. "Of course, this plan IS tantamount to abandoning the planet to the Orks, true! And it does mean that pretty much all non-pony life forms will face the Ork threat alone and perish, which is, of course, horrible! But aside from those two extremely important flaws, the plan is foolproof! Without magic-users of their own, the Orks will never be able to get us!"

Delgan finished his cup of tea, and then set the empty cup down. "The Orks do have psykers, though."

"GYAAAAAAAAAAARGH!!!"

Rarity and Spike flinched as Twilight reared back and screamed at the ceiling, her papers spilling off of her back and onto the floor.

Twilight took a deep, gasping breath, and then she flew straight into Delgan's face, seizing it between her hooves. His hands twitched toward his power swords, but to his credit he restrained himself.

"This is insane! There's absolutely no way! We're doomed! All is lost! Game over, mare, GAME OVER!" the purple pony screamed into Delgan's partially reconstructed face.

"Is it really necessary for me to be here?" he asked blithely. "It seems like you have an excellent grasp of the situation already."

Rarity wondered not for the first time why she ever let Twilight stick around when they needed something from the Trademaster. "Twilight, calm down! You're embarrassing yourself! And me! And Spike! And probably Celestia as well, just from association!"

Twilight hopped down from the human, but she was still breathing hard and looked decidedly unhinged. "You humans have fought the Orks before, right?"

"Extensively," Delgan answered, leaning as far back away from the Princess as he could.

"Well, how do you deal with it when you have NINE POINT SEVEN BILLION of them heading for you?" she demanded.

"When we have sufficient warning?" Delgan asked. "We station nine point eight billion soldiers on the planet to defend it."

Silence.

"Really?" Spike eventually asked. Honestly, he barely had a concept of what a billion of anything looked like. He could hardly imagine an army of that size.

"Well, if it's Imperial and important enough, anyway," Delgan amended, "even then, it doesn't always work. Estimations of Ork fleet size are terribly unreliable."

Rarity considered that. "Unreliable enough that nine billion might end up being nine hundred?"

"I won't dignify that with an answer."

Twilight shook her head, looking slightly less frazzled as her mind went from panic mode to a more soothing and logical question-and-answer pacing.

"Okay, so if you don't HAVE billions of soldiers to fight back, THEN what do you do?" the purple pony asked.

"You do exactly what I'm doing," Delgan said with a barely detectable tone of regret, "dump all your on-world assets and take to the void."

Spike raised a hand. "Hey, uh... I know that we've been trying to avoid talking about it, but... is there any way we can do that too?"

Twilight glared at him again, but said nothing.

Delgan, for his part, merely shrugged. "Sure."

Rarity looked startled at that. "What? Really?"

"If by 'we' you're referring to the individuals in this room," the Trademaster clarified. "You're all intelligent enough to be useful, and we always have roles for psykers that would join the fleet. I would be happy to take you onto my team."

Then he cleared his throat. "Of course, the deal becomes more difficult the more ponies you wish to save. I would not be so pleased to take some of your friends into my staff; your pegasi friends in particular would not be especially useful to me. And then there's your other friends and family. Would you be willing to leave them behind? I only have so much time to conduct 'interviews', after all."

Twilight and Rarity's ears fell flat as they considered the matter, and Spike quickly deflated.

"So something like mass relocation is out of the question?" Twilight asked tenderly.

"Even if we would take a substantial portion of your population somewhere else, where would we take them? The first place we're headed to after we leave the system is a daemonic fortress world to off-load our resources. After that we're striking out again to seek vulnerable worlds to plunder. Do you think you'll be well-treated if we sack a city and then drop you all off to settle in the ruins among the survivors?" Implicit in Delgan's point was the fact that the Iron Warriors weren't going to go out of their way to drop off a colony of ponies on top of caring for them until then.

Twilight shook her head. "You're right. We can't give up and abandon this planet. There HAS to be a way."

"I'm not saying that," Delgan said stiffly as he shifted in his seat, "but I will help lay out the various unpleasant options for you."

Twilight took a deep breath, and she tapped a hoof against her forehead. "Okay. It's time to get my head back in the game. I tried to make a plan without doing my research, and all I did was waste four hours."

She looked up at Delgan. "I got some dataslates from your store, but none of them had information on Orks. Just technologies like Warp travel and lasers and psionics. I need to know the enemy."

Delgan suppressed a sigh, resigned to his role as advisor. "What do you want to know about them?"

"EVERYTHING," Twilight insisted.

"Then we're going to need more tea."


****


Ponyville - Sugarcube Corner


Dest pushed his way outside through the back door, carrying a garbage bag in each hand as he hauled the trash to the dumpster.

As soon as he got to within ten meters of the metal bins, he threw each of the trash bags toward them. Each one-handed toss landed the cargo perfectly within the dumpsters, and the resulting vibration knocked the dumpster lid closed, as well.

"Woo-hoo! Six points!" Pinkie Pie cheered from the second-story window briefly. Then she ducked back inside, apparently finished contributing to the trash removal process.

Dest chuckled as he turned back to the bakery, but then paused as he heard the sound of heavy footfalls approaching.

The rhino driver was very surprised to see Tellis walking through town toward him. Mostly because Tellis never seemed to walk anywhere when he could be blasting through the air, but also because he had no particular relationship with the other Iron Warrior, despite being the only other Astartes currently in Ponyville.

"Hey, you. Uh..." Tellis stopped to check the identifier tag through his visor. "Dest. I need to talk to you."

The other Chaos Marine was on his guard in an instant, but then relaxed. Tellis was acting somewhat subdued, and frankly, if the Raptor Lord wanted to harm him then there was extremely little Dest could do to stop it.

"Yes, Lord? How may I serve?"

Tellis stopped to look back and forth, confirming that there was nobody else around.

"So, uh... you hear about the Orks?"

"I have, Lord."

Tellis scratched at the back of his helmet, generating an awful screech from the scrape of metal on metal.

"Yeah. I kinda just learned about 'em. We kinda screwed up, huh?" the Khornate asked.

Dest raised an eyebrow. This conversation was getting stranger every moment.

"I must disagree, Lord. We have no responsibility to foil the Tau or protect this world. We would have if we'd had the chance, but the doom of this planet is not our fault."

Dest grunted, folding his arms over his chest as he stared up at the setting sun. "That said, I do regret the fate of this planet, and will be most displeased to leave it."

Tellis glanced over to the dumpsters, and then back at the helmetless driver. "You like doing this? This is damn petty stuff even for mortals, dude."

Dest's expression remained unchanged. "I suppose it is. And yet my Legion function is as a glorified taxi driver. Another petty task that could easily be completed by mortal hands. The main difference, I've found, is that in my current, temporary occupation, my efforts are rewarded and appreciated to some small degree. I find it a... pleasant change."

Tellis grunted, and then moved over to a small retaining wall that divided the rear of the bakery's property from the rest of the space beyond. He sat down on it, and Dest could hear the masonry crack as it struggled to support the Raptor's weight.

"Okay, fine. Whatever. That's not what I'm here to talk about," Tellis mumbled, "it's just..."

A long pause.

"Well, Fluttershy kind of chewed me out for us screwing up the siege and dooming the planet," Tellis admitted, "ever since, I've been getting these... things."

"Things, Lord?"

A low growl came from Tellis' vox grille. "I don't know what to call them. They're like... little impulses. Like I get when I kill something, or come up with a really good zinger. But not as... fun."

"I believe those are called 'feelings', Lord Tellis," Dest drawled.

The Raptor Lord recoiled. "What? No way! I'm not supposed to have those!"

"You're not the only one who's surprised," the driver noted, "is there a particular reason you're sharing this with me?"

"Because we're both Astartes and Iron Warriors, ya know?" Tellis reasoned. "Common origin, and all that. I mean, I can't share this stuff with Dash. She's a pony. A CHICK pony. She wouldn't get it."

"I don't get it, either. My fondness for this place is practical and forthright: I rather enjoy laboring here, find the inhabitants universally inoffensive, and generally dislike my Legion duties. I'm not sure any of those conditions apply to you, Lord."

Tellis grumbled something under his helmet.

"... But I suppose we do have common ground, at the same time," Dest allowed, "we both chose to live among the ponies when we had the opportunity. We both have... difficulty relating to our Iron Warrior peers, albeit for very different reasons. And we both seem to care what happens to this planet."

"Whoa, hey, I didn't say that," Tellis countered, "if the Orks stomp this place flat, whatever. Blood and skulls, ya know?"

Dest rolled his eyes and turned away. "Then I can think of no reason for your so-called 'feelings'. After all, if the Blood God is pleased, is that not all that matters?"

"Well, yeah," Tellis mumbled to the driver's backpack as Dest walked back toward the house, "I mean, isn't it?"

"I wouldn't know, Lord. I've always been more interested in Nurgle's creed. But that aside, us homo sapiens have always been more true to ourselves than our gods or other masters would like." He reached the back door and opened it up. "Good night, Lord Tellis."


****


Sweet Apple Acres


Applejack grunted as she walked out of the North silo. She was quite dirty, and had a bucket hanging from her jaw that contained cleaning supplies and a lot of revolting-looking fluid.

Standing in front of the silo in a cluster were the farm's pigs, sheep, and cows. Applejack took a few moments to glare at them before she dropped the bucket in front of her.

"All right, move along! Nothin' to see here! Ah cleaned out them glyphs and covered up the glowy bits, so this silo's clean! No more dark worship to be had here!"

"AAAWWWWWW..." a disappointed chorus came from the assembled barnyard animals.

"But, the voices!" protested one sheep, her eye twitching frequently. "The voices said-"

She was interrupted by a bemused orange pony staring down at her barely an inch away.

"The only voice you oughta be worried about is MINE, askin' why y'all ain't in yer pens. Now GIT!"

The animals quailed and quickly retreated back to their sleeping areas.

"And tomorrow Ah'm gonna be comin' around to clean off all those silly marks y'all drew on yerselves!" Applejack shouted after them. "Fer Apple's sake, this is a farm, not a daggone cursed temple!"


Still muttering under her breath, Applejack started to head back to the farmstead when she spotted a familiar figure standing next to the road.

Quirking an eyebrow, she adjusted course and picked up the pace.

"Hey, Daniels! Ya lost or somethin'?" Applejack asked as she approached the mercenary.

Daniels looked up at her, and then quickly averted his gaze. "No, that's not... uh..."

As he trailed off, the orange mare walked up and sat down on her haunches, staring up at him with a decidedly cool expression.

Daniels eventually organized his thoughts, and he looked down at Applejack.

"Look, I'm... sorry about before. I kind of lost my senses for a while there. Didn't mean to brush you off like that, AJ."

She tilted her head to one side. "No problem, Danny. But aren't ya the one that's dealt with this kinda thing before?"

Daniels nodded hesitantly. "Well... yeah. That's why, actually. I know what you're in for. It's... It's not pretty."

Applejack snorted. "Well, save it fer Twilight fer now. Ah still got plenty of alien junk on mah farm as it is, and Ah don't wanna hear about the next batch comin' fer us."

Daniels winced. "Uh, yeah. Speaking of which... is it okay if I crash here again tonight? Nema and Gotts kind of took off with the transport, and I don't know anybody in Master Delgan's deployment."

Applejack frowned. "Daniels, Ah am INSULTED," she began, her face shifting into a scowl, "that ya think ya need to ask! Ah owe ya way too much to even think of leavin' ya out in the cold! C'mon!"

Daniels let out a relieved sigh, and then started to follow the orange pony toward the house.

They were interrupted, however, by a sharp crackling sound that seemed to come from all around them. Daniels immediately gripped his pulse pistol, and Applejack's eyes darted all around nervously as the hairs on the back of her neck stood up.


Both of them relaxed when a dark flare of magical power appeared briefly next to the farmstead, depositing a familiar pony into the area with a rather understated popping noise.

"Big Mac!" Applejack said cheerfully.

The crimson stallion jerked to attention immediately, whirling his head around and looking unreasonably surprised to see his sister standing in front of their home.

Big Macintosh looked rather out of sorts, with his mane and fur quite messy for somepony who HADN'T been working on a farm all day for once. He also had a large, open-topped crate next to him which held the pieces of his power armor.

"Ha! Looks like the Princess put ya through yer paces!" Applejack laughed as she trotted up to the elder Apple. "What'd she have ya do, anyway? Ya look like ya spent the whole day plowin' or somethin'!"

Big Mac opened his mouth, thought the better of it, and then closed his mouth without uttering a word.

"Hey, is that your armor?" Daniels asked, looking into the crate.

"Yeah. Looks like they fixed it up, too," Applejack said approvingly, letting her previous question go unanswered.

"Oh? Did it take a lot of damage?"

"Sure did! Ah saw it happen right in front o'me, too! Nearly gave me a heart attack!" Applejack complained.

She was about to continue, but paused when she saw something dark in her brother's mane.

"Hold on, Mac, ya got something up in here..." she sifted a hoof through his golden-orange hair, and a night-blue feather fell out onto the ground.

"There ya go," Applejack said, moving on without pausing to consider the piece of detritus. Big Mac's eyes tracked left and right nervously, and he continued to remain still and silent as Daniels and his sister walked past him.

"Anyway, like Ah was sayin', mah bro was gettin' real into the fight back there. Was actually gettin' a little scary, the way he was snappin' and thrashin' about like a timberwolf on fire. So then he rushes out ahead o'the Iron Warriors..."


Big Mac waited until they had entered the farmstead, and then breathed a heavy sigh of relief.

Moving around the crate, he began to tilt it over in order to get the hefty container onto his back.

He paused as he spotted the dark feather lying in the dirt underneath him, barely visible in the darkness thanks the dim lumen strips affixed to the farmstead bunker.

Stopping to glance about again, Big Macintosh quickly picked up the feather in his mouth and spat it into the crate.

Then he shifted his head under the container to lift it up and slide it onto his back.

Without further delay, the Apple stallion headed into the farmstead and up toward his room, wondering all the while if he might find opportunities to take more trips into Canterlot in the near future.


****


Canterlot Castle - royal baths


Celestia sighed as she levitated a towel over her mane, wrapping it up into a pastel-colored bundle.

Glancing out a window, she saw the moon high in the sky, and glowing brightly. The white Princess nodded in silent approval, and decided that she'd check up on Luna before retiring for the night. Her younger sister had been handling the recent outbreak of intergalactic hostilities quite well, but these were extraordinary times and the royal house needed to be seen working in concert and to its fullest capacity. She also wanted to know if Luna was planning on continuing her dream world espionage on the 38th Company; at this point, Celestia wasn't sure if it would yield any more useful information, given that the Iron Warriors certainly planned to flee the coming invasion. Luna's time was probably better spent attending to the administrative details of tending to Canterlot's rebuilding, or brainstorming on possible solutions to the coming war.

Celestia reached for the door, but paused as she heard the pounding of incoming hooves on the other side.

She barely had time to dodge out of the way before the door burst open in front of her.

"Tia! Thou art still sensate! Excellent!" Luna crowed, grinning as a scroll floated behind her in the grip of her magic.

Celestia recoiled again. Luna was practically prancing from hoof to hoof, and was naked. Well, more naked than usual. Her shoes and collar were missing, although her crown was sitting awkwardly atop the unkempt mess that currently described her mane. There were shooting stars zig-zagging everywhere through the shadowy, ethereal pool of hair, and she swore she could see at least a dozen twinkling lights going supernova.

"Luna, are you okay?" Celestia asked uncertainly. The dark alicorn certainly seemed pleased, and as far as she was aware there was little cause for excitement as of late.

"We art better than okay!" Luna proclaimed, pushing the scroll forward. "But We wished thee to see this before thy rest! We hast sent a communique to the Warsmith, and he hath responded to our summons! Come tomorrow noon, the leadership of the 38th shalt meet with us for a strategy conference! We hast sent word to the Elements of Harmony, and shalt adjust our sleep schedule to prepare!"

"Wait, wait, wait! Luna!" Celestia scowled. "We haven't even gotten the last of their soldiers out of our capital, and you're already arranging new meetings with them?"

"Aye!" the younger alicorn said brightly, either ignorant or indifferent to her sister's ire. "There is no point in delay! Every second will count if we are to turn away the green tide!"

Celestia pursed her lips. "Luna, I don't believe the humans are going to help. And I must confess that I'm in no mood for yet another conference with alien soldiers. The last two went poorly enough."

Luna considered pointing out that her meeting with the Iron Warriors had gone badly mostly because Celestia had decided ahead of time that she wanted nothing to do with them, but she resisted the impulse. The last thing she wanted to do was start an argument right before her sister went to bed.

"This is a necessity of war, Tia," Luna insisted. She tried to make a serious expression, but it merely reduced her grin to a smirk. "I hast meditated on the matter and sought counsel on how to best ensure our survival and the continued prosperity of our world."

She magically rolled up the scroll and then stuck it into an empty towel basket. "No matter what thee thinks of the servants of Chaos, their experience in the ways of war and the green mongrels in particular are extensive. To deny their aid would be foolish, Sister."

Celestia's wings ruffled irritably. "And at what cost to us will their aid come?"

"We will not know until we meet them, Sister. But We do not believe that Equestria can prevail alone," Luna countered, "and even if they art to take to the void and leave us to our fate, we would be best served to hear of their plans from them, would we not?"

The elder alicorn mulled over the argument silently for a time, finding very little to object to in her sister's plea. Her expression softened, and she nodded her head. "You're right. Again," she admitted with a sad smile, "I apologize for being such a coward, Luna. But my first instinct where Chaos is concerned is always resistance."

"And a wise instinct it is, Sister," Luna said with a nod, "but whether by fortune or nature, these sapiens art not our enemy. It is the Tau Empire that hath doomed our world in service to their 'Greater Good', and the Ork fiends that drive toward our world thirsting for war. The Iron Warriors hath tolerated our interests thus far."

"We'll see how long that lasts," Celestia mumbled, "but thank you for doing this. I've been completely overwhelmed since last night, but to be sure we cannot afford to stand still. Too much depends on us."

She nuzzled her sister across the cheek, and then paused and wrinkled her snout.

Luna realized what was wrong, and she chuckled as she trotted past the larger alicorn. "Excuse us, Sister. We must wash before holding court tonight."

"Yes, please do," Celestia mumbled wryly, "you reek of sweat... and..." she tilted her head to one side in confusion. "And... apples?"

"Aye," Luna said brightly as she magically yanked a towel over her withers and headed for the baths, "We had one earlier. Rest well, Sister."


****


Ferrous Dominus - Trixie's room


"You've been awfully touchy-feely since Trixie returned, Suuna," Trixie mumbled awkwardly, "Trixie is beginning to feel weird about this."

The awkwardness was no doubt because she had been suddenly hoisted up off the floor and was being hugged tightly against her assistant's chest. It wasn't uncomfortable, strictly speaking, and wasn't as if Suuna didn't spend plenty of time rubbing the unicorn on command, but the spontaneity was throwing Trixie off a bit. She had been scooped up off her hooves the very moment she had finished removing her armor.

"F-Forgive me, Mistress," Suuna stuttered, "I'm just... very happy to see you home safe!"

The palpable relief in her voice, as well as the sentiment itself, briefly rendered Trixie speechless. Having a real home at all was quite rare for her, much less someone to welcome her back after an absence.

Suuna still wasn't letting go, however.

"You simply disappeared yesterday! I was too scared to leave the room to search for you at first, but then even after the planet rotation began again you still didn't come back! And then we ran out of food so I had to leave, and then I asked around and heard you were deployed!" Suuna couldn't keep a few tears from squeezing out as she squeezed the blue pony tighter. "I was terrified! If something happened to you, I don't know what I'd do!"

"Yes, well, Trixie must apologize for failing to provide notice of Trixie's departure," Trixie said, shifting as best she could so that the squeezing didn't constrict her breathing, "unfortunately, Trixie's mission was a surprise to Trixie, as well. Being so Great and Powerful can be a curse as well as a blessing, sometimes." The blue unicorn coughed meaningfully. "Speaking of which: as amazing and enchantingly beautiful as Trixie is, certainly you must find yourself hard-pressed to restrain yourself. But Trixie must ask that you put her down now."

Suuna did so. Eventually.

"You didn't get hurt, did you? I mean, your armor looks okay, so you probably didn't, but-"

"Suuna," Trixie interrupted, causing the young woman to fall silent, "Trixie is unharmed. Cool your bits." She spent a moment stretching and shaking out her tail. "The armor Solon made is excellent, but Trixie wishes it wasn't so constricting. It is particularly annoying to have Trixie's tail bundled up in the back. It feels good to get out of it for a while."

Suuna frowned. "I can't believe that the Company made you fight a battle as soon as they outfitted with an armor suit! You're an entertainer!"

Trixie raised an eyebrow at her.

"... Well, okay, I suppose it isn't actually that surprising," the former slave promptly admitted, "but still. It's bad."

"Trixie is displeased too, but must admit that Trixie should have seen it coming," the unicorn sighed as she levitated her helmet up and stared into the blood-red lenses. "Still, the Great and Powerful Trixie always makes the most of a bad situation. The tale of Trixie's victory in Canterlot, saving the Princess from the vile Tau and restoring the planet of Centaur III to its natural - if entirely magic-managed - state, shall surely make a fine addition to Trixie's act!"

The unicorn paused, rubbing her chin with her hoof. "Trixie will have to come up with a prologue that explains this world's unique nature if Trixie is going to tell the story on other planets, though. Trixie was unaware that other solar systems were so different."

"Why would you be giving a show on other planets?" Suuna asked.

"Because this one is going to be tragically short on audiences soon," Trixie said with a snort. Then she paused. "Unless Orks like magic shows." She looked up at her assistant. "Do Orks like magic shows?"

Suuna was staring at her with wide eyes and gaping mouth.

"Ah. Trixie sees you hadn't heard. Yeah, so it turns out that the Tau's big plan was to lure a bunch of Orks here with their fancy Warp-space transmitter thingy, and away from their own planets. And apparently they succeeded."

Suuna still looked stunned, so Trixie took that as her cue to keep talking, as usual.

"Trixie's heart bleeds for her homeworld, but will do her part to help it live on in the bardic tradition," the showmare said, beckoning with a hoof toward empty air, "she will tell grand tales of its wonder and majesty, and put on magic puppet shows about Twilight Sparkle's presumably noble defense of the planet and subsequently fatal mauling! Trixie was thinking of doing it in limerick form."

Suuna sat down stiffly, hugging herself silently.

"... Trixie couldn't help but notice you're taking news of this world's impending destruction much worse than Trixie is," the unicorn pointed out.

"I was looking forward to leaving the fleet with you," Suuna mumbled, trying to keep the disappointment from her voice, "this planet is... well, nice. Nicer than my home world, even. And you're the first creature to show me any real kindness since my family was killed." She couldn't keep the bitterness out of her tone now. "And now your home's been ripped apart by warfare between Tau and Chaos, all to prepare for being swarmed by Orks." Tears started to crawl down her face. "I'm sorry, Mistress Trixie. I'm so sorry. You were all so happy here, safe and isolated, and now... we've ruined it. We've ruined EVERYTHING."

Trixie stared up at Suuna, looking singularly unimpressed.

"Trixie rejects your useless pity," the unicorn said flatly.

Suuna seemed surprised, and she watched as Trixie trotted away toward the recently-installed kitchen section of her room.

"Feel free to sob over the fate of the REST of ponykind if you must, but Trixie is going to survive and thrive, Orks or no. Trixie has cast her lot in with you space people, and does not regret doing so. It hasn't been all sunshine and rainbows - in fact, both those things are exceptionally rare here - but Trixie's life has never been easy, and Trixie wouldn't have it any other way." She levitated a jar of oats off the counter along with some sugar purchased from the dessert shop. "Besides, you've done nothing wrong. The 38th Company hasn't even done anything wrong. Well, in this specific instance, at least."

"But still," Suuna mumbled uncomfortably, "if you could just be left alone..."

"Personally, Trixie wished just the Tau would have left us alone, but things are not so convenient." She dumped some sugar onto the oats, and then stuck her her muzzle into the sack, chomping away.

Suuna waited until she finished chewing and swallowed. "So, what are we going to do? Is there any way to save this planet?"

The blue pony ran her tongue over her lips. "What WE'RE going to do is our jobs. Trixie is employed by the Iron Warriors now, and intends to continue being employed by them long enough to be carried away from here if necessary." Her jaw tightened. "As for Trixie's planet... well, Trixie isn't expecting miracles, but Sparkle has managed some pretty impressive victories in the past, or so Trixie hears. And she has the backing of the royal family, a spirit of Chaos, the Elements of Harmony, as well as some influence here among you humans. Even Trixie would aid her, so long as there were SOME real chance of success. She might yet find a way out of this."


****


Ponyville - Twilight's library


Twilight pushed aside the empty can of nutrient paste and dabbed at her muzzle with a cloth. Her eyes never left the dataslate placed on her desk as she finished cleaning up after dinner, just as they had hardly left the dataslate while she had been eating.

She was in her room, alone, and Luna's moon cast a pale light through her window that supplemented the dim lumen strip Gaela had fixed to her desk.

Gaela. Twilight's thoughts briefly wandered toward the fate of the Dark Acolyte. Would she see Gaela again? She had left Canterlot with Solon, before the Iron Warriors had consolidated their victory in the city and long before the celebrations. Twilight felt bad about that, considering how much the Dark Acolyte had helped. Gaela had also left her severed arm behind in the throne room, unlike her power axe and damaged pistol. The palace cleaning crew had eventually thrown it out like another piece of debris. Twilight felt bad about that too, but was pretty sure Gaela didn't mind that much.

She wondered what Gaela's new arms would look like.

Twilight's attention snapped back onto the dataslate. Warp travel. Time diffusion. Spatial relativity. Real-space translation.

Delgan had been extremely helpful, although he had remained convinced that their efforts were doomed. Twilight knew a great deal about the Orks now, even though she'd yet to see a single one of the creatures. She knew about their biology, their behavioral tendencies, and what passed for tactics among the creatures.

All of that knowledge, though, still sat in the shadow of one giant, terrifying number. Nine-point-seven billion. Give or take two billion, Delgan guessed. Probably give, especially as the Warp beacon would even attract Ork ships that weren't part of the warfleet that the Tau were trying to divert. Those wandering Orks could be less than a week away, thanks to the speed of Warp travel.

They could probably destroy the beacon that the abandoned Tau army still protected, but apparently the signal would bounce around in the Warp for days or weeks afterward, giving a heading to any Ork ships that translated into Warp space in search of new targets. But Orks apparently got lost or distracted constantly, so cutting off the constant reminder of where the Centaur system was would probably lose some large portion of them.

But how many Orks could Equestria and its hypothetical allies handle? Two zeroes would probably be easy. Four would be brutal, but needn't mean the end of the world. Once they got to seven zeroes, the efforts of ponies and dragons and humans and every other species that she could imagine fighting on their side (including the rather fanciful contributions of the changelings and the diversion of a few parasprite swarms) started to look positively empty. And ten million was less than one percent of this fleet's reputed strength.

They couldn't let the Orks land their main force on the planet. And they couldn't stop them from landing once they translated into real-space in the star system. Cutting an Ork invasion force down to a manageable size in void combat was apparently a favored tactic of Imperial battle groups, thanks to the general superiority of human technology, tactics, and gunnery, but it obviously wasn't an option for Equestria. It wasn't even feasible for the 38th Company, even if she presumed that they'd be willing to help.

As Twilight saw it, the only possible way to stop the Orks was to stop them from coming out of Warp space anywhere close enough to their planet to reach it using sub-light speed.

Unsurprisingly, she didn't exactly know how to do that. Her knowledge of Warp space was nascent, and her research materials were mediocre.

But she had an idea.

Twilight took a sip of her tea, grimacing at how cold it was. Then she glanced over at the scroll sitting on the middle of her bed. The scroll was from Princess Luna, and invited her to a strategy meeting with the Princesses and the Iron Warriors.

"If it's possible, then Solon will know," Twilight said to herself, rubbing at her drooping eyelids, "it has to work. Everything depends on it."

Author's Note:

DRAMA. EMOTION. FEEEEELINGSSSSSS!!
And the odd dirty joke. More Lunamac out of left field.
Please bear with me while I navigate us through all this mushy emotional drivel so that we can get back to all the sexy violence. It won't be long, I promise!

Also, I decided that this installment of the saga earned a Dark tag, since all the characters are operating under the threat of complete planetary extinction. I may also use that as an excuse to bump up the grimdark levels. But not too much. I mean, come on, these are Orks we're talking about. Yeesh.

This would also be a good time to view the first two chapter of Visions of Darkness, which present Dest and Daniels' backstories. Dest's chapter immediately follows this one.

Edit: Character list has been altered now that Book 4 is almost done and I know better which characters had speaking lines and such.