• Published 17th Apr 2012
  • 14,085 Views, 904 Comments

Falling Stars - Rokas

A cosmic accident has brought two 31st-century mercenary units to Equestria. Any hope for peace is destroyed as greed flares and battle lines are drawn, and the ponies find themselves thrust into the horrors of war. Will they rise to the challenge?

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Chapter 12 - Gathering Clouds

Desperadoes Main Camp
Manehattan, Occupied Zone
September 18th AD 3070/1023 RC

“Are you sure about this?” O'Connell asked, his voice gruff.

Kilroy shrugged from where he stood next to his commanding officer. “Not entirely,” he said, answering not only for himself but also for the pale blue unicorn pony standing nearby. And no doubt listening in, as well, the second in command of the Desperadoes thought. “But if you want help, boss, this is one of our better bets.”

Garth grunted at that as he crossed his arms. “But are these griffons worth it, though?” He asked, even as he peered to the northern sky, dark as it was with the sun setting to the west. “If they were a real power to contend with then shouldn't they have been at the horse-things' throats before we came?”

“Given what the big white one did, are you surprised they're not?” Kilroy countered.

“Humph,” O'Connell grunted. “Fair enough. So how are they supposed to help us anyway?”

“Bodies on the ground,” Kilroy said, and then smirked a bit. “Or in the air, anyway. There's still a good many of them, and they're supposed to be vicious.” He paused then to glance towards Trixie, who had the good presence of mind to shuffle a bit at the brief silence. “Or so I have been told,” Kilroy added, and then turned back to O'Connell. “But if they're anything like the old myths that half the stuff here is like, then they should be fierce enough.”

“I'll believe it when I see it,” O'Connell said. “Speaking of which, I'm guessing that's them?” He asked, raising an arm to point towards a cluster of specks that had appeared in the darkening sky.

“Looks like 'em,” Kilroy replied, and then lifted up a pair of binoculars he was carrying to his eyes. A quick focus and zoom later revealed the image of twelve creatures that he recognized from mythology. “Yup, that's them alright,” he said, and then lowered the binoculars. “Twelve of 'em.”

“Two from each tribe,” Trixie added, risking the ire of the humans for speaking out of turn. “That is the traditional griffon arrangement for negotiations.”

Garth shot the little pony a harsh look, but otherwise let her interruption slide. “Good,” he said, and then reached down for a radio handset clipped to his belt, which he quickly brought up to his mouth. “Grimes, we got our guests coming in from the north, twelve of 'em.”

“I have them on radar,” the voice of the Red Skye's captain replied. “I'll have fire control mark them as neutral.”

“Good, but keep an eye on the scopes for any surprises,” O'Connell replied, and then returned the handset back to his belt after Grimes' affirmative reply. “Alright, let's get the others and make these guys welcome.”

“I would have never thought flying over a pony city would be so easy,” Garadan quietly spoke, as he flew in loose formation with his second.

“It's not flying over it that's hard, it's doin' it without being bothered by the guards,” the feisty female at his side replied. “Even when I had my papers, they still followed me like I was about to drop down and snatch a foal.”

Garadan nodded his head to her. “I will take your word for it, Gilda,” he said. “I never understood how these ponies think, anyway.”

“Neither do I,” Gilda muttered under her breath. She then cleared her throat and spoke a bit louder as she pointed with a forepaw. “Looks like that's them down there.”

“I would think so,” Garadan agreed, having also spotted the strange egg-shaped structure sitting amongst the tall buildings. He immediately adjusted his wings and started to descend, prompting Gilda and the other nearby griffons to follow. They all remained silent as they flew, retaining the typically stoic composure of the griffon race. As they drew lower, though, even Garadan found himself a bit bewildered as the true scope of the war machines the invaders had with them, many of which were gathered in rows outside the building-sized craft that he had been told could move at will. I will believe that when I see it, the older griffon thought, as he and the others spiraled downward. His keen eyes located a patch of ground that was brightly illuminated by electric lights in the growing night, carefully positioned between the massive ship and the war machines. Standing at the edge were six figures, two of which were ponies, and the other four being something Garadan had never seen before. Must be those “humans” the missive spoke of, he reasoned.

As he descended, one of the ponies sprang into the air and flew upwards, revealing itself as a pegasus. Garadan and the others pulled themselves to a hovering stop as the green pony flew up to meet them, instantly wary of any potential tricks.

“Greetings,” the flying pony said. “Major Garth O'Connell bids you welcome. I will lead you to the landing to meet him.”

Garadan raised an eyebrow at that. So, they either know of griffon customs, or learned of them, he thought, and his opinion of the strangers rose a tick. “Very well, lead us down,” he said aloud, and then followed when the green pegasus turned and then headed back down to where she had been standing a few moments prior.

As the new arrivals landed, they took careful, guarded looks around them to gauge the situation. Garadan gave the immediate area a cursory glance himself before he turned his attention to the bipedal figures standing before him. At first glance, part of him felt like dismissing the creatures, so soft and incapable they looked, even when compared to ponykind. Yet as he looked closer and peered into their faces, Garadan saw that they were studying him and the other griffons as thoroughly and with the same practiced eye of a predator looking for soft spots. So, perhaps the rumors are true? Garadan found himself intrigued, and he decided to take the initiative and stepped forward. “I am Garadan, of the Flying Strikes clan. I thank you for your hospitality,” he said, and gestured to the pegasus that had flown up to greet them as he spoke the second sentence. The other griffon clan representatives followed suit within moments, and soon they had all offered their traditional greetings.

The scene fell silent after the last griffon spoke, though it was brief as the the creature in the center of the group shifted on his feet and then dropped his arms from where they had been crossed over his chest. “I'm major Garth O'Connell, commanding officer of the Desperadoes Mercenary Group and its first company, and I welcome you personally to this recently liberated city. On my right is captain Gregory Kilroy, my second in command and leader of the second company, and on my left are captain Sara Tanaka, commander of third company, and commander Zachery Carver, the leader of our air wing.

“And with us are two who have seen the light,” O'Connell continued, with a wave of his hand towards the two ponies standing off to Kilroy's right. “Trixie and Seabreeze, both of whom are advisors as we extend our rule over this land.”

Garadan cast a hard eye over the two ponies and silently questioned what would make any one of the ponies turn on their own kind. He got an immediate and easy answer with Trixie as she puffed herself up a bit: Pride. So easy to use, such a curse on those who value it greatly, Garadan thought, momentarily casting his thoughts to Gilda before considering the green pegasus. This one, though, is mad, he thought, seeing the crooked smile on her face and one of her eyes twitching. Best steer clear of her. He forced his attention back to the human leader and then nodded, his taking the leader earlier having made him the leading delegate by default. “So, we have come as bidden. I take it you will not waste our time?” He asked bluntly.

O'Connell smirked at that, and then nodded. “I most certainly won't,” he said, and then waved for the griffons to follow him towards the Red Skye. The gathering slowly fell in behind him, the griffons forming a parallel column to that of the humans and ponies with their primary delegates up front. “In fact, I think you will all appreciate what we offer.”

“Oh?” Garadan asked, and then glanced at his equals for a moment to make sure no one else wanted to speak up. “And what exactly do you offer?”

“Change,” O'Connell answered as he started leading the groups up the Skye's 'mech embarkation ramp. “I've read some of the texts the ponies” - Garadan noticed a hitch in the man's voice at that word - “have written on your kind. Many of them are quite unkind.”

“That's 'cus ponies have feathers for brains,” Gilda said from near the middle of the Griffon procession. Garadan cast a warning look back at her, but otherwise refrained from the usual rebuke. Because she's right; they do have feathers for brains, the elder griffon thought.

“Quite right,” O'Connell replied to Gilda's statement. “Most of them aren't very bright. Fortunately, there are exceptions,” he added, and then gestured towards Trixie and Seabreeze again. “These two being amongst them. The others may even come around in time, though before then someone will have to remove the corrupting influence of their entrenched government first.”

Garadan didn't reply to that. Point of fact, he could not, as he and the other griffons reached the main level of the lower 'mech bay and promptly froze in place to take in the varied and remarkable sights. Thy recovered soon enough, however, and then turned to see O'Connell smiling broadly. “And that is where we come in. I know you have had problems with the local royalty before. Well, my unit took one of them out, and the other has been hiding in their capitol ever since.”

“Truly?” One of the other griffon delegates asked, sounding surprised. “You killed one of the royal sisters?”

At this, O'Connell's smile faded a bit, and a brief hitch came in his mannerisms. “Mostly,” he said, a bit of a growl in his voice. “We fought and beat the white one. Shot her good with a laser.” Garth mentioned this last part with a vengeful smirk, though it was brief. “Her servants carried her off before we could finish the job, but even if she isn't dead from being hit by an anti-armor weapon, she's going to be in the hospital for a long, long time to come.”

The griffon delegates turned to each other and started to mutter amongst themselves. Garadan refrained from such a display, though even he felt his mind boggling at the concept that Celestia herself had been driven from the battlefield. That eternal pox upon our kind struck down? Even if she is not dead, she is vulnerable. I wonder...

He put such thoughts aside as O'Connell resumed speaking. “So you can see I'm not blowing smoke about our abilities to enact change. However, like all beings, we are not all-powerful; we need to sleep and eat at times, like anyone else. There's only so many of us, and so we need help.”

“And so you turn to us,” Garadan said, his tone making it a statement. “For what purpose?”

O'Connell smiled his usual, almost insincere smile again. “As I said, there are only so many of us. What we need is numbers, chiefly large numbers of beings willing to work with us to do the things we cannot. A BattleMech – which is what we call our war machines – is immensely powerful and can take land, but they cannot hold it. What we need are individuals on the ground, and in your case, in the air, to watch what we take from the royals, to keep the pony populace in line, and to fight the sorts of fights that a giant metal machine isn't suited for. And from what I've read, you guys are the most vicious, tenacious, and bloody fighters on this world.” O'Connell paused at that to nod a salute to the delegates. “Which makes you some of the best allies mechwarriors like us could have.”

Silence fell over the two groups for a few moments as the griffons absorbed and considered O'Connell's words. Finally, Garadan spoke up again. “Of course, the question becomes, what do we get out of such an alliance?”

Garth smiled again. “Besides the obvious reward of power second only to us humans, I also promise you living space here in the pony lands, and the ability to settle wherever you want. And of course, we'd restore your hunting rights.”

To say the last item got the griffons' attentions would be an understatement, as they turned and locked their gaze onto the human leader almost as one. A few of them stole looks at the two ponies in the other group and found them suddenly uncomfortable, though neither raised a voice in protest. For his part, Garadan flicked his gaze to glance at Gilda out of the corner of his eyes; a look the younger griffon reciprocated instantly. “That is an interesting proposal,” Garadan said, turning his attention to O'Connell. “But how would order be maintained? Surely the ponies wouldn't want to be subject of that sort of treatment.”

Garth grinned again, and this time it not only seemed sincere, but also frightening. “Oh, governments have gotten away with worse back where we come from,” he said, with a feigned nonchalance. “Fortunately, there are quite a few books that detail such things.” He didn't mention, of course, that those books were documentaries of past atrocities, as well as a few modern ones. “And what it all boils down to is if you keep the ponies afraid and have enough power to rapidly quash any uprising, then you can keep them in check well enough.”

“And ponies certainly are easily scared,” Gilda muttered quietly, barely loud enough for Garadan to hear her.

The elder griffon nodded almost absentmindedly, and then focused his gaze on O'Connell again. “I think this shall be an interesting discussion.”

Sweet Apple Acres
Ponyville, Equestria
September 19th

Johannes “Hermes” Schneider looked out over the unploughed field he stood in and took in the sights around him. On his left some distance away stood the Heart of Steel, and further beyond that the Apple Family homestead. To his right was a part of the ponies' orchard that seemed to have died off en masse, leaving the area clear of any workers and making the area perfect for what was planned today.

In front of him were the reasons he was outside early this morning, and Schneider coolly cast his gaze along the two ranks of ponies that had been detached from captain Starbuck's command for “familiarity training.” Apparently the only ponies from their army who actually have faced O'Connell and his men are the pegasuses, Schneider thought, his education ensuring that he would use the proper English way of referring to the plural noun of a winged pony. Though to be fair, Merry Olde England never did have to solve that problem, did they? The thought amused him briefly as he looked over the fourteen ponies, seven each of the earth and unicorn variety, selected by Starbuck to partake in the training the humans offered.

They were all “Guards”; regulars who made a career out of serving their nation, as opposed to the “Army” which was a temporary inflation of the Equestrian armed forces in times of war. The distinction and what it meant had been explained to Schneider and the other humans the day before when plans for this training and the upcoming actions against the Desperadoes were being made, and for a moment “Hermes” reflected again on what he would have to change from the usual routine. Well, no sense on putting this off any longer, he told himself, and then cleared his throat. “Greetings gentle... ponies,” he said, somewhat haltingly as he was still unused to such an odd form of address. “My name is Johannes Schneider. I will be conducting the training today, along with our infantry commander, mister Ivan Rogov.” Schneider paused to turn and gesture behind and to his right, where the imposing giant of a man stood next to some metal storage crates that had been brought out for today's work. “I have been told that your commanding officer has picked you because he feels you are his best.” Schneider paused again and then glanced to the left now a fair distance away where captain Starbuck and several ponies from the nearby town stood to watch the proceedings. “Hopefully we won't be testing that statement anytime soon,” Hermes continued, and returned his attention to the “trainees” in front of him. “But for now I will expect you to pay close attention and give me your best efforts. Is that understood?”

“Yes sir!” The fourteen soldier ponies replied, their voices loud and precise. Their tone was of obedience and precision, yet tinged with enough pride to give a measure of their self-worth.

Schneider nodded appreciatively at that, finding satisfaction that these were indeed professionals. “Good. Now, firstly we are going to introduce you to the kinds of weapons that you will be facing in the fight against the Desperadoes, starting with small arms,” Hermes continued, and then turned and gestured to Ivan. The burly man quickly crouched to pick up a particular crate and then carried it forward with ease. He placed it unbidden in the space between Schneider and the trainees, before he stepped back to let Schneider take the forefront again.

“The first thing to know,” Johannes spoke, while Ivan was still moving about. “Is that all weapons, regardless of design, exist to deliver energy to a target in sufficient quantity and a quick enough time-frame to disrupt its physical structure.” He knelt down after Ivan had stepped back, and then quickly began to work the latches holding the crate closed. “This is true even of weapons like swords, spears, and arrows. Those weapons, however, rely on the user applying physical energy from his or her own muscles, thus limiting its output. Whereas weapons like these,” he added, as he removed four pistols and then laid them on the ground briefly while he closed the crate's lid. “All incorporate some form of concentrated and stored energy that is then released in a controlled manner.” Schneider placed the pistols on top of the crate at this and then stood to gesture at the four weapons. “I will demonstrate these weapons to you and explain their function so that you will better understand their advantages and disadvantages so that you can adapt to the battlefield you will find yourself in.

“Now, first we need some targets.” Schneider paused at this, and then glanced around. “Uh, Ivan, weren't you supposed to have those set up already?” He asked the larger man in a slightly lower voice.

“Ivan get Pinkie Pie to help,” the giant replied with a satisfied grin. “She make targets.”

Schneider frowned at the taller man, and then started to look around. “Well, where is sh-” he began, only to cut himself off as he suddenly saw the aforementioned pink pony standing right behind him. “Ah!” He yelped out in shock.

“Hiya mister Hermes!” Pinkie said, grinning widely, as was her idiom. “I brought those dummies like Ivan wanted though I don't know why you'd call them dummies since they don't breathe so they can't really talk and how can you know if they're dumb or not if you can't talk to them or is that the point that they can't talk so they're not very smart?”

Schneider blinked at her words, feeling dumbfounded that Pinkie had sneaked up on him. And carrying two large target dummies, as well? He asked himself, as he gawked at the two man-sized, burlap sacks with crude red and white targets painted on them that sat on the pink pony's back. “Oh, okay,” he said, his voice half bewildered. “Well then, would you please go set them up for us?” He asked, hoping to use the time it would take her to regain his composure.

“Sure!” Pinkie replied, her smile widening just a bit. “Where do you want them?”

“Oh,” Schneider said, and then twisted his upper body to point towards the leafless trees, his gaze following the point of his hand. “Just over... there...” Johannes blinked hard as he saw the two targets already set up, propped up by wooden stakes in front of one of the dead-looking trees. He froze like that for only a second before he whipped his body back around to see Pinkie Pie standing where he'd seen her a moment before, now sans dummies. “H- how?” Hermes asked, his voice breaking a bit. “How the Hell did you do that?”

“Do what?” Pinkie asked, her cheerful smile still in place. “Oh, you mean put the dummies up? I just went over there and did it. Easy peasy one two threesy, as Dashie likes to say.”

Johannes Schneider considered himself a sane and rational man who was open-minded to new ideas. He'd even started accepting that “magic” was a force here. Yet at the moment, he felt like what order was left in the universe was slowly ebbing away.

A large, meaty hand was laid gently on his shoulder then, and Schneider turned his head to see Ivan looking at him with a sympathetic expression on his face. “Ivan think you need moment or two,” the taller man said. “Go stand with watching ponies, while Ivan moves to next demonstration. We come back to your part, da?”

Johannes just nodded at that, as he found himself too dumbfounded to speak. Instead he just turned and started to walk towards the small crowd of ponies in the distance. Though he did make sure to step widely around a still-grinning Pinkie Pie, at whom he shot confused glances now and then.

“Now,” Ivan said, speaking loud enough to be heard as he turned to face the guards ponies still waiting for their training. Most of them looked almost as bad as Schneider had, though one earth pony looked almost bored. “One moment,” Ivan said, and then turned and went back to the stack of crates. He opened up one and pulled something large out from inside before he turned and then walked back. Carefully, he set his burden down on top of the crate, over the pistols Schneider had pulled out, and then cleared his throat.

“Ivan is heavy weapons specialist,” Ivan said, and then patted the object he'd just retrieved. “And this, is Sasha. She is Bearhunter super-heavy autocannon for infantry, weighs forty kilograms, and fires custom-made two-hundred bit cartridges at ten-thousand rounds per minute,” he explained, having already converted the cost of the ammunition to Equestrian currency to make his point, though he exaggerated the costs somewhat. “It costs four hundred thousand bits to fire this weapon for twelve seconds.”

He paused to let that information sink in. The guards ponies across from him all took on looks of surprise and even a mild bit of horror at the sheer cost of the weapon. Before any of them could say anything in reply, though, Ivan picked up a pair of orange ear protectors from his belt and then placed them where they were designed to go. “You may want to cover your ears,” Ivan shouted towards the guards ponies, and then glanced back at Pinkie Pie. His mind made no special note to see that she had somehow produced a pair of her own orange protectors, which already sat over her ears. Instead he turned to his autocannon, lifted it up, and then turned to face the targets Pinkie had set up. Ivan double-checked the ammo feed to make sure the short belt for the demonstration was loaded, and then hefted the bulky weapon up until he could properly set it against his body to absorb the recoil.

Twilight Sparkle watched Schneider approach where she, captain Starbuck, and several townsponies stood. The flabbergasted look on his face had faded a bit, but he was still in a state and Twilight found herself smiling sadly in sympathy for him. “Don't worry,” the unicorn said, as the human drew near. “Pinkie does that to everyone here,” she added, feeling some pride at remembering to use the more inclusive pronoun.

“How does she do it, though?” Schneider asked, relief showing on his face and in his voice as confirmation that he wasn't crazy helped ease his mind. “Is it that magic of yours?”

“Uh, not really,” Twilight said, and then blushed and looked down. “Actually, I tried to find out what it was once. I ended up even more frustrated than you,” she added, and then looked up, her visage still sympathetic, if also showing some embarrassment. “That's how I know what you're going through right now.”

“Pinkie has also been the subject of a guards bulletin,” Starbuck interjected. “Telling us not to bother trying to incarcerate her if she finds her way onto the castle grounds. Firstly because she is an element of harmony, of course,” Starbuck added, with a nod to Twilight. “But also because we were told it would be wasted effort. Something about impossible contortion, I believe.”

Schneider gave the two ponies a look of disbelief, and then shook his head. “I'm going to go insane here, aren't I?” He asked, rhetorically.

“If you live in Ponyville, at least,” Twilight muttered, hoping to keep any of the nearby townsponies from hearing her.

Fortunately, that seemed the case, as the other ponies were more interested in something going on back at the demonstration. Even Schneider noticed this, and he glanced back briefly to make sure Ivan was still working at it. Then he did a double-take as he recognized “Sasha” and saw Ivan aiming it, and then let out a small noise of surprise. “Everyone, cover your ears!” He shouted before he followed his own advice and clapped his hands to the side of his head.

Although surprised at the sudden outburst, the various ponies were already alert from Pinkie's antics, and so they quickly obeyed Schneider's command. Almost as one the group dropped to their haunches so they could bring up forelegs to plant hooves over their ears, even as Schneider did the same with his hands.

It proved a prudent measure as Ivan fired the autocannon at the targets Pinkie had set up. A meter-long gout of flame erupted from the multi-barrel weapon as it spat out a brief but terrible stream of shells that tore into, apart, and through the two burlap sacks before the shrapnel and unexploded rounds went on to rip apart the dead-looking tree behind them. The thunderous noise from the cannon was nearly painful, even at the distance Schneider and the ponies stood at and despite the hands and hooves covering their ears.

Fortunately it was only a brief, one-second burst – that cost us several hundred C-bills, Schneider mentally grumbled – and so the group returned to their normal stances almost immediately.

“That was impressive,” Starbuck offered. “Is that a typical weapon?”

“Not by a long shot,” Schneider replied. “That's a Bearhunter autocannon; only the Clans make them. We were lucky and got it with the salvage from our last raid on the Ghost Bears.”

Starbuck gave the human a tired look at that. Schneider suddenly remembered who he was talking to and grinned sheepishly. “Sorry, I keep forgetting. That stuff is common knowledge back home.”

“Sort of how Pinkie Pie's antics are here?” Starbuck countered, a smug grin spreading on his face.

“Is that what they're calling them now?” A familiar voice suddenly spoke up, once again from right behind Schneider. Once again, he was startled and spun around, though this time he was joined in surprise by Twilight and Starbuck. Their eyes alighted upon the familiar visage of Pinkie Pie, who stood there with her orange ear protectors clamped onto her neck, smiling as usual. “Did I scare you guys again?” She asked, the smile drooping slightly.

“Just a bit, Pinkie,” Twilight replied, even as she tried to catch her breath. “You really should learn to stop sneaking up on people.”

“Aww, but it's so much fun!” Pinkie replied, her smile back to its normal dimensions. “Plus Hermes needs to loosen up a bit and relax because he's not enjoying himself here since we're all magical and he has a hard time wrapping his head around all of it isn't that right Hermes?” The pink pony spouted this off quickly, and then looked to the human for her answer.

Schneider blinked at the question, and then blushed a bit. “Look, I don't know if the commander put you up to this or not, but I'm fine,” he said, sounding insistent.

“Oh mister McKenna didn't put me up to this: I did!” Pinkie Pie replied, bouncing up as she referred to herself. “You just seem so grumpy I want to make you smile so you don't feel like you're going insane like you just said to Twilight a few moments ago.”

Johannes could only stare in silence for a moment as his mind grappled with the pink pony's speech. “How could you hear that when you were still over there?” He asked, while he pointed towards where Ivan was even now lecturing the guardsponies in his broken accent.

“That's a good question,” Pinkie Pie admitted, and then looked perplexed as she raised a forehoof up to rub her chin in contemplation. “I'm not sure if I could answer it without being slapped by a fish.”

A moment of silence met that statement. “Pinkie,” Twilight finally said. “What do you mean, slapped by a fish?”

“If I explained that then I'd definitely get slapped by one!” Pinkie Pie replied, her tone a mix of exasperation and giddy amusement. “Besides, shouldn't Hermes be working with the guardsponies?”

Schneider gave the pink pony a hard look, despite the fact that he felt the tug of duty at her words. After a moment, he shook his head and sighed. “Yeah, I guess I should get back,” he admitted, and then started to walk back towards the demonstration area. As he passed by Pinkie Pie, though, he paused and then turned to give her a steady look. “But I'll be keeping an eye on you.”

“Okey dokey Loki!” Pinkie Pie replied, with a wide smile on her muzzle. Her unerring cheerfulness and oddly penetrating gaze disturbed the human slightly, and he turned to resume his walk back towards familiarity.

For her part, Twilight Sparkle gave a sympathetic shake of her head as she watched Schneider move off. “Pinkie, you really need to tone it down a bit,” she offered. “Some of these humans are concerned enough about regular magic without your, er, special abilities to confound them.”

Pinkie Pie shrugged at that as she turned to her purple friend. “Oh, I know. But the plot really needs to get moving before the author starts tearing his hair out.”

Both Twilight and Starbuck, who had been watching quietly, gave the pink pony stupefied looks at that. “Who?” The former asked.

“What?” The guardspony added.

Before Pinkie could answer, an object fell from the sky and landed in the dirt betwixt the three ponies. All of them looked down to see a small trout, lying intact and still twitching, glistening in the morning sun.

“Oh. I'd better go help Ivan and Hermes some more,” Pinkie said, her tone as cheerful as ever, while Twilight and Starbuck looked up at her, completely flabbergasted. “See you two later!” The party pony added, and then turned and hopped off in her usual manner towards where Hermes had even now rejoined Ivan.

Still in shock, Twilight and Starbuck both looked up. The unicorn breathed in a sigh of relief right away, as she recognized the familiar vanilla and pink coloration of a particular friend flying to the east. “Oh, Fluttershy must have dropped it,” Twilight said, and then looked to the pegasus guard on her right with a sheepish grin. “She's been working overtime to feed her animal friends since Ivan helped her come out of her shock, and she has a couple of ferrets who love fish.”

“Ah,” Starbuck said, his face showing some relief as well. Still, a moment of silence passed between him and Twilight before the steel blue pegasus cast a brief glance off to where Pinkie was standing near Ivan, and then looked down at the fish again. “I think... I'm going to see how they're doing in the ship,” he said, and then turned and trotted off.

“I'll join you,” Twilight said, her tone uneasy and hurried as she sprinted briefly to catch up.

Deep within the upper 'Mech Bay of the Heart of Steel, two rose-colored eyes slowly peeked above the edge of a crate and then narrowed as their owner spotted her target. A tongue slipped out the side of her cyan muzzle and was firmly lodged between her teeth and lips as she slowly brought up a foreleg and reached out for her prize.

A flash of silver in the corner of her vision told that she'd been spotted, and she flinched backwards as the pointed device jabbed downwards. The aim was true, and metal speared through soft, fluffy material and drew forth the dark fluid that lay within.

“Don't ye touch me pancakes, lassie,” Andrew McCoy grated out in his usual, harsh tone, as he turned his full attention from the tech manual he was reading to the breakfast plate sitting on a spare ammo crate. “I dunna care if ya helpin' me or not, but God help if ya try tae take me breakfast.”

Rainbow Dash razzed the old human at that, as she stood up from the crouch she had used to sneak up on the master tech. “You don't scare me,” she said, defiantly.

McCoy chuckled darkly at that as he shifted the fork with his left hand and used it to cut a chunk off one of the pancakes on his plate. “That's only 'cuz ya dunna know me verra well,” he said, and then brought up the piece of pan-cooked goodness to his mouth.

“I know you're a cranky old coot,” Dash impertinently replied. “Also you're too slow to catch me, so I could take your food and be gone while you're still chewing.”

“Really, now?” McCoy asked, after he swallowed his bite, his tone nonchalant. “And ye think that's all ye need, eh?” He asked, as he took another bite.

“Of course it is,” Dash replied, indignant, and then tossed her head to the side in a smooth movement, which sent her mane flying for a moment. “I could swoop down and snatch the plate out from under you if I wanted to and you couldn't do a thing about it.”

“So why dinn' ya?” McCoy asked, between bites.

Dash shrugged at that. “I wanted to be sporting, yanno? Give you a fair chance,” she explained, and then smirked. “And even though it didn't work, I can always snatch the plate and get out of the ship before you could even stand up.”

“So why don't ya?” The elder human asked, before taking another bite.

“Maybe I will,” Dash countered, in a confrontational tone as she turned her head back to look up at the human, who was still a bit taller than her even while sitting down. “Maybe I'll just snatch it right now.”

“Be my guest,” McCoy added, and then rather heavily set his fork down on the plate.

Dash had her gaze drawn to the noise the flatware made, and she blinked when she saw a dish now bereft of the pancakes she had coveted. “Oh...” She said, dejected.

McCoy chuckled at that, and then stood from the stool he'd taken a rest on. “That'll teach ya a lesson, lassie,” he said, even as he paused to stretch and pop portions of his body. “Old age and treachery will win against youth an' inexperience any ol' day. Also, donna spend yer time talkin' 'bout doin' something, just do it.

“Speakin' o' which, time tae get back tae work,” the human added, and then waved the pony forward as he went to a temporary workbench only a couple of meters away. “C'mon, I know th' squids fed ye a whole stack o' pancakes earlier. Frankly I dunna know where ye put away all them calories,” McCoy said, glancing over his shoulder.

“It takes a lot of energy to fly,” Rainbow Dash protested, and then once again razzed the master tech. As she did, though, something caught her eye, and she looked down to see that McCoy's plate wasn't quite so empty. “Hey, ya left something,” she called to the human.

“Eh?” McCoy muttered from where he had begun to tinker at his current project. “Ach, jus' some bacon. Ye can have if ye want, th' doc said I ought tae cut back anyway,” he said, and then turned back to his work.

“Bacon?” Rainbow Dash asked, more to herself than of the human. When McCoy didn't reply, she turned her head down and then took a step forward to sniff at the single strip of red. Hmm, what is it? She wondered to herself. She hadn't been to any of the meetings between McKenna and the pony leadership, and so had no idea what this curious food item was. Smells weird, I wonder if it tastes weird? Dash pondered that for a moment, and then shrugged her wings. Well, only one way to find out.

I never thought that I'd be looking to find sanity in an alien spacecraft, Twilight Sparkle mused, as she and captain Starbuck passed the guard at the foot of the Heart of Steel's loading ramp. The human – protected by non-powered armor, Twilight had learned some time ago – simply waved at them, the various guards having come to recognize the ponies who visited frequently. But one thing I will grant the humans, most of them prefer order, the purple pony mused as she followed Starbuck into the cavernous lower 'Mech bay. As usual, several technicians, astechs, and even two of the Dark Horse Mechwarriors were about, working on one of the towering war machines. Add to that a lack of magic, and though they might be a bit dull at times, but at least they're consistent. Steady, even.

“ALRIGHT! WHICH ONE O' YE BOGLES BROKE TH' PONY?” The shouted question was loud enough to make both Starbuck and Twilight simultaneously jump in fright and wince from the sheer volume. The origin of the voice was easy enough to locate, especially as the speaker appeared on the open deck above and then leaned over the railing, his flustered face garnering the attention of everyone in the 'Mech bay. “If I find oot one o' ye played some sort o' trick on 'er I'll have ye repainting the hull! With a toothbbrush! In space! Without a bloody pressure suit!

“That doesn't sound good,” Starbuck said, even as he spread his now healed wings. Twilight waited a moment to watch him leap into the air and fly upwards towards the commotion before she herself charged up a teleportation spell and then flashed to the deck above. There she blinked her eyes clear of the spell's after effects and watched as Starbuck landed on the deck only a few feet away from an irate McCoy, who was unmoved by either pony's flashy arrival.

“Ach, good, maybe ye can tell me what's wrong with yer friend,” the human tech said, as he turned to spit Twilight Sparkle on a hard gaze. He then brought up an arm and pointed off to Twilight's right, where the unicorn saw a work area set against the inner wall of the ship's hull. In that area were several benches, various odds and ends the purple pony didn't recognize, and just on the edge of it all was Rainbow Dash, who was sitting perfectly still on her haunches. Her face was set into a look of surprise and her gaze was unfocused in what was still traditionally called a “thousand-yard stare” despite centuries of using the Metric system.

Not that Twilight knew that, nor would have thought of it at the moment as she was instantly concerned for her friend. “Rainbow?” The purple unicorn asked, as she turned and walked over to her friend's side. “Are you okay?”

Dash didn't reply, but as Twilight studied her face, she could detect signs of movement in the cyan pegasus' jaw. Perplexed, Twilight looked around a bit and then noticed the syrup-covered plate and flatware sitting on the crate in front of her normally active friend. “Uhm, are you eating something?” The purple unicorn asked, as both Starbuck and McCoy moved over to join her in standing next to and in front of the frozen pony, respectively.

Rainbow Dash was frozen no longer, however, as she finally nodded to the question. Heartened by this reply, Twilight offered her friend a wan smile and then leaned forward a bit to put her head further into Dash's field of perception. “Well, what is it?” She asked, even as she noted small tears forming at the corner of the pegasus' eyes.

“This is...” Dash began, her voice quiet. “The most delicious thing I have ever tasted,” she added, after a pause, her tone betraying a tiny note of awe. Rainbow then fell quiet again as she resumed chewing, though it only lasted a moment before she swallowed the food and then turned to look up at McCoy. “Please tell me you have more of that?”

The elder human scoffed. “That's what got ye buggered up?” He asked, his tone derisive, though Twilight was observant enough to note that his shoulders relaxed somewhat. “O' course we got more bacon! Breakfast ain't breakfast 'less ye got some kind of meat!”

The three ponies reacted immediately to that: Starbuck and Twilight both flinched in surprise and horror, while Dash simply looked bewildered. “Wait, what?” The cyan pegasus asked, surprise coloring her voice. “What do you- You mean that- I just ate a piece of an animal?”

“Yeah? So what?” McCoy asked, confused. “Don't tell me yer one o' those nutjobs who act like eating meat is some kind o' sin?”

“Mister McCoy,” Starbuck interjected, his voice steady yet clearly revealing some shock. “Ponies are herbivores; we eat plants, not animals.”

“That a fact?” McCoy asked, sounding unconvinced. “Ye sure do eat a lot o' animal fat for herbivores.”

Twilight frowned at that, and then spoke up after casting a quick glance to make sure Dash wasn't about to vomit. “What do you mean?” She asked, confused. “We don't eat any animals, period.”

“I didn'ta say ya ate animals,” McCoy replied, and then crossed his arms and looked down at the ponies standing or sitting in front of him. “I said ye eat animal fats well enough. What did ye think was in butter, milk, and eggs, anyway? Magic, non-animal nutrients?”

Twilight Sparkle blushed at that, and a glance towards Starbuck showed that even he bit back a quick reply. “That's not the same,” Twilight countered, though her heart wasn't in it.

“Because th' milk an' eggs don't talk back?” McCoy pressed. “Well, I know th' commander's gone and told ye about humans bein' th' only talkers back home. So trust me, lassie,” he added, turning to Rainbow Dash as he spoke, “that bit o' flesh ye had dinna have a soul. Think of it as a plant that's so stupid it'd eat its own crap if ye let it. Because that's how bloody stupid livestock is where we come from.

“Now, if that's all that be wrong with ye, we've got some work tae do,” McCoy said, and then turned to walk back towards his project area. Despite his words, he went to work immediately without Dash and seemed to ignore the ponies behind him.

The trio of ponies watched him work for a bit, before Twilight turned to Dash and then placed a hoof on her friend's shoulder. “Are you okay, Rainbow?” The unicorn asked, concerned.

Dash hesitated a moment, and then nodded. “Yeah, I think so,” she replied, and then turned her head to give Twilight a faint smile. “It just spooked me a bit, yanno?”

“So you're not going to vomit all over the place?” Starbuck asked from the side, and then got a pair of surprised looks from the two mares. “I mean, that's what I'd do,” he explained, a bit sheepishly under the stares he was receiving.

“Nah, I think I'm good,” Dash replied, some of her usual energy seeping back into her voice. “Although, there's one thing I'm kinda worried about.”

“Oh?” Twilight asked, concerned for her friend. “What's that?”

Rainbow Dash paused, and then blushed as she turned to give a sheepish grin to Twilight Sparkle. “I really want some more bacon.”

“How's that?”

James McKenna looked over the recently-cleared stretch of land with an eye that only experience could give. “Looks good,” he said, and then glanced over to his daughter, who was standing next to him. “Melissa?”

“Gotta agree, dad,” the younger McKenna replied, and then turned to nod her head appreciatively at the large red pony who'd spoken first. “I'd be lying if I said I wasn't surprised, mister Apple. I didn't think anyone could make a full six-hundred meter runway so flat in only two days, let alone by themselves.”

Big Macintosh blushed slightly at the praise, though the orange pony standing next to him had no problem speaking up. “There ain't a pony better at usin' a plow than Big Mac, that's fer sure,” Applejack beamed, clearly proud of her sibling's work.

For his part, Macintosh just nodded. “Eeyup.”

James lightly shook his head at that. “You grow the best dang apples I've ever had, and you can do earthwork like nobody's business,” he added, and then grinned at the two ponies. “I've been on a lot of planets, and I ain't ever seen anything like it. You guys are really something.”

“Aw, shoot,” Applejack said, a bit embarrassed herself now. “T'ain't nothin', just some good ol' hard work an' a bit of earth pony magic.”

“If you guys could do that where we come from, you'd be rich,” Melissa interjected. “Heck, there are whole planets that barely manage to feed their populations on crappy land. They'd pay through the nose for some of that “earth pony magic” you mentioned.”

“Eeyup,” the fifth and final member of the group, quiet until now, spoke up. Edward “Eddie” Rodriguez, Melissa's wingman, smiled as the others laughed at his imitation of the large red pony, with whom the quiet pilot had found an odd kinship.

For his part, Big Macintosh simply grinned and lightly chuckled at the lighthearted jibe. “If y'all want a ride on th' Applebuck express, ya just need ta ask,” he said, with a smirk.

“I think I'll pass,” Rodriguez replied, a grin still on his face.

“In any case,” James interrupted, and then turned to tip the hat he wore towards the two ponies. “We greatly appreciate all the hard work y'all have done for us. Now that we have a proper runway we can offload our fighters and help the pegasi cover the air.”

Applejack gave the human a curious look. “They ain't gonna be as loud as that there ship of yours, are they?” She asked.

“Uhm,” James muttered, suddenly looking unsure. To his side Melissa became intensely interested in her fingernails, while Eddie simply stared off towards the horizon.

“Ugh,” Applejack grunted, as she facehoofed and then sighed. “Th' things Ah put up with for Equestria.”


“Now don't you git started on me, Macintosh Apple,” Applejack said, as she rounded on her brother. “Ya know Ah do plenty 'round here along with all th' runnin' 'round with Twi and the girls.”


“So you ain't gonna git uppity anymore?”


The three humans all exchanged befuddled glances with one another as they observed the curious conversation. “So, uh,” Melissa began, and then waited until she had the two pony siblings' attentions. “They can be loud, yeah. The good news is, though, that it will only be for a little while.”

“Oh? How long do ya think?” Applejack asked, as she turned back to face the humans.

James opened his mouth to answer that, but bit off his words as a flash of light came from off to the left and startled the group. The humans all reacted quickly, as they snapped into crouches and pulled out their sidearms, while the two ponies simply spun around. All stared in shock as they saw two ponies, one cyan and one purple, stood only a few feet away regaining their bearings.

“You teleported us outside?” Rainbow Dash snapped, her voice and expression showing that she was already in full argument mode. “Twilight, there are apples on the ship!”

“You need to eat Equestrian apples!” The purple unicorn declared, her own face showing not only a desire to argue, but also a nervous tic that her friends had come to recognize.

“Those were Equestrian apples!” Dash countered. “I saw Applejack deliver them this morning!”

Twilight shook her head a bit. “Well, I still don't trust them,” she replied. “For all I know they dip them in fat and deep fry them!”

“Actually, deep fried apples are pretty tasty,” James interjected, rather forcefully, which made the two arguing ponies turn to look at him in surprise. “Especially if you get the seasoning just right,” he added, as all three of the humans put their weapons away.

“What, you mean like a fritter?” Applejack asked.

“Sort of, but fried by themselves without being made into a pastry first,” James explained.

The orange earth pony sat on her haunches at that, and then tapped her chin with a hoof as she thought. “Huh. That might work.”

“You are not helping, Applejack!” Twilight exclaimed, as she gave her friend a harsh look.

“Well maybe if'n ya explain what the problem is Ah could!” Applejack retorted.

“Twilight's gone nuts, that's what the problem is,” Rainbow interrupted, before the unicorn could speak. “She thinks I'm tainted or something and wants me to eat an apple before I start preying on the innocent or something like that.”

Twilight snapped up a foreleg at that and jabbed it to where Dash stood on her right, while she continued to face Applejack. “See? Since when does Rainbow use such a poetic turn of phrase?”

“Hey!” Dash snapped. “I have been reading more lately. And I'm not stupid!”

“Now nopony said ya are, Dash,” Applejack interjected. “An' 'fore either of y'all git started again, could somepony explain what the hay is goin' on?”

“What's going on?” Twilight echoed. “What's going on, is that they,” she pointed her foreleg towards the humans, now, “are a corrupting, insanity-inducing influence!”

James tilted his head, and then spoke in the brief silence that followed Twilight's declaration. “You've been speaking with my wife, haven't you?” He asked, nonchalant.

“Frankly, I think mom would call you an insane, corrupting influence than the other way around,” Melissa added, with a smirk.

“Eeyup,” Eddie elucidated.

“Aagh!” Twilight grunted, and then turned to trot a few feet away from the others. A moment of silence fell over the gathering, though soon enough Twilight sighed, and then glanced back to look at her friends. “If anyone needs me, I'm going to lock myself in the library for the rest of the day and consume a bottle of hard cider.”

The other six persons gave her a mix of confused looks. “You have a bottle of hard cider?” Rainbow Dash asked, sounding a bit envious.

“Not yet,” Twilight said, and then glanced to Applejack. “I'll pay you back tomorrow,” she added, and then disappeared in a flash of purple light.

“Aw, shucks, she's gonna raid th' apple cellar!” Applejack exclaimed, as she realized what the purple unicorn meant. She then hopped back to all fours and ran off. “C'mon, Big Mac! 'Fore she sets the whole place on fire!” AJ called to her brother, over her shoulder as she ran.

“Not again,” Macintosh groaned, as he ran off and followed his sister.

Silence fell over the group again, as each man, woman, and pony stood and tried to sort out the strange events. “Okay, what just happened?” Melissa asked, of no one in particular.

A tortured sigh answered her, and the humans looked over to see Rainbow Dash shaking her head. “All I did was have a piece of bacon from McCoy's breakfast,” she said, tiredly. “And then when I said I wanted some more Twilight freaked out and started babbling about Pinkie Pie and eldritch abominations and me being corrupted or something.”

“Uh,” Melissa murmured, and then glanced at her father, who simply looked on in quiet surprise. “Okay, setting aside miss Sparkle's response for the moment, did you know it was meat before you ate it?” The younger McKenna asked.

“No, of course not!” Dash replied, and then frowned a bit. “I didn't even know you guys ate meat. I just thought it was some fancy food of yours. That tastes really... really...” Her eyes glazed over at this, and the cyan pegasus let her mouth hang open for a moment. “Really good.”

The humans started to chortle at that. “Wow, that must've been some piece of bacon,” Melissa wryly observed.

“Well, to someone who hasn't had its delectable, savory flavor before, it would be,” Rodriguez chimed in. Then he turned to face the pegasus pony. “I'm concerned, though, miss Dash. I thought ponies were herbivores?”

“Err, yeah,” Dash said, and then blushed and grinned sheepishly as she sat on her haunches and brought up a foreleg to nervously rub the back of her head. “But like mister McCoy said, we do eat a lot of animal fat in milk and stuff. And then Twilight dragged me to doctor Farrell and said something about an expectorant, and doc Farrell said I would be fine without it and also something about we swallowed human digestive flowers or something. So I guess I'll be okay?” She paused and then shrugged at that. “At least, I don't feel sick or anything. Not after mister McCoy reminded me you guys are the only people where you come from.”

“Well, that's good to hear,” James said, a smile on his lips. “And the doctor probably said “digestive flora”; the bacteria that allows us to eat stuff like meat. With all the time you've spent around us, you've probably already got some living in you by now, so you'll be fine.”

“Eeew,” Dash said, and then stuck her tongue out between her front teeth. “I hated reading about that stuff in school. It always creeps me out, knowing that there's a bunch of those things in my belly.”

“Well, it beats the alternative,” Rodriguez offered. “Better them than being unable to get nutrition.”

“Yeah, and this means you can eat over at our ship more often,” Melissa added, and then grinned. “If you're up to it, I want to see if you can handle my father's infamous Chernobyl Chicken some night.”

“Uh,” Rainbow said, as a look of consternation crossed her face. “I'm not so sure about that. I mean, sure, that bacon was good and maybe I'll try some more of that. But anything else? I dunno.”

“Fair enough,” James interjected, as he held up a hand to garner everyone's attention. “In any case, Melissa, Eddie, we have work to get to back aboard the Steel.” He turned to the pegasus with them, and then nodded to her. “We'll see you later.”

“No problem,” Rainbow Dash said, and then smiled as she stood up on all fours and then stretched her wings. “I was feeling like a flight, anyway. Helping you guys can be really boring sometimes.”

“It can be, at that,” James replied, with a grin. He and the others turned and started off then, though the elder human paused and then looked back to where Rainbow was crouching to leap into the air. “Oh, one more thing, miss Dash,” he said, and then waited until the cyan pony turned her head to him. “My daughter's offer is a valid one: if you decide you want to try dining with us, you're always welcome aboard the Heart of Steel.”

Dash blushed at this, but she nodded and gave the human a smile. “Thanks. I'll think about it,” she said, and then bounded into the air and took off like a shot.

They watched her fly for a bit, before both Melissa and Eddie turned to face James. “So, off to the ship?” The younger McKenna asked.

“Yeah, before anything even more insane happens,” James added, in a voice so low he was almost muttering.

“I get the feeling this is par for the course around here, dad,” Melissa replied, and then shrugged as her father led them off. “Or haven't you noticed that this place is a bit on the cartoonish side?”

“Be careful there, Melissa,” James said, in mock reproach. “If your mother hears you adopting my ideas she might kick you out of the unit to save your sanity.”

“It's far too late for that, since you both raised me,” Melissa replied, with a smirk. Her amusement died, though, as more serious thoughts ran through her head. “But all that aside, I feel kind of weird about what just happened. Kinda like maybe miss Sparkle was right, yanno?” She asked, while glancing over at the two men she walked alongside. “Maybe we are corrupting them?”

“A disturbing thought,” Rodriguez said, contemplatively. “But then again, they do seem naïve at times. Perhaps it is less corruption, and more education about the harsh realities that exist beyond their safe borders?”

Melissa frowned at that. “Do we have any right to do so, though?”

“Maybe not,” her father interjected, and then sighed. “But it wasn't our decision to make. O'Connell forced this situation upon all of us.”

“Yeah,” Melissa agreed. “Still, I can't help but wonder if the cure is as bad as the disease.”

Neither James nor Eddie replied to this, and the group fell silent as they continued to walk back to the Heart of Steel.

Desperadoes Main Camp
Manehattan, Occupied Zone

Night was just falling as Garadan and Gilda walked sedately through the small camp the Desperadoes had set up around their ship. Such strange creatures, the elder griffon mused, as they headed towards the perimeter. In some ways like the ponies, with their preference for tools and orderly, civil behavior. Yet so much like us, in their desire to dominate, to hunt, and to fight viciously. He was beginning to respect them, if only for the latter attributes. Truly a far more dangerous sort of creature to share a world with, yet one that is so lesser in numbers that they cannot hope to survive without our help to control the ponies they have conquered. A smile traced up the sides of his mouth from where his beak met flesh. And O'Connell and Kilroy know it, even if the others seem oblivious. We have them in a good position, yet so do they have us.

“You think they mean it?” Gilda asked, interrupting the elder griffon's musings as they left the edge of the camp behind. “About letting us move down here?”

“I would think that they might even insist,” Garadan replied, as he turned to aim their walk in a circle around the camp. “Remember, they'll need us to be their arms in keeping the ponies under control. It would be much easier to have us close at hand to be able to react to any uprising.”

Gilda snorted at that. “As if these dweebs had the balls to rebel.”

“Do not underestimate the ponies,” Garadan warned. “Many of them are soft, yes. But when you start cutting away the fat, all that is left is muscle and bone, and by then the prey knows you're there.”

The younger griffon didn't reply to the old hunting adage, but neither did she dispute it. Instead, she held her peace for a few moments as she thought. “So, I guess you decided to go with these humans?” She asked.

“That is up to the elders back home to decide,” Garadan replied, accepting the change of topic. “But yes, I will strongly recommend it, and I don't doubt it will be accepted. These creatures are powerful, and allying ourselves with them will only improve our fortunes.”

“Yeah? And what if they turn on us?” Gilda asked, as she idly glanced off towards a copse of trees off to the left. “They don't seem the loyal type.”

Garadan grunted in agreement. “True, but that kind of being is always loyal to power. Griffons offer a kind of power they don't have: that of numbers. The humans have much strength, but they are very few compared to ponies, griffons, or any other race of our world.” He paused at that, and held his tongue for a moment to gather his thoughts. “If they are to stay, then their numbers would not rise much for a very long time. In this way, they will need us, and in needing us will also help us even as we help them.”

“Because we need them, too,” Gilda observed. “Or am I wrong?”

The elder griffon gave the younger a hard look through narrowed eyes. “I would not say need, so much as what they offer is far more valuable to us than anything the ponies could have given us,” he said, cautiously.

“If we ever bothered to ask them,” Gilda added, sardonically. “Funny how we're too proud to ask for help, but not too proud to turn into someone's pet.”

Garadan growled and extended his wings at that, and both griffons came to a halt and faced each other. “Say what you will about pride,” he grated out. “But make no mistake, Gilda Skyshroud, we are not going to be anyone's pet. The Flying Strikes clan will work for others, true, but it will be on our terms.”

Gilda's face was as still as stone, though when she poke again her voice was more respectful. “I just don't see it,” she began. “Sure, we're gonna be on top of the ponies and everyone else, but the humans will be right over us. If they wanted to, they'd just replace us if we get too uppity.”

“Then it will behoove us to keep ourselves indispensable to them,” Garadan replied, and then took a moment to tuck his wings in again. “They will rely on us, come to need us as surely as they need their machines. And when that happens, who do you think will be the true power in the world?” He asked, and then smirked. “It may not come in my lifetime, or even yours, but it pays to take the long view.” The smirk died then, and Garadan turned to look towards the west. “Dealing with Celestia has taught us that much.”

A silence fell over the pair as they both contemplated their thoughts. Finally, Gilda spoke up. “I guess that makes sense,” she allowed, and then sighed. “I just don't care for it. We shouldn't need to join up with these monkeys, and I don't like playing back fielder to anyone.” Her face hardened at that, and she glanced to the side. “Not after having to live like that for years.”

Garadan's visage softened at that, and he turned and then led the younger griffon in resuming their walk. “It could not have been easy,” he said, and then sighed. “Your mother and I did not want to send you away, Gilda, but you know of the troubles all the clans have had in the last generation,” he continued, and then shook his head. “Enrolling you in the academy was the best option to make sure you grew strong and well fed.”

“I know, dad,” Gilda said, her voice now soft. “I'm not mad. Well,” she added, with a blush that could be seen under her white facial feathers. “Not after getting back home and seeing how thin everyone was.”

“Yes,” Garadan said, and then fell silent for a moment. “You see now, why I am willing to align ourselves with these furless ones?” He asked, while keeping his gaze locked forward. “I swallowed my pride to see you safe, and I will do so again to keep our people, and especially our clan prosper.”

“Yeah,” Gilda allowed. “Still... Couldn't we have done that by asking the princesses for help?”

Garadan cast a sidelong glance at his daughter. “I thought you disliked the ponies?” He asked.

“I do,” Gilda replied, and then made a disgusted face. “But I don't like this O'Connell guy, either. He's slimy, like a used chariot salesman, or a barrister.”

“Indeed,” Garadan agreed, and then sighed. “But such is life, to be forced to deal with such persons. As for the princesses, we have asked them for help several times in the last year alone,” he explained, and then grunted. “Admittedly, we did not reveal the full extent of our troubles, since to do so would only weaken our bargaining position. Even so, Celestia has not been forthcoming with aid, and has pressed us for territorial concessions in exchange for increased food exports.”

“What kind of concessions?” Gilda asked. “They shoved us north, into their old lands before the snow and ice shifted downward. What could they possibly want from us?”

“Access, apparently,” Garadan replied. “They wanted to send research teams into the various clan territories and take out whatever artifacts were left after their ancestors migrated two thousand years ago.”

“That doesn't sound too bad,” the younger griffon observed. “Why haven't we agreed?”

Garadan sighed in frustration. “Because some clans are so stuck up and territorial that they cannot even conceive of allowing others in their lands,” he explained. “It figures most of our fellow representatives here are from those clans. Yet, it also provides a grand opportunity,” Garadan added, and then grinned.

Gilda glanced over to her father and studied his face for a moment. “What do ya mean, dad?” She asked.

“Simple,” Garadan easily replied. “We both know this O'Connell doesn't truly respect us; his behavior towards our kind has been polite, but clearly strained. He needs us, but he doesn't care about us.” The elder griffon glanced around at that, to make sure that no one was within earshot. “What sort of tasks do you think he will want to send griffons on, I wonder?”

“Suicide missions?” Gilda asked, an eyebrow questioningly raised.

Garadan grunted before he replied. “Perhaps not that bad, but definitely missions that will be costly that he will not want to risk his own soldiers on. Fortunately, our clan is a bit further removed than most,” he added, and then grinned again as he glanced to his daughter. “We will take our time arriving, and let the other clans bear the full weight of the fighting while we conserve our strength and numbers.”

“And let the idiot clans bash their heads against whatever O'Connell throws 'em at,” Gilda concluded, and then smiled when her father gave her a nod. “Nice one, dad.”

“I thought so,” Garadan agreed. “Now, unless you wish to speak of anything else, we should retire for the evening. You have a long journey back home in the morning, and I will need my rest to negotiate just right so that neither the other representatives nor O'Connell will see our ploy.”

A small figure watched the pair of griffons, safely hidden in a bush in the copse of trees that Garadan and Gilda had passed. She had heard everything, and her mind whirled as she considered the information. Part of her wanted to spring into action immediately, but she counseled herself to patience, lest her sudden movement or coincidental arrival back aboard the Red Skye so soon after the griffon pair had left alert others to her presence.

Almost an hour passed before the green pony crawled out from the bush, and then looked around to make sure no one had seen her. I think the commander will want to hear about this, the mare thought as she unfurled her wings and took to the air, her flight silent in the dark night.