• Published 2nd May 2012
  • 5,106 Views, 250 Comments

Homebound - Retsamoreh



A space military captain, who believes that Equestria resides on the legendary, long-lost planet of Earth, attempts to save Twilight and her friends from an incoming invasion that threatens both Equestria and the galaxy while keeping them all sane.

  • ...
15
 250
 5,106

(21) Our Sole Burden

-Gantoris Towers, Ophelius, Gantoris.
-Two-and-a-half days after landing.
-Higher Apartments.
-
-
-
-
-
-

“What’s going on?” I asked as a panicked officer rushed past me. Beyond the flashing lights and bright terminals, I could barely make out the massive star-map that took up a huge table all on its own. Behind that table, I could see the admirals discussing something fervently.

“Lieutenant Ty Ty En, sir,” the teryn officer said just as I recognized him. We’d worked together on many occasions, but right now, it was just business. “We just got a ping from the Alteria system, something from all the way past the edge of LRA territory.” He looked over his shoulder, nodding at another passing alien officer. “We just confirmed the location of E’s primary combat fleet, and we’re setting up to compensate. Mostly concerning Wing territory governments - who are all in contact with us at the moment. You’re the one with the Equestrians, right?”

“I suppose I’m that ‘one’,” I said, raising an eyebrow. “Thanks for the briefing, lieutenant. You’re free to go.”

“Yessir,” he said, gone in an instant and jogging off to one of the groups on the other side of the room. I sighed, eyes being drawn to the controlled chaos. The Wing command center in the Gantoris Towers wasn’t nearly as impressive as the one in Maximus, but it was a close second. While Maximus had the typical draxian flare of putting on a clean shaven look, with white tiled floors and walls, the one down here was much softer on the eyes and equally harder on your fashion sense. Dull gray lined the ceiling and walls, only stopping to make way for the obligatory Wing power bands that stretched around each wall at chest-height.

On the other side of the room, under three enormous holo-screens that spouted out scrolling data like nobody’s business, was a raised platform sparing no room for empty space. If it wasn’t where you were supposed to walk, there was a terminal and a desk there. A comfortable chair sitting behind it, just calling for long hours. Taking up most of the space in the middle was a huge, indented holographic starmap, broadcasting the Wing systems, fleets, and activity-in-general, to everyone who bothered to look at it. Streaking lines representing ships would jolt to a stop around a miniature planet, orbiting an only slightly larger sun. It wasn’t to-scale, but for tracking fleet movements, it was the thing we needed.

Wrapped along the holographic map was a small, foot-wide table, and around that, sitting in gold-trimmed chairs, were some of the men I’d come to trust my life with hundreds of times over. Ganymede, who hunched over a particular floating hologram of a spiked, deadly looking ship, spoke to the ecstatic Uske sitting next to him, and then tossed the hologram over to the other admiral as if it were nothing but a child’s toy ball. Zalthice and Grezz, taking up almost four meters of space just standing up, pointed to red-tinted systems on the map, speaking in hushed tones that I couldn’t hear over the alarm.

“Jackson!” a familiar voice called, and I looked toward another part of the table, the end part. Sitting on one side was Dylan, in the bright golden chair that had been used by the original founder of the Wing, but he was leaned over the corner of the map to speak with the ever-masked draxian admiral. Aaro, next to Dylan, was the one waving me over, and occupying one of the three chairs next to him was Twilight. “Over here!”

“Well then,” I said, looking down to Rainbow. “I guess this is that fun part I mentioned. It shouldn’t take very long, but...” I shook my head and gestured to the free seats before us. “Onwards.”

“Gotcha, Captain,” Rainbow said, grinning. She hopped over to the seat, immedaitely starting up a conversation with the unicorn next to her, while I wandered over to mine with an uncertain expression. The alarm bored into my ears like twin drills.

“I’m here, Aaro,” I said, eyes now adjusted to the dim lightning. I plopped down in my seat, making sure to check on Twilight and Rainbow. Twilight had obviously been here a while, judging from how far she had sunk into the plush seat, and both had their ears down to block out the alarm. I didn’t pay attention to what they were talking about, because it was obvious Twilight was pestering her about something and I knew not to interrupt her during something like that.

“Well I can see that. You look a bit scruffy, though. I’ve never seen your hair so messed up on a civilized planet before,” Aaro laughed, his pale red face virtually indistinguishable from the rest of the red-tinted room before us. He sighed, and looked at the map before us. On cue, the holograms shrunk in size, until our own systems were nothing more than gold-tinted dots on an ever growing scale model of our galactic arm. More multi-colored dots filled the board, ranging from bright reds, green striped blacks, and colors I didn’t even know the name of but looked sort of like a greenish purple. It grew until our own golden territory became a hardly significant dot amongst the others. “As you can see. The board lies unchanged.”

“As always,” I muttered, breathing deeply. “Fleet movement holograms aren’t active, yet?”

“No, but I’ve seen them, and you won’t be pleased,” he answered, shaking his head. We both slumped, and while he looked to the map, I turned my head to the ponies. “By the way, both the Valkyrie modifications and headsets are done, you can snag them from the armory downstairs. I’ll follow you down, you know, just to make sure you put them on right.” He looked up, following my gaze. “The purple one is curious to learn everything about everything, and then some more. I bet you she’d be a good engineer.”

“Don’t you dare think about hiring her into your inferior company. If she shows any technological prowess, she’s mine and you know it. Or if anyone, she belongs to Equestria. They’re going to need smart ponies on their side,” I shot back, smirking. “How long until the meeting starts?”

“A few minutes, officially. I just got back from a meeting with Dylan and the Gantoris leaders. They’re really... tense about everything that’s happening. We barely managed to save Gantoris the first time E launched a campaign against us, and if he’s learned from his faults the last time, we can count on it being much harder.” He bit his lower lip, frowning deeply at the star map. “He just has to skip past a few systems in order to get to us. If he has the fuel, he can just march right up to our doorstep this time. Half of the Alpha Fleet is still gone.”

“We’ll rebuild, but don’t even mention the Derelict yet,” I said, sinking into my chair. “If he’s got one with weapons, we might as well give mass evacuation orders to all our systems right now, and I don’t even want to think about where we would exodus to.”

“Hey, Jackson?” Twilight asked. I scooted around in my chair, one leg hanging off the side, to face her fully. Rainbow scowled on the other side of Twilight, without any intended target. Twilight looked exactly the same, but the difference was that it was directed at me. Ponies looked adorable when they were angry. “Why in the name of Celestia did you fight Rainbow Dash?”

“Well, she challenged me to honorable fisticuffs,” I said, blinking like a kid who just realized his mom was watching him reach into the cookie jar. “My honor was at stake.”

“Even if she was angry, that’s no reason to go ahead and do it. You could’ve hurt each other really badly,” Twilight said, her anger washing away to a strained look of hurt. “I know from experience that most ponies are willing to work things out just by talking, not by fighting. I know you and Rainbow could have solved it without violence.”

“Right, right,” I said, holding my hands up in mock surrender. “I realize that our customs might seem a bit barbaric to you, but you got me, Twilight. For the sake of closing this case, I won’t accept and more violent challenges from your friends. Enabling isn’t what I meant to do.”

“Thank you,” Twilight said, sighing in relief. “I just want this trip to be fun for everypony, so I’d rather we didn’t fight during it. Although... whatever’s going on here doesn’t seem like fun, since apparently some jerk has been threatening you guys. That stupid alarm has been blaring for forever, and nopony wants to explain why we’re all here.”

“Ah, well,” I said, looking up to the command center on the platform behind the starmap. “Hey! Knuckleheads up there! Care to turn off that sodding alarm, will ya?” I shouted, and more than one officer in my line of fire spasmed and jerked to the controls in order to, probably, either get brownie points to simply avoid my wrath.

“Well, thanks,” Twilight muttered. The red lights blinked off all around us, slowly returning the room to a dull grey, and the noise left us with only a minor ringing in my ears.

“Right then, you two, listen carefully,” I said, both of the ponies staring intently at me. Aaro, I knew, was watching behind my back, but I didn’t have to impress him. “Rainbow told me about the changeling invasion however many weeks ago, Twilight, so I know you know what that word means.”

“Changeling?” she asked, quirking an eyebrow.

“No, invasion.” I shook my head, shifting into a straight sitting position. “E, who you know about, is a madman and a warlord. In fact, he makes Sorlor look sane at times. He’s arrogant, crafty, and above all, he has a massive grudge against the Wing and the Empirium. Maybe it was that we stopped his attempt to conquer the galaxy once before, and he’s just trying to regain his pride, or maybe it’s something more. All we know is that he’s regrouped with a new army, just as loyal and dangerous as the first one. He’s extremely dangerous, and he’s getting ready to invade us.” I stood up, pointing to a very specific murky green splotch of territory on the map, one that was even smaller than the Wing’s.

“That’s E’s empire. No tourism. No immigration to or from. If he’s not controlling it, it must be crushed or assimilated within a day. How he manages to live with the knowledge the rest of the galaxy isn’t under his boot, I don’t even want to know. He’s tried before, almost won, and now he’s trying again. We will stop him; that’s all you really need to know.”

“Oh,” she said, tilting her head sideways. “Well he’s pretty far away, it looks like. We ended up figuring out that the changeling queen had set up her hive in the Equestrian badlands. Managing to get to us made sense, but how this ‘warlord’ is going to cross that much space just to get at you, well, doesn’t make any sense. That distance, even scaled down to Equestria’s size, just doesn’t seem possible purely for revenge.” She paused, leaning over the table to get a closer look at the map. “I don’t know a lot about armies - Equestria doesn’t really have one other than the royal guard, but I do know it’s not feasible by our standards.”

“Well, that’s just it, then. Your standards,” I replied curtly, holding up my arm to type a few things onto my datapad. “Because starships move really, really fast, and while our shields, weapons, and armor are all pretty advanced compared to most other militaries in the galaxy, E’s larger ships have a lot more advanced propulsion systems. That makes them better at quick, decisive surprise attacks, and that’s exactly what a good invasion needs. Other than that, we only know what we scrapped from his destroyed ships during the first war. He’s still... mysterious to us, really.” I paused, staring at the screen. “Speaking of starships. It looks like they’re just finishing up adding a few of the extra things I asked them to put in the Homebound. The chairs designed for you girls, which are also in the Fate, have been spread out. Some, ah, nicer, comfortable, more private sleeping areas. A heavily vegetarian food stockpile, and more weapons and gear in the armory. I think they’re still installing the silent-running stealth systems, though. What do you think?”

“I think it’s great that you’re adding some more comfortable seats, for one. ” Twilight quipped, shrugging. “The old ones were a pain in the flank. Rainbow Dash was about to give you an earful before we arrived.”

“I’m glad she didn’t. Isn’t that right, Miss Dash?”

“Huh?!” The pegasus jerked, looking up from her seat. She stared at me, glaring. “What?”

“You can take a nap if you want to. It’s totally fine. Just remember that after this, I want to take you girls down to the armory to see how Aaro’s gear fits on you,” I said, smiling.

She shrugged again. “I’m just, uh, really tired all of a sudden, I guess. I could definitely go for a bit of sleep. Mind if I just...?”

“Go ahead.” I nodded, turning back to Twilight. “Do you have a book with you? I do have a meeting to get to. Most of it is just going to be boring fleet placement, battle strategy in case E invades, and the works. Technical stuff.”

“No problem,” Twilight said, nodding. Her horn lit up, drawing the concerned stares of a few nearby officers, and a sparkling flash exploded in front of her. Caught in a purple-aura of levitation, a book poofed into existence above the meeting table, and lowered itself over to her. I instantly recognized the weathered tome as the book of spells Celestia had sent that morning.

“Just... don’t try to practice any of those in here, please. Or at least warn me.” I chuckled, looking over the meeting table. Another group of captains had arrived, sitting around the hologram and muttering amongst themselves. “It should be starting any minute now.”

“‘Bout the bed things? Good job on replacing them. The old ones tanked,” Rainbow muttered out of the side of her mouth, eyes closed. “Even Roland called them ‘PTSD’ beds, or whatever that means. I’m pretty sure nopony liked ‘em.”

“Very funny,” I retorted, rolling my eyes. “I slept fine.”

“You’re insane,” she grumbled back. I sighed, shaking my head, and looked over our motley group. Roland had taken a spot near the doorway, probably thinking he’d act as some sort of guard. Better to have one than none, I suppose, but I hated most politicking, and I knew this so called “emergency” meeting would be full of it. Tactical, it was, but some tactics involve politicking. And I hated politics.

Dylan Clover stood up, took a deep breath, and the meeting began.

~=V=~

ERROR CODE 16-18-15-13-9-19-5-19
ERROR CODE 2-18-5-1-11
ERROR CODE 25-15-21
ERROR CODE 6-9-18-19-20
PLAYBACK ERROR. CORRUPT FILE DETECTED.

“You have no idea what I am capable of, E.”

“Ah- aheheh.... Forgive me, but I do not believe you, Wingman. Your men lay scattered before you. What do you have that I do not? I have power. I have currency. I have you in chains, kneeling before me. Tell me, creature, why you think you can win?”

“Because you’re just another monster I’m going to kill, E. It might not be today, but eventually, I will find you, and I will wipe you from this universe. I promise.”

“Ah... well, then I’ll spare your life a moment longer. After all, true torture is when one is provided an unreachable hope, yes? Good luck, Mister Amber. You will need all the luck in the universe to kill a god such as I.”

~=V=~

I didn’t like thinking about what was said in the meeting. When I went into politics, asking favors, requesting favors, and trying to not make Gantoris Unity Council angry, I tended to just go into a completely different state of mind, almost a different personality, and I remembered none of it when I stopped. I barely had enough cognitive functions to call an elevator, warn the other members of the Homebound crew to meet us at the armory, and gather Aaro, Roland, myself, Rainbow Dash, and Twilight all into the same one. It took even longer for me to actually say something.

"They should be leaving the other elevator at the same time," I said, grimacing at the stoic image of Ophelius outside the rounded elevator window. The skyways were clogged with hovercraft zipping to and fro, soldiers, mercenaries, and civilians all rushing to get geared up or hunker down. Two large transports, Gantoris designed, lifted past our vision like hulking whales swimming upwards.

Roland took a deep breath, while the two ponies just gaped. "It is to be assumed that the invasion of Wing space can begin at any moment from here on out. Any non-Wing member or member of the Ophelius Garrison is to be considered a possible threat, ambassadors and government officials notwithstanding. Twilight and her friends are to be considered civilian VIPs under our protection."

"VIP? Very-important-pony, right?" Rainbow asked, tearing her eyes away from the sunlit Ophelius.

"Person, but it's the same concept," I said, turning around to face Aaro Castlor.

"You do realize," he said, folding his arms with a smug smile, "that you are attempting to order the Premier of the Wing? I could have you kicked out on insubordination just for that."

"Not really ordering you, per se, just reminding myself the basics, and letting the ponies know what's going on through clever monologuing. With your permission, however, I would like to designate myself and a squad of my choosing to be their officially assigned bodyguards. They're going to need a guiding hand they're used to, if things get hairy," I said, glancing at Twilight.

"Could you define 'hairy' for us, please?" she asked, smiling innocently.

I frowned. "Hairy as in Orion becomes an occupied system and the Wing is forced to oversee a mass exodus of all Wing planets, and then move all of the population to new systems in parts unknown. After E's first, nearly successful destruction of the Wing, I was the one who suggested we implement a last-resort backup plan. The Exodus Operation... is that plan." I sighed, shuffling to face Castlor again. "We won't allow our people to be taken prisoner by a xenophobic madman, one who is known for..." I trailed off, shaking my head.

"Known for what?" Rainbow asked, hovering over to my side.

I sighed, looking away. Rainbow just glared at me, and I sunk down a notch along the elevator wall. Aaro muttered, "E's prisoners-of-war always include the previous civilian occupiers of worlds, and typically have a... well. Let’s just say that he doesn’t treat prisoners very nicely," He leaned against the elevator window with me. "Has to do with overpopulation for his own kind, or something. Take from the weak and give to the over-privileged. Jackson and his special operations squad were taken prisoner on the planet Jut'Firek after Tyn'Vir was taken by E's initial attack force, during the first invasion." He gulped, closing his eyes and no doubt remembering that he himself had been stranded and marked off as dead by the rest of the Wing during my ordeal. "He doesn't like talking about it, but he knows what it’s like."

I grunted, letting the dusty red, ever-youthful draxian talk about something that had given me an emotional breakdown not a week before wasn't what I wanted, but if he thought the ponies should know, I wasn't going to argue the point. Instinctively, I reached up to brush my slicked-back hair back even more, sliding over the thin scars that reached up past my scalp and letting my fingers rest on them, just to remind myself they were there.

"They..." Twilight gulped, both her and Rainbow's eyes being drawn up to the mess of scar tissue. "They did... that? And... Jut'Firek? Rarity said that you... well, that you sort of had a break-down after that meeting about the marauder, when you yelled at Fluttershy."

"E's soldiers are not changelings," I whispered, coldly, looking at the ground with dead eyes. One of my hands numbly rose up to fix the wings-and-diamond pin on my jacket, whether it was askew or not. "They are ruthless. They do not follow a moral code. Each and every one of them is a monster, and they will not see you as a person; you will be just animals to them. That’s why we’re going to protect you.”

"And did they do that, too?" Rainbow asked, pointing to Aaro's spindly, four-jointed mechanical arm.

The Wingman chuckled, raising the device in a whirr that echoed around the elevator. "I lost the arm in a rather nasty riot at an academy on Cygius. Considering how well it's served me, I don't regret losing it."

"You're lucky," I said, a grin springing onto my face. "Back in my day, the mechanical limbs were awful. Lots of noise, always needing spare parts or new power sources. Nasty business with getting addicted to drugs designed to make the body accept the metal. Biomending technologies are the best. No mechanical crap, just wait a week or two, and bam, new arm. Strangest thing I ever experienced."

"You mean you've lost an arm too?" Twilight asked, ears perking up. "I'm sorry if it's an offensive question, but back home we only use prosthetic limbs for amputees. What you’re talking about, they were entirely mechanical? No magic involved at all, right?" She looked from me to Aaro, eyes focusing on the monstrosity occupying his left arm. He snorted.

"An arm? Heh. Jackson was practically a robot himself. Both legs, and both arms. You had, ah, a false eye, too, right? Spinal cord enhancers? I forget what you told me back on the research station; it's been awhile since we actually got to sit down and talk."

"To believe you've managed to do so much, without using magic," Twilight mused, smiling softly. "I can't wait to discover how you've done it. Equestria could do so much with your technology."

I stopped, letting the words sink in, and only when I realized the full extent of what she was implying did I start to answer, "I don't know. In unprepared hands, technology can do... a lot of damage to a society. The rule of first-contacts typically is to slowly give the people of it our level of tech, so they can get used to it. It worked with the teryn in a matter of ten years."

"Hey, no way, that seems totally unfair. Why can't we get awesome starships and shields and stuff too?" Rainbow complained, turning to the city outside and tossing her hooves aside in an all-encompassing gesture. "It'd be totally rad to see Canterlot look like this place!"

"We have our reasons, and don't worry about the starship. First-contact species get a free one, and some orbital defenses and ground structures, but they can't be expected to reverse engineer and mass-produce those," I said, looking out to the city. "As for Opheluis? Personally, I think you ponies could do better. You have psy-... magic to help you." I turned to Twilight, smirking. "And I wouldn't be too sure about technology being better than magic. This translator ring, for example, is something technology could never manage to do without first learning the intricacies of a different language first. List some stuff magic can do, and I'll tell you if technology can do it better or not."

"Well, Spike's dragon fire can send messages to Princess Celestia no matter where we are, and she can use her own spell to send stuff through him," Twilight recounted, putting a hoof to her chin. "Can technology do anything like that?"

"Uh, wow," I muttered, rubbing the back of my neck while Aaro gave a purposefully terrible attempt at not snickering. "Well, yeah. We can do a lot, and I mean a lot, better than that, but usually it requires beacons, towers, probes, you name it, to send out the signal to the next probe, beacon, and so on. It's not instant all the time, and we certainly can't do it from anywhere in the universe. Can it transcend dimensions or time travel?"

"Uh... in theory?" Twilight said, smiling awkwardly. "But ponies don't usually time travel, and I don't think anypony's been to a different dimension. How about levitation?"

"We don't actually have levitation. Something similar, of a sorts, but nothing as complicated and free-form as that, 'cause it beats us by a mile, next spell," I answered, smirking softly.

"Cloudwalking?" she asked, cocking her head.

"Walking... on clouds? I don't see what use that'd have, but we can't do that with technology, no."

"Hm, well. I haven't actually learned this one, but I've been planning to do it. Apples-to-Oranges?"

I opened my mouth, then shut it within a second.

"It turns an apple into an orange," she explained.

"Ooh," I said, nodding. "I hate oranges with a fiery passion. No, we can't do that. Fire again."

"Amniomorphic spell?"

"Uh," I muttered, scratching the back of my head. "Sodding hell, I don't even know what that is."

"Sorry to interrupt you five and your riveting conversation topic," an overly accented voice interrupted, and our party turned to see the rest of the Homebound crew and the ponies patiently waiting behind two open elevator doors. Rarity continued, "but I do fear that the rest of us are quickly becoming impatient. The girls and I are very excited to see what interesting things you have prepared to gift us. Isn't that right?"

"Oh, yupperooni! I'm super duper excited!" Pinkie blurted out, bobbing in place with a grin so wide, a mirror-scaled tyrsian would be jealous.

Lillian chuckled. "Pinkie, you were excited about the elevator ride, too. Is there anything you're not excited about?" the engineer asked, folding her arms under her chest.

Pinkie shook her head like a wet dog. "Nope! Being excited about random stuff is one-hundred-percent scientifically proven to improve your overall outlook on life and make you a happier person!"

Silence dropped on us, smothering the pink pony in an eternal awkward glare from both the crew and her friends, Twilight's and my own being the most incredulous. Slowly, her bobbing stopped, her smile fell, and she looked around curiously at our open mouths.

"It is?" Roland asked.

"No it's not," Twilight and I said in unison, and I turned to Lilian.

"How long have you all been listening?" I asked, swallowing.

"Long enough, Mister Robot," she chuckled. I looked across the group, settling on Aran, who just shook her head solemnly. "Now, can we move on, sir? The main armory looks like it's clear for the taking and I'd like to snag myself an SMG before the fabricator runs out of material. They're tough ones to break in."

"SMG as in... DragonTech," I grumbled, glancing sideways at Aaro, who just winked.

"Hey, those guns are quality stuff. Nice, sleek, and silent," she said. "Almost perfect, but only almost."

"They also look like an orglockian puked them up," I retorted, holding my chin high. "But, ensign, you have a point. Lead the way to the armory."

She nodded, ponytail bouncing obnoxiously, and walked off down the hallway. Our ragtag group pursued, our heavy boot-steps intermingling with the constant clacking of hooves against the metal tiles below us. The enclosed tunnel tapered off into an open hallway, with a large viewing window on one side, showing the active beehive of a city outside. Applejack turned to be.

"So you were really a ro-bot?" she asked, raising an eyebrow that disappeared under her stetson.

"Not technically. A cyborg would be a better explanation, and it was only for... oh, a few years. About ten. Some of them were voluntary, and some, eh, weren't."

"I'm guessing, being a soldier and all... ah, well, I hate to imagine what kinda trouble you'd be in to lose an arm. Makes me shudder just thinking about it," the farmer said, punctuating her point with a body-wide shiver. "How many were voluntary, if’n I can ask?"

"One. The spinal enhancer, which I refuse to publicly admit is still there. It's really useful, and it's the only one I kept. Out of fifteen total, replacements counting.” I paused, looking ahead. “In a second, don't look down," I said, right as our cacophony of steps stopped being metallic and started being a bit scarier.

"Whoa there!" Applejack sputtered, looking down to see an enormous drop fall right in front of here - an unfathomably long way to the courtyard below. The rest of the group stopped short, causing more than one crewmember to stumble into another, and let out a mix of ooh's and aah's.

"Oh, my. We're very high up," Fluttershy whispered, scooting off the glass panel.

"Meh, it's nothing much. Right, Jackson?" Rainbow smirked, nudging me with the elbow of one leg. I shook my head.

"Not nothing. We're near the top of the tower, and it's a straight drop to the bottom. If we fell, it'd take around half a minute for us to hit the ground."

"Is the glass reinforced, at least?" Twilight asked, gently prodding it with one hoof and an inquisitive glare.

"It is indeed. Capable of withstanding a few good shots from even a heavy pistol," I answered, continuing my walk to the head of the group. "Now, it's nice to gawk and all, but the armory is just ahead and I'd prefer to get this done before E's troops are knocking on our door and selling us bullets on the cheap."

"Your heavy pistol," Aaro corrected, patting his covered hostler with one hand. "Mine, however, could demolish this entire hallway in one shot."

"You're a dirty cheater, that's why," I snapped back, stepping over to a door. "Did the code change for the door?"

"Nope," the premier admiral said, leaning against the window. "You're going to love the pony headsets. You should, at least. I swear, it took forever to get them just right, even with Lillian's help. By the way," he continued, turning to the ensign in question. "Thank you for that, Ensign Lilian. You know, there's a job open at the DragonTech HQ, and-"

"Don't you dare," I snarled, giving him a frowning glare that might've vaporized him if looks could kill. "If she's got any promise, she is mine."

"Okay, okay. She's all yours," he said, holding up his hands - one whirring into place - in mock defeat.

"Actually," Lillian said, stepping between us, "I was thinking of joining the York Dynamic Systems team."

The silence immediately following made the one a few minutes prior look like a whiny adolescent among awkward silences. Then we burst out laughing.

"Y-york?" I sputtered, pausing the code input before I botched it from shaking too hard from laughter. "The one with the silly a-ahahah! Accent?"

"You d-do... ahahah! You d-do r-realize the only thing he's made so far is the Potentia and those dinky little Yorkshire destroyers, right? Better- haha, better yet, he made them with DragonTech and KaidenTech technologies... I... ehehe!" Aaro tittered, holding a hand to his stomach and sinking halfway down to the ground.

"Listen here-haahaha... listen, York isn't getting anywhere and there's- hahahaha! There's n-no chance he will," I sputtered, choking down another bout of giggles. "B-but seriously, you do whatever y-you want, Ensign Lilian. We won't stop you, I promise."

"Good to know," Lilian grumbled, passing me up and inputting the code by herself. The rest of the crew followed her into the armory, while the ponies stared at Aaro and I, each wearing a confused expression at our antics.

"If I may ask, what in Celestia's name just happened? KaidenTech, DragonTech?" Rarity asked a moment later, and I raised my hand to answer, pausing only to gurgle down another laugh.

"Well, heh, those two are companies. Technology-producing companies, as a matter of fact," I said, straightening up. "Competing, as usual. KaidenTech is mine, and we produce everything from personal shields, to armor suits, and most commonly, ships and weapons."

"Whereas my company, DragonTech, produces ground vehicles, small craft, weapons, shields, and power modules. York Dynamic Systems, that would be Captain R. O. York's itty-bitty company, has yet to produce anything substantial, and it's likely they never will," Aaro said, stretching his arms out. "I haven't laughed that hard in a while, though. Now, can I just ask if you ponies ever wear clothes?"

"Sometimes, mostly during special events. Clothing can be very expensive," Twilight said, turning to her friends. "But we've all worn some."

"And do not forget, I am a fashion designer," Rarity said, beaming. "And I have personally crafted high-quality dresses for each and every one of us... well, except Spike, of course."

"I've worn a suit once or twice," the dragon offered. "Does that help?"

"Why's this matter anyhow? You got seven fancy dresses stocked up for us or something?" Applejack asked.

"I haven't crafted you full suits, although that would be interesting..." Aaro mused, putting the upper end up his fist under his chin. "Pony-shaped Wing jumpsuits. I could definitely get into that. Not literally, of course."

"Nuh-uh. If anyone is taking over the pony fashion industry, it'll be me," I joked, stepping into the armory. "Now if you all will just follow me..." I looked to them, smiling, as I passed through the threshold into the chamber beyond. The Gantoris Towers main infantry armory couldn't be described as simple, but it wasn't complicated either. Intermingling with the rows of lockers large enough to contain two human bodies in them were two countertop-shaped devices that featured only a holographic panel and a sliding hatch that lead into God-knows-where. On the far end, near the slanted ceiling, were three indoor shooting alleys, and it was there that the Homebound ensigns had lined up, saluting as we entered.

"I didn't have time to fabricate the gear, so it's going to be fresh," Aaro said, stepping toward the gleaming metal countertop. "It'll just take a second to download the specifications. Line up the girls, will you? Scanner comes first."

"Got it," I said, pointing to an invisible line on the ground between Aaro and the fabricator, and the next wall. "Line up there, girls, and we'll get you suited up in a moment. Permission to speak to my crew, Premier Castlor?"

"Granted," the draxian muttered, his hands spinning across the hologram with practiced speed. "Just don't take too long. I'm going to need an extra pair of hands to dress them up."

"Got it." I nodded, and walked over where the rest of the crew had stayed to wait. They all saluted in unison, boots slapping together in a dry rubbery squeal. I swallowed, and looked them over. Dylan and Roland stood together on my left hand side, followed by Lilian, Evo, and finally Aran. Only five people, six counting myself. It was the minimum, skeletal requirement to run the Homebound effectively, and hardly counted as a single squad, and from the way they fidgeted, they knew it too.

"You have all served me well, even though it hasn't been in combat yet," I started, folding my arms behind my back. "You've shown yourselves to be competent, more than that at times. But, despite everything, you have not been tested yet. Our entry and exit to and from Equestria were cakewalks compared to what is about to happen if E invades. You will be shot. You will shoot back. It will be tough, and if E is as ferocious as he was before, some of us might not be coming back." I closed my eyes for a moment, ignoring the visible flinches from Roland and Evo when I opened them.

"That's why, as your superior officer, I'm designating you as my personal operations squad from this point onwards. The Homebound will be your ship, and I will be your captain. Our squad is being formed chiefly for the reason of acting as bodyguards for the Equestrian ambassadors, so get used to their company. We'll be straying from combat as much as possible in order to preserve their lives and... sanity, but I expect you to be in top quality order if we do run into trouble. Is that clear?"

"Crystal, sir," they chimed off, saluting a second time. I nodded.

"Right then, Homebounders. Since you are officially in my special-operations squad, of which I am allowed two due to my rank, you may choose your weapons of choice. Make sure to copy fabricator blueprints to store on the Homebound, and make sure you're not imbalanced. I don't want you all to pick up a sniper rifle and then be at loss in close-quarters combat. Swords and other melee weapons are optional, but I strongly suggest you grab one, vibro-blade or not."

"I assume you all know how to work a fabricator, right? AIA?" I asked, turning to the shining machine's counter. AIA's bulbous figure lit up above the hologram panel, swiveling toward me. The crew didn't seem too surprised, except for Roland and Dylan.

"Can't say we've ever seen them in action, sir," Roland said, gesturing to himself and Dylan, immediately proving my suspicions, and I nodded at the AI hologram.

"It's simple, with an AI. Just ask her, like this. AIA, could you please fabricate an extendable standardized Wing-issue vibro-blade for me, please?"

"It would be my pleasure, Captain Amber," the AI replied, and a steady hum emanated from the metal box. I smirked, glancing over at the crew for a moment. Sliding back with a screeching hiss, the hatch moved back, and revealed a small, rectangular, and dark grey sword grip, the cross-guard folded to each side. I picked it up deftly, waving the unextended sword around so the crew could see. Rolling it around in my hand to check if the safety was still engaged, I placed it into my pants pocket. I nodded one last time to the crew, turning to look at the waiting form of Aaro, who leaned on the sleek, gleaming metal surface of a nearby locker.

"Have at it, boys and girls," I said, chuckling, and I walked over to Aaro with the smile still on my face. "Everything set up, Master Castlor?"

"Good as it gets, Master Amber," he replied, matching my grin, and we moved in front of the ponies. "Scanned them and everything, so the machine will make it in their size. Miss Pie is up first. Datapad and Valkyrie device. The removable headset in the datapad shouldn’t be a problem."

"Got it. AIA?" I asked, looking at the grey fabricator. The AI's hologram appeared above it, turning to me.

"First pair is already done. Dispensing now, Captain, Premier."

"Thanks," Aaro said, reaching for the carefully laid of mess of straps and metal devices. "I'm going to need a hand with this one, Jackson."

"Yeah," I said, following him to the pony in question. "Pinkie is a squirmer."

"Pfft, well, I can't help it if I'm excited about this! It's not just one free present, but two! What do they do?" Pinkie asked, grinning ear to ear while we walked around her. I knelt to one knee, and Aaro mirrored me, nodding in my direction.

"Well, a datapad is what everyone has, usually. It acts as a calculator, a measuring tape, a wireless communications device, hologram emitter at times, depending on the model. Pretty much a universal tool. What version are you using, here, Aaro?" I asked, wrapping two padded straps around Pinkie's left foreleg and ignoring the giggles.

"Blockian IV. It's got the hologram stuff programmed in it, and it’s compatible with a VALK," he answered, wrapping another strap around her shoulder. "You're right hoof is going to be the one with the datapad, alright?" he asked, patting the place down where the thick screened device would rest.

"Okie dokie!" she said, beaming even brighter.

"The screen is form-fitted so the ponies can use it even with hooves, but it meant changing the programs around a little to make room for the bigger buttons. And no text keyboard, so all their messages will have to be verbal," Aaro said, wrapping another strap down. "And... there we go. We'll power it up once we get the VALK on the other leg. Jackson?" I reached over, offering me a bulky, tubular device that I brought down.

"I've heard a lot of you use that word before. What exactly does a 'VALK' do?" Twilight asked, peeking her head out of the line to observe us. The rest of the girls watched in silence.

"Well, it's, at its core, a personal teleportation device. But that's not all it does," I explained, strapping the thing down extra tight. "Also, try to watch how we secure these. You might have to do it yourself at one point. Anyways, a VALK is also equipped with a highly advanced, highly specialized immediate-area passive scanning system that detects threats to the wearer. If the threat becomes dangerous to the wearer's immediate health, the teleportation system kicks in and gets the person, or pony, out of there before they can get too hurt."

"Imagine if... err, what weapons are they used to, again?" Aaro asked, raising an eyebrow at me.

"Try spells."

"Right, imagine if someone- er, pony, fired a... a spell, at you. If the spell was meant to hurt you, possibly a mortal wound, perhaps, the AI would sense it within a nanosecond and make sure you came out unharmed. In our case, it effectively lets us dodge bullets without getting so much as a scratch," he continued, patting down his side of the mess of straps and cushions. "We're good over here, Jackson. AIA, next batch for Rainbow Dash?"

"Ready for use, sir."

"So we have to wear them because we might be in danger, then? I get that... well, an invasion is obviously dangerous, and you already told us how the bad guys treat their prisoners.... I can definitely see you wanting us to be safe no matter what, and I appreciate it," Twilight said, frowning as we collected the gear and stepped over to the eagerly waiting pegasus.

"Are you kidding, Twilight? This is awesome! We're basically invincible now," Rainbow bragged, proudly flaring her wings and ignoring the fact that she smacked Aaro and I in the face while she did. "Right, Jackson?"

"No," I deadpanned. "You're hardly invincible. You can still get beat up pretty bad if you're not careful, and VALKs take a lot of energy to use, so much so that we're starting to cease the use of battery packs and just switch fully to mobile generators that wirelessly give the power. These are those kind, but we can probably stick a battery lining on the side if it comes to that."

"Oh," she said, arching her neck to get a good look at us. "They aren't going to slow me down when I fly, right? I don't want to have to relearn everything just 'cause you jerks made me wear a dumb counterweight."

"You don't have to wear these twenty-four seven," I said, patting down another strap and wrapping another around her barrel. "Right now we're just testing if they fit, and then we're going to... lunch, right?"

"That is correct. I don't plan on skipping,” Aaro said.

"I might take a nap. Kinda tired,” Rainbow yawned.

"So," Rarity called from beside Twilight, "wearing these are not mandatory... correct? Honestly, if you give me some fabric and a sewing machine I can make an ensemble that won’t make them so dull on us. I would rather not have those ugly, bulky things on me as they are if I have to wear them.."

"A sewing what?" I blurted out, narrowing my eyes at the seamstress. "I mean, if you can, do so. Just don't mess with them too much. They're practical, not fashionable, for a reason. AIA, next batch, please."

"For Rarity. I hope it's visually pleasing enough for you, dear," the AI snarked, pushing another round of padded devices through the fabricator hatch.

I kneeled next to Rarity, continuing. "Plus, I doubt you'll have time to put on extra clothing just for these things, especially if you need them”. She lifted her head up to let a strap pass under it, still managing to look haughty. "I hope you all have been paying attention, because if things... well if they get bad, we might not have time to all do this for you. Twilight, Rarity? It'll be up to you two to make sure your fancy magical levitation spell gets these on quick."

"I can do it," Twilight said. "I just hope it doesn't come down to that, because we'd be in danger, right?"

"Most likely," I said, yanking a strap into the locked position.

"Ouch. Not so tight, dear," she hissed, pulling her hoof back.

"Sorry," I muttered. "And don't worry, Twilight. You heard what I said to the Homebound crew. You have your own personal team of bodyguards in case E invades. I..." I shook my head solemnly, patting down Rarity one last time. I stood up, watching Aaro go grab the next datapad and VALK, and walked over to Twilight. "I promise that I'll protect you, and I don't break promises."

"You haven't let us down yet, Jackson," Twilight said, smiling. I knelt beside her, reaching for another strap. "If I had to trust our lives with anyone right now, it would be you. Frankly, I'd rather not be in any danger, because this 'tour of the galaxy' was supposed to be something of a vacation, last I checked. An educational vacation, of course, but still a vacation."

"I know," I said, nodding. "And we didn't expect this, but E is a special case. Why he's attacking now, it seems to be just..." I paused, my mouth hanging open mid-sentence, and I froze.

"Just what?" Rainbow asked, leaning forward to look at us.

"... just a coincidence. It can't be," I muttered. "There's no way he'd know we'd found Equestria without having a spy within the College of Admirals. Even the Homebound crew didn't know where we were going."

"You mean, you think E is attacking you guys because we're with you?" Twilight asked, raising an eyebrow. She shuffled, along with the rest of the ponies, to turn toward me. "Why would they do that? We don't have anything special about us. Well, besides the Elements of Harmony."

"I know," I said, wrapping another hand around her leg to secure the VALK. "I don't want to make any guesses, but I refuse to believe it's just a random coincidence that he chose the moment we got back to Gantoris to show up. He could have easily attacked while we were away, or ambushed the Homebound like Codoro did.... Exactly like Codoro did."

"What is it, Jackson?" Twilight asked, narrowing her eyes.

"Hey, weren't Codoro those jerks who attacked us a few days ago?" Rainbow asked, trotting behind me. "Because last I checked, you totally smashed them up!"

"Chant said that the dealer had an unpronounceable name - the one who gave him the technology to jump us. If he did that, he probably also told him where to jump us. We call him E because... ah, well, it was more of a joke because the rest of his name is a mouthful. If Sorlor works for him, then everything falls into place. E had to have known this, and he definitely wanted to make sure the Homebound was intercepted with you girls on it." I stood up, scanning Twilight for any loose straps, and frowned at Aaro. "Things just got a lot more complicated if I’m right."

"But why does he want us?" Twilight asked, matching my frown. "We don't have anything he would want, do we?"

I looked down at her, studying her innocent complexion, then moved my gaze to Aaro. We both nodded slowly. The silent answer between us was simple: Earth.

"I don't know. He's a sociopathic madman. He probably just wants to take over Equestria," I lied, walking over to grab Applejack's gear. "Again, he's dangerous, but the Wing has dealt with him before. We know his tricks, and we know his strategies. Equestria is now under our protection, and I promise you, our protection will hold."

"Or?" Applejack asked, tilting her head and moving her stetson out of our way. I turned, and saw the waiting, anxious faces of the ponies. Pinkie Pie beamed. Rainbow Dash smiled. Rarity frowned. Twilight Sparkle, out of the lot, just had a glazed-over face that I'd seen on myself so many years ago: shock. “What if it doesn’t hold?”

In that moment, with those girls and Spike staring at me with expressions as unique as their personalities, all of my past failures came rushing up to meet me like a forty-foot tidal wave. Behind me, I heard the rest of the crew gathering into a line, no doubt holding their chosen weapons, and I said four words.

"We won't. I promise."

"Jackson once promised me something," Aaro mused, fiddling with another newly-fabricated set of gear, this time smaller than the others. As one, the girls turned from me to him, and the air hung like a silently waiting predator. "Well, sort of. He promised that the next time he caught me riding a hoverbike up one of his shipyard walls, I'd regret it. Sure enough, the next time I did it, he caught me."

"And... did you regret it?" Rainbow Dash asked, raising an eyebrow.

"Yup. He painted about three-fourths the interior of the DragonTech HQ bright neon pink, including the hoverbike. I had to dip into our little tungsten collection to pay some guys to repaint it."

I laughed, mixing in with the chuckles the rest of the girls produced, and kneeled next to Spike. He lifted his arms, as Aaro instructed, and silently squirmed as we attached two slightly smaller variants to his back. "Now," Aaro said, patting the dragon's back, "it was a bit of a tough business, designing the VALK for Spike, here, and I ended up just sacrificing the datapad. As a minor, it's your jobs to take care of him, but I suppose you already knew that. Twilight, I've connected his VALK to yours, so you'll always show up in the same coordinates, unless you say otherwise."

"You know," I interrupted, reaching over to grab the last bit of gear, meant for Fluttershy. "I actually dipped into our collection to pay a different group of sods to paint it in the first place. Only took a couple handfuls to convince them to shame the Premier like that."

"Right, right," Aaro said, moving over to Fluttershy. He reached down, and froze inches from his hand resting on her back. Slowly, we all looked to her, and I personally felt something catch in my throat.

"Fluttershy?" Twilight asked, stepping out of line. The pegasus refused to move, eyes wide, and permanently locked onto a position somewhere a million feet away, in another space and time; the only thing that let us know she hadn't turned into a statue was the steady falling and rising of her chest. If her cream coat could get any paler, it had, and all emotion except for utter terror had been wiped from her expression with great prejudice. "Fluttershy, what's wrong?"

"It's the invasion threat, I think," Rainbow muttered. "We probably should've warned you about this, Captain Amber. I'm actually kinda surprised she lasted this long, but she's gonna faint any second now."

"Five, four," Applejack said, pursing her lips tight.

“Oh dear, not again,” Rarity said, rubbing her temples with a hoof. “I do wish Fluttershy wouldn’t be such a drama queen sometimes. She refused to faint during the changeling invasion.”

I groaned, rubbing my face with my hands. "You've got to be kidding me. She's a fainter?"

And then, with a squeaking noise I didn't expect to hear from a being labeled itself as a pony, Fluttershy tipped over onto her back.

~=V=~

"She's done it hundreds of times before. She only just stopped being afraid of her own shadow last year," Rainbow said, awkwardly using both fore hooves to told a glass of water up to her muzzle. The non-unicorns in their group had figured it out, slowly, over the course of their stay on the Homebound. It had started out with a couple spills and muttered objections, but it came as naturally as walking to them - or flying for Rainbow Dash. To prove it, the multicolored pegasus did it with her eyes closed.

Every single eye in the room, which was compiled of hundreds of seats and the same number of Wing officers, stared at her with curiosity. Once or twice, the silence was broken by an officer breaking down and taking a noisy bite of the meal laid out in front of him. Personally, I stared just like the rest of them.

"We allowed to pet 'em?" one voice asked, instantly followed by an angry, muffled slap from the officer sitting next to him.

"No!" Rainbow announced, putting the glass down. "No petting - no way. Aren't you dorks supposed to be eating or something? I thought this was lunch, not lunch-and-a-show." She looked around with a sweeping glare, nobody else brave enough to meet her gaze but myself and Roland. A second on the clock overhead ticked by, and the whole contingent of soldiers dove into their meals with hearty abandon, and possibly fear for their lives.

"For the record," I muttered below the level of chatter as the noise grew to normal levels. Rainbow grinned at me. "They didn't do that because they were intimidated by the bright, colorful alien that looks like a pillow to most of us. They did it out of politeness. And fear of me and everyone at this table."

"High ranks only," Aaro said, sitting to my right. On the other side of myself was Twilight, followed by Spike and Pinkie. Opposite of us were Rainbow, Fluttershy, Rarity, and Applejack, respectively. Each were either poking at their food, scarfing it down, or waiting patiently for us to eat first. "We're the cool-kids table, basically. Except we're not really cool."

"I'm cool," San said. He sat next to Rainbow, munching on a piece of lettuce that hung out of the side of his lips like a floppy dog tongue. Blinking, he reeled it into the cavernous pit that was his mouth. "Well, cooler than most of you, I'd think. This salad is the single most average thing I have ever tasted. Hardly befitting of cool person like me."

"Right," Ganymede said from a little ways down. "Because you're the kind who would tear through a chicken in seconds. A real carnivore." The clean-shaven admiral shook his head, diving down to begin the crusade on his "veggie" sandwich.

"I like chicken. Chicken is good," San grumbled, poking at his salad with a fork.

Aaro leaned forward to get a better look at the pony’s expressions. "Er, are we making any of you uncomfortable at all? I was told you are all vegetarians, like equines typically are. I don't want to offend your tastes; that's why I made sure all the meals for today had no meat in them. The last thing I want is to be munching on an animal you think is sacred."

"Hm?" Twilight mumbled, looking up from her meal. "No, it's not offensive at all. Jackson explained to us that most, if not all galactic species are omnivores and require both meat and plants. There are intelligent carnivores and omnivores back on Equestria, so I hardly take offense to it, and I'm sure the girls agree. Right, everypony?" she asked, her soft smile growing as the others gave a chorus of affirmatives. She looked over to me. “But... you don’t eat ponies, though, right?”

“Ponies are technically- well, in our area of space, extinct. Remember what TACT told you? I don’t think any of us would eat a pony anyways. It’s considered rude for one sentient species to eat another sentient species.”

San chuckled. “Unless you’re a wedgehead.”

"Well, personally, I still find it disgusting, but who am I to judge the natural order of things?" Rarity added a second later. Rainbow Dash coughed, jerking the drowsy admiral next to her into an upright, alerted position.

"Wait, so I can still get something else?" he asked hopefully, sliding one leg over his gleaming metallic stool. "Because I'd prefer fantastic over average any day."

"You mean I can get real lasagna?" another, young voice asked. A pointy-eared, pale-faced officer down the table leaned forward to call out to us, not bothering to conceal his eavesdropping. He looked down at the mush on his place, revolt crossing his face. "Because this is the worst thing I've ever eaten, ever. At least the regular stuff tasted somewhat like my grandma's."

A couple of the men near him snickered, a recognizable one leaned forward to face the captain, hands sliding under the plate. "Well, Berus, that's great. Don’t... supposed you’ll need this, then?" Roger York snorted, flipping the plate into the other captain's face. A chorus of laughter rippled out from their group, and to anyone who turned around to see the scene. York leaned back, a smug expression on his face.

"I- guh," Berus sputtered, bits of the so called "lasagna" flying across the table. Through the food and pale skin, his face flushed red. "Why you annoying little," he sneered a moment later, leaping across the table and grabbing Roger's jacket in both fists.

"You going to stop that?" I asked Aaro, turning to him. The ponies watched on in grim fascination, except for Fluttershy, who seemed to have reverted into her own little world at that point. The draxian shook his head, pointing at a figure walking down the aisle in the direction of the brawling officers.

"Captain Berus Jag. Captain R. O. York," a muffled, rasping voice echoed over to us, and I turned to see a slender, faceless figure towering behind the grappling duo. Patrick glared out at the two from under his clear mask, eyes as red as his skin and as piercing as his sword probably was. All chatter in the immediate vicinity ceased, and all eyes looked to see what doom would be brought down on the two like godly vengeance.

"I'll... go get cleaned off." Berus muttered, letting go of Roger. He got up like a sloth, eyes never leaving the masked abomination, picked up the mess-covered tray, and walked off in a stiff gait. More than a couple people chuckled, San included. Even Rainbow chuckled a bit.

"As for you, brother," the admiral said, yanking the disgraced captain to his feet. York stumbled, latching onto Patrick's shoulders and gasping for balance. He panted, a lopsided grin plastered on his face. "Your blood alcohol level is point-oh-four-percent. You are intoxicated legally. Intoxicated officers are not allowed in the mess hall unless there is a celebration. We are not celebrating at the moment. Leave."

"Yeh, but," York slurred, backing up a step. "See, we- well, I am celebrating, and why not?" He rose his voice, spreading his arms. He took several stumbling steps toward the exit. "Hell! We're gonna be killing more of those Star Empire freaks! Their green arses aren't gonna last five minutes in Wing s-space. Not like last time, but we kicked 'em in their nasty bits then too, even with those... those one blokes betraying us at the last minute. I dunno about you guys," he said, finally stepping through the exit. "But I'm gonna be counting how many empire soldiers I off this time around, 'cause it'll be a walk in the park if we all don't get killed. Cheers!"

"Cheers!" a dozen or so soldiers cheered, holding up their glasses of water to the leaving hero.

Rarity, Applejack, and a few of the other ponies narrowed their eyes in annoyance at his antics, and Rarity turned to me to ask, "That was rather uncouth of someone held to such high esteem. Are they always like this when they're needed most, Captain Amber?" I chuckled, shaking my head slowly.

Patrick scoffed. "Worthless business, drinking," he hissed, walking down to his saved seat beside Ganymede. "And before any of you weird horse things ask, I already ate."

"If I may ask," Twilight started, peering at the admiral.

"Please don't."

"Why do you wear the mask? Is it an allergy or something? There was a pony in Celestia’s School for Gifted Unicorns who was deathly allergic to peanuts, so sometimes she had to wear a sort of hospital mask. Is it something like that?" she asked. Several other admirals and captains snorted, leaning over each other to get a view at the answer.

"I'm allergic to things," Patrick deadpanned, shoulders slumping. "I believe that's the four-hundredth and ninety seventh time I've been asked that."

"Probably nine thousand or so by now," San muttered, taking another bite of salad.

"If you must know, I'm allergic to stupidity, and this place reeks of it. Not as bad as most places, but it's here alright, sure as the air you breath," he said, leaning in on one hand that gradled his masked face. "Now," he grumbled, "if you'll excuse me, I'm sick and bloody tired from work, and I think I'll take a lesson from you 'ambassadors' and take a nap sitting up."

"Oh-kay then." Twilight sat back down to continue her meal.

"Hey, Jackie?" a voice called, and I looked to see Pinkie grinning horribly at me. "I meant to ask you this earlier, but what's a tung-sten and where can I get one? I certainly didn't know you were a collector! Are they like super-rare jewels or something? I know Rarity would want to hear about them if they are!"

"That one would be an excellent interrogator," San whispered, just high enough for me to hear.

"Ah, a tungsten coin.... Aaro?" I looked to the premier, who immediately dug into his pocket for something. Each of the ponies learned in to see what he would produce, leaving their food untouched. A couple of the nearby officers also looked on, mostly staring at the girls. "The tungsten coin is the main currency for the planet of Draxis Ferys, Patrick and Aaro’s homeworld."

"It is also one of the most valuable currencies in Wing space, and probably in the top-twenty list in our galactic arm," Aaro said, pulling up a round, golden coin. Between a thumb and forefinger, he raised it up and reached over to the middle of the group so each Equestrian ambassador could see. Once they'd all gotten a good look, the one facing myself showing a pair of golden draxian blades crossed over a Wing symbol, he turned it over to an engraved Draxis Ferys, surrounded by interconnected stars that looped around the circular planet. "Each one is about a hundred standard Wing credits. As for the collection we have..."

"We refuse to tell anyone in public, but we are horrible scientists. Literally the worst ever," I interrupted, giving Aaro a playful jab in the ribs. "It's how we met, actually. Both assigned to work together, the most brilliant engineers in the Wing, on some nasty station floating above Saren. We were supposed to be looking into some way into defeating E's fleets. Stayed there for almost five months before I came out with an alloy capable of turning our ship hulls into the most durable and flexible in the galaxy. And he got a red dot."

"Void technology, not a red dot. I blew up E's main flagship, the Ravager, with it," Aaro chuckled, patting his mechanical arm. "This baby runs on it."

"Fascinating. I suppose if you two were trapped together on a station for five months, you'd have to become good friends," Twilight said, shaking her head slowly. "I think I'd go insane if I had to stay in one area like that for so long. Even studious ponies like me should at least go outside sometimes."

"I'd probably go insane in a day. That sounds like it was horrible," Rainbow Dash said, grimacing at the thought of it. Some of the others nodded in agreement.

"It was, but when you are fighting for the lives of the people you signed up to protect, time starts mattering more and more, and you do more with it. Protecting doesn't necessarily have to be on the battlefield, after all," Aaro said, returning the coin to his pocket. "In the end, our endeavors there saved countless lives. The Wing wouldn't have been able to last as long as it did. No nation can stand without the intellectual base needed to support it. Scientists will always be more valuable than heroes."

"I resent that," San laughed from beside us, his bowl empty. "I haven't created a darn thing and I've gotten all the way to the top."

"You're a leader though, San," I said. "And an inspiration. A figure people can look up to and model themselves after. Sometimes those can be even more valuable than a scientist. Twilight here would know a bit about knowledge gathering, wouldn't you?"

"Well, I don't like to brag, but I am a bit of a scientist by definition," the lavender unicorn said, unintentionally straightening up and grinning. "It came with the magic training. You can't master any spell without knowing how the world works first. Gravity, light, matter, all of it you have to know to the letter. Levitation is pretty simple, but the more complicated stuff requires similarly intense knowledge on the subject the spell is on."

"Sounds like a really refined version of psych," Ganymede said.

"Psych is like... a kind of magic you all can use, right? I don't know a whole lot about it, but it sounds interesting," Twilight said.

"Indeed, I am actually very curious to know how you manage it without a horn," Rarity added.

"Well, for one," I said. "We'd all look silly with horns. As for what psych is, it's not really like your magic at all. You've got, well, it looks like a focusing point for it; that would be your horns. We don't have that, so we rely on just our minds and innate energy, electrical and otherwise, to fuel it. Basically, anyone who uses psych just sort of leaks it everywhere for it to take effect."

"Sounds pretty disorganized and dangerous," Twilight said.

"It is. Very few people have the innate ability to do it on their own. One in one or two trillion, I believe. But there is a drug by the same name that either enhances your natural ability, or gives you some of your own. It's the single most dangerous drug in the galaxy at this point."

"A while ago, the drug got incredibly popular. A massive influx of people started using it, and that started the Psychic Wars. The first galaxy-wide crisis we'd ever seen on that scale," Ganymede interrupted. "Hoo-boy, those were some hectic times. A powerful one could vaporize you with just a thought, nevermind the marauders."

"Speaking of which. Jackson, did you confirm that E has one?" Aaro asked, looking to me.

"He does. We caught it rummaging around the Homebound on our way here," I said, nodding to Rarity. "She was there, and Lillian can confirm it too."

"Dang..." San muttered, leaning his arm against the table and propping his chin on his fist. "We are so screwed if he tells it to go after us. Everyone should be wearing a VALK at all times."

"What I want to know is why a marauder agreed to work with him in the first place,” Aaro said. “Either E offered it something so mind-bogglingly fantastic that it agreed, or it's got one hell of an ulterior motive. The fact that the Homebound and anyone inside of it is still on this plane of existence attests to the latter theory.” He slapped his hands on the table. "But enough of that topic. Twilight, on the subject of magic and spells, how many do you know?"

"Oh, that's an easy one. Forty one different types of tricks, and counting," Spike interrupted. Twilight beamed, nodding in agreement. "I've documented each one and helped her practice. Out of any unicorn I know, she's got the best magical ability of them all. I don't even think any other unicorn in Equestria has that many spells mastered!"

"Oh, Spike, you know that's not true. I'm still only a student. Nowhere near a higher level unicorn." Twilight looked over to us, the pride still evident on her face. "It's true, though. I do know a lot of spells; a lot more than a normal unicorn would. Those are only types of spells, though. Once you master the base spell, you can start to do more creative things with it. Levitation is the best example of that. A regular unicorn can do very basic spells, but the more you know about gravity, air resistance, propulsion, force, and other things relating to it, the fancier and more adept levitation you can do. You also just need to be really good at concentrating on stuff. Rarity's an expert on that one."

"Ooh, yes," the other unicorn added, grinning. "I can attest to magical strain. It takes an immense amount of concentration to be able to manipulate as many objects as I can at once, and it's something I'm very proud to have at my hooftips. Pins, needles, and threads, however, are nothing like say... several logs?"

"Sounds like it's not all just fireworks and stuff. Honestly, Twilight, you sound like a really hard working lady... well, mare, I guess." I shook my head, glancing down at my barely touched meal. If their magic could do that, what else could it do? I looked back up, a wry grin crossing my face. "So what else can magic do? Like, can it give energy outputs, focus energy, etcetera?"

"Those seem pretty vague. I don't think there's any spells that are just labeled as 'energy', or at least, I don't know about them. There's general magical outputs, magical storage, lightning, or electricity, heat. There's a lot of stuff. I can look some things up in the book of spells Celestia sent me, if you'd like me to check."

"Nevermind. It was just an idea I had. What about say... straight-up flying?" I grinned at a hiss of discomfort from San, who shook his head at me.

"No deal," he mouthed.

"Well, flying is a lot more complicated. The best way to do it would be casting a levitation spell on yourself, which I haven't managed to do yet. A unicorn foal can usually manage to do it when they're suffering from magical bursts; that just comes with being a child, but the larger they grow and the more attuned their magic becomes to their body, it all levels out. There's a point where you need to specifically balance control with power, and that in itself takes complicated equations that you need to know by heart."

"That's why unicorns leave the flying to us pegasi, the ones who do it best," Rainbow said, puffing out her chest. "And I'm the pony to talk to about being the best at flying."

Admiral San Uske guffawed, our table turning to look at him as his laughter died down into a small tinny. Snorting one last time, he wiped his eyes, and shot a lopsided grin at the pegasus. A full, tense moment of silence followed, where his smile slowly faded into a deadpan expression. "You might be the best pony flier, but I’m the best flier ever."

"Oh come on, y'all two," Applejack interrupted, pushing her stetson up. "You've been going at each other like two dragons in the same cave. Can't you just go outside and see who's better? No disrespect to you, Mister Admiral."

"No, no, no, AJ, I couldn't do that. It would be unfair to Mr. Wingless over here." Rainbow pointed with the back of her forehoof at the Admiral, ignoring the growing amount of childish giggles coming from the onlookers, and bemused expressions from all but the masked admiral.

"I prefer Professor Mister Doctor Admiral Wingless, thank you very much," San grunted, standing up. "In any case, I could beat you even without my fancy tech. Well, that's just the ego talking, but I'll bet anything that I can beat you in any course you set up. You pick the bar, no matter how low it is compared to my skill, then you pick the stakes, and I'll beat it and win."

"This all seems really unnecessary," Twilight muttered.

"Oh, it's all in good fun. San's an expert, though. He has his reputation for a reason," I replied, ignoring the now muffled verbal sparring between the pegasus and expert pilot.

"The man can't even land a bloody fighter jet when he's calm. How's he gonna do it when his pride's at stake?" Patrick coughed into his mask, wheezing. "In any case, I'm placing my bets on the marshmallow thing."

"I'm betting on Uske for me. Who's the credit holder?" I asked, looking around the table. Nobody volunteered, but everyone started tapping frantically on their datapads.

Aaro nodded, holding up his datapad for us to see. "I've got it. Everyone send it to me."

"As for you and me," Rainbow said, smiling competitively at San, who all too gladly returned the look. "If I win, you have to... heh. You have to paint your 'amazing' fighter with rainbow stripes."

"Blasphemy!" San sputtered, holding one hand to his forehead. "But deal. And if I win, you have to wear a pink dress."

"I- what?" Rainbow balked, raising an eyebrow. "What made you pick that?"

"Standard bet for him. We've all suffered the same fate.... Well, most of us. Aaro never made the bet, did he?" I chuckled, looking to the draxian, who merely wore a smug smile against our glares of silent envy.

"I don't like the idea of wearing a dress," he said simply. “And I’m not stupid.”

"Whatever. Deal, Mister Professor Admiral Wingless." Rainbow huffed, the two now facing off in the lane between the tables. She hovered, wings beating silently against his glowering eyes, and she spit into her hoof before offering it to him. "I'll happily set up the course for us, too."

"Deal, Miss Rainbow Butt," he retorted, spitting into his hand. Their agreement became official with a wet, sloppy sound that most of the party and all of the ponies instinctually gagged at. "I'll go order the dress. Lunch is over, anyways."

We all turned to the large clock on the wall, and waited as an unbearable silence befell us. It took a moment, but a few seconds later, we noticed just what was wrong: the silence. Trickling out of the doors were the last remaining Wing members, the only ones left either sitting in small clusters to whisper to each other, or us.

"So it is," I muttered, sliding out of my seat. "And since that is that. I am going to go take a much needed nap." The others nodded, muttering agreements, and slowly began to stand up. One by one, the ponies edged themselves out of their seats, each looking to me for guidance on what to do next. "Twilight?"

"Yea, Jackson?"

"I suppose you can stay with the group. The other Homebound crewmembers should be in their rooms. Just... try to make sure San and Rainbow don't go too far, okay? San's a great friend, but sometimes he just gets way too into it."

"Heard that!" San called, spinning on one heel to walk the rest of the way backwards. "And I haven't even scratched the surface yet!"

"And you're going to have a hard time winning if that's all you g- hhhhhck!" She jerked, a violent cough exiting her throat. San just grinned, backing out the door with the rest of the departing admirals. The rest of her friends and I watched on with concern. The cough wasn't normal; I could tell that much from the gurgling wet sound that accompanied it. Fear, an emotion I hadn't seen on her face yet, flashed across her expression for the briefest of moments.

"Rainbow, are you alright?" Fluttershy asked, reaching an arm around the mare as the coughs subsided.

"I-I'm fine. No idea where that came from." She shook her head like a dog, letting out a crystal clear breath that seemed to soften the worried looks of her friends. "Probably just something from the food that got stuck down there. Wrong pipe."

"Well that's good. I'd hate for you to get a cold while we're out exploring this huge new universe that's been opened up," Twilight said, smiling softly. "We'll go with you to put up the course for the Admiral."

"Ooh, yes! And I've got to set up the celebration for whoever wins the bet! I know it's going to be you, Dashie, but I've got to be fair to the Mister Doctor Professor Wing-guy too," Pinkie said, bumping a hoof against Rainbow's own. "You'll show them what a real pegasus can do!"

"I'm sure you'll beat him. Despite the fantastic technology these creatures possess, I do not believe they can outmatch the grave of a true pegasus. You were born to fly, after all, dear." She stuck her chin up, closing her eyes. "Practically as much as I was born to be fabulous."

"I hope you like pink, Rainbow," I interrupted. They turned to me, looks of mock betrayal crossing their faces. "Oh, nevermind. You girls go have some fun. I'm still tired from last night. Just wake me before the race starts."

"Alright, Jackson. You deserve a rest." Twilight nodded, taking the lead of the group. I waved them off, smiling gently at the group. They trickled through the door almost reluctantly, chattering amongst themselves about things of irrelevance, whether they be the food, or the "bland" uniformity the Towers had in their color scheme.

The group left, all except Fluttershy. Stopping at the door, she turned to me, the corners of her lips edging up ever so slightly. "Mister Jackson...?"

"Yes, Miss Fluttershy?" I answered, taking a few steps toward her.

She glanced at the ground for a long while, ears flattening. "Thank you," she said, finally.

"For?" I asked, kneeling down to meet her eyes.

"For everything you've done so far. Twilight and Rainbow told me a bit about how much you've been through, and what you've done to protect people you care about. I'm sorry if I've been a bother lately, like down in the armory place.... It's just, all of this invasion stuff... well, um, I still sometimes have bad dreams about the changeling invasion, and if this is anything like that-"

"Hey, it's nothing to worry about," I butted in, patting her on the side of the neck. "I promised to protect you girls, and I will. All of us, the Wing? That's what we promised to do when we joined up. It's the reason most of us joined up, and we've been doing it for a long, long time. I told Celestia we were sort of like bodyguards, but we're more than that. We're protectors. It's our chosen burden, of a sorts. No harm will come to any of you."

"Thank you. You're a good person, Mister Jackson," Fluttershy whispered, hanging her head. "I know you'll do what you promised, you've done it so far, even if you mess up sometimes."

"Even good men mess up." I stood, waving a hand toward the door. "Now go on to your friends. Enjoy life. And make sure they know what I said, because you might not be the only one who needs it."

"I know, but we all trust you, Jackson," she said, turning for the door. "Goodbye." She straightened up, stepping through the door and out into the hallway. Pausing at the last minute, she jerked, and did something that made my knees buckle from my lonely spot in the mess hall.

Carefully, I reached over to the edge of a table and let myself down onto a chair. A long, exasperated, fragile sigh escaped from the back of my throat, and I looked up to the ceiling. She had coughed in exactly the same way Rainbow Dash had after the sparring match.

I frowned.

~=V=~

Dreams are something I don't indulge in. Goals, sure. I can set a goal and then go for it, and I am the kind of person who always reaches his goals.

As for the visions of the night - literal dreams, purely of the mind - rarely do I remember them.

"So, you have failed," my father said in an eerie, echoing voice that sounded like a mountain. He sat in the desk in front of me, which stretched comically in each direction. The room, while covered in paintings, wooden bookshelves, and shelves full of knickknacks, all seemed to be thirty meters away from our single four pieces of furniture. A desk. A chair behind it. The chair I was sitting in, and the white tinted window behind him. I could clearly see the white towers in the distance, but they covered the entire horizon like jagged teeth. "Then you come here and you tell me you didn't want to do it in the first place?"

"I'm sorry," I said, my voice that of a child and containing all the power I had in the waking world. The combination of the two sounded like a child I had once encountered in battle; perhaps the real world was merely a dream to that boy as well.

"You will go down there and help those people, son," he sneered, wrinkles forming into his face like deep cuts.

"I watched you fall," I said, looking down at my hands. They blurred between metal plates and twisted wires to flesh. My legs and arms followed the sequence as well, switching from mechanical forms I had known for years as part of my own body. "I'm dreaming."

"Dreaming?" he shouted in the rage, the wooden desk falling through the floor in an ethereal puff. He stood up, one hand grasping the edge of the chair as he forced his frail body into a standing position. His lab coat splayed open, giving me full view of the blood-spattered body armor. "That's all you ever do! Always whining about how you loathed your classes. Father, I do not want to be like the family, you said. I do not want to improve the world for the greater good! Instead you wanted to go off and see the world. Now you're telling me you're leaving it entirely?"

"I hate lucidity during these things," I muttered standing up. I brushed off my Wing uniform, which splattered across the floor like blood, steam rising from each puddle. I sighed, standing middle of the liquid-clothing spattered room, and I looked down. "Brilliant," I said, holding up my flaming arms. "I'm on fire now."

"You monster!" he screamed, backing up to the window. The white glass now encompassed the entire back wall, and the jagged towers on the horizon looked more and more like fangs than buildings. "I know who my son is, and he wouldn't have done this! He promised me. You promised me!"

I looked at the ground, feeling the flames slowly edge their way up my torso, and onto my arms. Where the bandages were in the waking world, jagged claws of flame sprouted outward, rolling up and down my arm and stretching toward the decrepit man. He held up the chair threateningly. "It wasn't like this, though. I wasn't standing here. There was someone else..."

"Don't touch my son!" he screamed, rushing me with the chair. All at once, the window behind him shattered outward, the glass shards spinning through the air and ignoring gravity. His face dropped, and the chair flew out of his hands and into the swirling void of glass outside. "I trusted you with everything," he whispered, and his feet left the ground. He fell.

"I hate dreams. I always remember the lucid ones, too," I said, walking forward to the edge of the window, before he even passed through it. "Poorly set up, too. Is my subconscious really this poor at harassing me?" I sighed, staring at him as he passed through the broken window, eyes full of anger, and my heart stopped. He passed through, but anything past the window changed shape, color, and size.

He went in himself, and he came out as Twilight Sparkle.

"I trusted you." The phantom accusation bounced around the dream-formed office, this time in Twilight's own voice. Passive smirk turned into a deep frown, I stood there, letting the flames dance across my body and watching Twilight fall with the glittering pieces of glass. An unearthly bright sun lifted up between the rows of teeth so far away; the teeth themselves no longer resembled towers, but now looked as close to the inside of a monster's mouth as a dentist could tell. Her image turned to me in the slow motion fall, her face twisted in betrayal and confusion. Twilight's eyes reflected in all of the mirror shards, each one boring into me, and her mouth opened to scream.

"Jackson! Come on!"

"A severe possibility, unfortunately," I whispered, standing on the ledge and letting the tips of my feet stick out. "I thought knew what I was doing when I brought them here; when I promised I would protect them. I don't intend to break promises I make, and I only make them if I know they're within my abilities." I sighed, briefly reaching one arm out to touch the ghostly vignette. "I am worried, though. Mostly for my subconscious, because it's never been this stupidly and blatantly symbolic before."

I turned, anger creasing into my face. "Stop meddling in my mind. I don't like it."

I ThoUgHt it WaS NiCe.

Suddenly, not like a blinking of the eye, or a double glance, I was in a different place. Gone was the fire, replaced with a khaki shirt, black pants, and a trenchcoat. A large-brimmed black hat sat on my head, and this time, there was no setting. Just a dull grey that neither acted as a floor nor a ceiling. Yet, I wasn't floating, merely standing on nothing. I stared deadpan at the black figure in front of me.

"I don't like people poking around in my mind. That includes non-people like yourself, you sodding abomination," I said, my voice coming from all directions. I glared hard at the amorphous monster. "Also, as some friendly advice, revealing yourself wasn't wise. Explain your reason for being here, and then I will break you apart atom by atom."

CurIoSity. I aM NoT AloNe In iT, EitHer. OuR KinD arE nOt alone iN ouR AbiliTieS.

"Curiosity, really?" I hissed, ignoring its other statement. I blinked, appearing closer to the beast. "Because it looked like you were trying to get some sort of reaction out of me. Why? Looking for a weakness?"

AnD tO stAll.

"What do you mean to st-" I swallowed, eyes opening wide. "You sly little... bug," I whispered, and in an instant the marauder was gone, banished, and its presence disappeared as if I'd opened a window in a hot car. The greyness slowly faded into black, and my body disappeared from the dream. I felt myself extending into the real world once more, a feeling I recognized from exiting virtual reality.

"-Amber!" Twilight screamed, shaking my shoulders. Her voice was muffled under several layers of consciousness, each being peeled back the quicker I awoke. "Jackson. Please, please wake up! Come on, come on."

"M'up," I groaned, opening my eyes. My apartment bedroom slowly swirled into focus, not a thing out of place, and I forced myself into a sitting position to face the unicorn. "Wuzzit?"

"Aaro sent me to go get you. He said something was wrong," she said, backing up. I frowned deeply, looking around for any reason to be called. There were no alarms. There were no shouting. No bombs were going off outside. Slight thunder from the incoming storm outside. All was calm.

"What time is it?" I hissed, standing up. I had taken off only my uniform jacket and shoes when I took my nap, leaving my pants, socks, and white shirt, and a huge image of myself appeared on the opposite wall's mirror. Beside it was a half-closed window, giving me only a view of darkened clouds.

"It's coming up on dinner. You slept for around four hours, but nopony wanted to wake you up because we delayed the race due to the storm coming. The Admiral didn't seem very happy, but Rainbow Dash seems to think she can 'cancel' the storm. She can't, can she?"

"I don't think she can. Nothing wrong with a little bit of rain." I stretched my arms. Looking out the window another few seconds to check for anything out of place, I strode over to the discarded clothing. "What did he say was wrong, specifically?"

"Well, um," Twilight said, walking over to the doorway and staring at her hooves awkwardly. "It didn't really make sense to me, but he asked to go get you while he gathered the other girls and the crew, then something about the College. We're all waiting out in the hallway, when you're ready."

"Alright, but what did he say, Twilight? Tell me his exact words already," I asked, leaning down to set my boots into place. They weren't necessarily fashionable, covering the bottom end of my pants with two buckles, but they did their job. As soon as they were on, I looked around for my datapad.

"He said a friend told him something about the Void. I don’t remember what he said exactly, though, just that he wanted you awake," she said curiously. "Do you know what that means?"

I stopped, the datapad hanging half-off of my arm. "No, no, no, not really. He doesn't talk about the Void that much, even with me, except that he uses it as a power source. We do know that whenever it's not contained, things get messy, and that psychic powers are involved. Someone just attempted to hijack my mind." I shrugged on the jacket right, zipping it all the way up and taking a deep breath.

"What?" she exclaimed, rushing to my side. "What do you mean by that? With magic?"

"It was the marauder. How long were you trying to wake me, Twilight?" I snapped, stepping lightly and stiffly toward the exit.

"Around five minutes, almost. I stopped once or twice, and I was just about to get some water when-" she stopped, ears perking up. Every insignificant noise in the apartment ceased to be from my mind, and the ever humming rumble of power coursing through the building became nothing but white noise. Far away, outside and on the streets, a siren slowly crawled up into a deafening wail.

"Five minutes was all they needed," I whispered, releasing a breath I didn't know I was holding. I looked down to Twilight, realization dawning on both of us, and without a moment to spare we rushed for the door.

"The College just sent the alert out over the datapads, sir. Orange Code," Roland said, moving his KaidenTech assault rifle into a low ready position. "The main force is gathering down in the courtyard for placement orders."

"Pilots to fighter stations. Turret operators to turret stations. I know the drills, ensign," I said, patting my pockets. The only thing I had on me, something I had unfortunately forgotten all about, was the standard issue sword I'd taken from the fabricators. "We need to get armed. Do you know if they shut down the Halls just yet?"

"They should be in the process of it right now, sir," Dylan said, readying her own weapon. "Roland and I are the only ones with weapons."

"I have claws," Aran deadpanned, raising five of the sharp digits. I nodded, ruefully, and turned to gaze over the ponies. They were spread out within the Homebound crew, sharing nervous glances with each other.

"Hayfeathers," Applejack said, smirking. "We managed to fight off almost a hundred of them changeling varmints before we got surrounded during the invasion. We'd probably be able to hold our own even without your fancy weapons."

"Did the changelings have fancy weapons too, Miss Applejack?" Lilian snapped, crossing her arms. The farm mare shuffled on her hooves, looking awkwardly at her friends. "These guys do, and they won't let you get close enough to kick them into next week with those hooves of yours."

"I don't plan on letting us get near enough for them to even aim at us. We are going straight to the Homebound and evacuating with the rest of the civilians," I stated, puffing my chest out. "We'll replace the fighter escorts they'd normally get. Our rotating cannon should be enough to ward off anyone to attack us. We'll be fine, I promise."

"Oh, we know that. I believe all of us have full faith in your abilities, Captain Amber," Rarity said, flashing me a radiant smile. I nodded back, but I didn't return the expression.

"I want two teams in the elevators. They'll be in emergency mode, so it should be fast," I said, moving off to stand at the side of the ground. Twilight followed me, sticking to my side with a confused expression. "Twilight, Spike, Fluttershy, Rainbow Dash, Roland, and Aran will be with me. I'll see the rest of you at the bottom. Move out immediately."

"Yes sir!" they others shouted in unison, each one giving off a smart salute and rushing to the elevators. Those I'd included in my own team stayed with me, stomping toward the elevator. Rainbow, however, flew over to my side.

"Those E guys are invading, right? This is them?" she asked, flapping her wings effortlessly as we raced to the elevator. I nodded silently, waving to the red-tinted AIA as we got closer. In the floor above, I could hear the stomping of boots and shouts from guards and soldiers. The alarm itself continued to blare, and most of the overhead lights were slowly changing to a low red tint. Thunder outside rumbled as we ran.

"I assume you'll want an empty car, sir?" the AI asked emotionlessly, the light above the door glowing a bright red.

"No, just whatever will hold us and get us there fastest," I rambled, turning to face the group as the elevator arrived. "Aran, you hold Fluttershy. Roland, you hold Spike. Rainbow can handle herself. I'll take Twilight."

"What?" Spike asked, raising an eyebrow at the towering soldier next to him. "Why?"

"Good question." Twilight looked over to me, raising her own eyebrow and tilting her head. "Why?"

"Have you ever fallen off of something?" I asked, looking quickly between her and the elevator. A low rumble, different from the thunder outside, started up far above us, and I could slowly feel the floor begin to vibrate.

"More times than I'd like, yes," Twilight said.

"It's like that, except faster," I said, turning to face the elevator door. "Get ready to move, and get in my arms when we're inside. Awkward, yes, but you'll appreciate it when we start going down. Trust me on this."

"I trust you," Twilight said, nodding. I looked to the others.

"I trust 'ya." Rainbow grinned, hovering next to Roland.

"Me too," Spike said, standing next to Twilight.

"I trust you too, Jackson," Fluttershy finished, nodding slowly.

Something above us and through the thick metal walls began screeching, metal grinding against metal and getting closer to us with each passing second. Each of the ponies and Spike flinched back, edging away from the elevator door and closer to us. Finally, the sound stopped, ending right behind the doors. Contrasting to the obnoxious entrance, the doors opened without even a noticeable hiss, drawing back to reveal ten armed soldiers sitting in harnesses.

Each one had the Wing emblem decal on their armor - which from what I could tell, was a massively heavier and more advanced version than the EPA suits I had brought with the Homebound. The full faceplate helmets and breather mask were the same, though, and I could almost see the incredulous stares from behind them. Each man was had either a KaidenTech or a DragonTech gun at his side, gripped tightly with one hand, and they were all hooked into the walls of the elevator with over-the-shoulder restraints that descended from the ceiling. This elevator was big; it would fit us, but only if the girls braved the blank stares from the soldiers.

"Hey, Captain Amber," one of the soldiers said in a muffled voice. "Are those the pony things we keep hearing about?"

"Told you they were real," another said, elbowing the man to his side. "Stephen and I saw them in the mess hall at lunch, eating with the College of Admirals."

"Yeah, but we all know you and Stephen are absolutely insane," another soldier, obviously just a helmeted teryn, hissed through his mask.

"Hey, I resent that statement," a third barked, looking to me in about as apologetic a way as he could have without a face. "Come on in, sir. We won't bite. Harnesses might be a bit too tall for those horse things, though."

"We know. One of you mind holding onto Miss Dash for me?" I asked, stepping into the large elevator and finding a free harness. Aran and Roland followed, and the ponies trickled in behind them. Hissing melodramatically, the restraints lowered over our shoulders and locked us in place, but at least our arms were free. "AIA, don't drop us yet."

"I can do it if you'd like, sir," the third man, the apparently insane one, said, holding out one arm. "As long as she promises not to eat me or anything."

"Are you sure about this?" Rainbow Dash asked, flying over to the guy and giving me a sidelong glance. "I can handle myself, Jackson."

"Fine, fine," I said, smoothing my slick hair back even farther. "I hope you heal fast from broken bones, though, Miss Dash, because most of them are going to be just that when we drop." A few of the soldiers snickered, elbowing one another and whispering over their communication links.

"Please do it, Rainbow. He doesn't want us to get hurt," Fluttershy said, slowly making her way to Aran. Roland had already picked up Spike in an awkward looking hug, the dragon child clinging to the side of the harness with one arm.

"It'll be over quick, Fluttershy. We've all done this before during training. Many, many times," Aran said, reaching down and accepting the yellow pegasus into her waiting arms. Fluttershy clenched her eyes shut, moving so she could wrap her forelegs around Aran's long neck in the easiest, least obtrusive way possible. Aran sighed.

"I puked a lot," Roland said offhandedly. One of Spike's eyes twitched.

"Fine, fine," Rainbow groaned, hovering in front of the volunteering, faceless soldier. He wrapped his free arm under her barrel and forelegs, pulling her close. "But I would just like you to know I am not comfortable with this. It's not cool, and you're not telling anypony, ever."

"I don't even know any other ponies," I said grinning. Twilight just stared at me, head cocked and eyes narrowed, and she approached with a cautious step.

"Kind of with Rainbow on this one. It seems awkward-"

"I am getting requests for the elevator en masse, sir," AIA interrupted. "I will be forced to release in five seconds."

"Sodding come here already," I barked, motioning for Twilight to hurry. She took a couple more steps, and jumped into my arms as gracefully as a swooping, panicky unicorn could. I hugged her to me, spinning her around so my arms wrapped around her barrel. "Two. One."

We dropped, and all sound was obscured by blaring of wind as it roared past the car. We had no view of the outside - all windows had been shut in the emergency declaration. It took everything I had just to hold onto Twilight, the force of our fall nearly launching her into the ceiling. The other soldiers seemed to be having the same luck, strained expressions plastered on Roland and Aran as they hugged their charges.

"Whoooah!" Twilight yelled, squirming in my arms. "Are you absolutely sure this is safe, Jackson?"

"Without harnesses? I have no idea!" I shouted back, the road partially obscuring my words. I sucked in a desperate breath, looking around. Red warning lights were the only source of illumination, and the visible shaking of the elevator car made them reflect oddly on the armor of the other soldiers, each one standing rigid against the gravitational forces against them.

"Are you kidding? This is awesome!" Rainbow grinned, her wings extended in front of the soldier assigned to hold her in place. "I could do this all day!"

"It'll only last a couple seconds. We should be nearing the bottom," I bellowed back, shifting in place. On cue, the loud screaming of metal against metal started up again, but for us it was translated into a rumbling groan that violently shook the cabin. "Hold on!"

"We are," Twilight hastily replied, squeezing my arms tight. The harrowing force building up in my chest ceased, and we all pressed against the floor like normal when the sound died off. A few quick, deep breaths later, and the ponies were on the ground and the shoulder harnesses had risen back up the wall, awaiting their next prisoners.

"Oh, um, w-wow," Fluttershy stuttered, rising up and shivering. "That was certainly..."

"Fun?" Rainbow offered, stretching her back.

"Fast."

"Right, well, come out, out of the elevator, girls," I said, ushering our group out into the hallway. The group of soldiers marched out past us, steadily heading for the exit around the corner. One or two glanced expressionlessly at us from behind their faceplate, gripping their weapons tight. Another group of voices interrupted out moment of peace, and we turned to see the other group leaving their own elevator.

"Wowzers! That was really super duper fun; can I go again?" Pinkie asked, the first to reach us. Lilian grumbled, running a hand through her hair and scowling at her, and the others showed similar signs of discontent.

"I would rather not, Pinkie, my dear. Especially if you happen to scream the entire way down. I can't say I enjoyed it myself, either. Far too dramatic."

"Fast and efficient. None too comfortable, though," Applejack muttered, tilting her hat back and looking to me. "We heading out now, Captain?"

"You bet. Just... follow me. I've got to go confirm some things with the College before we head out. They'll be directing orders in the courtyard," I said, smoothing my jacket down. Nodding or otherwise voicing their acceptance of my order, each one took their place behind me as I strode out of the building and into the darkened evening.

The Gantoris Towers stand at around one thousand eight hundred and seventy two meters tall. My apartment itself was lower than the cloud level, but in looking up, seeing them stretch into the storm-clouds so defiantly made my head swim. Reflecting off of the sky gave them an eerie mottled grey sheen, blending into the clouds behind them. Between the two, near the halfway point in their height, stretched the Halls, and it cast a dark shadow over the courtyard.

More and more we walked into the fray; the depressed area underneath the towers and separated from the rest of the city, made up of landing platforms, troop transporters, crates, and lots and lots of Wing soldiers that intermingled with the Gantoris Guard. On the highest of the three tiers that lead up to the doors of the Towers was a conglomerate of them. Fifty or so of the faceless soldiers had lined up, guns on their backs and bodies stiff as chess pieces. In front of them were about half of the admirals, gesturing over a mobile holographic map. A ways away, I could see a truck moving in a large generator device to be placed in the middle of the highest tier, several workers scrambling around it. Standing tall and empty was the flagpole behind the soldiers in formation, bearing no flag to wave.

"It took you long enough, Jackson," Aaro called to me, waving us over. I reached onto my datapad, pulling off a wiry device from the side and wrapping it around my ear. Through the commotion, I could at least hear the others clear.

"You should have warned her she might need to use magic to wake me up. Whatever you sensed in the Void, it targeted me," I said into the microphone. A few of the ponies gave me odd, slanted looks . "All it needed was five minutes."

"We waited until we did anything official until we had you. The Defense Fleet is already assembling, but we wanted you around for the real fleet movements. How quick can the Liberty Fleet arrive in force?" Ganymede asked, staring at his datapad as he typed away. Beside him, the monstrous Admiral Zalthice fiddled with the floating hologram of the city, pressing on areas where I knew we had defenses readying.

"Five minu-" I stopped myself, rubbing my face with the palm of my hand. "Of course. How did we catch the fleet, at least?"

"Tipped off, actually," San said, folding his arms. "One of Patrick's last loyal spies in the Empirium reported in to say that their long-range sensors were picking up ships heading to us. Our short range sensors picked them up thirty seconds ago." He sighed, looking behind his back at the gathered soldiers setting up the defenses. "I'll be leaving in a moment to oversee the fighter squadrons; making sure they're ready to kick butt, and the others are all gone to see that our ground-based defenses get up in time."

"Got to love GOD cannons," Aaro muttered, chuckling, waving me over to the map. The ponies gathered around me, inching in to see. "Forgot to tell you, but we finished building them while the Homebound was gone. The last time I saw them was on the Tolos Station. E won't be expecting them."

"GOD cannons?" Twilight asked, tilting her head at the fizzling hologram. Beside the raised buildings and blue dots spread across it, there wasn't any major feature that would indicate one of the structures was a cannon, at least, to her.

"Draxian cannons of particular design that the Wing picked up on my request," Aaro said, smirking. "They tore a big chunk out of E's fleet the last time I saw them in action, and that was his main battle fleet. We've only got an invasion force coming for us."

"What's the difference?" Rainbow asked, flying above us and frowning skeptically at the map.

"There is none," a new voice chimed in, sighing heavily after he had spoken. I looked up to see the hunched form of Clover, leaning on his sword that poked into the concrete ground. He glared emotionlessly at the map, his eyes slowly trailing up to look at Rainbow Dash. "We're just saying there is. To provide hope."

"Leader Clover?" I asked, looking to the man. I had only caught glances of him in the emergency meeting earlier, so only now did I notice his haggard look; the bags under his eyes told me everything I needed to know about our situation. "Seriously, how large is the fleet heading towards us?"

"We don't know. Not exactly. We do know, however, that he's not bringing the Derelict with him. Why not, I'm curious," he said, flicking at the hologram and turning to glance at the soldiers again. "I think we're all grateful for it, though. Perhaps the rumors were false."

"Activating a Derelict should be impossible. Only two in history have ever been fully repaired, and even then they refused to work," Ganymede added, folding his arms behind his back. "We should continue thinking he has one, though. I don't want to be caught off guard."

"Right," I said, nodding quickly. "I request that my team and I be allowed to board the Homebound and escort the Ophelius evacuees away from the city before the fighting starts, to spare you fighter escorts and give me a chance to get the ambassadors away from here."

"Granted," Clover said instantly, slapping his leg and standing up. "Make sure they're safe. Admiral Uske, make sure pressure is relieved off of the Homebound when they escape. Fighter squadrons originating from the ground are to stay in the air until the invasion force is defeated."

"With my life, sir," I replied. Slowly, I turned to face the ponies. They looked at me with mixed concern. "Anything you need before we head up to the armory and get your stuff, girls?"

"No, I don't think so," Twilight said, glancing over at the armed men only a few meters away. "We should probably get moving."

"Is there any chance that a couple of those nice dock workers could gather my luggage for me?" Rarity asked, puffing up her mane with one white hoof. "I do hope it isn't a bother but I'd rather not leave all of my things here."

"I'll see if I can send someone on the way to the armory, Miss Rarity. What about your books, Twilight?" I asked.

Spike chuckled, waving an arm dismissively. "No worries, Captain Amber. Heh, I've got it all

covered. Dragon-fire has a lot more usage than just mail services!" He patted his round stomach, smirking. The poor dragon only stopped when each of the admirals had paused what they were doing to stare at him with dumbfounded expressions. "What?"

"Nothing. Listen, we'll get you all squared away when-"

"SHIPS ENTERING WING SPACE!" a voice bellowed from one of the consoles at our miniature command station, crackling over the radio. "ESS Golden has confirmed hostilities. Major fleet vessels in high orbit above Ophelius are: Cruiser-Imperial Vri, Destroyer-Defender, Aegis-Holdout, Enigma-Georgia, Cruiser-Elder Hti'Sy, Enigma-Gantoris. We're detecting at least five battlecruiser class titans within their fleet, and an unknown vessel we can't determine. Two fleet carriers..." We all stared blankly at the holographic map as it swirled into a view of the planet and the ships stationed around it. Between the sparse ring of defense platforms, stations, and the planet surface lit up numerous dots representing the ships between us and doom. What we were staring at, however, were the far larger swarm of red blips moving toward them.

I tapped several buttons on my datapad, bringing up a list of contacts. I barely even looked at the screen as I did it. "Emergency message to all Liberty Fleet ships," I said softly. "You are to gather at Han Wavel immediately. When you are done, reinforce Gantoris as soon as you can. Godspeed."

"Alpha Fleet, you are to support the Liberty Fleet in reinforcing Gantoris. Coordinate your entrances by yourselves," Aaro spoke into his own data pad, voice fading into a whisper as I turned my attention away. I lowered my arm as the other admirals and the few captains that had surrounded us spouted off their own orders.

"That's the invasion force," Twilight whispered. I turned to them. "If their ships are anything like yours, then this is really different from what happened in Canterlot."

"It is," I said solemnly, looking at them. "We are about to be attacked, girls. This... isn't the part of the galaxy I wanted you to see, but it's also a reality. Evil does exist out here, and it will do it's best to stamp out the good."

"They are powering up weapons," one of the voices on the radio crackled. "Unknown vessel is approaching. ESS Defender is returning fire."

"ESS Golden is firing."

"They're returning fire. Someone go out there and draw fire away from the Golden!" the first voice shouted.

I swallowed. "This isn't like you thought it would be, I know. It was supposed to be a friendly tour where I showed you the ins and outs of being a galactic force. But it's also much more than that. Out here, where warlords like the man we're facing will try and crush you just because he can, someone needs to stand up for themselves. That's what we do, and that's what we've always done."

"Aegis under heavy fire. We need assistance as soon as possible."

"They're breaking through the line. Hold!"

I glanced away for the briefest of seconds, looking at the battle unfolding on the hologram map. What few ships that weren't scattered were being forced into frantic evasive maneuvers, and most of the red blips were proceeding without altering their straight-line course. A couple more of the Wing ships had left their posts on the other side of the planet and were racing toward the action. "ESS Y'vette's Heart, Jan-Klier, Tungsten Spear, Firebug, and Cutter inbound to assist."

"But we're used to this. We've done this before; many, many times. We've stood up to E and beat him once, and we'll do it again. No single faction has ever managed to lay a single soldier's foot on Gantoris before, and today isn't going to be that day. In less than a few minutes the bulk of the Wing's firepower will arrive and E’s forces won't last even half as long as that. We're strong, because we fight for what is right. We will protect you."

"Georgia here, they're taking down our shields!"

"Where's the reinforcements?"

"This is the Imperial Vri, our shields are out and our hull is taking damage!"

I held my hands behind my back, head tilted to the floor as I walked away from the gathered Admirals and out into the open, my eyes always on the awed faces of the ponies. "Because no matter what, despite a little bit of disorganization, our little fights, and our lack of professionalism while we wear the uniform on some days, each and every one of us is a brother or sister to the one next to him, and we do not allow tyrants to break that bond simply because they think they're powerful. Whether it be for Equestria or the youngest child on some small planet in an outer territory, we will fight, and we will win. This is what we are. We are the Wing."

"For the Wing!" one of the soldiers behind me shouted, holding up his rifle. I spun, my hands flapping uselessly to my sides; I had positioned myself right in front of them.

"FOR THE WING!" the rest screamed, holding up their own weapons. Most of the busy soldiers around us stared, some joining in the cheer.

"We'll show 'em what for!"

"They don't know who they're messing with!"

"That's right!" I yelled back, brandishing my fist. "If any of you girls had doubts, I hope we just dispelled them," I said, turning back to the ponies. Their eyes weren't on me, though; they were on the sky, each one with a terrified expression plastered on their face. A moment later, Fluttershy sank down onto her knees, quivering, and Rainbow Dash even plopped down onto the ground.

"We're getting massive energy fluctuations from the unknown vessel. They're deploying some kind of energy shield," the radio crackled. Confirming this, one of the vessels on the hologram was had stayed back from the rest of the fighting, a huge cone of green extending over the fighting ships and heading right into the planet. I, along with the other soldiers who hadn't yet, looked up.

"May the Lightbringer save us," Aran whispered, holding her hands to her chest..

Lighting up the smoky grey storm clouds from behind, the evening sky had turned a dull, swirling green. The green energy lowered itself down the horizon, dripping like hot lava over the city, and stopping only when it covered everything in its shell.

"We're trapped," Ganymede announced. "Well then. That kind of puts a wrench in our plans."

"Quite a downer," San said blankly, scratching the back of his neck.

"Right after Jackson's nice speech, too," Pinkie added, the two sharing a short look. A moment later, the soldiers around us burst into action, as if they hadn't already. Hovering trucks were driven off, dropships flew to and from the landing pads at the bottom tiers, and shouted orders came from the admirals.

"Care to explain what just happened?" Applejack asked, still staring at the green sky with wide eyes. "Cause I don't like the looks of it."

"They just dropped a solid energy shield around us. Probably two-way, so we can't escape, and nothing can get in," I explained, taking a deep breath afterward. I rubbed at my face with one hand, looking over at the empty flag-pole that still stood proudly. The line of soldiers had turned to face it. "They're going to use that to their fully advantage. Things just got a heck of a lot more complicated for us."

"One of the carriers just slipped past. It looks like it's releasing. We're counting at least a hundred and sixty or so - maybe ninety of them are dropships. All of them are heading straight to Ophelius. ETA one minute thirty seconds."

I took a few more deep breaths, looking back at the soldiers. Two of them nodded, walking toward the pole in the midst of the chaotic preparations. Rumbling past us went another forty soldiers, each one carrying a large tube-like gun with a battery pack on the back, blue lines glowing menacingly across it. They were led by the two quarreling captains from earlier, both showing no sign they remembered nor cared about the fight.

"I promised to keep you girls safe," I said under my breath. "That we wouldn't see any of the fighting."

The two soldiers at the flag pole opened a small box, reaching in to reveal a pure white fabric folded into a triangle. In unison, they pulled back their faceplate visors, and even through the roaring wind and stomping of boots I could hear them humming. Some of the admirals had paused, turning to watch, as had Applejack, Rarity, and Twilight. Rainbow Dash flew next to me and asked, "What are those guys doing?"

"There was a soldier," I whispered to her. Three other soldiers had noticed, and lifted their own visors to join in. "Back when they first invaded. Lieutenant Commander Reynolds. He became sort of an icon for the others, surviving all of the attacks and even living through the operation on Jut'Firek. They looked up to him." One of the soldiers unfolding the flag - an ur'luk man -began to sing in a low, chanting voice, and this time the rest of the soldiers in the group joined in the vibrating hum.

"A war comes, now raise the wings of gold."

"They were the first invasion force to make it all the way to Gantoris. I was there when we made the final stand against them," I said in a hushed voice, watching as more and more of the men stopped what they were doing to watch the flag bearers. "He wanted to raise some spirits. Set the mood. We were going up against an army with a scrapped together fleet with some of our best ships and fleets already turned into dust. So... he sang, and it caught on like wildfire. These men were all there. We all were."

"To strike our heart; to be so bold." More chimed in, and I looked over to see the admirals mouthing the words. In the far distance, I could see the first speckled dots of the invasion force burst through the clouds over the city. A swarm of death raining on the needling spires of Ophelius.

"GOD cannons are functional and preparing to fire. If we can get a straight shot at the shield-ship, their whole invasion fails," Ganymede announced. "Give them five to ten minutes to start up and we'll be in the clear."

"We must defend, our sole burden

To see the next light. Here, we hold."

"It's haunting," Twilight muttered, standing next to me as we watched the men attach the flags. "It's not at all like what the royal guard does in Canterlot. What happened to Reynolds?"

"The fleets arrive, and how great is their size

The fight has come, now the Wing must rise."

"He... well, after the battle, he was considered a hero. A lot of soldiers... I.... There was a silent pledge amongst us to sing it if Gantoris ever came under siege again. Nobody ever expected it to be so soon." I let loose a long sigh, eyeing the white and gold flag being hoisted. It caught on the wind halfway up, billowing outward, and there it stayed. Behind it, on a direct course to the towers, and consuming the entire skyline of the city, was the incoming fleet. Gnarled, black metal gleamed alongside deep green lines that streaked across the ships. Even the fire from the engines was a sickly green. Nobody made the jokes now, but a long time ago Admiral Uske had quipped that their fighters resembled a bunch of black and green hats if they had been shoved into a blender with one another. No one disputed it, but it didn’t make a fleet of them any less deadly.

"Heavies, take aim!" York shouted at front of the heavy troopers that had spread out along the tiers. In tandem, they hefted their massive weapons over their shoulders and in the general direction of the enemy. "Lock on, and prepare to fire!"

"I've got to get you girls out of here," I said, taking a couple steps back. Other than the humming and the steadily louder roar of engines, the only sound I could hear now were the shuffling of the men as guns were shouldered and aimed. Even Ganymede had picked up an errant rifle and readied it.

The wind howled. The men hummed. Nobody dared look away from the swarm coming at us in one great horde of blackness.

"Now men stand tall, lest we fall

Embrace the fire, now take flight."

Clover straightened up, holding his datapad's microphone to his mouth. "Fire at will."

Author's Note:

Over a month? Woops. I sure hope this one's length makes up for it, because this is where it all changes. We only have two chapters left until the end of the act, and wouldn't you know it, we're not even half done with the story itself. And can I just drop the words "OST. Soon." and leave it at that? I kind of rushed on the editing on this one, since I'm just trying to vomit it out at this point. If you spot anything, don't hesitate to tell me. Theories? Don't hesitate to spout them. Man, I really need an actual editor.