• Published 2nd May 2012
  • 5,107 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.

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(25) Promises Break You First

Author's Note:

Well.

Before you read, just know that this isn't the last addition to the story - at least wordcount wise. However, it is, necessarily, the end. Would it matter if I listed out the events that were planned to happen? Would it be more or less fun if I spoiled things, even a little, and let people's imaginations fill in - at least whoever is even left to read this thing.

I never forgot about it, not until I left for college. Even as I and my friends drifted from the fandom, I continued writing on and off with the hopes that someday I'd relearn how to churn out thousands of words a day. I never did. I still love writing, just not writing ponies. I got a degree in it, after all, so there is still some fondness (and also the eternal disgust that comes with an author looking upon an earlier work) for what it was.

What follows is the 26th and final chapter of the story. After it will be two revamped chapters that were intended to reboot the story a bit. Which, obviously, never happened. They include some deleted scenes and author's notes mixed in.

To anyone who reads this: do what you love, and don't be afraid to let it go.

-The Homebound
-Forty five minutes before The Spectrum Event.
-Ophelius, Gantoris
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“I want eyes on our forces up top,” Aaro barked, storming through the hallways. The ponies followed him. Even with one arm strapped to his chest, the alien held a space in the room twice his size. “Set up a communications network with the other ships docked and under fire in our area as well as any soldiers defending.”

He stopped in the middle of his tirade, turning toward an arbitrary crewman saluting along the wall. “As for you, get a VALK point in this ship in the next five minutes. Fab it new if you have to.” The man nodded, then sprinted down the hall like his rear end was aflame.

“But what about Rainbow?” Twilight asked, the collective bulging, adorable eyes of her friends seemingly begging the same question. “She’ll be okay, right?”

“Depends,” the draxian said, leading them up the Homebound’s stairwell and into the second deck. “From what Admiral San just sent me, she managed to sneak into Amber’s fighter instead of some militia pilot’s. In my professional opinion, at worst she’ll only get a little bit sick, even with the inertial dampeners.”

“I assume the good Captain Amber is an excellent pilot, then?” Rarity asked, peering around Twilight’s side. “I see no other reason for him to forgo captaining this vessel, if I may be honest.”

“You may,” Aaro said, stopping alongside a seemingly arbitrarily potted plant. “Blasted idiot, leaving this in the design,” he muttered, pressing a button on the wall. A mechanical arm jutted out, seized the pot, and dragged it into a small opening. He looked back to the ponies. “She’ll be fine. I’m not sure if Captain Amber explained this to you, but the Wing is iconic for having the best fighter pilots in the galaxy. Even those militia pilots he’s leading will have suitable skills behind the stick.”

A warning light bleeped on his wrist-mounted datapad. Looking it over, his eyes narrowed to slits. “I’m needed in engineering. Apparently the moron decided to try and install some new hardware in the middle of an invasion. Stay here. I’ll be back.”

“Got it,” Twilight said, moving aside. She turned to look back at her friends, lined up behind her like foals in school. Everypony kept their eyes glued to the Admiral’s back as he stomped off. They’d stopped just short of the bridge, where against all reason there was a large window - currently closed by a gigantic metal shutter - on one side, and doors leading to the captain’s quarters, navigation room, and a locked room they hadn’t been allowed into.

Inexplicably, next to where the potted plant was, sat a cushioned bench large enough to accommodate six ponies and one baby dragon. Nopony moved until Aaro’s echoed footsteps and inevitable shouting were muffled by the ship’s hull.

Spike hopped off of Twilight’s back to the bench, planting himself on the edge and propping his head on one hand. “Geez. What a grouch. I feel sorry for whoever he’s yelling at.”

“Give ‘im a break. This whole world is being invaded, remember?” Applejack said, taking her own place on the bench.

“Oh, right,” the dragon said, sinking into the bench and looking away. Half of his face found itself buried in the crook of one arm. “My bad for forgetting that little bit of info,” his muffled voice said.

Twilight sat next to him. “It’s okay, Spike. We’re all under a lot of stress right now. He and Amber are both soldiers, like the Royal Guard back in Canterlot. This is… to them, this is like how applebucking is for Applejack.”

“I want to go home,” he muttered into his arm. A lavender hoof slid over his shoulder, and Twilight leaned on him. The group seemed to collectively take a breath.

“We all do,” she whispered. “Nothing went as planned, and it’s high time we went back to Equestria. We are going to make it home, even if I have to fly this strange ship myself.” She quickly bit her lip, narrowing her eyes. “I’m sure there’s a how-to manual somewhere.”

“Just think of it this way,” Pinkie said, sidling up to Spike’s other side and giving him a lightspeed noogie. “We’re not back yet, but we’re going to be! It’s kind of like how you were eating breakfast this morning, and then suddenly-” She gripped Spike’s head and pressed it to hers. “Wham! Explosions!” she exclaimed in bold.

He pulled his head back with an audible pop, straightening back into his seat. “Right…. I guess that makes sense. Sure, things look bleak now, but we’ll be home in no time.”

“Unfortunately,” Applejack interrupted, “no time at all doesn’t exist. It’s gonna take all of us to get back to Equestria, workin’ together. I get the feelin’ we ain’t about to fly straight back without some kinda disaster, the rate things are goin’.”

“Well I for one know that together, we can face anything,” Rarity announced, sighing inwardly. “We redeemed Princess Luna together, stopped Discord together, and I’m certain we can handle this together, for as long as it takes.”

The group nodded in succession, a series of ‘yeahs’ and ‘you betcha’s’ wafting about the place like swarming butterflies. Only grey metal sat behind the window, lit only by the thrumming blue lines along the wall, but for the moment, the green grass and bright blue skies of Equestria were there. It was just as they’d left it.

Fast steps ended the vision, and all turned to see Aaro arrive from the stairwell, a deep-set frown in the middle of settling into neutrality. “Well” he said, stopping before them. “I am certainly glad that the bench he wasted budget money on is seeing some use. Anyway, most of the crew is in the bridge. Ensign Lilian was just in the engine room performing some sort of inspection on the power core, and those two guardsmen are in the hangar bay for the moment.” He shoulders drooped a bit, and he aimed himself for the bridge door. “Come on.”

One at a time, the ponies and dragon shuffled off the bench and into a single-file line only an intoxicated man or a sadist could appreciate. Twilight quirked an eyebrow at Aaro. “So, if I may ask, what was the problem?”

Aaro scoffed. “Captain Amber erred. He said he was putting in several modifications to the Homebound. He specifically said it was intended to make any future trips with your kind a bit more enjoyable. Pony-shaped chairs, more accessible bathroom controls, a more inclusive ration menu.” He stopped at the door, turning to face them while a code pad extended from the wall. “Security measure,” he quickly explained.

“So then what went wrong?” Twilight asked.

The draxian rolled his eyes at an invisible Jackson, and jabbed the access code into the panel. “He failed to mention the sixteen tight-beam cannons included in the ‘pony-friendly’ upgrade package. So much for subtlety.”

“Oh,” Twilight said, scrunching up her mouth and settling into silence. The door do the bridge slid open.

“Wait,” Applejack said, holding up a hoof. “That’s bad?”



***


I sucked in another breath of air, venomous words streaming from my mouth like an erupting volcano.

“Totally hear the horse-chick out, man,” San’s voice buzzed in my comset. “She’s a bit rough around the edges, but I don’t blame her wanting to see the legendary Amber himself in his natural habitat.”

I gagged, choking out my next words in a rasp.

“Hear… her… out?” I hissed, glaring perfectly round holes into the fighter’s cockpit view and into the storm beyond. My wide eyes swiveled, followed by my head, then my torso, and landed squarely on the stupid blue bird-brain sitting in my co-pilot’s chair. “If she was a normal civilian I would’ve shot her by now and dumped her over the city! I know you think all of this is some big joke, Admiral, but I’m supposed to be protecting this moron, not letting it ride with me on not just a potentially deadly mission, but a positively one-hundred-percent we’re-damned-if-we-fail last-ditch-effort?

I sucked in another deep, stale breath, and faced the front. I’d managed to, at least, switch to a secure com-channel before the explosion; my lucky, lucky squadron wasn’t getting an earful of a man who yells at the galaxy’s most powerful people as a hobby, and shoots them as a job. Bonus points since the blue-wonder realized she’d screwed up and kept her mouth shut.

For a long while, long enough for the shipyards below us to turn into the docking area, San, for once, said nothing.

“You fucked up,” I said to nobody in particular, but I knew who I meant.

Clenching the controls, my pale hands turned whiter, and I sucked in through my teeth. Rainbow shuffled around in her seat. “Don’t talk, kid,” I snapped the moment I heard a sharp intake of breath from her.

“Man…” San started, his downcast eyes palpable even from where I sat. “I know it’s bad. Not saying what she did was right, but it’s done. Turn back now and you lose your ship, and we lose our best hope of saving the millions of people in this city, let alone the billions on this world and the trillions in Wing space. When it comes to command decisions, above all else-”

“- don’t let your anger control you,” we both said at once.

“Remember Hazar,” San finished.

“Jackson-” Rainbow started.

“Shut. Up. I am Captain Amber to you from now on,” I ordered, filtering my anger into my grip on the controls. It wouldn’t go away, but I would put it to good use. “From this point forward, you do not speak unless spoken to. You do not touch the controls. You do not scream when, not if, we are faced with a dire situation. You follow any of my orders to the letter and the punctuation marks. Am I clear?” I turned to face her, and she winced under my glare.

“Uh… were you serious about that thing you said you’d do to my wings and my-”

“Am I clear, Ambassador Dash?”

“Yes, uh, sir- Captain Amber.” The pegasus, to her credit, didn’t shrink back or wither down to nothing, but she did avoid my eyes. Lastly, not as if it were an afterthought, but as if it were her sole purpose in life, she said, “I’m sorry.”

I muttered, after a moment of contemplation, “this isn’t over, Miss Dash.” Sliding back into place, I ran my hands over the controls, hoping I hadn’t set us a few degrees off-course in my tirade. Both squadrons had slowed, on San’s order, and I silently thanked him for the extra time. “We’ll talk after this. For now, all I demand is that you stay safe and do as I say. I promised I’d get you back to Equestria, and I’m not breaking it. And… no, I didn’t mean it.”

San chuckled in a curiously light-hearted way. “It’s probably worth mentioning that I’ve never heard Amber make a threat he lacked the capability of pulling off. Something about honor.”

Shaking my head, I sunk down a bit in my seat. “Whatever, Admiral. Let’s… let’s just get back onto a normal channel and shoot some bad guys. We’re coming up on the group above the frigate-docks.”

“Yeah, yeah. For the record, that little ‘joke’ comment earlier, I could shoot you for grievous insubordination and dump you out over the city, but right now I need you to shoot bad guys… so, you know, stay focused, okay? People are dying out there - real people, not just statistics like we’ll get on the after-action report. That little bit of wisdom goes for you too, rainbow chick. This isn’t a game.”

“I know.” I did. Rainbow said nothing, and she didn’t have to.

“Awesome. Let’s get back on the main channel,” San said, no doubt flicking a few switches and sending us back to the land of the living. I could feel the engines rumble, and both squadrons increased their speed back to normal. In the end, it was all just “fast” to me.

“All elements, this is Gold Leader,” San announced to our insignificant few fighters. “Interior situation has been dealt with, and we’re about to engage. Squadron leaders will prepare their fighters. Isolating channels for check-in. Everyone double-check your kinetics and VALKs.”

I turned my head to the side, looking through the haze of grey clouds to the city beyond. Rain, rash and angry, smashed against the cockpit. Wind pushed and battered at my craft. I was nothing alone to the elements, but in here, suddenly, I could do anything. The good old tin can.

“This is Red Leader, Hero, marking in.”

“This is Red Two, Witch Doctor, marking in.”

Ophelius was the kind of city that when you uttered the question, “is it big?” a native would laugh and shake their head. I’m not an expert, but I’m pretty sure people have around a hundred degrees of horizontal binocular vision. It’s not enough to take in the city. Most of it is made up of towers, too. When they built to the edges of the territory, when the boundaries of the wildlife conservations finally sealed them in their little pocket of civilization, they built up, and they kept building up for years and years.

I looked out at the white towers, who once gleamed in the sunlight of the greatest civilization after the humans. Crafted with such love for the world, for life. Now clouded by the shadow of a nightmare’s fear, without a light to be seen. Everyone was trying to evacuate.

“This is Red Three, Action, marking in.”

“This is Red Four, Dock, marking in.”

It was so big, even up in the clouds and at the edge, in the dockyards districts, I couldn’t see it all. It stretched from horizon to horizon like the lower jaw of the planet itself, if perhaps the planet were desperate for a good dentist.

“This is Red Five, Hype, signing in.”

“It’s marking in, you moron. Do it right.”

The entire city fell to the darkness of war’s flame. It licked up the side of every tower and brought them down to its hungry maw. Bursts of unnatural fire appeared in the streets and buildings, barely visible through the howling storm. We didn’t have the manpower to occupy so much space, so that just meant they weren’t taking prisoners.

“This is Red Six, Salty, marking in.”

“This is Red Seven, Fish, marking in.”

White towers fell.


* * *

“Sector Eleven, Jamse & Lolith hit. Two buildings down, another critically damaged. VALK point there lost. VALK point at Talboro & Silas activated.” A dull, monotone voice continued speaking in the overhead, accompanied by a word-for-word ticker playing above the map currently displayed on the bridge screen. On it, inlaid in deep blue lines over a black background, sat the infinitely massive layout of Ophelius, somehow captured between four corners.

Like a virus, red encroached on the blue, building by building, block by block.

“Hangar A-Fifteen just went silent,” Aran announced from the communications postl. For the past ten minutes, she’d been counting down from twenty-five, her voice growing more concerned the closer to eleven they invaders got.

Evo sat at the navigation panel, currently dedicated to sending out various orders from one of the most powerful men in the galaxy sitting right behind him. Roland and Dylan stood at the doorway, while Lilian stayed behind in the engines.

Once active, the halls of the ship stayed barren and silent. Mechanics cleared out, most grabbing what they could from the armory and heading to the front lines. Guards stayed, eyes always around the corner, and anyone else around seemed to be preoccupied with monitoring things on their own.

“Message from Admiral Ganymede,” Aran said. “He’s been forced from his position near GOD-One by enemy air support. Admiral Zalthice’s apparently leaving the entrance to the docks to provide support for him.”

“We can’t lose the potential support of the frigates stationed in the docks, and that’s not even mentioning the civilian ships that are there.” His mechanical fist clenched, pressing into the chair’s armrests. “Zalthice is to return to the docks. Ganymede’s a big boy and can shoot his own targets.”

Aran’s eyes widened after a second. “He’s said for you to do something unmentionable with those rubbish needle-swords of yours, sir.” Her eyes widened further, and she coughed into one fist. “Um, his words, not mine. Sir.”

“That’s alright, Miss V!los,” Aaro said, pronouncing her name with the dictionary-like dedication to accuracy. “Just continue keeping an eye on things. Evo?”

“Yes, Admiral sir?”

“Triple-check that those evacuation orders are being sent through the proper channels. It looks like a lot of our routes are being attacked. Devoting resources to protecting them is draining our manpower and I’d hate to have to shoot someone over an info leak.”

“Aye, si-”

“Hangar A-Fourteen is down.”

Twilight turned from the scene, and the ensuing scramble from Aran’s newest statement. Seven chairs lined the back wall, fitted to support ponies and baby-dragons alike. Plush cushioning contrasted them from the hard-back seats the crew used; it was meant to relax them. Instead they shifted on them, squirming as if gravel filled the pillows instead of foam.

“I was so excited about helping redesign those drab uniforms, too,” Rarity mused, pursing her lips at the drab display of grey-and-greyer outfits. “They really could do with gold trimming near the bottom and shoulders.”

Applejack quirked an eyebrow at Rarity, then turned back to Twilight. “Sugarcube, how can ‘ya read at a time like this?”

“There is literally no time where reading would be considered inappropriate,” the unicorn replies, not looking up from the thick cover of a weather-beaten tome.

“Uh,” Fluttershy said from beside Twilight. Dirtied pink hair fell over her eyes, and she peered over her friend’s shoulder. “I don’t mean to push, Twilight… but I’m pretty sure there are. Is that a spellbook?”

“Yup.”

This time, Applejack interrupted. “Where did ‘yah get a spellbook from?”

“Celestia. Now hush, I’m taking Jackson’s advice and studying a shield spell.”

The farmpony blinked, mouth hanging open. “But we’re like a, a, a big number away from Equestria!”

Twilight grinned, stealing a rare glance at her friend and lowering the book. “I know! I never get to use big numbers in distances. I’m so excited Celestia and I got to test just how far we can reach each other from via Spike!” The smile stayed, but she returned to her place on the page. “But I really need to memorize this equation, otherwise it goes from a shield spell to a and-something-really-bad-happens-to-physics-but-mostly-us spell…. Shields are hard.”

“Hangar A-Thirteen just got pushed back,” Aran said in the background. Aaro said nothing, grimacing, but his eyes trailed to where Twilight sat, eying the spellbook for a moment.

Rarity nudged Fluttershy with one hoof. The pegasus, silent for most of what had happened, looked away from the grim spectacle that was the haphazard center of command. “And how are you holding up, dear? I suppose all of us are rather used to excitement by now, but-”

Fluttershy wrapped her arms around Rarity in a hug, and drew her in close enough for their faces to press against each other comically. “Thank you.”

Her white hoof, dulled by the harsh light of the ship, stroked the mangled remains of Fluttershy’s typically soft mane, and Rarity sighed before pulling away. “In all of this, and I forgot to ask you how you were holding up, dear.”

Fluttershy glanced at the ground, the hint of a smile starting upon her face, lips curling upward. “I’m okay. It’s scary, but I’m not hurt.”

“But dear Fluttershy!” Rarity exclaimed, shrinking down when Aaro glared over at them. She continued in an terse whisper, “You might not be hurt physically - besides the horrifying destruction of your beautiful mane, and how your nice coat seems a shade darker from all of the soot and dirt… and.” She blinked rapidly, shaking her head. “What I mean to say is that you can still be hurt in here.” Tapping a hoof over where her heart would be, she tilted her head at her friend.

“How are you, Fluttershy?” she repeated.

“Hangar A-Twelve is gone. Reverting to our Valkyrie Device,” Aran said amidst a flurry of motions. “Militia’s regrouping.”

“Scared,” she muttered, hanging her head. “All of this is so… terrifyingly big. I thought Canterlot was big when I first went there, and for a long time Cloudsdale was my entire world. I was happy in Ponyville. It’s nice and small there and there were never any world-destroying monsters that wanted to make eternal night or plunge us all into chaos!” She rapidly sucked in air, pressing her mane to the sides of her head. “I didn’t even know that Equestria was round!”

“What?” Twilight whispered from her seat, looking up. “How did-”

“This has been a learning experience for all of us,” Rarity interjected. “For instance. I’ve discovered that fashion apparently does not exist outside of Equestria, or... sewing itself, for that matter. None of us could have ever imagined some of the insane things we’ve seen in only a week.”

“Ooh!” Pinkie exclaimed, her head winding around Rarity’s and popping up behind her mane. “Like that time I got to see the kitchens in the big tower place!” The rest of her body snapped-to with a twang and she spread her forehooves out wide. “They had a batter mixer big enough to make like a gazillion cupcakes! Twenty-two times in one batch!” Wonder in the form of gleaming, twinkling stars reflected on the earth pony’s bulbous eyes.

“That’s nice, Pinkie,” Rarity started. “But this really isn’t about that.”

“Or that time with the teleporter!” She waved her forelegs around in arbitrary emphasis. “Tel-eh-por-ter!”

“We can already teleport, and when did you do anything with a teleporter on this trip?” Rarity asked. “Because none of us knew anything about a teleporter.”

“Or when that nice Uske-guy explained how he’s a clone of a clone or something! Equestria can’t do anything like that!”

Aaro’s head seemed to turn a full 360 degrees and his mouth gaped. “San did what?” He spun the rest of his chair around and stared at her. “When did he tell you this?”

Pinkie ignored him and performed her best impression of a two-legged scary monster, wiggling her hooves and everything. “Oo-oor, that time he said he…” she continued on, listing out a series of feats ranging from hunting down and destroying world-obliterating monstrosities to crashing a fighter because a planet was in his way.

“When did she find the time to talk at length with that Admiral?” Rarity asked nobody in particular.

“And how did the universe survive?” Aaro mused, for the moment distracted from his duty; a welcome thing, if the relaxed slouching of his once strictly horizontal shoulders indicated. The reports of destruction had briefly slowed from lightspeed to a mile per minute.

“Sir,” Aran called out. Aaro turned to face her, and she continued. “I’m getting a power fluctuation from-”

The lights ceased to be, and all was dark.


***


“Delta-Ten code, mark multiple down and incoming, over.”

“Confirmed. Interception in two minutes, and I’m counting a little over a dozen. Can somebody confirm, over?”

I drilled my eyes into the holo-radar, quickly counting them out. “This is Hero One. I count sixteen heavy fighter-craft, Kestril-class, same as in the Dectavian Crisis War. They’re swarming above our target’s position. Two squads of infantry below. Chances of anti-air is minimal but don’t take risks.” I glanced over at the collective green blips of my allies, ignoring the shuffling behind me that signalled a certain nosy pegasus trying to get a peek over my shoulder.

“Gold Squadron has what looks like sixteen over their target as well,” I said. “All Reds are to revert to Haze Strike formation. Contact in two minutes, and remember to fire on my mark. Keep the comms clear, stay safe, and remember, have fun.”

Slamming down the mic’s off button like there was a spider on it, I swung around to glare laser beams at my passenger. “What the hell do you think you’re doing?”

“I just wanted to see what you were looking at!” she shot back. “If I’m here I might as well know what’s going on.”

“Listen. You want to know what’s going on, then don’t look at the controls, look at the skyline and the rapidly disappearing buildings.”

“I-” she faltered, looking past the glowing controls to the fading, flickering, and flashing horizon. “I didn’t-”

“We have VALKs,” I said, turning in my seat so I could look her in the eye, even if she could only see what was behind the cockpit glass. “We have them standard. Civilians don’t. Regular people do not get a free pass.” I turned back around, shutting my eyes. “They just….”

“But I just want to help.”

“Oh, so you want to help now do you? You sound just like me when I was an idiotic kid. ‘I just want to help.’ What…” I sucked in a breath, shaking my head. The words tumbled around in my head, desperate for purchase in my mouth. “You can’t-” I choked back the inevitable expletive.

She reminded me of me. Almost twenty years ago, staring at the first spaceship to touch down on my homeworld in over a millennia, the captain and his crew stepping out and squinting up at the sun, light gleaming off their uniform badges so bright, and at just the right angle. Sequestered in my heart was that single, precious memory, suddenly exploding from its tomb.

“Okay,” my mouth said without my permission. “You can help. I’ll show you what to do. I could use a copilot in this thing anyway.”

Rainbow Dash said nothing, her mouth hanging a virtual explosion of amazement.

“Yes. I’m serious.” I nodded at the radar, a spherical hologram that turned with the horizontal of my ship, resulting in a slightly wibbly bunch of red dots in the far front, and yellow to the sides. I rattled off a few basic facts about it, meanwhile checking over the diagnostics of the local tin-can.

“Okay, so, just keep an eye on that and tell you if any of the red bad-guys start doing funky stuff, like trying to slip behind us?” Rainbow asked, having shoved herself so far forward she was on the verge of putting her front hooves in my lap. I checked, we had a full minute left.

“Not just that. I need you to also….” I directed her to a few power meters, designed to show, primarily, what system of the ship was under the most pressure. That included the weapons, shields, and even basic life-support.

The KT-44 Solis fighter, a whale compared to the sleek designs of the Wing’s older fighter-craft, was designed for one purpose, and one purpose only: to blow stuff up. On the forms and other official documents, I designated it a heavy fighter-craft with a very specific set of credentials that of course could be rounded up to “it blows stuff up.” Two rotund, tubular plasma cannons ran down each side, all the way past the frontal cockpit. A launched, highly explosive energy-based missile launched from an undermounted device, and could do so at the absolutely dangerous rate of ten per minute. The wings, engines, and what was referred to in the world of spaceship engineer as the fiddly bits, were all located in the rear.

It made dogfights, as San would put it, “hella cool”. That’s an exact quote.

“So what happens when those red dots get to our dot again?” Rainbow asked, interrupting me in the middle of my speech about the importance of heat sinks in a ship with plasma weapons.

“Well, I press this button, it locks onto a target, and then I press this button, which makes them go boom.” I pointed to each control in turn, leaning out of the way to let her see.

“I was just checking, since they’re almost touching right now.”

I blinked, and looked straight ahead at the mass of sixteen huge ships that looked like someone had made an umbrella out of rusty nails. Our two forces were flinging themselves at one another at an impact speed near the speed of sound.

“Oh.” I flipped on my headset with one hand, and switched off the safety with my other. “Go ahead and fire," I told my pilots.

“Good T’los finally!” someone cheered. “I-” Whatever they were about to say, I didn’t listen, I just fired.

The sound of the plasma cannons on a solis fighter had a curious whup sound. A few of the soldiers stupid enough to try to get on my bad side referred to them as whuppers because of this.

Whupwhupwhupwhup, they went, and so went the rest of the fleet. Blue fire sprayed out like a tidal wave.

“Are you trying to ram them or something?” Rainbow shouted over the noise and shaking of the cockpit. Bulbous eyes squinted at the onyx black abominations in the distance. A distance rapidly closing. She shuffled her way farther forward, her head placed next to mine.

“Sort of. Buckle in,” I said, letting loose another hail of fire. Each sailed past my target, a heavy vessel in the middle of their squadron, each missing by one millimeter less. “Ha! Yes!” A blue burst exploded against the fighter’s shields, followed by a few more for good measure. No matter how much tech you could pile into a fighter, shields could only do so much before they faltered and failed.

“Sort of?!” She hadn’t moved.

“Gold Squadron,” I said over the comms, “pick your targets and up your inertials. Backstab maneuvers, go.” Two more flashes on my target, and this time he’d spotted me back. Green retaliation poured forth.

“Evasives.” I twisted the controls, and the ship twisted around the deadly plasma. Rainbow thudded against the roof. “What did I just say?”

“I’m on it, I’m on it. Okay?” she called back, followed shortly by a buckle's recognizable click. “Ow.”

“Shut up. This is my favorite part.”

Gold and grey met black and green in the world’s most violent looking bird migration ever, as seen from the ground. I cut the big engines. We didn’t stop flying, but the humming ceased, and that terrifying knowledge of impending doom settled in the stomach.

“What did you just do?”

A grin spread across my face at the approximate speed of light. It didn’t stop there, and traveled down my face to my chest, a tingling sensation that merged with the previous anger I’d held close. “My favorite part.” My entire body grinned, thrumming with energy.

Pulsating fire erupted before me, arcing toward my opponent, and we stayed the course of our deadly joust. The only difference was that he was diving down at my ship at an increasingly steep angle. I mouthed the seconds as they passed. “Five, four.”

“You’re going to get us killed! I thought you were supposed to be good at flying these things,” Rainbow shouted from her newly buckled-in position.

“Three, two.”

She leaned forward, face pressed up against the side of my headrest. “Are you even listening?”

“One.” I yerked the sticks back and engaged my favorite in-atmosphere tactic: air-drifting. Sideways thrusters twisted our ship on any axis I chose, and at that particular moment, I chose to spin us around and aim at the rear of the black fighter.

“Gotcha.” I pressed a button of the large and inviting variety on the left stick, and green destructive force burst from the frontal cannon, right into the already weakened shields of the enemy craft. Amidst the ensuing explosion, what remained of the ship slowly fell to the ground in every direction, spinning circles in the dark sky.

Each of the ships in my squadron pulled, or attempted to pull, the same thing. Three ships spun out of control, either via getting clipped by the sword-like wings of the Kestrils, or out of their own incompetence. Everyone else either obliterated their enemy as I had, or did enough to overload the shields.

“Witch Doctor here. Confirmed kill, over.”

“Hype here. Confirmed kill, over.”

The reports flooded in, one by one. The fighter next to me, Gold Three, missed entirely with the last shot. “I’ve got you covered, Action, over,” I said, twisting my fighter about and engaging the main thrusters. My new target wasn’t stupid; he held the dive, and I noticed the few other survivors held too, reforming on the way down. The rest seemed to scatter in random directions, just begging to be picked off.

“Action, form up on my right flank and get ready to focus fire,” I ordered, cracking my neck to the side. Holographic targeting reticules followed a fast lock onto my prey, and even the inertial dampeners couldn’t stop the G’s from pressing me into my seat.

“Jackson,” Rainbow said breathlessly, similarly affected.

“Not now, I’m trying to kill stuff,” I hissed through my teeth, guiding my targets over the jittery lock-on and waiting for confirmation from Action.

“Um… it’s important, I think. There’s red-things behind you.”

My eyes widened, and I jerked my head to the radar. The supposedly random, panicking pilots were meant to look just like that, and now two had slipped under, and were likely looking through their own targets at my rear end.

“Action, pull out,” I shouted, twisting the sticks into an evasive turn. Two plasma bolts slammed against my shields, each time revealing the spherical blue field, but the rest flew past to the ground below. I leveled off into a wide turn, pumping the engines. “Thanks for the warning,” I sputtered out to Rainbow.

Action’s solis fighter turned in the opposite direction, then swerved into a corkscrew that ended with him pointed right at his unlucky assassin. I mimicked his actions, and pulled the trigger against the surprised face of my own pursuer. Five bolts, this time, but I took the punishment, because in the game of who-dies-first jousting, I’m a dirty cheater.

I spun to the right, just as Witch Doctor blew past, the remains of the Kestril tumbling through the air right behind, exploding a few seconds later. “Thanks, Witch.”

“No problem. I’ve got these stragglers, sir, over.”

We rose a bit, and let the ship level out. After a moment, Rainbow muttered, “Wow.”

“Yeah?”

“That was awesome.” I looked back to see her smiling the width of the horizon.. “Insane, but awesome.”

“It was easy,” I corrected, shooting her a glare. “We had the advantage and utilized it. There are still enemy fighters out there, and we’ve lost the element of surprise.” The squadron, arrayed like a green blood splatter across the radar, finally drew itself back into formation around my ship. White-noise reports of a similar victory echoed from San’s group.

“So what? You guys are all better than those idiots. You can win.” She shrugged off my glare with a smirk. “I have no idea how these hunks of ugly metal do their flying, but I know aces when I see one. Why didn’t you tell me you were so good at flying?”

I turned my attention back to the front, and made sure my squadron couldn’t hear what I said next. “I know these people look like they know what they’re doing, but like I said, that was easy. These aren’t Wing pilots. They’re militia who’ve only read about flying in these hunks of ugly metal and thought to themselves, ‘gee, those Wing pilots are so lucky to be flying in those beautiful pieces of machinery.’” I shook my head, the throbbing anger I felt toward the intrusive pony making itself known. “As for myself. I don’t like to brag, but....”

Unphased by my grim remark, Rainbow leaned forward, the smirk widening. “But what?”

I stared forward. For this entire event I’d been torn between being absolutely pissed at the entire universe and accepting life for what it was and rolling with the punches, being happy with them, playing along. I’d promised myself I’d give Rainbow a chance, and now I had the choice to either revoke that promise or deal with it later.

Her grin, virulent as it was, spread to me. “But before San made himself known to be the invincible sodding anomaly he is, I was probably the best pilot in the Wing.”

She laughed, sitting back into her seat. “Okay, cool. I will definitely have to ask you for some awesome flying-shooty stories after we’re done not, uh, flying and shooty-ing.” She swallowed. “Sorry about that, again.”

“It’s fine,” I said without thinking. I glanced over the status of our communications, speakers muted or reduced to white-noise flicking on and off in a corner of the display. The lack of response from the ground, especially the ships, worried me, but I kept my thoughts elsewhere. In the meantime, I waited for the squadron to form back up on me.

“But seriously,” she said, clapping her hooves together, “I mean, don’t take this too personally, but I did pay attention in at least flying class. I know my aerodynamics, and it’s pretty obvious your ship thing doesn’t, because it’s breaking them.” She paused and allotted me just enough time to quirk my eyebrow at the console in front of me. “So how in the hay did you seriously do that?”

Without missing a beat, I turned my head to her and winked. “Magic.”


***


“Extremely useful,” Aaro muttered, his face barely visible in the pale purple light emitting from Twilight’s horn. He nodded toward her in thanks, his good hand rubbing at his chin. After a second, his eyes gazed out to the crew.

“Thank you,” she said, smiling.

Every member of the crew simultaneously turned their flashlights on, bright orbs that glowed blue from a point on their datapads. Stark silhouettes sprayed across the walls, and worried looks glanced around the room, bar a smug looking Aaro.

“Almost a fifty percent increase in response time. Good job,” he said, standing up and turning to the crew. “Ensign V!los, reconnect us with communications. You two.” He pointed to Roland and Dylan. “Head to the hangar bay and stand guard. That was Ensign Lilian’s last known location, since she was in charge of setting up the Valkyrie Device.”

The two combat-ready ensigns saluted, their faces uncharacteristically rigid and their gazes looking through their commander. Twilight watched as they casually slung laser carbines, weapons of death, from their backs and jogged toward the door, expressions unmoved.

Aran turned back to her station, but with the hologram controls gone, she slid a portion of her datapad off her wrist - he top screen designed to look like a soft rectangle - and placed it on the emitter. A smaller holopanel rose from it, and she typed furiously on the hovering keyboard.

“Now,” Aaro said, frowning. “Ensign Evo, you have the controls. Contact me when Ensign V!los gets through, and for T’los’ sake somebody figure out why our emergency power hasn’t turned on!” He moved over to Aran, letting Evo rush to the desolate captain’s chair, and began instructing her in hushed whispers.

Rarity lowered her head and leaned toward Twilight. “Is this normal?” she whispered.

Twilight pursed her lips inward, then shook her head. “I don’t think so, especially because if what I’ve learned is correct, if this actually happened while in space, we’d, uh, be in real danger of... not living.”

“Correct,” Aaro interrupted, appearing from thin air before them and leaning over the purple unicorn. “Miss Sparkle, I’d like you to accompany me to the engine room.”

Twilight raised her eyebrows, searching his eyes for a hint to his intentions. Her friends shared the look, and Pinkie added a dramatic gasp and fake faint to mix things up a bit. “Why? Isn’t there fighting going on outside?”

He shrugged. “I’m going to the engine room to check things out, because I’m, you know, an engineer. One who specializes in generators far more capable than the low-tech fusion quad-”

“Fusion?” Rarity asked.

“It works like a star,” he explained.

Pinkie gasped again. “This thing runs on stars! That’s, like, the coolest thing ever!”

Twilight narrowed her eyes. “Okay, discarding how incredible that five-word statement is and the implications of dubbing it ‘low-tech’, if you’re specialized in something else, how will you be effective at diagnosing a problem with these engines?”

The draxian blinked, then narrowed his own eyes with double the intensity. “Just follow me. The reactors are heavy and I am missing an arm. Levitation is useful."

She rolled her eyes, but stood up and addressed him, albeit with buckets of sarcasm dripping off her muzzle. “Aye aye, Admiral.” Her features softened when she turned to her friends. “I’ll be back, girls. Stay safe.”

“You too, Twilight,” Fluttershy said, waving her friend goodbye. The admiral and unicorn left, the door sliding closed with no less finality than normal, no matter the heavy, sweaty air that settled over the bridge.

All that remained was Aran, four ponies, and a baby dragon only marginally more terrified than them and just as bad at hiding it. Normally smooth faces stared at unimportant objects, eyes stretched open and expressions muted with the seriousness of it.

A creak in the comm station’s chair drew their attention. “With the reactor gone, and no emergency power…” Aran started, just loud enough for the words to tickle their ears and force them to lean closer. “That means the VALK point is down. We had thirty militia soldiers defending topside. They haven’t reported in to confirm their status.”

“Which means?” Applejack asked, the tension in her voice winding upward. She stood up, looking wide eyed at the ensign. “Oh no. They ain't hurt, are they?”

"No, their VALKs would have locked on to the next nearest point. That's still nowhere near us, though."

“W-well,” Rarity sputtered, standing next to Applejack. “That can’t be the worst thing possible, could it? Those monsters would still have to get through to where we are, right? Does this vessels hangar not have that invincible metal door?”

“Nothing is invincible. It’s armored, sure, but it’s not even up, and without power, we can’t…” Aran stopped, her eyes bulging outward and her body tensing up with fear. “We can’t bring it up.”

“It’s a trap!” Pinkie screamed, bolting for the door. Aran followed, pistol gripped in one hand. Fluttershy, Rarity, and Applejack stood up and galloped out after the two.

Evo turned around in his chair, and stared at the empty room, then to his weapon-less holster. His expression fell, and he spun back around.

“Well okay. Here to man controls. That is only what Ensign Evo is good for,” he sighed, tapping at the useless hologram projector on the chair. “I…” he stopped short, propelling himself up by his arms and sprinting for the door. “Lilian!”

He blurred past the doors, the opening gap brushing past his uniform. Sharp footsteps pounded down the desolate grey hallways, and the bridge sat empty, other than a consistently light flickering above the communications panel.

Evo caught up with the ponies in moments, the group midway up the stairs to engineering. Applejack stopped, turning at the sound of his frantic breathing and relentless sprint. “Evo?” she called. “You okay?”

He didn’t stop at the stairs, choosing instead of leap down five at a time. “She is my sister!” he screamed.

Applejack’s pupils shrunk. For a split second, she looked back at her disappearing friends, each headed to Twilight, and then back to Evo sprinting down the stairs, two at a time. Without a word, she cantered down the rest of the steps, turned, and followed Evo to the hangar.

Blue light splashed across the walls of the hangar, centered on a few lone lanterns scattered across the ground. Sharp shadows slashed black across the walls from where cargo crates blocked the light.

“Evo?” Lilian asked. She, Dylan, and Roland all stood around one of the grey, square-shaped lanterns. The Fate hung from the ceiling above them, with the wheeled transport beside it. “Is something wrong? Other than the power, I mean.”

“Is trap!” Evo yelled, sprinting toward the end of the hangar. The blue energy field that usually blocked the exit no longer shimmered, instead replaced by the deep black of the powerless, empty building beyond. Only the edges of the bulky VALK point showed any signs of material existing beyond the ship. “We must close the hangar blinds!”

Evo skidded to a halt near the back right corner, where one of the rare manual, non-holographic panels sat embedded into the wall. The lights and buttons didn’t glow and gave no response when pressed. He panted, searching the wall. “Damn! We need power!”

Applejack stopped near the other three, who stared at Evo unmoving. “Are y’all alright?” she gasped, looking between Evo and his sister.

Lilian turned, narrowing her eyes at the pilot. “Of course we are. What’s he going on about this being a-” she stopped, standing stock still. “A trap.”

“The VALK,” Roland groaned. “We don’t have much time.” He nodded to Dylan, and they shouldered their carbines. Everyone moved toward Evo.

“Listen, it’s going to be impossible getting that thing lifted without power," Roland said. "We need to get to safety and wait for-” He jerked to the side, neon green light striking his shoulder like a train, or at least a regular bullet. He flew back as another bolt struck him square in the chest.

“Roland!” Dylan screamed, diving for his body. More green bolts streamed into the hangar, spattering against the back wall or the crates.

“Get to cover, all of you,” Lilian bellowed, her entire body visibly switching to a far more feral stance. Her eye glowered, her body straightened, and she moved with rigid, purposeful strides. Evo mirrored her, forgetting about the useless panel and springing for the pile of cargo crates nearby. Months of programmed combat training suddenly shone like beacons in their fierce eyes.

Sliding to a halt behind the crates, Applejack took in a few deep breaths. “We gotta warn the others!”

“I know. Dylan, send a message to-” Lilian stopped herself short, eyes widening. “Oh, right. Evo, you do that.”

Dylan crawled over to Roland’s body, the two hits against him smoking with a smell that tore into the nose and made her wish she had her helmet back. “Oh T’los no, please no,” she sputtered, stopping next to him and looking at his closed eyes. Plasma sprayed against the crate next to her, leaving a smouldering scorch in its wake.

Her land leapt to his throat, feeling for a pulse. “Come on, you big idiot…”

“Not here, sugarcube,” Applejack said, rushing out of cover to the prone duo. “I ain’t no military strategist, but I know this ain’t safe.” Her hooves slid against the rough ground, and she scooped up Roland’s form, letting him rest limply on her back. “Now let’s get outta here!”

Dylan shook her head, black ponytail swirling wildly, and jumped to her feet. “Go, I’ll cover you!” Spinning around, her thumb pressed against a lever on the side of the carbine, and she pulled on the trigger. Applejack watched from cover, Lilian already looking over Roland, as bright red lasers poured forth into the darkness amid the whirring, undulating mechanical hum of the device.

After the burst of automatic fire was over, Dylan let the gun drop to her side, and dove for the crates. The soldiers beyond the hangar returned fire, multiple shots grazing the ground behind her feet.

Panting, Dylan slammed her back against the crate, eyes drawn to Roland’s still body. “Is he alive?”

Lilian shook her head. “Yes but… Aran’s the medic. I don’t know what condition he’s in. What were you thinking just now, sitting out there like that?”

“I’ve known that man since I was a child. I am not leaving him,” Dylan snapped, lips curling upward into a snarl. “Besides, your brother ran down here to save you and I don’t see you complaining. Is anyone even in the bridge?”

“Uh, no?” Evo shrugged, eyes darting between Lilian and Roland. “Er, I-”

“Well that was incredibly stupid of you, not to mention against protocol,” she said, still staring at the prone form of Roland.

“I do not have pistol. Can I borrow-”

“Sure,” she said, unholstering her sidearm and holding it out for the pilot to grab.

“Ya know,” Applejack started, rubbing the back of her neck with a sheepish expression. “I ain’t one to criticize ‘yer policies, but ain’t it kinda dumb to put folk related to each other in the same, er, sort‘a military vessel on a mission?”

“She has point,” Evo said, inspecting the pistol. Not in a critical way, but in a way that implied he was putting off using it. “Who put mission team together was not the logical thinker.”

“Shut up, you three,” Dylan snapped. “You can ask the Premier when we aren’t getting shot at, and Roland is okay. For now, figure out a plan. I’ll lay down some fire.” The soldier cracked her neck, her grimace thickening, and turned past the crate’s corner, weapon at the ready.

Lilian nodded to Applejack and Evo. “She’s right. Evo, I need you to message either the Premier or Aran and tell them what’s happening.”

“On it.” He went to work on his datapad, typing furiously.

“Applejack, how good are you at moving heavy objects?”

The mare quirked an eyebrow. “You serious?”

“Do I look like I’m not?”

She shrugged, tensing her leg muscles. “Just tell me what and where.”

“‘Kay,” Lilian muttered, peering over the top edge of her cover. “The best idea I have is moving these crates around. As far as I know, none of them have explosives.” She tapped the one in front of her. “This one has medical supplies, I think. Or maybe extra bedsheets.”

“Ah hear ‘ya. Where you need me to push it?” Applejack said, eyeing the metallic square up. It was a little under the height of the pony, and a bit over half that of Lilian’s. Scratch marks marred the side where the loader had set it into place. Another spray of fire pelted the wall behind them, met in equal force by Dylan.

“Over there,” she replied, a finger pointed toward Evo’s side of the battle. He hadn’t fired a shot, or moved from his hunkered stance.

Applejack nodded, and without a word, spun on her front hooves, tucking in her back legs like a coiled spring.

“Wait, what are you doing?” Lilian asked, eyes bulging in alarm. “That’s not-”

Thwump. The crate landed next to Evo, teetering to one side before falling into place. The first of the middle column of cargo sat without a scratch. It now provided cover for half the distance between the wall and Evo. Another barrage of plasma slammed against the wall overhead.

“Ah, impressive legwork. I guess." Lilian deadpanned. "I don't have enough experience in the field to be a good judge. Also, uh, how is that possible?"

"Well, strength is one thing," Applejack said, sauntering over to the next crate in line for immediate positional transfer. "But if I just used my strength, that there buck would'a crushed the crate into splinters..."

"It's made of metal."

"So?"

Thwump. Another crate fell halfway onto the last, crashing to the ground next to it. "What I do takes precision. I done kicked open doors before without breakin 'em." She grinned at Lilian, winking.

"How?"

"Unlocked 'em."

"I…" Lilian trailed off, then shook her head. "I don't want to know. Thanks, anyway. This is brave of you."

"Is now the best time for sucking up?" Dylan hissed through gritted teeth, leaning against her cover. Her ink black hair laid across her shoulder, ponytail nearly undone from the chaos. "There's too many of them. We need a plan. One better than trying to not die."

"That felt like solid plan," Evo muttered, practically hugging his pistol.

"Well we didn't go through months of training just to get slaughtered like dogs!" Dylan screamed, now muffled by the approaching gunfire. She spun around and unleashed another autofire burst at the enemy. Vague outlines could be glimpsed of tall soldiers in masks and armor, starkly lit for mere moments by flares of green; the hurricane of bolts had no end. A stream of blue light rushed to meet them, but stilled paled in comparison to the onslaught.

"Y'all slaughter... doggies?" Applejack whispered in a hoarse voice, after a long moment, eyes wide.

"Just look around and think of a plan, okay?" Dylan said, ducking down right before a bolt of energy tried to get intimate with her forehead. Her hair bobbed up and down.

Applejack and Lilian frantically searched the hangar with their eyes, peering over their cover to get a glimpse of what could save them. The golden statue of a winged diamond wouldn't help - in any case it was cracked and covered with scorch marks where the likely bored attackers had vandalised it from afar. Above them was what Jackson had called a "Boreclaw" transport, equipped with its own mounted turret. The only issue was that the lock keeping it on the ceiling stayed put in the event of a power outage. The only other thing that could save them, and also the only other thing in the hangar, was the Fate.

Applejack stared at the vessel. No longer a stranger to warfare, though still an outsider, she could tell a cannon from a not-cannon, and the shuttle definitely had a cannon attached to the bottom of the nose. Lilian followed her gaze, and nodded. "The Fate isn't connected to the Homebound's power supply. If we could get to it, one of us could turn it on and use the cannons to do some real nasty stuff to those guys."

"How in tarnation are we supposed to get over there, though?" Applejack asked, eyeing up the infinite distance between their insignificant cover and the shuttle, an ocean of death separating them.

Lilian shrugged. "I don't know. Evo and I are capable of piloting it, but neither of us could make it through that." She leaned forward, sneaking a peek at the enemies. There were no more outlines, and the first of the masked aggressors marched into the light; he was promptly greeted by a couple of rounds to the chest, courtesy of Dylan.

"You've got crazy leg power. You could kick one of us over there," Lilian joked. "Wait," she added, seeing Applejack's look of comprehension and smirk of arrogance. "I wasn't serious."

***

"No answer from the Homebound's comms," San said, his voice alone in our private channel. We had just gotten done informing an incredibly haggard looking Ganymede that his air support was finally ready.

"Just get here soon," he'd ordered. "If we don't get the GOD cannons under our control again, we can kiss Starbase Maximus and our asses goodbye."

"Wouldn't be an issue if our impregnable GOD cannons weren't impregnated within two minutes of invasion," San had snarked, covering his mouth and uttering a muffled apologysaaaaaaa

Ganymede's soot-smeared face burning red, and he grit his teeth. "Just do your damn job. The last time Admiral Fenway reported in, he filled in a few blanks. They caught us off guard because there were already agents on this planet, ready to take our surface defenses. Without ground-to-space weaponry, we'll fully lose the high- orbital fleet in a little over an hour."

"Any good news?" I had asked.

"The Liberty Fleet, Alpha Fleet, and Special Forces Fleet are on their way and, if we can get that shield down, they'll respond with a strong counterattack. Now if you'll excuse me, I need to stop another push on my front." His communication line shut down without further ceremony, leaving San, Rainbow, and I all staring at eachother.

"He's gonna be okay, right?" she'd asked.

Now, we still stared at each other, this time with worry straining our faces. "You've got to be kidding me. Nothing. Not a peep." San shook his head, looking at his controls, averting my gaze. "Listen, I'm sorry, but we might need to just take our chances and commit to anti-personnel runs in the solis fighters. We have to leave the frigates if they won't contact us."

"They won't do any good compared to what a Nailgun can accomplish," I snapped. "What about Admiral Zalthice? They're in frigates too."

"Nothing from them, either."

"That doesn't mean they're dead," Rainbow stated. "I'm not used to your techy-stuff but losing comms might just mean they're busy."

"Busy being dead." San chuckled twice, mirthlessly. "Jackson, look, I'm sorry, man." He paused between words, and I could feel my desire to throttle his neck growing. "We need to leave them and I need to blow more innocent enemy soldiers up. It's addicting."

"I promised them."

"He promised us," Rainbow said, nodding. "I can't leave my friends behind, and neither can he."

San looked up, staring us both in the face. "There's no time to argue. Either you go down there and Ganymede's forces fail, we lose, and we die, or you and I go blow some shit up and save the world."

I turned, looking at Rainbow. She'd hit her head a few times on the top of the canopy, and her hair was scruffier than normal, not to mention the dirt and soot already smattered against her coat from earlier. Her friends all looked the same, and in her place I saw each of them sitting there, staring at me.

"Captain," she pleaded, eyes wide. "Come on."

"I am no oathbreaker." I nodded at Rainbow, and her look softened.

"I order you." San sat up straight, sticking his chin at me as if it were a weapon. In a way, it was. 'With the power vested in me by all that is awesome and also the College of Admirals. I have a rank pip more than you. Somewhere. Lost it in the wash last week."

"I promised them," I growled, ignoring his typical digression. "They could be down there in the middle of a fight for their lives. They could need my help."

"Gold Squadron is heading into the city residential block with the Ganymede our destination." He shook his head, frown deepening. "Follow me, or don't. They might need your help, but I do need your help. We all do."

I swallowed, turning to look at my "copilot." I had no idea what she'd look like - if she'd look betrayed, fearful, angry. Instead, no strain lines marred her smooth face. No crease of the brow or narrowing of the eyes. Only calm.

"Do it," she whispered, looking past me. "I… you're right. You did promise us, but… you promised your people you'd help them first. They need your help more than my friends do."

San nodded, his own anger seeping away. "Woo! Five San-points for rainbow-horse!"

"Very wise of you," I grumbled, turning back to face the front. My side throbbed from constantly turning back to look her in the eyes. Just as well, she'd chosen the one topic we could agree upon to switch sides.

"Fine. Send me the course vectors and Red Squadron will back you up," I said, switching on the alert beacon to let the other pilots know something was about to happen. "It'll be twenty times as hard without frigate support, but this is what you asked for, San."

San didn't smile, but one corner of his mouth twitched upward. "I would've asked for a blindfold and intense mind-altering drugs. Let's go blow up some bad guys and save the world."

The reorganization of Red Squadron's formation took a few seconds, some fighters drifted a few meters in one direction, and enough people a single meter off meant everything needed to be reorganized. I yelled a bit.

Pushing the Homebound to the back of my mind became an irritating distraction I didn't need bogging me down. I promised those girls I'd keep them safe, that I'd take them back, and that everything would be all right. None of them were severely injured, and the Homebound was ready to jump out of system the second the shield went down, so those promises were still intact. That is, if they were okay. But Aaro Castlor was the closest thing I had to a best friend in the big bad galaxy, and if he wasn't capable of protecting them, no one was.

Red Squadron neared the city proper, zipping toward the line where towering apartment blocks met construction dockyards. The sun set behind it, merely a few rays biting back the stormclouds that hovered over Ophelius. White towers turned to black, and the last light faded.

"Tactical night-sight," I ordered, taking a breath, "on." Instantly, the solis' onboard computer forced a holographic display against the cockpit windows. Buildings became outlined white, friendlies in gold, and the few enemy fighters I could see flitting between buildings like shy schoolgirls turned red.

I reached up and brought down a mechanical visor that stopped at eye-level, switching on to display targeting data over the marked targets. "Red Squadron, prepare for virtual knife-fight, over."

A slew of confirmations poured in, and I grazed over a few intelligence reports being fed through the targeting visor. Anything useful that could give us an edge or at least a warning. The computer AI, as simplistic compared to AIA as toddlers are to adults, filtered them by importance.

Number one, we'd lost half the city. There were confirmed enemies inside the Gantoris Towers. Orbit only held a pocket of resistance left. I scanned over the list of ships confirmed destroyed by the invasion fleet. I gulped.

"What's wrong?" Rainbow asked. The dim lighting in the fighter cast a dark shadow on her eyes, but it didn't stop them from glowing. She peered over my shoulder, reading the list. "I… oh. Those were… the ships you showed us around the planet, right?"

"Yeah," I whispered, slamming the switch off the moment another name appeared, because I didn't want to read it.

"Is there anything I can do to help?" she asked, leaning far enough forward that I glimpsed her nose in the corner of my eye. "I know I shouldn't be here, and if you're still mad at me, that's fine, but you look pretty messed up. Just tell me what to do."

I lowered my head. We were on the cusp of entering the city, and the moment we did that we'd split apart, fighting what enemies we could while we made our way to the GOD cannons on the other side. Normally, we'd just fly over it, but the danger of getting swarmed or shot down by anti-fighter frigates was too high. "There's nothing."

"Okay," she said, sitting back.

"Just keep buckled. This is going to get ugly." I switched on the comms. "Alright, Reds. The lanes are going to be too narrow for an entire squadron, so you know the drill. Witch, Action, Dock, Hype, you're with me. Everyone else, you know your groups. Stay safe, fangs out, and happy hunting. Converge on the GOD cannons in five minutes. If you don't make it, you're-" Woosh. The roaring sound of six huge fighters speeding their way into a normally cramped air-highway blasted me into silence.

Reds eighteen to me hit the wall of towers and slowed down to the speed limit, which defined itself as fast enough not to get hit, and slow enough not to die. Whites, greys, and mostly blacks splashed into my vision, each building outlined by the tactical holoview. Audio-censors turned on and the roar receded to a rumble, only shaking the cockpit to a minute degree. Rain splattered against the viewport, barely an issue since it didn't stick around for long. "Slow" for a fighter still meant fast.

"Two red blippy things," Rainbow announced over the rumble, her head still peeking over my shoulder to look at the scanner.

"I see them, one block down, heading horizontal to us. Mark One and Two. Dock, Hype, Action, target One. Witch, target Two with me. Over."

"Yes sir." Witch brought her craft to mine. We'd broken formation, the alternative being slapped out of the air by a billboard or balcony. "Target locked. Reticles at Alpha-Zero, over."

"Two seconds to meet-and-greet," I announced, steadying the craft amidst the thunder outside. For this single moment, we had the element of surprise. "Fire." I pumped the trigger, two shots streaking into the night, lighting up buildings as they passed. Two simultaneous explosions marked the end of the outward patrol.

"Good job, everyone."

"Thanks."

"Sir, we've got multiple hostiles inbound. Ten to each group," a report crackled in my ear. "They're not brown-nosers, just snubs. It'll be hard in this weather." I jerked the stick down, narrowly avoiding an incoming building-to-building bridge.

"Whoa," Rainbow interrupted, drawing my attention to the controls. "That's a lot of red."

"Less than I expected," I mused, glaring at the swarm of red dots streaming toward us. "Alright, Reds. You're free to engage. Just make it to the rendezvous in one piece." I flipped a switch, narrowing the channel down. "You five, tail formation. Engage at-will. Don't engage in dogfights. We're on a timer, folks."

I clicked the comms off. We had a brief breather before the regular, non-heavy fighters engaged us. Snubs, as they were called, weren't shielded or heavily armed, but were perfect for knife-fights and swarm tactics. They had those two advantages on their side.

Well I had me on my side. The unofficial title of ace didn't just land in your lap.

I rested my hands on the controls, taking a few deep breaths and shuffling into a less comfortable position. Comfort on the battlefield meant feeling safe, and feeling safe in a fight meant being very, very unsafe. "Get ready," I said to Rainbow. "You bragged to San about your flying abilities. Let's show you what we have to deal with."

"Sounds fun."

"Our definitions of fun are in entirely different dictionaries, Miss Dash." I flipped the visor up and cracked my knuckles. "You'd be more at home in San's cockpit."

"If you know what I mean," San whispered into the comms-channel. I rolled my eyes. "Wink."

"Keep the comms clear, we've got-" I started, but three red blips turned the corner and zipped toward us along the air-highway. I snapped my mouth shut and bore down on the fire controls. Fire lanced toward the targets, a few shots exploding into the surface of an expensive, luxury hotel.

Witch and the others followed suit, sending their own shots down range. The lead enemy craft didn't stand a chance. I moved the targeter to the second enemy, and he exploded in a fiery flash, debris shattering the windows of buildings on either side.

"Big dot," Rainbow announced behind me. "Really big."

"Frigate." I grit my teeth, our combined fire smashing the last snub into so much melted slag. "This is why I would've loved to have the Homebound and the others as backup. Is it anti-fighter?"

About thirty lasers descended onto the city at once, pulsing and jerking with the motion of the frigate's cannons. Five dedicated themselves to our group, burning holes through the storm and slicing the sides of buildings. They weren't powerful enough to destroy a building in one shot, but it would shatter a solis fighter in a split second once it got through the shield.

"Nevermind."

"Watch out!" Rainbow shrieked. I juked left, avoiding a pulse from the unseen frigate by a meter.

Something exploded behind me, lighting up the buildings in front with a yellowish red reflection. Ice ran into my chest.

"Hype's down," Witch said. I looked at my controls. "His vitals are reading fine. VALK worked." She was right, which meant an annoyed Hype would be pouting in the hangar - if it was still under our control - until further orders. Now it was just Witch, Dock, Action, and me.

"Split up. Head down different avenues. I doubt it has enough guns to catch all of us and Gold squadron at the same time," I ordered, making sure all the Reds heard it.

"Roger that," came the general reply from the Reds, all at once.

Two more lasers descended, boring into buildings on either side. They cut an x through the air in attempt to catch me, but I rolled to the side and weaved through the leftmost as it passed over. The frigate must have been a ways above us and far to my left for that shot to work. That, or directly above me.

"I've got eyes on it. Dubbing it a Spire," San announced over the comms. "Captain, if you want to clear up the path for our boys, I've got a plan to deal with it."

"This isn't like old times, San," I snapped over the private channel. "We should keep our heads down."

"And let it pick us off? Heck no. I want giant explosions going on, man. Perfect opportunity."

"At least tell me the plan."

"I've got a visual of it, and it looks like there aren't any blind spots, but it's a frigate meant for non-atmosphere combat. We take out the engines, or even just one, and we ground it. Permanently."

I barked a hollow laugh. "That's a stupid plan. Because it means flying up there, and let me tell you something, San. I am a good pilot, but I do not like the odds of fighting something specifically engineered to kill people like me. That's not even mentioning the fact that you don't know taking out a single engine will ground it."

Rainbow coughed. We turned to her. "What if you made it come to us? Like, it's big, right. So maybe it will come closer if we go closer to the ground." She looked between me and San's image on the video comms hovering in the cockpit's corner, grinning.

"That's genius," San said.

"That's suicide," I said at the exact same time, narrowing my eyes. I let San continue.

"Just head closer to the ground. Way more dangerous, but that means the Spire has to come closer. Then, at the last second, we pop up and bang! Right in the kisser. Except with bombs." He grinned. I shot down another two snubs who tried to make a straight jousting run at me.

"Ganymede's not going to be happy," I growled. "Last thing I need is him on my case for being slow." I juked left and dipped into a dive, rain splattering against the underside of my fighter. A red beam sliced through the top of two buildings behind me. Debris crumbled to the streets far below. I shrugged. "Granted, you haven't seen slow until you've sent any kind of paperwork to him."

"What do you say, Rainbow Dash?" San asked, waggling his eyebrows. "Since Mr. Grumps here doesn't like anything, I need a second opinion."

"She's not part of this and has no military-"

"Sounds awesome. Let's do it!" she chirped.

I gave the order to the Reds and pushed the stick. Despite the weak fighter inertials, this was a heavy maneuver and the G's started rising. The solis fighter dove toward the ground level of the city. The red blip marking the Spire followed us, I noted on the radar. Its altitude lowered. The radar wasn't a perfect thing, and most of the time it just marked general location, but not for anything bigger than a fighter.

"It's working," San said. I just grit my teeth and continued the dive, jerking the side each time an outcropping threatened to dust us. "It's at the city canopy. Haha, this is great. Jackson, you take its right side, er, from your left. I've got. Uh. The other side."

"Thanks, boss," I deadpanned, leveling out and dodging another errant laser beam. "Witch, how's our casualties?"

"Dock is hit. Non-threat damage to left wing. Drift, Brass, Quirky, and Lefty are hit too. Hype, Fist, Silver, Chromehead, and Vicks are all down and grounded at the Hangar." I nodded with each name, recalculating our total strength down to just twelve fighters. Heavy losses since the mission had just started, and light losses since we'd been pitted up against anti-fighter ships and an entire planetary invasion force.

Come to think of it, where were the rest of the enemy fighters? I'd shot a couple down, but they had to know our position. By all rights, they should be swarming us.

The big, dangerous red blip following us pulled up.

"Admiral," I warned, eyes wide. I brought up a map of the city with a flick of my hand and scanned over it with my eyes. "We have a problem." Our GOD cannon installations were spread throughout the city in a defensive perimeter. Our fighter group was nearing the first of the installations, where Ganymede last called from. Each installation was a fortress unto itself, bristling with gun platforms and barriers. It'd take a dangerous operation or all-out invasion force to take one. They'd taken all of ours in minutes. That took serious planning. Months of it.

"Keep going," San said. "It's running, which is bad, but we have to get there before Ganymede gets himself in real trouble."

You can do a lot in a couple of months.

"Ganymede!" I screamed. There was no time, so I flicked my comms to his personal channel. "Get out!"

"What?" Ganymede responded instantly, an annoyed tilt entering his voice. "Why? Just lay down some fire on that bridge and we'll have the first of the-"

"They knew we'd defend the GOD cannons," I interrupted. "That we'd put all our ground forces into taking them back. We'd be all in one place." I swerved to the right, putting myself on the last leg of the flight. A block down, I saw the towering form of the GOD cannon in the middle of a field far too well tended to be government property. From a distance, I almost couldn't see the thin lines of laser fire flitting about the walls and layers of the tower. Ganymede and his men were somewhere on one of those tiers, fighting whatever elite force had dug in.

"Ah," he said, letting out a sigh. I heard the sudden, explosive sound of silence creep into his background noise. They'd stopped shooting. "So you're saying it's a-"

Green, wispy light burst from the building, expanding outward in a fizzy, crackling bubble that dissipated into the distance. The holograms surrounding me disappeared. Gone, without even a flicker, and then my entire control panel fell silent.

My engines fizzled out too, I noted a split second later. Eyes wide, I looked to my left arm.

My VALK was dead and I know it had EMP protection. I looked up a moment before the solis fighter hit the ground, vaguely aware that somebody was screaming in my ear.

The entire installation before us, and both two the right and left now lacked cannons, and everything else burned.

* * *

"We weren't sabotaged from the inside, at least. Your trap theory is incorrect," Aro said, a metal hand hovering over the holographic datapad laid across his sling. "At least, that's the only thing that makes sense. No sign of outward tampering. It's almost as if the whole reactor just… broke." He scratched his chin with his free hand. "Very curious."

"You. Don't. Say." Twilight's one open eye twitched. She sucked in a deep breath, her horn glowing white from the strain, and lowered the auxiliary reactor into place. They were big, bulky, and modular. They reminded her of the strange Valkyrie Device "points" the soldiers used. "And why is that?" she huffed, the levitation magic dissipating.

"Nothing. As I said, I'm an engineer in more advanced technology. These things were efficient for their time, but the only advantage they have over modern Octo-core…" he trailed off once he saw Twilight's blank look, and turned to Aran and the gathered ponies. "Aran, please head to the bridge and let Evo know he can begin reactor reintegration."

Blue lights flicked on across the surface of the square-like reactor, and the tell-tale hum of the Homebound's lifeblood returning to her brought a smile to Aro's face.

Aran nodded and went for the door, several of the ponies following her. Her datapad beeped, and she stopped at the threshold to look at the alert. "It's not right," she said as she opened the message. "The fighting sounds closer than ever, and they haven't reported… oh, no."

"What is it?" Aro said, his mouth tilting downward.

"They're in the hangar. Dectavian soldiers have breached the perimeter," she said, gulping. "Roland is injured. It's Dylan, Lilian, Evo, and Applejack down there."

The draxian's eyes went wide, and he searched the room. Twilight ran over to him. "What are you doing?"

"We're located right above the hangar. Aran, you take the girls and the lizard to the bridge. Lock the door. Twilight, go with her," he said, marching over to one of the empty spots that used to be occupied by the auxiliary reactor. On it sat an indention in the floor, marked up with yellow warning stripes. He looked around and spotted a control panel stuck to the wall. Aran led the others out in a hurry, only Fluttershy giving a last-second glance back at the two remaining in the room.

"Oh no," Twilight said, trotting over to him. "Sweet Celestia, no. I am getting my friends out of there with you. Applejack is in danger and needs my help."

Aro looked up, one hand on the control lever to the cargo bay door. His eyes scanned over her, and met her gaze. He held there for almost a minute, mouth wordlessly opening and closing by millimeters. "You sure?" he asked after an eternity, putting his mechanical arm on his hip and slouching his shoulder in a lazy, laid-back stance.

"Yes."

He pursed his lips, like he'd eaten something new and needed to decide if he liked the flavor. Like he'd done it a million times before, he drew one of his black, stylized blades and let it drop to the floor between them. The metallic clatter resounded in the room. Twilight looked down at it, then quirked an eyebrow at the admiral.

"Pick it up," he said. "Just, you know, not with your teeth. That's unsanitary."

Her face fell back to the blade before her, violet eyes checking in on every twist of the crossguard, every turn of the black leather on the handle, the spike at the bottom of the pommel, and the built-in battery that powered the tool.

Twilight took a deep breath, horn lighting up, and levitated the sword into the air, pointed downward. The only part of it that her purple magic touched was the handle. Inch by inch, she pushed it to the warrior before her.

"No."

The leftmost corner of his mouth perked upward, and he nodded once, and only slightly. "Alright." He sheathed the blade, returning his hand to the control panel. "Come on." Nodding to the spot next to him on the hatch, his smirk blossomed into a grin. "Hope you like dancing with no music."

Twilight let out a puff laughter, and stepped beside him. "Aren't we a little high up for this?"

Aro shrugged. "Nah. Just bend your knees and also catch us in your levitation thing." Chuckling, he drew a small pistol from its holster and put his hand. "Now would be a good time to reveal you've got an awesome shield spell or something, by the way."

The unicorn's ears perked up, and her lips curled into a smirk. "Admiral, I think you're going to like this next bit."

***

Applejack growled Lilian, a puff of breath blowing out her snout. "Goodness gracious, 'yer a stubborn gal. T'aint asking much."

The engineer shook her head and continued shaking it for a dozen seconds. "Nuh-uh, no way. You are not throwing me over there."

"Bucking, and it ain't that hard."

"No. Nope. Just keep piling up crates and we'll crawl."

"It won't hurt, neither."
Dylan dropped low, and stayed down. "There's too many of them. They're making their way into the hangar." Five shots of plasma cracked into the wall over their cover, and one of the crates jerked from an impact, jarring Lilian's shoulder.

She shook her head again. "The fire's too heavy, Applejack. Even if you chuck me, I'll be gone before I hit the ground, and then I'll be halfway across the city." Looking across to the Fate's extended boarding ramp and back to the earth pony, she pointed to Evo. "We need a distraction first, on that side.

"On it," Dylan grumbled, crawling with her legs and one arm, the last remaining limb clutching the SMG to her side. "My mark, you do your thing. Got it?"

Applejack and Lilian nodded. "Got it," they said in unison.

"Stay safe," Lilian added. She turned to Applejack, and the pony turned around so her back legs were pointed toward the dropship. Lilian positioned herself between the ship and the pony, looking into Applejack's eyes. "So, how do we do this?"

Applejack shrugged, quirking an eyebrow at her. "First rodeo, huh?" She chuckled at the deadpan glare Lilian's face sunk into. "Alrighty. Once that distraction starts, I'll buckle up like a spring. You jump up, feet first, onto my back hooves. Ya hear?"

"This is unbelievably stupid."

"Great. The rest is just muscles and a bit of gravity!" Applejack grinned, then faced Dylan. "We're ready. Let's get this hoe-down started!"

Dylan grinned ear-to-ear, clicked a button near the trigger on her weapon, and jumped to her feet. "Burn!" she screamed, throwing her head back and laughing. Evo, hunched beside her, flinched back. "Burn you spiny-faced freaks of nature!"

"Yes. Yes," Evo said, drawing the small pistol to bear and standing beside her. Arms outstretched, he yanked on the trigger, sending pulses of blue light into the encroaching enemy. "Be dead, you… people… dogs. Argh!"

"Yee-haw," yelled Applejack.

[And there it ended. I wrote nothing else at the time, so I will not finish it in retrospect. Applejack's Yee-haw is a pretty good sendoff, though.]

[The following were deleted scenes from this chapter.]


“Lieutenant Hockey, get those damn laser cannons cycled,” Lt. Commander, now acting Commander, Silus Ruck shouted from his station opposite. White walls, now stained with rubble and soot, lined the hallways of Starbase Maximus. Once intricate designed carved into the floor now were covered by bootprints and debris.

“I’m trying, but the secondary power couplings were destroyed,” the miniscule Hockey replied, his green skin coated with sweat that dripped onto the flickering panel in front of him. “You know, in that same attack that collapsed the bridge room two minutes ago?” He breathed quickly, fingers slipping as they wavered over the keyboard. “Oh man, the Commander’s dead. They landed on the planet, man!”

“Shut up,” Silus ordered, looking at the now fully-sealed door to the command center. “We’ve got to hold the line. Computer, bring up a live holoview of the tactical map.” He looked over the image that appeared, ships and stationed all displayed, accurate to the second.

It might as well have displayed a tide of red crashing against the few blue specks that dared to mark the map where the remnants of the Wing’s defense stood. “Those six Titan-class battlecruisers are still up,” he said under his breath. They were the biggest on the map, bar the strange, gigantic ship that was belting out the hard-shield. Despite the fact that he knew one of the things could destroy half their fleet, all stayed behind the front lines, only providing fire support.

“Sir, the engineers just reported in,” Hockey called. “Our GOD cannon is apparently in a state where they can repair it, but they’ll need at least ten minutes.”



***



Meanwhile, Twilight and Aaro stared at the charred wreckage of a reactor. They both recognized the fact that, normally, reactors are not black, smoking, and making tired groaning sounds like a slumbering monster.

“Can you fix that?” Twilight asked.

“I’m a part-time engineer and part-time second in command of an entire military,” Aaro muttered. “Not a miracle worker. At least not on Tuesdays.” He shrugged, and moved to the other side of the wreck. “We have to install the backup.”

“You have room for a backup in here?” she asked, quirking an eyebrow and swiveling her head to look at the place. The engineering deck shared space with the AI core and, from what she’d been told, the ship’s general databanks. All of it had been shoved within proximity of one another because, the apparent logic had been, it was closer to the power. In the corner nearest to the stairs sat two machines hooked up to bulky, cylindrical devices labeled “Life Support” that currently stood still.

“Yup. It’s like I thought. We’ll need to shove this thing.” He pointed at the remains of the power supply, and then to a thing, almost invisible indention on the floor. “Onto that elevator. It’ll take us to the hangar and we can dump it there. Then we need to move the backup into place and install it, which shouldn’t take….” He trailed off, then looked at her, eyes fuming. “And all of that while fighting for our lives. Almost had me going, there. This’ll be fun.”

“I almost had you what? What does that even mean?” Twilight asked, stepping back, furrowing her brow. “I get this is tense, but just tell me-”

Aaro’s hand, whirring with energy and various mechanical chirps, snapped to his right. His lips curled downward in a snarl, and his words were pursed, sharp, and dripping with disgust. “Your holo-cloaker technology,” he said, the fingers of his hand halting mid-air. “Was poorly designed. Every five seconds there is a dead spot that flashes near your ankle.”

A beep resounded through the room, and in Aaro’s grasp, a tall figure appeared


***