• Published 25th Sep 2011
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Pony Effect - Grif



What if ponies replaced humans in the Mass Effect universe?

  • ...
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Chapter 8

[Engine Room, ESV Normaredy, Artemis Tau cluster]

“Wrench! Where’s that soldering gun?!”

Rarity’s shrill voice pierced even the thick bulkheads that separated the engineering section from the cargo bay at the bottom of the ship. A clatter of hoofsteps answered her call, and the engine room door slid open to reveal a hassled looking indigo-coated earth pony balancing three different sets of toolboxes on his head, back and tail. He held the requested tool in his mouth.

“Right ‘ere, ma’am,” he replied in a muffled voice.

The chief engineer sighed with relief and flashed him a charming smile. “Thank you, darling. Now go and fix that heater in the captain’s quarters like I told you to. Spike has been complaining about it for ages. He does so love his coffee.”

Despite his obvious fatigue, the technician still managed to salute. “Yes, ma’am.” Wrench scurried off without another word, still managing to balance his load all the while.

Rarity shook her head sadly, wishing she could do more to help one of the few remaining competent engineer on her team. Among her small engineering crew, Gears was enjoying an enforced rest in the infirmary after an unfortunate incident with a plasma conduit. Screws was busy trying to fix one of the GARDIAN lasers. Quickfix was in the CIC, troubleshooting yet another glitch with the galactic map display. Ultimately, it left her and Wrench manning the engine room alone. Well, that was before the electric heater in the mess hall broke down. Not for the first time, she wished the Normaredy carried a bigger crew. Space considerations had precluded the Equestrian Navy from assigning more engineers to the ship.

Rarity sighed and picked up her soldering gun, resuming her dreary task: to repair this confounded circuit board that also happened to regulate the cooling sinks for the Normaredy. It was unfortunate this one had to break when it did. It meant the ship would be unable to utilise its stealth systems as much as it should be able to. Needless to say, it was top priority. Which was why she only trusted herself to do it.

The engineer nearly bumped her head on the hatch cover, and she bit back a curse. Another thought crossed her mind; she had forgotten to remind Wrench to bring her a spare capacitor as well. Now she’d have to go and get it herself. Hoping that he was still within earshot, she shouted, “Wrench! Are you there? I need that capacitor as well!”

Only the steady hum of the Tantalus Drive Core greeted her.

“Sapphires and rubies. Now I need to—”

“Is there anything I can do to help?”

Rarity nearly burnt her own hooves by mistake at the sound of that voice. By Celestia, what was the quarian doing down here? Rarity knew the quarian was very interested in the ship. Spike told her as much.So far, she had refused all of the quarian’s polite inquiries into the ship’s workings. Her obligation not to reveal the best of Equestrian technology demanded as much. Tali seemed to have taken the hint after a while and was content working instead on the Mako which they obtained on Harnos. However, their relationship remained frosty, and they only exchanged brief words throughout their time on the ship.

She spun around to face Tali, a polite smile affixed to her face. “Why, yes. Could you be a dear and call my assistant Wrench down here? I need a certain spare part if I want to properly fix this.”

Tali seemed to regard the unicorn with mild interest. “I think I saw him busy in the mess hall on my way down here. What kind of capacitor you need? I may be able to get you what you need.”

Rarity’s smile got a little tighter, forced. “Oh no, no, no. I wouldn’t want to be a burden on you now.”

Tali shrugged. “It’s okay. It’s not like I got anything better to do. Fluttershy is busy with her pet bunny. Besides, you look like you could use the help. Don’t worry about me leaking your tech. I have given my word to the commander.”

If Rarity wasn’t so short-hooved, she would have still refused outright. Some standards must be maintained after all. Still, the quarian’s logic was undeniable. She had been nothing but reliable thus far. “If you insist.” Rarity proceeded to describe the precise component she needed, along with a few others she thought she may as well have on hoof for the other repair works she had planned. Tali nodded once and quickly exited the room. Not five minutes later, she returned with the required components, all according to her instructions. Rarity was mildly impressed. The quarian knew her stuff alright.

“Very well. Hand me that capacitor. I’ll get started on fixing this panel,” Rarity said, lifting her solder gun into the air. “So, how much do you actually know about ships?” she asked while lifting the hatch open again.

“I lived on one all my life. I know enough to know when an environmental unit is failing.” Nopony lived on a ship and merely “know about subsystems failing”, Rarity was sure of that. Which meant Tali was being modest about her true abilities. Her respect for the quarian went up another notch.

Rarity didn’t reply immediately, focusing on detaching the damaged capacitor and welding the new one into place. Putting down her tool, she glanced at Tali again. “So, what do you think of the Normaredy?” she asked. It was a loaded question, but she was interested to see how the quarian would answer.

“The Normaredy? Your pilot said it was the most advanced ship in the galaxy. I see nothing to challenge that observation that far. Design wise, she is a marvel, incorporating the latest in ship design and applying it in generous doses. The engine is a marvel, and the new drive core, simply a delight to watch. The stealth system is one of a kind.” Tali’s voice steadily grew more animated as she spoke.

“I see.” Rarity flashed a dazzling smile at her companion. “I seem to be rather short-hooved for the moment. Would you be kind enough to assist me with something?”

For a moment there, Rarity sensed that the quarian was actually smiling. Not that she could see through the cloudy face mask, but her sharp intake of breath was audible. Her response however, was rather more restrained. “It’d be an honour,” she said evenly.

“I think you’ll like this, darling,” she said, putting her tools down. “Now, the Normaredy has a...”

***

“Thank you, Cheerilee,” Twilight said quietly at the disappearing figure of the ship’s nurse. She smoothed her uniform and trotted up to the door marked the entrance of the ship’s small laboratory. Taking a deep breath, she tapped open the metal door.

“Liara, you wanted to see me?” Twilight asked, stepping through the door. Liara was hunched over the table, evidently studying something on the workstation. She waited for the door to close before turning to face Twilight.

“Yes... I do,” she said heavily, her intelligent eyes studying Twilight.

Twilight held up a hoof to forestall her inevitable question. “First things first. How are you feeling?”

Liara blinked in surprise. “Much better actually. Nurse Cheerilee assured me that I would be fine. I was quite impressed by her knowledge of asari physiology.”

Twilight’s lips curved into a small smile. “That’ll be her recent course in alien physiology paying off. I’ll be sure to pass your compliments to her.”

Liara chuckled softly. “Yes, please do.” Her brief expression of joy disappeared. “Pleasantries aside, I wanted to talk to you about something...” Liara’s voice trailed off as she seemed to struggle to find words. Twilight said nothing and waited patiently for Liara to continue. After several seconds of palpable silence, Liara sighed and looked Twilight in the eye. “You’re going after... Matriach Benezia aren’t you?”

Twilight just nodded in reply. “Yes.”

“Tell me. Is it true? My mother turned against the Citadel? Against the goddess?” Liara asked, a pleading note in her voice.

“We... have conclusive proof that she had colluded with Agent Saren...” Twilight went on to describe the audio tapes which Tali had extracted from the geth memory core she had obtained.
Liara’s head seem to sink lower with each word.

“I... cannot believe she would do this. This is not like her...”

Twilight put a sympathetic hoof on Liara’s shoulder. “Dr. T’Soni, we don’t know what compelled her to work with Saren or the geth. But she is and you have to accept the fact.”

“I have seen the looks on your crew. They do not trust me.”

Twilight sighed and put her hoof down. “It’s not hard to blame them. You’re technically the daughter of the second in command of Saren after all.”

“I am nothing like my mother, Twilight Sparkle. I have not spoken to her for several years.”

“For what’s its worth, Dr. T’Soni. I do trust you.” Twilight smiled gently and continued, “After all, I did let you peek into my mind.”

Liara seemed to relax visibly. “That is true, commander. It means a lot to me for saying that. Thank you,” she said with complete sincerity. “I’ll do all I can to help you bring down Saren, even if I have to oppose my mother for doing so.”

“That’s reassuring to hear.” Twilight wriggled her shoulders to ease some of the tension out and made to sit on the floor. “Anyway, since we’re here, I’d like to know about you.”

“Me? I am afraid I’m not very interesting, Commander. I spent most of my life on remote digs, unearthing mundane items buried in long-forgotten Prothean ruins.”

Twilight looked at the scientist curiously. “That sounds dangerous... and lonely.”

“Sometimes I’ll run into dangerous indigenous wildlife or small bands of mercenary or privateers. But I was always careful. Until the geth followed me to Artermis Tau, I never found myself in a situation my biotics could not handle.” Liara let out a sour laugh. “I guess I never thought I would be hunted by a race of sentient robots. Sent by my own mother no less, if you are to be believed.

As for the solitude, well, that is one aspect that most appealed to me. Sometimes, I just need to get away from other people.”

Twilight nodded sympathetically. “I understand the feeling. I used to be like that before joining the Normaredy... I would retreat to the library or my room for my studies. Needless to say, I hadn’t had much friends.”

“Huh. I guess we are similar after all. Might I ask why did you choose to do so?”

“It was a silly thing. Really. When I was five, my parents brought me to watch my first Summer Sun Celebration in Canterlot City.” Twilight smiled a little at Liara’s quizzical look. “It’s a day where we ponies gathered to watch the Princess raise the sun. An old tradition, dating back to the founding of Equestria itself. Anyway, since it was my first, I was extremely excited. So, there I was. In a crowd of thousands of other excited ponies. In fact, it was so packed that I lost sight of my parents while waiting for the princess to show up. Somehow, I managed to squeeze into the front row...” Twilight sighed wistfully at the memory.

***

The little purple filly looked up in awe from her position squeezed between two pony legs. Just beyond the barrier ropes, a simple wooden platform awaited. Banners displaying the royal insignia fluttered merrily in the light wind, the semi-darkness preventing the young filly from making out any more details. Stern-looking guards stood at attention at either end of the platform. Just beyond, hover cameras captured the unfolding events through their attentive lenses. Though the young filly may not have known it, the guards were more for show and tradition rather than any real attempt at crowd control or bodyguard protection. Still, they looked very imposing and the young filly felt intimidated by their presence. She carefully avoided looking in their direction.

The general excitement of the crowd soon faded into an unnatural silence as the hour of the Summer Sun Celebration approached, the calm before the storm. The young filly found herself holding her breath in excitement, too overwhelmed by the experience to remember that she was supposed to be looking for her parents.

A flurry of trumpets sounded, marking the start of the ceremony. A cheer began to rise from the crowd, and all around the filly, ponies shuffled around, ostensibly to get a better view of the princess. Flash of light filled the air as spectators took their pictures. The young filly, unfortunately, was unable to see through the mess of limbs, and tried in vain to climb above the adults around her. Then she saw her. The Princess. In all her regal glory. She strode proudly past and came to stand just to the right of the filly.

“My little ponies. It is time again for our annual Summer Sun Celebration. As always, I thank you, citizens of Equestria, for doing our nation proud. We now stand tall amidst the races of the Citadel. Without further ado, let us begin the celebration!”

A great roar of approval erupted from the crowd, their infectious enthusiam roused even the young filly to cheer wildly, although she would not know what it was all about. The princess’ eyes glowed and she began to rise in the air, one hoof pointing to the sky. The young filly watched with rounded eyes as magic swirled around the alicorn, her horn lighting up the area like a miniature sun. As she watched, the light from the princess faded. But not because of any diminishing in her power. Instead, a greater light began to rise from the background. For a brief moment, the princess looked like she was engulfed by the very fiery orb; only the faintest outline of her was visible. Just as quickly, the moment passed and the sun rose higher. When the young filly turned her eyes back towards the princess, she was already back on the platform and waving at the cheering crowd.

I want to be just like her, the filly thought.

***

“Fascinating. You ponies still maintain that tradition despite Equestria growing exponentially since its inception?”

“We love our tradition. It’s a way of reminding ourselves of our humble origins... and how far we have come since then. These days, the ceremony is aired through the extranet, convenient for anypony to watch. Yet, the crowd remains as large as ever, with thousands of ponies taking the time to attend in person. Some say the crowds had grown even larger, with all the tourists on Canterlot these days.” Twilight found herself smirking at her last words. The Citadel races, despite their inherent technological superiority, found themselves unable to explain how the royal sisters managed to manipulate the entire Canterlot system to their whims. Decades of study had yielded no satisfactory answer. Just as well, Twilight thought. Sometimes, you’ll just have to accept it is magic. Of course, that explanation did not satisfy the naturally curious salarians and they continued to labour to uncover the mysteries of pony magic.

“I see. What happened then?”

“Ah, after being found by parents and alternately being scolded and hugged? Well, truth be told, I had no idea how to even be like the princess. But I was determined to do it. So I started to read. Any book I could get my hooves on. Eventually I found that magic interested me the most. So I poured my heart into it. Day and night, you probably would find me either in my room, or in the local library. As you can imagine, I didn’t have many friends. Like you, I preferred the solitude.” Liara nodded, listening with rapt attention.

“Eventually, my parents managed to obtain an invitation for me to join the School for Gifted Unicorns. It was especially poignant for me, as the school was ran personally by the Princess herself. Till today, I have no idea what strings they pulled to get that invite.” Twilight rubbed the back of her head ruefully. “Anyway, I went to this exam...”

***

Twilight felt the butterflies in her stomach whipping up a storm. It wasn’t really so much as she was unprepared. Hardly. The library in Hurricane Street was probably her second home by now, and she knew every librarian there by first name. In theory, she was confident she was able to handle any magical tests they might entrust to her. In theory.

The ornate oak doors to the large hall opened, and four grim-faced unicorns filed into the room. Each was dressed in what could only be described as ostentatious formal wear and held a clipboard in mid-air. The four took their place at the back of the hall, staring down at Twilight for several seconds from their elevated position. Then, the middle left unicorn, a cream coloured stallion wearing a decidedly old fashioned spectacle, stood up and spoke in a gruff voice, “Miss Sparkle. Please use your magic to hatch the dragon egg.” As if on cue, a cart bearing a curious purple, green-speckled egg was wheeled into the room.

Twilight gulped, feeling stuffy all of a sudden. Of all the magic schools, nature spells was one of her weakest. She most certainly never tried to hatch a chicken egg before, much less a dragon one. Willing her heart to slow down, she tried to think. It shouldn’t be hard right? Hatching a dragon egg was merely an application of temporal magic to speed up the natural... That was it!

Twilight nodded once and exhaled slowly. That was it. All she needed to do was to cast a time dilation spell to speed up the hatching process. No biggie. She cast a nervous glance at her examiners, who suddenly seemed to loom over her. Flashing them a nervous smile, Twilight turned her full attention towards the egg. The smooth surface of the dragon egg seemed to mock her. Calm down! Eggs can’t talk.

Fighting down yet another panic attack, Twilight closed her eyes and carefully reached deep into herself. Her horn glowed softly, and she weaved her magic on the egg. When done, Twilight’s eyes fluttered open. Apart from a soft purple glow, the egg remained still. Anytime now... Seconds ticked past. Seconds turned into minutes. Twilight’s ears could hear pens scratching behind her back. She could almost imagine four pairs of eyes boring into the back of head. The unicorn licked her now-dry mouth and redoubled her efforts, pouring more and more magic into the stubborn egg. The egg didn’t even stir. Finally, after what seemed like hours of theatrical waving, magic and whatnot, she collapsed on the floor. Twilight could feel the warm tears running down the cheek, even before she heard the inevitable words.

“I’m sorry, Miss Sparkle.”

***

“That must have quite the blow,” Liara said sympathetically.

“Quite. I literally ran out of the room sobbing, past my parents. Right out into the busy streets of Canterlot. I don’t quite recall what I did for the next few hours, only that I walked. And walked. And walked. Then I met her.”

***

“Come one! Come all! The Great & Powerful Trixie hereby challenges you Canterlotians. Anything you can do, I can do better.”

Twilight was dimly aware that she was in the middle of a massive crowd, much like a particular one she had attended so long ago. This time however, the crowd seemed to be actively jeering and booing. Twilight was momentarily jerked out of her self-induced stupor when she felt somepony roughly shoving her from behind. She stumbled forward, the crowd in front of her parting as if by magic. Twilight found herself unceremoniously dumped in front of the crowd, snout-first into the ground.

“How about... you?”

It took Twilight several seconds to realise the speaker meant her. She blinked and looked up, noticing for the first time that the speaker was in fact, a fellow unicorn. Azure blue coat, sliver mane and garbed in the most gaudy star-studded cloak she seen.

“Well? Or has your little pony mind shrunk before the awe that is the Great & Powerful Trixie?”

Twilight felt herself blinking in confusion. “Bwuh?”

“There is no dishonour in backing down, little unicorn. Trixie understands if you do not wish to challenge the most powerful equine in Equestria.” Another roar of disapproval met her words, mixed with some gasps, whistling and cat-calls.

“I don’t know what you’re doing, but I accept. One more failure today won’t make a difference.” Twilight’s voice was oddly flat.

“Very well then.” Trixie seemed a little bemused by Twilight’s disinterested reaction. She took off her pointed hat and laid it on the table beside the mare. “A contest of magic then! Name your challenge.”

Twilight blurted out the first thing that popped into her mind. “Summoning.”

“An interesting choice.” Trixie’s horn glowed ever so briefly. Then, with a flourish, she lifted her hat off the table and tilted it upside down. The white head of a bunny poked out of the hat. “It appears Trixie is already ahead of the game,” she boomed, a confident smile crossing her face.

Twilight snorted. It was a cheap parlour trick, which even a foal could do with the right preparation. Her own horn glowed in response. For a moment, nothing happened. Trixie seemed like she was about to laugh when suddenly a dog popped out behind Trixie, barking enthusiastically. She squealed and jumped three feet into the air, landing awkwardly on the ground. The hat dropped to the ground forlornly, and the rabbit scrambled off to freedom.

Trixie glowered at her newest rival, apparently not used to being upstaged like this. “I see you have some skill. Unfortunately for you, peasant, Trixie is not done yet.”

“We’ll see.”

The contest went on, back and forth, the two unicorns summoning ever bigger and more varied animals into the square. Finally, Trixie, visibly spent, stomped her hoof on the ground. “Enough! Trixie tires of this game. The Great & Powerful Trixie shall show you what is true power.” Her horn began to glow brilliantly, and the unicorn dug deep into the ground to steady herself.

“Behold! The Ursa Major!”

A loud roar punctuated her words, and a large clawed foot stomped down on sidewalk next to Twilight. The unicorn looked up to see a huge, angry bear, towering about the square. At the sight of the creature, the onlookers finally realised the danger they were in and began simultaneously erupted in howls of terror. The square quickly emptied as ponies fled the scene, leaving naught but Twilight and Trixie, who by now had collapsed on the ground from the effort. Trixie still held a stupid grin on her face. “Who’s the greater power now, hm?”

Twilight stared at the street magician with disbelief. “Trixie! You unleashed an Ursa Major! It’s going to destroy the city!”

“Pfft. This is nothing. Trixie will be far more than capable in handling any—” A large foot stomped crashed into the ground, sending Trixie squealing into the air. Her pupils shrunk as she seemed to finally realise the magnitude of her folly. “By the suns and moons...” she breathed. With a plaintive cry, Trixie stomped her hooves on the ground. A gout of smoke and blinding light erupted... and she was gone.

This left only Twilight that was within arm length of the Ursa Major. Twilight realised, belatedly, she was now in very real danger of being scooped up and eaten by one angry, giant, celestial bear. Surprisingly, she felt at peace with herself. There was nothing else to look forward to after all. She had failed her life’s ambition. Nothing else mattered.

*Boom!*

The very sound of it startled Twilight. Not for its loudness, for it was merely barely a whisper amongst the more immediate sounds of growls, slobbers and roars of the Ursa Major. But for the sheer unexpected nature of it. Even the celestial bear paused, its massive ears cocked in puzzlement. As the surprise wore off, Twilight thought she heard a melodic tune floating past her ears, so faint that one might miss it, yet at the same time, buzzing insistently in her ears. The unicorn glimpsed what seemed to be a rainbow radiating outwards from the horizon. For a moment, it seemed to be a signal. A sign which Twilight’s unconscious mind seized upon as a beacon of hope. Even as the rainbow dissipated, she felt a new surge of power run through her being. Her heart began to race, her mind suddenly emptying itself of any and all distractions. There only was her, and the Ursa.

“Stop it.”

The ursa roared back at Twilight, plainly not understanding.

“STOP IT!”

The entire world turned white.

***

“The next thing I knew, I was lying facedown on the street, with somepony touching my shoulder. Turns out, it was the Princess herself, who witnessed my little... ‘act’ of heroism. I was told the bear was punted clear of the city and back into the wilderness known as the Everfree Forest. My... breakthrough also inevitably discharged several beams of magic, effecting various transformations on poor passerbys and buildings. Ironically, one of my magic discharges made its way back to the Canterlot Academy for Gifted Unicorns and struck the egg that I was struggling with earlier, driving it to hatch. A small purple dragon emerged.” Twilight smiled at the memory. “Spike. My life-long friend and number one assistant.”

“Fascinating. Do you have these bursts of power since?”

“No. The first thing the princess did was to adopt me as her personal student in the School of Gifted Unicorns. She said she had never seen such raw potential in somepony so young. Which, in hindsight, was probably pretty obvious. Trixie was already an accomplished magic user and I stood toe-to-toe with her for well over an hour. Me, a high school student who had just failed her entrance exams.” Twilight found herself chuckling softly. It must had surprised Trixie even then.

“Needless to say, she quickly taught me on how to control my magic, and the words of power to completely dampen my magical ability; at least temporarily should my own self-control fail. So far, it has worked.”

The asari leaned back on her chair, and stroked her chin thoughtfully. “What about Trixie?”

“Her? Oh. The Royal Guards found her hiding out in a motel. She was sentenced to three years of hard community service. Naturally, she blamed me for this humiliation.” Twilight had to stifle a laugh. The very thought of the Captain Trixie in an orange jumpsuit doing community work was amusing. “After being forced to work in community service for a year, the Princess made her an offer she couldn’t refuse. The princess made it clear she saw incredible talent in Trixie and would like her to sign up for the military. Naturally, Trixie accepted, much to her chagrin. From what I was told, she quickly adapted and eventually weaseled her way into command of a ship. Don’t ask me how, but she was named as the commander of the Normaredy before I was. I do like to believe the princess didn’t know better, but I suspect she was testing me. The princess does so love her little jokes.”

Liara chuckled softly, apparently quite amused by Twilight’s own insights. “If the princess is anything like my mother, yes, it is quite probable. I wish my life was as memorable. Looking back, the entire reason I came to be an archaeologist was to spite my mother.”

“Why in Equestria would you do such a thing?”

“I suppose it comes from being a matriarch's daughter. People expected me to follow in Benezia’s footsteps. They wanted me to be a leader of our people. Matriarchs guide their followers into the future. They seek the truth of what is yet to come. Maybe that’s why I became so interested in the secrets of the past.”

“Ah. Do you not wish to lead your people?”

“No. I always somehow manage to find something... embarrassing to say around other people. Let’s just leave it at that.”

“Okay. Do you know why Benezia joined Saren?”

“I don’t understand it. She was always outspoken about the need for the asari to become more involved in shaping galactic events. Maybe... Maybe she thought of allying herself with Saren would somehow be for the greater good in the long run. At least, I hope so.”

Twilight shook her head. “You don’t really believe that, do you?”

“None of these make any sense! I have not spoken to Benezia for many years, but I know her! And this is not like her. Something’s changed.”

“For her sake, and ours, I hope you’re right, Liara. I hope you’re right,” Twilight replied. The asari nodded sadly, and turned away.

***

[ESV Normaredy, Pax System]

Poneria gleamed like a pearl in deep space, its brilliant white and blue surface contrasting sharply with the rust coloured blobs that made up the Horse Head Nebulae in the background. From Twilight’s vantage point on the pilot’s deck, it was quite a stunning view. The fact that they reached Poneria in record time despite the appalling condition of their ship was a miracle in by itself.

Rarity, with the able help of Tali, was able to keep the Normaredy running in spectacular fashion as they made the week-long run from Stirrum to the Artermis Tau mass relay. For two weeks, the two worked frantically, repairing malfunctioning subsystems using whatever parts they scavenged and patching others with nothing more than duct tape and engineering brilliance. The frigate managed to limp to the primary relay in the Artemis Tau cluster. By the time they reached the mass relay in the Poneria system, Rarity was singing praises of her quarian friend, even going so far as to making her number two in the engine room.

“So that’s Poneria? Doesn’t look like much,” Applejack commented, scratching her head.

Twilight shook her head as she studied the planet. “Appearances can be deceiving, Applejack. Poneria is one of the few planets in Citadel Space that isn’t under Citadel law. Neither it is under Alliance’s law, since it is technically a privately owned colony.”

“What? You mean that... somepony owns a planet? All of it? How is that even possible?” Rainbow Dash sputtered.

“A company actually. The Poneria Development Corporation. Two dozens of some of the biggest movers in the bio-technology, cybernetics, and other companies at the edge of high-end technology all invested in this corporation. I think you can imagine how much credits went into acquiring this particular piece of real estate.”

“Probably bribed a dozen Citadel officials to help smooth things along as well,” Garrus remarked.

“I hear the technologies being developed here are absolutely cutting edge. I would love to take a look at their latest hardware...” Rarity’s voice trailed off as she noticed Rainbow Dash and Garrus staring at her. “I mean, um, yeah, Poneria is definitely a scum of villainy and thievery!”

Twilight rubbed her chin. “It’s not all bad. I mean, some of the galaxy’s latest breakthroughs in biotic implants did originate from here.”

Garrus snorted. “Yeah, if you overlook all the unethical testing that slipped under C-Sec’s radar because of their ‘special’ status.”

Twilight had to give him points for that. Poneria was the lynchpin of many wild conspiracy theories, mostly involving some shadowy organisation funding hugely illegal research in order to develop forbidden weapons of mass destruction or mind control. Hyperbole, obviously, but like all rumours, it had a grain of truth to it. Poneria was the go-to place for research subjects that were controversial or unsafe to be conducted in Citadel space, since the planet was technically not under Citadel rule and thus not subject to its laws. The Princess herself had expressed concerns multiple times regarding Poneria’s unorthodox status.

“Well, we’re here to look for the Matriarch, not judge them, much as I hate to admit it,” Twilight said. Even with her Spectre status, it wouldn’t do to push her luck with the locals. She was but one mare.

“Approaching Poneria space, Commander. They’re requesting authorisation,” Scootaloo’s voice crackled over the intercom.

“Tell them we’re on Council business.”

“Aye, aye.”

***

[Port Heihe, Poneria]

Decontamination complete. Logged: the commanding officer is ashore. XO Ditzy Doo has the deck.

Twilight was immediately greeted with a blast of chilled air as the airlock hissed open. The unicorn shivered as puffs of smoke escaped through her nostrils. Spike was right, I should have worn my scarf. The spartan docks were definitely not built for passenger comfort in mind.

Liara stepped out to stand beside the unicorn. “I am quite thankful that I am somewhat used to these cold conditions. Living out in remote dig sites does have its perks.”

“Lucky for you, Twilight, I pack extra every time we visit a cold planet,” Rarity added, a snug pink scarf wrapped around her neck. The engineer took out another scarf, a tasteful purple. If Twilight hadn’t known better, she would have sworn Rarity knew exactly what Twilight needed. “Come on darling, you need to the extra warmth.”

“T-thanks...” Twilight said, through her chattering teeth, as the scarf wrapped itself around her neck. She felt a little better. Just a little. She comforted herself with the thought that the main facility should be warm. “Come on, let’s not stand around,” she said, leading the party towards the dock’s entrance. Her hooves clattered noisily on the icy metallic surface as they approached the nondescript metal doors that marked the exit of the port. She noted the unusually large security detail at the door, complete with automated turrets and drones. These guys don’t do things in half.

The guards moved to bar their way as they approached. A griffin, and three ponies, all heavily armed. “Halt! That’s far enough,” the griffin said, raising a sharp talon. “This is an unscheduled arrival. We will need to confirm your credentials.” His voice was one who brooked no dissent.

Twilight stared at the griffin in bemusement. Credentials? Spectres didn’t exactly carry namecards around. She tried reason. “I am Commander Sparkle, Special Tactics and Reconnaissance. Haven’t Scootaloo passed the message?” The guards seemed to be slightly taken aback by her words.

“Since when they made ponies Spectres...”
“... She looks more like...”
“... You got to be kiddin’...”

The griffin waved for his charges to be quiet. “Sorry ma’am, I can’t let you out of the port area without confirmation,” he said politely but firmly. One talon was resting comfortably on the pistol on his hips.

A red-coated unicorn standing beside the griffin spoke up. “They look like trouble, captain. Maybe we should disarm them first.”

The griffin nodded. “Very well. Sergeant Thistle, you have my permission to disarm these ponies.”

Twilight’s expression hardened. Disarm her? Not while a potential criminal was on the loose. “What? Look, I’ve already contacted—”

“Captain, we have identified this pony. She is authorised to bear weaponry,” a feminine voice spoke over the port’s loudspeaker. “Stand down your guards, and give her my regards.”

The griffin glanced at the loudspeaker in annoyance, but waved his fellow guards down. “You may proceed, Spectre. I trust you will not cause trouble while you’re here,” he said warily, eying her up and down. He gestured for his guards to open the doors.

Twilight gave the griffin a small smile, noticing the small badge on one shoulder that proudly displayed his name: Captain Viktor. “I’ll try not to, Captain Viktor.” She gave him a superfluous salute and marched past the griffin towards the now-open doors. The unicorn tried to ignore the stares from the guards and the automated turrets being pointed in her direction.

***

The reception hall was warmer than the frigid docks, for which Twilight was thankful. The white, sterile walls here reflected the purposeful nature of the facility. The hall itself was devoid of any other decoration, save for a small curtain waterfall in the middle of the room and some spartan seats beside the reception counter. Just behind the counter, she could see weapon detectors emplaced in the walls.

A cheery earth pony receptionist greeted them at the counter. “Welcome to Poneria, Spectre. Secretary Zecora would like to welcome you personally. Please wait here,” she said in a silky voice and motioned for them to wait.

“This place could use some more sprucing up,” Rarity commented as they took their seats. Twilight shrugged in reply. It was apparent the PDC had decided the money was best invested in more practical applications rather than wasteful decorations.

“It’s a research colony. I think decorations are at the bottom of their priorities,” Twilight replied dryly.

Rarity just shot Twilight a withering look. “Some day, Twilight, you’ll learn that art is worth more than the bits you spent it on,” she said, imperiously.

“... Yes, Secretary, they are right here.” A shuffle of hoofsteps could be heard behind the counter. The unicorn turned in time to see a zebra dressed in a formal white uniform stepping out of the hidden area behind the counter.

“Commander Sparkle, I must presume. Accept my sincere apologies, before you fume.” she spoke in a slow, rhythmic manner, almost as if she was reciting a poem. The zebra gave a short bow. “I bid you welcome, little ponies, to our humble abode on this snow-covered world.”

Twilight had to repeat her words twice in her mind before she deciphered the meaning. “Uh... hello. Pleased to meet you.”

“Questions I see in your pony eyes. Ask anything you desire and be wise.”

“I have one. Why is a zebra working in such a place? I thought your kind don’t stray off your ancestral lands on Canterlot,” Rarity said.

“Ah, a normal zebra, I am not. I yearn for the stars; to stay at home, I simply cannot.”

Twilight crooked an eyebrow upwards at the cryptic reply. “O-kay. So, why all the heavy security?” she tried again.

“The facility is a private institution, and so security was the solution. Our investors pay for the best, and thus we are at their behest,” Zecora explained in a matter-of-fact manner. “I do hope the commander watches her step, ponies here don’t take too kindly to outsiders.”

“Relax, we’re not here to step on anypony’s hooves.”

“I am pleased to hear that, for too many troubles start from a simple spat.”

“Anyway, I heard Matriach Benezia passed by recently. Any idea where she went?”

Zecora’s eyes betrayed a flicker of surprise. “The asari matriach of great renown? It is known she had departed from town. Peak 15 is now where she stays, where Binary Helix holds sway.” Her eyes narrowed a little. “Unfortunate it is, that the administrator has barred all access; you would need to acquire permission to progress.”

Twilight rolled her eyes. Nothing was ever simple it seemed. “Fine. Where do we find this administrator?”

“Down towards the main elevator, first left off the main plaza yonder. Should the commander require further assistance, this zebra would be happy to provide guidance.” Zecora looked at Twilight questioningly. The commander shook her head.

“I think we can find our way around.”

Zecora gave another of her short bows. “Very well. I wish you luck in your quest, and may the rest of your journey be made in zest.” She turned with a clip of her hooves and disappeared behind the reception counter.

Twilight sighed and waved for her squad to follow. “Let’s go meet this ‘Administrator’ then.”

***

[Anoleis’ Office, Port Heihe]

By the time they reached the office, Zecora was already at her station in front of the administrator’s office. The zebra nodded at the Spectre and pinged her boss on the intercom. “Mr Anoleis?”

“What, what?” came the impatient reply. Twilight recognised the trademark salarian twang in the voice. It didn’t surprise her that a salarian would be the one leading a research outfit out here. The entire species was known for its scientific prowess.

“Our mutual friend is here for her audience, do you wish to meet with her and her companions?”

“Yes, yes, send her in. And stop that silly rhymes! It annoys me.”

Twilight frowned slightly at the administrator’s treatment of his secretary. The administrator seemed to be an impatient person, at least. For Zecora’s part, she seemed not to mind and gestured for the group to proceed to the office in the hallway beyond.

Twilight trundled past Zecora’s table and made for the unmarked glass doors that marked the administrator’s office. The portal opened soundlessly as they approached the door, revealing a modestly furnished office. Twilight’s eyes were immediately drawn to the adult salarian seated behind the large desk in the middle of the office, holoscreens and datacards stacked haphazardly on his desk. From the untouched appearance of the rest of the office, it was evident where Anoleis spent most of his time.

“You’ll excuse me if I don’t get up to greet you,” he began without preamble as Twilight trotted in. “I don’t have time to entertain nerdy bookworms.”

Twilight felt an eye twitch at his words. “I see you read my files,” she said evenly, determined not to lose her temper over his baiting.

“Only a fool would enter a negotiations without knowledge of the other parties’ tendencies,” was the nonchalant answer. The salarian blinked and steepled his fingers. “This greeting is only a courtesy. I’ll only cooperate as required by the Executive Board. Businesses come here to avoid the second guessing of galactic law.” His large amphibian eyes were studying each pony and asari coldly.

Straight to the point. A blunt alien, this one. “Very well. My sources tell me that an asari matriach has passed through here recently. Matriarch Benezia?”

Anoleis didn’t miss a beat. “She arrived a few days ago, accompanied by a personal escort and some cargo. She’s up at Peak 15.”

“Cargo? What kind of cargo?” Rarity asked, raising an eyebrow.

“Large, heavy and sealed. It passed weapons screening. Beyond that, it is not our concern.”

Twilight herself was intensely curious about the cargo. What could Benezia possibly be bringing out here? But she would have to find out later. “What brought her out here?”

Anoleis shrugged. “If I knew I wouldn’t be at liberty to say. Lady Benezia was here as Agent Saren’s executor.”

Twilight eyes bulged. “His what?” she blurted, hoping to have heard the last part wrong.

Anoleis rewarded Twilight with a disdainful look. “E-xe-cu-tor. Agent Saren is a major shareholder in Binary Helix. Lady Benezia is authorised to act in his name.” The commander frowned. Apparently news of Saren’s disgrace hasn’t reached this remote research outpost. Or Anoleis chose to ignore it. Either way, it bode ill for their mission.

“She’s here on business for Binary Helix. There were issues in Peak 15 that required Agent Saren’s attention.”

“Issues?”

The salarian’s eyes hardened. “As I said earlier, I am not at liberty to disclose confidential information,” he said coldly.

Twilight rolled her eyes. “Okay, fine. I need to see her.”

“I’m afraid that you cannot. Peak 15 is a private facility in the Scathi Mountain. Regardless, there is a blizzard in that area. Shuttles are grounded and surface access is cut off.” Anoleis seemed to be taking great pleasure in throwing obstacles in front of Twilight.

Rarity snorted in disbelief. “Now you’re pulling our tails. Don’t you have pegasi weather teams for these?”

“They’re currently occupied in the southern region of the planet, calming a hurricane at Peak 12. I was told they would be unavailable in a few days. As good as you ponies can be, you still cannot control the weather all the time.” He seemed to sneer at the trio for a moment.

“We have our own pegasi—”

“Cut. Off. I said. Don’t make an issue of this.”

“Commander, perhaps it would be best to find another way,” Liara said, putting a hand on her shoulder.

“I can see that.” Twilight closed her eyes and took a deep breath to steady her own rising temper. “Very well, I have no further requests. I’ll see you around, administrator,” she said.

Anoleis waved them off dismissively and turned his attention towards his computer. “Good. I received seven new urgent messages while we were wasting each others’ time.” Twilight gritted her teeth and turned away without a reply.

“Don’t worry, darling. We’ll find a way to get to Peak 15 with or without his help,” Rarity said as they walked out the door and began to head toward main plaza.

“Commander, I think the secretary is waving us over,” Liara commented. Twilight blinked in surprise and turned just in time to see Zecora walk up to them.

“My little pony, I see your meeting was not fruitful. Fear not, for there are others who might be useful.” The zebra glanced around shiftily. “Lo’rik Quinn. He wishes you well, and could be found in a certain hotel. Alas, I cannot stay to attend, lest I betray all to our mutual friend.” Zecora winked conspiratorially and brushed past the group, apparently on business of her own.

“Oh-kay... what was that all about?” Twilight said, blinking in confusion.

Liara stroked her chin thoughtfully. “I think there might be more going on that meets the eye, commander.”

“Well, let’s see what this... Lorik Qui’in has got to say,” Rarity said, trotting off towards the plaza.

***

[Hotel Lounge, Port Heihe]

The group found their mysterious friend in Port Heihe’s only luxury hotel’s lounge. The fact that the turian was the only one who seemed to be sitting alone, unoccupied by business, in contrast to the rest of the lounge, was a giveaway. As was usual for most turians, white face paint adorned his facial platings, a bygone relic of a strife-torn era for turians. Lorik seemed to perk up as Twilight approached his table.

“Afternoon. Sit down, have a drink. What can I do for you?” he greeted, evidently expecting her.

Twilight nodded back pleasantly but elected to remain standing. Her companions did the same.. “Lorik Q’uiin, I presume. I heard you might be able to help me.”

Lorik nodded in response. He gestured with his half-empty glass at Twilight. “You’re the Spectre that just arrived, are you not? What could an old turian like me possibly help you with?”

“I need to get to Peak 15. Anoleis won’t give me permission to go.”

Twilight swore she could hear the turian chuckling, though all she saw was the corners of his lips curving upwards. “Ah, you need a way up. How fortuitous.” He took a sip of his drink, and let a brief silence punctuate the air.

“Yes, very.”

“I’m the manager of the local Synthetic Insights office. For the moment at least. Mr. Anoleis closed my offices. He claimed to be investigating reports of my corruption.”

“Corruption?” Liara interjected.

Lorik just smiled thinly and leaned back into his seat. “Mr. Anoleis is a very interesting person. He has become quite wealthy since he took direct control of the rents.”

Twilight nodded slowly. So their mutual friend was corrupt as well? Somehow, that did not surprise her the least. “Interesting. Go on.”

“I have acquired evidence of his actions. He has his hired goons ransacking my office to find it as we speak. If you can acquire the evidence, I will give you my garage pass — it should let you bypass security — and a sum of credits.”

“Twilight, how about the blizzard? The roads would be treacherous!”

“Oh, you actually bought his song-and-dance about bad weather?” Lorik chuckled and took another sip of his drink. “There has been no actual bad weather for years now since you ponies moved in. I must admit, your pegasi weather teams are most efficient.”

Twilight already half-expected the administrator to lie through his teeth, so this wasn’t really a shock. Still, it was nice to have confirmation. “Hm... this changes things. We could actually fly up there. Though I doubt Anoleis will let us take a shuttle to the place.”

“Actually, don’t we have pegasi who can fly us there?” Liara mused.

Twilight’s eyes lit up. “I think you have something there. They won’t even need to carry us all the way.”

“Oh? Do elaborate.”

“I have this spell for cloud-walking. With it, we could actually ride on a cloud with the two pushing us there. I’m sure Rainbow and Fluttershy could tow us to the facility faster than if we used ground transportation.”

Liara looked sceptical. “Commander, that sounds a little dangerous. Wouldn’t it be easier to just borrow a shuttle?”

“Not quite. You can be sure Anoleis has his own guards inspecting each and every shuttle passing through his airspace. Besides, I’d like to avoid killing innocents if necessary. The spell is simple enough to cast. I cast it a dozen times myself.”

“There’s still the air defenses clustered around each outpost in this planet. Not to mention the possibility of them using pegasi or fighters to intercept us.”

Lorik coughed discreetly, interrupting the discussion. “Perhaps I could assist you in that. I have also come into possession a few local weather pegasi transponders. It should let you fool the anti-air defenses.”

Twilight smiled thinly and eyed the turian with renewed interest. “Interesting, Mr Qui’in. One would have thought you didn’t engage in such activities.” Not such a reputable character yourself, huh? she thought silently to herself. Still, they would need his help if they were to make any progress on this desolate outpost.

Lorik just shrugged off the subtle jab at his character. “In troubled times like this, one must take all sorts of precautions. I trust my deal is acceptable?” He seemed a trifle impatient now.

Twilight thought a little more about the offer before nodding firmly. “Fine. We’ll do it. Make sure to have the goods on hand when we come by to pick it up.”

Lorik leaned back into his chair, his mood seemingly very much improved. “Very well. Oh, and I should warn you, violence against Mr Anoleis’ thugs may be necessary. He has members of Heihe’s security team searching my office. Captain Viktor is unaware of their outside employment.”

“We’ll... manage. One way or another.” Twilight shuddered as she considered the prospect of needlessly complicating their stay here with killing members of the security, even if they were dirty. Not only she found killing to be abhorrent, on the practical side, far too many things could go wrong. She noticed Rarity giving her a disapproving look from the corner of her eyes.

Lorik produced a colourful plastic card from a pocket and slid it across the table. The unicorn caught the card and raised an eyebrow. “Excellent. Here’s the pass to my office. The elevator should take you straight to the floor.” Twilight nodded and stowed the pass in her saddlebags. Sensing there was little else to discuss till she got the job done, she began to turn away.

Lorik, however, had one final instruction for the unicorn. “Oh, and keep the blood stains off the carpets, will you?”

***

[Main Plaza, Port Heihe]

Twilight had a thoughtful expression on her face as they rode down the hotel elevator. “So, all we have to do is to go into his office...”

“Illegally.”

“... and retrieve whatever information he stored...”

“Illegally.”

“... and hand it back to him?”

“Illegally.”

The elevator chimed and the doors opened to the main plaza of the complex. The sounds of the busy plaza filled Twilight’s ears as they strolled out towards the office complexes on the other end.

“Oh hush, Rarity. It’s not like we haven’t broken the law before... not intentionally at least. Besides, it looked like Anoleis had something to hide. The turian hinted as much.”

Rarity shot her another black look. “I still don’t like all this business of sneaking about. We’re civilised ponies, not some batarian brute from the Terminus Systems who bludgeons their way through everything they cannot get their hooves on. I’m sure we can come to—”

A hesitant voice called out behind them. “Sis?”

Rarity stopped mid-sentence, her face frozen in surprise and shock. “Sw- Sweetie Belle?” she stuttered.

Twilight blinked in confusion. Another relative of her crew? What were the odds of that? She studied the young filly that called out to them. About the age of Apple Bloom, with cream coat. Her curly pink and purple mane was neatly bound into a tight bun. The resemblance between the two was quite uncanny. Her green eyes were both lively and intelligent.

“Rarity! What are you doing here?” she asked, in a somewhat nasal voice.

“I should be asking you the same thing, Sweetie Belle. I thought I left you to watch my boutique on New Atlanta.”

“Yeah... about that...” Sweetie Belle said sheepishly, a guilty expression suddenly crossing her face. An awkward silence followed, with the filly fidgeting nervously.

Rarity was clearly not amused. “Sweetie Belle. What. Happened. To. My. Boutique?” she asked in a dangerous voice.

“It’s fine! I promise! I’m just here to look over a new line of accessories I thought would be a good addition to the shop.”

Rarity blinked in surprise. “What accessories?”

“You know, the new shield modulators Synthetic Insights were planning to release? I hoped to negotiate a deal to add them to our latest Heavy Armour line. Together with your patented exoskeleton design, I thought maybe... we could have a shot of finally get one of those big contracts to outfit of those private security firms. You know, like TriSec.” Twilight had to dig deep to recall where she heard the name TriSec before. From what she could recall, it was a relatively largish security firm based on New Atlanta.

The change in Rarity’s expression was remarkable. Shock, surprise, pride, worry. All that flashed through her face in rapid sucession before she composed herself. Sweetie Belle flinched when Rarity put a hoof on her shoulder. “R-Rarity?”

“Sweetie Belle... I’m proud of you for taking such an initiative. I knew you had a good business sense... but this... this might actually take our business to a whole new level...” Rarity hugged her sister tightly.

Sweetie Belle seemed to too surprised to react properly. Her hooves clung to Rarity’s back. “Wow... thanks, big sis,” she said, a little surprised, though there was no doubting the sincerity of her gratitude.

Liara however, seemed baffled by the whole affair. “Just hold on a minute here. Rarity, your boutique sells armour?” she asked, seemingly incredulous at the whole affair of a boutique for armour pieces. Twilight herself wasn't fazed. Ponies had stranger ways of making their living.

“Why yes. Only the finest custom made armour on New Atlanta,” the engineer replied proudly, puffing her chest.

“Who would even buy such—”

“Um... well. It’s still a small market. Give it time...” Sensing her opportunity to change the awkward subject, she quickly turned her attention back to Sweetie Belle. “As for you, Sweetie Belle, there are still standards to uphold, young lady! What were you thinking coming here alone?”

Sweetie Belle raised a hoof to object. “B-but...”

Rarity was having none of it. “Do you know how dangerous Poneria is?! This is the Traverse, not Canterlot! Equestrian laws do not apply here. What happens if you got yourself into trouble?!” she continued, as if her sister never spoke.

“But...”

“No buts. You’ll march yourself to the Normaredy and let Rarity take care of this. I will not have you endanger yourself any further!”

“But!”

“I think you might want to listen to your big sister, Sweetie Belle,” Twilight said.

Sweetie Belle looked like she just swallowed a whole mouthful of baked bads, her eyes flitting between Rarity and Twilight. Finally, she sighed heavily. “... Fine. I’ll... go and wait at your ship.”

Rarity nodded with approval. “That’s a good girl.”

“I’m not sure you could get anything done, since Synthetic Insights are closed anyway. I been waiting around for them to reopen...”

Twilight glanced slyly at Rarity, who suddenly became very interested in the floor. “Don’t you worry, Sweetie Belle. I’m sure we’ll have a chat with the boss of Synthetic Insights himself...”

“Oh, that’ll be great! Um... see you later then...?”

“Yes, Sweetie Belle. Run along now.”

Twilight waited until Sweetie Belle disappeared in the direction of their ship before turning to Rarity with a sly smile of her own. “About that job...”

Rarity waved her friend away impatiently. “Yes, yes. When do we start?”

Twilight smiled. “This evening. After office hours.”

***

[Synthetic Insights, Port Heihe]

Twilight glanced about furtively as they stood about in front the main office complex elevators. Despite the lack of attention from the local guards so far, she remained wary about the possibility of being discovered. There would be many repercussions if they were found out.

Rarity herself seemed to be remarkably unconcerned. “Let us begin,” she said softly, and pressed the card against the reader. Immediately one of the elevator doors opened, chiming softly.

“Quick,” Twilight hissed, ushering everypony into the elevator. The seconds seemed to tick by slowly as she watched the glass doors close slowly and felt the lift beginning its ascent. She breathed a sigh of relief, before gesturing for her companions to ready their weapons.

After minutes of anxious waiting, the elevator finally slowed to a halt and chimed again. The glass doors slid open to reveal two pony guards aiming their weapons at the trio. “Freeze! This office is closed for investigations.” As if to punctuate their warning, their assault rifles clicked menacingly.

Almost by reflex, Twilight had already started channeling her magic, though she soon felt a hoof gently tapping her shoulder. She turned to see Rarity slowly shaking her head. “Let me,” she mouthed. Twilight blinked for a moment before letting her magic dissipate. She let Rarity step past her towards the guards. The ERCS guards tensed visibly and focused their weapons on the white unicorn.

To their surprise, Rarity just smiled. A deadly, predatory smile. “Tsk tsk. We all know what’s really going on here. Now why don’t both of you be a dear and run back home before we tell on you?” The guards flinched a little at her casual words.

“I... uh... ”

Rarity clicked the safety off her gun, then decided to admire the filings on her hoof. All the while keeping the same smile on her face.

“Dude, we’re not paid for this. Let’s bail,” the first guard said, his voice verging on panic.

“... Right.”

The two guards squeezed past the two ponies and rode down the lift before anypony else could say a word. “Huh. You certainly have a way of charming colts,” Twilight commented.

Rarity flashed a smile, this time a friendlier one. “Being a lady, my dear Twilight, does not mean one is helpless. Now come on, let’s move before more of these brutes decide to investigate.” As Rarity brushed past her, Twilight had to wonder what exactly Rarity did before coming to be the chief engineer of the Normaredy.

***

“Here we are,” Twilight exclaimed. She popped out from underneath the massive desk that dominated Lorik Qui’in’s office, holding up an OSD triumphantly. “Exactly where he said it would be.” The unicorn carefully stowed the storage device in her saddlebags. Liara, who was cautiously peering out the door, motioned for the group to hurry.

“Let’s go,” Twilight said firmly, and made to move out of the plushly decorated office.

“I don’t think you’re supposed to be in here.”

Twilight stopped in her tracks as a small group of guards appeared, surrounding the only entrance of the office. She frowned as a red-coated unicorn emerged from the lines of stone-faced ERCS guards. The griffon’s second-in-command. His green eyes glittered with malice as he grinned triumphantly. “Thank you for finding the data disk for us. It makes my job so much easier.”

“You? You’re working for Anoleis? For shame,” Rarity spat, eyeing the leader with contempt.

The corrupt ERCS sergeant just smiled. “Smart unicorn. Too bad you won’t be walking out of here.” His eyes roved up and down Rarity’s flanks. “Pity, you had such a nice body too. Would be a shame to waste such beauty.” His smile grew wider as Rarity turned purple with contained rage.

“Sergeant Thistle, what do we do with the intruders?” one of the guards asked.

“Kill them and dispose of their bodies. Spectre or not, they still die to a bullet to the head.” A series of clicks answered his order, the goons under his command prepared to fire their weapons.

“Enough,” Twilight shouted, her eyes flashing with anger. She stomped her hooves on the delicate marble floor, and sent a shockwave reverberating towards the guards, throwing them off balance and shattering the office’s glass windows and doors. Whoops. Looks like Lorik was just going to have pay for clean up after all, Twilight idly thought as she sprinted out of the room and leapt off the balcony, landing on the floor below with a clipped thud. She turned just in time to see Rarity and Liara landing smoothly beside her. Relived that her friends escaped as well, Twilight looked up towards the sergeant, who had somehow managed to stagger to the balcony railings. “Let’s not be hasty. Walk away and we won’t be forced to put you down.”

Sergeant Thistle opted to sneer at Twilight. “Hah, you won’t be getting away that easily. My ponies have this office surrounded. There is no way you’re getting out of here alive.”

Twilight shook her head sadly. “I hoped to avoid this. Very well. I do what I must for Equestria.” Her horn lit up brilliantly again with a intense purple glow, eliciting a frightened shout from the guards. She hovered off the floor, crackling with magical energies.

“Well, what are you waiting for? Shoot her!” Sergeant Thistle screamed. Nopony seemed interested in obeying in the slightest, to her dismay.

Rarity stared at the sight with foal-like wonder. “Twilight...?”

“Rarity, I think seeking cover would be a very good idea now,” Liara said, dragging the unicorn under an overturned desk. The entire room was enveloped with brilliant blue light. A loud voice boomed throughout the room.

“In the name of the Princess, SLEEP!”

***

The disheveled ponies (and asari) that emerged from the elevator were a far cry from the group that went up earlier on an ostensibly simple retrieval mission. Rarity blew a stray lock of mane off her eyes and eyed her equally tired friend. “Twilight. Warn us next time before you to do that. At the very least you could let us find some decent cover.”

“Sorry... I wasn’t really thinking all too hard at the time...” Twilight replied, resisting the impulse to just rest her head on the cool floor and sleep off her momentray fatigue.

“Commander, I can see you weren’t exaggerating about your previous stories. I admit I found them to be quite the tall tale,” Liara commented, brushing the dust off her suit.

Twilight’s cheeks coloured slightly and looked away. “Yeah, it was something I practiced for quite some time...” she said, a little embarrassed. “I’m glad it worked so well.”

Rarity chuckled softly. “I can see why you got that M7 now, Twilight. Remind me never to get on your bad side.”

Twilight paused in her hoofsteps, turning to look at Rarity. “You wouldn’t be scared of me now... would you?” she asked, a little hesitantly.

“Nonsense, Twilight. Why would—”

“I am pleased to see you return unharmed. Many others would have perished unlamented.”

“Zecora?”

“This matter is quite unpleasant, yet it is important to all that is present. It is imperative we talk, and it would be unwise to balk. The hotel bar is open and there, we must leave nothing unspoken.” Zecora glanced at the timepiece on her foreleg, for a moment, before continuing. She seem to note the disheveled appearance of the ponies with disapproval. “Do get yourself tided up, you looked like you just woke up.” With that, Zecora turned and disappeared down the corner, leaving the befuddled ponies to ponder on her cryptic words.

“I wish she wouldn’t do that so often. It’s so unbecoming of an official of her position,” Rarity said.

***

They found the mysterious zebra exactly where she said she would be: at the hotel bar. This time however, there was something subtly different about how the zebra carried herself. Instead of the deference and polite respect she exuded throughout their prior meetings, there was now an authoritative air around her. She gestured for them to take seats beside her.

“Allow me to reintroduce myself. Zecora, Poneria’s Internal Affairs,” she said in a crisp voice, her Zebraic accent almost gone. She smiled a little at the bewildered faces of Twilight and Rarity. “Yes, contary to most ponies’ assumption, zebras are perfectly capable of normal speech. We just do not use them most of the time. Over here, things are a little different, and one must adapt. After all, you cannot hardly expect a krogan or even a hanar to understand the subtle nuances of Zebraic speech.” Zecora had the tact to leave out the fact that even ponies did not understand their neighbours at times. Said misunderstanding had led to wars in the distant past.

“So, why all the secrecy? What is an Internal Affairs agent doing here?”

Zecora chuckled and resumed in that slightly accented Equestrian. “The peculiarities of Zebraic culture has its uses, especially in a place like these. Nopony takes a zebra with that funny accent seriously. Anoleis thought he finally had a break when I transferred in from HQ.”

Twilight just nodded slowly, beginning to take stock of the situation. Evidently, there was some sort of political jockeying going on and she just walked right into the middle of a brewing firestorm. The fact that she was just a convenient pawn for the various parties to juggle around did not escape her.

“But let us not dawdle any longer, for time is short and profits at stake. The Executive Board knows of Anoleis’ corruption. I want you to convince Qui’in to testify before the Board. With his evidence, this planet can run profitably again.”

“How did you...?”

Zecora slipped back into her more traditional speech. “If you recall, it was I who spoke of Qui’in. I know of his troubles, much to his chagrin.” Her blue eyes glittered with amusement.

“Of course. How else would you set us up?”

“Commander, we still need his... passes to get to Peak 15,” Liara interjected.

“Ah, Spectre, favour for a favour. The way will be clear, on my honour.”

“Darling, I strongly suggest we follow this lady’s advice. Anoleis is a thieving cad that should be brought to justice. If we can get our ticket up to the mountain along the way, it’ll be just cherry on top.” Twilight glanced at her friend for a moment, before nodding in agreement.

“Very well then. Let me see if I can convince Qui’in.”

***

“What? You have my property and now you presume to dictate me on how to use it?” Qui’in barked.

Twilight winced. It was a reaction she half-expected, and he actually sympathised with him on this one. “Look, Mr Qui’in... I’m sorry we’re backing out on our end of the deal, but it is really for the best. Anoleis is frankly a criminal, and we should be working together to bring him to justice.”

Lorik glared back. “I’m not interested in helping those Internal Affairs lackeys to apprehend their own. They all are the same, corporate bureaucrats who do nothing but profit off the back of honest businessmen like me.”

That struck a nerve with Twilight. This selfish turian was willing to put his own interest above that of the common good? She kept her voice pleasant, although she could feel her own face tightening slightly. “Mr. Qui’in. I do not wish to threaten you, but I am the one holding your OSD now.” She smiled a little as the turian recoiled briefly. That certainly got his attention. He recovered gamely and stared back at Twilight with an impassive face.

“Very well. I’m listening.”

“Mr. Qui’in... Lorik. I understand you’re leery about trusting the authorities in this one. After all, it was one of them that had closed down your business in the name of ‘corruption’. I assure you that Zecora is nothing like Anoleis. If it helps, I’ll make sure Zecora properly rewards you for this.”

“Think about it. You’ll be hailed the hero who brought down the oppressive rule of Anoleis. You’ll be famous!” Rarity added, with a touch of her own dramatic flair.

For a full minute, Lorik stared at the two ponies in disbelief. Then, he shook his head and gulped down the rest of the drink. Putting down his now empty glass with a audible clink, he chuckled softly. “It is quite odd to see such idealism. Odd... but refreshing.” Twilight held her breath. This was it. Either he agrees or he walks away.

Lorik did not disappoint. “Very well, since I cannot convince you otherwise, I will testify in this trial of yours. Tell this... Zecora, I will be her witness.”

Twilight let out a small squeal of delight. “Thank you!” she cried, hugging the turian.

Lorik seemed a little perturbed by the hug and gently eased Twilight off as best he could without being rude. “Please, do not thank me. I fear I will regret this when I’m sober.”

“A boon, Mr. Qui’in, if you will,” Rarity said, stepping past Twilight.

“What is it? Haven’t I already given you enough?” Lorik replied, his voice wary again.

“I think you will like this proposal...” Rarity said with a small smile, before leaning forward and whispering into the turian’s ear.

Lorik smiled slightly as he listened, and nodded at Rarity as she stepped back. “Interesting proposal... hm... this could work. Tell this... Sweetie Belle to call me on my personal number later. We will need to have a talk. I won’t make any promises, but I am cautiously interested.”

Rarity beamed. “Mr. Qui’in, I do most appreciate your time.”

***

Zecora nodded happily as Twilight relayed the good news. “Relived I am, that Qui’in saw reason. Truth to be told, I wasn’t at all certain.”

“Okay, time to hold your end of the bargain. Let us through the air defense grid.”

“It has already been done, Twilight Sparkle. The skies are yours for your gamble. Please understand this never happened, and all shall be denied if questioned.” Zecora was certainly still interested in covering her own flank in case Twilight’s mission went pear-shaped. Not that it mattered to the Spectre. She did not intend to fail.

“That’s fine by me. This should ease our journey considerably.”

Zecora rummaged through her drawer to produce a pistol. “Only one more matter left to wrap up. The criminal behind all this must be locked up.” She winked at Twilight, and smoothed down her uniform. Satisfied that she was properly ready, Zecora stepped into the hallway and disappeared into Anoleis’ office.

A series of shouts and sounds of a minor scuffle later, Zecora reemerged with her hooves firmly holding Anoleis’ thin arms in a lock hold. “This is an outrage!” he shouted, much to the amusement of the ponies outside.

“Please cease your cries of disdain. I assure you, your protests are in vain.”

“I demand to see my lawyer! I’ll make sure you won’t work in this sector again!” Anoleis’ face was contorted with anger, and he continued his feeble struggles.

“Child, your threats are hollow as the cold air. Might I suggest you spare us the despair?”

“Zecora! You will regret this. Sparkle! I know you had a hand at this. I won’t forget this insult!” Anoleis cried.

Ignoring Anoleis, Zecora tilted her head in goodbye at Twilight, before marching the still-struggling salarian off towards the port. Twilight could still hear Anoleis shouting insults long after they disappeared from view. Mostly about how he would take pleasure in grinding them under his boots.

“Well, good riddance to bad apples, as Applejack might say,” Rarity commented.

***

[Briefing Room, ESV Normaredy]

Rainbow Dash paced impatiently in front of the viewscreen as the ground team filed into the room. She huffed as the last of the ground team took their seats and tapped the screen. “Okay everypony. Since you guys are unfamiliar with basic safety on pegasi cloud structures, I’m going to give a crash course so that we won’t have any accidents later. Fluttershy, bring up the next slide please.”

The viewscreen switched to a mouth-drawn diagram of a cloud. A dead silence permeated the room as everypony absorbed the masterpiece shown on the screen. It resembled one of those hastily sketched doodles one might do during a boring lecture. It even had the requisite stick figures and smileys. Unsurprisingly, the briefing room burst out in laughter, with the loudest coming from Applejack and Wrex.

“Pony, where did you learn to draw? From a child’s nursery? I seen weanlings who drew better than this,” Wrex bellowed, clutching his sides in mirth.

Rainbow Dash flushed angrily and stomped her hooves. “Hey! This is the best I can do with only an hour prep time, okay!”

“Dash, it might be better if you let me handle the art next time. At least I know how to use a graphic illustrator program,” Garrus quipped, much to the delight of the rest and earning a murderous glare from Rainbow Dash.

“Um... girls. Maybe we should...”

Rainbow flew up to the turian and poked him angrily on the nose. “Oh yeah, if you’re so smart, why don’t you give the presentation, huh?”

Garrus held up his hands in mock surrender. “C’mon, Dash, relax. It was only a joke,” he said, a little defensively.

“Girls...?”

Rainbow Dash snorted, her wings flaring. She looked ready to engage in fisticuffs. “Yeah! Well, it wasn’t funny!”

Wrex cracked his knuckles. “If it’s a fight you want, I’ll give you one.”

“Bring it on, fish-head!”

“GIRLS!”

The entire argument juddered to a halt. Fluttershy squeaked as eight pairs of eyes fell on her and used the suddenly inadequate table for cover. “Um... maybe we should start the presentation before Benezia gets away... you know... um... I mean, if it’s okay with you.”

Twilight quickly stepped in before Rainbow and Wrex could resume their grudge match. “Yes, please. Rainbow, we promise not to laugh okay?” She glared daggers at the worst offenders. Applejack had the grace to look ashamed, while Wrex just shrugged nonchalantly.

“No promises, Sparkle.”

“Just try, okay?”

Wrex grunted and muttered something unintelligible under his breath. Twilight took that as a sign of his agreement and waved for Rainbow to continue.

Rainbow sighed and rolled her eyes. “Okay, so here is a graphical representation of a cloud...”

***

[Landing Pad, Port Heihe]

Twilight stood at the edge of the landing pad, scanning the skies for signs of Rainbow and Fluttershy. Ankle-deep snow swirled around her feet, threatening to bury the unicorn. Twilight was glad that Rarity took the time to install a personal warmer in her M7 suit. Otherwise, she would be freezing her hooves off in this weather. Apparently “calm” weather in Poneria meant the absence of snowstorms. Snow falls like these were considered to be mild, even when they bury a pony three feet under the snow. Twilight was surprised at how unsurprised she was by the absurdity of the Ponerian’s weather classification.

“I wish Rainbow would hurry the hay up. A snowstorm ain’t the best place to be standing about,” Applejack said, the earth pony billowing great puffs of steam as she huddled near the blast doors. AJ seemed to have an even lower tolerance of the cold than Twilight herself.

“Weeeee!” Pinkie shouted, sliding all over the snow. The party pony had already built an improbably large snowfort already in her first ten minutes outside.

“Sorry!” A familiar rainbow blur approached from the distance, together with a large cloud formation trailing behind her. Twilight could just glimpse the fluttering of yellow wings behind the cloud. Fluttershy must be pushing from behind.

The two pegasi pushed their chosen cloud down onto the half-frozen landing pad. Rainbow breathed a sigh of relief and glanced at Twilight. “You have no idea how long it took to find an ice-free cloud of a suitable size,” she grumbled.

Twilight nodded with approval at their choice. It was about twice the size of the Mako, and the insides appeared to have been hollowed out to accommodate passengers and to protect somewhat from the chill. “All right! All aboard the Cloud Express. Let’s get this show on the road!” Rainbow Dash called out. Twilight went first and stationed herself the small opening, casting her cloud walking spell on each pony that entered the “transport”.

“Wow, I never knew clouds felt this soft...” Garrus said, leaning forward as he stepped through the slightly too-small opening. “Then again, I never thought I’ll be stepping on a cloud myself.”

Tali took her seat on what appeared to resemble a seat and prodded the soft material with a gloved finger. “Remarkable. Is this how clouds really feel like?” she said with wonder.

“Please don’t poke the cloud. It’s um... very fragile...” Fluttershy reprimanded shyly.

“Yeah. Trust me, it ain’t pretty if we lose integrity in mid-air and we all have to catch you...” Rainbow added, patting down an errant stump on the cloud’s exterior.

Twilight was the last to enter the cloud “cabin”. “We better hurry. The cloud-walking spell will only last a few hours and we have a long way ahead of us. Rainbow, are you sure you can get us there without being detected?”

“No problem. With Fluttershy’s help here, we should be able to cruise below Peak 15’s anti-air defense grid and get to the emergency entrance on the south side with nopony the wiser.”

Fluttershy seemed to wilt under the expectant gaze of the group. “Uhh... Rainbow, I’m not sure...”

“Trust me.”

“Let’s go then!” Twilight said, glad to be finally on her way. One step closer to finding Saren and with luck, finding out and stopping his master plan.

***

It was dark. So dark that she could almost reach out and touch the inky darkness. If only her hooves weren’t bound.

Just like a certain Nightmare once upon a time.

The pony shook her head clear. Not this time. She would not be so weak as to fall again. Once was one time too many.

Once again, she tried to reach out to her magic. Any magic. Her horn let out a weak fizzle, but that was it. The pony grunted with effort and tried again. She was rewarded with a stronger fizzle. Worn out even by this weak effort, she slumped again to the floor, panting slowly.

A slow clap sounded behind the bound pony. “A valiant struggle. But ultimately futile Princess. I have taken steps to... ensure your safety.”

“Who are you?”

“My name? I am known as the Prophet by the geth. But you may know me as Saren.” The sharp intake of breath brought a smile to the turian’s face. “You will learn to serve. As everyone on this ship did.”