• Published 25th Sep 2011
  • 10,238 Views, 180 Comments

Pony Effect - Grif



What if ponies replaced humans in the Mass Effect universe?

  • ...
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Chapter 6

[Exo-Poni Headquarters, Harnos]

After another brief engagement with the geth outside the makeshift Exo-Poni bunker, Twilight and her companions managed to reach the Exo-Poni HQ without further complications. They stormed the building front door in a blaze of cannon fire with the Mako and pushed into the building on foot.

For most part, the geth seemed quite taken by surprise by the bold attack on their base. The squad managed to gun down several unsuspecting geth troopers before the alarm was even raised. Even after alerting the entire base, the team didn’t slow down as they plowed through the defenses the remaining geth put up.

In an act of desperation, the geth enacted energy barriers throughout the building, sealing the team and any surviving geth in. To the horror of the team, the energy barrier was impervious to conventional weaponry. Nothing they had could break through. Furthermore, attempts to establish radio contact to the Normaredy and Lix’s Hope had so far been futile. One small consolation they had was that the energy barrier probably took a lot of power and the power source had to be somewhere within the building. Or so they hoped.

“Shh... I think somepony is coming.” Twilight held up a hoof as they approached the doorway to another research lab in a dimly lit corridor. The crunch of small pebbles under their feet echoed loudly in the silence.

“Okay, this one doesn’t seem locked, going to open it now.” Twilight punched the button on the panel.

*Bang!*

Fortunately for the lavender unicorn, she had ducked into cover upon hearing the shot. Tali and Wrex brought up their weapon in response, covering the pony who aimed a pistol shakily at the trio. “S-stay back. I know how to use this.”

“Kid, put that gun down before you get hurt,” Wrex replied, his rifle aimed steadily at the pony’s head. Twilight quickly put a hoof to the krogan’s arm to stay his aim.

“We’re from the Equestria Navy. We’re here to help,” Twilight said, injecting a note of reassurance in her voice. The civilian looked warily at the trio for a moment, before dropping the pistol.

A profuse round of apologies and explanation later, the civilian, who was a scientist in the employ of Exo-Poni Corporation, tagged nervously behind the trio. Despite his obvious aversion to combat, Twilight thought the gray stallion held up pretty well considering the situation. Plus, he had access codes to every locked door in the building, barring the energy barrier. At least they wouldn’t have to blast their way through the doors now. She idly wondered how much property damage their little excursion had caused thus far.

“So, what do think the geth are after in Harnos?” Twilight asked, still keeping her eyes peeled for any roaming geth.

“I don’t know, there’s nothing particularly valuable on Harnos... unless they’re after the Thorian.” the scientist aptly named Deep Six replied. He shook his silver mane free of the dust that collected in copious amount.

“What’s a Thorian?” Tali quizzed curiously.

“It’s a plant species native to the planet.” The scientist looked around nervously before continuing. “The properties of the plant is... rather unique. Exo-Poni has been studying it for quite sometime.”

“Unique?” Something about the way the scientist answered the question triggered alarm bells in Twilight’s mind. She brought the group to a halt and glowered at the scientist. “Tell me about this Thorian. Now.”

It turned out the Thorian had been inadvertently discovered by a small group of surveyors just beneath Lix’s Hope some two years prior to the geth attack. The corporation found that the group was infected by some sort of organic spores which nopony could identify. Instead of evacuating the colony, the corporation had decided to isolate all infected personnel there and observe the effect of the alien spores. Obviously this was done without knowledge of the inhabitants of the outpost.

Within a month, 80% of the colonist were infected. By the end of the year, everypony on the outpost had been infected with the spores. Outwardly, they showed no sign of behavioural change, save for an extreme reluctance to leave the colony. When taken for tests, the infected colonists were wracked with unexplained neurological pain and headaches. The Exo-Poni scientists had postulated that the Thorian was sentient, and in fact keeping the colonists as its thralls. It imposed its will via negative reinforcement, unleashing pain on the subject until it acquiesced to its will.

Twilight felt her eyes shrinking to pinpricks as the scientist continued his story. Were they already infected? No unexplained headaches and mysterious voices in my head so far. She glanced at her companions. Tali should be immune, with her environmental suit. The krogan might be susceptible, but he didn’t show any signs either. Neither did the other ponies for that matter. Twilight took that as a good sign.

“You mean to say, you let those poor ponies get infected by an alien lifeform. And you told nopony about it?!” Twilight thundered, as she fought to keep her anger in check. Deep Six shrank back from the murderous looks the trio was giving him.

“I’ll say we off him now and hightail it back to the colony,” Wrex snarled, clicking the safety off his rifle. The stallion looked positively terrified now.

“Wait! Please, I don’t want to die here. You could stop this madness. Kill the Thorian. That should set the colonists free,” he cried desperately, shrinking from the krogan.

“Wouldn’t the Thorian force the colonists to defend it?” Tali said thoughtfully.

“Yes... yes, that would be the expected reaction. But I have been working on the company’s contingency plan to remove the plant should it ever pose a problem.” Deep Six fumbled in his saddlepacks and produced a grenade mod in his mouth.

“This is a form of nerve gas—” the scientist began, before Twilight cut him off.

“Nerve gas? We’re not going to poison innocent civilians here,” Twilight interjected harshly. Deep Six gulped and shook his head frantically.

“No! Nothing like that. See, the Thorian’s control over the colonists comes at a price. By now their neurological systems are so weakened, that even a harmless dose of neurotoxin will disable them. At least in theory.” He gave a nervous grin at the still-irate unicorn. Twilight stared at the earthpony scientist for good long while, thinking of her alternatives. They could probably knock the colonists out with blunt force, but the risks of doing so were high. Killing them were not an option obviously.

She nodded at the scientist slowly. “Fine. We’ll test your theory in action,” she said grudgingly, taking the mod from the scientist’s mouth and stowing it in her backpack. Deep Six looked relived at her apparent acceptance.

“Now, all we need to do now is to find a way out of here...”

***

“Kee’lah,” Tali whispered, as they stood before the geth dropship which was attached the outer walls of the office. Tubes of various sizes snaked from the grey ship, disappearing into makeshift holes in the room.

“They’re using their own ship to power the energy barriers?!” Twilight said incredulously.

“We don’t have the firepower to bring that thing down,” Wrex said thoughtfully, as his eyes studied the ship.

Twilight groaned in despair. They made it all the way here, only to be foiled by a lack of high explosives. She began pacing around the room, searching for anything that might help them.

“Hey! There’s a blast door control here.” Tali was hunched over a console at the far end of the room. “Hm, the maintenance log here says that the blast doors will shut with enough force to shear steel under a certain amount of pressure.”

“Good idea, maybe we can—”

A loud explosion interrupted her speech. The compression blast from the explosion swept over the trio, knocking them off their feet.

Coughing from the smoke filling the room, she looked up to find the geth ship suddenly sprouting flames, a hole tore clean right through the ship. The geth ship creaked and groaned, as the supporting clamps failed and the tubes began snapping one by one. Finally, with one final groan, the whole ship fell off the building, into the cloudy mist below.

“How did the ship explode?” Twilight exclaimed, her eyes wide at the spectacle. Then she heard a familiar voice cut through the smoke.

“And Rainbow Dash saves the day again!”

***

[Weather Control Station, Harnos]

Just a few minutes before, Rainbow Dash wasn’t so supremely confident of her ability to save the day. In fact, she was downright uncertain whether she would stay alive for next minute.

The weather station was completely deserted. Empty. Nada. Rainbow Dash had never heard of a weather station being completely abandoned before. Even if the geth did attack the place, the pegasus ponies stationed here would at least make a stand... wouldn’t they? At any rate, the eerie silence and lack of ponies was starting to creep the sky-blue pegasus out. She began to take a hesitant step towards the open entrance.

A soft whimper behind Dash sent her flying to the roof.

“Dash, are you in there?” a soft voice called out.

Dash shook the stars out of her eyes and glanced irritably at the shy yellow pegasus who startled her so badly. “Fluttershy! Don’t sneak up on ponies like that. You’re going to give me a scare.” Well, she was unprepared, so it was totally not her fault.

“I... I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to... maybe I should just stand here and um... wait for you to finish...” Fluttershy said slowly, her face turning away in embarrassment. Dash let out an irritated sigh and tried to hide her exasperated feelings.

“Let’s try this again. Fluttershy, have you found anything?”

A whimper. Dash thought it wasn’t possible for anypony to curl up in fear like that, but Fluttershy went ahead and did it anyway.

“Fluttershy! This is important,” Dash pleaded.

Another whimper. Dash clenched her teeth in frustration. Sometimes Fluttershy can be too darned shy for her own good.

Angel apparently had the same thought as Dash and stomped his feet in an annoyed fashion on the pegasus’ back. The bunny marched up to the pegasus’ left ear and whispered a few words for her benefit. Fluttershy’s eyes widened. “You wouldn’t!” she cried. Angel just shook his head in reply. The pegasus sighed softly. “Alright, Angel Bunny. Only for you.”

She took a deep breath, before starting her tale. “We found some geth... bodies. But nopony else. Everypony seemed to have... disappeared.”

Dash stamped her hooves on the ground. “That’s what I thought. The geth must have foalnapped them.” She gave her wings a strong flap and hovered in the air. “Come on Fluttershy, we need to search for other survivors at the skybridges-” A steadily increasing whine outside the building interrupted the rest of her speech.

“What the hay?” Dash exclaimed.

Bullets stitched through the cloud walls, peppering the whole room with indiscriminate fire. Angel instinctively put up a biotic barrier, shielding them from the rain of bullets temporarily.

“Come on, Fluttershy. We need to get out of here now!” Rainbow grabbed Fluttershy and Angel by the hoof and dragged them out of the door in a rainbow blur. They rocketed out of the cloud tower.

They were met with a chilling sight. Dash had to slow down to avoid crashing head on into the geth dropship circling the tower. Her violet eyes widened in fear as the machine guns on the ship swivelled to track her.

“Fluttershy! Fly! Now! I’ll distract ‘em.” She dropped Fluttershy into the clouds below, hoping that the pegasus would regain her wits enough to fly off and raced off in a completely random direction. Then she flew. Flew like the wind.

Dash did every trick she remembered to throw off the geth dropship. Loop-de-loops. Corkscrew dance. Everything.

The geth ship followed her acrobatics unerringly, closing the gap steadily with every minute. Dash could feel a couple of bullets whizzing past as the geth ship closed in. Only one trick left up her metaphorical sleeve. The Sonic Rainboom. A feat, most pegasi thought impossible. A feat, she only managed to pull off once. A feat, she had been never been ever to replicate since.

Okay, Dash, you can do this. All you need to do is pull off the Sonic Rainboom again. That’ll knock the geth ship out handily enough. Hah, that sounds easy enough.

Her mind wandered back to all the failed attempts of her trying to recreate the Sonic Rainboom. Countless times of her crashing awkwardly back into the ground or some other object. Dash squeezed her eyes shut, trying to block out the failures in the past. She could do this. She’d have to.

Rainbow began increasing her speed again, angling her body downwards towards the clouds. She’d need every bit of help gravity could provide. The geth ship followed her down, guns blazing. Dash could feel a few bullets hitting home now, but her kinetic barrier remained intact... barely.

Faster... faster.

She could feel the air heating up around her, and a glow began forming at the tip of her hooves.

Faster... faster. C’mon, faster. Dash clenched her teeth as she pushed herself harder than she ever did in years.

Silence.

For a fraction of a second there, Rainbow thought she failed. She wasn’t fast enough. She lost. Now, she was going to pay the price with her life.

Then she heard it. The roar of onrushing air being swept apart at sonic speed. Out of the corner of her eyes, she saw the familiar hues of a rainbow forming and spreading out in a circle behind. The Sonic Rainboom. She grinned wildly as she sped ahead.

“Yeaaaaaaahhhhhhhhhhh!” she whooped as she did a corkscrew.

The geth ship wasn’t so lucky. The Sonic Rainboom, if anything, was a manifestation of pure electromagnetic energy. The ship shook and went silent as the rainbow wave of energy washed over it, its systems apparently overloaded. The mass effect core of the ship however, kept it afloat.

Rainbow Dash did a wide 180 turn and hovered in front of the now silent ship, unsure of her next move. Then her radio crackled. The geth jamming must be gone. “Dash... a-are you there? *eep* P-P-Please respond.”

“Yeah, I’m here Fluttershy,” she answered as insouciantly as possible, masking her relief that Fluttershy survived as well.

“Dash! Thank Celestia you’re alright... What happened to the geth ship?... If you don’t mind me asking,” the pegasus’ soft voice said.

“I disabled it, of course.”

“Wow... you’re a brave filly Dash.” Fluttershy answered. After a brief pause, she continued. “Um... I found another of those geth ships—”

“What?! Get out of there!” Dash half-shouted into the radio frantically. If that silly filly got herself killed like that... Dash didn’t have the heart to think further.

“It’s... stuck to a building. It didn’t notice me hiding above it...” came the shy reply.

“Oh...” Dash’s voice trailed off as a crazy idea sprung to life in her head. “Wait right there, I got a special delivery to make.”

***

[Exo-Poni Headquarters, Harnos]

“... Rainbow Dash, that’s both insane and brilliant, crashing the geth ships into each other like that.”

“Of course!” Dash said smugly, striking a heroic pose while hovering. “Wait, insane here means good right?”

Twilight giggled at her uncertain expression. “In this case, yes,” she reassured.

“You definitely got a quad there Dash, taking down two geth ships like that,” Wrex nodded with new-found respect. The rainbow-hued pegasus looked at the krogan blankly.

“What’s a quad?” Dash asked innocently. Twilight wasn’t so oblivious to the meaning though, and began to giggle uncontrollably. “What?” Dash asked, a confused look on her face.

Her radio crackled into life just then, sparing Rainbow from further potential embarrassment. “...this is the ESV Normaredy, calling for ground team. Please respond...” Twilight quickly sobered up and forced her mind back into reality.

Twilight put a hoof to her ear and cut into the channel. “This is Commander Sparkle. We have disabled the geth jamming in the area.”

“Twilight?!” Scootaloo’s voice seemed relieved. “Thank Celestia you’re safe. Listen, something’s wrong. The entire colony gone crazy. They’re swarming the airlock and are trying to break into the ship.” Twilight winced. That was bad. And Applejack... Oh no.

“Scootaloo, get any remaining marines on that door and make sure they don’t break through. Worse come to worst, you are authorised to take off and seek reinforcements.” She did not mention the fact that the entire ground team would also be left stranded on the planet.

The pilot took the hint well enough. Her voice became grim. “Aye, Commander.” She broke radio contact and turned towards the her companions.

“Okay, here’s the plan. First, we need to stop by the Exo-Poni bunker and drop this scientist off.” Twilight pointed a hoof at Deep Six, who staring wordlessly at the gap in the wall. “I have a few hard questions for the director himself.” Her tone left no doubt what kind of question she would be asking.

***

[Tunnels, Harnos]

Rarity watched curiously as the pink earth pony bounced and twitched all over the crumbling concrete floor. The spectacle went on for a full minute before subsiding.

“Wow. That was a doozy alright,” Pinkie Pie said.

“What’s a doozy?” Rarity asked, already frowning. So far, Pinkie hadn’t done anything to jeopardise the mission, but her randomness was really starting to grate on her nerves.

“My Pinkie Sense. Something bad is happening to one of our friends,” Pinkie said rather ominously.

“Nonsense Pinkie. They’re quite capable of taking care of themselves,” Rarity replied, dismissing the warning out of hand. “Now let’s finish arming the explosives so we can get back to the colony... and to civilization.”

“I warn you, they’re super duper accurate,” Pinkie said.

“All set,” Garrus called from the distance.

“Right. Let’s move.” Rarity said, ignoring Pinkie’s comment.

The trio took cover behind the corner in the hallway and detonated the explosives. The ancient tunnels collapsed spectacularly, leaving a giant mess of debris blocking the tunnels. “That should put a crimp on the geth’s plan,” Garrus said with satisfaction.

“Weeeeeee, let’s go pick up Gummy.” Pinkie Pie said, apparently already forgetting about her prior warning.

***

“Wait, where’s High Fives?” Garrus said, scratching his head. The unstable colonist was missing from his spot in the tunnel. Looking around, they spotted the varren lying still in a corner.

“Oh no! He knocked out Gummy!” Pinkie exclaimed, as she rushed to her newfound pet.

A bullet whistled over their head. The trio turned to see High Five slowly walking them, a pistol in his mouth. “... must... protect... the colony...” the stallion slowly mumbled, as he shuffled towards them, apparently oblivious to his injuries now.

“Has he gone completely insane?” Rarity yelled, as she dodged another shot from the deranged colonist.

“Don’t know, don’t care,” Garrus replied curtly. He sprinted towards the obviously deranged stallion. The deranged colonist tried to kick him, though his efforts was feeble, his injuries slowing him down. Garrus evaded the flailing hooves and gave him a solid thump on the head with the butt of his rifle. The colonist went down with a whimper and lay still.

The turian slung his rifle over his back and eyed the approaching ponies. “I got a bad feeling about this,” he remarked. He arched his eyebrow as Pinkie began shaking and twitching again.

“Twitchy, twitch; twitchy, twitch! Something bad is happening at the colony!”

***

[Skybridges, Harnos]

Director Jong was standing before a partially destroyed window, apparently admiring the view of horizon. He turned towards the commander with a smile as she was shown in by the guards. The director seemed unperturbed by the angry look on Twilight’s face.

“Ah Commander Sparkle, you have returned. I presume you have—” Director Jong began, before being cut off by Twilight.

“You were lying about the colony,” Twilight pointed an accusatory hoof at the director. “How could you leave all those ponies there to be infected?!”

The director looked surprised for a brief moment, before recovering gamely. He started to explain smoothly, “Ahhh.... see it was the collective decision of the company board to study the natural history of-”

“To hay with with your company!” Twilight all but shouted. Her eyes blazed with anger. “These are ordinary ponies. NORMAL PONIES. How could you?”

“I...” For once, the director seemed to be at a loss for words. He looked away, and pawed the ground nervously.

Twilight shook her head in disgust. “You... disappoint me, director. I hope you can live with your decision.”

She glanced at the ponies who hung at the door of the room. “Come on girls, let’s see if the nerve gas actually works. With luck we can disable the colonists without lethal force on our part.” She turned and trotted off without so much a goodbye to the director.

***

“Come on, sis!” Applebloom cried, as she excited bounced up and down. “Ah got something to show to ya.”

“This better be important Applebloom. Big MacIntosh wants me to take care of that patch of apple trees lickity split.” Applejack replied, her freckled face wearing a not-so-well-disguised grin. The orange mare followed her enthusiastic sister in a darkened barn.

“Applebloom, this better not be one of ya pranks.” the farmer pony warned as the filly disappeared from sight. “Applebloom?”

No answer.

“Applebloom?” the mare called out again, in a more worried voice. She spied a glint in the darkness and took several steps towards it. She can feel the darkness closing in around her. Her heart began to hammer rapidly in her chest.

Then she saw what the glint was.

A huge gaping jaw, filled with sharp teeth.

Applejack opened her mouth to scream.

The maw engulfed her.

***

[Unknown Location, Harnos]

Pain.

It was the first thing she felt as her senses started to return. Applejack could do nothing but lay still as she struggled to regain her wit. She tried to think back on her last coherent memory. Applebloom. Plant. Mayor swinging a lead pipe to her noggin. Oh right, that was it.

As the pain in her head settled into a dull ache, Applejack tried opening her eyes. Nothing. The strip of cloth she felt over her face probably had something to do with it. She wriggled her legs. No dice. Bundles of rope-like material prevented her doing more than a twitch.

Frustrated, the mare tried to struggle violently against her restrains. The ropes remained secure despite her best efforts. Whoever did this knew their stuff. Then she heard the sound of approaching hooves.

“Now, now Applejack, don’t struggle. You’ll make it worse,” she heard a melodic voice sing. One of the colonists. Song Bird... or something. “The Thorian will make you understand. You will understand.” Her words took on the edge of a religious zealot.

Applejack felt terror building in her heart at her words. What the hay is the Thorian? What were they planning to do to her? Where was Applebloom?

She hoped her friends knew of the colonists’ insanity.

***

[Tunnels, Harnos]

Garrus grunted as he dragged the unconsious stallion on the floor. He stopped for a moment to catch his breath and gave a questioning look at Rarity for the umpteenth time. “Rarity, I appreciate your concerns for this civilian, but he just tried to murder us. Do we really need to drag him back?”

“Garrus, we’ve been through this. I rather drag the crazy colt back than leave him to die here in the tunnels. At least we’re reaching the outpost.” She grimaced as she inspected her now-filthy hooves and armour. The trio approached the stairwell which led back to the outpost.

“Oh look! The colony has thrown a party to welcome us!” Pinkie Pie exclaimed, as she bounced beside the white unicorn. “Wait, they didn’t invite me to throw the party! No parties are complete without Pinkie’s hoof on it.” She pouted at the thought.

“What party? I only see...” Rarity narrowed her eyes as she saw the colonists emerging from the stairwell and taking what suspiciously seemed like defensive positions around the stairs. She stopped in her tracks, and gestured for her companions to do the same.

“Hey guys, look who we found—” Rarity called out, before being rudely interrupted by a sing-song voice.

“Protect the heart of colony! Kill the intruders!”

“What?”

Bullets began to whiz around them. “Get to cover!” Rarity exclaimed as she dived into a pile of rocks nearby. At least the colonists’ aim was even worse than the geth.

“Okay, so has the whole planet officially gone insane while we were snuffling about in a dank musty tunnel?” Garrus asked sardonically, as he flattened himself against a pillar. Rarity shot him a dark glare in response.

Rarity noticed Pinkie was still sitting on her haunches in the open. She promptly dragged her into the relative safety of the rock pile by the tail. “Hey... this is no party! Those meanies are shooting at us!” Pinkie mused aloud as she put her hoof thoughtfully to her chin. Gummy waddled over towards the pair, also apparently oblivious to the hail of bullets being showered around them.

Rarity felt her eye twitching at the antics of her two companions. Here they were, under fire by insane civilians, and they were still going on about parties. She began to wonder if she’d ever make it out of the planet alive. Rarity certainly didn’t want to die here in a miserable wasteland. Not when there was still so much fashion to be done.

***

[Skybridges, Harnos]

Twilight herself wasn’t having much of a good time. The drive back to the outpost had been uneventful, but that was the extent of their good luck. Currently there were sitting in front of the second last skybridge leading to the tower. Well and good. Except for the fact there was a green blob sitting in the middle of the roadway. “What the hay is that?” Twilight asked.

Rainbow Dash’s voice crackled over the radio. “I don’t know. Just run over it.”

“What? And risk the Mako? We don’t have wings like you do,” Twilight answered, as she maneuvered the vehicle safely around the blob as best she could.

“Well, you’re going to have walk then,” Dash replied. “Take a look in front.”

Twilight frowned and focused the optical sight on the entrance to the skyscraper where Lix’s Hope was situated. The entire road was covered with dozens of green blobs. Some even seemed to be visibly growing. The unicorn groaned, and brought the vehicle to a halt just in front of the field of blobs on the roadway.

“Why are we stopping?” Tali asked, as Twilight opened the driver’s hatch.

“Mutant blobs blocking our way. We’ll need to go on foot.”

“Great. Is this something that plant of yours cooked up?” Wrex queried, as he followed the quarian out.

“Don’t know. But the thing looks organic. Plus it wasn’t there before. You make the connection,” Twilight replied, a little sardonically. She looked up to Dash, who was hovering expectantly above the Mako. “Dash, go on ahead. Scout the way for us.” The rainbow pegasus saluted smartly and zoomed off towards the outpost.

Twilight then turned her gaze on the nearest greenish blob of funk on the road. It seemed to be composed of an amorphous green organic material, with slime oozing slowly around it. As she watched the blob, she noticed the blob was steadily growing in size... and forming a disturbingly familiar shape.

“Get back, something’s happening,” Twilight shouted, as she took several steps back. “Tali, man the Mako’s gun, give us cover.” The quarian acknowledged the order and clambered back into the vehicle. Fluttershy landed on back of the armoured personnel carrier, staring at the blobs with wide eyes. Angel and Wrex already had their guns out, with Angel balancing his shotgun delicately on the krogan’s head.

The blobs steadily grew, and grew. It begin to form the unmistakable outline of a pony. The ‘face’ of the thing even had the vestiges of eyes, ears and mouth. The creature emitted an unearthly moan as the blob solidified, before turning its head unerringly towards the ponies standing near the Mako. The sequence was repeated all across the roadway, with the blobs turning into shambling caricatures of ponies.

“Okay, mutant plant zombies.” Twilight aimed her shoulder-mounted guns at the shambling abomination. No further words were needed. These were clearly hostile. The group opened fire, shredding the nearest plant zombies to their constituent goop. That was when they learned something potentially groundbreaking in the field of mutant plant zombie physiology: they could run. The whole roadway was suddenly filled with a heaving mass of bodies as the more and more plant zombies emerged from the blobs and began swarming towards the group.

***

“At least we had warning about the colonists going insane,” Twilight remarked dryly as they took shelter behind yet another pile of rubble. Tali just nodded, and leaned out to spray the colonists with yet another burst of submachine gun fire to keep their heads down.

“Sparkle, if you’re going to use that nerve gas, you better do it before I actually start killing these amateurs,” Wrex called, the krogan sheltering behind a shattered vehicle wreck several paces ahead of her.

Twilight nodded, despite the krogan not being able to see doing so and more than likely to busy to care either. She took the grenade mod out of her pack and affixed it to the grenade launcher module. Satisfied it’s fully functional, Twilight levitated the launcher and shot two disc-shaped grenades at the colonists taking shelter by the elevator. A cloud of gas erupted among the defenders, causing them to stagger and gasp for breath.

A few minutes of coughing and wheezing later, Twilight emerged from the pall to find the colonists all lying unconscious on the floor.

“Let’s go. We need to rescue Applejack and the others,” Twilight called, as she broke into a gallop towards the elevator. She prayed she wasn’t too late to rescue her friends.

***

[Lix’s Hope, Harnos]

The sound of explosions and gunfire rattling through the ground startled Applejack from her uneasy slumber. She lay quiet for a while, listening intently to the pattern of battle. It seems somepony was attacking the colony from the outside. But where?

***

The colonists were expecting them. And they had help. Dozens more of the plant zombies swarmed the team as they exited the elevator, along with some more of the possessed colonists. Luckily being civilians, they weren’t particularly skilled with their weapons, though a lucky shot would still put anypony out of comission. Also, Twilight’s insistence on non-lethal force on the colonists was severely crimping the tactical options of the team. They had to resort to nerve gas grenades, or melee combat. The plant zombies were still open to lethal force, fortunately.

“I’m really sorry for this,” Twilight apologised for the umpteenth time as she kicked another colonist unconscious.

“Twi, you can stop apologising, you know. It’s not like they can hear you,” Dash called, as she swooped to smack a plant zombie right in the flank with her hindlegs. “Ewwww. These things are gross,” she declared, as her hooves and armour was splattered with green gunk.

“Never mind those. You know you could still use your gun on them right?” Twilight said. She cut down a pair of zombies with rifle fire to further demonstrate her point. Rainbow just made a face and zoomed off into the air again.

“Have you found Rarity and the team in the tunnels?” Twilight said into her radio.

“... Yes, Commander. *bzzt* Signal *kzzt* still bad here, but they’re alive and well. *kzzt* We’ll be *kzzt* joining you,” the slightly scrambled voice of Tali responded.

“Well, that’s one less worry. Now we need to find Applejack. Who knows what they might have done to her.” Twilight wrinkled her brow in worry. She hoped she wasn’t too late.

***

Applejack heard the sounds of a door sliding open. She tensed her body, for no reason other to spite her kidnappers if they tried to move her.

The blindfolds came off.

Applejack blinked at the sudden influx of light into her eyes, her vision unable to compensate after spending so long in absolute darkness.

“I’m sorry Applejack, but your friends left me with no choice.”

The mayor. Applejack focused on the blurry image of the tan pony, mentally willing her eyes to recover faster. She seemed to be holding something in her mouth. The shape resolved sharply into something black. Metallic.

A pistol.

Applejack’s heart skipped a beat as she realised the murderous intention of the mayor. She began to struggle futilely against her bonds. Her eyes widened with fear as she saw the mayor readying the pistol. Where is Twilight? Where are her friends? Her friends would never leave her hanging... would they?

“I’m really, really sorry,” the mayor repeated, her expression a sorrowful one.

Applejack squeezed her eyes shut. She hoped it would be a quick death.

*clatter*

Applejack peeked open an eye. The pistol lay on the floor, right in front of her. She turned to look up at the mayor, both eyes wide open again.

“No. I will not do this. I will not,” the mayor suddenly declared. Her forehooves were clenched tightly on her head, her body twitching slightly with pain. Applejack eyes widened. Was the mayor fighting... whoever it was that was controlling her?

“Leave her alone!” a familiar voice shouted. Twilight!

The soldierpony heard a solid thump and the mayor suddenly crumpled to the floor. She could see Twilight standing over the unconscious body, relief evident on her face.

Applejack, despite the gags covering her mouth, began to smile. She knew she could count on her friends.

***

“I don’t like none of this mind-controllin’... thingamajig,” Applejack said, as she nuzzled the unconscious body of her sister. They found Applebloom lying unconscious with a nasty bump on her head. Apparently the colonists decided that she was a liability. They laid her uncounscious body, along with the other colonists, in the cargo hold of the damaged freighter in the outpost. For added security, Twilight got a couple of the pegasi marines from the ship to watch over the unconscious survivors.

“Neither do I. But that’s what they were under. Some form of mind-controlling spell. And the source is somewhere in this colony.”

“Twilight! We searched every inch of the outpost. There’s simply nothing else to be found.” Rarity responded primly.

Twilight felt a gentle tap on her shoulder. She turned to see Fluttershy shyly pointing towards the damaged freighter in the outpost.

“What about it Fluttershy?” Twilight asked, curious.

“Well... um... see Angel and I think that the colonists were hiding something under that ship. I stole a look at that console nearby.” She pointed to a workstation next to the ship. “I think that ship can be moved.”

“Huh. Let’s take a look then.”

Twilight trotted over to the controls and began scrolling through the screen. On first glance, it was mostly mundane stuff. Ship records. Power levels. Life support. Crane control. Personnel records. Wait, Crane control? Why would a crane control be attached to what seemed to be ostensibly a ship maintenance console. She looked up towards the ship. A pair of metal cable was attached around the midsection. Her eyes trailed upwards, and found the cables attached to a set of machinery that suspiciously looked like a crane. Duh. She wondered how she could have missed such an obvious clue. Hindsight was always all about the obvious.

“You’re right. There is a hidden control here.” She activated the crane.

Twilight jumped a little as the crane started with a loud splutter, before settling into a steady hum. The ship midsection began to lift, the seals connecting it to the other section breaking free easily. Interesting. They must have rigged the entire thing to be easily detached and closed when needed.

As the ship was lifted, Twilight saw what the colonists had been hiding. A small flight of stairs, leading downwards towards... somewhere. Probably the Thorian’s lair.

***

“Okay, we just need to find this creature and determine what it... what it....” Tali’s voice trailed off as the group entered the large multi-storied chamber. Like most of the rooms in the area below the colony thus far, it was covered with debris and damaged beyond recognition. This particular chamber appeared to have suffered some sort of catastrophic structural failure though, as a large gaping hole opened right in the middle of the room. Light from Harnos’ weak sun could be seen just peeking through the gap several stories above.

What drew Tali’s attention was not the deep yawning pit however. It was what hung above it. A vaguely octopus-like green creature hung suspended by various tube-like protrusion into the walls surrounding it. The front of the creature tapered into an orifice that resembled a mouth, with tentacle-like appendages surrounding it. Clear liquid can be seen dripping from the opening.

“Kee’lah...” Tali breathed as she looked the creature up and down.

“How are we supposed to bring down that monstrosity?” Rarity said, staring at the creature with rounded eyes.

“We’re going to need bigger guns,” the krogan quipped, his favourite rifle already in hand.

“Shh, something’s happening. Be ready.” Twilight’s horn glowed faintly as she readied her magic.

The creature suddenly heaved and shuddered, causing Twilight to take a step back. The ‘mouth’ suddenly bulged and a humonoid shape slid out of the opening and fell onto the ground on one knee. It was an asari, albeit with green skin instead of the usual blue hues the species had. She wore a skin-tight black bodysuit and seemed unarmed. Her blue eyes seemed unfocused, yet gleaming with alien intelligence.

The asari stood up and took several steps towards Twilight. She spoke in an eerie alien voice, her very words seemed to echo in Twilight’s mind. “Invaders! Your every step is a transgression. A thousand feelers appraise you as meat, good only to dig or decompose.”

“Well, that certainly clears things up,” Dash remarked.

“I speak for the Old Growth, as I did for Saren. You are within and before the Thorian. It commands you to be in awe.”

Twilight blinked in confusion. Saren was here before? That was news. Then she heard Applejack speak. “You! You’re the one who messed with mah sister’s head. I don’t right care who or what you are, but nopony messes with the Apple family,” she shouted.

“The Thorian is a piece of this world, extending across the land and back through the ages. You can no more kill it than cut the sky.” The asari’s eyes narrowed, her hands began to glow with a faint blue light.

“Your blood will feed the ground and new growth!” she boomed in a loud voice. The green skinned alien raised a hand and knocked everypony back.

Twilight felt an invisible hoof pick her up and fling her against the wall. Momentarily dazed, she heard gunfire erupting as her companions opened up. She saw the asari being flung off the edge of the pit by Angel’s biotics. Her team was peppering the creature with gunfire, though the thick skin seemed impervious to their bullets. Then her blood chilled as something landed with a wet smack beside her. It was the green glop they found in the colonies. Twilight watched as more of the green blobs landed on the floor amongst the chaos and began to grow. They’d be overrun by plant zombies if they didn’t make a move.

“We need to move, now!” Twilight shouted as she gave the growing blob next to her a swift stomp, smashing it to its constituent goo.

Twilight double-timed it to a nearby doorway, which led to a stairwell going to the next floor. She sighed with relief as the rest of team scrambled in after her, with Rarity and Garrus firing out the doorway to put down more zombies.

“Now what? We can’t even scratch the darn thing.” Applejack said, in between gasps of breath.

Twilight took a quick peek outside, and her eyes strayed to the various appendages keeping the Thorian suspended over the chasm. An unlikely idea began to form in her mind.

Just maybe... She looked up to find one of the tube-like protrusion running above them.

“Wrex, how many grenades you got left?” The krogan held out three fingers. “Try strapping them to that tube above us.”

Wrex nodded in understanding, divining her intention. He primed the grenades, and gestured for everypony else to take cover. With one smooth motion, he let the grenades fly, the disc-shaped explosives embedded themselves into the tube.

A moment later, the tube exploded in a gory mess of green organic sludge and orange goo, splashing all the ponies in the room. An inhuman wail pierced through the air as Twilight cautiously peeked out and watched the plant shake and thrash.

“Yeech... at least we know that works. Girls, break out all your explosives. We’re going to need them...” She glanced at Pinkie who was holding out a large pink balloon with a hopeful expression in her eyes. Twilight sighed. “Yes, even your improvised party bombs.”

“Yay!”

***

In the end, it was just a matter of cutting off all the limbs of the plants, figuratively speaking. The Thorian spawned a dozen more of its asari clones and countless of its zombies in an attempt to drive the invaders off. It wasn’t to be.

One by one the tubes were inevitably blown off, sliced by magic or simply weakened by gunfire before broken off by sheer brute force.

As the last stalks holding the Thorian aloft was broken, the creature let out another inhuman wail, akin to one dragging claws over a chalkboard. Twilight flattened her ears in response, grimacing at the sound. She watched in slow-motion as the creature fell heavily, bouncing off the edge of the pit, before disappearing into the abyss below.

“Good riddance,” Rarity declared, as she trotted up to stand beside Twilight. “You think that’s the last we’ll see of it?”

“I doubt it,” Twilight answered grimly, as she stared at the silent abyss. Her radio chimed.

“Hey, Commander. I think you’ll want to see this,” Tali’s voice spoke.

***

“We found her in that thing.” Tali pointed to a partially torn open pod-like structure glued against the wall. An asari lay face down, unconscious in a pool of liquid below the pod. Disturbingly, she was also clad in the same black bodysuit as the asari clone who attacked them. Her skin colour was the normal blue though.

Twilight turned the asari over with a hoof, unsurprised that the asari had the same face as the clones did. Well, that explained a great deal on how the creature managed to clone an asari of all things in this desolate planet.

The asari’s eyes fluttered open. Twilight’s horn glowed in anticipation of trouble, but the asari just put a hand to her head and groaned.

“T-thank you for releasing me from the Thorian,” she said weakly. The blue-skinned alien sat up and eyed her rescuers.

“My name is Shia-la, and I serve...” Her brow furrowed for a moment, before she corrected herself. “I served Matriach Benezia,” she continued, her voice strangely calm. “When Benezia allied herself with Saren, so did I.”

“Why did you join her?” Garrus asked, folding his arms over his chest. The turian was obviously unconvinced by her sudden about-turn.

“The matriach foresaw the influence Saren would have. She wanted to guide him down a gentler path. Unfortunately... Saren was compelling. She soon lost her way. We all did.” A tinge of regret coloured her voice.

“Typical asari meddling. About time it bit you in the ass,” Wrex snorted.

“I thought asari matriachs were among the most intelligent and powerful beings in the galaxy. How could one such as Benezia fall under his influence?” Twilight said, puzzled.

“Saren has a vessel. A giant warship unlike anything I ever seen. He calls it... Sovereign. It can dominate the minds of its followers; bend them to Saren’s will. The process is subtle; it can take days, weeks. But in the end, it is absolute.” She looked away. “Even the matriach couldn’t resist such a powerful influence.”

The asari stood up and began walking towards the partially destroyed pod. She fingered the soft material for a moment, before turning back to face Twilight. “I was a willing slave when Saren brought me here. He needed my biotics to communicate with the Thorian. I was given by Saren as part of the exchange for the Cipher.”

“The what now?” Applejack said, a puzzled look on her face.

“The Cipher... it is difficult to explain in mere words. Think of it as cultural knowledge of the entire Prothean race. Their knowledge. Their experience. Their history. Their very existence. All which make up for their racial outlook.”

“Why do you need such a thing?” Tali asked, rubbing her chin thoughtfully.

“The beacon. It is filled with meanings that only a true Prothean mind can understand and interpret. The Cipher allows you to understand the subtle message interwoven in the visions.”

“And Saren used it to decipher his version of the beacon’s message!” Twilight cried, slapping her hooves together. “Of course. And he wanted to kill the Thorian to prevent me from obtaining this Cipher.” The other ponies looked at the unicorn in confusion.

“Correct. The Thorian, as you can see, was initially very pleased that you arrived. It saw you as a tool to defeat Saren’s treachery,” the asari elaborated, folding her hands over her chest. “Obviously, it underestimated your resolve once you turned against it as well.”

“I need that Cipher. Saren is out to bring back the Reapers. I know it.”

“Why would you be needing that now, Twilight? Is there something you ain’t sharing with us? What’s this about a message in that beacon?” Applejack interjected, her eyes narrowing.

Twilight sighed. It probably wasn’t the best time to reveal the visions and nightmares she had ever since she touched the accursed beacon, but at the same time, she could not very well leave her friends out in the dark. The piercing stare that Applejack gave her probably helped as well.

“Look... there’s something I been meaning to tell.” Twilight started to describe her nightmare to her companions. Her visions of doom. The horror she felt as she watched every single image replay in her dreams, even if she could not understand the any of the visions.

“Woah... Twilight, why didn’t you tell us? We could have helped!” Rainbow Dash cried indignantly.

“I... I didn’t think it was important. Not until we first heard about the Reapers. Even then I thought it was best I kept this to myself.” Twilight looked away guiltily. “I don’t want you girls think I’m starting to go crazy.”

“Twilight, we’re your friends. Of course we believe you,” Rarity said.

“Ya really need to trust ya own friends more, Twilight.” Applejack remarked.

Twilight looked at the two with genuine appreciation, before hugging the white unicorn. “Thank you... for not doubting me.” she said in a muffled voice.

“So, commander, do you wish to learn the Cipher?” Shia’la finally piped up, after remaining silent throughout the exchange. Twilight detached herself from Rarity and glanced at the asari.

“Yes, please.” Twilight answered. A tiny voice in her mind told her it was a trap, the asari was just another of Saren’s minions waiting to kill her. She willed the voice to be silent.

“Very, well, step forward.”

“Try to relax commander. Slow deep breaths.” Twilight did as she was told, her heart hammering in her chest. The asari approached the lavender unicorn and put her hands between the unicorn’s head.

Twilight felt the world around her blurring as the asari recited what was clearly a memorised script.

“Reach out to grasp the threads that binds us, one to another.”

“We’re all connected, every living being united in a single glorious existence.”

“Open yourself to the universe, commander.”

“Embrace eternity!”

Twilight suddenly felt her mind being pulled in ten separate directions at once. Again, the sequence of imagery from the beacon flashed through her mind. This time however, there seemed to be an order to sequence of visions. Then... darkness.

***

“...ommander... re... ight... coman... Spark...”

Twilight slowly opened her eyes. The blurred outline of Rarity’s face came into view.

“Twilight! You’re alright! You were knocked out for a minute there.”

Twilight groaned in pain as she struggled to get up. “What... happened?”

“Shia’la happened, darling.” Right. The asari who they rescued from the Thorian. “Though you seem perfectly fine now. What did she do to you?” Concern was etched on her face.

“I don’t know... more weird dreams.”

“I have given you the Cipher, just as I have given to Saren. The ancestral memories of the Protheans are a part of you now,” the asari spoke from behind the white unicorn.

“Wow... so... do you know any secret Prothean stuff? Martial arts? Kung-fu? Super magic?!” Rainbow Dash said excitedly.

“Actually... I don’t feel any different. Sorry Rainbow.” Twilight answered, much to the disappointment of the sky-blue pegasus.

“This Cipher thing is lame.” The rainbow speedster stomped the ground in annoyance, kicking up small puffs of dust.

“You have just been given the experience of the entire Prothean race. It’ll take time for your mind to process such a wealth of information,” Shia’la said.

“I guess so...”

“I am sorry if you have suffered, but it is the only way. In time, the Cipher will help you understand the visions from the beacon.” Twilight nodded in reply. At the very least, it didn’t seem to be doing her any harm.

“So... whatcha goin’ to do, now what you’re free from the Thorian?” Applejack asked.

“If you allow it, I would to stay with the colonists and help them rebuild. Think of it as penance... for my previous misdeeds.”

“And how do we know you won’t betray the colony to Saren again?” Garrus queried, not unreasonably.

“The Thorian... it broke whatever hold Saren had on me. And now you freed me from the creature, I have my own free will again.” She looked sorrowful for a moment. Twilight suddenly felt a pang of sympathy for the asari. Being subverted of her own free will, betrayed by her own master, and now probably alone on a hostile planet.

“I think the colonists could use all the help they can get,” Twilight said finally, flashing a warm smile at the Shia’la.

The asari returned the smile, grateful for the second chance. “Thank you, commander. May fortune smile upon you.”

***

[Docks, Harnos]

“... and the colony of Harnos can never thank you enough for all that you done here,” the mayor said formally. “Let’s give a round of applause to Commander Sparkle, hero of Lix’s Hope!”

A ragged cheer and stomping of hooves arose from the assembled ponies around the makeshift stage. Twilight waved at the crowd shyly, unused to the attention. The mayor turned to the commander. “I am sorry we cannot offer you any more. You are however welcome back any time.” Another round of applause. “And that concludes our little ceremony. Ponies, you may go back to assigned stations.”

The mayor waited till the crowd dispersed somewhat, before leading Twilight into a corner behind the stage. “I really cannot apologise enough for what we had done back in the colony. The Thorian... simply left us no choice.”

Twilight shook her head. “No need to apologise mayor. We understand. I hope your colony can rebuild from this disaster.”

The mayor gave a shrug. “I’m sure we can. Now with the geth gone, we’ll go right back to just being another backward outpost in the middle of nowhere. I wish you luck in your future endeavours.” The mayor tilted her head in goodbye and trotted off to join the other colonists on the way back to the outpost.

Twilight smiled at the departing beige mare for a moment. Then she started to make her way to the waiting airlock of the Normaredy. The lavender unicorn was eager to leave this desolate planet. Before she could reach the entrance, she heard another another voice call out to her.

“Commander, I must speak with you for a moment.”

Director Jong. She turned to face the deep blue unicorn, who cantered to a stop a few steps before the lavender unicorn. Twilight felt herself scowling at the director.

Wearing an apologetic look, the director spoke, “I truly regret the suffering that the policy of this company has caused to the Harnos’ colonists. It is only fair that I shall lobby for the company to continue their support of the colony... despite the number of questionable incidents that happened here.”

Twilight arched an eyebrow at the director’s apparent change of heart. It was a generous gesture by all accounts. Exo-Poni was a large well-known intergalactic corporation. Their continued support, both material and financial, would be invaluable to the survival of the fledgling colony. “We’ll see about that. I, for one, will only believe it when I see it.”

“Oh... you will. I do believe the colony has a bright future, now that the Thorian and geth are gone. Of course, it is unfortunate the geth destroyed the plant before we could study it further, no?” The director’s eyes were twinkling as he spoke.

Twilight had to hide a smirk at his words. Despite his benevolent intentions, the director was still a political animal at the core. Well, Twilight was content to play along... for now. “Yes, director. What a shame that was.”

She nodded formally as goodbye and entered the ship’s airlock.

***

[Lix’s Hope, Harnos]

The reconciliation was easier than either of the two thought. Giant, mind-controlling plants had a way of making such trivialities easier though. Apple Bloom woke up to find her mind finally clear and free again. Applejack was just happy to get her sister back, mind and all. That didn’t mean their reconciliations was free of emotions.

“Oh, it’s you again Applejack,” she greeted curtly as Applejack entered the makeshift hospital room. “What do ya want?” the filly asked plainly.

“Apple Bloom...” The soldierpony started in a weary voice. “Look, I’m sorry for the whole cutie mark thing. I thought you’d be happy—”

Happy? Applejack! I don’t even know what my cutie mark mean! I still don’t!” The filly pulled the blanket to reveal her cutie mark... an upturned cardboard box. She glowered at Applejack. “That unicorn ya paid to reveal it done a mighty fine job indeed... now I don’t even know what my special talent in life is...” She seemed almost close to tears. “Do you know how embarrassing it is to not be able to tell anypony what you’re good at?”

Applejack put a comforting hoof on her shoulder. “Listen here, Apple Bloom. I don’t rightly care what your cutie mark is, and neither should you. It only represents our special talent, not our destiny in life. Look at me, my cutie mark are three apples yet I’m here, running around to save the galaxy.”

“But—”

“Don’t you ‘but’ me, lil’ lady. So your cutie mark’s an empty box. Who cares? Important thing is, you live your life the way you want it. Not how you think your cutie mark wants it...” Applejack’s voice softened. “Apple Bloom, we all missed you when you ran away... We still do. Granny Smith nearly threw a fit when she found out...”

“I know... but—”

“No buts. You know we’ll always love you.” The tears in Apple Bloom’s eyes were practically flowing now. She rushed forward and locked the elder pony with a tight hug.

“I missed you so much!”

The two sisters, suitably reconciled, spent the rest of the day catching up on gossip and family news. Applejack was understandably reluctant to leave when the time came.

“Apple Bloom, I’m goin’ to miss ya.”

“Yes big sis. I know you’ll.” The two sisters locked each other in a tight embrace. “Just... don’t go off gettin’ yourself killed ya hear!” Applebloom said, through her sobs.

“I won’t Apple Bloom. I promise.”

“I’ll hold ya to that promise sis. I swear to Celestia I will!” Apple Bloom said fiercely, tears streaming down her cheeks. The elder sister could only smile at her reaction. That was the Apple Bloom she knew. Always promising the impossible.

***

[ESV Normaredy, Harnos Orbit]

“Spike, take a letter.”

“Right!” Spike magically produced an old-fashioned inkwell pot complete with parchment and quills. A tradition that has survived pony-kind’s transition to a galactic community.

Dear Princess Celestia,

I have successfully dealt with the geth problem on Harnos. Unfortunately, we could only mourn the loss of 60% of the colony’s population to the geth attack. The colony’s long term future has been assured by the Exo-Poni Company. I’m also happy to report that Applejack has reconciled with her sister, after years of estranged relationship. Strange how one can even find family in the most desolate corner of the galaxy. On a related note, it appears Pinkie Pie has adopted a varren named Gummy as well.

As for the matter of Saren, I think we have obtained a vital piece of information regarding the Prothean beacon. It will take time however for me to process that information. In the meantime, we will began our search of Dr. Liara T’Soni in the Artemis Tau cluster.

Your faithful student,
Twilight Sparkle
Commander of the ESV Normaredy

The diminutive dragon wrote furiously on the parchment, before looking up. “That’s it?” he inquired.

“That’s it Spike. Send it.”

Twilight looked out of the viewport at the planet below. She wondered idly if the Thorian was truly killed. Her gut feelings told her this would not be the last of the strange plant.

At least they were now one step closer to understanding Saren’s true purpose.