• 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 7

[Pilot’s Deck, ESV Normaredy]

“Remind me again, why are we wasting our time in this miserable excuse of a star system?”

The pilot answered the pointed question with an air of resignation, having been subjected to the exact same question a dozen times for the past week. “To find Dr. Liara T’Soni. Her university mentioned this was where she headed before she dropped out of radio contact,” Scootaloo replied evenly, her eyes not moving from the numerous monitors on the pilot’s console.

“Right. So why are we scanning this obviously lifeless hunk of rock?”

“Because she could be anywhere in this cluster. Which includes this barren planet which you just called a lifeless hunk of rock.” The orange pegasus stopped her work for a moment and looked up at the white unicorn leaning grumpily over her seat. “Maybe if you fixed that shorted circuit board faster, we might have completed the scan long ago.”

“Please, Scootaloo, you wound me.” Rarity snorted and pouted at the pilot. “If it weren’t for my meticulous work in triple-checking each subsystem, we might have missed that and the scan results would have been scrambled. We would have been stuck for weeks. You should be grateful that I am the chief engineer.” It had become a daily ritual for the two to trade barbs every waking cycle, though the two were well aware both did not mean a single word.

Scootaloo only shrugged, before turning her attention back to her piloting duties. In a more conversation tone, she continued, “Think we’ll get lucky this time?”

The engineer sighed. “To be honest, I’m not putting my hope on this.” The search was taking its toll on everypony on the ship, especially after the forceful way they were shown the door at the Citadel.

Why, she hadn’t had nearly enough time to finish the acquisition of the needed spare parts for the Normaredy. The ship had already burnt through two flux converters and she was down to her last spare. Clearly, the experimental nature of the warship hasn’t helped one bit. Rarity was sure she had done enough to rewrite the entire maintenance manual that came with the ship. She would need to have a talk with the pony who wrote the useless waste of good paper. A very long talk indeed.

The unicorn’s blue eyes fell on the view of the barren planet below them, the latest in the dozens they have scanned. The commander better find this doctor soon. Or things might just get very interesting...

***

[CIC Deck, ESV Normaredy]

“Right, next planet?” Twilight said, studying the map of the cluster being displayed in the center of the CIC.

The sound of a book being flipped through furiously filled the room. Stopping halfway through, Spike studied the page briefly and said, “Let’s see. Name: Stirrum. Volcanic planet... from initial surveys—”

“Captain. I’m picking up an Equestrian signal,” Scootaloo’s voice crackled over the speakers, interrupting the report from Spike. “Looks like a colony.”

Twilight looked up from map, suddenly very much more interested. “Weird. There was no records of a colony here. How big?” she said, her hooves working the keyboard to bring up a video feed of the planet.

“Hold on.” A brief pause. “About 2,000 ponies. The colony of Nova Yakterinburg.” A dull reddish planet replaced the galaxy map in the center of the CIC. Wisps of yellowish clouds drifted lazily across the surface, with visible lava pools and rivers snaking through the surface.

“Not exactly uncharted, isn’t it?”

Spike snorted, waving the paper charts about roughly, a few pages fluttering to the floor. “It’s been years since anypony updated these charts. I mean, c’mon, how could we still be using paper charts?”

“Captain, the colony is hailing us now.”

“Patch us through, Scootaloo. Let’s greet our hosts.”

***

“Turns out they were only setup last year... right after the yearly census update. Trust these ponies to be so inadvertent in their timing.” Twilight dryly explained, as the ground team made themselves comfortable in the briefing room.

Rainbow Dash hovered about in the room impatiently. “Yeah whatever. Let’s hear the good news already!”

“Please, Rainbow Dash, all things in due time. As I was about to say, I have spoken to the colony’s liason. He confirmed that there were several ancient ruins detected when they surveyed the planet in detail.” The white unicorn lowered her voice conspiratorially. “Prothean ruins.”

“The miners have also lost contact with a mining facility at the far end of the planet. Coincidentally, this one sits right next to one of the ruins,” Tali added.

Applejack whistled. “Ain’t no such thing as coincidence in this galaxy.”

“Geth?” Twilight directed the question at the pilot, who was listening in from her post on the Pilot’s Deck.

“No sign of them on the ship’s sensors, Captain. Though with so much thermal interference, it is hard to be certain for sure. As for the colony’s defense net? They might as well paint a big ‘Hit Me!’ sign to their colony. It barely covers a quarter of the planet’s surface. Certainly useless for our purposes,” Scootaloo replied, a tinge of derision lingering in her voice.

Twilight furrowed her brow as she pondered the matter. It was quite probable that the geth had caught wind of their mission and set out to silence the doctor before they could find her. Perhaps Saren was more tuned in to their mission than she thought. Which means they were running out of time. They’d need to go in hot and fast, and extract the doctor before the geth could catch her.

“Scoot, prep the Mako. We go in with a hot insertion.”

***

The ESV Normaredy SR-1 was a small warship by the standards of traditional warships in space. However, the small size also meant that the warship could enter planetary atmosphere without risking a burn-up or worse: crashing into the planet. Taking that line of thought, the designers of Normaredy had helpfully designed the ship to be able to carry and deploy a single M35 Mako Infantry Fighting Vehicle (IFV) for the purpose of rapid deployment, consistent with its role as a stealth frigate. The Mako was built to be a tank, designed to withstand high drops, extremes of temperature and rough terrain. The battered but still working Mako that the commander had found on Harnos was only testament to that fact.

The idea was simple. The Normaredy (and eventually ships of the same class) was to literally drop the vehicle onto the location where it needed to be deployed. With the vehicle’s sturdy construction, element zero core and micro-thrusters, it could be air-dropped at a relatively high height without endangering the crew. This helped minimise the exposure of the frigate to anti-aircraft fire and enable it to swiftly and stealthily drop ground teams at any location of their choosing.

Which was why Twilight was crammed into the Mako together with Garrus, Rainbow Dash and Pinkie Pie. If she thought the ride on Harnos was small enough with three ponies, then four was an absolute squeeze.

“Pinkie, do you think you can stop shoving your tail into my mouth?” Twilight said grumpily, trying to her utmost best to keep the pink pony’s tail from obscuring her view of the driver’s console.

Pinkie let out a happy giggle. “But this is funnnnnnnn!” The pink earth pony continued her obviously fantastic exploration of the interior of the Mako, her fluffy tail now wriggling in front of Twilight.

“Pinkie, I can’t concentrate if you keep distracting me like this.”

“Fine!” The pink pony wriggled her legs about and maneuvered her body onto the passenger seat proper in the driver’s cabin. “Better?”

“Very much,” Twilight muttered, thankful that she didn’t need to breath in a maneful of pink hair anytime soon. She glanced back towards Garrus and Rainbow Dash and was met with similar relieved looks.

“Captain, approaching mining facility. Prepare for air-drop.”

“Right.”

“Airdrop in 5 seconds.”

The entire vehicle shuddered as the cargo bay doors opened. Strong winds began to buffet the Mako, the windy roar slowly increasing in volume to a deafening cacophony. Twilight held the vehicle steady, motioning for her companions to brace for the inevitable drop.

“Mark.”

A loud click resounded through the win as the clamps on the vehicles released. Twilight felt her stomach drop as she was suddenly pulled forward by the surge of gravity. Thank Celestia for seat-belts.

The Mako was in free-fall, at least for a brief moment.

“Weeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!” the pink pony beside her shouted with glee, giggling uncontrollably, apparently enjoying the thrill of the ride.

Moments later, the automated landing system kicked in, activating the element zero core and reducing their speed. Twilight began firing the mini-thrusters located at each end of the boxy vehicle, further slowing their descent. For what seemed like an eternity, the Mako hung in mid-air, the wind whistling past as the Mako continued to plummet under the pull of the planet’s less-than-Canterlot gravity. The vehicle landed not so much with a loud whump that was more heard than felt, a testament to the vehicle’s sturdy suspension system.

Nopony moved for several seconds, apparently content to savour the fact that they actually survived the fall. Twilight was the first to recover from the shock. The unicorn glanced at her companions to make sure they were unharmed. Pinkie seemed to be rather enjoying the whole affair, and began giggling again in glee. Garrus looked a little shaken, but otherwise composed. Rainbow Dash however, seemed to be looking a little on the green side, holding a forehoof to her lips.

“Dash, you alright?”

“Yeah… just need to—“ The rest of her words were lost as the rainbow speedster gagged and buried her face in a paper bag that she found conveniently tucked nearby. Garrus couldn’t help but snicker at the pegasus misfortune.

“Looks like someone couldn’t handle their dinner,” he teased Rainbow, grinning broadly. Before he could do more than chuckle, the turian was met with a solid hoof to his face. The turian fell back onto his seat with a yelp of surprise. Fortunately, before either descended into blows, the radio crackled with Scootaloo’s voice.

“Captain, we’ve detected some unusual activity in the mining shaft 23-B, a few clicks to the north of your position. You might want to check it out.”

“Thanks, Scootaloo. Heading over now,” Twilight replied, sobering up.

“Let’s go kick some bad guy flanks!” Pinkie bubbled enthusiastically.

***

[Mining Facility CJ-32, Stirrum]

Twilight made a mental note she would never ever visit this place ever again.

Stirrum was by all standards, a very desolate and bleak planet. A dark pall hung over the entire sky, Stirrum’s sun a faint orb of red. (Stirrum apparently did not have a local weather station yet.) The harsh glare of the open lava pools in the distance tinted the landscape with faint, red light. Black, volcanic rocks rose up on either side of the Mako as they traversed down the small valley they landed in. The only break in the desolate landscape was the pony-made tunnel ahead that Twilight knew linked the valley to the mining complex on the other side.

As Twilight steered the through the tunnels and out to the other side, she got a first glimpse of the so-called ‘mining complex’. The ‘mining complex’ was actually a loose collection of buildings that was scattered all over the compound. Seemingly at random, circular portals half-hidden in the volcanic rocks marked the entrance to yet another mining shaft running deep underground. Metal pipes originated from those shafts, and ran haphazardly around the lava pools that dotted the site. From her limited perspective on the Mako, most of the pipes seemed to run in direction of a large building in on other side of the compound. Twilight guessed it must be this site’s collection and processing facility.

***

[CIC Deck, ESV Normaredy]

Wrex frowned as he studied the numbers displayed on the console. “What do you mean the population count don’t match up?”

“Nova Yakterinburg has 2,345 colonists. The colony reported a total of 2,379 colonists,” Rarity explained patiently, her tone not unlike a schoolteacher giving the dolt of the class a lesson in Mathematics 101.

“That’s um... three... fourty... darn these fancy mathematics. Anyhow, I reckon y’all mean the numbers don’t add up?” Applejack said, doffing her hat.

“Precisely. Since Nova Yakterinburg is the only colony on the planet, where are the remaining thirty-four colonists?”

Wrex looked blankly at the white unicorn. “Dead?” he offered.

***

“Twilight...” Pinkie’s voice was unusually serious. The earth pony pointed to a dark shape on the ground. More precisely, lots of dark shapes on the ground. Twilight stifled a gasp, bringing the vehicle to a dead-stop as she realised the full implications of just what the earth pony pointed out.

The dark shapes were bodies. Dead ponies in full environmental suits, scattered about on the ashen earth. Already, most of the bodies were covered in ash. A few vehicles, wrecked beyond repair, lay burning a short distance away. Apparently the workers had tried to escape the facility when the alarm was raised. Judging from the remains, they didn’t get very far. They seemed to have taken down a few geth with them, as was apparent by the broken remains of a few geth troopers scattered about.

“Oh those poor ponies...” Twilight heard Rainbow Dash mutter. A loud clop resounded as the pegasus vented her frustration on the vehicle’s reinforced windows. “I’m so going to kick their flanks for this.” Her magenta eyes was locked onto the nearest body, whose faceplate was mercifully obscured by the black ash.

“We will, Dash. We will,” the turian responded, putting a hand on his partner’s shoulder. Twilight smiled a little at Garrus’ words; she had an inkling Rainbow was taking this very personally. She turned to glance at Pinkie. The pink earth pony seemed to be staring at out of her window with fascination, her expression a far cry from the usual jovial face she always wore. The lavender unicorn idly wondered what could the pink pony be thinking. Surely there was more to her than just parties. As she debated whether to probe the matter further, she noticed the earth pony stiffening.

“Twilight, incoming!”

The vehicle was suddenly rocked as a series of dull thuds resounded around them. Twilight snapped her head towards the onboard radar and cursed under her breath. At least four walkers and a few dozens troopers on foot. More were appearing out of nowhere, and closing in on the vehicle. The geth had planned their ambush well. Probably with radar dampening and jamming. Twilight accelerated ahead and pointed the Mako towards the large building she seen earlier. They would need the cover if they wanted to survive this.

“Twilight! What the hay?!”

“Geth ambush,” Twilight shouted back, before turning to her pink companion. “Pinkie! Man the turret! The big ones first!” The thought that Pinkie might not be qualified for the job seemed to have slipped her mind.

Pinkie had a maniacal grin on her face. “Okie-dokie! Let’s do this!” The party pony tapped a button on her console and was greeted with the cannon’s targeting screen overlaying her viewscreen. She grasped the joystick that popped up and began tracking the nearest walker that was blocking their path.

“What the hay are we supposed to do?” Rainbow Dash shouted.

“Hang on... and don’t throw up!”

“What?!” Whatever words Rainbow had in store after that was lost as she was flung to the floor by the vehicle’s violent momentum.

Twilight was taking the Mako through a hailstorm of weapon fire, thankful that the kinetic barriers on the vehicle were designed to weather just such a situation. But even the toughest shields would eventually fail under such pressure and the unicorn needed to even the odds soon. With another tight turn she weaved the vehicle in between two walkers who moved in to block her way and sent an unfortunate geth trooper flying into a nearby lava pool. Just as she cleared the obstacle, the Mako’s cannon boomed, and knocked the walker into the same lava pool.

Pinkie whooped with delight. “And that’s how I parrrrrrr-teeeehhhhh!”

The vehicles wheels screeched as the Mako bounced onto the paved surface of the processing facility, with Twilight taking an immediate left turn towards the collection of small pre-fabricated buildings and pipes that were on the south side of the building. The sound of weapon fire slowly receded as they drew away from their ambushers. At least the walkers are slow, the unicorn thought, as she slowed the vehicle down. The huge metal pipes and buildings seemed to have brought them time and space, if only for a little while. She felt a hoof tap her shoulder.

The unicorn looked up to find Rainbow Dash’s eyes staring right in the face. The pegasus seemed agitated. “Twilight! Let us fight! We can take ‘em!” Rainbow Dash pleaded. The commander thought she heard a hint of desperation in her voice. That haunted look that she sported when they discovered the bodies earlier was back in her magenta eyes.

Garrus cleared his throat and weighted in his opinion as well. “Commander, we might be able to distract the foot soldiers so that you and the pink one here can concentrate on taking down the walkers.”

Another loud whump rocked the vehicle. Humming a jolly tune, Pinkie Pie spotted the source of the disturbance. She zoomed her targeting reticule on the offending target. A lone geth trooper standing on one of the balconies, calmly reloading his rocket launcher. A second later, the balcony and geth vanished in a merry explosion. Pinkie whooped again, and waved her hoof in excitement. “This is so much fun!”

Through all this, Twilight hemmed and hawed. She was leery of letting the two fight on foot: the geth walkers would cut them to pieces in the open. On the flip side, there was plenty of cover around. And she trusted them. Finally, the unicorn sighed. “Fine. Don’t go engaging those geth walkers, you hear me?”

“Armatures! Those are geth armatures!” Pinkie corrected.

“Whatever, Pinkie.”

The cocky grin was back on Dash’s face. “Twilight, please. Me and Garrus can handle these amateurs no problem. Right, Garrus?”

“We’ll be careful, Sparkle,” Garrus said in a more guarded tone.

The two secured their helmets and weapons. As they moved to step out, they turned and gave Twilight a wink each, almost simultaneously. One could almost swear they choreographed that move. Then they darted out of the vehicle and out of sight, leaving only a rainbow trail. Twilight thoughts lingered briefly on the fact that the two were now alone, without backup. She shook her head clear of those morbid thoughts. She trusted them. That was enough.

Twilight accelerated as she cleared the pipes and out into open space again. From the yellow markings on the paved concrete, the unicorn deduced it was the local landing pad.

“Oh! Oh! More of those big spider-things!”

Twilight saw them alright. Another of those armoured walkers, slowly lumbering up to meet them. Odd, Twilight was sure she counted only four when she sped away from the ambush. None were in position to flank her over on this side.

Dropship. It has to be. That and they probably did all sort of wonky things to radar in the area. It’s blinking with all sort of false signals. Something that’d have to be dealt with later. Twilight thought about radioing the Normaredy for a moment, then decided against it. Geth probably jammed their communications anyway. A quick check on the comms confirmed her suspicions.

“Fire at will, Pinkie,” Twilight calmly ordered, again, swerving the vehicle hard to the right to avoid another energy blast.

The cannon’s roar and Pinkie’s subsequent cheer answered her order. Twilight noted that Pinkie’s shot was dead accurate, blowing clean through the kinetic barriers and the ‘head’ of the walker off. The geth slumped to the floor, its limbs flailing about as it seemed to lose control. The geth troopers who was escorting the walker scattered as the walker exploded in a giant fireball. They were slowly picked off by Twilight’s hull mounted machine gun and Pinkie’s accurate cannon fire. Soon, the field was clear of enemies and the commander slowly turned the Mako around towards the other side of the facility.

Garrus’ voice crackled over the radio, his voice breaking up slightly. “Commander, *krzzt* Dash spotted two dropships ferrying reinforcements in. We might need backup.” Sounds of gunfire echoed in the background as he spoke. The turian must be engaging the geth in the facility itself.

“Twilight! There’s more coming every minute! I don’t know how long we can hold them off.” Rainbow Dash cut into the channel, her voice sounding slightly panicky.

Twilight reassessed her rapidly dwindling options. All seemed bad. “Alright. You two get the hay out of the facility, we’ll cover you.”

“Roger.”

“Um, Twilight. I think we need to take care of those bad guys first.”

“What bad— Oh sweet Celestia.”

She brought to the Mako to a complete stop, stunned by the sight. Facing the Mako, and conveniently blocking her from reaching both Garrus and Dash, was an entire platoon of geth troopers, backed up by at least six walkers. It was a sobering sight. Even with the Mako, they were probably going to last all one minute before being blasted to atoms.

Pinkie giggled again. “Oooooh— I think they want to play.” Twilight just nodded numbly, her body now on automatic drive. The Mako lurched as she threw the IFV straight into reverse, hoping to at least make herself a harder target to hit.

***

[Pilot’s Deck, ESV Normaredy]

“What’s that?” Scootaloo said, zooming in on a tiny dot that was flying under the ship. The image was slightly blurred due to the speed of the object, but the shape was familiar enough to anypony who studied grade school.

“Oh my, is... is that a d-d-dragon?” Fluttershy squeaked.

Scootaloo worked her keyboard, plotting the trajectory of the dragon on her console. The pilot gasped slightly. “It’s heading straight for Twilight’s position!”

“Why in the name of the Princess is there a dragon here of all places?”

“Ain’t dragons supposed to be fierce critters who don’t like ponies all that much?” A snort sounded from the far side of the room, where Spike had been busy. The purple dragon shot the soldier pony an unamused look. Applejack smiled sheepishly in response. “No offense, Spike.”

“Whatever its intentions are, we best warn Twilight about it.”

“Aye,” the pilot agreed. She punched a button and began broadcasting. “Commander, do you read me?” Static greeted the ponies. “Commander, do you read?” Scootaloo repeated.

“Sounds like we’re being jammed.”

“Geth. I knew it. Ain’t no such things as coincidences. Commander must be in trouble. We gotta help her.”

“How exactly you want us to do that? We’re a spaceship, not some atmospheric craft. We’re sitting ducks if the geth deployed AA guns.”

“We could always use the GARDIAN lasers,” Tali suggested.

“But then we’ll have to take the Normaredy to knife-fight range. The ship won’t be able to take that kind of stress in the atmosphere!” Scootaloo countered.

“Well goshdurn it, we have to do something!”

***

ROOOOOOOOAAAAAAAAARRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRR~!

Twilight knew that roar anywhere. After all, she had grown up hearing it on Canterlot. Thing was, she never thought to hear it here of all places.

A dragon’s roar.

What the hay is a dragon doing here? Twilight thought. She glanced again at the geth, suddenly realising amount of fire she had been receiving seemed to be tapering off. The formation of geth milled about uncertainly, their aim suddenly wavering. The unexpected noise must have thrown the group into confusion.

As Twilight watched, a dark shadow enveloped the geth who were still standing about. Before the geth could react, a group of geths abruptly vanished in a column of flame that erupted from the sky. True to their robotic nature, the geth did not panic. Instead, the remaining geth and armoured walkers turned as one and pointed their weapons skywards, firing their weapons in a steady staccato.

Another gout of flame erupted in the dense mass of geth, frying another dozen troopers. As the some of the walkers begin to catch fire and burn, the more agile geth began retreating for cover towards the processing facility. Never once the geth, faltered, or turned tail. The distinctly draconic shadow swooped overhead again, darkening the interior of the vehicle momentarily. Another roar shook the unicorn’s bones again. The geth’s counter-fire seemed to have only succeeded in angering the dragon.

The last roar finally spurred Twilight into action. Seeing her chance in the chaos, the unicorn said, “Let’s hit them while they’re distracted.”

“Okie!”

Rainbow Dash’s frantic voice burst over the radio. “Twilight? What’s going on?! What’s that roar?”

“No time. Keep the geth busy.”

“You better have a good reason, Twi!” the radio link ended with another burst of gunfire over at Dash’s end.

The unicorn revved the IFV and accelerated into the dispersing group of geth, taking the full advantage of their confusion to run down several geth troopers. Instinctively, Twilight jinked the Mako to the left, narrowly avoiding yet another blast of dragon-fire that toasted the unfortunate geth walker that she bypassed. Beside her, Pinkie was firing the Mako’s main cannon as fast as her aim would allow. Twilight ears’ perked up as she noticed another whining noise cutting in amidst the roar of the cannon and general tumult of battle.

The shrill report of geth gunships.

Twilight’s felt her ears drooping. A dragon might be a powerful being, but even it must bow to the superior firepower that a modern gunship could bring to the battle.

“Twilight, look!”

Twilight craned her neck in the direction of Pinkie’s hoof, just in time to watch the dragon swoop towards the gunship, shrugging away the machine gun fire and evading the energy cannons with ease. The dragon opened its maw wide and let loose another gout of flame towards the port engine, charring the the entire section.

The creature gracefully flew above the now-crippled ship and grabbed the sides of the gunship with its claws. With a mighty roar, the creature then flung it towards the ground as if it was nothing more than a toy. The ship fired its other remaining engine in a desperate attempt to correct its descent, to no avail.

The gunship hit the ground nose first, bouncing off the paved concrete once, twice, before coming to rest on the edge of the landing pad: all the while hemorrhaging bits and pieces from its interior. A brief moment of silence punctuated the landscape, as the ship lay smoking on the ground. Then, with a brilliant flash, the geth gunship exploded spectacularly, leaving nothing but a burning wreck. Twilight was briefly startled as a piece of metal debris landed with a thunk on the Mako.

The dragon hovered silently above the processing plant. Large leathery wings flapping slowly, it’s black scales dully reflecting the orange glow of the burning wreck. The dragon let out a roar, this time of victory, and made to land on the landing pad with a loud thump. The creature slowly waddled over to the wreck, apparently surveying its kill.

“Hey! Let’s go say thank you!”

Twilight stared at the pink earth pony in shock for a moment. “Are you insane? We don’t even know if he’s friendly or not.”

“Now that’s just mean. He helped us turn all these meanies into roasty roast! See?” Pinkie pointed at the charred remains of the geth on the landing pads. Not one geth was left standing, and what’s left of the geth force seemed to have retreated.

Twilight paused to reconsider her companion’s suggestion. True, the dragon had not overtly attacked her, and instead focused on the geth. But Twilight doubted it had anything to do with the dragon’s compassion. More like the fact that the geth had been shooting at the dragon and the Mako hadn’t.

The unicorn brought her six-wheeled IFV to a stop in front of the dragon, staring up at the magnificent being in awe. Oh, she had seen dragons back on Canterlot, usually far-off in the distance or during one of annual dragon ambassadorial meeting with the Princess. Being this close to one, and after that display of violence... was something else altogether. Dragons were temperamental and reclusive creatures. Even after the unification of Equestrian Alliance, they kept mainly to their own kind. Ponies were either outright ignored, or treated with grudging respect. This respect was strained at best, kept in line only by the dragon’s sense of honour. It was not unheard of for dragons to snap and go full out feral with very bloody results. These were usually quickly put down or exiled. Fortunately, these incidents were becoming increasingly rare as the dragons got used to the arrangement.

The vehicle shook a little as the dragon bent down to study the occupants more closely, apparently deciding that they were not hostile. Twilight flinched slightly as a small gout of flame licked the windows.

A deep, gruff voice emanated deep from within the dragon’s chest. “You don’t look like the invaders.” The dragon lowered his snout further, his green reptilian eyes staring directly through the windows. “Who are you and what do you want?”

***

“Whatchu’ mean we can’t see ‘em?”

“That’s just it. Soon after the dragon sped past, our sensors got scrambled as well. The geth must have noticed us and are actively jamming our scanners as well.”

“Great. Can’t this tub go any faster? We need to help Twilight now!”

“Applejack! We’re already going a little past the engines’ optimal capacity. Any more and we would end up with a dead engine instead,” the chief engineer scolded, already looking a little frazzled by the stress.

“Whose brilliant idea was it again for us to be hiding out on the other side of the planet after we dropped them off?” Applejack said, clearly spoiling for an argument now.

“It wouldn’t be much of a stealth mission if we hung around being obvious,” Rarity said.

“Well, if we stayed behind, we wouldn’t be in this fine pickle, wouldn’t we?”

Tali cleared her throat discreetly. “Guys? Those geth fighters don’t look too pleased to see us.” The quarian pointed to half a dozen angry red dots on her monitor.

“Aw, horseapples,” Scootaloo groaned.

***

“... so you mean you live here? All of your brood?” Twilight asked the dragon, straining her neck to look up at the dragon’s face.

The ponies had been wary of the dragon at first, with Rainbow Dash in particular advocating explosive violence with the Mako. Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed. It had helped when Twilight tactfully pointed out that the dragon could probably crush all of them at a whim should it be angered. The dragon seemed amused by the whole argument.

“Ponies, you would do well to remember me as an Equestrian dragon first and foremost, and not some mangy feral,” he had said. He then flashed Rainbow Dash a toothy grin and chuckled loudly when the pegasus quailed. Twilight decided then and there he liked the dragon.

The dragon had graciously offered to escort them to the mining shaft after a brief explanation. He seemed rather pleased with the offer of having the crew of the Normaredy help any remaining survivors of the geth attack. The ponies parked the Mako next to the mine shaft and stared at circular entrance that marked Mining Shaft 32-B. It was an amusing sight really. The dragon towered over the buildings and ponies, and had to look down just to talk with them. Compared to the huge beast, they were but gnats on a buffalo.

“Yes. My brethren are scattered all over the planet. We find it more comfortable to live in our own nests, rather than being forced to live communally back on Canterlot. Do you know how hard it is to find a decent nest on Flame Peak now?”

“Fascinating,” Garrus said, studying the dragon with great interest. It was evidently the turian’s first real look at an Equestrian dragon. “Why prompted you to move from Canterlot? It must have been hard.”

“Our partriach opted to start our brood anew on a new planet. As I said before, Canterlot was getting a little too crowded for our taste. We were pretty excited actually. New place to visit, prospect of unlimited food. Trouble was, not many colonies were willing to accept us. It was fortunate that the colonists on Stirrum had kindly agreed to let us stay, so long we don’t consume all the precious gems they’re mining. In return, we’re obligated to help their defense of the various mining outposts the colony has set up.”

“Wow, that’s pretty generous of you.”

“I suppose it is a fair trade, considering the Terminus Systems are supposed to be contested. Besides, they let us roam free, something which we cannot do in Canterlot.” The dragon shrugged. “The colonists openly admitted they could not afford the cost of a decent defensive installation. At least not yet.” The black reptile glanced back at the processing plant they just left behind, the trail of smoke from the burning geth gunship still visible. The spikes on the dragon drooped visibly at the sight.

“This particular facility was supposed to be under my protection...” the dragon lamented. “I... I have failed. I should not have let my anger lured me away from my true duties. I should have known that flying machine was just a distraction to lure me away...” The dragon let out a fiery snort, evidently frustrated at his failure. The creature suddenly tilted his head upwards and let out a cry of anguish, deafening the ponies who was standing near him.

Twilight cringed at the sudden roar, covering her ears. For the longest moment, the dragon’s roar filled the landscape. As soon as the noise died down to a more acceptable level, the lavender unicorn lowered her hooves from her ears and cautiously asked, “Mr Dragon... are you okay?”

The dragon bent his head in apology. “I... I apologise for my lapse. Our brood do not take to failures kindly. There will be... repercussions for this.” Even from her awkward vantage below the dragon’s chin, Twilight could see the black reptile was troubled.

“Oh, cheer up Mr. Dragon! I’m sure the others will understand it was the geth that did this. They were pretty smart to lure you away.”

“Please, just Ordrak.” The dragon turned his gaze on the commander again. “I must commend you on your reckless driving back there. I could have just as easily smothered you in flames had you strayed even half a metre off course.”

“It’s the Commander Sparkle! Of course she’s awesome.”

Twilight just flushed bright red at the compliment. It wasn’t everyday one got praised by a dragon anyhow. She cleared her throat to break the awkward silence, and said, “I think we best get going. Dr. T’Soni is somewhere in that mine and the geth might already be searching down there.”

“I will stay here and keep any invaders off your back. You have my word.” Ordrak actually gave the four a short formal bow. “Now go. Do not tarry here.”

“Right. Dash, if you would do the honours?”

“Yeah! About time we got this show on the road.” The rainbow speedster sped off to open the metallic doors. Twilight smiled briefly at the tomcolt’s enthusiasm as she trotted off to follow her down.

***

“That’s some slick moves there, Scoots,” Applejack said, wiping perspiration off her brow.

“Thanks. Though I think we should be thanking those dragons for showing up as well.” The viewscreen panned over to the three dragon who had showed up to help. One of them waved at the ship.

Applejack chuckled. “Heh, yeah. Good to know them dragons are friendly. ‘Least we know Twilight’ll be getting some backup.”

“Remind me never to prank Spike again. I don’t think I want to know what he’ll do when he’s angry.” Scootaloo joked.

“Yeah! You better not!” Spike called from his station..

“Pilot, how far are we from Sparkle?” Wrex asked curtly, folding his arms over his chest plate.

“Twenty minutes out. Give or take a few.” Scootaloo shot the krogan a dark look. “It would be nice if you could call me by my name for once.”

The krogan just snorted, before turning his attention to the screen showing the dragons. He tapped his chin thoughtfully as the dragons flew off. “Hmm, I wonder if I can get one of those dragons as a pet. Sure will impress those weaklings back on Tuchanka. Maybe I could even feed them to the dragon.”

Rarity stared at the krogan with shock. “Wrex, you’re a horrible, horrible pony.”

“Lady, you don’t know the half of it,” the krogan replied nonchalantly.

***

“Why is it that I always get picked to navigate potentially hazardous underground tunnels?” Garrus remarked sardonically as they slowly descended down the dimly lit mining shaft. The long, straight, circular shaft was remarkable for its’ monotony.

“Technically, the tunnels on Harnos are above ground.”

“Semantics. It’s still dark, damp and dank; like this one.”

Pinkie bounced past the two, bubbling happily. “This place is spoooooky!” she declared, giggling rather happily. The bubbly earth pony began outpacing the group, jumping ahead into the darkness.

“Pinkie, wait!”

The party pony disappeared from sight, her head mounted light apparently not turned on.

“Great. Let’s go get her before she does something we all regret.”

“Pinkie Pie!” Rainbow Dash exclaimed exasperatedly. The trio picked up their pace down the tubular tunnel. A few minutes of frantic galloping later, they reached the end of the shaft. An already open airlock marked the start of the mine proper, with the pink pony nowhere in sight. The crumpled remains of two geth troopers lay just behind the open portal.

The turian whistled as he inspected the nearest body. “She’s efficient, I’ll give her that. Straight through the head.”

“Does she even have military training?” Twilight queried incredulously.

“From this? She would had to have some form of training. Then again, we don’t know much about Pinkie before she suddenly appeared on the Citadel and started throwing parties randomly. A headache for the Executor that’s for sure.”

“Right... anyway, she can’t be far ahead. That one is still sparking.” The unicorn caught Rainbow by the tail as the pegasus tried to slip past. “And no, Rainbow, we need to stick together. Going off alone in this tunnel is dangerous.”

“Phooey.”

***

“Incredible...” Twilight breathed. The airlock had opened into a walkway that zigzagged through a grotto. What caught Twilight’s attention was not the contents of the small cave, but rather what lay beyond in the large cavern.

At one end, a clearly artificial construction was protruding out of the cavern walls. It appeared to be part of a building that was buried under millennia of neglect. The smooth white walls appeared as immaculate as the day it had been built, with no sign of wear, unlike the Prothean ruins in Harnos. Twilight guessed the conditions of the cavern was more forgiving. Curiously there were also smooth oblong shaped openings set in the walls in regular intervals, forming a checkerboard pattern. Some sort of energy field was covering each opening. Any sign of the ruin’s original purpose was long gone, buried under a millennium of geological upheaval.

Rainbow let out a whistle. “This place is old... wait, is that Pinkie?”

Twilight squinted at the direction of Rainbow’s hoof. So it was. The pink earth pony was sitting on her haunches on the one of lower walkways, facing one of the oblong opening. She seemed to be focused on something on the inside.

“Let’s go get her,” Twilight said, gesturing at a nearby elevator shaft.

***

The trio heard the pink pony giggling as they approached her. They heard another voice speak as well. A female, though her voice seemed oddly distorted.

“... Ponies do not come here, you’re hallucinating. And talking to yourself. Hah. Oh, goddess. I’m going to die here..”

Another giggle. “Silly filly. I’m real. See?” The pink pony wriggled a hoof at the direction of the barrier.

“You’re unusually lucid for a hallucination. They usually don’t claim to be real... or do they?”

“Pinkie, who are you talking to?” Twilight said as she trotted up to the mare.

“Her.” Pinkie pointed at the energy field. The unicorn frowned slightly as she saw the object of Pinkie’s attention. An asari, suspended in midair. Unlike the commando on Harnos, this asari was wearing civilian attire. A scientist by the looks of it. She seemed to be looking at the ponies with a mixture of fear, hope and incredulity all at the same time.

“More hallucinations? Oh, Liara. Your imagination certainly is active today.”

“We’re not hallucinations.”

“I think she’s playing a game!”

“I thought hallucinations don’t usually talk back... or do they? Huh, I never had a hallucination before. I think.”

Twilight dragged a hoof down her face. This was the doctor they were sent to rescue? She fought to keep her composure. “My name is Twilight Sparkle. I’m from the Special Recons and Tactics.”

“A Spectre? Huh, that’s good. What else will I conjure up? A protector figure. Yes. Perfect. Comforting. Well, I’ll play along.” At this point, the asari seemed to be reassuring herself of her tenuous grasp on her sanity.

“As you can see, I’m trapped here. If you’re as real as you’re claim, find me a way to get out of here.”

“How in the world did you end up in there?” Garrus asked, not unreasonably.

“Ah yes, the figment of my imaginations want to retrace my steps: see if I can figure out where I went wrong.” Twilight rolled her eyes at the asari’s words. She was seriously starting to doubt the merits of her mission.

“I was exploring the ruins. When the geth showed up, I ran in here and activated the defenses, hoping the barrier curtains would protect me. But I must have hit I wasn’t supposed to and now I’m trapped here.” The asari seemed to break for a moment. “Please! You must get me out of here,” she pleaded.

“Calm down. We’ll figure a way out,” Twilight said, trying to sound as reassuring as possible. Garrus shook his head and indicated to the unicorn he would be taking a long walk. A moment later, Dash joined her partner, apparently done trying to communicate with the obviously maddened scientist.

“Of course, what good would a hallucination be if it didn’t offer false hope?” The asari sighed, clearly tired of the charade. “Listen, if you’re real. Find some way past the barrier curtains. Find some way past the geth. Then use the control panel to release me.” Twilight peered past the floating asari, spying a lectern just behind her. “If you’re not real... leave me alone. I grow tired of talking to myself.”

Twilight shook her head and turned towards Pinkie, who seemed to be content at making funny faces at the asari now. “Come on Pinkie. Leave the poor girl alone for awhile.”

“Okie!” The pink earth pony got to her feet and bounced off to join Garrus and Rainbow Dash, who was looking around the cavern. The pair seemed to be studying something in the other end of the cavern.

“Hey Commander?”

“Yeah?”

“We might have a problem.” The turian jerked his head towards the group of geth troopers that emerged from the makeshift work camp in the far end of the cavern.

***

“Geth. Why are they so persistent?”

“‘Cause they’re big meanies! That’s why,” Pinkie answered in a matter-of-fact manner, bouncing about.

Rainbow Dash rolled her eyes at Pinkie’s answer. “Pinkie! This is serious. You saw what they did outside. Ponies are dying!”

Pinkie stopped bouncing right in front of the rainbow maned pegasus and fixed her with a stare. Her expression seemed to harden just a little. “I know Dashie. That’s why I’m fighting with Twilight here. Because I don’t want to see anypony hurt like this. Nopony deserves a fate like this. Nopony.” The joy seemed to drain out of the party pony as she spoke.

She glanced at Twilight, then at Garrus, her jaw set grimly. “I laugh because at the end of the day, everypony needs a break from tragedy. I laugh because somepony needs to be the one that can cheer everypony up. No matter how bad things can be, there’ll always be a light at the end of the tunnel. I want everypony to see that.”

Twilight’s jaw was literally hanging open by now. “... wow.”

“Besides!” The pink pony resumed her jovial persona. “Parties are fun!”

The unicorn was taken back by the sudden about-turn. “For the love of...” Twilight shook her head and smiled resignedly. “Pinkie Pie, you’re so random.”

“I aim to please.”

“Look, I know this is a sentimental time and all, but we still have an asari to save.” Dash jabbed a hoof at the floating scientist. “Already scouted the cavern. No way we’re getting past that.”

“Have you tried using your head? You always seem to solve problems with it.”

“Harr harr Garrus. That was only one time. Besides, headbutting that salarian was worth it after the way he jerked us around.”

“Guys, guys! We need to figure a way past the barrier curtains... maybe if we find the power source—”

“Hey! What does this machine do?” The pink pony sat in the controls of a large tractor-like machine, its’ cylindrical business end pointed towards the one corner of the ruins’ walls. Her hoof hovered a large red round button.

Twilight’s eyes bulged as she saw Pinkie was about to activate what appeared to be a mining excavator. “Pinkie, wait!”

A loud roar erupted, brilliant flashes of angry red light searing the rock. As Twilight watched as the lasers began eating away at the rocks, horror building in her heart. The cavern began to rumble slightly as if the very earth itself was protesting against the abuse. That pony is going to bring down the whole cavern with them! Then understanding dawned as she realised where the excavating machine was pointed at. Straight at the underside of the building!

“Pinkie, you’re brilliant,” she yelled over the roar of the machine.

“What?”

“I SAID, IT’S BRILLIANT!”

“What? Hold on, let me turn this off.”

“WAIT!”

The machine powered down, stopping short of breaching the walls of the ruins. Twilight facehoofed, trying hard not to vent her frustration at the randomness of her companion.

“Yes, Twilight?”

“Ugh, never mind Pinkie.” If Twilight could plant her hoof any further into her face, she would have. Unfortunately, reality meant that she had to settle for a normal facehoof. Pinkie just gave a giggle and bounced off, apparently distracted with another toy.

Garrus jogged over to the rapidly cooling hole made by the excavator and examined it closely. The mining laser had eaten its way through the rock and left the section of wall exposed. “Commander, I think we can break through the wall. The mining laser seemed to have weakened it significantly at least.”

“Incoming!”

A rainbow blur flew past Twilight and headed straight for the weakened wall section. A loud thump and cloud of dust later, the skyblue pegasus lay on the ground, her magenta eyes spinning dizzily.

“Didth I breakth it...?”

The turian moved closer to the wall and tapped it with the butt of his rifle. “Nope.”

“You owe me a root beer for this, Garrus,” Dash said, slowly getting to her haunches. She began rubbing the back of her head, wincing slightly as she touched a sore spot.

The turian held his hands up helplessly. “Hey, not my fault your thick skull can’t break everything.”

Twilight tapped the two on the shoulders, and pointed at the wall. “Guys, look.”

The two turned just in time to see the wall crumble on its own, without any further intervention. Immaculate white corridors lay just beyond the walls.

“Hah! Told you.”

“That proves nothing! It crumbled on it’s own!”

“Root beer float, please. Vanilla ice-cream. Thank you.”

“Not in a million years, Dash. You still owe me five credits for...”

Twilight shook her head slowly, trying to hide a crooked smile. “Come on guys, let’s keep moving,” she said, interrupting the light-hearted banter.

***

“Now I’m hallucinating that you’re inside the tower. I must be getting worse. Earlier I even imagined I heard thunder,” the asari intoned, closing her eyes.

Twilight had to resist a sudden mad impulse to just grab the asari by her shoulder and give her a good shake. “Doctor, we used the mining laser to bore through.” Twilight stated evenly.

“You bore through...” The asari gasped slightly, a look of relief washing over her blue features. “By the goddess, you— you’re real!”

“Of course we are, silly! Why won’t we be?”

“I- ah... I’m sorry. I thought you were a hallucination. I thought—”

“Yeah, yeah, we heard all your rants earlier. Don’t you worry, Rainbow Dash and his turian sidekick is on the case.

Garrus bopped the pegasus’ head with the butt of his rifle. “Turian sidekick?! Rainbow Dash, now that’s just low.”

“Please, just get me out of here, before more geth show up.”

“Oh, I wouldn’t worry too much on that part...” Garrus said, smirking, referring to the very big dragon currently sitting outside the mineshaft.

Twilight trotted over to the lectern she spotted earlier and studied the control. Various symbols of undecipherable script flashed past the unicorn’s eyes. But for all their alien-ness, there was a strange sense of familiarity there. Almost as if she had seen these symbols before, but had recently forgotten about them.

“There should be a flashing rune on the bottom end. I think that is the release key.”

The commander found the indicated key and activated it with a hoof. A loud wail suddenly pierced the air, making the lavender unicorn cringe a little. Fortunately, before any permanent hearing loss was incurred, the cacophony stopped as abruptly as it started. The asari who had been flailing about in mid air, suddenly dropped to the ground, only to land on Rainbow Dash’s back.

“Gotcha!”

“It wasn’t that much of a fall, you know,” Liara said dryly, picking herself off the pegasus and brushing off the nonexistent dust off her form-fitting attire.

“Hey, nice way of thanking your rescuers!” Dash huffed.

“Lay it off, Dash.”

Dash shot the turian another glare, before addressing Liara. “So, how are we getting back out?”

“The same way we came in? Duh?”

“There’s an elevator at the back of this ‘tower’. We can use it to get to the upper levels.” The asari indicated a circular room just behind the group. “At least I think it is.”

“You think?” Dash asked incredulously.

“Pretty sure.” The group followed the asari into the circular room. The lavender unicorn looked around the room, and belatedly found that the ceiling was nowhere to be seen. Instead, a long smooth shaft that led into the darkness above could be seen. At least this seemed to strengthen the doctor’s theory that this was an elevator of a sort.

Liara walked up to the lectern in the center of the room. “Here goes,” she said, activating the lectern. The entire floor shuddered for a moment, a gentle hum rising in the background as ancient machinery whirled into action. The platform began to rise, albeit slowly.

“Well, at least that’ll save us a walk.”

“So, Dr. T’Soni...”

The asari smiled at the use of the title. “Call me Liara, please.”

“Liara. Do you have any idea why the geth are after you?”

“I still cannot believe all this. Do you think Benezia is involved?” Twilight managed to keep a straight face as she heard Matriach Benezia’s name. So, Liara had some inkling about her mother’s involvement with Saren? This could be interesting.

“Saren is looking for something called the Conduit.”

“The Conduit? How did—” A loud rumble intervened. As the ponies looked around in surprise, the sounds of falling rocks rumbled deep beneath the caverns. Twilight herself was caught in a small shower of rocks. “These ruins are not stable. The mining laser must have triggered a seismic event!”

Rainbow Dash’s magenta eyes was wide with fear. “Wait, you mean we could be trapped in here?!” she shrieked.

“Sheesh Dash, calm down. We’re not trapped yet,” the turian replied.

Twilight trotted over to the lectern and peered at the controls. “Do you think you could speed this thing up?” she asked, looking up at the scientist.

“I’m afraid not. I am concerned that any further input on my part would only derail our journey.”

The rest of the journey was made in strained silence, with the ponies glancing up fearfully every so often as another shower of dust fell. The rumbling slowly intensified, and the entire chamber was rumbling by the time they nearly reached the top.

“Great, let’s get out of here before—” Dash’s words died in her mouth as she noticed a krogan battlemaster, together with a squad of geth troopers walking up towards them. Twilight stiffened as she realised that they would have to go through them in order to escape this death trap.

“Heh, nice of you to break past the energy shield for us,” the krogan said, stopping at the door. The geth troopers filed in beside the krogan, their weapons already leveled.

“Do you really think this is the time?” Twilight asked, not unreasonably.

“The atmosphere is perfect for a life-and-death struggle.” The krogan motioned for his geth followers to move forward. “Kill them, spare the asari if you can. If not, doesn’t matter,” he ordered with a casual shrug.

“Get back!” Twilight’s horn suddenly lit up with a brilliant light, sending out a shock wave that pushed the krogan back and knocked over the geth troopers that were leveling their weapons.

Dash and Garrus immediately opened fire, taking down a couple of the geth troopers before they could recover. Pinkie surprised the nearest geth with a grenade shoved down its back, and hopping off merrily as the poor trooper exploded, taking out its comrades.

As the initial shock wore off, what geth troopers that were left started to open up with their weapons, their fire unfocused and ineffectual. Rainbow Dash sped across the chamber, bucking geth where she could, and sniping away the geth she couldn’t reach with commendable efficiency. Garrus just calmly stood his ground and continued cutting down his enemy.

As her squad was facing off the remaining geth, Twilight was holding off the enraged krogan, using her magic to weave a magical shield blocking his every shot. Maddened with rage, the krogan began to charge at the lavender unicorn. Twilight concentrated again, and sent the krogan flying with a levitation field; smacking him right into a wall. The krogan fell heavily on the floor, apparently dazed.

“Come on! Let’s get out before the whole cavern collapses.” Twilight shouted, motioning for the group to hurry up. She reached a hoof to help Liara up and quickly galloped down the newly cleared path leading towards the mining shaft, with the good doctor and Garrus following closely behind.

“Pinkie Pie! Move!” Dash shouted desperately, dodging the rocks as they fell around her.

“Co-o-o-ming!” Pinkie replid in a sing-song voice, bouncing along without a trace of urgency. The rainbow pegasus scrunched her face at the thought of Pinkie being accidentally crushed by the falling rubble, flew back down towards the party pony and gave her a not-so-gentle shove toward the entrance.

“Hey! That tickles!” Pinkie giggled, but she didn’t resist to being helped along towards the now-partially obstructed mining shaft. Rainbow groaned as a pile of rocks collapsed right on top of the airlock, blocking the way completely. She continued on anyway, very much intent on digging herself out if that was what it took.

As they neared the airlock, the rocks obstructing their path suddenly blew apart. “Rainbow! Pinkie! Hurry up!” Twilight shouted, her voice slightly strained from the effort of keeping the cavern from collapsing completely.

Without a second thought, Rainbow shoved Pinkie inside through the newly-cleared airlock and dove inside after the party pony. Just as the rainbow speedster cleared the portal, the chamber behind them finally collapsed in one final huge rumble. The entire shaft lay eeriely silent, save for heavy breathing of the two ponies who went through last.

“Jeez, Pinkie, you worry me sometimes.”

All she got for a response was another high-pitched giggle. “Oh Dashie. We still got out safe and sound right?”

“Girls? It’s not over yet.”

The ground shook again, this time more violently.

“Run!”

The group picked themselves off the floor and ran for their dear life towards the open portal at the far end. The rumbling beneath their hooves only intensified as they neared the entrance.

“Little ponies, we must go. The very earth itself is convulsing.” Twilight heard Ordrak bellow. Despite the prospect of imminent danger, she felt a small rush of relief. At least there wouldn’t any danger of geth ambushing the group as they staggered out. Not with the dragon around.

“Into the vehicle! Now!” Twilight shouted, urging the group forward. The tunnel wouldn’t be stable for long at the rate of the collapse.

Another huge rumble shook the entire mining shaft. A whole section of metal support on the ceiling began to buckle dangerously, screeching as each rivet failed. A few seconds later, the entire thing collapsed into the tunnel. Unfortunately for the hapless Garrus, the wreckage fell just as the turian tried to sprint past. Garrus grunted in pain as the debris knocked him down and pinned his legs, drawing the attention of his partner.

“GARRUS!” Dash shouted desperately. The pegasus zoomed over to the turian’s side and tried bucking the metal. To no avail. “Help! Somepony, help!” she cried, trying to pull the turian out.

Twilight cantered to a stop as she heard the cry and gasped softly as she saw the full extent of the new disaster. “Hold on, Garrus!” Her horn lit up brilliantly and she tried to lift the wreckage from the turian. “I... I can’t... lift it...” she cried, gritting her teeth.

“Allow me,” Liara said, kneeling beside the struggling unicorn. The asari held out her hand, just like Angel did back on Appleloosa. A shimmering blue field enveloped the metal wreckage, in addition to the soft purple glow of Twilight’s magic. Twilight felt her load lessen considerably and renewed the push. Slowly, but surely, the two began lifting the impossibly heavy metal wreckage from the turian’s trapped legs. Rainbow Dash and Pinkie pulled the C-Sec agent out as his legs were freed. As soon as the turian was clear, Twilight released her hold on the wreckage and went to check on the turian.

“Come on, Garrus, you’re not dying until you get me that root beer!” Dash cried, hugging the turian with her forelegs.

The turian winced in pain as Pinkie and Twilight helped to lift the turian onto the pegasus’ back. “Heh, never one to forgo a debt eh, Dash?” he riposted weakly.

“You betcha, Garrus. Now let’s get out of here!” With Garrus secured on her back, the rainbow pegasus galloped up to catch up with the rest of the group who were already scrambling through the open portal of the mine shaft.

The gaggle of ponies, turian and asari emerged from the rumbling portal and sprinted towards the parked Mako. They tumbled into the vehicle in an disorganised heap without further delay. Ordrak was nowhere to be seen.

“We’re never going to make it!” Twilight shouted, as she engaged the Mako’s engine.

The lavender unicorn flinched as a dark shadow enveloped the cabin. It was Ordrak. “Who said you needed to drive?” the dragon’s voice boomed over the steadily increasing roar of moving earth in the background. A moment later, the vehicle shuddered as the sound of sharp claws grating against modern armour filled the cabin. Before the unicorn could question the dragon, Twilight felt herself being thrown back as the vehicle yawed to the left, her view of the ground abruptly replaced by the gloomy sky of Stirrum.

“Hang on!” Ordrak bellowed.

***

“Woah nelly, what in the name of golden apples is that?”

Tali’s fingers were literally flying over the console now, her screen filled with a constant stream of figures and data. “Seismic readings are off the chart! I think it’s a volcanic eruption. The mine must have been sitting on a dormant volcano.”

“Scootaloo, turn this ship around at once! Do you know what molten ash can do to the ship’s delicate hull?!” Rarity cried, visions of the ship being irreparably scarred beyond repair filling her mind.

“Rarity, I have intention of frying ourselves on a volca—” The pilot paused briefly. “Jamming is gone! Switching to short-range scanners.”

The map in the CIC morphed to a 3-D representation of the processing facility and its surroundings.

Applejack whistled as the graphical display began to update. “That’s a lot of dead geth. Twilight been busy.”

“Look, the dragon is there as well. Along with the Captain’s signal. And the Mako!”

A dull roar shook the ship, and the whole room vibrated slightly from the sheer force of the explosion. “The volcano is erupting! They’ll never make it out in time!” Tali shouted.

“Girls...”

“Oh no! We can’t reach them without risking the ship as well!” Rarity said.

“Well, there must be something we can do!” Applejack argued.

“GIRLS!” Fluttershy shouted suddenly. The pegasus cowered when she realised she was suddenly the centre of attention in the room. “Um... look. The dragon... he’s doing something...” she squeaked, wings folded tight.

Everypony’s eyes swung to the viewscreen. “Looks like he’s lifting the Mako... well, bless that dragon’s golden heart, that critter is flyin’ em out!” The ponies watched in silence as the dragon gracefully flew upwards and away from the steadily disintegrating mine. The ship rocked slightly again as the newly born volcano sent another huge plume of smoke into the air.

“You ponies never cease to amaze me,” Wrex commented, a grudging tone of respect in his voice.

“It’s kinda what we do,” Applejack replied dryly. “Somepony hail that dragon!”

***

[Briefing Room, ESV Normaredy]

“Okay, girls, allow me to introduce Dr. Liara T’Soni. She’s one of the galaxy’s foremost experts on Protheans.”

A murmur of polite greetings cascaded around the small briefing room. Twilight smiled as she glanced at Garrus, who was sitting in his usual spot. The turian seemed to have come off relatively unscathed from that scare in the tunnels, which Twilight suspected had something to do with the turian’s unique physiology. Of course, his armour also mitigated most of the potential damage from the weight of the debris.

The asari nodded her head politely. “I must thank you all for rescuing me from that ruins. Goddess knows what would have happened had you not showed up.”

“Ya better be worth the trouble,” Applejack muttered. The earth pony earned a swift jab from Rarity.

“Applejack! Mind your manners,” the unicorn whispered harshly, before turning back to flash a big smile at the scientist. “It is our pleasure indeed Miss T’Soni... you are single, aren’t you?”

“Yes, Miss would do fine, although I would not mind you ponies calling me Liara. After all I am considered just a child in asari terms.”

Applejack looked the asari up and down with a confused expression. “Just how old are ya exactly?”

The asari looked thoughtful for a moment. “I am only a hundred and six years,” she finally answered.

“A hundred?! But ya look just as young as a filly out of grade school—” Another nudge in the ribs interrupted her rant yet again.

“I simply must apologise on behalf of my uneducated friend here. She clearly have not read up on asari’s physiology.” Rarity shot Applejack a piercing glare, as if she had just violated the sanctity of a holy shrine.

The asari chuckled. “A hundred years may seem like a long time for a short-lived species as yours. But among the asari I am barely considered more than a child.” Liara paused, her gray eyes glancing briefly at Twilight. “Though even the longest lived matriarch are like a babe compared to your princess.”

“What did Saren want with you anyway?” Dash piped up.

“Um, I hate to interrupt... but shouldn’t we ask Miss T’Soni about the Conduit... if that’s okay with you all.”

“Fluttershy’s right. Doctor, do you know anything about it?”

“Only that it is somehow connected to the Prothean extinction. That is my real area of expertise. I have spent the past fifty years trying to figure out what happened to them.”

Applejack whistled. “Wow-wee. Fifty years studyin’ this piece of dead history? Mighty dedicated of ya.”

“What have you found?”

Liara seemed to relax more, apparently finding it comfortable to discuss something she was intimately familiar with. She slipped into a teacher-like voice. “What is interesting is what I did not turn up. There are remarkably little archaeological evidence of the Protheans, and even less and why they might have disappeared.” She frowned a little. “It is almost as if someone did not want the mystery solved. It is like someone came along and cleansed the galaxy of clues. But here’s the incredible part.” The asari paused dramatically, clearly excited about the matter. “According to my findings, the Protheans are not the first galactic civilizations to mysteriously vanish. This cycle began long before them.”

“Hang on jus’ a cotton-pickin’ minute! What ya mean them Protheans are not the first one to vanish? I thought they’re the first aliens and stuff.”

“Cycle? What cycle?”

“The galaxy is built on a cycle of extinction. Each time a great galactic civilization rises up, it is suddenly and violently cast down. Only ruins survive.” The ponies in the room were hanging on her every word at this point, even the normally hyperactive Pinkie Pie. “The Protheans rose up from a single world; their empire spanned the entire galaxy. Yet even they climbed on top on the remains of those who came before. Their greatest achievements, the Citadel and the Mass Relays, were based on those who came before them.” Her expression turned grim. “And then, like all the other forgotten civilization throughout galactic history, the Protheans disappeared.”

“I have dedicated my life to figuring out why.”

“Wow. That’s a lot to take in.” Twilight commented, shaking her head slowly.

“Do you think this has something to do with that awful Reapers you mentioned?” Rarity offered.

Fluttershy squeaked and cowered behind Wrex. “R-r-reapers?”

“Oh Fluttershy, stop hiding like that! They’re not here yet.”

“Get this pegasus off my back before my trigger finger gets itchy.” Fluttershy gave another loud squeak and disappeared behind Tali’s seat.

The turian frowned with disapproval. “Wrex, stop scaring the poor thing like that.” The two glared daggers at each other.

“What is this ‘Reapers’ you mentioned?”

“If I may, Commander?” Tali asked the lavender unicorn. Twilight nodded her approval. The quarian repeated her brief story of the Reapers and the geth. The asari scientist looked sceptical, but seemed to accept the quarian’s word at face value.

“Surely you have more proof than the damaged memory core of a geth unit?”

Twilight hesitated. Despite the fact that she already entrusted this secret to her friends and companions on this ship, she was still leery about sharing her visions with outsiders. Partly it was because the story was so fantastic, nopony would believe her. Or maybe she just didn’t want to be called crazy. “I... there was this Prothean beacon on Appleloosa. It burned images in my mind... horrific images.” Twilight shuddered a little as she recalled her nightmares. It was recurring less frequently, but the images were as vivid as ever. “They seemed to have a common theme. The destruction of the Prothean race. Apparently by a machine. Or a machine race.”

“A becaon?” The asari’s eyes widened. “Yes, that would make sense. But the beacons were not meant for pony physiology. I am surprised you are able to make any sense of it.”

“Well... there’s this nice asari lady who gave us the Cipher...” Fluttershy whispered from her hiding spot behind Tali.

Rainbow Dash snorted in amusement. “Oh yeah, that crazy asari who was eaten by the plant. Supposed to help Twilight here understand the visions or something. Personally, I think it’s a load of hooey.”

“Well, it did alter my perception a little. The images have cleared up a little, though I still can’t make heads or tails of it.”

“So... this was something another asari did to you?” The asari got to her feet. “Commander, with your permission I would like to try something.” She stopped in surprise as Applejack moved to bar her way. The orange earth pony eyes narrowed.

“Hold on there, missy. Jus’ what ya think ya gonna be doin’ to Twilight here? I don’t right see how yer asari mumbo jumbo can help us all here.”

“Applejack, calm down. She’s only trying to help.”

“Have you lost ya marbles Twilight? Did you forget she’s also the daughter of that no-good Benezia tramp?”

“AJ. She’s not her. Besides, the geth were after her.” Twilight looked straight into the brilliant green eyes of the soldierpony. “I think she might be onto something. If there’s anything that can help us stop Saren, I am willing to try it.”

“Well, I still don’t trust her...” Applejack glanced at Liara, then back at Twilight. “But if ya think she can be trusted...”

“I do, Applejack.” Twilight nodded slightly at Liara. “I trust her.” Applejack sighed and bowed her head in defeat, trotting back to her seat. The lavender unicorn gave the earth pony a grateful smile and turned her attention back to Liara. “What do you intend to do?”

“One of my kind have given you deeper understanding of the visions. But you still cannot put together the pieces.” The asari held out her arms. ”Like her, I can join my consciousness to yours. Maybe my knowledge of the Protheans will help clarify the visions.”

“Okay...” Twilight gulped, not really keen on reliving the visions. “Let’s do this then.”

“Oh, this is going to be good!” Pinkie commented idly, munching on popcorns she procured from the galley. The pink pony seemed to not mind the black looks both Rarity and Tali directed at her.

The asari approached the unicorn, kneeling to bring them face to face. “Relax, Commander.” Twilight felt the world slow as the asari locked her eyes with hers.

“Embrace eternity!”

The nightmares followed with a vengeance.

***

“...mander!”

Darkness. Pure darkness. Where was she again?

“Comma...!”

Twilight sensed that she was floating.

“Flut... git.. Cherilee now!”

The unicorn looked around with unseen eyes. Darkness. Why was it so dark? She shivered, even though there no cold. No warmth. Nothing at all.

“By all that’s... you... Liara?”

Liara. That sounded familiar. Asari... was it? The half-formed image of the asari flitted through.

“I... idea... mind... Prothean...”

Prothean.

The memories suddenly flooded back. The visions. The Reapers. The Protheans. Death. Burning cities. Barren wastelands. The eternal darkness around her faded away as her mind rebooted. The unicorn stirred, and began to open her eyes. A chatter of voice immediately assaulted her ears.

“Look! She’s awake!”

“Twilight! Are ya feelin’ better?”

“Sparkle, don’t you dare die on me now.”

The harsh glare of the lights in the briefing room blinded her for a moment. Twilight blinked rapidly for several moments, trying to ascertain her condition. It appeared she had fallen onto the metal floor, her snout and chin touching the cold metal. Her knees must have given way at some point, and she was currently lying belly-first on the floor. The lavender unicorn groaned, and put a hoof to her head.

“That... that was interesting...”

Rarity let out a shocked gasp. “Interesting?! My dear Twilight, you are never doing anything like this again. I absolutely forbid it!”

“Twi, did that asari scramble your brains as well?” Rainbow Dash’s tomcolt voice added.

The blue freckled face of Liara came into view. Her concerned expression seemed genuine, at least to Twilight’s addled eyes. “Commander, how are you feeling? It appeared the visions have overwhelmed your pony mind for a moment there. You literally collapsed during our mind-meld.”

Twilight shook her head stubbornly. “Never mind about me... What have you learned?”

“Nothing you don’t already know. The beacon must be more damaged than you originally thought. The ones that you have are incomplete... fragments of the original message. I’m surprised you were able to make sense of it at all. It would have destroyed a lesser mind.”

Twilight remained silent as she processed this new factoid. No wonder the visions were jumbled. But the horror she felt was real. Even if she didn’t lose her mind in the initial process... she felt like pieces of sanity was still being chipped away each time she relived that memory. It was unpleasant.

The prim voice of Nurse Cheerilee cut through the voices of the briefing room. “Coming through!” Twilight could fell the nurse checking her pulse as well as scanning her with a portable medical scanner. The unicorn tried to get to her knees, but the artificial gravity proved too much. Or was it the nurse holding her down? Twilight wasn’t quite sure, her senses still somewhat scrambled.

“Hm, Commander seem fine, if a little weak. Though next time I would appreciate it that you at least inform me before trying something like this.” She felt a strong hoof grab her by the shoulder. “Come along now, you need to rest in the infirmary.” The nursepony looked up. “You too, Dr T’Soni. You don’t look too well.”

The asari’s voice seemed fatigued as well. “Y-yes. I think I need to lie down as well. Process all this information.”

Twilight smiled weakly at the rest. “Sorry, everypony. Doctor’s orders. Dismissed.”

***

[Captain’s Quarters, ESV Normaredy]

The lavender unicorn lay on her sparse bed, watching the stars lazily drift by through the oval window next to her bed. She turned one eye towards Spike, who was busy sorting out her report to the Council.

“Spike?”

“Mmhmm?” Spike muttered, not looking up from his perch on the workstation’s chair.

“Do you think I’m going mad?”

Spike sighed in exasperation. “Twilight. You asked me that a dozen times now. No, you’re not mad. We believe you when you say the beacons gave you nightmares. Get some sleep, Twi.”

Twilight grunted slightly and turned her head towards the viewport, staring again into the deep void. Somehow, Spike’s words rang hollow for her. She only hoped she could make sense of the whole thing in time. It was maddening to have these visions flitting about in her mind, ever-present, but out of reach.

Her morbid thoughts were interrupted as Spike suddenly gagged, holding a claw to his mouth. The diminutive dragon belched out a gout of green flame, an ancient scroll materialising in thin air. Twilight caught the scroll with her magic and studied the wax seal on the parchment.

“Oh, a message from the princess.”

“Well, open it Twi.”

The lavender unicorn unfurled the scroll and began reading. Her eyes gradually widened as she digested the contents of the letter.

My faithful student, Twilight Sparkle,

It has come to the attention of my sources on Poneria that Matriarch Benezia was recently sighted in Port Heihen, the capital of the colony. Her motives are unknown at this time. It is imperative you act on this information at once and glean what information you can from her about Saren... and my sister if possible.

Above all, stay safe, my little pony.

Your loving teacher,
Princess Celestia

Twilight reread the letter a few times more, blinking in disbelief. Finally, a real lead. A chance to trap Saren’s second-in-command and unravel his plans.

“Spike. Get Scootaloo on the line. We’re heading for Poneria.”