• Published 12th Mar 2016
  • 8,680 Views, 206 Comments

Ultimatum - Starscribe



Celestia and Luna were created by aliens to rule Equestria in the name of their creators. They decided not to. Everything worked out okay, until their creators returned to collect their due. That's when Twilight Sparkle got involved...

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Landfall

Twilight heard shouting in the throne room. She almost didn't slow down as she passed, occupied as she was with balloons, streamers, and other party supplies levitating behind her. Pinkie Pie would be expecting her. However flexible Pinkie could be, she was not okay with tardiness where parties were concerned.

Twilight had heard plenty of angry voices in audience with Celestia, and she wasn't surprised that she couldn't understand the language of the one shouting. Never mind that Equestria's rulers literally controlled the sky, foreign dignitaries often thought they could intimidate merely by force of personality. Even knowing how important this party was, she couldn't help but slow and listen.

Though the guards standing outside the door eyed her nervously, that was all she got. As she listened, she not only couldn't understand what the speaker was saying, but she couldn't even name the language the speaker was using. A few moments later, Celestia answered the speaker in their own language, as humble as ever Twilight had heard her.

Whatever her talent with magic, Twilight Sparkle was no polyglot. She didn't have Celestia's thousand-year-reign to learn every language on the planet. Yet Twilight couldn't even identify this language. The syllables were too clear, the diction rapid but not sounding clipped and strange as minotaur languages did. Nor did it have the characteristic reverberation of changeling language, or the grace of the Prench. It wasn't deep like dragon speech, nor guttural as Saddle Arabian could be.

In short, the language was alien. Twilight closed her eyes, concentrating briefly on the upstairs bedroom where she knew Pinkie Pie was still waiting. With a little flare of magic, light flashed from beside her, and the party supplies vanished. Teleporting the supplies to Pinkie was a little impersonal, but Twilight couldn't help herself. She had to know who (and what) Celestia was talking to.

It wasn't as though she expected to keep her friend waiting too much longer. She was a princess, after all. So she was a little caught off-guard when, instead of opening the door the guards crossed their spears over it, blocking the way.

Twilight stopped, and tried to imitate the royal decorum she regularly saw from Celestia. “Excuse me, but I'd like to go in.”

Poor guards — their discomfort was practically thick enough to taste. They looked from one to another, before a pale-haired pegasus looked up. “Princess Celestia said... absolutely no interruptions.”

“She named you specifically, Princess,” his companion added. “We're sorry, but you can't go in.”

Twilight reeled backward, eyes widening a little. She turned, and hurried away down the hall without another word. Celestia had specifically banned her from a diplomatic meeting Twilight hadn't even been told was happening, despite being in the palace at the time. Had the princess told her about the meeting and let her know she wasn't needed, that would've been one thing. But keeping it secret—

Twilight Sparkle didn't do well with secrets. Her trot shifted into a canter as she swerved down a side-passage, hurrying towards a set of stairs. She hadn’t become Celestia’s apprentice, hadn’t become an alicorn by leaving mysteries unexplored. There was always another secret, and always a proper way to dig them out. Sometimes that meant the scientific method, or the right book. Other times it was sneaking around to a side-passage once used by servants to bring refreshments to lordly ponies as they waited in their audience-box.

As Twilight had expected, the hallway had no guards. The doors were all locked now, so it couldn’t be used to access the throne-room. True as that might be, it had several discrete peepholes, and nice thin walls. She slowed her pace dramatically, placing each hoof with care. True, the shouting would cover her hoofsteps. But what if there was a lull in the conversation? As curious as she was, Twilight did not want to be discovered skulking around, and make Celestia’s negotiating position worse. From the screaming, the visiting dignitaries were not happy.

More evidence to them not being dragons, she told herself. Not enough fire.

Twilight slowed as she reached the first peephole. She held her breath as she levitated the wood out of the way, pressing her eye down against the opening. What she saw probably would’ve made her cry out if she hadn’t already been holding her breath. Instead she staggered away, letting the wood rotate back into place even as she tried to match the beings she had seen with her knowledge of the life of her planet.

Twilight didn’t walk down to the closer peepholes, that was too slow. Flying wasn’t an option, not in the cramped confines of the servant’s corridor. Instead, she levitated, zipping down through the space even as the aliens continued their passionate protest on the other side of thin wooden walls. She couldn’t understand a word of it, but that didn’t really matter. Twilight landed next to the last of the openings, the one right beside the dais Celestia always sat on, and moved it out of the way. This way, she could get a clear glance at the front of the dignitaries, instead of only looking from the back.

It did not make them less strange. The figures were tall and lean, with agile limbs and flat features. They wore formal outfits, which wasn’t all that unusual for visiting dignitaries, though rarely had she seen clothes that covered so much. Their uniforms (for all were modeled in a similar style) were tight without being restrictive, cut from navy and accentuated with black and yellow.

The foremost of the group was the one speaking, and she was surprised to see he didn’t seem to be overwhelmed with emotion as his voice had first suggested. Rather, the tall figure’s voice seemed to carry with the force of a speaking spell, shaking even though his face remained collected. He had no fur at all, his face pale and his forehead bare. Indeed, she saw no fur on the newcomers, except for atop the heads of the other three.

Two of those remained well back, standing at either side and watching with an alert professionalism Twilight had come to expect from guards. Well… maybe not guards. They weren’t trying to look alert, as many of Celestia’s untested Solar Guard acted. These beings were soldiers, expressions intense and eyes focused. Foreign weapons weren’t allowed into Celestia’s presence, and Twilight could see none, but they did each carry bulky bricks of metal which they held like weapons. Were those clubs? If so, why bother with all the little buttons and openings?

The last of the figures was also the smallest, and Twilight guessed it for a female. It seemed a safe guess, both because the creature was smaller than her peers and because her voice was higher, almost as high as a pony’s. Come to think of it, the speaker’s vocal range might’ve been fairly typical for a stallion if he wasn’t using some kind of voice-amplification spell.

But if he’s using a spell, where’s the aura? Twilight’s thaumaturgical sensitivity was among the best in all Equestria, and she could sense no active magic from these beings. Wait, no. The female was doing something. The target seemed to be internal though, because Twilight could sense no flow outward. Where’s her horn?”

Unfortunately, spying through hidden peepholes didn’t overwhelm her with opportunities to get another angle and try to see where this strange species hid its magical organs.

Their conversation continued, Celestia occasionally replying in their alien tongue with the fluency of a native speaker. She did not seem to be using a translation spell. How had Celestia learned the tongue of a species so rare Twilight had never even heard of them?

She sat back, considering even as she prepared a translation spell of her own. The strangers wore fine clothes, as fine as anything a Canterlot tailor could’ve sewn. Not only that, but the strange things they carried had the look of technology, even if Twilight couldn’t gauge function from so far away. Yet such things did not suggest remote, isolated tribes. Isolation bred stagnation, and little cultures couldn’t support technology. Either Celestia had given them what they carried, or they were more numerous than some remote village hidden on an island somewhere.

What were they? Twilight didn’t know yet, but she intended to find out. Translation spells were tricky business, far harder than levitating down a hallway or even most of what she had done for her friends over the years. Translating required establishing a metal bridge and extracting meaning from the words the other spoke. Such spells could not actually impart knowledge to the caster, nor could they be used without a native speaker present (such as for translating documents). Still, they would serve for her purposes here.

A few more seconds, and the spell was ready. Twilight didn’t even have to open the peephole to cast, and that was probably for the best anyway. However majestic Celestia might be with her flowing mane and magical aura, strange flashes of lights from the dais upon which she sat would probably be noticed.

A few more seconds, and she let the spell loose. It zoomed unseen through the wood, searching out the strange beings and connecting their minds to her. The connection was subconscious and extremely weak, but it would do for extracting their meanings. The voice of their lead speaker began to stretch and distort in her head, warping into a form she would understand. Had she been speaking to them, her own voice would’ve done the same.

Suddenly, she could understand.

“This is completely unacceptable, EU-81 Alpha. The terms of your creation were explicit. Your purpose was given, and you have failed. The terms of your failure were established; what were they?”

Twilight couldn’t see Celestia through the wood, yet from her tone she sounded almost meek. “Our destruction. If we lived and did not succeed, you were going to replace us. Have you judged us failed, then?”

“I don’t know. Torres, are you finished with your report?”

As Twilight opened the peephole again, she could see the female clutching a flat piece of metal to her chest, nodding. “I am, sir.”

“Very good.” He gestured vaguely towards the throne. “Please tell EU-81 Alpha and Beta what we think of their performance.”

The female looked almost apologetic as she advanced a pace, standing beside the larger male. She lowered her little metal slab, which she began to read as though it were a book. “Kepler-442b, local designation Equis. Analysis indicates a scale zero early-industrial. Installed electrical capacity of about fifty million kilowatts. None of the planet’s civilizations appear to possess mass production, industrial farming, or even rudimentary space travel. There are no nuclear refineries, no artificial satellites manned or unmanned, no evidence of programmable computers. According to projections, global population has reached capacity at about eight-hundred million.” She stopped, lowering her pad and returning her eyes to the ground.

“Would you dispute any of that information, EU-81 subjects Alpha and Beta?”

“I wouldn’t.” Celestia’s voice remained impassive.

“Though I have never heard those figures, they sound accurate. I do not dispute them.” Luna spoke for the first time, apparently hidden on the other side of the dais.

The alien’s superior didn’t seem satisfied, however. “Specialist, please log that the report has been verified and read the formal performance report. Fleet Command is going to expect we follow procedure exactly, after all.”

She frowned, then leaned down over her thin pad, digits of one limb dancing over it. Twilight marveled at the dexterity in each tiny finger, which seemed to give these beings finer motor control than dragon claws or a minotaur paws. There were no pads to interfere, nor bones or any other defensive organs. Maybe that was why they had brought a pair of club-wielding guards along; they didn’t even have hooves to buck with.

They didn’t have wings either, or sharp teeth, or any other obvious defensive features. They couldn’t run all that fast with just two limbs, could they? Unless they only stood up like this to look bigger. Yet tall or not, Twilight couldn’t even imagine lecturing both princesses at once! The tall male at their head had the tone of a parent dressing down a rebellious child. Yet hadn’t he said something about destroying them?

Twilight leaned closer, getting as close as she could to the wood without moving too far to look through the peephole.

The female, apparently named Torres, continued. “Based on the information we have gathered, I recommend Special Project 442-Reclamation be considered failing based on the following objectives. Primary: isolate and remove chaos anomaly (successful). Restore planetary rhythms to planet Kepler 442 (successful). Guide resulting civilization through to classification 1 (failure). Secondary: construct a near-liminal starship (failure). Maintain stable civilization (failure).”

Again she looked almost apologetic as she stepped back, not looking either towards the throne or to her superior.

The princesses didn’t argue. Twilight couldn’t see them to know how they were feeling, yet neither spoke. Why aren’t you saying anything, Celestia? Why’d you let these creatures come into your castle and treat you like this? There were more questions, just as pressing. How had they got into the castle without anypony noticing, for instance?

“Thank you, Torres.” The male looked up again. “I will pass my recommendation to the fleet. The next admiralty meeting should be…” He glanced down to a little metal square on his wrist, then looked up. “Three days from now. I have no doubt in my mind they will vote to have you terminated and replaced. I mention as a matter of courtesy that whatever remarks you prepare for your replacements—”

Twilight Sparkle could listen no longer. Whatever supernatural composure Equestria’s diarchs might have, she lacked. She was not going to listen to these creatures chastise her deific mentor like she was a misbehaving foal. Before anypony else in the room beyond could say another word, Twilight teleported.

A point-to-point transport within visual range was trivial for her now, requiring little concentration. Even so, her emotions were intense enough that she brought a flash of light and a little explosion of air with her, ruffling the invaders’ uniforms and causing them to stagger back in surprise. The guards were less startled, and both pointed their strange clubs at her. Neither moved to swing them as she started to yell. She didn’t bother using a voice-boosting spell, she was already too upset for that.

“How dare you!” Stunned silence. “I don’t know where you ponies think you are, but this is Equestria! Princess Celestia and Princess Luna may’ve accepted your visit, but that doesn’t mean they have to tolerate such uncivil treatment! Not only are you threatening the princesses, but your threats aren’t even factually accurate! Can you look outside and really say Equestria isn’t stable? There hasn’t been civil conflict for a thousand years! I’m not sure about the rest of what you were talking about but even by your own definitions it seems like more successes than failures on your list!”

She turned, looking up to the throne. She expected to see satisfaction on Celestia’s face, or at the very least gratitude that somepony had finally spoken up. What she didn’t expect was for the princess to seem not just shocked, but horrified at her presence. Luna just looked disappointed, but Celestia… was that fear? Twilight wilted; fear was the one thing she had never expected to see from her mentor. If Tirek couldn’t make her afraid, if Discord couldn’t… what could?

“Are you quite finished?” The alien diplomat didn’t seem intimidated by her teleportation or her anger, though he did watch her with interest.

“No.” Twilight’s anger had faded, but she had already gone this far. Might as well finish what she had come to say. “I don’t know what you ponies did to ‘evaluate’ Equestria. I don’t know who you think you are that you’ve got any right to. Whatever you’re thinking, it’s just not good science. Evaluating something by what it looks like on the outside practically guarantees you’ll miss things and come to incorrect conclusions. If you wanted to really understand a place, statistics aren’t enough. You’d need to examine it up close. Visit, conduct observations, then draw conclusions. Not before.”

She had seen enough high-winded threats made to Equestria before. It hadn’t been all that long since the yaks had threatened to go to war on the basis of a few logistical errors. Somehow basing your threats on bad science seemed worse. Well that, and the matter-of-fact way the diplomat spoke, without a shred of doubt that his words would be carried out.

It wasn’t Celestia, Luna, or even the strange diplomat who spoke next, though. It was Torres, seeming a little less nervous than before. Almost as though she had been waiting for an opportunity like this. “She’s right, sir. It might be objectively true EU-81 Alpha and Beta failed to meet their project goals in guiding their civilization at least to a development level of class one, but… it might also be a question of timing. There is apparently an industrial revolution underway. Perhaps we were just a century too early to see the results? Removing these”—she gestured vaguely at the throne—“from power now might only slow development even further. If the admiralty board expects the most accurate—”

“I think you’ve made your point, Specialist.” The alien figure was nearly two feet taller than Twilight, and probably would’ve been taller than a minotaur. This close to the visitors, Twilight could notice things about them she hadn’t from through the wall. The smell, for instance. It was strange, but not as alien as a dragon’s nest or even the herbs Zecora brewed in her hut. “EU-81 Alpha, who is this? One of your offspring, perhaps?”

“No.” Celestia’s subservient tone didn’t falter. “An apprentice.”

“Indeed.” He frowned. “The board doesn’t meet for another three days. Perhaps... Perhaps I won’t submit my report quite yet.” He turned, looking at Torres. “You couldn’t make accurate observations like that. Those infiltrators you had us prepare — could you pilot one of those?”

Her nervousness returned, but she nodded all the same. “I’ve never used a quadruped before. I suppose I could practice before tomorrow.”

“Very well.” He turned back to Celestia, looking over Twilight like she wasn’t even there. “Would you provide an escort for my specialist to tour your country tomorrow? In lieu of passing summary judgement now?”

Celestia’s fear seemed to be lifting. “I would.” She gestured at Twilight. “Since my apprentice has involved herself, she has clearly volunteered. There are few ponies as well-versed in Equestrian history or its technology.”

The gangling figure reached into a pocket, drawing out a dark square of metal. He tossed it at Twilight’s hooves. “Keep that with you. Your planet may depend on it.” He turned away from them then, showing his back to the princesses without hesitation. “Specialist, signal the Damocles. Four ready for transport.”

She hurried along behind him, even as the soldiers formed up on either side. She moved her strange digits again along the surface of her pad, and didn’t look up. Magic built around them, or... It felt like magic. The air flickered, brightening gradually around the visitors. Eventually the light was bright enough she couldn’t focus on them. Then came the implosion of air she associated with a teleport, and the light faded, leaving no trace of the aliens.