• Published 30th Apr 2016
  • 3,779 Views, 253 Comments

MLA: Perihelion - Starscribe

Living in Equestria proves to be more dangerous for Second Chance than she could've possibly imagined. Now an old enemy has followed her from an Earth destroyed by war. Can she save Equestria from suffering the same fate?

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Chapter 2

Chance screamed as she jumped, avoiding a section of stone large enough to squash her flat. The ground shook violently enough that she was nearly thrown from her hooves. She wasn’t, but Sweetie Belle almost fell and Chance had to steady her.

“We need you, Scoots!” Apple Bloom called from just beside them. All around, huge sections of the stone were crumbling away, the power that sustained them gone.

Well, it wasn’t gone yet. The power hovered in Sweetie Belle’s magic, a head-sized object of intricate metal curved in like leaves. Energy glowed from within, energy that wasn’t quite magic but wasn’t quite electricity either. Chance’s Nanophage lacked the resolution to get a good look.

She didn’t have the time to try something better, not when the whole world seemed to be crumbling around them. The dome of strange stone was miles and miles across, and the whole thing was crumbling. It was as though thousands of encroaching years were passing, all in the time it had taken them to make it out of the ruins with the artifact.

“I’m almost there!” Scootaloo’s voice was distant and clipped, surrounded by just as much of the grinding and crumbling sounds, and strangely distorted by the artifact they carried.

Apple Bloom turned her anger on Sweetie Belle, even as a spiderweb of cracks spread through the massive pillar beside them. “You didn’t have to pull it out so soon!”

Sweetie glared back, and Chance could practically smell the adrenaline coming from her. Sweetie Belle didn’t usually argue with them, not the way she would with her own sister. “We came here to get it! You ponies were taking too long!”

“We were trying to figure out if anything bad would happen!” Apple Bloom retorted, glaring. “You know, the smart thing to do?”

Chance ignored the argument. “We need to run!” She gestured up at the massive pillar beside them, curving as it was towards them. “I think the big one’s gonna break next!”

She didn’t wait, shoving Sweetie harshly forward with her muzzle before taking off as fast as her own hooves would carry her. Her fellow unicorn stumbled, then hurried after her. Apple Bloom caught up in only a few strides, gas rushing from the little tank as she demanded every ounce of performance the exoskeleton could give her.

“We should make more of those before we come here next!” Sweetie shouted, even as the massive pillar struck the ground behind them, sending a wave of force rippling across the ground and causing the fillies to stumble. Apple Bloom alone seemed unphased, reaching down to help the others back to their hooves.

“I can’t!” Her eyes were panicked, scanning the sky for the numerous other pillars of stone above them. They were all teetering now, wobbling in one direction or another. It was only a matter of time. “You’re not earth ponies! It’d break your bones!”

“She’s right.” Chance sounded defeated, though that might’ve been from the gigantic stone beams above them, the rain of rubble that would soon bring spectacular collapse. “Real powered armor takes some heavy implants to wear without hurting you. Apple Bloom’s exosuit only works ‘cuz earth ponies are so strong.”

“That’s what I said!”

Sweetie pawed at the ground in frustration, but she didn’t argue further. “Which one’s gonna fall next?”

Scootaloo’s voice shouted over the radio. “I’m coming in from the north! Looks like the whole dome’s about to come down on you, so I can’t stop! I’ll get it as low as I can! Get ready to jump!”

They turned, looking to the north. The outline of the Prism was there, zooming towards them as fast as propellers could take it. Even from a distance Chance could tell how old and worn-out a ship it was, though that was hardly her first thought now.

Their airship had been built for a crew of eight. Even with the human technology they had installed, it was still a strain for them to operate with just the four of them. Scootaloo’s orange and pink blur practically danced through the rigging, yanking on a sail with her teeth even as she guided the wheel with one hoof, before rolling to one side and adjusting an auxiliary propeller.

Chance hadn’t ever seen a pony sail like that. Hell, she wasn’t sure the best human pilots in the world could do what she was doing.

The ship was moving at its top speed, nearly sixty knots and bearing straight down on them. Scootaloo was flying low all right, barely ten feet above the ground. The great curve of its wooden hull would’ve been crushed to splinters against the many sharp rocks she skimmed over. A few were bigger, sections of collapsed pillar she had to surge over or dodge around.

“Can you do it?” Her friends crowded close to Chance, both looking at her expectantly.

“I think so.” She nodded, fixing her eyes on the ship. “Close your eyes. When I say so, breathe out as big as you can.”

“Why?” Sweetie tilted her head to one side, even as she lowered the faintly glowing object in her magic into her saddlebags. Above them, a massive pillar rumbled and cracked, before starting to tumble straight towards them. Would the Prism make it before the pillar squished them? No.

“Because Chance is terrible at this,” Apple Bloom offered. “If you don’t breathe out, the compression will rip your lungs out.”

Chance ignored them, turning and screaming at the radio. “Swerve left, Scoots! Jumping now!”

Her mind raced, even as she poured all the panicked energy and strength of magic her little body had into her horn. Light glowed around it as the pillar rushed up on them, so close now she could hear the sound it made. Only seconds—not even long enough for Apple Bloom’s machine reflexes.

Thaumcraft node activated. Chance stared at the deck of the Prism, at the empty place behind Scootaloo. She saw the position, felt the speed and the acceleration and the inertia. Her implants fed all that into the node, and more she couldn’t even guess at.

Chance felt control of her own magic leave her as the implants activated. Thoughts formed of their own accord, the intricate spell diagrams of a unicorn’s teleport. Gray magic built around them. Warp field stabilized.

“NOW!” Chance screamed as the world darkened, all gray stone and moss above them as far as she could see. Excursus engaged.

Light surged around her, and Chance squeezed her eyes defiantly shut against the void. The void would’ve frozen her and stopped her atoms in their motion if it contained matter that could’ve transferred heat. Pressure pulled at her lungs, but they were mostly empty, so they didn’t hurt much.

Air exploded all around them, even as the three of them collapsed to the deck. Chance’s horn steamed, and the whole world swayed in her vision. She felt the ground curve violently up as Scootaloo’s hooves hammered on the lift, though she was too far gone to know what Scootaloo was doing.

She couldn’t feel the thrill as they weaved between collapsing pillars, then broke through into clear sky. Teleportation with passengers was expert magic, even over such short distances. Chance’s implants took care of the mental labor, but they could do nothing for the magical demands. The price would be paid whether she wanted to or not.

Chance found herself pulled into a tight hug, pulled by one of Apple Bloom’s reinforced hooves on one side and Scootaloo’s on the other. “We did it!” Even through a stupor of magical deprivation, Chance could sense their excitement.

Medical control console.

There was no delay. Ready.

What is my condition?

Her vision filled with lines and lines of medical data, most of which she didn’t understand. A little of it was familiar, though. Native specimen suffering from mild case of thaumic starvation.

Her friends kept cheering, though Chance couldn’t really make out what they were looking at. They seemed to be complementing Scootaloo, though she couldn’t see why. Her friend didn’t look that different. Why does thaumic starvation create such severe symptoms? Chance felt like she was going into shock, her limbs getting cold and the world swimming.

The last time she had tried a teleport like that, she had spent days in the hospital. This one wasn’t nearly as ambitious, but she still felt awful.

Native species is dependent on thaumic energy. Sudden deprivation causes weakness and disorientation often followed by unconsciousness.

Can you treat it?

The medical data cleared, banished from her vision. The symptoms may be alleviated with a mild dosage of stimulants, painkillers, and muscle relaxants. As the treatment carries mild risk of liver damage, it requires subject authorization.

She didn’t have to ask if it was safe. The Nanophage wouldn’t present a treatment to her if it wasn’t. Instead she asked: How long is it safe?

At least twelve hours. It has not been tested for longer periods. Sustained high levels of Methylphenidate can cause liver damage in combination with—

Chance didn’t wait for it to finish. Do it.

The world rushed all around her, and she fell over sideways with a thump. Her legs twitched, scraping on the Prism’s rough deck. Time passed, she couldn’t say how much.

“Chance?” Something shook her. Chance looked up into Scootaloo’s face, full of concern. “Are you okay?”

The filly stretched, finding the longer she waited the more awake she felt. It would’ve taken much longer to feel awake had the substances been injected, but they hadn’t been. The Nanophage could make its own drugs, from chemicals already stored in her body.

“Y-yeah.” Her words came out slurred at first. “Just a little weak from the teleport. No big deal.”

Scootaloo wasn’t like her other friends. The pegasus took her at her word, offering a hoof. Chance took it, and rose again. She swayed a little, but only for a few seconds. A little longer, and enough of the cocktail appeared to have circulated through her blood to stop her shaking.

“Glad you’re okay, Chance. That was real hard on ya last time…” Apple Bloom offered, from a few feet away. She didn’t take her hooves from whatever control she was operating.

“Did you see?” Sweetie grinned, pointing at something in front of her. “Scootaloo got her cutie mark!”

She saw it now, a wooden helm flanked by a pair of wings. That was why Scootaloo had looked so proud. “Well, you did save our lives. That sounds like cutie mark material to me.”

With her system pumped full of drugs, Chance could grin and celebrate with all the enthusiasm her friends expected. As it turned out, they had escaped with two treasures, and not one.

Even the drugs weren’t enough for her to miss Sweetie Belle’s disappointment as they landed in their makeshift Sweet Apple Acres shipyard, and she was the only blank flank to disembark.

* * *

Sir Tullius Leonidas, honored knight of the Steel Tower and protector of mankind, had never been more proud of recruits than he was of the army before him.

In a rough stone chamber that had once been a mine stretched a training floor filled with dogs. There were perhaps five hundred of his recruits inside at this exact moment, and the smell of sweat and labor came from them all. Many ran the track in formation, with one of his lieutenants at the lead. Some lifted weights at the center, or climbed walls, or crawled under barbed wire. He could hear the bark of SARs as others practiced on the firing range in the next cavern.

Of course, part of his pride was not just at their results, but that recruits starting with such disadvantages could achieve as much as they had. Aside from himself, there was not a human in sight.

Leo’s army was not made of men, but of the rugged natives that called themselves diamond dogs. Within his army the practice of nudity was no more, and so every dog wore a practice uniform of sturdy brown cloth, with foreign legion pins on each shoulder.

The dogs were about equal with him in height, though some rose higher and some not so tall. Their bulk was far greater, at least twice that of any man. Their forelegs in particular had spectacular strength, enough to bend steel or rend rock in their grip. They had needed to adapt the SAR’s design to such unwieldy paws, giving it an elongated grip and a trigger-guard large enough to permit their meaty fingers.

Leo was not intimidated as he walked along the parade-ground, and dogs pounded past him on either side. Indeed, though they wore twice as much as he did even without armor, it was the dogs who bowed their respect to him as they went, giving him a wide berth no matter where he walked.

Leo wore a fine dress uniform over his new body, and he practically glowed in the white cloak of his office. The hem was high enough to permit him to walk without soiling it, billowing about him as he passed between the ranks. He shouted encouragement, correcting those who fell out of formation and offering suggestions to those who struggled to climb a wall or lift something correctly.

In the early days, Leonidas had worked only with the strength of Rover’s pack, not fifty dogs of fighting strength. That had changed, as stories spread of the pack where the Old Alphas had returned and meat and gems flowed like water.

Even so, he could always tell when new recruits were from outside by the look of scorn and hostility they gave him.

There was one in every batch of new dogs, usually whoever had been alpha among them. Today Leo found him in the practice ring, beaten down and covered with mud but dark eyes alight with hostility. “I don’t see why we listen to them,” the rough voice said, too loudly for Leo not to hear. He turned, meeting the eyes of the dog in question with his own icy blue. This was the dog’s only chance not to be humiliated.

He blew it, and kept going. “Already gave us tools. Gave us meat. We not puppies, listen to all master says. We’re bigger, stronger. We take.”

Leo turned, striding calmly to the practice ring. The dog overseeing this particular group was one of his first recruits, the female alpha of Rover’s pack. There was very little size difference in these dogs, and Maggie rose nearly as tall as any of the other dogs around her. She didn’t smell nearly so foul, but it was hard to say if that was the care she took as an officer or merely that she had lived in this “civilized” pack longer. “Don’t waste time, Knight. I’ll take the whelp.”

“No.” Leo’s voice was cold, loud enough that all around could hear. The sound of work and training abruptly died, as all nearby turned to watch. The dogs who had been here longer all got knowing looks, and already a crowd began to form.

The disobedient dog’s eyes were hard, and cracked teeth broke in a smile. His companions, probably all from the same pack, leered at him.

Leo stepped up to the side of the ring, standing beside the large rack of practice weapons. “What’s your name, son?”

The dog growled. “Bones.” Bones saw all the eyes on them, but didn’t seem to realize the real reason so many were watching. He stood straighter in the muddy practice field, puffing out his chest and baring his many teeth. “Listen, dogs! You bow to weak alphas! I should lead, I am strong!”

The crowd did not laugh—many of them had been in this dog’s position once. Leo never would’ve dreamed of permitting such barbaric methods of discipline in a human army, even one made of feeble organics. But dogs were not human, and some strategies of command had to adapt.

“Do you all agree that this dog, Bones, is the strongest of you?”

Bones, all dark fur and limbs like trees, turned to glower at his group. They all lowered heads and ears, whimpering in animal submission. It was understood.

“Very well, Bones. You wish to challenge me for alpha of my pack. So you will.” He swept the robe from his shoulders in a single motion, folding it with respect and offering it to Maggie. “Hold this a moment, if you would.”

Beneath his robe, Leonidas was a tall man, six feet of hard muscle and power. He would probably have been pale after so long underground, but artificial skin needed no sun to hold its color. Human eyes would’ve found it hard to sort out all the races that had made him. He smiled slightly to himself at the little technocrat’s attention to detail. Bree hadn’t just printed him a generic body, she had taken the time to give him his body, even if it lacked many of the advanced features that his last had possessed.

Leo’s dress uniform was pressed and clean, thick cloth with sharply tailored lines. He removed the jacket with its medals, offering it to Maggie as well. He removed the belt next, and the long metal sword that hung there. Instead he walked to the practice stand and its hard wooden weapons, in every variety used by dogs or men.

“Choose your weapon, Bones.” He gestured at the various stands and shelves.

The dog leered at him, raising sharply clawed paws. “I need no weapon.”

A murmur ran through the crowd, though it was hard to say for sure if the sound was impressed or rueful. Leonidas sighed. Bones wasn’t the first to think he didn’t need a weapon. It made these already stilted battles comically easy. Compassion without restriction, he reminded himself. I’ll try not to break any bones on this one.

“Very well.” Leo reached in, selecting a sturdy-looking wooden short sword, its surface smooth but covered with little dents and scratches. Leo raised it into a practice stance, swinging it once in the way he taught the recruits to do, then stepped into the practice ring.

The ring was exactly ten meters across, with bales of hay marking the outside. There was dirt within instead of stone, dirt scarred and torn by many sharp paws. Thick patches had gone muddy—Leo would have to avoid those.

“The terms are simple,” Leo called, raising his little sword. It looked almost comical compared to the dog’s mighty claws, and he heard stifled laughs from Bones and his crew, even as the rest of them clambered out of the ring. “First to yield. Do you accept my terms?” He turned, watching as Bones stalked towards him. He no longer even moved on two legs, instead prowling forward on four.

“I do.” His voice was harsher than gravel, and deeper too. “I will claim your pack, weak creature. They will serve a better alpha.”

The insults were part of the form. Leo twisted his sword once through the air, so all the watching dogs could see. It was a message more to them than him: I can take any one of you with the weakest weapon in my armory. If Bones didn’t understand what Leo said by it, he soon would.

Leo didn’t sound proud, nor did he retreat or turn as the dog prowled towards him. He stood as rigidly as the Tower. “I will strengthen the weak.”

Leonidas switched into combat mode. This field prosthetic was far more primitive than the one he had come to Equestria wearing, but even so it could do much a living body could not. The world around him slowed to a crawl, every breath and motion coming as though through thick amber. He watched as Bones jumped at him from one side, from an angle that should’ve caught Leo by surprise.

If he had been a dog. Leo could not move with the speed of his perceptions, but that didn’t matter. Compared to the dog, he was a blur. Leo jerked out of the way, moving just far enough that claws and teeth cleared him without ruffling his white undershirt. Dodging the spray of dirt and mud was a little harder, but not much.

As Bones continued his arc, Leo swung his sword harshly into one of his paws, against the tendon in one of his joints. He twisted aside, and let the world catch up.

Bones landed like a boulder, shaking the ground around them and spraying dirt everywhere. Unfortunately, Leo’s strike had spoiled the landing, and the dog tumbled, yowling in pain as his paw was twisted the wrong way. He slammed into the bales of hay, to the sound of raucous shouts from the dogs who watched on all sides.

“Luck!” The dog rolled onto its hind legs with surprising strength, clutching the paw close to its chest. “Lucky I missed! I will take your head!”

Leo faced him calmly, perhaps six inches shorter and a hundred kilos lighter. He didn’t flinch, didn’t look away or bow or show any of the customary signs of respect. “The Steel Tower has seven gates, recruit Bones. One of those gates is knowledge, which I have just used to sprain your ankle. Another is prudence; demonstrate your prudence by yielding to me now.”

“Weak creature—alphas need no weapons to be strong!” the dog bellowed, his angry voice echoing in the old mine.

Leo shrugged, tossing the sword from the circle. It pierced one of the bales of hay, and stuck there immobile. “Very well.” He spread his arms. “Yield Bones, or I will break one.”

In answer, the monstrous canine charged, his unwieldy body teetering as it tore the dirt up around him. His speed was inhuman, and the strength behind those paws could’ve shattered rock. It didn’t matter. Leo’s perceptions returned to battle speed. He spread his legs, bracing himself as the dog charged.

Dogs might be able to shatter rocks and turn mountains into dirt, but Leonidas was made from something stronger than either. As he closed for a swing, Leo brought one arm out violently to one side, palm flat against the weakest part of the bone. Force channeled briefly through his extended arm to his wide stance on the ground, driving Leo nearly six inches into the soft earth. Servos strained against the load, his titanium skeleton flexing briefly.

In the end, it was the living flesh that yielded. Bones went spinning, tumbling around Leo even as the bones in his upper arm cracked harshly through his skin. Blood gushed, and Leo dodged that too, calmly stepping sideways and out of the way.

Bones howled and twisted on the ground, frothing in rage as he looked up. Leo feared he might rise again, and that he might have to do even more serious harm to this dog. None had died on the training ground, but if this one was determined to make himself the first…

No. Bones lowered his eyes, tucking his tail into a cowering whimper. “Give up…” he croaked, coughing up a little blood and another chipped tooth. Probably bit his tongue too.

Leo watched with pity. Compassion without restriction. “Medic!” They were already waiting, two dogs with a stretcher on the side of the practice ring. It wasn’t exactly the first time he had taught discipline this way. Leo looked up, at the crowd of watching dogs. “Do not mock this dog when he returns,” he called, his voice carrying over the silence.

“Many of you have wished to do as he did! The Tower respects bravery and strength and he has demonstrated both. As you return to your duties, remember this lesson as you have remembered others. Those who lead you are the strongest, wisest alphas in all the world. Treat them with respect, and they will not force respect upon you with blood.”

He gestured with one hand, dismissively. A shout went up from his lieutenants throughout the crowd, calling the dogs back to their training. They began to disperse, leaving only Bones’s own crew and Maggie watching at the edge of the practice ground.

Leo pulled his jacket back on, then returned the robe to its place on his shoulders. He had managed to get a little dirt on his white dress uniform, so the robe would serve well to hide it until he had a moment to get it cleaned again.

“I told him.” Maggie’s voice was quiet, respectful as he dressed. “Told him what would happen if he spoke out. Other dogs did too.”

Leo shrugged, speaking loud enough that the rest of Bones’s group could hear. “No dog is a prisoner here. If he found the rules too difficult, or the alphas too weak, he could always take his leave of the Great Pack. The Tower does not keep slaves. His problem was that he wanted to enjoy our kindness without service. He wanted his place at the table without earning it.” He shook his head, then fixed the assembled group with another piercing gaze, as though daring one of them to challenge him. “The rest of this group seems wiser.”

“So they are,” Maggie echoed. “I am sorry again, Knight. Did not mean to take your time away from important work.”

He nodded. “Return to your good work, Lieutenant. You will make dogs from these puppies yet.”

Leo made his way from the training hall, through a nearby side-passage decorated with bright shields and bright spotlights. There was a heavy stone door at the end of the hall, with a prominent sensor mounted to the wall beside it. Leo held the hilt of his sword to the sensor, then retreated a step as the door swung slowly open.

Within was a round room, and at its center a table. Six dogs waited there, each wearing a cloak and a sword like his, save that the swords were steel instead of titanium and the cloaks were gray instead of white.

Leo nodded to each in turn, then sat at the head of the table, folding his arms. “I apologize for my tardiness, squires. I encountered… a brief delay.”

Hyde, a short dog with a white coat and a scar over one of his eyes, grinned sidelong at him. “Not so brief for the delay, I bet. Two weeks in the infirmary?”

The other squires laughed, though the gesture was far less raucous than it usually was with dogs. These were, after all, the best all the packs had to offer. From over a thousand fighting dogs male and female, Leonidas had found only six who would serve for squires. It was more than twice as many as he would’ve found from the same number of humans.

Leo didn’t laugh, only waiting for his squires to finish before gesturing to the table. The holographic display set into the center lit up at once, with a detailed image of the growing burrows and resources of the Great Pack. “Let us forget the puppy and return to work. We have much to prepare.”

Author's Note:

So yeah, another short chapter! Hopefully that's not too bad-- I'm hoping to keep to shorter, easier-to-read segments, but posting more often. Sorry if that means we get a few real short ones thrown in.