• Published 10th Jan 2018
  • 2,565 Views, 228 Comments

Back and There Again - Sun Sage



A strange gem takes Rarity to a world she almost recognizes. She's going to make it back home no matter what, but she might need some help to do it. And why is it all so familiar?

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8. Risks Worth Taking

“I don’t get how he intended to use her as a scapegoat. I mean, who even knew about Rarity?” Aiden asked the assembled table. It consisted of those two, General Grumman, Corporal Martinovich, Sergeants Ferguson and Henson, and Knight Trellis.

“No one outside of Veritech labs and ourselves, but Owens has more than enough footage to put together whatever he wants to put forth as evidence.” Grumman replied. “He gets a scapegoat who, according to his plan, can’t gainsay his accusations, in addition to one whose evil intentions the public won’t question. Naturally the aliens would want revenge against me personally, so if they found a way back to the surface past our defenses I would be a prime target. No one would question how they found me since most never fully knew their limitations.”

“Uhh… no one’s going to mistake Rarity for an Oni, sir.”

“Naturally not. I assume Owens got the idea from her sudden appearance, but that doesn’t mean he has to use it. He has more than enough Oni footage he can make work. He even has Oni bodies he can set up as this new threat, which he’s stopped for the moment after a terrible, tragic loss here. He can blame any breakthroughs he gets from her captured body-”

“Still we are talking about my salvaged corpse. It just isn’t going away, is it?”

Grumman grimaced sympathetically. “Hopefully quite soon, Miss Rarity. As I was saying, he can blame new breakthroughs on the new alien presence. He can also use it to obtain more funding and volunteers. But that was before Vera Elleway saw the way he was manipulating her and surrendered herself, giving us vital information. Information we will be moving on, tonight. Everyone assembled here will be taking part in the operation-”

“The Hell you say?” Aiden said with a cocked eyebrow. He glanced surreptitiously at Rarity before returning his gaze to the General.

“-if they so choose. ...Knight Lieutenant, while I am lax in discipline compared to probably any other Marine officer you will ever meet, I do not appreciate interruptions.”

Aiden sighed through his nose, composing himself. “I apologize, sir; I was out of line. However, am I understanding correctly that you want Rarity to take part in this? Heroic stories of bug fights and dragon hoard robbery attempts aside, she’s a civilian.”

“Aiden, do I get a say in this?” Rarity asked, tilting her head at him and looking slightly put out.

Aiden stared at her a moment, carefully assuming a neutral expression. “Military humor tends to be a bit dark, so no the corpse joke probably isn’t going away for awhile, but that doesn’t mean we want to see you in harm’s way for any reason.”

“Nor I you, darling. But that’s where we are at the moment. If the General thinks I can help, he has a good reason and I’m quite willing to hear him out. You heard him, ‘if they so choose’. I want to know what I’m choosing.”

Aiden grimaced, but nodded. He didn’t like this, but he wasn’t the tactician. And he had no right to tell her she couldn’t hear the briefing no matter how he felt about it. “...Sorry. I’m done making an ass of myself. For now.”

Rarity smiled lightly and rubbed his shoulder with a hoof. “I know why you’re saying it; don’t apologize.”

Grumman cleared his throat. “Since that’s clearly going to be the focus of curiosity, I’ll explain why I believe Rarity’s participation in this mission will be crucial. And why, Aiden, I’ll be trusting you to keep her safe so she can do her part.”

“Yes, sir.”

“As you recently discovered, but Valerie and I have known for some time, Rarity’s aetheric perception exceeds that of an Esper. And by that I mean any Esper; Paladin Williams himself can’t sense magic as distantly as she can. The explanation isn’t clear, besides the obvious ‘screw the rules, she’s a unicorn’. We are also aware that she is physically on par with any of the human soldiers at this table in terms of strength and speed. Her durability and stamina are considerably higher, more on par with average Esper baseline.”

Aaron Cooper raised a hand. “How do you know that, sir?”

Valerie fielded the question. “During her three weeks at Veritech I was posing as assistant lead medical researcher. I ran her through a number of tests to determine her physical and magical capabilities. Partially to stall off anything more invasive, but also to learn about her.” Valerie grinned sheepishly at Rarity. “You are an alien, after all.”

The mare just chuckled. “It’s fine, darling. You almost certainly saved my life. Running me on a giant hamster wheel is a small price to pay.”

Valerie winced just the same. “I forced a kind, intelligent being to run on a hamster wheel…” she muttered, looking a bit dazed.

Grumman cleared his throat again. “The point is, based on her physical performance, reaction times, and unique perception, I consider her an important part of this mission. That is, if you accept, Miss Rarity?”

“I do, General. I really hated the notion of sitting here while you went out to fight on my behalf. Granted you’re protecting yourselves as well, but taking that ship will certainly be harder than just destroying it, and I was the catalyst for his current plans.”

Aiden sighed and shook his head. “Permission to speak freely?”

Grumman nodded. “Let’s get it out of the way.”

Aiden nodded and turned to Rarity. “Are you insane?!”

Her eyes widened, then narrowed. Her head tilted as she waited for him to continue, but the sharp exhale through her muzzle spoke louder than words.

Nonetheless he pressed on. “Look, I’m not knocking your magical abilities or your physical ones. If Grumman says you’re up to snuff, then it’s true. But that’s not the same as being trained for this. Owens might avoid trying to shoot you on sight, but only for so long. This is going to get ugly, and despite your history you’re not a soldier.” He grimaced. “You’re an artist, a designer. You make the world; we protect it, and you.” Her eyes softened a bit as he spoke. “That’s how this works. Please, I can’t order you to stay here. But have you really thought this through?”

Rarity sighed, any traces of anger fading away. But still she shook her head. “I’m sorry. I trust the ones who’ve saved me this far. If Grumman needs my help for this, if you do, I want to give that help. I trust you to protect me when I’m there. I know it might be more difficult, but if it wasn’t worth it he wouldn’t suggest it, would he?”

Aiden looked around the table for support, but it seemed no one wanted to jump into this. He asked anyway. “Donovan?”

Donovan Trellis shook his head. “I hear what you’re saying, Aiden. Really, I get it. But if she hadn’t spotted out Vera, where would we be right now? That wasn’t Vera’s talent; that was something Owens set up. His tech hid an Esper's magic from us; he's come that far. We need her eyes on this. We’re all in this, whether we like it or not. And it’s not as bad as you’re making it out to be. This isn’t a standard op, and even if it was… You could probably protect her from any mundane forces. Owens doesn’t have any Espers that can counter you when you’re anticipating a fight. And I’ll be there to knock down any walls or artillery he might have, and smash our way into that ship of his.” He grinned. “Rarity’s our rogue. She finds the traps, we blow them up while covering her. We go in without her, we risk stepping on something really nasty.”

Aiden sighed. Betrayed by a fellow Esper, for the second time today, at that.

Grumman spoke up. “Aiden,” he said, surprisingly gently, “What was my nickname during the war?”

With a wince, Aiden replied, “That’s not fair.”

“What was it?”

“...Albus.”

Rarity tilted her head. “I… don’t get it.”

“Albus is the name of a headmaster at a fictional school for human wizards. Supposedly very wise and very powerful and so forth, but mostly in the books he seems to sit back and let children in the school take a lot of deadly risks. There’s more to it, but… General Albert Grumman was often sarcastically called ‘Albus Grumman’ for his role in bringing Espers to the frontlines when the war began.”

Grumman nodded. “It’s a mantle I accept. There’ll be a special place in Hell for me to burn when it’s all said and done. I regretted that it was necessary, but not that I did it. I knew, seeing what we were up against, what would be required. Our soldiers, across the world, could not fight the Oni without magical assistance. Not at first, not for years until we’d modified our tactics, training, and equipment, all while equally focused on surviving and protecting everyone we could. The Espers held the line in those first years, at a terrible price to themselves, and to every one of us who sent children out to die for the sake of the world. Ten thousand First Generation Espers are believed to have awoken, if not more. Less than one hundred remain. We don’t know why no more awoke after those first few months. Were I a man of God, I might believe He stopped sending us guardian angels after seeing how we treated them. But it was enough, and humanity survived. Have you ever questioned that price, Aiden?”

Aiden took a deep breath, and let it out slowly. “No, sir. It’s where our mantra came from. Your good intentions paved our way to Hell, but they kept the Earth from becoming Hell. We’ll walk that road with you again whenever you call. You knew that; that’s why you maneuvered me nearby. But Rarity-”

“Is just as needed, just as capable, and far more well protected, than any of those poor children I sent to die. And she won’t be up against Oni. This isn’t a repeat of the war, far from it. And this time I want to avoid any casualties. As such I’m applying low risk to everyone instead of moderate risk to most of you, because I believe it is the safest route, and the one most likely to succeed. Keep in mind too, failure means an Oni vessel comes here. Odds are the weapons barely work, but if he just remote smashes it into the mountain, we all die.”

“Not if she’s here. He won’t risk killing her in a way that won’t leave a corpse.”

“Corpse, corpse, corpse…” Rarity muttered ruefully.

“I’m sorry, but he will. He’s already failed to acquire her; he almost certainly knows Vera's failed by now. He won’t wait around for us to come to him. I have, at the least, two powerful combat Espers to send at him. Even if he took you both down, Veritech would almost certainly be in shambles as would the vessel. He can’t take that risk since it leaves him with no resources while I blow the whistle on his activities before he’s ready with a scapegoat. And now we have Vera, whom he needs to silence. We have to assume he’ll cut his losses. He can’t launch that ship and take it elsewhere. There isn’t a military on Earth that wouldn’t blow it out of the sky at this point. He has to move against us, so we counter-punch before his attack can even land.”

Aiden sighed. He was the only one objecting, and he still didn’t like it. But he couldn’t argue with Grumman’s reasoning. “Alright. I’m on board. Rarity. You do what I say, when I say, no questions asked. We don’t even have time to run you through basic stuff, so I hope the invasion and adventure stories from dinner weren’t exaggerations. Donovan is our heavy hitter, I’m defending us, and getting us there and back. You’ll be on the lookout for any magical shenanigans the enemy tries. Call out anything suspicious as soon as you notice it so we’ll have time to counter it. Valerie will be assisting you in looking out for tech based traps and giving us intel for infiltration. Cooper, Ferguson, and Henson will be handling our flanks-”

Rarity snickered.

“...What? Anyway, that’s the basics of what we’re doing. General, sir, the specifics?”

Grumman nodded, looking pleased that Aiden had finally seized the initiative. “You’ll all be going in on foot, or rather via Aiden’s travel method. Knight Trellis, I assume you can shield the human members well enough for the intermittent exposure to Aiden’s pocket ‘verse?”

“Should be no problem, it’s not even technically needed at the rate we’re cycling through it. Exposure doesn’t build fast enough.”

“Just in case, assuming it doesn’t drain your reserves too excessively.”

“Yes, sir.”

“You’re going to infiltrate the vessel itself. Valerie can get you aboard using what we’ve deciphered from the Command Crystal Rarity accidentally provided. Those codes can’t be changed with our level of understanding; Owens can’t stop you from using them if you get there. Trellis, that’s your primary ingress, no boom. Barring that, I’d prefer Windborne attempt to get you inside via portal jump, assuming he can see a way in. Barring that… boom is Plan C.”

“One hull breach, ready and waiting.”

“Valerie can get you into the compound and to the hanger without using magic, ideally. I don’t deem that likely but aetheric fluctuations will trigger alarms, so once you’re outside the compounds do things the old fashioned way for as long as possible. That’s where Rarity and Valerie are going to be most useful. We already know that Rarity doesn't trigger alarms via her perceptions. Valerie tested that when they were still there. Sergeant Henson, you’ll be Valerie's cover for this. If she’s busy disarming anything or bypassing security, you are her overwatch.

Talia Henson nodded. “Yes, sir.”

“Sergeant Ferguson, Private Cooper, you will support Donovan and Aiden, respectively. Cooper, I expect you to keep a sharp eye on Rarity, who should be with Aiden at all times.. If she jumps for any reason, I expect you to see why, and fix it before Aiden has to. Get them as close as you can to the ship before anyone uses active magic.”

Aaron Cooper nodded, as had Samuel Ferguson seconds prior.

“Um…”

“Yes, Miss Rarity?”

“I… don’t understand what we’re doing exactly. We get to the ship, and then what?”

Grumman chuckled. “Right, I guess you wouldn’t know. You get to the ship, hopefully with minimal casualties on both sides,” Rarity grimaced at hearing that, “and Valerie disables the ship’s aetheric stabilizers. They’re basically shields to prevent outside magical interference. Aiden can punch through those shields if needed, and Donovan certainly can, but we don’t want to punch the ship. We want to steal it. For that, Aiden will absorb it into his pocket ‘verse.”

Rarity’s eyes widened. “You can do that?!”

Aiden nodded. “Opening a portal that size takes longer, and a lot of energy. With the shields intact there’s no way I can pull it off; it’ll just sit there next to the portal I open. Moving it with telekinesis won’t work for the same reason. It’s a little big for us to physically push in, and firing up the engines would take longer than killing the shields. But without the shields, it’s basically a big hunk of metal; I can manage. If it were a capital ship, forget it. This is a command craft, designed for a dozen or so VIPs to travel in style. An Oni private jet, pretty much. Perfect for our needs if we can get it up and running.”

“I see. You mentioned casualties, General?”

Grumman nodded. “I’m hoping to avoid them, but that’s likely a pipe dream. If that’s a problem for you, say so now. No one will think less of you; if anything Windborne will be relieved.”

She shook her head, sighing as she did so. “If I go, and can speed this along and keep us getting noticed even a minute longer, it’s a minute we don’t spend fighting. A minute with no casualties. If we have to fight… it’s for the right reasons.” She took a deep breath and exhaled slowly. “I’ve seen enough to know that I can’t sit back while others go out to do the right thing. Aiden’s right, I’m no soldier and I don’t want to kill anyone. But I am not going to wait around while others kill because of me. I can’t.” Aiden nodded as she spoke. He still had misgivings, but he couldn’t argue that. He’d have felt the same way. He’d just have to make damn sure none of the casualties were on their side.

Grumman continued. “I understand, Miss Rarity, and I respect your resolve. I’ll have one last thing to keep you safe out there, before you leave.” He addressed them all. “Owens will not let this go without a fight, but once you have the ship that fight isn’t your problem. Get out, and head back this way. Aiden’s travel method is nearly invincible without massive aetheric stabilizers set up in his path. On the off chance Owens has those we’ll be taking them out for you.”

“Assuming this all goes well, what happens next?” Henson asked.

“With the loss of Vera Elleway and the Oni ship, Owens will have no realistic way of retaliating without digging his own grave. Sending her at us was a major risk; make no mistake that if she’d escaped with Rarity he could have launched immediately and this would be far uglier. Instead, we have a window while he waits as long as he can in the hopes of gaining-”

“Don’t say it!” Rarity snapped.

Grumman chuckled. “My apologies, Miss Rarity. It wasn’t my intention to beat a dead horse.”

She facehoofed with a groan that was shared around the table. Aiden had no idea how that had translated, but clearly it’d gotten the point across.

Grumman was still smiling as he offered his cane to her. “Miss Rarity, if you would, take this with you.”

Aaron Cooper grinned. “It’s dangerous to go alone…”

Rarity tilted her head as she looked at it. Her horn lit and her magic gently took the cane. Her eyes went wide. “This is…”

“My family’s tome is only one of two artifacts from Equus we’ve managed to keep safe through the centuries. The aetheryte hidden within that cane is the other. With it, an ordinary human like myself can utilize magic through sheer willpower, if only briefly. I’ve used it to make a shield on several occasions over the years. An Equus native, however…”

Rarity was shaking her head in wonder. “A corrupted piece of aetheryte comprises the power source for a particularly evil amulet back home. But pure aetheryte…”

“Draw it, Miss Rarity.”

“Draw…?” Her telekinesis unsheathed the blade hidden in the cane. It was well-polished but dull, and Rarity didn’t recognize the metal.
Embedded in the base of the blade above where the crosspiece would be was a long, jagged gem. It was glowing a dim blue, matching her magical aura.

“The blade isn’t sharp because I don’t attack with it. Nor will you, I expect. But Joyeuse will serve you well, and keep you safe almost as surely as Aiden will.”

“I… I don’t know what to say, General. This is priceless, back home pure aetheryte of this size would be unheard of. I…” she looked at him, seeing the look of pride and utter contentment at giving away such an incalculable gift. She recognized that look. As the Bearer of Generosity, how could she not? “I accept. Thank you. I promise I’ll return it.”

“Indeed you will. You’ll return it to Princess Celestia one day, with my compliments. For now, dismissed. You all have a ship to catch.”

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