• Published 3rd Sep 2012
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Tiberian Eclipse - Material Defender

Equestria is under threat from a crystal from beyond their world, one which earns them the attention of forces both benevolent and malevolent...

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Chapter 15: Mobilization

“What’s this about?” Shining sat down, looking to Celestia and Cadance when Alexandra entered the room. “Oh. I assume we’re finally getting down to business?”

“That we are,” Celestia said. “Commander Alexandra, allow me to introduce to you again Captain Shining Armor and Princess Cadance.”

“It’s a pleasure,” Alexandra said, beginning the meeting in earnest as he sat down on a wooden box with a plush cushion atop of it. “A bit out of the way, hmm? Usually these official things are done in a place that’s… bigger than this.” The room, a great hall within the castle where nobles once gathered, sat empty and barren, save for a small sitting table and a circle of cushions surrounding it, which the ponies now sat on.

The serenity of the space was broken as the crude thumps of zone trooper boots sounded off against the smooth tiles. A pair of the soldiers entered, one gesturing with his large hands to a squadmate outside the door before he closed it, taking up guard positions at either side. Six guards were the royal protection detail, spread out in a half-ring at the far end of the room and watching the entrants with a steady eye.

“The Lilac Hall is quiet, though a bit plain. It’ll do nicely for what we need to discuss,” Celestia said. “Now, for what we came to speak about: the proposal.”

“Yes…” Alexandra began. “Now, you do realize that this will not be permanent. While we will supply you with the equipment and training required to operate these suits, I would like to clearly state that they are first and foremost ISDI equipment. Any tampering or unallowed replication will result in immediate revocation of access to the equipment, and you’ll be on a blacklist until reviewed by the Initiative’s trade commission and be subject to an official military investigation for misuse of resources. Not to mention that I’ll be under scrutiny, too, for lending you all of it.”

“Understandable,” Cadance said, looking at Celestia. “Twilight suggested this?”

“She did.” Celestia levitated a sheaf of paper up to the empty table, bringing out an inkwell and a quill with it. “We’ll begin with putting these details to paper—”

“No need for that,” Alexandra said. “We already have the agreement down, printed, and ready to go.”

“Really, now?” Shining asked. “That seems really strange for a bunch of aliens you’ve only just met.”

“Captain, you have to realize that you’re not the first aliens we’ve met. We have procedures in place for these things now,” Alexandra said. All three of the ponies’ eyes alighted with interest when his visor became transparent. “That’s much better. Figured that this talk would go better face to face. Hope I didn’t surprise you too much.”

“Well, we… had a general idea,” Cadance said. “We just, you know… didn’t really figure that you would… look… the way you do. We just sort of thought that you all… looked alike. At least it’s nice to know that you’re not faceless. And you have a beard. That’s new.”

“Yeah, the way it goes is that it promotes cooperation, or so I’ve been told.” Alexandra flicked his hand across the air, leaving the ponies staring questioningly at him until a trio of holographic screens flickered to life. Alexandra brought the first one, on his left and the closest to Shining, forward, minimizing the others and expanding the primary. “Now, here is the basic mockup we have for your suits.”

“Covers the pony from ear to hoof,” Shining said, nodding in approval. He pointed a hoof at the extremities. “It even covers the joints, too. That’s always been a problem with how our armors are designed. You normally end up trading defensibility for flexibility, and ponies usually tend to prefer the latter.”

“The armors have an underlying tight suit that’s made of versatile nano-fiber capable of withstanding conventional projectiles from weapons like our own, much more than simple armor plating, and energy projectiles, which is what the Scrin will be using against us. There’s also composite armor plating on top of that which should increase your survivability by factors more.” He flipped over to a basic schematic, crude and drawn with scratchy lines, a hasty work sent to him from the engineers at Greenwood. “What we have at the moment for the two ponies wearing the test suits are essentially trash cans compared to what we have in store.”

“Yes, Applejack was wearing one when we met at the gates,” Celestia said. “But I am concerned about the approach that you will take to accommodate the traits of our ponies, for flight and magic.”

“We haven’t looked into flight yet, since we don’t have a proper prototype for testing, but it should be a non-issue. All zone troopers are equipped with jump packs that provide limited, but effective, flight that allows them to cover large distances and vault over sizeable heights without much trouble.”

“But they can’t fly,” Shining said. “Our pegasi won’t be of much use if they can’t fly.”

“A valid concern, but it’s honestly not something you really want to do. There was a time where the ISDI itself once had flight-capable soldiers, but when all sides involved have very capable anti-air weaponry, the only thing you really want at that altitude would be vehicles. Regular soldiers would simply be torn apart.”

“Well… a good number of my company are pegasi,” Shining added. He frowned and stared at the schematic. “The pony type distribution is fairly even between the pegasi and unicorns, with a few earth ponies thrown in. I should probably mention that pegasi do have a much lighter weight compared to their counterparts. Maybe that could come in use?”

“Nimble on their feet—hooves, I mean.” Alexandra crossed his arms and flipped through more of the rough sketches, all presenting variants of the suits with variable size and positions of the plating on them. “I suppose we could look into a skirmisher variant for the pegasi, something that’s not too heavy for them to wear and useful in surgical strikes. Offering my professional opinion, though, the last thing we really want you guys wearing is something that’s just one step above what you have now.”

“What sorts of operations will the guards be involved in?” Celestia asked. “And to what extent will they be armed, if they will be using your suits?”

“And how much training will they have to go through?” Cadance asked. Her wings flapped as she stretched then, and she looked to her husband for his approval to receive a nod and a smile. “Since, you know… the other aliens are going to be here soon enough. Things like this normally take months, don’t they?”

“We’ll make it work, but one thing at a time,” Alexandra said. He touched the gallery of schematics with a finger, and they all disappeared. The visible UI flashed red for a moment before fading back to a cool blue, and the corners of his lips dipped slightly. “For operations, we have you tentatively slated to aid us in reconnaissance operations when we begin expanding our area of operation. Weapons have yet to be decided on. The engineers are still discussing hardpoints to lock the weapons onto since the ponies can’t hold them with their hooves, not without immobilizing them, and that comes into conflict with all the other hardware that’s going to be on it. It’s in my understanding that the ponies without wings or horns are hardier than the others. Is that true?”

“Yes,” Celestia said. “The earth ponies have greater endurance and constitution, and can carry heavy loads. We do have a number of earth pony guards that we’ve recruited due to circumstances… we could offer them, if that is what you seek.”

“It’s on the table. The suits are designed with the intent to be used by all ponies, not just the tough ones. There’s some potential in that, though… I’ll have to speak with the engineers and see what they think about getting a suit that can carry heavier weaponry.”

“And speaking of these weapons…” Shining eyed the troopers at the door. “Will they be using similar weaponry as those soldiers? We’ll probably have to, given that we can’t really do much aside from using the unicorns’ spells to perform similarly to them.”

“I’m glad you asked. One of the ISDI’s mainstays has always been heavy firepower. The troopers you see there at the door have weapons that require continuous fire to achieve maximum use, and utilizes our torso’s rotational capabilities to ensure a wide cone of fire. Given how you guys aren’t us, I’d imagine that being outfitted with that kind of weapon wouldn’t work very well.”

“You’re right,” Shining said. “I mean, we could do it, but it’d be really awkward and leave us in a bad stance and completely vulnerable. But I guess you probably have this planned out, too, right?”

“Correct,” Alexandra said. He enlarged a blueprint of several long-barreled weapons. “The engineers have something in mind for you. Given how you’re always going to be on all-fours, ponies will have a stability and low center of gravity that lends well to weapons with high recoil. Combined with the weight and stabilization systems of the suit, along with the added mobility of the increased speed and jump packs, having weapons that you can set up in a second, fire, and then relocate will work heavily in your favor. We have a few of those heavy weapons shown here.”

All three of the ponies curiously examined the weapons, eyes widening in surprise when Alexandra inserted the model of the pony power suit to show a proper scaling of the weapons to their frames. “That’s… pretty big,” Shining said, pointing a hoof at the blocks on the backs of the suits. “And those are the jump packs that you talked about?”

“Yes. They’re mounted on the shoulders, roughly a little higher than the positions that you two,” he said, pointing at Cadance and Celestia, “would normally have your wings. It’s going to be a challenge since the hardpoints for the weapons are required to be on the side of the suit, so the thrusters can’t block the weapon. We’re also trying to tinker with the weapons themselves to find a balance between size and effectiveness. As you can see here, the barrels on these weapons are easily three times the length of your own body. We’re looking to shorten that down to roughly equal size or a little over, something compact, just for the new suits.”

“And what about magic?” Shining asked, gesturing to his horn. A blue glow enveloped it, and a scroll floated around his head, which made a complete orbit before he returned it to its place on the table. “The unicorns won’t need to have weapons since we can simply cast bolts of pure energy and use them instead.”

“So I’ve noticed,” Alexandra said. “We can design helmets for them, but will the helmet affect the horn?”

“It’s actually kind of funny that you asked,” Cadance said. “We actually have a hazardous materials suit with a helmet for unicorns, and it doesn’t affect the magic in any way. That’s probably to due the fact that the material is made using magical treatment, and so allows the flow of magic from the horn to pass through the material without any difficulty. We can help you make something like that, if need be.”

“Then that’s one thing off the list. With that done, I’d like to move on to our next point: the training.” Alexandra closed the screens and turned to Shining. “You said you had a company. Roughly a hundred soldiers total, I’m assuming?”

“Yes,” Shining said, nodding. “Plus one… well, one unruly former noblepony. My entire company can be trusted, and if not… they’ll at least heed my authority. The training should go by without much trouble, but it’s that one pony specifically that has me worried.”

“What, is he insane or something?”

“No, but…” Shining looked at Celestia and shrugged.

“The latest recruit to Captain Shining’s company is Prince Blueblood,” Celestia said. “You may recall your interaction with him as the ill-tempered leader of the thugs who attempted to hijack your relief shipments.”

“Oh, that guy. I suppose you’re doing this to rehabilitate him?”

Celestia nodded. “He’s my primary concern.” She looked to the window, staring out through the haze at the blank sky, pondering for a moment until she looked at Alexandra with a steely gaze. “He’s unreceptive to all forms of authority save for mine, having been a bit… spoiled. You must understand, Commander, as bad a pony as he may seem, he still does care, somewhere underneath that facade he’s worn since…” She sighed. “Well, that’s another story.”

“Yeah, and he’s in my company. I’ve told my officers to keep an eye on him, and lay down the authority hard if he tries to worm his way out of this one,” Shining said with a roll of the eyes. “I’m not so sure on lending him the suit, though. He seems like the kind of pony who’d end up abusing it.”

“A remote shutdown system for his suit can be made,” Alexandra said with a smile. “Nothing substantial, just stops the suit from functioning the moment we give the command from our systems. He’ll be dead in the water since he won’t be able to get out of that suit unless we give the override.”

“I won’t lie: that’s sorely tempting, but let’s see how he shapes up in training first,” Shining said. “The training starts tomorrow in the morning, six on the dot. If you don’t know, it’s when the short hand on the city’s clock is pointing down with the long hand pointing up. If you want to come take a look, that is.”

Alexandra was about to speak when the door to the room opened and another trooper stepped inside. “What is it?” Alexandra asked.

“Sorry for interrupting, sir. I know EVA ordered all transmissions to be placed on hold until your meeting was completed, but Greenwood is reporting strange activity with the crystal again. The new countermeasures are keeping it in check, but the Inferno Corps… well, they’re pretty spooked by it. Captain Godric requests your presence immediately.”

“Ah, damn.” Alexandra stood, faceplate falling back into place as he gave a bow to the ponies. “I think we’ve covered the big points of the matter, so we can leave the finer details to a greater discussion at a later time. The crystals do take priority, so I’ll have to take my leave now. But…” He looked at Celestia, throwing a thumb up towards the door. “Think you have some time to come down to Greenwood with me, Princess?”

“Of course,” Celestia said, smiling as she rose and trotted up to him. “It would be my pleasure to visit your encampment. It has been too long since I’ve spoken to my sister.”

“You know, I’m interested in taking a look at the camp, too,” Cadance said. Shining nodded along with her.

“Well, the more, the merrier,” Alexandra said. “The transport’s waiting just outside the city gates. And in return, I think I’d be interested in seeing this sanctum of yours sometime. Maybe after we get our joint exercises up and running and the relief aid gets everybody back up to speed.”

“Quiet now, here he comes.” The barracks went deathly silent as the weathered doors slowly creaked open. In the doorway stood a unicorn, taller than any of the guards and with golden hair and pristine coat, face in a determined but terrified expression. Blueblood strode inside, dropping his bags to the floor.

“Whoa, what do you think you’re doing with those?” Blueblood was approached by Sergeant Firetrace, and the guard sergeant stopped at arm’s length and tilted his head higher to look Blueblood in the eyes. “What’s the meaning of this, Private Blueblood?”

“That’s Prince Blueblood to—”

“I don’t remember giving you permission to speak, Private Blueblood.” The guards could barely hold their snickers, but Firetrace remained stoic, baring his teeth at Blueblood’s response. “Answer the question,” he said, drawing the sentence out as Blueblood squirmed.

Blueblood blinked and swallowed. “These… are my possessions.”

“Did you read the terms of your agreement, Private Blueblood?”

“I… uh…”

Firetrace stamped his hoof on the ground with a slam, causing Blueblood to flinch. “Did you or did you not read the terms of your agreement, Private Blueblood? Should I send you off to the doctor to get your ears checked and tell my captain and the Princess that you’ve already failed before you even started?”

“No!” Blueblood said, eyes widening in fright when he realized his voice cracked. The other guards watched on, closing in behind Firetrace, pairs of eyes all watching and judging him. “I… I didn’t read the terms.”

“Strike one, Private,” Firetrace said. Without even breaking eye contact with Blueblood, he pointed a hoof at the bags. “No bags. You are now a member of the Equestrian Royal Guard, a protector of the crown and keeper of the peace. You are no longer Prince Blueblood, affluent noble, notable politician, philanderer, and a waste of air. Do I make myself clear?”

“Yes…” Blueblood croaked out. “Yes, Sergeant.”

“Good. The contents of these bags will be sent to headquarters where they’ll have much better use for it.” Firetrace turned around, staring down the other guards. “As you were.” They shifted away, giving glances over their shoulder at the sergeant and Blueblood as they returned to their normal activities. Blueblood exhaled in relief, only to have his breath catch in his throat when Firetrace whipped back to him. “The princess was being generous when she gave you this assignment. And you’re even luckier that I chose to take you on.”

“Sergeant…?” Blueblood seemed genuinely confused. He opened his mouth to protest against his bags being dragged away by a pair of guards, but held his tongue, keeping his full attention on Firetrace.

“Welcome to my squad, Private,” Firetrace pointed at a door to his left, situated right in the middle of the wall. Painted a simple red, it had a golden ‘3’ marked above it. “Welcome to 3rd Squad. Are you familiar with how many guards are in a squad, Private?”

“Four, Sergeant.”

“You’re getting better at this. Keep it up, Private, and maybe you won’t end up in the dungeon after this is all over.” Firetrace trotted away for the room. Blueblood followed, unwilling to suffer the consequence of ignoring his superior. “Don’t think we’re giving the entire company special treatment on your account. Physical training is going to be grueling from day one, Private, because you’re not starting out like a recruit. You’re starting it off our way, and that means you’re going to get wrung for every drop of soldier that you’re worth. When was the last time you exercised, Private? And, no, getting laid does not count.”

“Not… for a very long time, Sergeant,” Blueblood answered honestly.

“Too bad.” He opened the door and stood aside, nodding for Blueblood to enter first, following afterwards as Blueblood surveyed the room. “Skyway, Wood Grain,” Firetrace said, as two stallions hanging out in their bunks looked at him. “Give a warm welcome to our new squad member.”

“I don’t like him,” Skyway said, a gray pegasus with skyblue hair accentuated with streaks of white, eyes closed as he rested in bed. “Can’t we just kick his sorry flank into the dungeon already?”

“I’m not so sure, Skyway,” Wood Grain drawled, an earth pony of a light tan with an auburn mane. “He only just got here. Hasn’t even finished his basic yet. I say we give him a chance to shape up and see what he can make outta himself.”

“He won’t do anything rash,” Firetrace said, looking aside at Blueblood. “Right, Private?”

Blueblood alternated between Firetrace’s expectant expression and the scowls of the other two. “Yes… Sergeant. I won’t do anything… rash,” he said, though he let a hint of annoyance creep in behind the last word as he glanced at Skyway.

Skyway chuckled. “Oh, he’s mad.”

“Shut it, Skyway.” Firetrace placed himself between Blueblood and the rest of his squad, glaring at him. “Let’s just get this out in the open right now: I don’t want you here. My squad doesn’t want you here. The whole damn company doesn’t want you here. You don’t want to be here. But you’ve caused enough trouble for the Princess and we are going to make you useful, and since you won’t be useful in the castle sitting on your cozy flank, you will be useful on the battlefield fighting for our future.”

“We’ll make a soldier out of you,” Wood Grain said. “Those aliens—humans, they call ‘em—that fell out of the sky? Well, they ain’t the only ones. There’s others, the ones that dropped the damn crystal on Equis in the first place. They’re comin’, too, and the humans are goin’ to need help stoppin’ ‘em.” He grinned. “And guess which lucky company gets to help ‘em do it?”

“Um… us?” Blueblood gulped. “I still can’t believe that we’re actually going to fight with those things… er, humans. And against other aliens, of all things.”

“Terribly sorry if you thought that you might get by on a couple dozen guard shifts without breaking a sweat,” Firetrace said. “This isn’t community service. A good number of us lost loved ones to this crystal, so you can bet that we’re going to want some payback to the ones brought this on us.”

“Why bother explaining it to him?” Skyway said. “It’s not like he cares.”

“Because I’m trying to tell him why this whole business matters to us,” Firetrace replied, his tail swishing in annoyance. Blueblood stood idle as Firetrace paced around him. “Even if he’s a complete tool, now that he’s hit rock bottom, he might have the sense to actually pay attention. Private, you’re well-known around these parts for squandering rations, sucking away food that took weeks to grow in the span of a single night, throwing those disgusting parties, and getting too touchy with the castle maids. Believe me, there was nothing any of us wanted to do more than to smash the doors of that ballroom down and kick each and every one of you maggots out the city gates. But the Princess is nothing if not merciful. You might consider groveling before her after this mess is over.”

“Yeah,” Wood said, hopping out of bed, standing next to Firetrace as the sergeant came to a stop. “You know, I’m kinda wonderin’ why you did all that stuff, anyway. Can’t say that you nobleponies didn’t know that you were hurtin’ us all by stealin’ the food for yourselves.”

“He’s a jerk, plain and simple,” Skyway said. “That’s what he’s always been, and always will be.” He opened his eyes and stared at Blueblood. Firetrace and Wood Grain remained silent, letting the pegasus size up the unicorn, moments passing by until Skyway said, “You look even uglier up close.”

Blueblood’s face registered no emotion as Skyway stared him down. Firetrace and Wood Grain took Skyway’s comment neutrally, watching the unicorn to see if his immovable expression would crack. “Let’s hope his time in the service of the Princess will open his eyes up,” Firetrace finally said. “It’s only a shame that we have to train and get ready to integrate into the human forces. A couple of patrols through the sanctum would be pretty refreshing for him.”

“Permission to speak, Sergeant,” Blueblood said.

Firetrace paused and blinked. “Permission granted, Private.”

Blueblood looked at Skyway. “I don’t need to justify myself to you. The end of the world is upon us, and we’re all going to die anyway. What’s to lose from allowing the ponies who kept the economy of Equestria running from indulging a little? We deserve it.” He held his chin high, standing off against Skyway.

“Okay, I take that back.” Skyway sneered and scoffed. “He’s not a jerk. He is a complete and total fucking asshole. Indulge a little? You realize how much your little parties took off of our crops that we spend so much effort to grow in what’s left of the gardens? You took half of the entire share every single time. We barely had enough to feed everypony here, and whenever you got it into your dense skull that you wanted to throw another party, we never did have enough. Ponies died because of you, so let’s see how well things get put into perspective now that it’s your life on the line.”

“Enough, Skyway,” Firetrace said calmly, raising a hoof to gain his attention. “I think Private Blueblood gets the point.” He took off his helmet and set it on the chair next to him, letting his frayed mane fall around his head as Blueblood observed him out of uniform. “You’ll get your armor tomorrow morning when we start training. It’s one of our spares, unfortunately, since we don’t have the materials to forge you a new one.”

“It’s also got an enchantment that makes you blend in with the rest of us,” Wood said. “Y’know, white for the pegasi and the earth ponies, gray for the unicorns. You’ll get some leave to head into the city every now and then for stretchin’ room, but it’d probably be a good idea to stay in your armor ‘cause I’m pretty sure folks ain’t goin’ to take too kindly to seein’ you walkin’ in the streets.”

“I shouldn’t need the armor,” Blueblood muttered. “They should learn to respect their—”

“I ain’t tryin’ to mock you or anythin’ like that, but it’d be a mite bit wise to drop that line of thinkin’. You ain’t the better one anymore.” Wood huffed, blowing away a tuft of mane that covered his left eye. “You’re just like ‘em now, just another pony. If you had any respect with any of ‘em, you lost it a long time ago.”

“Yep, I’m done with this. See you colts at the mess hall.” He hopped off of his bunk and trotted to the door, stopping when he came next to Blueblood. “Except you. You might think you’re in the clear because you’re with us. You’d be right, because we have an obligation of treating you like a member of our company. The others, though… well, they don’t have that obligation.” He held his scowl, marching out the door when Blueblood blinked in their implied stare-off.

“You’re to be confined to this barracks until further notice,” Firetrace said, preempting any response Blueblood could conjure and set aside the rest of his armor on his bed. “Dinner will be brought to you later, and Wood Grain will be here to keep an eye on you. That fine with you, Wood?”

“S’fine with me,” Wood said with a shrug. “Prefer eatin’ when things are nice and quiet in the mess hall, anyway.”

“Good.” Firetrace nodded, patting himself down of dust and dirt. “I’ll be seeing the two of you later.”

Wood Grain shook his head once he heard Firetrace exit the barracks’ front doors. “You really think you’re that important, don’t’cha?”

“More important than most,” Blueblood grumbled. He found his bed and patted down the clean sheets with a hoof. “Spend so much time working and keeping the whole nation afloat that once you realize the end is coming for you, you see that you’ve spent your life doing nothing but work. Between the grand displays of wealth at the parties, most of us were quite engrossed in our work.”

“You didn’t strike many of us as the workin’ type,” Wood said. Blueblood paused, mind prying through the statement to discern Wood’s disposition. The earth pony was perfectly neutral to him, and strangely enough, that unsettled him more than his detractors. “But thank you for that answer.”

“The image is set when the only time ponies see you is when you’re not working,” Blueblood said. “And what do you mean by that last part?”

“It’s been nothin’ but rough times for ponies. Some of us rise up to answer the call of duty, like most of us here in the guard. The rest either just accept it, or for folks like yourself, they get scared. We all play our choices out differently. I ain’t gonna judge you for that, but… you gotta admit that it’s a bit of a stretch to try to get a piece of the Princess’s own student.”

“Better that I did,” Blueblood said. “She was cooped in the castle all the time. The maids that I… erm, slept with always kept telling me how overworked she seemed to be, that they were concerned about her, that she needed to unwind a little. So I figured, why not? Maybe give it a try once or twice, get a fling on with her, if only for a night, and forget about everything. She didn’t take well to it.”

“Wait.” Wood sounded genuinely surprised. “You mean the maids actually went with you on their own accord?”

“Yes. Why else would they sleep with me? It’s not like I could force them to. Aunt—the Princess would have me thrown into the dungeon otherwise with nary a thought to it.”

“But… we all just figured that you used you sneaky ways to get them into bed with you, like some slimy dirtbag always hankerin’ for a mare.” Wood popped his head around the wall and looked confusedly at him. He narrowed his eyes when realization dawned on him. “The chefs and ballroom staff always kept their mouths shut whenever somepony was talkin’ ‘bout you. What’s up with that?”

Blueblood paused and one of his ears twitched. “You know, Wood,” he said quietly. “I’m not even sure about myself anymore these days. Maybe Skyway is right.”

“‘Scuse me?”

“Nothing. I’m retiring to bed early. Don’t want to be left without rest when training begins tomorrow.” He slid into his sheets, turning away from the room and showing his back to Wood. “And to what you said earlier: yes, we were aware of what we were doing. Some ponies can be fickle when they’re scared, and they need someone to look up to. And that someone has to be willing to take the fall. Good night, Wood Grain.”

“Uh… g’night?” Wood Grain confusedly returned to his bed, making a note to inquire further with the castle’s staff about Blueblood nature. There was more than the unicorn let on, and he was determined to find out.

The core containment unit was a lonely place, a metal sphere of electronics and an empty floor consisting of a metal grating that encircled the gigantic sarcophagus that contained the local EVA unit. For one technician, however, it was as much a home as it could be, and his desk, situated right in front of the unit itself, was an self-organized mess of papers, memorabilia, and screens.

Masterson hummed to himself as data scrolled across the screen in front of him. “Again,” he said. “Play the information again.” The screen blanked and returned to scrolling data by him as he attempted to tear meaning from the sensor data before him. “Nothing in the whole sector. How did they get in?”

No signatures detected in the sector during the entire duration of the Scrin encounter,” EVA said. “The Methuselah’s detection suites have been confirmed to have been fully operational during the period. Likelihood of detecting Scrin forces was extremely high.

“But they got through, somehow.” He reclined into his chair, rubbing his chin in thought. “And they managed to sabotage our systems without a jammer. How, how, how. How the hell did they do it? They came in from orbit—looks like low orbit—but they didn’t come in through space? It doesn’t make any sense.”

Recent information has revealed that there are indigenous species working with the Scrin. It is possible that these creatures may have provided an advance position for the Scrin or shielded their entry from detection before our arrival. Due to the lack of retaliation, however, it is safe to assume that the current Scrin forces encountered planetside may only be a spearhead element.

“A small group, yeah.” The chair clanged against metal as he wheeled over to the other end of his desk, where a display of the region showed possible entrance directions for the drone ship. “They didn’t come from south, obviously. Too much ISDI presence to get through without us catching them. Not west, either, we had teams clearing out the fields there for Providence. Possibly east, or maybe north.”

Limited intelligence from pony accounts states that ground zero for Tiberium planetfall was due north, near one of their major population centers. The Scrin may have established their position where the Tiberium first made contact.

“The indigenous species that’s helping them… the shard… and now that new transmission from the commando talking about dragons, of all things, being involved. There’s no way that this could be a coincidence.” He zoomed out on the regional map and panned the feed north, watching the wireframe grid grow steadily more obfuscated by incomplete data until he was left staring at blank space. “North. That’s where Commander Redding’s forces are going to land.”

A beep sounded throughout the room, and the screen from which it originated began to flash a bright green. Masterson hurried to the screen sitting at its lonely corner, looking over the information gleaned from his routines. “That signature from the crystal… it’s new, definitely not Scrin. Huh, that’s interesting. The signature coming from the crystal produces an effect equivalent to the symptoms of a small scale ion storm, just like a jammer. I was right!”

The output of the crystal did not achieve the level of interference as shown by jammers used in the past. The energies produced by the crystal were electrical in nature, designed to tamper with systems, and its ionic storm properties were miniscule, only enough to affect the immediate area around it. The crystal therefore cannot have been the culprit of the total blackout during the Scrin attack.

“Yeah, but we know that the crystal is a conduit. Like what the mutant dog thing told us from that interrogation. It’s talking to them, somehow, but it’s only ever active when whoever is using it is doing so right at that moment. There has to be something else to it, though… there was more than just one drone ship in the area. More of them appeared afterwards to attack the mutant settlement, but those also got under our sensors, too.”

He flipped through his variables, checking the interference levels and natural cover to see if there was anything that could conclusively be proven as the direct cause for the Scrin’s infiltration of the area. The sky visibility was acceptable, enough to where any aircraft would be seen for a good number of miles around. EVA had the systems to identify any airborne threats, known or otherwise. He checked the logs again.

Hours of fatigue had taken their toll on him, and his eyes stung as his mind called him to sleep, but he was close, so close. Every image EVA had taken using those systems, from every angle, every second, he pored through, searching for discrepancies that could reveal the hole in their defense. But as he continued to cycle through the lineup, he grew frustrated at the lack of evidence.

“EVA, please tell me you have something more concrete to give me,” he said, rubbing his eyes. “If it’s not anything, it has to at least be a jammer. These things don’t just happen.” He checked the clock: only a mere two hours had passed since he began, and he felt like he’d suffered through an entire day without sleep.

I require further parameters for your search,” EVA said.

“It’s a jammer. A dragon? A crystal? A goddamn threshold tower? Just find me something, EVA, something that’s out of place. Something that shouldn’t be there,” he mumbled. His mind went into autopilot and he found himself scanning the flat skies in the pictures for anything he couldn’t tell from the ground. “That blackout caught us off guard. We can’t let that happen again.”

Searching…” EVA notified him.

As EVA culled the irrelevant data, the images grew increasingly blurry, with sections of the picture blurred or missing entirely, replaced with darkness as the blackout began to occur. Masterson blinked, and wiped his eyes. “What the…?” He stopped the cull and returned to the start, back to the beginning where the images began to cut out. “That’s not possible. EVA, were the cameras functioning during this period of time?”

Affirmative. All cameras had storm shielding and were fully functioning during this period.

“Then why is part of this image gone?”

Unknown. My systems were offline during this period.

“And these images were all taken and uploaded to your mainframe?” He opened a terminal up and dug into the meat of EVA’s databanks, and ran diagnostics on the camera branch that originated the images he was looking at: there weren’t any system shortages. Curious, he began to check the readings taken on the camera locations at the time of the event. The graphs spiked, and he smiled. “There.”

All images were uploaded to the mainframe as they were taken,” EVA said. “The missing data and energy readings indicates that the cameras may have been physically manipulated. Something attempted to obscure the cameras from taking pictures.

“I know. And that is what’s interesting, EVA. These energy readings are peculiar, identical to the ones that came from the crystal, yet small enough where it’d blend into the noise if no one was paying attention. Well, I was,” he said, smile growing wider. He saved the results and copied them into Alexandra’s intel folder with a note as a high priority file. “And now we have it. Whoever’s behind that crystal is the one causing this.” He yawned. “And I intend to find out who… after I take a nap.”

“There used to be a giant formation here on the road that prevented us from venturing downhill,” Celesia said, looking out the viewport of the transport as they approached Greenwood. The smoldering ruins where the first drone ship had landed caught her eye, with larger plumes in the distance from the ion cannon strikes, and she looked back to Alexandra with a raised brow. “And your weapons did that?”

“From orbit, yeah,” Alexandra said. “Useful for removing Tiberium and… other threats with minimal casualties. I doubt we’ll have the room to use it in the coming weeks, though. When the Scrin bring their fleet to fight ours, those guns will be busy in space. And that’s where the soldiers come in.”

Approaching Camp Greenwood now, Commander,” the pilot said. The ponies’ ears perked at the untranslated statement, though the feeling of descending was familiar to them all. “Captain Godric is waiting for you on the pad.

“Aerial transports for easy and quick travel,” Shining said, nodding as the hum of the engines came to a low groan before they touched down. “Impressive contraptions you humans have. And you say you have even bigger ones in space? The ones you used to get here?”

“Yeah, the starships.” The cabin experienced a gentle sway as the pilot flared the transport in for landing. “The results of reverse-engineering Scrin technology, for the most part. Before that, space travel was sloppy, unappealing, and prohibitively expensive. We’ve come a long way in a century.”

The transport touched down with a gentle tap, and the rear doors opened up to reveal a power suit colored black and with its red visors transparent to reveal the face of the man inside. “Commander,” Godric said. “A word with ye, please.”

Alexandra exited the craft, waiting as the upper doors of Greenwood’s underground landing facilities closed before motioning for the ponies to follow him out. “You have something to say about the crystal,” Alexandra said. Godric nodded with a stern face.

“That shard ain’t like any shard I’ve ever seen b’fore, Commander,” Godric said.

“Of course it isn’t. It’s infused with magic.”

“Magic, radiation, whatever ye want t’call it. The only thing that does matter is that thing is spookin’ my men. We convene for prayers and the only thing we hear is deafenin’ silence in our minds, and a voice callin’ to us. This isn’t any Scrin doin’, either. The voice doesn’t speak like they do. It’s different. It’s ancient, knowin’, pryin’. And it’s tryin’ to get in our heads for reasons I don’t want t’know.”

“Is there something wrong, Commander?” Celestia came to a stop as the two men turned to her. She tilted her head in question. “I apologize for interrupting. Should we continue without you?”

“No, you’re not interrupting. This’ll only take a minute.” Alexandra took Godric by the arm, facing them away as he barely caught the whispers of the ponies speaking to each other. “I can’t help you right now, Godric, but I will look into it as soon as I have a free moment. But for now, record anything that seems out of place, no matter how insignificant. Report the findings to me and InOps only.”

“You think it might be mind control, Marty?”

“I’m not placing a bet on it,” Alexandra said. “But I want to be ready, just in case. What about the security and staff in the containment facility? Are they okay?”

“They reported everything to be fine,” Godric said. He frowned and shook his head. “But it’s my own boys, I dunno, maybe it’s our reverence of the crystal that’s made us a target. Some o’ m’boys, they’re wary of the shard. They’re the ones who’re gettin’ the brunt o’ the voices. They can’t understand it, but it’s there, they say.”

“If they’re vulnerable, I want them as far away from the shard as possible.” Alexandra checked the feeds of the containment facility remotely; in the foyer, he caught a pair of Black Hand soldiers watching the camera feeds of the shard on the wall. “You have two soldiers in there right now.”

“That’d be Robin and Strauss, the sergeants of the two squads that first reported the strange happenings with the shard. They think it’s some sort of Scrin superweapon. I don’t particularly think they’d be too far off the mark since you’ve said the damn thing has magic in it. It might as well be a bomb sittin’ right in the heart of the base.”

“I’ll see to moving it to a secure offsite location as soon as possible. Until then, Godric, stay out of harm’s way. Do you want your unit transferred? To the pony city, or Providence?”

“We’ll stand our ground here.” Godric smiled and gave him a hard pat on the shoulder, chuckling. “Providence’s got enough guns as it is, though I’ll keep m’boys as far away from that damn thing as possible. Have to protect the small bases first, and the city should be fine since it’s up on the mountain. Have fun with your tour, Marty. I’ll see you later.”

“Later,” Alexandra said with a wave. He turned around to find the ponies silent and waiting. “Sorry about that. There was a bit of business to attend to.” He continued forward, letting the ponies trail next to him as they approached the elevators. Godric took one and left for topside, leaving the other for their use.

“Aren’t you worried about any contamination here?” Cadance asked. A pair of engineers strolled by levitating a deck of pre-fabs, giving cursory salutes to Alexandra as they let them pass. “And I’m actually surprised that you have all of this built underground. I thought your base camp was just something you had above.”

“We have speedy construction tools, and the indoor environment is monitored and sterilized at regular intervals. We’ve also built a shield outside that prevents the worst of it from getting in,” Alexandra said, keying the button as they reached the door. “This elevator will take us straight into the barracks. From there, we can access the medical facility and get back in touch with your friends.”

Uh… Commander?” Alexandra blinked. A new voice was on the line, and his HUD popped open the window; it was audio-only. “Is anybody there?

“You’re talking to him,” Alexandra said, cutting his output so the ponies couldn’t hear him. They didn’t seem to notice, preoccupied looking at the flashing numbers above the door as the elevator descended to their level. “Who is this?”

Uh, this is Harold, Harold Terrence, Doctor Wesley’s aide. I heard you were coming down from Canterlot with Princess Celestia and the others to visit us.” There was a minor crack of static as some voices began to pitch in, which Harold shooed away. “So, it’s Princess Celestia, and… who else?

“Princess Cadance and Captain Armor.”

Oh, more royalty.” His voice replied to someone in the background, faded and away from the microphone, and Alexandra heard cheering in the background as Harold laughed. “Well, that’s good news. The ponies are all waiting here. Second floor, the door with the guards. Impossible to miss.” Harold hung up after that, right as the elevator announced its arrival.

The trip up had caught them more than their fair share of curious glances, even more so at the princesses than anything else. The group paid them no mind, although Alexandra did have to redirect them down an alternate route when a shifty staff member hung around the elevator with a camera. The ponies were amused at the notion of paparazzi being identical between the two civilizations.

The door guards were present when they arrived, standing across from the entrance conversing with each other. The sergeant stiffened and bumped his companion on the shoulder as they both watched him advance down the hall with his guests. “Commander!” he said, as the two brought their arms up in salute. “We’ve been expecting you. They’re inside. I don’t know what’s stirred them up, but your trip here’s been creating a bit of a buzz with them.”

“It’s a meeting that’s been a long time coming,” Alexandra said. As the door opened, a series of pops caused them to duck as they were bombarded with a small shower of streamers.

“Surprise!” they all said. Harold righted his party cap and stood to shake Alexandra’s hand. “Greetings, Commander. I have to say that it’s an absolute pleasure to finally meet you.”

“Same to you,” Alexandra said. Harold pulled him aside to a corner where a pair of chairs sat. They took the seats and watched the ponies greet each other with smiles and hugs. “I see the operations were successful.”

“Oh, yeah, definitely,” Harold said. The two watched in silence as Celestia approached Luna’s bed.

“Luna…?” Celestia stopped halfway, stepping forward with nervous strides as her sister’s head rested on the pillow, eyes closed. “Luna? Are you awake?”

“With the noise that has just greeted my ears, planned by none other than Miss Pie, I am surprised that you haven’t thought otherwise.” Luna opened her eyes and smiled at Celestia, taking off the party hat that had been placed on her head for her by the others. “It is good to see you, my dear sister. I hope you didn’t have too much trouble in my absence.”

“Oh, Luna…” Celestia sat bedside and nuzzled her sister, who reciprocated in kind, and spread a comforting wing around her. “I feared the worst… that I lost you again. I am so gratefully, incredibly glad that it wasn’t the case. But your mane… and your tail! What happened to them?”

“Necessary casualties,” Luna said reassuringly, burying her face in Celestia’s shoulder. “And besides, they will grow back again! There is no need to worry, I will be able to join you again in the castle. Not now, but soon, I hope.”

“Yes,” Celestia said, basking in her embrace with Luna as her smile grew wider. “The both of us, back together again. I have no doubt that there will be many a celebration once the ponies learn of your return, and we can begin to rebuild. We can take back our world, wipe the planet clean of this emerald menace.”

“I only hope that there will be something left for us to save,” Luna said. She pawed at her bandages with an empty expression, and Celestia broke their hug to look at Luna with a perplexed face. “You know what I speak of. We have been incredibly fortunate, Tia. But the others…”

“They are not so lucky,” Celestia finished, nodding in agreement. “But it’s heartening to know that we can finally search for survivors now.”

“Uh, yeah, about that,” Alexandra interrupted. “We have found survivors, actually. A bunch of mutated ponies down near our primary base which took some fire from the Scrin during the first wave. They’re led by a unicorn named Trixie, and they’ve agreed to move out of their hovels and into our new base camp.”

“Trixie?” Celestia narrowed her eyes as she recalled a certain few letters Twilight had sent her. “Yes, I know of her. She was the abrasive individual at times, but it surprises me to find her leading the group, much less actually surviving out here. If they’re living out here, then from what you’ve said of mutants… my goodness, to be out here surviving in this wasteland, and I had thought them taken by the land.”

“The exposure has only strengthened their abilities. Our own forces during first contact with them took some rather substantial damage from them simply through the usage of magical bolts alone, so I’m sure that the mutation might have affected their magic, too. I’m afraid my knowledge is limited in that regard. Doctor Wesley would be better qualified to teach you about it; it’s his field of study.”

“But that means that there are survivors,” Luna said. “If they can survive, then it means that the others might have, too.”

“Hopeful.” Celestia smiled and bowed her head to Alexandra. “Thank you for this heartening bit of news, Commander.”

Then came a beep, bringing up a small red window that flashed in front of Alexandra’s face. Harold leaned over to see, but Alexandra pushed him away with a light hand, and Harold’s eyes turned to the ponies. He stood, whispering to the other ponies and moving them off to Pinkie’s corner of the room, leaving Celestia, Luna, Shining, and Cadance alone with Alexandra.

“That’s interesting,” Alexandra said. He expanded the window, seeing patchwork images and suspicious readings appear in new windows all around him. “There’s been a new development. Something concerning the Scrin attack.”

“Oh?” Shining asked. They all gathered closer to him as he flipped around the screens for them to view. The effect was lost on them, however, as they only stared at the information with blank expressions. “I… can’t really tell what we’re supposed to be looking at here.”

“We have surveillance systems surrounding Camp Greenwood, for protection and data gathering, mostly. During the initial Scrin attack, our systems suffered a complete blackout—something that only fully-entrenched Scrin forces utilized through massive jammers that were impossible to shield from detection due to their massive power signatures. But we had an exact same effect happen here, yet there wasn’t a single jammer found in the region.”

“And you believe that there is something more behind the blackout,” Celestia said. She frowned. “Could it possibly be the dragons?” she added, lowering her voice.

“That’s our hunch. The cameras are small, normally impossible to see unless you were standing right under them, but they were still manipulated during the attack, which means that no small amount of precision was taken into account. The cameras were still fully operational during the blackout, so the only reason why someone would go so far as to mess with a few tiny things like these means that there was someone around here, in visual sight, that didn’t want to be seen. And only the Scrin would be aware that we use that sort of surveillance at our bases.”

“And the missing parts in most of the images seem to be the skies,” Luna said, squinting until Alexandra hovered a set of them over to her. “And... there seems to be a pattern. The parts are always in the sky, and they proceeded toward and over the camera, and then it returned to normal after that.”

“Nobody was paying much attention to the sky during the attack,” Alexandra said. “And the clouds work all too well for Tiberium-based lifeforms to hide in, where the interference to our systems is the heaviest and prevent us from seeing them coming. The damn thing was right there and we didn’t even see it.”

“And if there’s one, there’s probably more of them,” Shining said. “Dragons tend to travel in groups, large groups, unless they’re one of the solitary ancients, which is what I’m betting we’re dealing with here due to the level of magical manipulation it used on the cameras.”

“And where do these dragons come from, exactly?”

“North,” Celestia said. “In the mountains, near where our farthest city sat, the capital of the Crystal Empire. Beyond the snow-swept valleys, the mountains that comprise most of the north are where the dragons call their home.”

“So there’s a whole nation full of them. Great.” He switched over to his command console and tapped EVA on a separate line. “EVA, what’s the status on Providence’s war factory? Have the heavy walker loading bays been completed?”

Affirmative. All facilities in the war factory are fully operational.

“Commence production of a Mastodon immediately. Notify Dagger that since he’s the only qualified operator here, he’s been volunteered to pilot it. Tell him that I expect trouble very soon. Have the Methuselah’s Firehawks been outfitted with the new storm shielding yet?”

Refit was completed eight hours ago following the production of the new shielding. Firehawks are ready to be scrambled and deployed planetside.

“Get the pilots on stand-by and arm the Firehawks with heavy anti-air ordnance. High penetration Tiberium-nullification warheads, and some HE for good measure. Make sure the Mastodon has fire-swarm and Tibseeker missiles, and arm it with twin railguns. Lastly, please notify Masterson that I want him to work on a triangulation routine for finding where the jammer source is coming from.”

Confirmed. Relaying orders now, Commander.

Alexandra closed the slew of windows around him, and stood. “Captain Shining, how well do you think you understand the lay of this land?”

“Now?” Shining shrugged. “Well, back then, yeah, I’d say I knew this entire valley in and out, since I am the Captain of the Guard for Canterlot, but now… well, the whole place is shaken up. I might be able to recognize a few features here and there, but it’s mostly all new to me.”

“Good enough. What about the area north of Canterlot?”

“Haven’t been around the block for quite a while, Commander,” he said with a chuckle. “But I traveled between Canterlot and north for quite a bit, so I’m probably better off helping you there.”

“What’s this about, anyway?” Cadance asked. “You’re planning to move out already? We haven’t even started working on suiting up our guards to help with your scouting operations.”

“That’s because we’re not scouting,” Alexandra said. “We’re going to see if we can find a dragon.”

Author's Note:

Sometimes I wonder if I should try to achieve anything meaningful with this story. Maybe tackle a complex theme, or convey a philosophical message.

Then I remember that I am not a clever man and that I should probably just focus on trying to make this story the way I wanted it to be: with giant mechs, lots of bullets, mind-boggling amounts of human-centrism, and boatloads of explosions.

I may or may not be Fimfiction's version of Michael Bay.

Many thanks to sadron and Brother Malachai for proofreading this chapter.