XCOM: Enemy Advanced

by Swordomatic

First published

Humanity has failed, and the Ethereals yet live. Armed with the knowledge of their predecessors, it falls to Equestria to finish the job.

(Many thanks to Dalek Ix, Arkalest and Wakka for helping make this happen)

Ninety six years ago, before the return of Nightmare Moon, a strange alien exploration probe landed on the world of Mundus, on the continent of Equestria. Uniting efforts, the griffons, ponies, zebras and minotaurs cracked the probe and shared the spoils with one another. Advanced technologies were found, advanced technologies that kick-started the Industrial Revolution of Mundus. The races lived together in harmony, and a new age of prosperity descended upon the world.

Regretfully, they did not heed the warnings that came with as much as they should have. Warnings from a long lost race once called 'Humanity'. Warnings of the Ethereals, and their mad plan. They did not train their armies, prepare their peoples, refine their technologies with speed and fervour. All that was done was the creation of a pact. A pact, and the XCOM Project.

Six years after the return of Nightmare Moon and Princess Luna, the Ethereals have arrived. In response, XCOM has been reactivated, as dictated by pacts almost a hundred years old. They know of mankind's struggles. They know of mankind's mistakes. But will they find victory where countless others have found failure? Only one thing is certain.

The Enemy has Advanced.

Prologue: Dawn in Fire

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“Science never solves a problem without creating ten more.”
- George Bernard Shaw

XCOM: Enemy Advanced
Dawn in Fire

Location: Canterlot
Date: 12th April, 1006 PDE
Time: 12:04:22 (Canterlot Standard Time)

The Ethereals had come. The Ethereals had really come. This, Princess Celestia knew as burning stars rained down on the city of Canterlot by the dozen.

"Princess Celestia!" A royal guard - Sunshine of the Sky Guard - came skidding down the halls, coming to a practiced stop before her and saluting quickly with his rifle. "We have unknown contacts appearing all over Canterlot! The Royal Guard has mobilized and Eclipse Squadron is launching, but we are barely holding them off!"

"Have you identified the contacts?"

"Yes: pods dispensing some kind of paralytic gas, and strange little men with cannons on their arms!" Sunshine blanched, shaking visibly. "Royal Guard detachments have already been deployed, but the casualties--"

"Nevermind that, my little pony! The Star Guard shall focus on the fires! Protect Canterlot's citizens! Avoid contact with these creatures if at all possible! Leave them to the Sky Guard!" That, above all else, was imperative. The Royal Guard was no match for them in an actual fight. The Sectoids, low on the hierarchy as they are, were still too great, too cruel a threat for them to take on. Only the Sky Guard stood a chance on account of their wings, but even then she was sending them to their deaths. To distract them. She could only hope their sacrifice was worth it.

Even so, she knew this would lead to the capture of so many ponies, and the deaths of so many more. The damage to her fair city could be fixed. The damage to her dear castle can be fixed. The damage to her little ponies was not so easily fixed. But she had to try!

And so she spread her wings and cantered towards the open balcony, horn alight with gold. "Princess!" Sunshine cried out. "Where are you going?! We need you here in the castle!"

"And they need me more in the streets!" Her horn now lit up like the afternoon sun, too bright to behold. "I will remain in touch, and no doubt Luna will have awakened as well!"

The light vanished, and the Princess was clad in her regalia of war. Gold earthpony warplate of an era long past, covering all but the feathers of her wings with enchanted orichalcum tempered by forgotten techniques. On her left a blade of gold and fire burned, and on her right an ornate rifle - a recent acquisition - glimmered and radiated with power and heat. "P-Princess..." Sunshine stammered. "Y-Y-You're... fighting?"

"I will defend Canterlot on the ground," Celestia said, raising her sword up high. "You will defend Canterlot from the skies! Good luck, my little pony! I have faith in you! All of you!"

She leaped over the railings and dived, right into the thick of it. She would not let her Royal Guard fight in the defense alone. She would not let her ponies die without trying to save them!

The Battle of Canterlot lasted six hours, and putting out the fires took seven more. Recovery crews were still attempting to identify the final death toll, but right now the numbers were at several dozen, and hundreds more missing or injured. The attack was slowed and due to the efforts of the Royal Guard the civilian loss was muted, but nonetheless damage was done.

Predictably, the death toll was high. Over half the Sky Guard was wounded and in critical condition, and only her timely intervention prevented deaths. Even so, not all were expected to last the night, let alone make a full recovery. Sky Captain Slider in particular was under intensive, round the clock care, both by staff and by his own family. He was the worst hurt of all, and his full-body burns were infected despite the care.

Celestia had not the heart to give his young daughter the prognosis. The young orange filly was heartbroken as is; best to leave her some illusion of hope, and hope that the Captain wakes up long enough to say his goodbyes.

She was hurt as well, with burns on her wings where plasma grazed them and plates of armor that fused to her skin. The heightened vitality of an Alicorn and her healing magic let her stay active, not that she wished to rest. Not that she could rest. Reports were coming in from all over Equestria, from all over the world, of similar happenings.

It was happening. After ninety years of peace, they had arrived. And in her teleconference with the other heads of state, incredulity was the word of the day.

She passed worried Royal Guardponies, sullenly looking at the ground with a haggard gait. Hoofmaidens still stunned silent from the attack just hours ago parted before her, and Celestia closed the door behind her as she entered her quarters. Her horn flashed as she took a seat, her reflection on her vanity flickered to reveal the waiting faces of a griffon, a zebra and a minotaur.

“I apologise for attending in such a state,” Celestia began apologetically, gesturing to the bandages tied all over her. “I was involved, and there is no time for glamour magic. It appears that the warning this Council received almost a century ago was true.”

“Indeed it has," Yurgen the Exalted growled in disbelief, the Golden Bull of the Minotaur Nation still incredulous about the attack on the Bovis Province. "We had prepared for it, but we should have done more!"

"We are vastly unprepared," Shaman King Hao of the Zebrican Republic agreed. “Considering what we got from the cache, we really should have listened to it more.”

"We must take the fight to them!" Roared Sky Lord Griswold Stormtalon, slamming a claw on his table. "We must make them pay for this! We must activate the XCOM Project!”

“For once we are in agreement, Sky Lord,” Celestia nodded, smiling in satisfaction. “Equestria agrees. We must unite under XCOM.”

“Ha ha! Yes, an opportunity to retaliate! The Minotaurs of Herakles agree; XCOM is our best bet!”

“You shall find no argument from me. The Zebras of Zebrica lend their stripes.”

“For once we are in complete agreement,” Celestia said, somewhat amazed. In her thousand years of rule, the last time they agreed was deciphering the probe’s data banks, what was now the Codex. “I expected a little grumbling, to be honest.”

“We disagree on many things, Sun Princess, but this is not a crisis to dispute. If you prefer,” the Sky Lord suggested cheekily, “You could imagine that each of us had ulterior motives.”

“Sky Lord! I am appalled! We minotaurs are not creatures of deceit and trickery! We are strong! We are brave! We--”

“--Are far too loud to be a respectable head of state, Golden Bull,” The Shaman King sighed.

She shook her head, smiling softly. “I won’t, Sky Lord. I have more respect for your intellect than that. This isn’t a time for trickery. This isn’t a time for tests. This is the time to drop our walls and fight as one.”

“Then it is settled. We activate the XCOM Project.”

Chapter One: The First Founding Light

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XCOM: Enemy Advanced

The First Founding Light

Location: Boondock Bay, Manehattan
Date: 5th Mayfly, 1006 PDE
Time: 04:48:13 (Canterlot Standard Time)

Operation: Waterworld

Boondock Bay. The birthplace of much of Equestria’s naval fleet, militant or otherwise, and the site of the UFO crash. This early in the morning, it was unlikely that anypony would be at the docks. But just to be safe the place had been cordoned off by the police, to keep unsuspecting ponies from stumbling onto a potential firefight.

The UFO itself was crashed into the dry docks of Manehattan, wrecking decades-old machinery and ruining the livelihoods of hundreds. The impact had twisted the docks, bits of rubble larger than ponies embedding into the ground and punching through cargo containers like a shotgun through balloons. At the very center of it, the crashed craft was steaming, hole torn through its side by high-yield Sunburst missiles.

XCOM had dived right in, hooves flailing. Though a Commander was not yet chosen, they were activated and there was a UFO alert. Responding was the only reasonable option.

The XCOM operatives were arrayed in three groups; Strike One was the closest, and would move in from the north through hollow freight containers. Strike Two was up on the cranes that still stood on the east, providing cover support where they could. Strike Three was down by the south, ready to move in on a moment’s notice and blow the aliens to kingdom come.

It was known that the aliens had already set up a defensive perimeter. That did not matter. This was their home.

“Strike Two-Actual reporting in. Skynet has been set and scopes calibrated.”

“Strike Three-Actual here. Ordnance primed and ready to blow.”

“This is Strike One-Actual. In position and guns cocked.”

“Strike Teams, Central here. Move out!”

A pegasus flew overhead, and a unicorn and a zebra two walked ahead two earth ponies, taking point with shotguns armed and ready to fire. A griffon hovered in the air, claws tight over the sniper rifle and ready to pull the trigger. Soon, they had arrived at the UFO itself. Though there was a hole punched through its side, leaving the interior open, it was still intact.

“UFO spotted. It’s still in one piece.”

“Strike One reports no X-Rays in the AO, Central.”

“Strike Three not reporting contacts, either.”

“This is Strike Two. We have confirmation that all X-Rays are still inside the UFO. Central, please advise.”

“Move on, Strike Teams. Strike Three, move in from the south. Strike One, get to the UFO, but don’t breach yet. Keep from the hole, ya’ll hear?”

“Strike One-Actual acknowledges. Moving in.” The unicorn with the shotgun shimmered magenta and charged, spinning and sliding until his side hit the UFO’s hull. Gun aimed at the translucent bubble, the rest of Strike One moved in save the griffon, who landed and went prone atop a container, sniper rifle rested on a bipod.

“Strike One reporting in. We’re in position.”

A moment passes, and the radios blip again. “Strike Three, in position. Ready to take the breach. Your call, Central.”

“Hit it at the same time, everypony. Strike Two, support.” Radios sputter everywhere, just as the forcefield doors are interrupted and popped. “Hold up, everypony! We’ve got another UFO movin’ to position!”

A UFO screamed into position overhead, and small big-headed aliens backdropped by the moonlight jumped off onto the ground, arms crackling with green lightning.

Strike Two-Actual cried out over the radio, “Strike One and Three, you’re getting flanked! Reposition! Reposition!”

“No!” Strike One-Actual ordered. “Hold position and breach the UFO! It’s our only cover! If we get the aliens first--” Strike Three disregarded the advice and broke ranks, dashing towards the relative safety of the wall of freight containers.

Bolts of plasma shrieked out from within the UFO, catching virtually all of Strike Three in the back with super-hot ionised gas. They screamed, wails punctuated by bursts of static, before their radios died to the electromagnetic disruption.

“Strike One! Breach!” The shotgun-wielding unicorn dashed in first, shotgun firing as he dived for cover. The spray of lead struck true, and caught a Sectoid in the chest. The rest of Strike One followed suit with a hail of bullets, and soon took out the Sectoid crew of the UFO.

“This is Strike One-Actual! We have secured the crashed UFO! Engaging X-Rays on the outside!”

“No can do, Strike One-Actual. Strike Two! Engage the ones outsi... Hold on, Strike One. We’re readin’ an energy spike inside the UFO!”

“Say again, Central?!”

“Dang it, it’s the Outsider!”

A crystal shot out from the main UFO flight computer and coalesced into a physical form, taking the shape of an armored humanoid wielding a plasma rifle of some sort. The members of Strike One turned about too late, and an earth pony died as he turned to ash under the hail of plasma. The zebra next to him wailed, the radiating heat burning him alive in his armor. The others took the opportunity to take cover, and the shotgun-toting unicorn grit his teeth.

“Dammit! Red Glare just ate it, and Pinnacle is burning!”

“One-Actual!” Strike Two-Actual screamed, “We’re getting shot up out here! We need assistance now!

“Copy that, Two! Ivan, go get her! Strike One, open fire on the Outsider!”

The Outsider swung around just as they did, rifle poised at Captain Shining Armor of XCOM. Looking into a featureless face, the Captain screamed and opened fire.

Location: Throne Room, Canterlot
Date: 5th Mayfly, 1006 PDE
Time: 09:01:32 (Canterlot Standard Time)

“Princess Celestia.” General Blueblood the Fifty First was a white unicorn with a short, well-groomed blonde mane and shining blue eyes that were almost always half-lidded.

“General Blueblood,” Princess Celestia responded in kind, smirking slightly. “I do like that image you’re cultivating. ‘Grizzled Commander’, was it?”

The Commander of the Western Front scoffed and eyed his Princess, her wings, legs and torso currently bound in bandages that smelled of... roses? “Why would you drag me away from teaching my idiot son a lesson?”

“The young Prince Blueblood can wait,” Celestia responded, becoming oddly business-like. “I’m sure you’ve heard of the recent events worldwide?”

Blueblood nodded. “I was there when Aerie Peak was attacked, Princess. I lost lots of good ponies.” He flattened his ears and narrowed his eyes. “It’s about XCOM, isn’t it?”

“Perceptive as always, General,” Celestia nodded with approval. “By the power of the four nations, you have been selected as Commander-in-Chief of the overall XCOM Project.”

Blueblood’s response was swift and merciless, like a kick to the groin. “I refuse.”

“This isn’t up for discussion, General,” Celestia said, and narrowed her one visible eye menacingly. “Whatever your opinions on the XCOM Project, you know that in the event of alien invasion, the world must band together under XCOM. We experienced an alien invasion mere weeks ago. Ergo, we must band together under XCOM.”

“I will not be Commander of a group of madmen and morons,” the General said, tone dripping with bitterness. “You know what they did to Spectre Mountain.”

“I do, General.”

“It turned into Ghastly Gorge.

“Thank you, General, I know. I was there.”

“And you want me to lead them? You want me to tarnish the name of Blueblood more than it already has?” The General stomped his hoof. “I cannot accept this, Princess. I will not besmirch the name of Blueblood anymore than my son will accept responsibility for anything he does.”

“I am offering you a chance to make XCOM great, General,” Celestia countered, her voice steady and her gaze hard. “XCOM has made mistakes before, this is no lie. But XCOM will also be staffed by our very best, from all over the world. The most diverse group of geniuses and experts ever organised, General, and I am offering you the chance to lead them to glory.”

Blueblood fell silent. “Then why me?”

“Because you are my premier troubleshooter, my dear Blueblood,” Celestia replied with a twinkle in her eye. “We require a commander who can adapt. A commander who cares about the soldiers under their charge. A commander who has faced threats that sent lesser ponies running and laughed.” The wounded Princess of the Sun tented her hooves together. “You are that commander, General. You are our best hope.”

Blueblood grunted. “I suppose I’ll have to deal with it, then?”

“If it helps any,” Celestia offered, “Your priority is to defend Mundus and all its denizens. Everything else is secondary. Money, politics, ethics...” She pondered for a moment, shoe-clad hoof on her muzzle. “...maybe not ethics.”

Reluctantly, the General nodded slowly. “Very well. I will take the job, if only because if you’re offering an infinite budget and almost complete autonomy, the situation must be dire. But I will not be happy about it.”

“Let’s hope that changes when you arrive, shall we?” Celestia said with a wink. “Now, everything you need to know will be known at First Light, XCOM’s first base. It’s east of the Crystal Empire, built from one of the Empire’s old underground war bunkers. For now it will be your first base, but in the coming year more bases should be coming online and making contact.”

“I expect the Shaman King, the Sky Lord and the Golden Bull have sent their best as well?”

Celestia nodded. “We had a pact, after all. With Mundus hanging in the balance, there is no point holding back.”

Blueblood smirked. "No crypticism, dear auntie?"

"Not this time," she countered, with a smirk of her own. "This is not the time for 'lessons' or 'tests'." She then gestured to the side of the room, as a false wall opened up and revealed a pad of obsidian and diamond, covered in runes all over. “Shall we?”

"I shan't let you down, then." He frowned, walking into the teleport conduit. “And I will whip XCOM into shape."

"Do so with my blessings," Celestia said, smiling lightly. “Though, I should note that we must stage your ‘death’ for your own safety. The Codex mentioned the possibility of alien cultists and assassins, and though I would love to trust my ponies and the others’ subjects, we cannot take chances.”

“You only sweeten the deal, Princess. My only family is my son, and quite frankly," the General scoffed, "He is tiresome. I will deal with him after all this is over.”

She nodded, horn glowing with the radiance of the sun. "Good luck, General.”

The General bowed, there was a flash, and he was gone.

Blueblood popped into existence on top of a jeweled, rune-encrusted platform within a cavernous room with a flash of warm sunlight, wearing his usual slightly-disgruntled expression. The caverns around him were smooth and even, as if they were hewn out by magic, crystals dotting the walls, ceiling and even floors with natural thaumatic lighting. The General frowned. This place did not sit well with him. It felt... sinister.

He looked around him, and found himself alone within some kind of command deck, terminals and stations built around a central ring of some sort. Blueblood peered closer, and confirmed his suspicions. A massive gem lens, with the cursive and elegant carvings of illusion-type runes engraved within.

So a projector of some kind. Interesting. A good lens the size of a hoof would cost a fortune, without including the enchantments. Princess Celestia was not pulling punches on this one.

"Welcome to XCOM, General Blueblood," a voice said beside him, making the veteran General jump in his skin. "Has the Princess told you everything you need to know?"

He expected to turn around, more than slightly miffed, and tell off some scholar or renown he could care less for. He held his tongue when he did, considering the mare. "Twilight Sparkle?" His gaze leveled. "You have been conscripted into XCOM, too?"

The lavender mare smiled lightly and hugged her clipboard closer. "No, the six of us volunteered. The Elements of Harmony may have failed against this menace, but the magic of friendship will still see us through!"

He nearly scoffed. Blueblood prefered the reliable kick of an assault rifle, personally, but then again friendship (or rather, as he preferred to put it, teamwork) has been the cornerstone of more than one seemingly-impossible victory. He was still skeptical on their effectiveness, but perhaps it would do everyone go-did she say all six.

"Pinkamena Pie is enlisted into XCOM." The General said flatly. It was not a question, simply a statement awaiting confirmation.

Twilight nodded. "She's Assistant Head of Engineering." She beamed widely. Any wider and the General would have needed new eyeballs. "And I'm Head of Research! Would you believe it? Me? Head of Research?" The young mare squealed in delight.

The General could, actually. Twilight Sparkle was more than smart and inquisitive enough for the position. Pinkie Pie was another matter entirely. What was Celestia doing, putting civilians in his XCOM?

Bah, he had other matters to attend to. Like attending to the defense of the world. Pinkie - and the other Elements of Harmony - get one chance, or they go home.

"I look forward to collaborating, Twilight Sparkle," the General began diplomatically, "And I have other questions, but I would first like to ask: what of my second in command? Or the commander in the field?"

“That’d be me, General.” Right out of a hallway from somewhere, a stetson-wearing earth pony cantered in wearing a regulation turtleneck. “Ah’m Applejack, yer Central Officer. Ah’ll be handlin’ the day-to-day, so you can handle the big picture.”

“The Element of Honesty as my second,” General Blueblood said, mildly surprised. “Quite the day I’m having.”

Applejack bowed respectfully. “Ah’ll do my job, and you do yours. An’ maybe we’ll bond over apple cider during the off-hours.”

“Perhaps.” General Blueblood replied stoically. “Now, Twilight Sparkle, about my Field Commander...”

"That would be Shining Armor, my older brother." A thump echoed throughout the cavernous base, and the young lavender mare clapped her hooves together in glee. “He’s back!”

“He was out on a mission before I even got here,” General Blueblood asked aloud flatly. He shrugged. Shining was still a go-getter, it seems. “At least he has initiative.”

Applejack frowned, but agreed nonetheless. “Let’s go see him, then. Wonder how the mission went,” she wondered, in the tone of one who already knew what happened.

"Hey, Captain." The griffon poked the unicorn on the head twice, beak curled askew.

"Hm?" Shining Armor looked up from his seat, eyebrow raised? "Oh, it's just you, Ivan. What is it?"

"We're back, Captain. Skyranger touched down." The griffon frowned, looking his Captain in the eye. "You alright?"

"I'm fine, Sergeant Ivan," the Field Commander of First Light responded. "Just... thinking about things." Like his failures. Looking back at the body bags piled up like planks at the back of the Skyranger, he wondered what went wrong. The mission? Him?

The griffon shook his head, placing a clawed talon on his shoulder. "Don’t start moping about it,Shining. We all expect to die someday. Might as well be in the defense of the planet. I don’t blame you, and neither does Firebird."

"What about Glimmer?" Shining asked, more biting than he intended. "What about Dusk Shine, or Dawn, or Kunta, or Steady Hand, or all the others who died? What about Moonlight or Beaky, or the half dozen who'll never live a normal life?" He sighed deeply. "I should have taken point. I'm the best shield unicorn in Equestria; it was my job to hold."

"You're Field Commander, Captain," Ivan reminded. "You don't take point. Protocol dictates--"

"Since when did you care for protocol?"

"Since you could be killed by a lucky shot and disrupt the entire mission. I'm not dumb, Shining, and I doubt your shield spell can hold off against a sustained barrage of plasma while everyone moves into position." The talon on Shining's shoulder tightened. "Stop with your self-pity and start acting like the leader I know you are, because no one gives a flying feather about your self-pity. We're at war here. Act like it."

The Captain snorted. Somehow, Ivan was right. "Getting told off by a subordinate. That's unusual. Since when did you self-censor?"

"Since your sister brained me with a book last week," the griffon responded, and the two males shared a small laugh. "Say, your sister's kind of cute. Mind if I..."

"Do it and I'll cut you up with planar shields," Shining Armor said jestfully. "Though I never took you for the kind who liked ponies."

Helplessly, the Sergeant shrugged. "I appreciate beauty in all its forms, my friend. Like your wife." He waggled his eyebrows.

"And for that you're on bathroom detail for a week."

"Darn. I could have used that time learning to shoot straight." The two men shared a look and laughed, louder this time.

"Carry on, Sergeant. I need to write my mission report."

Ivan stood up and saluted his Captain, turning to leave. "I’ll go settle the paperwork for the dead. You go rest up nice."

Shining nodded thankfully. “I owe you a drink, then. See you in the barracks?”

“You know it.” The griffon descended the ramp to the Skyranger, leaving the Captain alone by himself.

Alone with his thoughts.

The group of three entered the hangar bay and saw the Skyranger already on the ground, jets cooling and technicians running inspection on its systems. They saw orderlies carrying empty stretchers and filled body bags away, the two younger mares with some sadness and revulsion and the General with only resignation. And yet, no Shining Armor. Where would he...

“Twily!” Right out the back of the open Skyranger, a white unicorn stallion still wearing his combat armor plowed into the lavender unicorn mare, picking her up and hugging her so hard the General was legitimately worried he could never let go.

“You planned this, didn’t you?” she teased, returning the hug with equal force.

He shrugged, grinning widely. “Surprise hugs are the best hugs.” He nodded at Applejack with respect, and his jaw hit the ground when he saw the older stallion. “General Blueblood? Why’re you in XCOM?”

“I was convinced to lead our first and last line of defense against this alien threat by a very crafty mare,” the General replied with a wry grin. “I was bribed, too. Imagine that.”

“Princess Celestia is very persuasive,” Shining Armor smirked. “In any case, it’s good that you’re at the helm of XCOM. The mission to Manehattan went... poorly.”

“So I’ve heard.”

“I’ll have a full report written up for you by tomorrow, but suffice to say...” Shining Armor chewed on his lower lip, frowning. “The aliens improved from what we saw in the Codex.”

“I expected as such,” he replied with a sigh. “So, how is Cadence?”

“She’s our Chief Therapist here at First Light,” Twilight volunteered. “With the stress of combat, Princess Celestia thought that our operatives will probably need some psychological healing, and Cadence - sorry, Princess Cadence will be the first of them. We’ll probably get more as more operatives deploy here, though.”

General Blueblood frowned, and from the dirty look Shining Armor shot her, he knew that he wanted to keep it a secret.

“General,” Shining Armor pleaded, “I can explain --”

“No,” he replied sternly, “You don’t. What happened at your wedding was a concern and a regret on my part, but it is clear that it was due to the Changelings that you lapsed in your duties as Commander-in-Chief. After all,” he said more gently, wearing a grin, “You defended the Crystal Empire from Sombra for several weeks, did you not?”

“She helped,” Shining Armor admitted. “So... you aren’t angry that she’s here?”

“Angry? I’m thrilled. Cadence has a degree in psychology and as a race ponykind is inherently neurotic. She will do wonders for XCOM, I’m sure.”

“...Right. So!” Twilight said, clapping her hooves together in a bid to change the subject, “The next stop shall be the barracks, where the General can interact with his operatives! Shall we?”

“Please do. I’m still confused by this labyrinthian design. If Princess Celestia was trying to confuse my sense of direction, she has succeeded with more than flying colours.”

Shining Armor grunted in agreement and sympathy, and followed the group as they navigated their way through the tunnels and stairs.

“You’re going to be fine, Blackie. You’re going to be just fine, and you’re going to get back out there and make those aliens pay.”

The black coated pegasus breathed labouriously, muzzle covered with a mask that hissed with every breath. Below the waist he was completely covered in bandages, as was one of his wings. One of his eyes bloodshot, he hacked out a laugh. “You think so, Lt?”

She smiled, dark grey eyes becoming wet. “Yeah. I know so.” The prognosis was bleak. 4th degree burns on both legs and his one wing, and serious damage to his digestive and respiratory systems. Even with healing magic, he might never walk or fly again, much less fight.

“You’re crying for me, Lt? I’m... I’m touched.”

“Oh, this?” Firebird wiped away a tear and laughed, wiping it away on her almost-crimson coat. “This is for all the paperwork I have to file on your burned ass. Do you know how many I-3 forms I have to file because of you? In triplicate? Any more and I’ll have to grow a horn just to write faster.”

“I’m sorry for inconveniencing you, Lieutenant,” Black Moon replied, more sincere than she expected. He wheezed. “If I had... if I had just made the shot --”

“What happened, happened. We don’t dwell on it, we don’t blame anypony for it. We just tend to our wounded, bury our dead, and move on.” She smirked. “Come on, Blackie, we were in Spec Ops together. Don’t tell me you forgot already? Our first op?”

“The raid on Shaira Bloodletter’s compound? How could I...” He wheezed, more painfully than normal, “How could I forget? I nailed that shot good, d-didn’t I, Lieutenant?”

“Right between her ugly eyes,” Firebird grinned. “Darkbolt still owes us drinks for that.”

The two special forces operators shared a laugh. Specialist Darkbolt had died in Manehattan, and his body was currently cooling in the morgue.

“How’d... How’dya think of the Captain, Lt?”

She shrugged. “He’s alright. Has a cool head, knows how to fight unlike most of the Royal Guard, and is a pretty steady shot.”

“No... I meant how’dya think think... about the Captain, eh Lt?”

Firebird rolled her eyes and laughed. Even half-dead, Black Moon was trying to play matchmaker. “Sorry to burst your bubble, but he’s taken. And she’s on-site, in case you’re wondering,” she added. “Besides, he’s not my type.”

“I don... I don’t know, Lt. Honorable, kind and selfless? The image of... image of a Knight in Shining Armor? Mares love that, Lt.”

She grunted, tilting her head to and fro. “I can see the appeal,” she admitted, “But I’d rather you get out of that bed so we can go on that date I’ve been promising for months.”

“For... For real?” Behind the mask, Black Moon grinned as wide as he could manage. “I should... get a tux.”

Firebird chuckled, and batted her eyes at him. “Heal up first, handsome. I prefer my stallions fully mobile and wing-worthy.”

“I’ll try my best, then... Lieutenant.” He yawned softly, and Firebird tensed to avoid yawning as well. Why was it contagious? “S-Sorry, Lt, but I feel... a bit sleepy right now. I think I’ll... take a nap.”

She patted him twice on the good shoulder, called for a nurse and turned about to leave, her cutie mark of two crossed swords and a shield free for all to see.

“Oi,” one of the earth ponies in the security staff said to the other. “Watch the mare. She’s one of General Vanguard’s mares.”

The other, a unicorn, looked at the departing mare with a grin on his face. “The one with the nice flanks served the Mad Mare? Damn.”

“Exactly. Get the psychs to keep an eye on her. Captain Armor won’t like it if she goes to cut herself or something.”

Location: First Light, Crystal Mountains
Date: 5th Mayfly, 1006 PDE
Time: 13:01:32 (Canterlot Standard Time)

Dr. Twilight Sparkle entered the room, mane tied up into a bun and lab goggles strapped around her head, nodding to her research staff. “Hello, everypony. Where’re the alien artifacts?”

Dr. Frosty tilted his head at the table to the side, where two sectoid corpses were laying right now. Dead, motionless and filled with bullet holes, the big-eyed things that only reached up to a pony’s neck didn’t seem frightening at all. “You’re a bit late, Dr. Sparkle.”

“I’m sorry, I had to give the commander the tour. So!” She clapped her hooves together, grinning widely. “We have the fragments, we have their corpses, and we have their materials. And we have the probe?”

Frosty nodded. They had brought over the probe that crashed over a century ago. They never did ever finish recovering all the data. They simply lacked the means. But now, they might be able to recover more. “Teams are lined up and ready to go, Dr. Sparkle. Your orders?”

“I’ll take A-Team and look into the fragments.” She smiled, head tilted slightly askew. “Interesting how their weapons explode when they die, isn’t it? It’s a useful safety mechanism to prevent hostile recovery.”

“Interesting is one way to put it,” Frosty said glumly. “Might I suggest I look into the alien alloys with B-Team?”

Twilight grimaced, but nodded. “Alright, and we can assign C-Team to poking the probe and trying to recover any more intact data. But who’s going to handle autopsy?”

“Well, Dr. Butterfingers has expressed interest."

Twilight scrunched up her muzzle and looked strangely at the doctor.


"I'm not sure I feel comfortable leaving a delicate autopsy with a pony named 'Butterfingers'."

"He's the best in his field, though," Frosty explained. "Even in spite of his name. Can't imagine a unicorn with a steadier horn."

"Alright then, Dr. Frosty, I'll trust your better judgement." Goggles snapped around her eyes, and she grinned. "Let's do science."

XCOM Codex
Human Archives Entry One

Beginning Playback:

“There isn’t much time, so I must be quick. The Ethereals have won. Strike One and the Volunteer was unable to penetrate into the bridge of the Temple Ship, and all attempts at deploying additional units onto the Temple Ship have failed.

“However, we will not go quietly. Dr. Vahlen and the research teams have managed to recover and operate working examples of alien FTL drives. With luck, she and Dr. Shen will be able to construct and download everything pertaining to the Alien War into these probes. Our missions, our technologies... our warnings.

“To whoever that finds this, be warned: you are not alone. The Ethereals will come. Prepare yourselves.

“This is Central Officer Bradford, signing off for the last time. Vigilo Confido.”

Chapter Two: Burning Skies and the Fire Bird

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XCOM: Enemy Advanced

Burning Skies and The Fire Bird

Location: First Light, Crystal Mountains
Date: 8th Mayfly, 1006 PDE
Time: 19:52:08 (Canterlot Standard Time)

The six Bearers of Harmony sat together around a table, trays of food laid out in front of them. Dinnertime at XCOM was surprisingly edible, considering all the stories Shining Armor shared about rations, but not everypony was digging in. Applejack ate normally and Rainbow Dash dug in with gusto, but Rarity, Twilight and Fluttershy were still staring at their tray for the past ten minutes. Even Pinkie was just picking at her food, the only thing she ate being the cupcake that came with.

Applejack was the first one to notice, brow creased halfway through an apple. “You girls doin’ alright?”

“It’s nothing,” Fluttershy said reflexively, shying away from her farmpony friend. “Really, it’s nothing.”

“You sure?” Dash asked, head rested against her leg on the table. “You haven’t eaten at all. Rarity and Twilight, too. What gives?”

Rarity blinked, looking about with some confusion. “Hm? Oh! My apologies, Rainbow Dash, I was just… I was just thinking about the recent mission to Manehattan.” She smiled radiantly, but none reached her eyes. “Don’t you girls remember when I brought you there?”

Applejack nodded. “Ah don’t think the rest of the city’s destroyed, Rares. Just the shipyards.” She sighed, “What’s the real problem here, girls?”

“Ponies died out there,” Twilight said abruptly. “Lots of ponies, Applejack.”

“Hang on, Twi. You were fine just earlier today!”

“I didn’t think about it at the time, I was too busy being glad Shining was alive or excited at studying alien technology, but now that I have time to think I just…” She took a deep breath, and let it all out slowly. “It’s horrible. It has to be done or we’ll all be dead, but it’s horrible.”

“I tried to save those ponies,” Fluttershy said softly. “I saw how their insides fused and charred and cooked, and I couldn’t… I…” Tears welled up in her big blue eyes, and her lips quivered involuntarily. “I… It was horrible. It was too horrible. I… I couldn’t do anything. I just looked and -” Fluttershy nearly retched, but held it back in. Not that she had anything left inside her to throw up.

“Red Glare,” a deflated Pinkie said simply, without any of the life customary of a Pinkie Pie. “I was friends with Red Glare. And Truck. And Eli. And Darkbolt and Sharp and Dusk Shine and Steady and Kunta and Dawn. Good friends. We talked and laughed and partied and cried. And now they’re dead. Just… gone. No parties. No jokes. No hanging out. No nothing. Just like Granny Pie.” She sniffed. “It’s quieter, you know?”

It was. The carousing that was expected of a military mess hall was significantly softer today. The soldiers did their best to ignore it, but their absence was palpable. It was the silence that jarred most of all.

“Pinkie…” Dash reached out and touched Pinkie’s hoof with her own. “You still have us, you know that? We’re here for you. We’re here for all of us.”

“How do you two cope so well, though?” Rarity asked, half-melancholy and half-curious. “Such an event… How could anypony look past it?”

At that, both ponies shrugged in unison. “It hurts, Rarity,” Applejack said, “Ah knew those ponies too, and Ah was overseein’ the mission. Ah was responsible, and it hurts. But Ah can’t just lay around and mope, Ah’m Central Officer. All Ah can do is keep movin’ forward.”

Dash nodded, legs crossed, and continued. “It’s okay to cry, yanno? It’s hard. Not everypony’s strong enough to keep moving on after this. It’s alright to sit around and mope for a day or two, but the important thing is to get back up and keep going onward.”

The various ponies nodded in agreement and seemed to cheer up. Even Fluttershy looked more determined than before. They all knew what was at stake, Rainbow Dash knew. They just needed to be reminded a bit. Even Twilight needed help sometimes.

“Wise words,” Rarity smiled, then she frowned. “Too wise. Where did you hear them from, Rainbow Dash?”

The pegasus shrugged and grinned toothily. “My dad says this stuff all the time. Sometimes it’s pretty cool, sometimes it’s pretty uncool, but it’s usually right.” Her smile faded, and she looked up at where the sky was. “Wonder how he’s doing...”

Location: First Light, Crystal Mountains
Date: 12th Mayfly, 1006 PDE
Time: 09:42:54 (Canterlot Standard Time)

Hangar Bay One was massive; it had to be, because it was the one reserved for the Skyrangers and Cloudbarges, titanic engines of magic and technology, held aloft by a combination of telekinetic spell-engineering and flare-pattern hybrid vector jet engines enhanced by rune circuitry. Shining Armor, Ivan and Firebird all felt a bit lost amongst the sheer size of the uppermost level of XCOM, though they did not show it. “Remind me,” the Lieutenant spoke up, “Why are we here?”

“We’re welcoming the new operatives coming in to replace our losses in Manehattan,” the Captain responded joylessly. “From what the General told me, he pulled some favours and we’re getting units from the Eastern Front and Herakles.”

Nearly everyone that had been wounded in Manehattan was discharged, and it was with some guilt that he saw familiar faces board the Cloudbarges back to their homelands. Only Corporal Starlight was due for a full recovery, though Sergeant Black Moon was staying as an instructor, both at Firebird’s request and his prodigious skills with a gun. But he would never walk or fly again without a wheelchair.

At the mention of the Eastern Front, Firebird brightened. “Wonder if we’re getting anypony from the Special Forces,” she grinned hopefully. “Wouldn’t mind being in charge of Wet Blanket.”

“I’m reasonably sure that Lieutenant Rainy Day still does not appreciate that nickname,” General Blueblood said from right behind the three with a smirk, “But I’m willing to let that slide. Once.”

“Commander on deck!” Shining Armor called out, biting his lip too late. All over the cavernous hangar, technicians, security staff and discharged operatives alike dropped what they were doing and turned to the General with a salute. Ivan and Firebird, however, just looked at him with strange looks. He coughed, and smiled sheepishly. “Sorry.”

“At ease,” Blueblood barked, and activity resumed. “I want XCOM to be more about efficiency and less about ceremony, Captain. Even if it does inflate my ego in a satisfying manner.” He pondered for a moment. “Maybe on Sundays. You know, in celebration of Princess Celestia and her Sun.”

“Sorry, sir. Force of habit.” Shining averted his eyes and flushed red. Some things stayed after almost a decade as Guard Captain, like the meticulous process for ceremonies and traditional formations. Princess Celestia had decided the Royal Guard to be eye candy several centuries back, it seemed.

“So!” Ivan spoke up, breaking the awkward atmosphere. “General Blueblood, when should we expect our reinforcements?”

“They should be arriving within the hour. In fact...” General Blueblood looked at his watched and tapped a hoof impatiently. “They’re late. They should’ve been here ten minutes ago.”

“Maybe they got intercepted by UFOs,” Firebird offered in jest. “Would definitely be an ironic turn of events.”

Three pairs of eyes turned to her, in varying degrees of worry and annoyance. “What? I’m just saying. Those aliens have a sense for dramatic irony.”

Shining Armor spoke first. “While it would be morbidly funny, more likely they got hit up by rough weather. This far north, weather’s a bit... chaotic. In fact, head due west and we find Stalliongrad, land of the craziest weather in Equestria.”

“Always did want to work with a pony from Stalliongrad,” Ivan said. “They seemed the most fun of the Equestrian cities.”

“I know, right? I heard the stallions there are big, burly, wrestle bears for a living, have unshorn fetlocks... have deep, husky accents...”

“Lieutenant Firebird, you’re drooling on me. Do stop right now.”

Firebird leaned over to the other side and mumbled an apology, but was drowned out by the roar of jet engines. A Cloudbarge troop transport descended, held aloft by four self-correcting vector turbines and landing with a heavy lurch. A large ramp lowered, and the first operatives rolled out and formed up in front of the General.

He waved them down and stood at attention himself. “I am General Blueblood, Commander-in-Chief of the XCOM Project. The unicorn is Captain Shining Armor, your Field Commander. The griffon is Sergeant Ivan Sharpeyes, and the mare is Lieutenant Firebird. They will be your squad leaders for the foreseeable future.”

The unit of assorted races, consisting of just as many zebras, griffons and minotaurs as it did ponies, nodded in acknowledgement. General Blueblood was impressed. His favors did much more than recover losses. They might get a new Strike Team, at this rate.

He smiled. “Welcome to XCOM.”

"So, Doc, how's he doing?"

The zebrican shamaness looked up from her chart, nodding when she saw it was the Lieutenant. That was quick. The new soldiers had just arrived. "His condition is quite stable. He will be discharged in a day or two, if he is able."

Firebird nodded, allowing herself a small smile. "That's good. Thank you, Dr. Zecora." She grinned, head tilted slightly. "I never thought a shaman would ever wear a labcoat, much less become Chief of Medicine."

"With the fate of our world at stake, much of our traditions we must forsake." The striped shamaness smiled as well. "Just as well to use what I learned, than to hide away and be spurned."

"Heh.” Firebird smiled, looking at the sleeping Black Moon. “I always wonder how you and your fellow shaman can rhyme on a dime like that."

Years and years of training. But completely worth it, just to see the looks on everyone’s faces. "The knowledge of the past is a shaman's responsibility, among them the secrets of our lyrical ability." Zecora lowered her gaze at the Lieutenant knowingly. "Are the two of you close? He gets visited by you more than most."

"That was stretching it," Firebird chuckled, and then her smile faded slightly. "We've been in the same squad for almost eight years, Blackie and I. I don't know anyone with a steadier aim than him. Pony, griffon, minotaur, if it can shoot he's beat them and taken their money." She laughed softly. "Always asked him why he never got a markspony lanyard, but I guess he prefers the feel of a... thing." She tried miming an assault rifle with her hooves and blanched. "My visits aren't a problem, are they?"

"Do not worry, your visits won't end. Indeed, recovery accelerates if aided by a friend." Though that’s usually if the patient is awake to notice. But she need not hear that part.

"That's a relief." Firebird heard a beep, and checked her watch with a sigh. "Gotta go, Doc. Need to meet the new squad. If he wakes up later, tell him I said hi."

Zecora, for her part, smiled in sympathy. "I'll be sure to tell him, my deep orange friend. So go along now, and make this war end."

The Field Commander’s office was spartan, though it was not shabby by any stretch of the imagination. It had only a single cupboard, his table, and a potted plant he called Planty, but it still looked worthy of an officer of XCOM. He liked it that way. Kept from extraneous distractions while keeping it respectable. It also presented an intimidating presence during interviews.

"So," Shining Armor said, forelegs rested on the table surface. "Sergeant Iron Hoof, was it?"

The towering peach earth pony nodded, still as a rock on the chair. "Da, Captain Armor, Staff Sergeant Iron Hoof. Served in Stalliongrad Garrison, 2nd Red Guard Battalion."

"A Red Guard?" Shining Armor whistled. Those rarely left Stalliongrad. "How were the weekly hailstorms, dragon attacks, diamond dog raids and griffon warlord sieges?"

Iron Hoof shrugged. "Could be worse. Could have fought without trusty machine gun. Could have fought without fellow comrades. Could have fought while half-frozen and starving." He paused. "Actually, last one happened. Was bad week."

Well, at least he knew General Loshad wasn't throwing them the undesirables. Only an authentic Red Guard could give no fucks about being in one of the most hostile cities within Equestria. "So why did you join XCOM?"

"Aliens attacked home, Captain. Lots of ponies died." Almost imperceptibly, he saw his eyes narrow. "Baby sister was killed. Little filly, only eleven years. Had nothing else left, so joined XCOM." He shrugged. "Not only Stalliongrad militiapony to come, Captain. There were others."

"I'm aware. I brought you in for a special reason." Mostly because Iron Hoof was the only Red Guard so far. He leaned forward, forehooves tented. "I want to put you as Squad Leader of the Heavy Ordnance squad, Strike Three. Interested?"

Iron Hoof nodded impassionately. "Da, Captain."

The Field Commander smiled and extended a hoof. "Then I'm putting you as Squad Leader once we shake on it. Last chance to back out, Sergeant."

Without hesitation, the Sergeant met it with his own hoof. "I will rise up to challenge, Captain." Idly, Shining Armor noted that his fetlocks were unshorn. Firebird was going to go wild over Iron Hoof, he was sure.

Shining Armor grinned. "Then let's introduce you to your squad, Strike Three-Actual."

Location: First Light, Crystal Mountains
Date: 18th Mayfly, 1006 PDE
Time: 04:13:03 (Canterlot Standard Time)

Warning klaxons blazed through First Light, and red warning lights flashed all over the underground base. General Blueblood stifled a yawn as he stepped onto the Operations Deck, gesturing the technicians to ease as they all snapped a salute. “What’s the situation, Central?”

Applejack nodded, seemig unaffected at all by the sudden contact. Damn earth ponies and their ridiculous endurance. “Storm Squadron is ready for launch on your command, General.” She cocked an eyebrow. “Been up late again?”

Blueblood nodded blearily and picked up a mic. “Storm Leader, this is Azure High.” He smirked. Being commander had its perks. Like having the fancy callsigns. “Give me a sitrep, Flight Captain.”

The speakers crackled with static before a voice responded. “Azure High, this is Storm Leader. All wings accounted for, and we’re ready to kick some ugly alien flank.”

The Flight Captain was enthusiastic, at least. “Acknowledged, Storm Leader, sit tight.” The mic clicked and buzzed, switching channels to another waiting radio. "Blue Thunder, how're the other birds doing?"

Talon's getting ready and Skyrangers prepped, General, and Storm Squadron's yours for the moment," Rainbow Dash responded tacitly. "Take care of them, alright? I would be with them, but... you know."

"You and me both, Commander," Blueblood nodded in empathy. "Excellent work. Strike One-Actual, are your operatives ready?”

“Strike One, Two, Four and Six will be on the Skyrangers in five minutes, sir. Making final equipment checks.”

“Excellent. Skyrangers will be headed out and trailing the Stormclouds five clicks away for fast response. Azure High, out.” The radio clicked again. “Storm Squadron, your mission is to shoot down a UFO sighted over the Crystal Empire. Preferably the UFO should crash far from the city itself, but do everything you can to shoot it down.”

“Roger that, General. We’ll take it down, we’ll do it in ten seconds flat, and we’ll be back in time for a nap and breakfast.”

The General smiled softly. The crazy old buck would be proud. “Don’t make promises you can’t make, Commander. Initiate launch sequence.”

The caverns First Light was built into rumbled as seven sets of engines roared to life and shot off into the midnight. All eyes turned to the hologlobe as the icons of Storm Squadron raced over the globe at breakneck, homing in on the UFO moving erratically over the Crystal Empire.

“This is Storm Leader,” the radio chirped as the icons converged, “UFO is engaged, repeat, UFO is engaged.”

Storm Squadron moved into position about five hundred meters from the UFO. Even with the low visibility it looked like the other one downed just over a week back; a flat disk with translucent bubbles located at four arbitrary corners of the craft, moving with no identifiable propulsion system, navigation system or even windows. If the ponies didn’t know better, this craft was just waiting to crash and burn.

Flight Captain Lightning Dust looked at the purple form, and took a deep breath. Alright, Dust, you can do this. You’ve trained for this. You’ve run the sims. You’ve done the training flights. You’ve even done flights with the Griffons and Equestria’s aces. It may be nighttime, but you can take down a wimpy little UFO.

She tapped on a rune with a hoof, subtly refining engine thrust on the vector-engine craft. “Alright, Storm, wide spread, three K. We don’t want to get shredded by plasma fire.”

The other pilots sounded their acknowledgement when her sensors peaked. Instincts roared and she banked hard left, just barely dodging a bolt of plasma streaking out and singed the heat shielding. She barely had time to react as more bolts of plasma shot out from the featureless hull in all directions. Dammit, the last one didn’t do that. “Evasive maneuvers! Weapons live, Storm! Engage!”

She thanked the pony that devised the Neural Harness and spun left in a barrel roll, the g-forces she was so used to kicking the cyan mare back into her straps with a grunt. Another tap of the hoof, and she established long-ranged radio transmissions. “This is Storm Leader. UFO is engaged, repeat, UFO is engaged.”

“Acknowledged, Storm Leader. Skies are clear of weather teams and civilian flyers. Keep an eye on the sensors and good hunting.”

“Roger that.” The sensors pinged, and through the night sky she saw the UFO swung around in a ninety-degree turn and headed straight for her, showing no regard for the laws of physics. “Darn it, it’s on me! Storm, form up and engage!”

“Hang tight, Leader. Lining up shots.” Dust banked hard right away from another plasma bolt and ran straight at the UFO, priming every last one of her missiles and locking targets. The UFO wants to play ball? She’ll play ball! She’ll play all the ball!

The radio spiked with a mangle of static and sound, and Dust nearly shook her helmet off like a wet dog. What in the world...

In stark contrast to the midnight blue skies of night, orange yellow flowers like the sunrise bloomed against the UFO’s hull one after another in quick succession, growing in brilliance as Sunburst after Sunburst impacted against the UFO’s hull. Dust pulled up and over the UFO, diving and rolling to right herself behind the disk-shaped craft.

“Storm,” the radio buzzed, “this is Central. We’re readin’ four hits and two misses on the UFO. Hull’s still holdin’, everypony, but keep at it! It’s gotta go down sometime!”

“Acknowledged, Central. Moving in for the kill!” As she said so, she fired a missile at the UFO and struck it dead on, another confirmed hit on the UFO. And yet, it was still trucking on, and swung down low to the left. How could something that’s been hit so many times by something so destructive be so fast?

Aliens cheat. That’s the only conclusion. She trailed after and fired off another missile, hoping that the Sunburst would live up to its name. The rest of Storm fired as well, bolts of orange streaking and connecting with the hull. To Lightning’s irritation, the thing was still intact.

It pulled up suddenly, and Dust saw that the ground below was growing bigger worryingly quick. “Pull! Pull! Pull!” she heard Storm Two screech, and all seven craft pulled back hard, fighting momentum and firing afterburners to not end up as tree paint. they rolled and weaved, trying to bleed off speed, eyes glued to sensors to locate the UFO around them.

“Storm, watch out! The UFO is--”

The purple alien disc came screaming in, plasma cannons firing. Dust suppressed a scream as she felt burns on her lower belly, a small price to pay for the deep connection a neural harness granted. Storm Squadron peeled off from the UFO and each other, each plane finding a separate piece of sky to hide in as soon as they could.

“Storm, damage report!”

“Storm Four, left wing got clipped. Still flight-worthy, Leader.”

“Storm Seven here. Lost power to an engine, but still in the air and raring to go!”

Storm Two, Three and Six responded with superficial heat shield damage, and Dust frowned at the missing one. Well, that wasn't good. “I don’t see Five on the sensor net. Where is he?”

“This is Two, Leader. Five got shot down, but I saw a chute open.”

Dust heaved a sigh in relief. She wasn’t about to let ponies under her command die. Looked horrible on her record. “Central, did you catch that?”

“Skyrangers on approach notified, Leader, and recovery beacon’s noted. We’ll get him.” Hesitation filled the air, almost palpable. “Storm Leader, your frame’s lookin' mighty unsteady, over.”

“Yeah, I feel it. Checking instruments.” Dust took a peek, and shrugged. “It’s fine, Central. Just clipped the wings a bit. We’ll live.”

“Acknowledged, Storm Leader, but take care. Pilots ain’t easy to replace.”

“I read you, Centra--” She saw a shadow pass over her, and she looked up to see the UFO, just waiting for a pot shot. She even saw the damn things smoking and the glowing section of the hull. “Hold that thought, Central, just gotta make this last shot...”

It was almost dead, and one good missile would do it in. Just to be safe, she painted it for a simultaneous multi-missile strike and fired all her missiles, five bolts of orange landing direct hits in three salvos. The UFO hull section blew open and the ship descended, almost like a frisbee on its last legs. “This is Storm Leader. UFO is down, repeat, UFO is down, somewhere in the woods northwest of the Crystal Empire.”

“Acknowledged, Storm Leader. Excellent work. Pull back and let Talon Squadron take patrol duty over that airspace. You’ve earned a break.”

“Roger that,” the pegasus said with a grin. “Storm, we’re going home. Drinks are on me!”

Location: UFO Crash Site, Gemstone Woods
Date: 18th Mayfly, 1006 PDE
Time: 04:31:18 (Canterlot Standard Time)

“Strike One-Actual, this is Talon Leader. We’ll be providing air cover for this mission, in case the aliens try that stunt in Manehattan again.”

“Acknowledged, Talon Leader, and thank you.” Shining Armor switched channels as the squad pulled down their goggles and Strike Two took to the sky. “Azure High, this is Strike One-Actual. Strike Teams are touched down and moving in to secure the UFO.”

“Acknowledged, One-Actual. Best of luck, and use the trees for cover.”

“Don’t have to tell me twice,” Shining Armor grinned, and pulsed the channels again. “Strike Teams, this is One-Actual. Strike Two heads to the sky and provides air cover. Strike Six, hang back and get a good angle. You are authorised to go high, if you need to. Strike Four, stick to the woods by the northern side. Strike One, we’re sticking to the woods south of the crash site. Let’s do this quick and tidy, kids. I don’t want to be caught like the last time. Clear?”

“One-Actual, this is Six-Actual. Advise that Strike Six gets into the woods as well. There’s no telling if the aliens have night vision, but we should assume so.”

Shining Armor clicked his tongue. He didn’t think that Strike Six would be within visual range of the alien crew, but safety was paramount. “Good catch, Ivan. Arrange your squad as you see fit. More questions?”

“One-Actual, this is Two. Suggest that we go up high and hit the UFO from above.”

“Negative, Two-Actual. Risk is too great. You’ll get shot down by the Recovery, and we both know it’s coming. Stick to the plan, Firebird. Anypony else?”

The radios fell silent. “Good. All units, move out. And conserve your explosives; we want something to bring back and study.”

Location: First Light, Crystal Mountains
Date: 18th Mayfly, 1006 PDE
Time: 04: 52:18 (Canterlot Standard Time)

“Recovery beacon located, Azure High. Recovery One going in.”

“Acknowledged, Recovery One. Good work. Now get back to base.” The General turned around as he heard a pony approaching the CiC, and nodded in recognition at the mare taking the stairs up. “Good morning, Twilight Sparkle. The ground mission is going underway.”

The haggard unicorn blinked and yawned, showing no regard for etiquette in the CiC. “That’s good then, General. How’s it going?”


“Azure High, this is Talon Leader. Recovery UFO sighted. Engaging.”

“--better than expected, all things considered,” General Blueblood mused, and picked up the mic. “Talon Leader, this is Azure High. You are authorised to use the Night Haunter. Make it count; we’re only authorised to give one a mission.”

“Roger roger, Azure High. Priming all missiles.”

“Central,” he continued without a hitch, “Get Strike Three and Five up and running. I want them on their Skyrangers in ten. We’ll advise from there.”

“Aye,” Applejack waved from the other side of the CiC, and began conversing actively with the technicians beside her.

Twilight blinked. “You sure about this? Detonating that over the crash site...”

“They’ll be out of range, and we’ll have a team come over to purify the taint.” Blueblood frowned, and wrinkled his snout. “I don’t like this.”

“Using the Haunter?”

“No, I love that. It’s the ground mission. It’s going too... well.” He picked up the mic again. “All units, this is General Blueblood. Stay low and within tree cover. We have a recovery UFO moving in. Clear it quick, people.”

“Acknowledged, Azure High. Moving to the woods.”

All the same, Blueblood sighed. He had a hunch, and it was ominous. “Somepony get me another cup of coffee.”

“Sir, you still have your first cup.”

“Make that a full pot. Black, no sugar, no milk.” He huffed. “I’m going to need it strong.

A recovery UFO had arrived, and so Strike Two had to make adjustments to the usual plan. They went within the trees, making use of the dense foliage as cover. The darkness of the woods was a problem, but with their night vision goggles seeing anything wasn’t as much of a risk.

“This is Six-Actual. Taking out the Outsider.”

Far behind the other three Strike Teams, Strike Six waited, three long barrelled sniper rifles poised at the Outsider. Going first, Sergeant Ivan held his breath, adjusted for wind speed and pulled the trigger. The rifle kicked him in the shoulder, and the heavy bullet passed right through the Outsider’s head. Its form shimmered and flickered, before collapsing back into a cracked crystal core.

Firebird heaved a sigh of relief. A single Outsider annihilated most of Strike One and crippled Black Moon. Damn Sectoid hit him in the wing at the last moment. “This is Two-Actual. We have confirmation that the Outsider is down, repeat, Outsider is down. Four, move in.”

“Four-Actual, moving in.” Strike Four was an oddity among the units. While all of them made use of concealment and basic stealth in their operations, Strike Four specialised in being the sneakiest things that ever lived. More at home in the dark than in the light, Four seemed the perfect unit for night ops. Though what would be more perfect was if they had remote gun drones. Wouldn’t need to worry about losses on a breach, in that case.

Nevertheless, nowhere was this more apparent than when they flowed through the darkness like water through a river, completely soundlessly and with no indication that they moved. At least, to the untrained eye. Firebird saw them clearly.

The Strike Teams had been given the usual lecture on the viability of not using explosives on the aliens by the research team, and the Captain had promptly told them to ignore absolutely everything unless you were that certain in your shot. Strike Four, however, had taken it to heart, and took out the four remaining sectoids mulling about in confusion with coordinated bursts of rifle fire. “Strike Four, sectoids neutralised. Site clear, One-Actual, repeat, site clear.”

Negative, Strike Four,” was the reply, “We have one more signature inside the UFO itself. Hold position, we’re headed your way.”

Firebird cursed. What was it, another sectoid cowering within the wreck? “One-Actual, permission to breach.”

“Negative, Strike One breaches. Provide support.”

“Then permission to move from the trees into the sky. We don’t have a good angle from here.”

“...Very well. Move, but quickly. I just got word from Azure High. The recovery UFO goes down soon and all units are to aid Strike Three and Five in securing that as well.” At that, the Lieutenant frowned. All six Strike Teams deployed? That seemed a bit excessive, not to mention that if another UFO arrived while they were recuperating, there would be nopony able to intercept. The best they could hope for was utterly destroying the UFO, and that was a hard thing to do.

A loud wham echoed from the east, and the trees bent the opposite direction as the shadows of an arcano-nuclear strike fell over all present. Was that a Night Haunter? Bah, nevermind. “Strike Two, move out. Strike One, please hurry.”

“Strike One, in position. Guns loaded and ready to rock.”

“Strike One, Two is in position. Brea--”

The screen popped and an Outsider ran out at breakneck speed, sliding into the woodland cover just as it fired off a burst at Strike Two. They went wide, dodging as quick as they could.

The bolts connected.

One form exploded outright as a bolt cored him through the chest, and the griffon crashed to the ground lifeless and glassy-eyed. Two next to him screamed and crashed as well, both from the intense radiant heat and the bolts that cut through their wings, vaporising bits of wing in a puff of smoke and igniting the rest. Lieutenant Firebird twisted to the side like a top, bolt passing right past her, and she made the folly of taking a breath at the same moment.

The air burned within her lungs just as it burned her chest and neck and legs, threatening to cook her like a turkey over an open flame. She could scarcely scream as her wings locked up from shock and she crashed onto her legs improperly, breaking one knee as she coughed and hacked weakly, trying to force the burning air out of her lungs. The damage had been done, and her breaths grew shallower and shallower. It was like somepony lit a firecracker and stuck it down her throat, and then set her on fire for good measure.

“Strike Two got shot! Strike Two go shot!”

“Grenades, grenades! Throw your grenades!” The woods exploded, and a trio of trees were torn apart as six grenades found their mark, ripping the Outsider apart in a show of excessive ordnance.

“Azure High, this is Strike One-Actual! Strike Two is--”

All sound fused together into a single infuriating droning ring, and Firebird wheezed painfully. Every breath felt like being burned by plasma again, and she swore she smelled cooked meat. That was revolting in the best of times, and now it was piss-pants terrifying.

...Yep, it definitely was. She has lost bowel control. This literally could not get worse. She felt the rims of her vision narrow with every passing moment, and the monochrome colours of the night vision goggles were starting to melt together into some strange haze of gray.

Before she knew it, she was looking at the back of her eyelids. No, dammit, stay awake! Force them open! You can’t... You can’t die like this! Not like... Not... Not like...

And Firebird was gone.

XCOM Codex
F-04 ‘Thundercloud’ Interceptor

The F-04 ‘Thundercloud’ is a single-seat, twin-engine supersonic supermaneuverable fighter aircraft. Designed primarily as an air superiority fighter, it also has other capabilities including providing close air support as well as signals intelligence. The Thundercloud was designed by the brightest minds of Equestria and Aerie Peak five years ago (1001 PDE), and to this date has remained the finest fighter craft in the world yet designed.

The Thundercloud is notable in that, instead of relying on analogue controls like its predecessor the F--03 ‘Stormbolt’, the Thundercloud is operated instead by the Mind-Machine Interface Uplink devised by Dr. Firefly, more commonly known as the Neural Harness. Pilots wear a specialised flight suit which links up to the craft’s systems, allowing pilots to essentially ‘become’ the plane for the duration of the uplink. While using a Neural Harness, pilots tend to be laying down, a position that helps in ‘tricking’ the mind that the pilot is, in fact, naturally flying and not moving at supersonic speed.

Though the Neural Harness, it becomes possible for flight experts of the pegasi or griffon races to rely and use the instincts they have developed on the ground as a pilot, effectively shortening pilot training for most as well as heightening the potential capabilities a pilot can achieve, assuming an adjustment period with the newfound capabilities of a supersonic fighter jet was passed. Certain key functions, such as communications and weapons remain hoof controlled, and as such the forelegs of the pilot remain free to move about during flight, though they may be curled up and secured if so wished. With the responsiveness and control granted by the Neural Harness, a single Thundercloud flown by a decent pilot is often the match of an entire squadron of Stormbolt fighter craft.

The Thundercloud is a remarkably durable plane, designed to remain flyable even after an entire wing and half of another wing have been destroyed. Advanced thaumaturgical composites and alloys built into the hull allow for a stronger, yet lighter airframe that becomes both faster and more agile in the sky. A single Thundercloud is also capable of carrying up to twelve missiles, six of them internally, or a full payload of eight bombs, four internally. Advanced avionic systems aid a pilot during flight, making the many minor corrections a pilot would be doing during natural flight subconsciously, and providing sensor data to the pilot through the neural link. Such an intimate connection with the plane, combined with the design and structure of the craft, makes the Thundercloud ideal for XCOM’s operations.

Chapter Three: Short Breath to Ruminate

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XCOM: Enemy Advanced

Short Breath To Ruminate

Location: First Light, Crystal Mountains
Date: 18th Mayfly, 1006 PDE
Time: 14:22:09 (Canterlot Standard Time)

In the under levels of the medical bay, the finest instruments of medical aid were crafted and stored. Combining Zebrican alchemy, Equestrian crystaltech, Minotaur design and Griffon metallurgy, the results were more often than not highly experimental and untested on living subjects of any kind. Within the hibernation chambers, one such example of this technology was up for display, the light emanating from the long cylinder casting long shadows behind the two ponies looking at it.

“So,” Shining Armor sighed, eyes haggard and shoulders slumped. “How’s she doing?”

“She’s in stasis right now,” Fluttershy responded, pointing up at the floating dark orange pegasus, currently suspended in a tube of green fluid. “Her lungs were badly damaged, she has multiple organ failures, and her legs probably need amputation.” The Element of Kindness tensed for a moment, then turned to the Captain, eyes frowned in concern. “Are you okay, Shining?”

“I’m fine. The mission went better this time. We only lost two ponies.” He sighed. ‘Only’ two was still two too many. “She was a good soldier, Fluttershy. Why did it happen to her?”

“Bad things happen to good ponies, sometimes,” Fluttershy said sadly. “At least we managed to save her. We might be able to revive her in the future.”

“But she won’t be fit for ground ops,” Shining frowned. “And while I don’t doubt that she’ll make a good pilot, losing somepony skilled as her is still a hard blow.” The serious impacts it would have on her daily life went unsaid.

“Unless we can put her back together!” Pinkie Pie said cheerily in between the two, just loud enough to shock both the Captain and the Doctor. “We have the technology! Better, stronger, faster! The first bionic pony! And then she’ll be healthy again and kick those meanie aliens in the face!”

“Uhm…” Fluttershy took a step back from her perilously pink pony pal, eyebrow raise in concern. “Okay…?”

Shining Armor shook his head and sighed. “We don’t have the technology, Pinkie. I wish we did. As it stands, the best we can do is keep her alive until we find out how to keep her from asphyxiating in a minute or two.”

"I'm sure Twilight can figure something out," Pinkie offered hopefully.

"Well, I don't doubt that," he said proudly, "But the question isn't 'if', but 'when'. We don't have lot of time."

Fluttershy nodded sadly, and spoke up. "Well, right now I'm just glad to help Lieutenant Firebird. She's... nice. And I'm sure Sgt. Moon is happy that she's alive."

Ah, how could he forget about Black Moon. He sent his regards when Firebird went to visit, but he had not visited him personally yet. There was just so much to do, he lost track of time. Which was still bad, because not only should he have visited one of his best rifleponies, he seemed like a friendly guy. "I'll tell him. He deserves to know from me."

"Oh, I told him already." Pinkie blinked, and blinked again, and then the implications struck her. "Oh, um, whoops? Sorry, Shiny."

The Captain sighed. That mare was so social it hurt. "It's alright, Pinkie, I'll visit him anyway. Maybe even let him come down here to visit."

"That sounds very nice of you, Captain," Fluttershy agreed. "I'm sure he'll appreciate it."

"He'll appreciate new legs and a wing," he grunted. "This is just a stopgap."

"You know, I saw them unloading canisters of orange goo from the Cloudbarges," Pinkie mentioned with a grin.

Shining flopped his ears. "Orange goo?"

"What do you think that is? My bits are on alien snacks. Because all this flying must make them hungry!”

Shining frowned and looked back at Firebird floating in the tube. Orange goo canisters, huh? That might just work. Twiley just had to do her magic on it. And she was the most magical unicorn in all Equestria.

“Good afternoon, everypony.” The heavy canister landed on the table with a noticeable thud, catching the attentions of everypony in the research labs. Their Head Researcher was clearly a lot more determined than usual. “I brought something I think all of you will appreciate.”

“The… one canister, Dr. Sparkle?”

“Custodians are bringing the other canisters in, and I’ve given it the once-over.” Twilight nodded resolutely, and grinned like a madmare. “It’s Meld.”

Dr. Frosty dropped the pen in his mouth, letting it fall open. “Meld. My stars.”

“Alright,” Twilight said, clapping her hooves together, “We all know what it does, but have a short recap: It’s a suspension of billions of nanomachines with both organic and mechanical components, and we can use it to combine different organic materials or assemble mechanical components near-perfectly and with great efficiency or seamlessly integrate organic matter with cybernetic prosthetics. This means no nerve-reattachment, no rejection rate, low chances of infection and a vastly shortened recovery time. So, C-Team, I’m moving you onto Meld. The Probe can wait.”

“Dr. Sparkle,” began Dr. Steeleye, a rare griffon scientist who oddly enough didn’t have an eyepatch. “While we’re thrilled to study the applications of Meld, we feel that we’re making good progress with the probe banks.”

“We can always study the archives later,” Twilight responded. “But the sooner we figure out how to use these nanomachines, the sooner we can get good ponies back into the fight, to say nothing of the potential future applications.”

“If you think so, Dr. Sparkle,” Steeleye replied, allowing himself a small grin. “We’ll figure this out, though it’ll take longer considering we have four races to consider, on top of the three subspecies of pony.”

“Focus on the pegasus genome first, then the griffon one,” Twilight instructed. It seemed logical; Strike Two was consisted entirely of pegasi and griffons, and both Firebird and Black Moon were pegasi. Both were also former Equestrian Special Forces, which meant that the sooner they got back out the better. And with stasis still being rather new technology, there was no telling how long she could last inside. The theory states indefinitely, but theory was theory for a reason.

“We will begin immediately,” Steeleye nodded. “We should have results within two weeks, and working prototypes in three.”

General Blueblood stood in the middle of a room covered in screens, from the ones on the rows of terminals behind him to the giant one that covered the entire wall he currently faced with the two alicorn diarchs in the throne room, expressions even. One could see that even a month after the attack, Princess Celestia had not recovered and was still covered in bandages.

“Princesses,” the General said respectfully, raising a leg in salute. Luna waved him down, and he continued. “Thus far, the missions have been successful. Three UFOs captured, with a minimum of civilians killed and property damaged. As we speak, the labs are studying the artifacts the operatives on the ground have recovered.”

“Excellent work, Blueblood,” Celestia said with a warm smile, “I knew you were up to the task. How are your staff?”

“Professional and respectful of the chain of command, as I like it. Though...” He frowned. “Princess Celestia, why did you let the Bearers into XCOM? They’re civilians. They have no place on the battlefield, let alone one against such a superior foe.”

“They wished to lend their aid to the effort, General,” Celestia responded, “And I know that if the six of them worked together, anything is possible. Perhaps even defeating such a dire threat.”

“However,” Princess Luna continued, “The real reason is because First Light is the safest place against this alien threat. Behind all that stone and metal and your trained operatives, there is no place better to hide the Bearers during this time of crisis. It was fortuitous that they volunteered, and we were able to put them in positions where their talents are best suited.” The Princess of the Night winced slightly, possibly at a memory. “Some we struggled with more than others.”

“So on top of fighting an overwhelming extraterrestrial threat I have to play Guardspony for the six Bearers, thus sending my stress levels higher than ever.” The General sighed. “This is going to do wonders for my complexion, I can tell.”

“Not quite, General,” Celestia said, eyes hardening slightly. “While it is true that they are not trained for the horrors of war, their talents in their fields cannot be denied. Has Twilight Sparkle not been an effective Head of Research? Has Applejack not aided you in handling XCOM’s affairs? Has Fluttershy not been performing to standard in tending to the injured?”

“They have done admirably, I must admit, but...” Blueblood frowned. Arguing against this was hard. “Why in such important positions? Why not a position that appears important, but has no actual impact in the running of XCOM?”

“Because they have potential to be great, General. They only require the experience. The Elements of Harmony will bring out this potential to the fore, and allow them to become exemplary in the ways they should. I know that if you were to give them a chance, they will surprise you. After all,” she grinned deviously, “Have they not been performing up to standard?”

“I suppose everypony deserves a chance,” Blueblood grumbled. “And I have been impressed by Twilight Sparkle and Applejack in their functions. I will grant them a chance.”

“But,” Luna added, “It is paramount that they do not go into the line of fire. The risk posed to their lives is unacceptable.”

“So I’ve gathered, though the only one troubled by this is the Flight Commander.” He sighed in empathy with the young mare’s plight. “She’s far too important to be flying interception missions, even though it is the one thing she wanted to do most after joining XCOM. A feeling I know all too well.”

“A small price to pay for such a great honor. General. You must convince her of this.”

“She understands perfectly. Does not make her any less unhappy.” Eyes narrow, and the General scowls. “I’ve gotten the details from Captain Spitfire. I don’t much like Flight Captain Dust.”

Princess Luna raised an eyebrow. “And you intend to remove her?”

“No. It would be a waste of a good pilot. But I might consider putting the Captain’s life into her hooves. Just as a favor to Colonel Blitz.” The General tilted his head. “Speaking of which, how about the other bases?”

“A base in Herakles should open up by the middle of Junebug,” Celestia replied. “I believe the Golden Bull wishes to name it...” She sighed, and put her face into her bandaged hooves. “He wants to call it Pump Iron. And before you ask, you heard it right.”

“...Well, his muscles didn’t come from nowhere.”

“Sometimes I feel that his brain muscled as well,” Luna sighed. “Of all the things to stay the same, it had to be the bipedal buffoon. But no matter. If it truly troubles you that much, I can arrange the bureaucracy.”

“No need. If the Flight Commander has that much trouble, she can bring it up herself.”

“Keep in mind your position, General. We cannot coddle her, even if we wished to.”

“Indeed.” Blueblood frowned, though his face told it was for a different matter. “How does my son fare?”

“He has been throwing himself into training ever since your ‘death’ was reported,” Celestia said, tone mildly worried. “I think he feels that if he didn’t squander his talents, you wouldn’t be... ‘dead’.”

“I couldn’t care less,” Blueblood spat. “He already squandered his talents on parties and merriment before all this happened. I have no doubt that if he had applied himself he would be in XCOM by my side, but as it stands I could care less about his plight. This is but a phase for him. He will tire and move back into his old lifestyle soon, especially now that my estates in Trottingham would pass onto him.” Blueblood sighed, and seemed to only get angrier. “And now he’s going to wreck my lodgings by the waterfall. I did so like the view. It made me happy on the inside.”

Luna and Celestia could only look at him, completely aghast at his words. “And I thought my sister was hateful,” Luna said flatly.

“I’m right here, Luna,” Celestia grumbled, glaring at Luna with her one exposed eye.

“I know. That’s why I said it. After a thousand years, why was the only holiday in my name the one where ponies scare each other and give me candy to keep me from eating their foals?”

“Oh, you love that holiday.”

“...Perhaps I do,” Luna admitted sheepishly, “But I would love it more if the ponies saw me as a figure to be loved, not feared. It was only last year that they stopped screaming whenever I showed up.”

“Through my efforts as we--” Celestia scowled. “We have gone off-topic. My apologies, General.”

“No, it’s fine. I’ll just be here, grateful that I was an only child. Now,” he said, gaze lowered. “While it is a bit early, I do have a favour to ask...”

Location: First Light, Crystal Mountains
Date: 18th Mayfly, 1006 PDE
Time: 18:42:53 (Canterlot Standard Time)

The Office of Recruitment and Relations was hard at work, discussing matters of transfers and compensation. XCOM was a secret organisation - so secret that everyone who joined either had their deaths staged or are officially missing - but it still needed to have good relations with the governments and organisations of the world.

XCOM was, ultimately, a multinational effort, and to keep it from tearing itself apart it needed a strong, diplomatic staff to facilitate interaction, cover up mistakes and ensure a steady supply of things such as intel, authority, assets and, naturally, personnel. To that end, it was the most diverse of First Light’s already-diverse branches with staff from all over Mundus, including minotaurs, zebras, ponies of all kinds and the odd griffon that preferred the pen to the poleaxe.

Naturally, due to Celestia’s ‘persuasions’, the Element of Generosity ran Recruitment and Relations in First Light. Effectively, for now at least, she was the first and last word on XCOM’s interactions with the outside world. And it was safe to say that, despite her own generous and shrewd demeanour being perfect for the job, she was overwhelmed.

Glasses worn, mane unkempt and brows furrowed, Rarity tackled the latest bit of paperwork when three knocks on the door came. She jumped, straightened her mane by reflex, and cleared her throat. “Come in,” she said politely, forehooves folded.

General Blueblood slided in, the sleeves of his shirt rolled up and leaving much of his forelegs bare. “I hope I’m not intruding, Lady Rarity.”

She chuckled merrily; she did so like that the General referred to her as ‘lady’. Nothing like his son the brute. “Not at all, General. Is there something I can help you with?”

“I need you to send out a few letters to some special friends of mine,” he said evenly, with a soft, tired smile. “I’m sure you’ve heard of the recent mission by now.”

“Indeed,” the lady responded, melancholy seeping into her tone. “What happened with Strike Two was a tragedy. I never knew Lieutenant Firebird well, but she reminded me of Rainbow Dash.” Crass, headstrong, stubborn, with a soft caring center? Why, if she were blue they might be long-lost sisters. Wouldn't that be delightfully dramatic?

“I can see the similarities,” he agreed, and produced four envelopes ensnared in his soft blue aura. “Now, these letters are to be addressed to General Stormcrow, Praetor Jochim, General Ironbeak and Colonel Suwadu.”

Rarity frowned as she received them, and laid them out neatly. “More transfer requests? I’ve already sent the requests, General.” If all went to plan, XCOM would have over sixty operatives by the end of Junebug.

He shook his head. “These aren’t recruitment letters. Not the ones you think, anyway. These individuals are potential commanders themselves. I’m sure that the Council has already shortlisted them, but I know these people.” Blueblood shrugged. “Maybe they’ll listen, maybe not. We’ll see.”

She looked at the letters, eyes narrowed. “You think that your persuasion will convince these ponies--sorry, people joining XCOM is the right choice? Even though they had the same opinion of it that you did?”

“...How did you know that?” Blueblood asked, impressed.

“I’ve read up on the shortlisted,” she winked. “If I am to eventually conference with them, I should at least get to know them. Since I can’t quite invite them out for a spa session, their psychological profiles will have to do.”

“Impressive,” Blueblood smiled, meaning every word. “Well, Director, I’m sure they’ll come around eventually. After all, I did.”

“I’ll take your word for it,” she said with a doubtful smile. The General was being unusually hopeful. On the other hoof, an unlimited budget was very... persuasive. “Now, if that is all General, I really should be getting back to work. Governments to liaison, staff to recruit...” She shuddered. “Compensations to wire.”

He nodded smartly. “As you were, Director.”

Daily Report, 22/5/06 (PDE)
XCOM Science Division

Project: Iron Will
Project Head: Dr. Twilight Sparkle
- Understanding of Alien Metals limited. Our study could potentially take years to understand, replicate and produce this alloy using raw materials present on Mundus, even with Master Thaumaturges and Transmutation Magi around.
- However, from detailed study of the Alloy, we were able to crudely adapt what we have learned into our own technology. Our first development, a multi-layered enchanted crystal lattice weave, was based off elements of its complex molecular structure.
- With this new pattern, the crystal weave was possessed of a tensile strength beyond anything we’ve seen on Mundus, aside from the Princess’ ancient Orichalcum Warplate, the only surviving set from before Discord.
- As we have yet to discern the no-doubt expensive production process behind that, I believe that adapting this new crystal weave pattern into current body armor designs will surely improve survivability on the battlefield.
- Preliminary designs have already been forwarded to Dr. Metal Hands. He and Engineering will take over from there.

Project: Steel Auger
Project Head: Dr. Frosty
- The fragments we have uncovered from what remains of the alien weapons provides a look, however small, into their systems and mechanics. From that, we have only confirmed what we know. It’s better than what we have. Pound for pound, it outstrips everything we have. And it’s plasma. It should not be a viable shotgun, let alone a rifle-ranged weapon.
- However, we have also learned a couple things from the weapon fragments. Studying what remains of the electronics and systems has granted us insight into their methods of projectile acceleration. With some tweaks, we could make it work for bullets and amplify the muzzle velocity of our existing weapons. We could potentially be sitting on an improvement of our existing accelerator chambers by an order of magnitude. Maybe two.
- Preliminary findings and plans have been forwarded to Dr. Metal Hands. Perhaps his ingenuity at Engineering will improve on what Research has discovered. Tentatively, I am expecting improvements in range, accuracy and weight, while reducing wear on the barrel at the same time. Hooves crossed and awaiting progress.
- The fragments possess other secrets. Perhaps it is time to look into the records we have on lasers. Note to self: ask Dr. Sparkle on pursuing this avenue. She might agree and even help. Assistance is very, very useful.

NOTE TO ALL RESEARCH STAFF: In celebration of the success of XCOM thus far, a party has been arranged at the Cafeteria at 2000 Hours. It is a Pinkie Pie Party, so don’t be late! - Dr. Twilight Sparkle

Location: First Light, Crystal Mountains
Date: 24th Mayfly, 1006 PDE
Time: 19:45:03 (Canterlot Standard Time)

The Command Deck was busy with activity, as was standard. Technicians tapped away at consoles, analysing data streams and inspecting reports of suspected alien activity throughout Equestria under the watchful eye of Central Officer Applejack. They knew their jobs well, to her relief; she wasn’t much good with all this technology. That was Big Mac’s thing.

That and math. Big Macintosh was real good at mathematics. Wasn’t one for initiative, though, the way he never opened his trap. She tried to make him talk more, but Big Mac just seemed to like being quiet. Which was fine. Just made it hard to tell what was on his mind, sometimes.

But it was pretty obvious when mares wanted him. Big Mac was considered one of the most eligible bachelors in Ponyville, and for good reasons. Good reasons Applejack will not delve into, because she refuses to puff him up more than absolutely necessary. Also because it was disgusting, and Rarity had given her more than enough details the other day, during Pinkie Pie’s party in the Mess Hall. That party had opened up... many cans of worms.

Though who knew Rainbow Dash had a thing for griffons? It was... what was that word Twilight used? ‘Enlightening’? Yes, enlightening. It was enlightening.

Also creepy. Applejack was very much a traditional pony, and traditional ponies believed that ponies stay with ponies and griffons stay with--

“Central, you might want to see this. We could have a situation.” Applejack snapped out of her thoughts quickly, and cantered over purposefully to a technician's terminal.

“What am Ah lookin’ at, soldier?”

“We have anomalous readings over Fillydelphia, ma’am. Reports of ponies being abducted are being filtered in, too. Varying levels of accuracy, but a couple seem to line up.” The tech removed his headphones and looked up at the Central Officer, hoping for an answer. “How do you call it, Central?”

Applejack squinted and looked closer. Now, she wasn’t a science wizard like Twilight or Big Mac were, but she could see a thing for what it was. And it looked like bad things were happening to Fillydelphia. “Ah’m callin’ it. Tell Flight Commander Dash to prep one of her squadrons up, and get Shinin’ Armor on the line.” She frowned, and pressed her hat against her sweater-clad chest. “We’ve got an Abduction Mission on our hooves, ponies. Let’s get ready.”

XCOM Codex

The field of Cybernetics is still one that is unexplored, though more due to complexity and cost than anything else. Though the means to create prosthetics that are equivalent, if not greater than a comparable organic limb exists, the means to interface with the new limb have been troublesome.

The Neural Harness system has been proposed, allowing the pony to synch up with its new limb, but was refused due to the significant power consumption of a Harness. Other means such as nerve stapling have been mentioned, where the severed nerve endings are manually reattached one by one to the artificial nerve fibres of the pony. However, such a connection is time-consuming and has a high risk of failure due to the sheer precision necessary in the surgical operation, and has been shelved until such a time more advanced surgical tools have been invented.

However, with recent revelations, it may be possible to use Meld as the interface medium between amputee and cybernetic replacement. If the means to do so are discovered, XCOM may yet be able to send soldiers previously deemed unfit for service back into the frontlines, preserving their precious experience against the alien threat. In addition, the other potential uses of Meld open up many new avenues of research...

Chapter Four: The Clean Cuts Reach the Deepest

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XCOM: Enemy Advanced

The Clean Cuts Reach the Deepest

Location: Royal Palace, Canterlot
Date: 24th Mayfly, 1006 PDE
Time: 19:49:32 (Canterlot Standard Time)

“Sister.” Celestia turned from her watch on the balcony to Luna, the Princess of the Night landing lightly on the railings with all four hooves. “Rest now. I will watch the night.”

“I shall leave our ponies to you, then.” The elder alicorn turned away, wincing with every movement. If one looked closer and saw the signs, they could see the discomfort went deeper. Her body was constantly tensed and her limbs shook. Imperceptibly, yes, but still they shook.

Hopping onto the balcony floor, Luna reached out with a wing. “Sister, are you alright?” Even over a month after the attack on Canterlot, long after the damage to the city had been repaired, Celestia was still hurt. She had taken plasma bolts all over her body, drawing fire away from her ponies and saving dozens in the process. Yet, she paid heavily for each life.

Celestia waved her off with a hoof, the bandaged left foreleg. “I’m fine, Luna. Just… weak.”

“‘Weak’ is one way to put it. ‘Crippled’ would be more appropriate.”

“I’m fine, Luna,” Celestia insisted, voice raising just slightly. “I have all my functions.”

“And only some of your blood,” Luna added dryly. “Your armor was fused to your skin, sister, and your insistence on removing it cost you half your life fluids and likely significant organ damage.”

“It’s not so bad.”

“It’s bad enough that after more than a month you still wear bandages. Or are strips of woven material used to bind up a wound or to protect an injured part of the body fashionable this part of the century?”

“Nothing some bedrest can’t fix,” Celestia insisted. “Luna, please. I’m alright. Our ponies need your attention more than I do.”

“I wouldn’t be so worried if you had actually gotten bedrest, sister. Alicorns we may be, you require more than an hours sleep every night if you want to recover in good time.” Luna frowned in reminiscence. “During the Reunification War, you would slumber for days on end after harsh duels and recover from mortal injuries like they were nothing. Without magical assistance.”

“This isn’t the Reunification War, Luna,” Celestia pointed out, “This is the Alien War. The conditions have changed, and my vigil must be eternal if Equestria is to survive.”

“Your ‘eternal vigil’ won’t help anyone if you don’t recover properly,” Luna huffed. “We’ve been over this before, Tia. Have you forgotten what happened with Starswirl?”

Celestia grit her teeth, but remained still and even. “This is different. This concerns our world, Luna. I cannot rest.”

“It’s precisely because it concerns our world that you must rest. What use are you if you’re delirious from blood loss and laying in bed from infection?”

“Luna, please.” She closed her eyes and sighed, looking up at the full moon. “I… I failed them once. I can’t fail them again.”

Luna shook her head. “You never failed them. You saved them in Canterlot. You took their blows so they could live.”

“Not all of them.”

“As much as our ponies exalt us as such, we are not Goddesses. It is impossible to save every single one.” A moment passed, and Luna looked up at her moon as well. “They fight well, you know?”

“You see them?”

“No,” she responded, “But they are. They have suffered losses, but they fight on regardless. Their resolve will be rewarded. I know it.”

Location: First Light, Crystal Mountains
Date: 24th Mayfly, 1006 PDE
Time: 19:55:34 (Canterlot Standard Time)

“Starlight, are you sure you’ll be fine? I can’t use injured soldiers.”

The unicorn mare scoffed, tightening her boot laces with a sharp pull and tying them up with ease. “I’m fine, Captain. Stop being a worrywort.”

Shining Armor laughed softly, but the truth was he did worry, and not just for Starlight. The mission was going to be in Fillydelphia, around and within the Pears Pavilion storehouse on the city edge. There were no windows, which meant no sniper support, and there could be abductees to rescue, which meant no leveling the place. And Strike Two was pretty much decimated, so he only had three squads left.

And, considering that it was a storehouse, he had to assume that the aliens left all kinds of traps and prepared all kinds of ambush sites and fallback locations. Which meant that, most likely, whoever was on point would turn to goo in moments. And as Field Commander, he was barred from taking point, for fear that his death causes the entire operation to fall apart. Shining trusted his soldiers to be better than that, but it was a legitimate fear.

“It’s in my nature, Corporal,” he replied in jest, though his expression did not sell it very well. The white unicorn mare huffed and checked the sights on her rifle one last time. “You can sit this one out, Starlight. I won’t hold it against you.”

“I’ve sat out a mission already. I think that counts as my holiday.” She pulled the tab, smiling at the satisfying click of the action. “Come on, Captain, afraid of rough mares? You’re better than this.”

Starlight, though, probably was not worth his worry. He served with the mare in the Royal Guard, though female guards were rare due to occupational stigma, and Starlight had proven to be one of the hardest flanks he has ever known. They even went to school together and developed a strange friendship. The nerd and the hooligan, becoming friends. It was strange then, and it got stranger when they both applied into the academy. And passed.

He was still obliged to worry for her, though. Starlight was with him on the mission to Manehattan, and suffered enough injuries to sit out for the past couple weeks. And apparently, it only made her angrier. “Alright, Starlight, but don’t be risky. We’re expecting heavy urban combat, and we aren’t leveling the place.”

“Works for me,” she grinned. “I get to nail X-Rays between the eyes instead of letting boring explosions take the fun out of it.”

Shining smirked, and pushed his concerns to the back of his mind. “Then get to Hangar One. We leave in five minutes.”

Location: Pears Pavilion Storehouse, Fillydelphia
Date: 24th Mayfly, 1006 PDE
Time: 20:19:53 (Canterlot Standard Time)

Operation: Tutti Fruiti

“One-Actual, this is Storm Leader. We’ll be taking over sky duty from Talon Squadron today. Give a shout if you need Close Air Support, over.”

“Storm Leader, this is One-Actual. We’ll hold you to that promise. Over and out.”

With an outsider’s perspective, the Pears Pavilion storehouse looked normal, if abandoned. ‘Pears Pavilion’ was still emblazoned on one side in italics, if lightly faded, and the doors and shutters looked otherwise untouched. And yet, behind those walls, ponies were being held hostage by aliens, being prepared for transport. For what purpose is unknown, though it is believed to be experimentation.

How? Shining Armor didn’t know. But it probably involved something about probes that made everyone squeamish.

The Skyrangers hit hard and fast, squads flying out or sliding down ropes onto the ground. Strike Four, lead by Sgt. Mosaic, hit the rooftops, while Strike Three and One hit the ground. Shining Armor nodded to Sgt. Iron Hoof and the minigun bolted onto his side and flipped the safety on his shotgun. Nightvision goggles went live, and the world was painted in varying shades of black, white and grey as dark-clad operatives took up positions behind carts and shrubbery.

“Strike One, we have access. Permission to enter?”

“Negative, Four. We’ll make the scene first. Your task is rescue, not retaliation. Wait for my go.” Shining Armor paused. “Or the explosion. That works too.” The plan was to draw out the aliens into the open, where they lost the advantage of close quarters. He doubted that they would all emerge, but it would reduce risk. Then it was up to Strike Four.

“Captain, this is Three-Actual,” Iron Hoof radioed. “Strike Three in position.”

“Shining,” Starlight transmitted, “One-Two here. Strike One’s ready. We’re ready to blow, sir.”

“Copy that, everyone.” The Captain plucked the pin from the egg-shaped grenade in his hooves. “Hit it.”

The hail of rockets followed soon after, completely destroying the shutter doors in moments. Shining Armor hurled the grenade right after, watching it and dozens of others bounce and roll right through the hole that was once a wall. Clicking sounds were heard, presumably of confusion.

The grenades detonated, shredding everything inside apart in a hail of plastic shrapnel. Smoke wafted from the charred ashen hole, and silenced reigned.

Shining Armor grinned, but winced inside at the collateral damage. He could see the paperwork already. “Strike Four, you’re clear to proceed. Everyone else, stay put.” As if on cue, a bolt of plasma shrieked far overhead. Popping his head over the cart, Shining Armor blinked and held back his astonishment.

Over two dozen sectoids. This was a large scale operation. They hit the jackpot. Now it was up to Strike Four to rescue the abductees.

As an abandoned structure, the storehouse lacked power and thus, light. The aliens had to bring their own light, though apparently not many. This was to Sergeant Mosaic’s preference. After all, as a Shadow Walker, he belonged to the darkness.

He flew into the darkness behind a door, watching with judgemental eyes as the rest of Strike Four followed. As befit their specialty, Strike Four also had other zebras. Most of First Light’s zebras, actually; the few that joined were Shadow Walkers, though he was best. They lived with the darkness, became one with the darkness, and moved amongst the shadows within his expectations. They were not a problem.

The ponies. They were the problem. Folk who shunned the moon and exalted the sun were not meant for the shadows. Captain Shining Armor seemed a respectful one, but he should know better. One does not leave stealth work to ponies, and the performance of these two was proof of that. To his trained eyes, they were like cripples at a dance competition. Painful to watch.

“Mosaic.” The sergeant turned, looking where one of his zebra soldiers pointed at. A duo of sectoids, at the other end of the walkway overseeing one of the storage blocks. Down below, other sectoids tended to abductees in green ooze, preparing them for transport.

The sergeant bit back a curse. They were on the far end, down below had lights, and the walkway was metal and the only way down. They could not hide bodies. They could not sneak around. Their guns were silenced, but not enough. It appeared that the Captain’s distraction was not good enough. A pity.

“Iyya. Explosive. Qara, get your gun. The rest of you, quiet.” He pulled out a rifle, silencer thick and secured over the barrel. “Iyya, your count.”

“Throwing, Mosaic.” The corporal fished out a yellow-striped grenade and plucked out the pin, dropping it to the depths below. It bounced once, catching the sectoids’ attention. The three below turned to look, as did the two above.

Qara and Mosaic fired twice, each at a Sectoid. They fell to the ground, each with two holes in the head.

The grenade went off, a loud boom shaking the room. A sectoid exploded outright into gibs of purple flesh, and another fell limp to the side. The third stumbled, and caught a bullet through the back of the head. Mosaic turned, and saw one of the ponies - pegasus named Pitch - with a pistol out. He fired again, then unloaded twice on the other intact sectoid.

“Princess always said to make sure,” the other pegasus - Shade - said, nodding to the Sergeant as he produced a knife that shimmered blue, the Feather constellation branded on its hilt. “And to always prepare.”

An enchanted shortblade? Interesting. “Your Princess Celestia is wise,” Mosaic mused.

“She is, but we serve Princess Luna.” Mosaic arched an eyebrow at the name. These ponies follow the moon? Very interesting. “Since her return, the Night Guard have been restored. We are among their first.”

“So it seems.” Perhaps they could be salvaged. They seemed excellent with a gun. Still, for stealth work they were like foals at play. Worse, depending on the foals. “Keep moving, Strike Four. We come back later.”

“Aye, sir.”

“Hey, what’s with the barricade?”

Sergeant Blue Shift of the Fillydelphia Police Department looked at the mass of ponies gathered before the cordon, carts blocking access down the road, officers in riot gear lined up in a row and what passages remaining marked by long strips of illuminated barricade tape. He wanted to tell them everything he knew, he really did. Aliens were running a suspected abduction campaign in one of the old abandoned warehouses, and government forces were being dispatched to deal with it. He couldn’t, though. It would be another Panic.

He clicked on the megaphone and took a deep breath. “This is for your safety, everypony. Until a further time, no one is allowed to go past us.”

The protesters began to harp. “If it’s for our own safety, we deserve to know!”

“This is an affront to our freedoms! We demand free passage or an explanation!”

“It’s happening all over the city, too! What gives?!”

Don’t panic, Shift. Go through the lines. “We detected a large gas leak in the southeastern part of the city, and until teams come in from Cloudsdale to deal with it nopony’s allowed to go in. We apologise for the inconvenience.”

Just then, fighter jets flew right overhead, nearly deafening all with the roar of their engines. Dammit, of all the times why now?

"A gas leak? Oh no! It might spread! Save the foals!”

“It’s not a gas leak, it’s a bomb! It’s a bombing! A bombing!”

"Fighter jets? What kind of gas leak needs fighter jets to contain?!"

“What kind of gas leak needs the entire police department to cordon off?! Why so many ponies? Why so many barricades?! What is going on?!”

“The aliens! It’s the aliens! It’s always the aliens!”

Blue Shift rapped twice on the megaphone, and as one his officers struck their shields with batons loudly twice. The crowds silenced, but only slightly. “Do not panic!” Shift urged. “The gas leak is harmless! So long as nopony gets past us, everything will be fine!”

The crowd grew louder, and seemed a moment from melting over. The sergeant sighed and pulled down the transparent faceplate down. This was going to be a long night. Whoever was dealing with the aliens had better hurry up.

The command deck was surprisingly empty this time of the day. Sergeant Ivan had went off to get a snack, Dr. Sparkle was busy doing who-knows-what in the labs, and Central Officer Applejack was off taking a well-deserved break. It was just the General, the technicians, and the Flight Commander.

Two red hexagons flashed on the hologlobe, and Rainbow Dash reached for her headset. “Storm Leader, be advised. Two scout UFOs are headed for the city.”

“I see them, Blue Thunder. Orders?”

She turned to the General expectantly, and he shook his head.

“Blast them into the ocean, Storm Leader,” Blueblood ordered. “I have no men or patience to spend on recovery missions tonight.” With three squads committed and two UFOs? He’d sooner fight Discord with his bare hooves while lathered in honey and ham.

“Aye aye, Azure High. Blue Thunder, permission to use the Night Haunters?”

Dash nearly sputtered in astonishment. “Denied, Storm Leader. You know the regulations.”

Which, as General Blueblood recalled, basically amounted to ‘no nukes over domestic areas period or I stick my hoof up your hindquarters so hard Equestria sees a new sun’. Princess Celestia had been quite clear on this with all her Generals ever since the first arcano-atomic was created, though she was more eloquent, more subtle and alliterated.

“Acknowledged, Blue Thunder. Pulling them out to sea. Storm Leader, out.”

The link killed and Dash sighed in disappointment, looking up at the indicators on the hologlobe. “Still think I should be out there, General. Not in here.”

Blueblood snorted. “I sympathise, Rainbow Dash, but you are too important. The risk is too high.”

“It still blows,” she pouted. “I signed up to fight aliens, General, not sign paperwork and look at screens.”

The General chuckled softly, and said nothing in response.


“Nothing,” he replied, smiling softly. “You just sound exactly like someone I know.”

Dash looked funnily at him, but paid him no heed. “Hey, where’s Applejack?”

“She took a break after manning the CiC for twelve hours strai… hold on.” the General tapped on his earpiece. “This is Azure High.”

“This is Four-Actual. We found abductees, eight of them.”

“Good work. Leave a beacon and clear the site. A dozen or two to go, Sergeant.”

The zebra grunted. “Four-Actual out.”

Dash arched an eyebrow. “Not one for talking, is he?”

“I prefer to think he’s professional.” Blueblood tapped on his earpiece again. “One-Actual, report.”

“Well, sir,” the Captain whispered, as Specialist Verdant opened the door gingerly, “Strike One’s moving into the storehouse while Strike Three handles mop up. Strike One has an injury, but he should be fine for a few hours.” Strike One breached, and Shining Armor followed with shotgun drawn.

“Good, good. Mosaic reported in, found some abductees. He left a beacon.”

The interior of the storehouse was as big as he expected, Shining Armor noticed. The ceiling was tall. Very tall. Tall enough to need walkways. And though it was nothing compared to Hangar One, there was still enough space to get lost within the rows upon rows of abandoned crates and boxes. And this was only one room of five. “Yeah, I know. Strike Four called me just a while ago. We’ll rescue them once the structure is clear.”

“Acknowledged. Sensors detect a dozen or so contacts still active. Readings aren’t clear, but we expect two or three Outsiders to be active.”

“Roger that, General. We’ll call in when… hang on.”

Clank, clank, clank. Sounds of… walking? Shining Armor looked up, and his eyes went wide.

Sectoids. Many sectoids. Too many sectoids. There was only one conclusion. One word.


His horn lit up like a second violet sun, and the Shield of Equestria threw up the largest planar barrier he could conjure. “X-Rays! Up top!”

Strike One dove into cover, and the plasma began to fly. Five bolts struck their mark, and Shining Armor’s horn split open with pain.

He shook it off. There were still some exposed. He had to cover them. He had to be their Shield. He had to hold.

He blinked repeatedly, sweat beading into his eyes. This was intense. The strain was nothing like he felt before. Layered ablative shielding was one thing, but a constant barrier of such size and complexity against this much power was… No. He had to hold.

Hold dammit.

A second wave of plasma splashed against his shield, and it shattered into jagged ethereal shards that faded away instantly. His horn redoubled in agony, nearly blinding him. He saw nothing, heard nothing, felt nothing. Just him and his pain.

It was like looking into the fury of the sun and not being able to turn away.

Shining Armor was yanked back under a cargo container roughly as the third wave of plasma shrieked, and bursts of gunfire began. His helmet was stripped off quickly, and he saw a unicorn working over him frantically. Starlight?

“Who brought the medkit?! Who brought the sky-damned medkit?!

Definitely Starlight. He blinked away the sweat again, and tried wiping at it with a hoof. It came back stained in red.

“--ptain, please respond! Shining Armor, respond!”

His radio still worked? Interesting.

“A-Azure High,” he whispered, his horn throbbing with pain and burning. “T-This is Strike One. W-We’re engaging the enemy.” Darkness clouded at the edges of his vision, and he bat them away with a determined glare. “S-Starlight, d-do something for me.”

“Stay down, Shining!” He heard the familiar sizzling of plasma, and smelled something acrid. A pony slid in right next to him, panting audibly. “About time, Pulse!”

“Berate me after I get the Captain stable,” the earth pony growled. “Captain, hold on, I’ll try and stem the bleeding. Stars, there’s a lot of blood…”

“G-Get air support,” Shining urged. The darkness swelled, and stars dotted his vision. “R-Right on top of us.”

Starlight lost her panic and looked at Shining flatly. Even through the opaque visor, Shining could feel the incredulity emanating. “What?”

“He’s delirious, Corporal,” Pulse said. “He’s lost a lot of blood.”

“J-Just do it,” Shining wheezed, oddly calm. He had gone through this before. Overextending mana was not life-threatening. He was just… tired. So tired. Everything was dark now. He didn’t have much time. “G-Get everyone to cover… Strafing run…”

“No, it’s sound. The Captain’s right.”

“We’ll get shredded on the ground!”

“Better than getting melted into goo!”

“And how are we going to transmit coordinates? There’s no skylight! No smoke! No strobes! Certainly no beacons!”

He was tired. And in pain. Tired and in pain. He would sleep. Yes, sleep was nice. So very nice.

One more message, and he would rest. He had to rest. By all counts he should be unconscious right now.

“IFF tags… s-should work… Yes… IFF tags…”

So tired. So sleepy. Sleep now. The rest is up to them.

On the tactical overview of the storehouse One-Actual’s tag turned yellow, and the General practically lunged for his headset. “Starlight, report!”

“Just feedback, Azure High,” Starlight responded. “Actual’s out, but he’ll live. Right now, we need an airstrike on our position, pronto.”

He heaved a sigh of relief internally, but grunted discontentedly. What was the Corporal even thinking? “Denied. I’m not dropping a Sunburst on your position. Three-Actual!”

“Da, I heard everything. Strike Three moving into position now.”

“Thank you, Sergeant.” Well, that was a reliable one. Iron Hoof has a bright future ahead. “One-Two, hold position. We’ll come to you.”

“We don’t have time, Azure High. It’s airstrike or bust. The Captain said so!”

How is this even a discussion. “The Captain just suffered violent magical feedback,” Blueblood growled. “He’s not in his right mind. Wait for Iron Hoof, Starlight. That's an order.”

“...Understood, Azure High. But I want that airstrike ready.”

Well, a little insurance never hurt anyone. “Fine. Flight Commander?”

Dash nodded, having stayed silent the entire time. “Storm Leader, gimme a sitrep.”

“Lost three birds, Blue Thunder, but chalked two UFOs. Sounds like a good trade to me!”

Dash twinged with annoyance, but kept her cool. “And the pilots?”

“Dropped recovery beacons. They’ll live.”

“Good. Get back to Fillydelphia ASAP and maintain overwatch.”

“Aye, Blue Thunder. Firing afterburners. Storm Leader, out.”

The General sighed, and looked up at the overview. Engineering’s secret project couldn’t come sooner.

Another group of abductees, and again no aliens to guard them. The Captain's plan worked after all. "Qara, report."

“No aliens here, Mosaic.”


“Nothing over here. Room is clear, Mosaic.”

The sergeant nodded and headed over to Shade, delicately trying to pry open the green membrane that coated the abductees. It obscured the expressions, but did not leave much to the imagination. These ponies were frightened when they were captured. These ponies were screaming. “Can you cut it?”

The former Night Guard extracted the knife from his mouth with a sigh. “No. It can cut, but I’ll hurt the pony inside.”

“Then we leave it for the recovery teams,” Mosaic grunted. “Strike Four, form up. We move.”

His troopers pulsed back their acknowledgements, moving onto the next grid of the warehouse. Mosaic lead the pack and was followed by the rest, with the two former-Night Guard in the back with their rifles raised. It seemed the best arrangement. His Shadow Walkers weren’t the best shots, Qara and himself excepted, and the two Night Guard appeared to have skill with it. He’ll give them that much.

They slipped through the door, floating guns around corners in case of alien contact, but never encountering so much as a sectoid. It had been like this ever since the first room. They had cleared three by now, and was onto the central node where they were supposed to rendezvous with the Captain. Not a single alien. Only abductees.

This was not relieving. This was unsettling. Mosaic clamped down hard on his emotions, but still it barked at the back of his mind. This lack of response was unnatural. He knew the Captain had walked into a trap (the tell-tale rumblings and echoes through the storehouse were unmistakable signs of a struggle), but there had to be more. There was always more. Especially for such a large-scale operation.

The last room had the Outsiders. A single Outsider is known to be capable of taking out half a Strike Team. A single one killed a third of Strike Two and crippled all the rest.

There were at least two detected, potentially three.

Mosaic was not looking forward to taking it on by himself, but it looked like he would have to. Up ahead was the closed door to the central rooms. The Outsiders were probably inside, if alien logic worked anything like their logic.

“We’re here,” he said finally, coming to a stop before the door. He gestured with a hoof, and Strike Four assumed breaching positions, himself next to the door. Protocol could go kiss the night sky. “Everyone, prime your explosives and ready your weapons. When I give the signal, open fire.”

He slammed the door open, hurling it off its hinges, and he saw what was inside. Three dull yellow crystals that began to suffuse with light once the door came flying off. One was bigger than the others. Strange. “Go!”

The grenades flew in followed by a hail of gunfire, and in mid-form two of the crystals went dull and shattered. The third continued formation, assuming the form its alien masters had directed it to hold.

Amid the firepower, Mosaic looked up at it. He looked up… and up… and up…

Oh dear.

“Strike Four! Pull back!”

The Outsider roared, and the wall exploded.

"Pulse, hit him with the stims!"

"Alright, alright," the earth pony sighed, producing a syringe and uncapping it. "Let's hope its feedback and not burn out."

She grunted and turned to her radio, noticing a hail. "This is One-Two, plsase acknowledge."

"Strike One-Two, this is Storm Leader. I hear you called for an airstrike?"

Well, the General actually got it for her. How courteous. "Yes, but we-" Starlight winced at the blast of hot air, a plasma bolt landing too close for comfort. "We need you to wait for my signal!"

"Roger that, One-Two, but we'll need markers for accuracy."

"Use our IFF tags and hit around them. That should be enough." Shining groaned and began to stir. Welp, better get ready to receive him. "One-Two, signing off."

"Roger roger, One-Two. Don't keep us waiting."

Shining groaned, and they all winced at a nearby bolt of plasma melting through stone. “Starlight, did you…” He paused. “Starlight, where are we?”

“Still the storehouse. We shot you full of stims, Captain.”

“Starlight’s idea,” Pulse clarified defensively.

“Was my leadership that important to you?” He grinned. “Finally, some recognition.”

“More like we need to run and it’ll be faster if we didn’t have to carry you,” Starlight replied dryly. “Alright, Storm Leader, ready when you are.”

Shining blinked, still looking flatly at the unicorn when he put on his helmet. “Starlight, you’re calling an airstrike?”

“...Starlight I was delirious why did you think this was a good idea.”

“...I don’t know.”

“Final checks, One-Two,” Dust chimed in. “Lining up for a run.”

“This is One-Actual! Abort run! Abort ru-”

A low growl, akin to a bear, filled the air, drowning out the plasma as a stream of tens of thousands of rounds per minute displaced the sectoids bit by bullet-shaped bit. Starlight heard anxious clicking and bullets deflecting off pillars, and the roar of two missiles connecting with both catwalks at once.

“Sorry am late, Captain,” Iron Hoof voiced over the radio. “Need fight baby aliens.”

“You’re excused, Sergeant,” Shining laughed, crawling out the container and beaming all the way. “Bless you for showing up when you did.”

“Fire mission aborted, Strike One,” General Blueblood rumbled. “Corporal Starlight, in the words of a less eloquent pony, the fuck were you thinking?”

Starlight almost shot back a snarky remark, but caught herself. She looked at Shining, then at Pulse, then at Shining again. Oh wow she did not think this through. She completely forgot that a hypersonic jet wouldn’t be able to line up a shot with their rotary cannons within a city.

“I have no idea,” she admitted. “It seemed like a good idea at the time.”

“We’re talking about listening to me when I’m compromised after all this is over,” Shining sighed. “Alright, everyone, rest up and get ready to move on in three. Mosaic’s-”

The far wall exploded into a cloud of green and brown, and six forms came tumbling out. They bounced once, twice, and skidded to a stop in the middle of the room. Strike One moved forward, meeting Strike Three at that spot. It was Strike Four, charred black and groaning softly.

“They’re alright,” a medic said evenly, and started helping them to their hooves. Mosaic looked at Shining and cracked a weak salute.

“Sir. You survived the trap.”

Starlight blinked. They knew about the trap? Nah, they probably just heard the plasma shrieking.

“...Well,” Shining said, head tilted just so. “That’s a surprise.” His head snapped back straight in realisation, and the Captain drew his shotgun. “Weapons ready! Mosaic, what did you find?”

A shimmering golden giant stepped through the broken wall, wielding the largest plasma weapon they had ever seen. The gun itself was as big as a pony if they laid down with legs spread, and the giant was twice the size of a minotaur.

“That,” Mosaic said dryly.

All eyes were glued onto the screen, looking at a frozen picture of the Outsider that marched through the broken wall. Flight Commander Dash was looking. Central Officer Applejack was looking. Sergeant Ivan Sharpeyes was looking, steaming cup of coffee rapidly cooling in his talons. Even General Blueblood was looking at it and nothing else.

“What,” said Dash.

“That’s not fair,” mumbled Applejack.

“I am not fighting that,” whined Ivan.

All eyes looked to General Blueblood for his reaction. Surely the stoic commander’s steely demeanour has a limit?

Instead, he rumbled. “Strike Teams, get outside. Now. Prep pink smoke.”

“A-Aye, sir!”

“Storm Leader, prime for airstrike. Hit the pink smoke on Shining Armor’s word.”

“Acknowledged, Azure High.”

His measured response was comforting to some, disappointing to others. The leader of XCOM showed strength, but no equinity. Also his reaction would have been priceless.

And then he closed the channels.

“Right. So,” he said, turning slowly to the rest of the bridge staff, stony faced and eyes leveled. “I might have nightmares tonight. Who’s with me?”

Everypony raised their hooves.

The distance to the exit was four, maybe five hundred meters away, Shining Armor recalled. XCOM’s operatives could probably make the distance easily within minutes. With the looming threat of the largest Outsider ever on record right behind them, they could probably do it even faster. Especially since their response had been less than effective.

“How the hell did grenades and rockets do nothing to it?!” Starlight wailed. “Everything! We literally threw everything!”

Pulse, for his part, let out an exasperated groan. “If you can scream while running you can run faster!”

A bolt of plasma struck behind the three, a cushion of hot expanding air hitting them all by surprise. they stumbled, only slightly, but a look behind confirmed that the Outsider was gaining on them.

A rocket slammed right into its empty face; a direct hit. Flakes of bright yellow energy flaked off. Iron Hoof grinned and threw the rocket tube to the side. “Direct hit!” The smoke cleared, and its head was absolutely unharmed. “половой акт!”

Shining Armor looked straight ahead. The doors were right there. They were almost clear.

“Keep running!” he shouted, using the voice of command his years as a Captain have taught him, and pulled a gas bomb from his vest, striped pink. “Storm Leader, are you ready for fire mission?!”

“We’re loitering, One-Actual. Waiting for pink smoke.”

“Good! We’re almost at the exit!” His muscles burned, and his heart raced at a hundred miles an hour. Stims were flooding his system, and if he crashed he wasn’t getting back up again. He had to make it. They had to make it.

The Outsider accelerated ten-fold, moving towards them as if they were standing still. Oh, what the fuck. That was not fair. Something that big should not be that fast.

A knife embedded through the crystal in its core, punching right through the thin membranes that obscured it slightly. It pulsed blue and stumbled over, falling into a clumsy roll. Somehow. That was fortunate. But who threw the knife?

“Shade,” Mosaic radioed in, “Good throw.”

“Thank you, Sergeant,” the former-Night Guard replied evenly. Ah, that’s where it came from. A gift from the Princess, then? Maybe it could survive the missile strike.

The door was mere meters away now. Shining Armor grinned determinedly, and pulled the ring on the smoke grenade as he became awash in Luna’s light. He slowed down just enough, counting off everyone who passed him. Iron Hoof. Mosaic. Starlight. Within minutes, all of Strike One, Three and Four were out. He tossed the smoke bomb behind him, the clip flying loose, and a cloud of pink smoke flooded the air.

“Keep running!” he barked, pumping his legs like never before. “We’re not clear yet! Storm Leader, you are clear for missile strike! Repeat, you are clear for missile strike!”

“Roger roger, One-Actual. Storm Squadron moving in for missile strike, round one.”

The Captain slid behind a cart and looked behind him, spotting the slight shadow of a giant gaining depth. “Please hurry.”

The Outsider emerged from the cloud, plasma gun crackling with green lightning. Reactions were varied. Some sighed, some sobbed, and some looked on defiantly in the face of death.

A flight of four Thunderclouds flew over the city, and four missiles struck down on the crystalline titan. It deformed slightly, small pieces of its body disintegrating into light and struggling to reform.

“Still alive, Storm Leader! Hit it again!”

Another hail of missiles struck down, and it disintegrated, leaving only two halves of an oversized crystal and the broken pieces of its giant gun. It didn’t spark, it didn’t shimmer. It just laid there.

Could they… Could it?

“One-Actual, this is Azure High. We’re not detecting any readings from the crystal fragments. It’s down.”

Shining could not believe it. It was actually dead. But was it over? “Azure High, do you detect any further readings from inside the storehouse?”

“Absolutely nothing, One-Actual. Recovery teams should be arriving soon. Good work, soldier. Mission success.”

Mission success? The mission was a success? Shining Armor turned to the operatives behind him, counting heads one by one by one. Eighteen heads, including his. Eighteen operatives, alive and ready. Eighteen out of eighteen.

Everyone survived. Everyone lived.

“...One-Actual? One-Actual, please respond.”

“I’m here, General. I’m just…” He blinked. This seemed unreal. “Acknowledged. We’ll be back soon. One-Actual, out.”

This felt impossible. A perfect mission? Even against a giant Outsider? Wow.

“...Sir?” He turned, and saw Starlight and the others looking at him. “Sir, what’s the prognosis?”

“Mission success,” Shining replied, face blank. Realisation creeped in. It was actually happening. It was real. “Mission success, everyone. Mission success!”

The reaction was unanimous. Everyone cheered.

Location: First Light, Crystal Mountains
Date: 24th Mayfly, 1006 PDE
Time: 22:18:45 (Canterlot Standard Time)

General Blueblood still couldn’t believe it, even as all the members of Strike One, Three and Four emerged from their Skyrangers and departed, but he was very pleased. A clean mission. No one died and they even recovered one of Princess Luna’s Constellation Set, too. The one that was gifted to Specialist Shade.

“General.” Shining Armor went up to him and saluted smartly, helmet placed on his back and held steady. “I can have the reports on your table by tomorrow morning.”

“Very good, Captain,” the General replied, smiling for once, and saluted as well. “Excellent work on the mission. Dismissed.”

The two stallions nodded, and left in opposite directions. One to his quarters, to reassure his wife. The other to the command deck, to maintain the eternal vigil of XCOM. Both, to enjoy a peace of mind for the first time in weeks.

Frosty entered the labs and found Twilight Sparkle hard at work. Likely trying to make heads or tails of their power generation, most likely. This ‘elerium’. The mare was so dedicated. “Dr. Sparkle,” he said, just loudly enough to get her attention. “Just thought you might want to know. We have news on the ground operation.”

“Oh?” She looked up from the microscope and reengaged the barrier around it to ensure no accidental tampering of the sample. “Oh! How’d it go?”

He shrugged. It was nice, but he didn’t have strong feelings either way. “Mission success, as you’d expect. Also everyone survived.”

“Everyone lived? That’s… That’s incredible!” In a flash Twilight Sparkle was wearing her labcoat, ready to leave. “I should go congratulate Shining! But… I also have my work.” She looked at the door, then at the elerium, then at the door again. “Ugh, why does alien technology have to be so interesting?!”

It really was. Dr. Frosty sympathised. “I suggest you leave the thanks for tomorrow, Dr. Sparkle,” Frosty suggested. “Last I checked, Shining was going to see Princess Cadenza.”

“Oh,” she soffed, “He does that everyday. What’s so different about today?”

Despite spending two years studying friendship and writing a thesis on it, she was still oblivious to social cues? The mare needed an outdoors hobby. “Well, the Captain got knocked out from violent magical feedback during the mission and then brought back with stims. That’s kind of a traumatic incident, Dr. Sparkle.”

“So? What does that have to…” She looked out at the wall abruptly, the gears grinding in her head. Frosty knew that look. He knew it too well. “Oh. Oh.” She grimaced. “Oh ew. Ew.

“Yeah, it’s never not awkward,” the unicorn said in sympathy. “We’re all grown up here, so these things are to be expected. But knowing that your brother and your sister-in-law are about to go and…” Twilight Sparkle was still squeamish about such things. You need another way of expressing it. No bluntness she’s your boss. “...And make babies.”

She blushed luminescent red all over her face and he slapped himself. That was dumb. That was incredibly dumb. That would be the worst euphemism he could have used.

Moments passed, each one more awkward than the last. “Well,” Twilight said finally, still blushing brightly, “At least I might get a nephew?”

“Yes,” Frosty encouraged. “Think of the cute baby. Think of how cute the foal will be.”

“...Anyways! Yes!” She flashed again, coat flopping emptily onto the floor, and she was back to studying the strange crystaline structure. “Elerium! Research! Busy busy busy! I’ll just... visit him in the morning! He knows what I’m doing, he’s not going to hate me for not visiting him after he lands.” Her eye twitched. “Probably. Maybe?”

Wow that mare’s imagination went far. Frosty cleared his throat loudly. “Focus on the task at hoof, Doctor. Block out all extraneous thoughts.”

“Right. Of course.” She took a deep breath and nodded. “Thank you, Dr. Frosty.”

“My pleasure,” he bowed, and went about to his own lab within the research block. It was late at night and a good time to sleep, but dammit he saw those lenses. He knew those circuits. Those fragments gave him ideas and he was going to make it work dammit.

Location: First Light, Crystal Mountains
Date: 31st Mayfly, 1006 PDE
Time: 13:18:45 (Canterlot Standard Time)

Before the pale glow of the screen, General Blueblood bowed. “Princess Celestia. Princess Luna.”

“General Blueblood,” they both nodded. Celestia looked slightly better for wear - her wings were no longer bandaged - but even now she looked haggard. Princess Luna, on the other hoof, looked at her sister with a mixture of disdain and worry. The General couldn’t figure out how much of which.

Luna began. “I trust that my Night Guard have done well, General?”

“Pitch and Shade have been impressing Mosaic, Princess. They have done well.” He grinned. “We even recovered one of the Moonblade Hundred from the wreckage. The hilt and pommel were damaged, but the blade itself remained intact. With luck, it should be restored in whole soon.”

“It pleases me to hear that one of my artifacts has been beneficial to the cause, General,” Luna smiled. “But while it pleases me, this meeting is more than just to shower praise upon me. Tia?”

“XCOM has done very well this past month, General,” Celestia said, holding herself with every bit of regality and poise she had in her. Which was a lot. “Three UFOs captured in Equestria and a large-scale abduction mission foiled. Casualties were had, but those were expected. Tragic, but expected. You have done well, General Blueblood. I knew that you were the right choice.”

“You flatter me, Princess,” he said, looking straight at the Princess. “The credit goes to my operatives, Captain Shining Armor especially. He has been a reliable and trustworthy lad, and has a good head on him. I like him.”

“The Captain is a born leader, General,” Celestia pointed out. “He was once Shield of Equestria, after all. Though, the deaths must weight on him.”

“He’s a tough one. He’ll get over it. Unlike another stallion his age I know.”

“He still misses you, General,” Celestia said, eyes couched in concern. “He seemed genuinely regretful.”

“I maintain that this is a phase,” Blueblood spat. “I would like to move on from the topic, Princess. My son is hardly my favourite subject.”

Luna frowned, but spoke in her sister’s stead. “Nonetheless, General, the fight goes on. As agreed on, the Council is transferring your funding into XCOM’s accounts. In addition, we have found additional research and engineering personnel found worthy of aiding the cause, as well as more suitable operatives from within Equestria’s military arms. All these staff should be arriving on the 4th, along with additional Skyrangers for the new squads. With this, XCOM should now have ten Skyrangers to do as it wishes.”

Blueblood grinned. “You know me so well, Princess. It’s like my birthday was early.”

“I safeguard your dreams even now, General Blueblood,” Luna said with a wink. “I should know a thing or two about how you work.”

Celestia rolled her eyes and laughed. “She’s not too old for you, General. The opposite might be true, but I’m sure Luna wouldn’t mind.”

Blueblood laughed where Luna sputtered. “S-S-Sister! The gall! We are at war! This is hardly the time to find a stallion!”

“Oh, but you get so lonely at night, Luna,” Celestia teased. “I simply hoped to ease your burden!”

Oh Celestia. Such a tease. “I’m still a married man, Princess,” Blueblood mentioned. “I never renounced my vows even after Azure died.”

“Very romantic, General,” Celestia said, half-trying to get a rise and half-impressed. “I never knew you were the sort.”

“I couldn’t find a mare like Azure again. We were perfect for each other.” He nodded. “No offense, Princess Luna.”

“Oh, not you too! Is this the time or place to discuss or make such advances, General?!”

He suppressed a chortle, one that Celestia did not. “Of course not, Princess. Now, onto more serious matters. Like the state of half the Sky Guard.”

“I heard from Twilight, General.” Celestia cocked an eyebrow. “Meld, was it?”

He nodded. “Priority remains for XCOM operatives, Princess, that remains a fact. But we might be able to give them a new lease on life. Literally, for Slider.”

“An intriguing prospect, General. But would it be worth it to give up precious assets and not get any return on your investment?”

“If it means saving Sky Captain Slider? Yes.” His eyes narrowed. “I cannot simply stand by and watch him die slowly to infection, Princess. He might be mostly robot, but he will live.”

Celestia smiled, and nodded in agreement. “It appears that you remain a pony, General, not a machine. That is good to hear.”

“That’s what you taught me,” he replied with a bow. “Now, on the topic of cybernetics...”

Within the Ghastly Gorge, what was once Spectre Mountain, home of the once-great now-dead wyrm Hok, life carried on as it always did. In a place where even ponykind has not tamed entirely, where animals were ruled by their beastial natures and primal urges to their fullest, nature did what it did best: Ensure that the fittest survived.

Here, manticores hunted cockatrices, hawks preyed on woodland mice, and whatever was brave or foolish enough to dive into the canyons were snapped up by quarray eels.

Here, in a place where cruelty and beauty stood side by side, it was like the war never happened at all.

Here, within the deepest caves of a long-dead quarray eel, the darkness shifted.

Here, the mission set its eyes on the little hamlet of Ponyville.

XCOM Codex
Project: Cherub (Sectoid Autopsy)
Dated: 28th Mayfly 1006
Project Head: Dr. Torque Butterfingers

The alien (henceforth referred to as the Sectoid) is a small bipedal alien shorter than the average pony, with large empty eyes and no discernable mouth to speak of. Of the Sectoids that have been analysed so far, all of them have had near-identical genetic structures, and every single one has been augmented cybernetically. This implies that they might all be clones. Cybernetically-augmented clones. The implications are troubling.

The head of the Sectoid is very large in proportion to the rest of the body, and combined with the lack of a mouth it is not known how or even if the alien gets any sustenance to maintain respiration. Of note is that the brain appears to have the most cybernetic enhancement of all, and coupled with their physical fragility it is likely that these implants are for the explicit purpose of improving their capabilities in combat, though it is just as likely that such aliens were not designed for frontline combat, a troubling possibility indeed.

In comparison to what records we have of the Sectoid in the Codex, there appears to be some difference in the capabilities of these aliens. The Sectoids of old have displayed the ability to ‘mind merge’, while so far these aliens have not shown any ability to do such a thing. Only time will tell if it was worked out as a design flaw or improved further by the Ethereals.

Head Researcher’s Notes: Dr. Metal Hands has already expressed several possibilities for the use of these implants and is interested in trying them out. Though I disdain the need to rip out the implants from preserved corpses for potential future use, it appears to be a necessity and will continue to be necessary for the duration of this war. Perhaps he could design an automatic extractor?

Interlude One: Building Muscle

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Interlude: Building Muscle

Location: The Rust, Herakles
Date: 1st Junebug, 1006 PDE
Time: 08:32:14 (Canterlot Standard Time)

The Golden Bull of Herakles, Yurgen the Exalted was many things. He was old. He was loud. He was boisterous. He had a thick skull. He would make his presence known anywhere he went so loudly the phrase ‘subtle minotaur’ became an oxymoron.

However, nowhere was it ever stated that he was dumb. If nothing else, the Golden Bull was brilliant. War. Strategy. Martial Combat. Pottery, in his spare time. But of them, War was foremost. Though he is now known as a joyous, loud Head of State, in ages past he was a bloodthirsty warlord whose feats rivalled the atrocities committed by King Sombra. Chief among them was the sacking of what was now known as the Rust.

The Rust, where an entire city and thousands of lives were completely destroyed in a show of necromantic prowess that has never been seen before or since. Where all stone and wood and flesh turned to steel and rusted within a day, its inhabitants dying slow excruciating deaths as nature ate away at their transformed bodies.

The Rust, where even hundreds of years later it remains a scar on the minotaur psyche, a shameful memory that the Golden Bull never wants to revisit ever again. That he would undo, if he had the power to do so.

The Rust, where the XCOM Base of Pump Iron hid under, with the public or the aliens being none the wiser.

The base itself was like something out of a novel. The walls were sheet metal, welded together and resembling the hull of a ship. Most of the furniture was metal or plastic, and though advanced technology was at work the general aesthetic was rustic, with the sound of gears constantly thrumming in the background. All in all, it was acceptable.

Commander Jochim had to admit. He did not think the Bull would suggest hiding his greatest hope beneath his greatest shame. It’s interesting how war changes people. Other examples include his old friend/rival Blueblood taking on the mantle of Commander-in-Chief of XCOM, despite previously despising the organisation.

Or, to his surprise, a former motivational speaker being his Field Commander.

“Captain Iron Will,” he said aloud in the middle of the command deck, letting the words settle in his mouth. “Why are you here?”

The Captain smiled and explained himself proudly. “I was once a Tiger Warrior in service to the Golden Bull, Commander! With the aliens attacking, I decided to return to service and serve our world!” He bowed slightly. “I was retired for many years, but rest assured! My skills have been brought back up to speed, and my years of experience can only be helpful!”

The Commander nodded in quiet approval, observing the minotaur with the mohawk in silent judgement. Not the obvious leadership material that Blueblood found in Shining Armor, but he was a renown speaker. This could work. “Admirable qualities, Captain. I look forward to punching aliens in the face with you.”

Iron Will grinned widely. “You flatter me, Commander, but rest assured I will fulfill your expectations!”

“Good. Now,” he carried on, turning to the griffon on his left. “Abigale Silverwing?”

She saluted with a talon. “Major Abigale Silverwing, sir. I’ll be your Central Officer. If you wish to note my credentials, I had oversight on the previous UFO mission before you arrived, sir.”

“With mission data from First Light we were able to adapt our tactics,” Captain Will added helpfully. “We had no deaths and only one injury. He shall recover in mere weeks.”

Oho? One who obeys military tradition and observes respect before superior officers, but is still able to take initiative? And did not mess up? He liked this one. “Excellent. I shall leave the daily operation of this base to you. I would like to see the mission reports on my desk in two hours.” He glanced at his watch. “Three hours. It’s time for lunch.”

“Lunch!” All the minotaurs chorused. It was an old tradition to declare the time of midday meal in Herakles. It was dishonorable to miss lunch, no matter the occasion. Farming or fighting, it was unseemly to work on an empty stomach!

Out the corner of his eye Jochim saw Abigale clench her eyes. Oh well. She would have to adapt. Minotaurs were a proud people. Not a dumb people, but traditions such as these were to be followed. They existed for a reason, by steel.

“But Commander,” the Central Officer said, voice slightly raised, “After lunch, General Blueblood would like a conference.”

“Very well,” he replied. “Settle the arrangements. For now, we shall have lunch.”

“Lunch!” the minotaurs chorused again. And Jochim saw Abigale bite back a sigh.

She would learn, he mused. She would learn.

“So,” the elder Blueblood said, smiling lightly. “How’s the job?”

“It is adequate,” the minotaur shrugged. “I do like the budget.”

“The budget is very nice,” he agreed. “Also the freedom. Not having to worry about PR is amazing.” He blinked. “Oh. Right. Herakles does not need to worry about that.”

Jochim grinned. “I will never understand why you ponies make such a fuss about deaths and injuries. Dead is dead, cripple is cripple. Now, if it were an unnecessary injury…”

Blueblood raised a hoof. “Let’s not start. We’ve gone over this discussion before.”

“Would it not be prudent to remind ourselves?”

“I would prefer talking about killing aliens.”

“I disagree, but that is also an acceptable topic.” Jochim smiled. “While I was on the way, Pump Iron had its first operation.”

“I see,” the General said, rubbing his chin. “We lost nine out of eighteen that day, and six more were crippled, five beyond recovery. How did it go?”

“One cripple with expectations of recovery.” He waited a moment, soaking in the face of utter disbelief the General was making right now. “From what I understand, my teams were very liberal with explosives.”

Jochim-1, Blueblood-0.

“That explains it,” he sighed. “On the other hoof, that means your research teams have done nothing while my teams are making revolutionary discoveries every other day.”

“Now that’s not…” Jochim sighed. “...Okay maybe it is true.”

Jochim-1, Blueblood-1.

His friend and current boss grinned smugly. Oh it was on. “Is progress really worth the deaths of so many though, Blueblood?”

“You tell me,” he replied, still grinning and still smug. “Your society is the one that excuses deaths and injuries if they are ‘necessary’.”

Jochim-1, Blueblood-2.

Jochim made a note to get some burn ointment later. This outcome was dishonorable. “This verbal jousting can continue later, Blueblood. You called for another reason.”

“Yes, yes,” Blueblood sighed, almost disappointed that it was over. “As agreed, I shall be sending over some of the materials we have recovered to jump start your own research operations, along with our research data thus far. These will be coming at the same time as your second squadron of Thunderclouds. Rain Squadron, if I remember correctly.”

“I’ve met them. They seem nice.”

“Now, in exchange First Light will be receiving a squad of Tiger Warriors as operatives, along with a currently-undecided favor to be cashed in at a later time. Within reason, of course.”

Jochim nodded. “Acceptable. I expect this favor will be important?”

The unicorn snorted. “They always are, Jochim.”

“And not a request for several industrial crates of the local coffee?”

Jochim-2, Blueblood-2.

“That was one time and not for official business,” the General scoffed. “Regardless, is this clear?”

“Very. Am I to believe that outside of exceptional circumstances and the monthly census, our bases and all future installations will be independently autonomous?”


“I see,” he nodded. “Now, is that all the business we have for today?”

“It appears so,” Blueblood said. “Of course, the same cannot be said for your mother.”

Jochim grinned wolfishly. “Low blow, Blueblood, low blow. Much like what your princess gave my King this morning.”

Blueblood laughed. “This is going to end in fire, I’m sure of it.”

“Yes, but it will be a glorious blaze.”

“Very glorious. Unlike your Bull. He’s more of a tarnished brass.”

“And your Princess is more of a dim candle.”

“Oh? A dim candle is still brighter than your…”

And so the joust began, a contest of wit and wordplay that would shake the foundations of Mundus. Such moments of mirth were to be appreciated by all involved parties in the days to come, for such moments were usually the calm before the storm. Unicorn or minotaur, both men knew.

A storm was coming. And it was coming straight at them.