The Volunteer, the savior of humanity and one of the men and women who ended the Ethereal War. He gave his life for Earth and its people, but what he faced after death was just the start of yet another brutal war on a new world.
Cory Powell, one of XCOM's strongest psionic soldiers, sacrificed himself to end the Ethereal invasion. While humanity celebrated the end of the war and mourned for the fallen, the Volunteer was left to his thoughts in the endless void created by the Temple Ship's destruction. It wasn't long before fate found him again in the form of a new world, virtually untouched by the horrors of war. The Ethereals, however, aren't done with humanity or the Volunteer, and they will stop at nothing to either assimilate or destroy mankind and the races of Equis.
Cory opened his eyes to see nothing but blackness, which stretched from where he was floating to the horizon in all directions. His mind was groggy and, at first, he struggled to maintain a coherent thought for longer than a few seconds. The only thing he could easily remember was a bright flash before ending up in this infinite void.
He looked down at his clothes to see if everything was still attached, and he saw a tiny sky-blue symbol on the left side of the dark-purple armor that his body was almost completely covered in. Upon looking closely at it, he could make out two words: “Vigilo Confido.” Almost instantaneously, Cory was bombarded by memory after memory of his life, and more importantly, XCOM. On the second day of the Ethereal invasion, his town was caught off guard when the aliens shot “abduction pods,” as Cory called the gray-colored pods that the aliens seemingly loved to use, into the main square.
As a part-time police officer, Cory was never trained to fight extraterrestrials that were armed with plasma weapons. Nonetheless, he fought alongside the main police force to try and contain the situation while minimizing civilian fatalities. It only took thirty-five minutes for the entire police force of around twenty officers to be cut down to just three. Having very few options left, Cory and the other two officers, Lieutenant Simon King and Corporal Maria Alvarez, sent out an emergency distress call on the radio and waited in the police station to fight off the invaders until help could arrive.
The next two days were a blur as he and the other officers barely managed to fight off several waves of attacking Sectoids. At one point, Simon took a grazing bolt of hot plasma to his left arm that rendered him unable to fight back. Maria was killed when one of the Sectoids fired a ball of green energy into her torso mere minutes before Army forces finally arrived. Cory said a quick prayer for her in the lull between the invaders’ attacks before returning to the fight.
After several medics flew Simon off to get proper medical attention, Cory was approached by a Caucasian man in tan combat armor by the name of Samuel, who had appeared to be twenty nine years old. He offered Cory to join “XCOM,” an elite fighting force specifically chosen and trained to combat the alien invaders. Samuel warned Cory of the high possibility that he would not end up coming out of the invasion alive.
Regardless of the risks, Cory joined the XCOM project and was almost immediately met with hostility from several of the other soldiers, who had served in their countries’ military in one form or another before joining XCOM. They apparently didn’t like the thought of fighting alongside a part-time cop with little actual combat training, but Cory ended up proving himself on their first UFO raid.
After the rest of his squad started taking fire from an Outsider and a complement of Sectoids, Cory flanked the alien aggressors and laid down covering fire, giving the others a chance to take down the distracted invaders. Cory’s actions weren’t without consequence, however, as he took two bolts of plasma to the chest of his body armor from the Outsider’s plasma rifle, which melted through his armor like a hot knife through butter and caused severe second and third-degree burns to his flesh.
When he was released after five days of intensive treatment, Cory walked into the barracks and was met with words of gratitude and apologies from his squad mates. He had gained their trust and respect, even though deep down, he felt that he hadn’t truly earned it yet.
Everything seemed to be going well...until Bradford was informed by the Council that a group of humans, going by the name of EXALT, was working with the alien invaders. The traitors struck numerous locations in very little time, spreading panic around the world and actively attempting to thwart XCOM's efforts to repel the aliens.
Their actions ended up being their biggest mistake, as XCOM swiftly and viciously cracked down on EXALT cells and operations wherever they were found. For every XCOM operative that was killed, twice as many EXALT operatives were taken down in retribution. When they tried to attack the base from within, the soldiers of XCOM stubbornly held their ground and killed every last attacker that came inside.
As the war against both the aliens and EXALT progressed, XCOM managed to capture a live Outsider and found the alien base in Asia. When the Sectoid commander was killed and the Hyperwave Beacon was brought back to base, Cory began to suffer from mild to severe headaches. These headaches only grew worse when the base’s research team began to construct the Hyperwave Relay and the Psi Labs. Upon hearing rumors throughout the base that the Commander was looking for potential psionic soldiers, Cory was the first to be tested and was found to be capable of psionic abilities.
The Hyperwave Relay was soon remotely contacted by the Ethereals, the ring-leaders of the alien invasion themselves, and their attacks grew more and more frequent until the Gollop Chamber was constructed. The psionic who entered the chamber and activated it would become the strongest human psionic on Earth, and the soldiers of XCOM almost unanimously suggested Cory, who hesitantly accepted the role after much reassurance by his fellow operatives.
When the invasion was nearing its end, XCOM managed to locate EXALT's base, regardless of the rapidly increasing attacks by the aliens, and decimated the vast majority of EXALT's forces. Cory didn't hear very much about them after that, mainly because of the Gollop Chamber was turned on shortly afterwards.
His activation of the chamber brought him to the forefront of the Uber Ethereal’s attention, and the alien Temple Ship uncloaked itself seemingly as an invitation to Cory and the rest of XCOM. The final battle was almost there, and now, XCOM was finally ready to end the invasion.
After plowing through dozens of the Ethereals’ slave races, Cory and his squad reached the control center of the Temple Ship and were confronted by the Uber Ethereal, who gave them the choice of either becoming the Ethereals’ favorite pets or being destroyed. Without any hesitation, the XCOM operatives killed every last alien on the bridge, including the Uber Ethereal, which caused the Temple Ship to start collapsing.
Cory was about to leave with the others when he had a vision of the ship’s collapse forming a black hole, which would swallow up the Earth and everyone on it. He ordered his squad mates to leave as he activated the controls and began to fly the ship upwards. He could just barely sense the Skyranger that had brought him to the Temple Ship escaping, his squad safely onboard as the Temple Ship began to ascend into space.
He had taken one last look at Earth before destroying the ship outside Earth’s atmosphere, which ended up bringing him to the void surrounding him. Cory now had nothing but his memories and his equipment to prevent him from going crazy in the boring, silent oblivion that he slowly began to drift through.
This isn’t exactly what I had in mind when I thought of what the afterlife would be, the psionic thought sardonically as he formed a miniature rift in his right hand, watching it spin around rapidly above his palm. A frustrated sigh left his lips as he clenched his hand, dissipating the rift into a quickly-fading pink mist. It had been what seemed like days or even months of him just floating around endlessly in his new “prison.”
It was absolutely infuriating to him; he had run out of things to do that could distract him from the inevitable boredom of being stranded in an empty plane of existence. He had no one to talk to, either, and he certainly didn’t want to accelerate his descent in madness by talking to himself.
“…I wonder if some higher entities put me in here for safekeeping while they argue about what they should do with me,” the XCOM operative sarcastically asked the void with a roll of his eyes. “It wouldn’t be really surprising to me, considering the fact that I’ve been fighting aliens for months and somehow not getting killed. It wouldn’t kill them, however, to at least give me something to look at instead of staring at nothing all the time.”
Just as the words left his lips, something appeared in the corner of his eye that easily grabbed his attention. He swiveled around to see the faintest of lights shimmering just at the edge of his range of vision. After smacking himself in the face to make sure that he hadn’t gone insane and wasn’t hallucinating, he cautiously drifted towards the light, which slowly grew larger and brighter as he approached.
As he got closer, he quickly became aware of soft, unintelligible whispers that echoed throughout the void without any particular source. The voices grew louder and louder until he could finally make out what they were saying.
“You are…” “They are coming…”
“Fated…” “Time is short…”
“Stop them” “Only you”
Without warning, the light approached him at an impossible speed, consuming Cory and all of his surroundings. Before everything went dark once again, a man’s low, oddly jovial voice echoed in his thoughts, “War is coming, and you must succeed. I wish you luck, because you’re going to need it!”
A light breeze swept through the forest, making tree branches slowly sway and dance in the cool night air. The daytime animals were resting peacefully in their slumber as the creatures of the night woke up, going about their nightly routines once more. Deep within the woods, the crumbling walls of a decrepit castle stood firmly in place, the tapestries hanging from them swinging back and forth as gusts of wind made their way inside.
A stone balcony on the castle’s main tower overlooked the calm forest, which seemingly stretched for miles in every direction. Moss and vines hung from almost every available space on the abandoned castle’s exterior, adding to the sense of loneliness the stone stronghold gave off.
Several miles away from the forest stood a small town, its populace sleeping peacefully as the moon bathed it in a soft, white glow. One individual was still awake however, watching the bright stars as she rapidly took down notes from her balcony. She blew a lock of her lavender hair out of her eyes and looked up at the sky once again as her horn gripped the feather quill in front of her in a light purple aura. The moonlight lit up the wooden floor, letting her see the writing on the parchment held in place beneath her hoof.
A light yawn originating from her right prompted the mare to look over at her assistant, a small baby dragon who looked at back at her through sleepy eyes, “Twilight, why are you still awake? It’s almost one in the morning.”
Twilight rolled her eyes and replied, “You know that Princess Celestia sent me a letter this afternoon, Spike. You were the one who coughed it up! The princess wanted me to keep watch for anything strange in the night sky, and I don’t want to disappoint her!”
A bright, loud flash in the corner of her eye startled her as she spun around to see a strange, dark mass fall into the Everfree Forest. Spike’s jaw hung open in shock as Twilight ran to pack her saddlebags with everything she thought she’d need. The sound of her door opening roughly eight minutes later interrupted her frantic packing, prompting her walk downstairs to find her friends standing in front of the doorway, anxious and worried expressions painted on their faces.
“Twilight, darling, did you see that flash, too? It woke me up from my much-needed beauty sleep!” Rarity asked her friend as she brought a hoof up to her violet mane, which was somewhat-comically filled with hair curlers.
Twilight nodded, “Yes, I saw it, but I also saw something falling into the Everfree Forest, something big. I was just getting ready to go out when you girls came in.”
Fluttershy, a butter-yellow pegasus, softly spoke up from Rarity’s left, “Oh, my! Do you think that it might have been an animal? What if the poor thing is scared or hurt?”
Before Twilight could respond, a cyan pegasus interrupted, “Oh yeah, Fluttershy? Well, what if it’s some kind of giant monster that's trying to trash the town or something! I don’t want a repeat of the Ursa Minor incident with Trixie. Hay, what if it's some bad guy whose flank we kicked who's come back for revenge, like Sombra?"
“If it was a monster or a bad guy, Rainbow, then Ah’d think that the Princesses woulda taken care of th’ problem, already. They ain’t gonna make a mistake like that so easily,” Applejack retorted, fixing her Stetson back into place atop her head.
A pink blur appeared in front of Twilight, her mouth going a million miles per minute, “Oh, maybe the thing that fell out of the sky was a pony from the future! If that’s the case, then I have to go and throw a huge “Welcome to Ponyville of the Past, Pony from the Future” party! There’s so much stuff that I could ask them, and-”
Twilight clamped a hoof over Pinkie Pie’s mouth and let out a mildly frustrated sigh, “Listen, girls, we could keep throwing theories around all night. That won’t get us any closer to whatever it was that fell into the Everfree.”
The purple alicorn went back upstairs and put on her saddlebags, walking back downstairs as she looked at each of her friends. “Are we ready to get going? I don’t want to waste any time by running back to get things at the last minute,” Twilight asked, receiving a small chorus of “no’s” from the others after a moment’s hesitation. Satisfied, the mare trotted out of the library with her friends walking on either side of her.
It took about ten minutes to arrive at the entrance of the forest, and its mouth was still as intimidating as ever. Fluttershy whimpered slightly and attempted to back away, but she was stopped by a reassuring pat on the back courtesy of Rainbow Dash. With a few last looks at one another to make sure that they were all sure about the situation, they all ventured forth into the dark depths of the Everfree.
Elsewhere, in the far reaches of the universe, an ancient being looked on with disgust as its exiled and disgraced brethren failed in their task. Yet another pointless failure of its kind, but now, it would be the last. A wave of its hand across a pulsating pink orb activated the gargantuan engines of its ship, bright red jets of elerium thrusting the leviathan craft forward. A telepathic pulse throughout the ship woke its occupants, their stasis pods opening up as millions of crew stepped out to perform their duties.
The being turned to face twelve other Ethereals, their heads obscured by their highly-ornate helmets as they bowed in reverence to their brother. One of them, an Ethereal wearing a silver headdress, was the first to speak, "You have summoned us, High One. For what purpose have you graced us with your attention?"
The High One raised a hand to signal its fellows to stand, then turned its back towards them as it glared into the vastness of space, "The Exiles have failed to redeem themselves, destroyed by the very race they tried to ascend. From the messages they sent to me, I have learned the name of their remarkably stubborn quarry: 'humanity.'"
The other Ethereals nodded and shook their heads in disappointment as an Ethereal with "horns" on its helmet responded, "If these 'humans' were able to defeat our disgraced brothers, then they are a force to be reckoned with. We must not underestimate them as they did, High One. The invasion will have weakened their numbers and resolve, so we must act quickly to eradicate them before they are able to recover!"
"No, Izen, you must have patience. The humans will have likely awakened their psionics abilities and assimilated our weaponry. To fight them now would be foolhardy, and we mustn't be arrogant like our fallen ilk were. Before we can launch an offensive against the humans, we must first take another race into our collective," the High Ethereal told Izen as it waved a hand in dismissal.
The silver-helmeted Ethereal spoke once more, the faintest hint of frustration in its voice, "Taking in another slave race just for them to be failures like the rest? Surely you jest, High One! If the humans were able to best all of the failed races that we still use, then what chance would another slave race have against them?"
The High Ethereal swiped its hand in an arc, silencing the others as it explained, "The new race will not be like the others that have failed to ascend, Varda, as our new quarry all have the Gift from conception."
A shocked and disbelieving murmur erupted among the Ethereals, which died off as the High One continued, "These 'Equestrians,' as they call themselves, are powerful enough with the Gift to rival even us Ethereals. The strongest among them, rare individuals called 'alicorns' that live for millenia, are able to control the movement of their star and moon. With their power, we could abandon these frail bodies we now use and easily overcome the humans. If we are successful, then there will be little chance of anyone ever defeating us again!"
The Ethereals nodded and spoke words of approval, their leader gracefully levitating towards the ship's controls and entering their destination into its flight path. Once finished, he turned around to face his brethren once more, "Now, my brothers and sisters, let us prepare for what is to come! You are all dismissed."
They all dispersed and floated off in different directions while the High Ethereal remained in the bridge, staring at the holographic image of a yellow star orbiting a vibrant planet, "Soon, you will all be ours, and nothing will stop us."
The first thing that Cory felt when he woke up was a very severe migraine, like he had fallen head-first through a stone ceiling or something. He slowly got to his feet, then looked up to see a vaguely human-sized hole in the ceiling. Oh, so that’s why my head feels like a Sectoid commander tried to mind-rape me, the XCOM operative thought to himself as he looked at his surroundings.
He seemed to be in an old castle of sorts, the walls covered in vegetation as nature was slowly taking them over. The Volunteer looked down to see his plasma rifle and plasma pistol on the ground near his feet, both of which were still intact despite falling from hundreds of feet in the air. The psionic securely fastened the pistol to his right hip and firmly gripped his rifle as he walked down the first hallway that he spotted.
As Cory walked through the castle’s long hallways, he couldn’t help but wonder why the castle hadn’t been torn down yet. The crumbling walls and ceiling were a major health hazard, and the stronghold seemed like it hadn’t been used in a long time. Unless this was an important historical landmark, it didn’t make sense to just leave it standing as a big eyesore.
“Do you see anything yet, Rainbow Dash?” Twilight called out as a rainbow-patterned blur in the sky flew overhead. After she didn’t get a response, the lavender alicorn sighed and looked back at her friends. The six mares had been searching most of the Everfree for the past hour, and they had made very little progress in finding the mysterious entity that had fallen into the creepy forest.
Applejack stopped walking and leaned against a tree, trying to catch her breath as she panted, “Twi, Ah dunno if what we’re lookin’ for is even in th’ Everfree. How can ya be sure that it didn’t land somewhere else?”
Twilight shook her head in denial, “No, it’s in the Everfree, I know it is! Besides, there’s one place that we haven’t searched yet.”
“Hey, I think I found something, girls! There's a hole in the roof at the princesses' old place!" Rainbow Dash yelled out from above them, kicking up some dirt as she landed a few seconds later. The baby blue pegasus pointed her right foreleg in the direction of the old castle, the massive stronghold visible in the distance.
The Element of Magic smiled in excitement as she galloped as fast as she could towards the castle, her friends sharing tired looks as they followed Twilight at a more sedate pace.
After what seemed like an eternity of trying to get through the castle, Cory finally arrived at the main foyer. The room was relatively empty, aside from a few worn tapestries and rotting pieces of furniture scattered about. The XCOM operative spotted the tall, rusted iron doors that made up the foyer’s entrance and, after sighing in relief, made his way over to them.
He had gotten lost several times while he was navigating the castle’s confusing halls, and along the way, he had found a massive library absolutely filled with books. After thirty minutes of being lost yet again, he had stumbled upon a private study of some sort. Silk pillows were strewn about the room, and a wooden bookshelf stood flush against the wall. The psionic left shortly after when he found nothing of any real use inside.
With freedom now just beyond the doorway in front of him, the Volunteer pressed his hands against both of them, and pushed forward. The metal doors opened with ease, much to his surprise, to reveal a semi-roofless area with an odd, six-armed pedestal in the center. He could see another set of doors on the opposite end of the room, but his attention was focused on the night sky.
As a teen, he had been taught to look for certain stars and constellations when you needed to figure out where you were and which direction was north. To his utter dismay, Cory couldn’t find any familiar constellations or any of the “compass” stars in the sky. The moon was the only familiar celestial body that was still in the right place, but even then something felt off about it.
The soldier was almost too engrossed in his thoughts to hear the doors at the other end being pushed open.
Once the others had caught up with her at the chasm surrounding the castle, Twilight carefully made her way across the bridge with Applejack, Rarity, and Pinkie Pie following close behind. Once they made it across, Rainbow Dash and Fluttershy flew over the chasm and landed next to the others.
“Alright, girls, the castle is right over there. Be very careful when we go inside, and try not to get separated from each other. We don’t know if what we’re looking for is dangerous or not,” Twilight advised her friends as they walked towards the castle’s entrance.
Rainbow Dash let out a joking scoff and waved a hoof in dismissal, “We know, Twilight, relax! If anything tries to attack us, we can take it down, no problem!”
The sporty pegasus was about to say more, but she closed her mouth upon seeing the glare that Twilight was shooting at her. The young alicorn was about to scold her friend when she saw a small flicker of movement in the corner of her eye.
She stopped just at the doors, her hoof raised and trembling a few inches away from the door. Twilight took in several deep breaths to calm her nerves, Calm down, Twilight, get a hold of yourself! Rainbow is right: we can handle anything we find in there. We possess the Elements of Harmony, the most powerful forces in all of Equestria! There’s nothing to be worried about.
She slowly pushed the doors open, her eyes darting around the room as if expecting something to jump out at her. When nothing tried to dismember her, she let out the breath that she didn’t know she had been holding. “Stick together, everypony. We don’t want a repeat of the last time we were here,” Twilight remarked as the other mares started whistling or rubbing their forelegs in embarrassment.
The six mares cautiously entered the main foyer, the doors closing shut behind them. About five seconds later, a purple-clad biped fell from the small section of roof above the doorway.
If those...”ponies” had stayed any longer, then I would have fallen right on top of them, Cory mused, turning to face the exit with a faint smile. He pushed the doors open to come face-to-face with one of the aliens, its teal eyes staring into his blue ones.
Time itself seemed to stand still as the two stared at one another, unmoving aside from the gentle rise and fall of their chests from their breathing. The sound of a door being kicked open drew his attention towards the foyer doors, which gave the midnight-blue alien enough time to charge him.
The psionic dodged to the right just in time to avoid being skewered by its horn, but he wasn’t quick enough to dodge a bolt of purple energy that struck him in the upper back. The inertia of the blast sent him and his plasma rifle skidding across the ground, but he recovered and landed on his feet to face the group of hostiles.
Cory formed a rift in his right hand, eliciting a gasp of surprise from them as he flung the vortex of psionic energy at them. They all barely had enough time to react as they jumped away from the rift, which tore apart the foyer doors and the surrounding area. In retaliation, a cyan alien flew straight towards him with its hoof reared back for a massive punch. He merely grabbed the flyer and used its momentum to slingshot it into a wall, then jumped back as a pair of toned orange legs kicked out where his chest had been moments before.
The orange xeno glared at him as it pulled a rope seemingly out of thin air and started twirling it into a lasso. It swung the rope at him in an attempt to tie him up, but the XCOM operative sidestepped and grabbed the lasso, pulling on it with all his might and sending her flying towards him. A harsh head-butt to the orange pony’s skull knocked it out like a light, but left him with a temporarily throbbing forehead.
His entire body suddenly locked up, unable to move as he was slowly rotated to face an irate-looking purple alien, its horn glowing the same color as the aura that encased him. The dark-blue pony that stood next it stood there with an equally-furious glare painted on its face, its horn steadily growing brighter and brighter as if charging something up.
Cory tried to struggle against his invisible restraints, pouring every ounce of his willpower into fighting against the grip of the force holding him. His efforts were futile, a blast of blue energy striking him in the face and causing everything to fade into blackness.
Once the creature was knocked out, Twilight released it from her magic’s grip and nearly collapsed to the floor from exhaustion. Luna walked over to the strange being and not-so-gently poked it with a hoof.
“Rainbow Dash, Applejack, are you two alright? Both of you looked like you got hit hard,” the lavender mare behind Luna managed to get out amidst her deep panting.
“Ah…Ah think Ah’m good, sugarcube. Just…feeling a little woozy, is all. That big ol’ varmint sure packed a punch with that head of his,” Applejack responded as she stumbled slightly on her way over to their knocked-out foe.
Rainbow Dash sluggishly got to her hooves and stomped over to Applejack, "Yeah, yeah, I'm fine. Are you sure that this jerk is out cold? I don't want it to wake up and go on a rampage."
A blue glow surrounded the biped as Luna walked towards it, "Thou need not worry, Rainbow Dash. This creature shall be taken to Canterlot and kept under heavy guard until we decide what to do with it."
As the others conversed, Pinkie Pie stared at the strange object that had fallen off of the creature's back. She examined it from every possible angle she could think of, then started poking it with a stick she had found nearby. The object suddenly lit up on one end and let out a steady hum, prompting the hyperactive pink mare to gasp softly in wonder.
Pinkie quickly looked back at her friends, and seeing that they were still talking, she started poking the device with her hooves. The clanging of hooves hitting metal drew everyone else's attention towards the pink mare, who stopped jabbing at the object and giggled nervously.
Twilight rolled her eyes and carefully levitated the device over to Luna. The midnight blue alicorn nodded her head in thanks as she surrounded it with her magic, "Thank thee, Twilight. We shall take this to Canterlot to study it along with the creature. All of thee may come as thou please to Canterlot, but do make sure to be prepared for anything."
The lunar princess disappeared in a bright flash of light, and the Elements began their trek back to Ponyville.
The High Ethereal rose from his meditation and turned to face one of his brothers, who bowed his black headdress in reverence. "Welcome, Erusha. Speak what is on your mind."
Erusha remained in his bowing position for a few more seconds, then fixed his posture to be standing straight. "All of the slave races have finished preparing themselves, and our crafts are fully armed and fueled. The only thing we need now is your approval to begin the Trials, High One," Erusha told the High Ethereal as the latter nodded in satisfaction, floating over to stand directly in front of Erusha.
"This is pleasing news, my brother. We have already arrived in the Equestrian home system, and when we are in position, we can commence the Trials. Now, gather our brethren and bring them here, Erusha. It is time to..." the High Ethereal paused and turned to look at the system's only planet.
Erusha was silent for a few moments before he finally broke the bridge's silence, "Is something wrong, High One? It is...unlike you to be distracted while speaking to your brethren."
The High Ethereal tore his gaze from Equis to face Erusha, "It is nothing, my brother. I merely thought that I had sensed an...abnormality coming from the Equestrian's home-world."
The other Ethereal nodded and bowed his head in respect once more, "I understand, High One. Do not let me burden you any further."
Once his brother was gone, the High One turned to face the planet as he resumed his meditation. "When the Trials are initiated...I know where we must first send our forces," the High Ethereal calmly decided as the ship finally reached the right position.
The Commander sighed as another notification from the HQ's comm system appeared on his P.D.A. Tapping the icon on the screen twice, a window opened up to show another fourteen messages from various senders. He briefly skimmed through each message's contents before opening up the next email, finally closing the window once he found nothing of importance in the notifications. Commander Ashton could already tell that it was going to be yet another tedious day.
After the Ethereal War had ended, the Council had hesitantly decided to let the rest of the world know about XCOM and what it had done for mankind. The public's reaction was overwhelming, to say the least. For almost three days straight, news outlets and other media groups made reports and articles solely about XCOM. The United Nations requested XCOM's help in restoring order and rebuilding the countries that had been devastated by the alien invasion.
The damage reports that Ashton had received from the Council soon after were devastating. Over 237 million people had been killed worldwide, and even more were either missing or had been abducted. Although roughly one-quarter of a billion people would seem like a low number compared to the billions of people around the world, the fact that so many people had died despite XCOM's assistance was what made it devastating to the Commander. On top of that, the total damage caused by the aliens would take, at minimum, one year to fix. He couldn't even begin to imagine what the cost of repairs would be, let alone what would happen to the global economy.
A small window on the tablet-computer's screen popped up, showing camera feed of a brown-haired man wearing a green uniform standing in front of his office door. "You can come in, you know. You won't be interrupting anything, Bradford," the Commander raised his voice without so much as a glance upwards. A few seconds passed until Officer Bradford walked into Ashton's office, coming to a halt a few feet away from his superior's desk.
The Central Officer of XCOM gave his boss a crisp salute before he began, "Commander Ashton, the Engineering team has finished construction on our third and fourth Firestorms. All remaining EXALT stragglers following their base's destruction have been eliminated. Lastly, our satellites haven't picked up any more alien activity since the Temple Ship's destruction, so it's safe to say that the invaders have been wiped out, for the time being."
"Good to hear, Bradford. What's the status of Council funding?" Ashton inquired as he read yet another notification that had appeared on the screen of his P.D.A. The Commander had been worried that since the alien threat was gone, the Council would cut off XCOM's funding and shut everything down.
"The Council is still sending us more than enough funding to keep us going, sir. In fact, some of the reports I've heard say that the public have started to give their own support for XCOM. We won't be scraping by like we used to when the invasion began," Bradford replied with a small nod to his superior, who let out a short sigh of relief.
Although that was one more concern laid to rest, there were more issues that Ashton needed to have addressed. "How are the Strike teams doing? I'd imagine that most of them have recovered by now, but some of them must still be mourning our losses," the Commander asked as he shut off his tablet to give Bradford his undivided attention.
"Strike One is the only team that is still actively coping with the loss of Colonel Powell and the others. They're currently planning to hold a memorial service with the other teams for him and the other operatives listed on the Memorial Wall," the Central Officer reported without missing a beat, his hands still clasped together behind his back. The subtle look that Bradford was giving Ashton wordlessly questioned whether he'd permit it. For as long as he had known the Commander, Bradford had never seen nor heard his boss allow any form of sentimental event at the base. This lack of empathy, however, was mainly born of the constant necessity for everyone at XCOM to be on their toes and unburdened by their losses.
A long, somewhat-tense pause filled the room, and for a few moments, Bradford believed that Ashton was going to refuse just like he usually did. His fear was lifted when the Commodore let out an aggravated breath and shook his head, "So long as the service doesn't interfere with the work of the other base personnel, and as long as they don't take too long, then I'll give them my authorization to go through with it. If any other personnel also want to join in, then I can't really do anything to stop them. They all deserve at least that much, after everything they've gone through."
Bradford quickly found his voice again and nodded, "Understood, sir. I'll notify our soldiers right away. Is there anything else that you need a report on?"
"No, that will be all, Bradford. You're dismissed," Ashton replied as he turned his tablet back on and was instantly barraged with dozens upon dozens of notifications. A flicker of amusement briefly passed over the Central Officer's face as Ashton, in a rare loss of composure, let out a frustrated yell and slammed a fist against his desk. Deciding that it would be best to leave while he could, Bradford slipped out of the room just as the Commander's tablet was flung against the closing door.
The next day, Canterlot was still as busy as ever: high-class ponies conversed with one another while the Royal Guards patrolled the streets and maintained order in the mountain-side city. Further away from the rest of the city, Canterlot Castle stood proudly in the afternoon sun as Celestia's brilliant star bathed it in a warm, orange glow. Outside of the castle, everything was calm and quiet, with only the chirping and melodious singing of assorted birds breaking the serene silence.
The interior of the Princesses' abode, however, was in pure pandemonium. The Royal Guards stationed within stood guard outside of the royal library, and inside the room itself, ponies belonging to various organizations were frantically galloping around the room. Papers and books were strewn across the floor as scholars and scientists ran from bookshelf to bookshelf, their voices barely registering to one another over the din that filled the air.
In the safety and privacy of her chambers, Princess Luna tried to block out all of the noise as she read the book in front of her, but there was just too much going noise coming from outside of her bedroom for her to concentrate. Ever since she had brought the creature and its strange device back to Canterlot, the entire royal staff had been in an uproar. The entire castle had been put on lockdown by the order of Shining Armor, and the public had been forbidden to go near the castle until told otherwise.
The sound of her bedroom doors opening drew Luna’s gaze from her book to Celestia standing in the doorway. The younger alicorn smiled as she rushed up to greet her sister with a loving nuzzle, “Hello, dear sister! I suppose that thou art here to ask why all of the ponies within our castle are acting mad, correct?"
Her older sister nodded with a warm smile painted on her face, "Yes, Luna, I'm afraid that I need to see what has all of my little ponies in a panic. If you'd be so kind as to lead the way?" Celestia waited until Luna had left the room to start following her, easily catching up to the lunar princess and keeping pace with her.
A lime-green unicorn stallion with a frizzy orange mane ran up to the Princesses shortly after they walked into the library, the tails of his lab coat fluttering softly behind him and covering his cutie-mark. He came to a halt in front of the diarchs and dropped to his knees in a bow. He quickly rose to his hooves and started speaking as if he had downed an entire pot of coffee, "Greetings, your majesties! My name is Beaker, and I'm so sorry that this place is such a mess! We were so eager to start working that as soon as the subject was brought here, we shoved the bookshelves aside to make as much space as possible! If you're here to see what we've been doing all day, then please come and follow me!"
Before either of them could respond, the stallion whirled around and trotted off in the opposite direction. The two sisters glanced at each other before they started walking after the hyperactive lab pony. When they caught up to him, he was standing beside a dome of magic that enclosed the mysterious armored biped. Two earth pony mares were thoroughly examining the creature's purple armor on a table outside of the containment dome, and a pegasus stallion under the supervision of an armed guard observed the biped's physiology.
Beaker politely cleared his throat as the two princesses turned to look at him. He gestured a hoof in the direction of the two mares and the armor they were studying, "To start off, the creature's armor is composed of a dense metal that, interestingly enough, is not native to Equestria or any of the other known nations. Upon further examination, we found trace amounts of an unknown element in the armor that seems to act as an amplifier for magic or some other form of exotic energy."
"An amplifier? The creature doesn't have a horn or any form of appendage to focus and use magic with, so why would it need an amplifier?" Celestia wondered aloud, to which Beaker's face lit up with unbridled excitement as he trotted over to stand beside the dome.
The unicorn motioned towards the creature with a huge smile as he answered the solar princess, "The reason for that, Princess Celestia, is because it doesn't use magic at all. Following Luna's report of the events preceding the creature's capture, my fellow scientists and I were stumped as to why the subject could make a powerful rift of energy without tapping into the Field. It seemed to defy every magical law and theory known to ponykind! Then, one of our apprentices suggested that instead of using the Field, maybe it was using the power of its mind as a substitute. There's no need to ask questions, because I'll answer them later on. Now, let's move on to what most of us lab ponies have been clamoring over for the past afternoon!"
Once again, before the princesses could respond, Beaker galloped across the room towards a crowd of scientists, who were surrounding something on a table in the far corner of the room. A sigh of slight impatience left Celestia's lips as the two sisters teleported over to the crowd to save time. As the princesses approached, the crowd parted to make a clear path for them, bowing in respect as the alicorns passed by them.
Laying at the center of the table was the device that the creature had been carrying on its back. When Beaker caught sight of Celestia and Luna, he beckoned them over and pointed at the artifact, "Our initial thoughts were that this contraption was a power supply of some kind, presumably to help power the subject's equipment. After all, it had its own energy source — the green block of energy in the center — and the armor has an indentation or depression on the back where the object could be attached. However, it has been concluded, after several hours of arguing and debates, that this device is actually a projectile-based energy weapon."
Luna's body froze up as it occurred to her that the entire time that she and the Elements had been fighting it, the creature could have used this thing to seriously hurt or even kill them. She had unknowingly put herself and the Elements in harm's way by trying to subdue the creature. The muscles in her body relaxed as her sister draped a wing over her back, prompting the younger alicorn to look up at the reassuring smile on Celestia's face.
Despite all that we have learned so far from the...alien, for lack of a better term, we have only scratched the surface of what its species can create. Their level of technology is leagues beyond anything we can currently manage, even with the use of magic," Beaker sighed in disappointment, hanging his head and idly kicking his hoof against the marble floor.
His demeanor quickly changed as his mouth curled into a frown before he turned his gaze towards the princesses again, "There is one unsettling piece of information that we unexpectedly gathered while we were setting the alien up in the dome. It kept mumbling in its sleep, and because we couldn't understand what it was saying, we cast a basic translation spell on the subject. What we managed to pick up from all of the gibberish was a single word: 'Ethereals.' "
"What do you think that it could mean, Beaker? Could these 'Ethereals' be the leaders of its species?" Luna piped up curiously from beside her sister.
Before Beaker could open his mouth, the library doors opened as Twilight and her friends nervously walked inside. Celestia's mouth quickly widened into a warm smile as she strode over to her student and exchanged a few nuzzles. The purple alicorn looked up to meet her teacher's gaze and sheepishly greeted the two diarchs, "We're sorry if we're interrupting something, your Majesties."
Celestia let out a soft chuckle and shook her head, "Of course not, Twilight! You're always welcome to come and visit. I suppose you're all here to check on the creature that you helped Luna capture?"
Twilight gave the solar princess a firm nod as she glanced anxiously at the creature and its equipment, "We wanted to be here in case the creature woke up and tried to hurt somepony."
"You need not worry, Twilight," Luna assured her friend with a soft smile. "In the event that the alien regained consciousness, the castle guards would rush in and make sure that it wouldn't attempt anything."
No sooner than the word "alien" had left Luna's lips, the six mares went silent. Although ponies were still making a deafening roar that rang throughout the library, the silence that came from the Element bearers made Luna feel uneasy. Then, the six mares began bombarding the unprepared lunar princess with questions:
"It's an alien!? Oh, why didn't I bring Spike along for notes?"
"Oh my gosh! A real, live alien, and I got to kick its butt! This is so awesome!"
"An alien? Ooh! That means I can throw a 'Welcome to Equestria Mr. Alien' party! I wonder if he'll like double-chocolate chip cupcakes?"
"Oh my goodness! Imagine all of the possibilities for fashion! So many new designs, so many exotic materials! Oh, the possibilities are absolutely ENDLESS! I'd have to do something about that garish color scheme, though. The purple-only design is just barbaric!"
"Well, Ah'll be! No wonder this big ol' critter could toss me like a rag-doll!"
"Oh, no! The poor thing must be terrified, being all alone on a different planet!"
Celestia, upon seeing Luna flash her a desperate look that said 'I don't know what to do!', sighed and used her Royal Canterlot voice for the first time in ages: "Girls, settle down this instant!" The effect was immediate as the six mares closed their mouths and looked up to meet Celestia's gaze, embarrassment vividly painted on their expressions.
"I know that this is exciting, but you must remember that this is a very serious matter. If there is one of these aliens here, then the rest of its species could be coming soon. As such, we may have to prepare for the possibility of war. Now, if you would like to ask questions, I'm fairly certain that our friend, Beaker, here would be happy to—"
Anything else that Celestia might have said was forgotten when somepony let out a cry of alarm came from within the containment dome. Nearly all activity in the room came to a halt as everypony whirled around to see the scientist within the barrier furiously banging his hooves against the edge in an effort to get out, casting fearful glances back at the operating table in the center.
The alien was now awake.
As Cory woke up with a grunt, the first thing that registered in his mind was the sudden crippling migraine that was threatening to split his head in two. The second was that he could hear panicked screaming coming from somewhere nearby. Oh great, as if my head wasn't in enough agony without someone screaming at the top of their lungs, Cory thought to himself as a pained groan escaped his lips.
His eyes opened to see two iron spearheads straight from the Dark Ages pointed at his head. Unintelligible shouting came from both sides of him, and he looked to the right to see a golden-armored pony glaring fiercely at him. How a horse could hold a spear without breaking every bone in its leg, the psionic had no idea.
The armored horse in question flinched slightly when Powell fixed his gaze on it. If they were intimidated by him, then he wouldn't have to worry about the ponies attacking him for simply getting into a comfortable position. After a quick mental debate, Cory rose to a sitting position and took a look around the room. Bookshelves had been moved aside from their respective slots in the floor to make room for the countless ponies and tables that filled the room. In the far corner of the room, the XCOM operative could see his plasma rifle laying on a table. His blue eyes shifted from his rifle to his psi armor, which was resting on a nearby table much like his rifle currently was. Cory suddenly felt very naked and vulnerable in only his casual operative uniform, and the spears pointed at him now seemed a lot more deadly than they did before.
Out of the corner of his eye, several more armored equines took positions on the other side of the dome as a rather tall pony approached the barrier. Its coat was a radiant white that seemed to glow as the sun cast its light upon it, and the horse's multi-colored mane defied gravity as it gently flowed behind its owner. The pony was at least a full two feet taller than he was, though its horn took up at least a foot of the equine's total height. The most noticeable difference that made is stand out from all of the others was the fact that it had both a unicorn's horn and the wings of a pegasus.
The white equine studied Cory for a few moments before she — or at least he assumed that it was a girl — turned her neutral stare into a warm and somehow comforting smile. Her horn glowed as the dome receded into the ground, which prompted cries of alarm from a smaller, dark blue winged unicorn. The white mare craned her neck to face the smaller one with a gentle yet stern expression, the dark blue mare slowly withering under the other's gaze.
Cory kept eye contact with the larger mare when she turned back to face him, putting another smile on her face as she calmly stepped towards him. He narrowed his eyes into a glare and snarled at the approaching mare, who stopped dead in her tracks as the smile dropped from her face. The midnight blue mare shouted and fixed a death glare on the psionic, the horn on her head beginning to glow a deep blue. The brilliant pink glow of psionic energy enveloped both of Cory's hands as he prepared for a fight, his eyes darting around the room in an attempt to find an escape route.
Just as all hell was about to break loose, a sudden feeling of calm and peacefulness filled the room. The ponies in the room, who had been mere moments away from panicking or attacking Cory, were now falling onto their haunches as they felt every muscle in their bodies involuntarily relax and as the feelings of distress and hostility completely vacated their minds. The human turned his attention to the white mare, whose horn was wrapped in a brilliant yellow aura as her eyes were closed in seemingly intense concentration. Although some of the equines weakly tried to resist, they quickly succumbed to the overwhelming sense of calm that washed over them.
The psionic tried to throw a rift at the mare, but the psychic energy covering his hands flickered out when the mare turned her gaze on him. An arc of yellow energy shot out from the mare's horn and struck Cory's body, every inch of his body feeling as if it were made of stone. Unable to move his body, he couldn't do anything when he felt himself being grabbed by an unseen hand and then hoisted into the air.
He looked up to see the white mare's disappointed and apologetic amethyst eyes as she walked out of the library. The sound of seven more sets of hooves quickly caught up to them, followed by animated and anxious conversing among the ponies. Cory's heart sank as the regal marble walls and gorgeous tapestries surrounding him transitioned into ominous, torch-lit passages that ultimately led to dungeon or prison cells, which looked like they hadn't been occupied for decades.
Cory was rather unceremoniously dropped on the floor after a cell at the end of the hallway had been opened, and a second arc of yellow energy from the white mare returned his ability to move once the rusted iron door had been shut. The two "hybrid" mares turned away from him and started arguing, while the other six equines talked in hushed whispers to one another, glancing occasionally towards the psionic as if they were checking to see if he'd try to escape.
The XCOM operative looked around his cell to see that it was much like a modern prison cell. To his right was a pony-sized inmate bunk that hung from the wall by two sturdy-looking chains. After seeing a few spiders crawl out from under the mattress, the Volunteer decided that he wouldn't be sleeping on it anytime soon. A metal slot in the cell door was big enough to slide a tray through, and the bars lining the front of the cell were arranged in a grid pattern.
The human let out a sigh of resignation and leaned against the far wall of his new cell, watching the ponies with mild curiosity as he idly tapped his fingers against the damp stone floor. It was time for the waiting game, again.
As Celestia's sun finally dipped below the horizon, the ponies of Equestria began to wind down from the day's events, and many of them went to sleep under the watchful gaze of Luna's moon. Those who stayed awake were too busy to notice the numerous streaks of green fire and metal that were rapidly approaching the ground. None of them noticed the falling objects land deep in the Everfree Forest. None of them would see the strange creatures that climbed out of the hulking metal transports.
No one would be prepared as the aliens began their assault on Equis.