XCOM: Ranger

by Wanderer D

First published

Sunset Shimmer escapes Equestria... with unforeseen consequences.

Unhappy that her future as a member of the monarchy is denied by Celestia, Sunset Shimmer escapes through Starswirl's mirror into another world, planning to take it over to prove once and for all she was fit to rule. What she didn't expect—besides a species change—was to arrive in a world already conquered.


TvTropes Page (Just created! Needs Help!)

Art (Will contain spoilers)

Sunset Shimmer - Bloody Sunset

Spoilers Ch. 11+: Angel - Angel and Sunny
Spoilers Ch. 18+: Princess - Comic
Spoilers Ch. 121+: Alejandra Acevedo - Flying at the speed of death
Spoilers Ch. 161+: Apple Bloom - Bloom
Spoilers Ch. 180+: Food - Sunset's Party Dress
Spoilers Ch. 185+: Fugue - Fugue by Rametep
Spoilers Ch. 197+: Exhausted

(Art is always welcome!)

WARNING: CONTAINS SPOILERS FOR THE WHOLE STORY: TIMELINE

Chapter 1: Lost

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Ranger

Chapter 1: Lost

By Wanderer D

o.0.o Three Years Ago o.0.o

Sunset Shimmer had emerged from the mirror into the vegetation-covered remains of a large building. The mirror on this side was a half-collapsed statue of what could have been either a pegasus or an alicorn, if she went by the marble wings that lay next to a broken-off horse head.

She grimaced at the state of the thing. A jagged crack had split it from corner to corner, and the magic that shimmered in her wake slowly faded away from the statue, leaving it dull and dead. Clearly her immediate return to Equestria was out of the question.

She took a moment to look down at herself. Gone were the hooves and her soft, orange-yellow coat. Now she had some sort of appendages, long and thin with no real claws at the end… similar to the minotaurs, in fact, except her whole body had changed.

The portal had provided her with clothing, which was convenient, given the lack of fur or coat, although her mane was still as long and luscious as ever before. Even her saddlebags had transformed into a black, orange and red backpack, with thankfully everything else intact as well.

Her diary was in one piece, as well as the book on forbidden magic she had snuck out of the library, and it seemed the purse containing her gold and gems was also in good condition.

She noted the position of the Sun, mentally comparing it to when she had arrived. It was clearly late afternoon, with the sun setting slowly over the trees. She still had some hours of light, but that wasn't her main concern at this time. Her surroundings demanded her attention, as the gut feeling that she had made a huge mistake grew within her. She hugged herself and looked around. A creepy feeling had begun crawling up her spine, and the vague sense that she was being spied on slowly started to dawn into her mind.

She looked around, carefully assessing the area, but found no sign of anypony around… it was just a feeling. She forced herself to shake it off as much as possible and took a deep breath.

There were signs of something big and bad having happened there—there were some sort of wagons or vehicles strewn around, rusting and broken, with strange machines being the apparent cause of the destruction. The building itself had a solid path carved through all three stories of it right through the middle and across… if there had been any more to of the building besides what she could see, it would have been behind the main structure... but whatever had stood back there, it had been completely obliterated by a blast of such potency that little but the occasional piece of concrete survived.

"Well." Sunset looked around warily, keeping her voice down, but still wanting to hear a normal pony voice. "This is not exactly as I had planned."

Granted, she had more than one plan to show up her former mentor, but at least one involved her being at the head of an army large enough to threaten Canterlot. However, it would be hard to raise an army to take over her home if the whole place was like this.

Still grimacing, she approached one of the machines. The sense of dread and wrongness grew with each step up until she was just a few meters away from the device. It was almost solid metal, and it had embedded itself into the concrete like some sort of metallic flea, creating a small crater upon impact.

Some sort of dark green material—dried out and mold-like—had grown and expanded around it, glowing faintly green in the sunlight, and several creatures, looking disturbingly similar to how she did now, had obviously attempted to flee the point of impact, only to somehow be petrified in place.

Sunset picked a branch from the floor and poked one of the still creatures, watching as it crumbled into ashes. Scratch that. Not petrified. Pretty much destroyed.

She shivered, the machine itself was giving her an unearthly, disturbing feeling, not too different than some of the dark magic she had encountered during her studies and the permeating feeling of being watched. Fighting down more shivers, Sunset turned instead towards the building.

Investigating the place provided no real information to Sunset other than that the locals had fled and left the dead behind. The first skeleton, bipedal like herself and holding what seemed to be a red electric guitar in better days, lay forgotten among others, most facing the interior of the building, but still close to the entrance.

Most likely they had gathered to witness whatever had transpired, and then tried to escape without success, ending up dead and at the mercy of the elements and possibly carrion eaters. Their clothes so far didn’t mean anything to her—they could be made for males of the species or females, for all she knew… although her own garments gave her an idea of what presumably some females wore as it was. The skeletons themselves gave her little additional information. A quick study of their jaws revealed canines and molars… which gave her an idea of their diet.

Vegetation had crawled through the broken windows, creeping up the walls and growing freely in the rooms within. It took her little time to figure out the purpose of the building itself—after all, she had been to school plenty of times and the desks were a dead giveaway. Bags containing useless, rotted and moldy books, technology beyond what she was used to and also useless with the lack of whatever it was that powered their devices.

A lot of them had held little flat rectangular things... roughly the appropriate size to be held in their claws, and these were strewn among the bodies, almost on a one-to-one ratio. There was a cafeteria, but the food had rotted away or been consumed by animals at some point or another. A large fridge to the back had revealed ribs and bones of potential meals confirming her earlier thoughts… these bipeds were carnivores… or at least omnivores. And now, so was she.

She had often wondered what that would be like... eating meat. She had attended many meetings and diplomatic events with beings such as griffons or minotaurs, both species well known for being carnivores. It had been strange. They had brought their own foods when visiting and when Celestia and she had visited the Griffon capital, had offered them both cuts of meat. Surprisingly Celestia had eaten some—not much, but enough to be polite—and although they had glanced at Sunset with some curiosity to see if she would eat at all, they had been perfectly fine with providing her with a salad.

Celestia had later revealed that, although it wasn’t palatable for ponies to eat meat, it was something they could eat. Sunset had been curious, yet slightly repulsed by the idea of eating meat regardless… but now that she thought back on it, the thought was not repulsive at all, in fact, it was somewhat appealing.

She frowned, sitting on one of the stairs leading to the second floor. It was odd that she would think favorably about meat eating so quickly after coming to this world. While it was conceivable that she would grow accustomed to it, the natural expectation would have been to have some initial reservations. She wondered then, if her transformation was not only biological, but also mental. Surely, if she could accept that concept so readily, or walk firmly so quickly and even use appendages she'd never had before so proficiently in the space of a few minutes, other things that she might have found not-so-appealing as a pony would now be viewed differently.

Morally speaking she didn’t feel different at the prospect. Nor had her objective of growing in strength and power before heading back to Equestria changed. She still felt her magic flow within her, although subdued, as if the source for her powers was much weaker, but otherwise unimpeded.

It was entirely possible then that this world had a different, weaker magical field to tap into, making her rely entirely on her own reserves, which were thankfully extensive. This was, however, worrisome as it would limit her interactions by putting her in a less-favorable position in comparison to what constant access to her full power would have been like. Once more the gut feeling that she had screwed up came in in full force.

Sighing, she thought back to her comfortable room and bed, her stomach grumbled at the thought of hay fries and salads... just before anger flooded her veins once more at Celestia’s temerity in implying her inherent destiny would be denied.

She stood up and proceeded to examine the building more thoroughly, finding a few blankets—kept in plastic bags and therefore sealed and protected from the outside—in the mostly intact infirmary.

Sadly, she would have to scavenge for food and truth be told, her foraging skills were not all that great.

She pressed the blankets flat and stored them in her backpack. Not knowing whether it would be useful or not, she grabbed the cleanest, least damaged of the small rectangular devices—it had been inside of a purse—and threw it into one of the bags. Perhaps she could fix it, or at worst trade it in, if she found somepony alive. There were no useful books in the library, which had mostly rotted away, but she did find an office.

To get to the second floor of the building, split in half as it was, had required some rather creative jumping and scrambling. The stairs had been completely destroyed in parts, and it really spoke to the architect's skill that the place still stood solid after the damage it had suffered.

She wandered around the hallway, avoiding the rooms that had been burned through by whatever had split the building in half, and found the office intact. After prying open several cabinets, she discovered a trove of useful things, including a large knife of some sort (certainly not something she expected to see in a school), and a slingshot. A quick look around, finding several magazines of questionable content as well as even more devices of unknown purpose, gave her the idea that this was perhaps things taken by teachers from students and stored here.

The office itself was in pretty decent condition, and seemed to be a dedicated one with a smaller room to the side. It didn't take Sunset much time to figure out that it belonged to someone important here, and this being the school… it had to be the Principal's office. She wondered briefly how the Principal here would have compared to Celestia's management of her unicorn academy.

Making a note of the location and state of the place, she proceeded to investigate the building. The school had the usual rooms. A lab, a (rotting) library, a room full of strange equipment, a workshop and a gym.

Finding the gym had been fortuitous indeed—she had discovered several other interesting things. The school seemed to have a healthy sports curriculum, as rotten wooden bats (and some metallic ones in surprisingly good condition) were stored along with rusted-out foils, and sturdy bows were kept.

She grabbed a bat, giving the rusty foils a forlorn look, remembering the introductory lessons in fencing she had insisted on taking while at court… it would have taken some practice, but she was sure that the principles of fighting with a bipedal body would be similar enough to adapt. As it was, the swords were in too bad a condition to be of much use even as piercing weapons.

In any case, a bludgeoning tool such as the metallic bat would have to do for now.

Sunset stepped out of the building and onto the cracked concrete steps that had led into the school. It was finally night time, and the moon illuminated most of the area clearly. Just a few meters ahead, what little remained of street and buildings became a wild jungle… something she'd have to face soon, but it was probably not ideal to do so at night.

Grimacing, she went back into the building, and up to the only room in decent condition she had found… the principal's office. On the way there, she noticed a small room behind the stairs and quickly glanced inside. Several machines with glass windows showed snacks of some sort inside, some of them even humming and still apparently working. Those were inevitably cool to the touch, and didn't show any sort of vegetation growth inside. There was plenty of stuff there that clearly contained a lot of sugar.. something that would take a long, long time to go bad.

Sunset considered her options, on the one hoof, she should eat something... but on the other hoof, her breaking the glass and attracting (possibly hostile) attention was definitely not appealing. With the feeling of anticipation and being watched she had been sensing since she arrived, it was clear her instincts were telling her trying to get food from there would be a very real risk… and her instincts were seldom wrong.

After a few moments ruminating her options, she decided she wasn't hungry enough yet to risk it, and proceeded upstairs into the office, pushing the desk firmly against the door. She covered the windows as best she could with what remained of the curtains, then rolled the carpet over, revealing a much cleaner floor under it, where she lay down her blankets.

The owner of the office had some (mostly ornamental) candles around, so it was a simple matter to light a few and position them in a convenient location for her to make herself comfortable.

She rummaged through her backpack, pulling out her stolen book and carefully opened it. Might as well get some studying done. She'd have to leave in the morning… the portal wouldn't open for a while and the feeling that she was being watched—that she was in danger—had not faded at all.

o.0.o

Sunset sat up with a start, her eyes wide, and her breathing heavy. She felt cold sweat running down her new skin, making her shiver. Something had woken her up, and she dared not turn the candles on again until she figured out what it was. The moonlight so far was enough to illuminate the office room she was in, and she took advantage of that to carefully move about.

Crawling on all fours to the window, she parted the curtains slightly; just enough to be able to peek outside.

The moon—which oddly enough didn't have Nightmare Moon's silhouette on it—was already on its way down, but high and bright enough to cast its white-blue light on the street across from her. The machines that she had noticed glowed and pulsated now in ways they hadn't done a few hours ago, and walking on the streets… or rather stumbling and dragging their feet, bipedal creatures shuffled around in a small pack. One of them cried into the air, and she realized it was that noise which had woken her up.

In the distance, the sky lit up orange, as if a huge fire had started suddenly, and a strong booming sound—an explosion—made the windows rattle.

She held her breath, watching as the creatures gathered and ran, some slower, some really fast deeper into the vine covered buildings.

Sunset shivered. At least that had made up her mind in which direction to head: a straight line in the opposite direction.

After making sure she couldn't see or hear them, she made her way back to the backpack and pulled out her bat. It seemed like a poor weapon of choice now, considering the speed of those things.

Still, it gave her some comfort to have a weapon at hoof. Claw. Thing.

Taking a deep breath, she lay down once more, gripping the bat tightly, her ears straining to hear any sounds around her and trying to decide whether the bumping sound was just her heartbeat in the silence, or something else creeping towards her.

It was going to be a long night.

o.0.o End Chapter 1 o.0.o

Chapter 2: Pursuit

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Ranger

Chapter 2: Pursuit

By Wanderer D

A beam of sunlight made it through the makeshift curtains just at the right angle to hit Sunset's face. She groaned and mumbled, frowning and turning away. Slowly, consciousness came back to her, fighting the grogginess and immediate attempt to sleep longer... and slowly, she remembered.

She sat up slowly, pushing herself up with her new, still unfamiliar appendages. The room, in the growing sunlight, emphasized that the change she had brought upon herself went further than her own form. She had abandoned everything she had.

A deep sense of regret built inside of her as the sun rose outside and illuminated more and more of the office and the world outside. It brought not only light, but also memories of warm nights laying on a pillow, drinking hot cocoa and discussing her magical discoveries with the closest thing she'd had to a mother. It brought back memories of the mornings after, where the glow of the sun was not uncaring.

Sunset closed her eyes and forced herself to remember. She forced herself to think of her obvious destiny being denied. Being told that she was not to be what she longed for—what she had been groomed for!

"Where did I fail?" she muttered, looking down at the floor and her now-meager possessions.

But then she felt angry. 'I did everything, she thought angrily. Everything! I had the best scores in school. The most precise magic! Compliments from all the corners of the world when ambassadors and emissaries visited Canterlot! she fumed, fists shaking.

'Others lauded me as the most powerful magic user in my generation, comparable only to legendary mages of the past!'

And not only that, she had the willpower to put the hoofwork necessary to not be stagnated like so many before! She had learned politics and studied texts of war and diplomacy both! She was hailed as a genius and a scholar, a quick study in arts and physical endeavors.

She was all a princess should be and more! Certainly more deserving of the title than some pegasus that had stumbled onto a talent that was unique to her! If Cadance had received a horn for that, why had Sunset not received her wings?

She stood up slowly. No. Even if this world had monsters, there had to be civilization somewhere. And she would get there and make things work for herself. She'd build her army. She'd take them back to Equestria and show Princess Celestia that not only was she worthy of being a princess, but that Celestia herself had made a grave mistake in denying her her due rewards.

As soon as she was standing fully, her stomach grumbled, reminding her of a more immediate problem: she had no food. At all. Her mind drifted back to the monsters from the previous night, and how the sound from the explosion had made them react violently and rush towards it.

If she broke the machine downstairs, she had to make sure not to make too much noise or she might find herself under attack and most likely dead soon after. Still, smashing the glass was not her only recourse, just the one that wouldn't drain on her reserves.

Sunset pondered her options as she packed her things away. The bottom line was that as bad as the magical field was in this world, it wasn't non-existent, so even if she used her own energy, it would replenish. She needed to figure out how long that would take anyway, and the best thing would be to do something of relative ease.

Getting her backpack on and holding on to her bat, she made her way out of the office, and jumped down from the lower stairs to the floor below. She looked around, warily expecting one of the creatures to still linger around, ready to pounce on her, but the explosion seemed to have drawn them all away. Grabbing an abandoned backpack that remained in relatively good condition and emptying it on the floor, she took a deep breath and looked around once more. The little noise she had made so far didn't elicit any wailing screams or the sound of desperate, scrambling feet.

A bit more confident, she made her way to one of the humming, still working machines and considered it for a moment, looking around and quickly finding the lock on the side.

Sunset closed her eyes, feeling the magic flowing within her. She didn't have a horn now, but she could feel the focus point on her forehead pulse lightly regardless, with an echoing feeling on the tips of her claw-like appendages. Without a horn, her body had naturally adapted other parts of it to release the magic.

She opened her eyes and touched the lock, sending the spell straight into it. Immediately the latch gave way to her will and soon the glass door was swinging open. Sunset grinned. She had certainly felt the drain, even for a small spell like this one, but the fact that she still could do it!

She chuckled.

Something groaned behind her.

Eyes wide, and feeling like her blood was frozen solid, Sunset whipped around, looking in horror at the crouched creature she had missed… she had assumed it was dead, so still had it been, huddled into a little fetal ball on the side of the hallway, but now it slowly stood, stretching up and turning its head towards her.

For the first time she got a good look at one of the creatures she had spied the night before. It looked much like her, with some rags for clothes, but where its body wasn't covered, she could see gray skin with slightly glowing green veins and boils. Its eyes glowed a dull green as well, and its mouth drooled dark, blood-like goo.

Faster than she could have anticipated, the creature was already in front of her and swinging its claws at her face. Sunset yelped, falling back and dropping her bat on the floor, where it clattered loudly.

The sound made the creature hiss and resume its attack.

Desperately, Sunset kicked around, slamming the glass door onto the creature, but even with the glass breaking and piercing its skin, it swung wildly at her. Its claws managed to scratch at her, but thankfully the leather jacket held and she only felt the stinging pain of the impact.

Reacting on instinct, she summoned her magic, swiping her arm out and leaving behind a fiery trail in its wake. "Leave me alone!"

The creature howled as the flames seemed to spread onto its body quicker than they should have. She hadn't been even trying to set it alight, but the flames covered it in a few seconds and drove it away, screeching.

Heart beating a hundred miles an hour, Sunset sprung to her feet. Without even looking at what she was grabbing, she shoved everything she could into her empty backpack, snacks, bottles of liquid, anything she could grab—and once it was full—slung it over one shoulder, grabbed her bat, and ran as quick as she could.

Even after a few solid minutes, when she started feeling her legs tire, she didn't stop. She needed to get away... away from the increasingly distant screeches that had followed in her wake.

As the vehicle approached the drop zone, it slowed down, allowing all passengers a view of the city below. Much like other infested areas, the whole place had a slight, greenish glow to it, even where the terror devices had not landed. It appeared empty for now, but they all knew it was deceiving: the Drak-ten, the Lost, would be waiting. But their mission was not to avoid them. It was to destroy them.

When they were just a few feet above the ground, Pratal Mox stood up and looked at his troops. Ten ADVENT Purifiers should be enough to take control of a few blocks and retake them from all Lost hostiles in the area, and if his sources were correct, they might even see some hints of the Reapers, who were rumored to be stationed nearby.

He signaled the others, and they all jumped down to the street below, spreading out to cover all angles as they landed. Pratal himself landed firmly on his feet and took a slow, analytic look of the buildings around them. He looked up as the vehicle rose up a little, remaining out of immediate reach, but hovering protectively over them.

Several wheezing sounds warned him that the Purifiers had activated their flamethrowers and were now ready to start the process of destroying any sign of the Lost. But now the issue became a matter of making the most effective time in getting rid of the infected.

His eyes settled on an old, fossil fuel vehicle from before the Elders had embraced this world. Useless vehicles for the most part, but there was one effective way of getting the Lost's attention, after all…

His first shot resonated through the seemingly abandoned building, and his aim was true: it didn't take long for the vehicle itself to catch fire… he aimed again, and his second shot did the trick.

The explosion rocked the street, bathing him in a warm, buffeting wind for a second. The flames and burning fuel and plastic created a solid black plume of smoke, and almost immediately, a reaction.

A shrill, unnerving screech rose from the city, echoing in the mostly empty streets. Soon after, several bestial howls emanated from all around them in response, and before there was even a chance to brace themselves, grey humanoids—which used to be human—shot out of the alleys with amazing speeds, one of them managing to tackle one of his Purifiers and denting their armor before it was encased in fire from another trooper.

Pratal shot an incoming hostile in the head, blowing its brains out and immediately took another shot at another approaching creature. The swarm was much bigger than they had anticipated, and he wondered if the troops that had come in the night prior had only managed to gather them together rather than wiping their area out. Perhaps it would be better to retreat and bombard them all from some safety.

Out of the corner of his eye he saw a Lost jump onto the back of one of his troopers, its claws ripping into the hose that connected the flamethrower to the gas tank. Time seemed to slow as the purifier turned and shifted, trying to dislodge his attacker… and presenting it as a perfect target to another trooper.

His eyes widened when he saw the other purifier swinging his flamethrower to destroy the creature. There was no point in shouting a warning. Pratal was already on the way down and rolling around a corner when the whole street was enveloped in explosions as tanks blew up one after the other, tearing through his troop's armor as if it were made of aluminum foil and practically disintegrating all the Lost in the street as well. Even around the corner, and lying on the floor, the heat wave and displaced air shook his body and rolled him to a sudden, painful stop against a wall. Broken glass rained around him as every window in a couple of blocks exploded into fragments, the whole experience leaving him dazed for some time, trying but unable to muster the strength and balance to get up.

It took a few minutes for his head to stop ringing, and for the world to settle down around him. The fumes had cleared for the most part by then, and the only thing that remained was the smell of charred flesh. He pushed up slowly, grunting in pain and looking down at his leg, which was bleeding from several cuts, no doubt due to the raining glass. His hand went up to activate his communicator, but he immediately felt the crack where the antenna would be. He would only have short-range communications now, and there was no way the signal would reach any ADVENT location.

Cursing softly—in case more Lost were in the area—he leaned on the wall and made his way back to the street, looking around the corner as soon as he reached it. The street was smoldering still, and the explosions had also taken down his airship. It was no wonder the final explosion had been so powerful.

He had heard of swarms that big before, had even fought them successfully. It should have been a controllable situation, and yet fate had taken the glory of a flawless success out of his hands. At least the streets were bereft of Lost for now, but without his troops to secure the area, it would soon become infested again.

Pratal started shambling away. There would be no help here. He needed to get to the edge of the city, to one of the predetermined rallying points set up for agents that got separated or if retreat was needed. Once there, he could use a communicator.

Things would be easier, however, if he didn't have a gaping wound on his leg. He leaned against the wall and slid down, taking out an emergency kit and wiping away orange blood as he methodically picked out pieces of glass from his wound. He sprayed disinfectant in the area and immediately felt the numbing sensation of the anesthetic spreading through the gash in his leg. Slowly, he bandaged his leg tightly, grunting at the few—thankfully bearable—shots of pain that made him grit his teeth despite the anesthetic, before securing the armor around it for additional stability.

Still bracing against the wall, he pushed up and started stumbling away, there would be no rest after this, as distant howls slowly sounded closer.

o.0.o End Chapter 2 o.0.o

Chapter 3: Enemy

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Ranger

Chapter 3: Enemy

By Wanderer D

Sunset had been cowering inside an old building for what felt like hours, and once she had managed to get a hold of herself, she had started—silently—swearing and cursing at herself. She had left behind the one place where she could—arguably—figure out a way to return home. And all because of what? Zombies?

She snorted, angry with herself at her fear. "I'm more than capable of handling a few—"

Sunset clamped one of her claws on her mouth the moment she heard the cracking sound outside of her building, followed by a hoarse scream. Several of the popping explosions followed again, and she could hear the screeches of the zombie creatures being cut short, until the sounds stopped and then she heard the sound of something crashing against metal.

She heard a gurgling sound and another scream… although this one didn't possess the same feral quality of the zombies. She risked looking out the window and saw two zombies, one of which was grappling and slashing at another creature… but this one was no zombie. It wore dark green armor of some sort that made it look very official. Its face was covered, but it was sentient!

It was clearly injured, with orange blood slowly dripping down a wounded leg. That was odd, but then again, she was in another dimension. It managed to grab past the zombie's flailing arms and broke its neck, both of them falling to the ground.

It was exhausted, and unable to push the other zombie off itself. The last zombie growled and slowly approached, clearly intending to finish the job. The official-looking creature spat and said something most likely offensive, although it wasn't a language Sunset understood.

Later Sunset would tell herself that she knew on some level that she needed assistance and thus the practical thing to do was to help… but regardless of what she told herself later, she was already running. She felt her magic race down the metallic bat as she focused everything on her swing… it was a solid hit. She felt bones crush under her strike, heard them even as the zombie creature went silent and flew to the side, crashing wetly against a wall and sliding down leaving a trail of green goo behind.

Sunset was breathing heavily, either from her magic being drained or the rush of adrenaline, but it only took a moment to realize what she had done. She felt bile rise in her throat, and the desperate need to throw the bat away, but her mind reigned it in. She forced her instincts back; her feelings of guilt or horror had to be squished… she didn't have time for that. She couldn't throw her weapon away.

She had exposed herself to save this other creature and now she was either going to get killed or gain an ally.

Sunset really didn't want to die... she needed an ally.

Pratal looked up, dazed, at the young woman who had saved him. 'A teenager! A human teenager saved me! Pratal Mox!'

He could feel his jaw going slack in surprise for a moment, before his thoughts focused. There was little reason for a female human teenager to be in the middle of the city unless she was part of one of the Native tribes that still refused to join the cities.

But she looked too clean and too scared to be used to this. He could see her stealing horrified glances at the bodies, but still forcing herself to concentrate on him and to the matter at hand.

Pratal seldom felt anything but contempt for humans, but despite himself, he felt a slight respect for such a vulnerable creature taking such a risk.

"Can you move?" The girl asked, as if unsure she'd be understood.

"I can," Pratal said, carefully judging her expression. "I would like to thank you for your assistance, citizen."

He watched for any sign that might betray a negative reaction to that statement, but found himself surprised to see relief, rather than an immediate urge to deny any connection to ADVENT as any Native would present. And her disposition clearly indicated that she was no rebel.

"Thank Ce—goodness," the girl stammered, offering her hand to him to help him up.

Prodded as he was against a lampost, it was enough assistance to allow him to stand and they both stared at each other awkwardly. She wasn't dressed in a way that could prepare her for this kind of thing. Jeans and a leather jacket… very antiquated looking, in comparison to modern wear at the cities.

But there was something else. Something was different about her, although he couldn't really place his finger on it. He felt less on edge than he did with humans in his experience so far. Perhaps it was simply that she had rescued him? Regardless… "We should head out," he said, pointing towards the edge of the city. "There is an ADVENT outpost in that direction, I can ask for backup. They will pick us up and drop you off in a center to be allowed back in the city."

"Great. Paperwork," the girl muttered. She studied him up and down, and despite his obvious size compared to her, she didn't seem intimidated at all by him. "My name is Sunset Shimmer."

"Pratal Mox."

That was all they said to each other for the next hour or so, choosing to move slowly towards their destination. The girl was alert, if untrained, which helped put his mind at ease in some ways… clearly she wasn't an agent of some sort. While that was encouraging, her jumpiness and lack of focus would create more trouble for them if it wasn't fixed.

In the end, against what his training had indicated, he had started coaching the girl on basic survival skills. What to look for. What to listen for. How to move decisively from cover to cover, in order to lower the chances of being seen. He had depleted his ammo, and she had no guns on her, but perhaps that was for the best in this situation… less chances of her missing the shot and hitting him instead.

He had focused then on teaching her how to grip her weapons, although she had looked at him blankly when he had explained how to position her hands until he had shown her what he meant. She had taken to the simple knife techniques with undisguised relish, and he had to admit, some talent. She could definitely be trained to be a soldier, with enough time and the right environment. As it was, most of what she was learning would prove useless in a sudden confrontation—there was a reason real training was repetitive, but his intention was mainly to get her to feel a bit more comfortable and secure, not for her to face down a torrent of enemies.

Whoever she really was, she was a quick study, however, and soon enough was doing a passable job of keeping watch. For an untrained rookie. If they made it to safety he might recommend her joining ADVENT… a quick flash of what would happen to her ran through his mind and he quenched the sudden uneasiness. He had never questioned the process, but something about her made it almost… difficult to contemplate.

"Sunset, wasn't it?" Pratal asked when they took a break to sit down. She was keeping an eye out of the building they had hidden in while he replaced his bandages. "You don't seem like a warrior or renegade, how is it that you are in these ruins?"

She gave him a look. "Accident. I wasn't trying to come here, I just got side-tracked and ended up in this messed-up place with those creatures." She seemed reluctant to say more. "So… what about you? Are you here for those creatures?"

Pratal steeled himself, cursing silently the fact that he had not anticipated this. As a captain, he had much more individuality than others of his species, and more freedom of will and thus more chances to… develop affection for lesser beings. Most likely the loss of blood had made him slightly delirious. Of course Sunset would not be set free. At best she'd be imprisoned, interrogated, and then...

"I suppose there is no point in denying it. I was leading a troop of ADVENT soldiers in ridding the city of the Drak-ten. This is sensitive information and ADVENT does not want citizens to know such a risk still exists. They are being purged."

Sunset shuddered. "Good. Those things have no reason to exist."

Pratal chuckled and took that as a sign that he was ready to go again. His wound still hurt, but the bleeding had stopped and the new bandages were tighter and more secure. It would still be a few hours, but he would make it.

As they carried on, and with a surprisingly scarce need to advice Sunset on how to do better at her current efforts, he decided to distract himself, pointing out vantage points for scouting, sniping or even strategic retreats. Sunset was an attentive student, and listened intently to his description of previous firefights against insurgents, how positioning and planning had helped, the few times he had been taken by surprise and why, etc.

Although she was clearly not experienced in fighting, Sunset seemed to have a theoretical knowledge of strategy—the type that would be learnt in an academy, if such things still existed. She knew plenty of war theory, from sources she refused to name… was it possible that she was originally being groomed for a position of some importance in a military detail of some sort?

But that didn't match her lack of real training in other areas. All in all she was a conundrum, one that would be interrogated and tortured if needed to dismiss any possibility of her being a spy. He resisted the urge to growl. Whatever happened, he wouldn't allow one of his soldiers to—there it was again. That sense of familiarity and unexpected trust in Sunset… to the extent that he had considered her—for the briefest of moments—one of his troops. Something strange was going on, but he couldn't quite put his finger on it.

Regardless. He had a few hours to try and figure it out.

Sunset cursed under her breath.

According to Pratal Mox, they were just a few blocks away from the edge of the city, and from there just an hour or so from the rally point. But here she was now, flat on her stomach, on top of a rusty truck, spying on a bunch of shambling zombies. The main street they had been going down had several tons worth of metal and bricks blocking it and the side streets didn't look much better. As such, they had taken this route, staying on track towards the East of the city, and had been fortunate enough to not encounter too many of the Lost. They would need to double back, or try and get through the buildings without drawing attention.

So far, Pratal Mox had been useful. He had given her advice on several combat scenarios and, although she did not expect to find herself in situations like that herself, she could see how the knowledge in itself was useful. If she proceeded with her original plans to raise an army to claim Equestria, she needed to know at least the basic capabilities of potential enemies.

She was reminded of her old griffon teacher, Galahad, who had taught her military history despite Celestia's uneasiness at the prospect. The princess was a pacifist, true, but she hadn't raised much of an argument against the case Sunset had presented to her in which a good leader needed broader education, even in military affairs.

Both Galahad and Pratal were clearly very experienced in these matters, and they both had been eager to share their knowledge about the topic once they got comfortable explaining it. It was as oddly endearing then as it was now.

She snorted, then slowly moved away from the creatures. She slid down the back of the truck and headed as silently as she could back to where he waited. "The street is full of Lost, we'll have to go around."

She couldn't see all of his face under that helmet, but his jaw clenched visibly. "That will add more time, but we do not have the resources to fight through the damned creatures and make a break to freedom."

Sunset sighed. "I figured as much."

She watched as Pratal Mox forced himself to his feet. She wouldn't say it to him, but she had to admit she was impressed with his resilience. The wound on his leg was no laughing matter, and would have incapacitated a normal pony for quite some time, even with some healing magic applied.

She wasn't really concerned, but… "Are you sure you don't want to rest a bit longer?"

Pratal Mox turned sharply to look at her, and his hand whipped out quicker than she could follow. Before she knew it, his combat knife was embedded in the forehead of a Lost that had crept up behind her.

The creature stumbled back, opening its mouth to screech, no doubt, but Pratal Mox was already next to her, taking up her bat and breaking its neck before it had fallen back or screeched.

Tossing her the bat back, he pulled out the knife with a sickening, squelching sound. "We don't have time. Only this one seems to have seen you, but the others will soon sense it is gone. Come, we must not linger."

Luckily, the pair were able to sneak past the last of the Lost, breaking into the wilderness soon after. It seemed that the Lost didn't wander far from the slightly greenish mist that spread through the city. That was something to keep in mind.

She followed Pratal to a fenced area at the top of a small hill. There were some metal crates there, and he quickly set to work, pulling out several hi-tech looking devices, which uses escaped her understanding. After a few minutes, he seemed to be ready and set out a signal.

A voice followed soon after. "Set frak Dat-al?"

"Pratal Mox," he replied to whatever the question was. He glanced her way and he seemed to be hesitating. "Set mer dukat. Drak-ten, semmet sakrat."

"Dos vis." The voice in the radio replied.

"So," Sunset gave him a look. "What was all of that?"

Pratal Mox sat down heavily on the crate. "I told them I was the last survivor of the latest mission against the Lost. And that I was alone."

Sunset felt a bit of anger rise within her. "Oh? And why would you say that?"

He looked away for a few seconds. "If they find you with me, you will be captured, tortured and interrogated before… being forced to join us. I owe you my life, and I cannot allow this if I want to retain my honor."

She resisted the urge to point out that she would have probably died in the city without his help, or that he had also saved her life. She didn't want him to decide it was all settled and she was indeed due an interrogation after all. "So… what does this mean for me?"

He dug out the device and fiddled with it, before attaching it to another one. He tossed it at her. "Once I'm gone… use that to call for help. You will be rescued by one of the nearby human settlements. They have patrols all over the place. They will help you out."

"But I—"

"No time!" Pratal interrupted, raising his hand in warning. As if testing her, he made the hand signal for silence, and immediately she could hear several sounds, whirring and humming. "They are close by… go hide."

Despite wanting to buck Pratal in the face, she ran down the hill and into the undergrowth, watching as several vehicles pulled up to where they had been. Several individuals in armor similar to his, yet… discolored or decorated strangely, ran out, pointing their weapons at him.

Pratal had stood up and was crouching into a defensive position. One of the bigger vehicles stopped within her sight and a figure emerged from inside once it was very clear that he had no chance of escaping or fighting back.

"Well, well," a female voice reached her. "If it isn't Pratal Mox himself. Isn't this a surprise?"

o.0.o End Chapter 3 o.0.o

Chapter 4: Belong

View Online

Ranger

Chapter 4: Belong

By Wanderer D

"Pratal Mox," the female repeated, grinning and jumping down from the vehicle to approach him.

He took a moment to study his opponent. She was still wearing her old Advent armor, but it had been spray painted all over, with the Advent logo scratched and covered completely. Her shoulder-pads were reinforced with wire and other bits and pieces, making the armor look almost barbaric; there were other additions that gave it that feeling, such as fur around the neck.

She was not wearing her helmet, either.

If anything that made her look more dangerous, and reminded him intimately of how...nonhuman they were.

He made no move in reaction, nevertheless all the other ex-Advent rebels pointed their guns at him. "Betos."

The female grinned, twirling her gun almost casually. "We knew setting the jammer here would land us someone eventually, we just didn't expect it to be one of the rising stars of Advent. General Pratal Mox of all possible agents." She chuckled, as confident as if she were immortal. "You've made yourself quite the name fighting Reapers and leading purges."

He cursed under his breath. He hadn't even considered the possibility that Betos and her crew would be anywhere near this location.

"Not as famous, or rather infamous, a name as your own, I would imagine," he replied, straightening up. "There are no officers in Advent who haven't heard about your betrayal to the Elders. I suppose there is no possibility of you just letting me be picked up by ADVENT and pretending we never met."

Betos snarled in anger, walking up to him and glaring at him, as if she could see through his helmet and straight into his eyes. "You don't think their invasive thoughts—their orders, burning straight into your brain are an abuse of power? Denying us our freedom?"

Pratal sniffed in disdain, but didn't argue the point.

Unexpectedly, his silence drew a smile from her. "You don't hear them anymore, do you?"

Before he could answer, they were interrupted by several warning shouts and a scuffle. They both turned in time to see Sunset bat the helmet off of one of Beto's recruits before he could grab her. The others raised their weapons and incredibly, she only seemed to prepare to fight them in melee combat. It was like she'd never seen a gun… in that instant, Pratal had a moment of absolute, horrifying clarity: she hadn't.

"Stop!"

His voice carried over and Sunset looked at him, startled. She lowered her bat and was quickly disarmed and held by the other soldiers.

"And who is this?" Betos asked, walking up to Sunset. "A human? What are you doing here, child?"

"I'm trying to get out of this place," Sunset retorted angrily. "But your goons here attacked me!"

"She was holding this," one of the 'goons' said, passing the communicator to Betos, who studied it. "It's one of ADVENT's… but it's been modified, it wouldn't transmit on any of the ADVENT wavelengths. It's almost as if…" she glanced at Pratal a clear look of amusement in her face. "Were you actually helping this human escape?"

"What of it?" Pratal replied gruffly. "She saved my life, I am honor-bound to return the favor."

Betos seemed amused. "Honor is not something the Elders would allow ADVENT troops to have. How long have you been free, Pratal Mox?"

There were no gasps of surprise or sudden reactions, but he did notice her followers were regarding him with something akin to a modicum of respect. He debated briefly, then glanced at Sunset and snorted, shaking his head. Who was he really fooling, other than himself?

"Months," he confessed, then lowered his voice. "Their voice disappeared one day. I woke up from stasis and… I was alone. There were no orders from them but… I still remembered the… the other. I never realized they were not the same. The Elders were voices of anger, demanding and absolute… the other… the other had purpose, honor… regret."

Betos didn't say anything, but she nodded. And that was all he needed.

He sat back. He wasn't alone. They all had… they all knew. They knew. A hand touched his shoulder, and he looked up to Betos, who was looking at him with determination and conviction. "It's time to leave, Pratal. Before it eats you up. You already took your first steps earlier with this human…"

"Hey," Sunset called, walking up to them, a look of annoyance crossing her face. "I have a name, it's Sunset Shimmer."

Betos ignored her. "...and if you remain with ADVENT they will execute you when they find out. And they will find out. If a Sectoid looks at you the wrong way you're dead, or if a scan reveals your implant has malfunctioned, you will be… reset."

Pratal nodded silently. He remembered who he was before… and who he was before would not have survived the encounter earlier. "I will… go with you. But I want Sunset to be taken to a human settlement."

Betos shrugged. "Agreed, but not now. Radio chatter has several dozens of Advent vehicles headed to this area. We need to move."

"The settlement to the North—"

"Has been burned down by Advent," Betos said. "We move now," she glanced at Sunset. "And help you later."

Sunset huffed, but nodded, and soon they were loaded into a vehicle and speeding away into the wilderness.

Inside the vehicle, Pratal kept an eye on Sunset. It seemed this human child needed a lot of coaching.

The vehicles, which were heavily armored and armed, had taken a few hours reaching their destination. It seemed that Betos' claim that they had gotten lucky was pretty much spot on. If they hadn't been in the vicinity, Pratal Mox would be back with his original masters, and she would probably still be waiting to be rescued by an unknown.

And Sunset hated being rescued. Whatever happened, she would not return to Equestria as a weak dependant. If she was to build her armies, if she was to impress Celestia with her acumen and conviction, she couldn't rely on others saving her flank.

That was until she had witnessed what the weapons the ex-ADVENT troops held could do.

Shortly after arriving at an underground bunker with Pratal, Betos and her troops, she had been given a tour… and seen first hand what a barrage of bullets did to a training dummy.

To think that she had been thinking of fighting them with a bat! It was a good thing that Pratal Mox had stopped her. Perhaps if she had been aware of their capabilities, she could have survived the initial barrage with her magic… but with it depending completely on her own reserves, it would be a miracle regardless.

"You need to learn about the dangers out there," Pratal said as they watched ex-ADVENT troops practice close combat. "What guns can do. What weapons are used. You need to know so you can stay away or protect yourself."

She didn't argue the point. Her mind raced through possibilities. The weapons of this world were much more powerful than those of her own. They didn't appear to have magic, but was it really needed? Idiot, magic is an advantage… if I can make it work with this technology. If I can control both… I'll be unstoppable and Celestia will have to acknowledge me.

"Can you teach me?" If she could… control them…. maybe gain some sort of rank within their organization… "Can I stay with you?"

"No," Betos said, walking up to the pair. "I have no objection with you learning some basic survival skills… facing a gun with a bat screams 'stupid' more than 'brave'. Pratal Mox can train you a little."

Pratal snorted. "Perhaps. I can teach you the basics. But Betos is right… this is not a place for a human. I think some skills can be drilled into you, but your place is with your own."

Sunset bit her lip. "I'd rather be with fighters than cowering."

Pratal grinned and even Betos couldn't help but chuckle. "Don't worry, young one," the latter said, "very few outside of the cities are content to cower. You'll join training tomorrow morning. For now, you should rest. We have a bed free for you."

Sunset grumbled, but acquiesced. She could get the information she needed and antagonizing her future troops by acting up was not going to make things easier. Besides, the weight of her backpack reminded her she had plenty to read and study. Maybe the book she had taken would have useful spells for fighting.

She followed Betos to where the beds were and then just made her way down once she was pointed towards her bed.

The weapons here seemed deadly, but everything could be improved with magic. She sat on her bed and rummaged through her bag, pulling out the book. It's cover warned of its contents to any who understood the runes… but it was that what had grasped Sunset's attention. She was due to become an alicorn, after all… and what better way to understand royal blood… than blood magic?

o.0.o Present Day o.0.o

At this time of the night, most of the streets were empty or emptying. Thus it wasn't strange that a young woman, walking down the street mere minutes before curfew would attract the attention of the local enforcement.

"Shikahl tahl!" the ADVENT Trooper spoke up, marching up to her while a Viper slithered menacingly behind him.

Sunset smiled pleasantly, hoping her hair would cover the communicator. "Hello, officer."

"Talk to me, Sunset, where are you right now?"

"She can't answer, Central," Jane Kelly's voice replied through the com, her Irish accent barely noticeable after so many years in living in a confined environment. Sunset had heard her speak once with another Irish soldier, and what she sounded like then, was nothing like how she sounded in general missions. "She was stopped by an ADVENT Trooper and a Viper."

A moment of silence foreshadowed Central's uneasiness.They all knew what was a stake this night. "Status?"

"Anyone willing to place some bets?" Otis, unlike Jane, had a thicker accent which he had been unwilling to identify. "I'm calling dismemberment."

"Don't be silly," Alessandra said, her mediterranean accent thick enough to be noticeable, but suave enough to be charming. "I say she'll brainwash them."

"She's engaged with them in conversation," Jane spoke up. "They seem at ease now… they're leaving. I'll never get over that."

"You owe me a drink," Alessandra said.

"I still say she's a psychic," Otis' voice rasped into the comms. "Maybe one of those Templars we've heard about."

"Templars don't drink," Jane pointed out. "If she were a Templar, Central wouldn't have met her at a bar."

"Templar or not, whatever it is that she does, it's still unnerving how they calm down," Alessandra threw in. "She should… ah, fezz up as you say. Confess about her powers, maybe she's like those Valkyries from old XCom Central told us about, ya?"

"As long as she doesn't get cocky," Central spoke up into the com. "They still shot her in the back that one time."

"I'm here you know," Sunset whispered as she walked away, pulling her cap down a little. Fortunately since her brief stop with the agents, most of the other aliens seemed to have lost interest in her once it was apparent that she was not a threat. "You don't have to talk like I can't hear you. And just so you know, I didn't meet Bradford at a bar."

"Just a word to the wise, Sunset," Central retorted. "We wouldn't want to rely on ADVENT agents having bad aim for you to survive the encounter again. That's all. Are you in position?"

"In a moment," she said, glancing at the other side of the road, where Jane was hiding in the shadows. She slowed down, pretending to study a screen. "Ready. I'm flanking the entrance, on the left. I see only one guard, but the patrol from earlier will probably do another round soon and they will not be happy to see me."

"Understood, I also see the one tango," Jane said. "Otis, Alessandra?"

"Ready," Otis replied into the radio. "I can see our little Sunset and I have my scope focused and ready. One tango confirmed."

"Don't shoot until I tell you to," Jane responded. "I'm already on the move."

"I am here as well," Alessandra's voice added. "One tango, confirmed."

"I can see you," Otis reported. "Sunset's patrol went around the block so they'll be coming back on your side."

"Roger that."

"Alright, Skyranger is on over-watch, ready to pick you up," Central spoke into the comms. "Let's take care of this. Our VIP is the priority, obtain at all costs and get the hell out of there. Marking Skyranger pickup site on your UIs."

"So this is it, huh?" Sunset closed her eyes and took a deep breath. Already she could feel her magic tingling in anticipation, and her subconscious was caressing the psychic waves in the air.

"Yes it is." Central's voice was barely a whisper. "Let's rescue the commander."

o.0.o End Chapter 4 o.0.o

Chapter 5: Rescue

View Online

Ranger

Chapter 5: Rescue

By Wanderer D

Sunset took a deep breath, letting the magic flow. She felt it. Heartbeats. Distant and close. Calm and nervous. Alien and human. Keeping the blood magic spell on the back of her mind, she started walking towards the center, waving amiably at the ADVENT trooper as she passed, distracting it from Bradford and Jane running closer and hiding behind a car parked across the street.

The guard at the door didn't know what hit her. One moment she was warily watching Sunset walk, the next she was dead. Otis' shot was true and effective, the bullet didn't blow up her head, but it painted the door behind with orange splatter.

Before the body had hit the ground, Sunset was already there lowering it and keeping overwatch as Jane dashed across from her hiding place to start hacking the door. So far none of the very few civilians around had even noticed something had happened.

"Time?" Jane whispered into the comms.

"Looking good," Otis said. "No sign of the patrol yet. Alessandra, you might want to be ready, the moment that door is unlocked..."

"...we'll be on a very tight schedule, roger that," Alessandra replied. Sunset could see the shadowy figure shift slightly. Her heartbeat was fast, despite the calm tone of her voice.

"Don't worry, I got you covered. Nothing escapes my rifle." Otis' smirk could be heard through the comms.

'Come on… come on… I can feel them, they're going to come around the building soon,' Sunset thought. The Viper's heart had a very different rhythm than the others, and thus it was easier to sense. She could almost see them… little red spots of flickering, pulsating light, moving slowly around the building.

"Oh, I can think of a few things, Otis."

"That patrol will be here anytime," Sunset hissed into the radio. "Put your game faces on."

"On three… two…" Jane whispered. "Go!" She activated the door and Bradford ran through it.

Almost immediately a loud alarm blared in response and a shot burnt the ground to the left of where Alessandra was crouching behind cover. "I've been spotted!" she shouted, leaning over and taking a few return shots of her own. "Run in!"

"Crap." Sunset followed Bradford into the room, quickly making sure that the lab was as empty as her spell made it to be. It was. Other than Bradford's own heartbeat, there was only one more, slow, strong and steady in the back of the room. "VIP spotted!"

She felt it then, just as the pulsing red light outside flickered out.

"Alessandra's down!" Otis' voice crackled into the radio. "God, they melted half her face!"

"Calm down!" Jane shouted from the door, dodging back as plasma flew next to her head and tore a hole on the wall. She shot something outside and Sunset saw the Viper go down. Jane dodged another shot. They could all hear Otis' panicked, ragged breathing. "Get a hold of yourself!"

The ADVENT Trooper outside took another shot and they all heard Otis give a ragged shout on the radio, then start shooting desperately. Sunset saw the red spot where the trooper was outside move violently, but it remained. The trooper had probably taken cover somewhere.

"Moving to secure the package," Bradford called out.

"Let's hope our intel was correct," Lily Shen, XCOM's Engineering genius replied on the comms.

Sunset followed Bradford into the room with the container where the heartbeat came from and took cover next to the entrance. She motioned to Jane, who nodded and rolled into the room, bracing against the wall as more plasma shots came through. "We're getting owned here!"

"We need another exit!" Sunset shouted, taking a shot at a trooper that had ventured too close to the entrance. With a shrill cry, its body flew back, spilling orange blood. She heard glass smash behind her and she risked a look to see Bradford taking out the person inside the container, throwing them over his shoulder in a fireman's carry.

"Package secure!" Bradford shouted.

"Sunset!" Jane shouted, moving away from the door towards the back of the building. "Cover me!"

She could see the older soldier pulling out a grenade and rushed to the side of the door. She could see several heartbeats approaching. "We're going to be rushed soon! Where the hell is Otis?!"

There was no sound from the radio, neither acknowledgement nor heavy breathing. Sunset pressed her lips, then braced herself as the whole building shook.

"Exit procured!" Jane shouted.

"Covering fire!" Sunset was quick to add, doing just as she said the moment she saw Bradford running with their precious cargo behind them. She then started backpedalling towards the hole in the wall Jane had blasted.

Outside, she could see a blue-white light marking the spot where Bradford and Jane had already taken hold of their lifelines and were being pulled up.

Green plasma seared and scorched the ground around her as she took a running leap and held onto the line, wrapping herself around it as it was pulled up. She fired a token two shots at the hole in the wall, where troopers were starting to spill out.

As she reached the Skyranger and the ramp began pulling up, she could see the building where Otis had been nesting. The top of the building was on fire, and at the base, she just managed to see a pool of blood, ruby and glittering to her magical eye just before the ramp closed and she let the magic go.

"We're on our way back, Dr. Tygan," Bradford said, setting up the person inside the body suit into a comfortable position on the floor. "Be ready to assist."

"Roger that, Central," came the reply. "How did the troops fare? Do we need any medical assistance for anyone else?"

Jane, Bradford and Sunset looked at each other.

"We lost Otis and Alessandra," Jane finally reported. "Sunset, Central and I are unharmed."

There was silence on the line, then, "Understood, Tygan out."

Arrival at the Avenger was a flurry of movement, Jane and Sunset were pushed to the side by the medics and science team as they picked up their charge onto a high-tech gurney and whisked the commander and Bradford out of the docking bay, but not before Bradford looked over his shoulder.

"You two are in line for a promotion, I will follow up as soon as we know the status of the commander."

"Yes, sir!" both Sunset and Jane saluted, watching them go.

It didn't take long after for them to make the round up to the sleeping quarters and start packing things, shifting through mementos and pictures of their fallen comrades. The other soldiers gave them resigned looks before they walked out of the room.

"I hate this part," Sunset admitted. She wasn't crying. Otis had been with them just a bit under a month. He had been a resistance sniper, working from one of the outposts in Nebraska before he'd heard about XCOM taking in recruits. As far as she knew, he had no family and had been a nomad of sorts, jumping from outpost to outpost and never staying long. "I can't believe he panicked like that."

Jane shrugged. "He watched a friend's face get turned into smoking chunks of meat. Most people would have a reaction to that." She gave Sunset a look. "Don't tell me you never felt anything when you watched someone die."

Sunset gave a noncommittal grunt in reply.

"Still, if he had kept his cool, he could have escaped, even if he had to run in the opposite direction."

"He wasn't a coward."

"I didn't say he was."

"It just figures that we finally got reliable information about the commander's whereabouts and we'd lose soldiers rescuing them…" she gave Jane a look. "Have you ever met the commander?"

"No," Jane snorted. "I would've been a kid when Bradford and the commander were running things from a hole in the ground."

Sunset smirked. "I wonder what they're like," she said, looking in the direction of the lab.

"There you go again," Jane muttered, throwing the last of Alessandra's things into the assigned sack. "You know, people think you can see through walls."

"Oh, do they?" Sunset chuckled nervously. "Why?"

"Those looks you sometimes get…it's uncanny how you can sometimes predict who is coming. Are you sure you're not psychic?"

Sunset shrugged, finishing her own packing and stood up. She looked at the empty bunker bed. "Isn't it sad?"

Jane raised an eyebrow.

"Just how quickly their lives are gone and we're not even talking about them but rather my parlour tricks."

They walked out in silence, and once they were out of the room, a small procession of soldiers followed them to the bar, where on the wall, she and Jane pinned the pictures they had found of Otis and Alessandra.

Soon enough, drinks had been passed around to toast the honor of the deceased.

Even though Otis had been a recent addition, Alessandra had been a part of XCOM for over a year, and with the soldier pool being the smallest of all in the Avenger, they all became fairly close in a short period of time.

Soon, after a few drinks, the mourning mingled with the celebrations. Not only had they rescued the commander, Jane and Sunset were now being promoted. And the somber side of the deceased was left aside for reminiscing about their shenanigans.

"...and that's when Otis found out that Alessandra had put cling film under the toilet seat!" Jane said, causing more than one soldier do a spit take.

Sunset shook her head, grinning. She drank a lot less than the others, preferring a strong spirit to mull over, but soon found her personal space invaded by a very drunk Irish woman. "And speaking of funny stories, why don't you ever share how you joined XCOM? I hear… I hear you met Central in a bar! That must've been somethin'!"

"It wasn't at a bar," Sunset growled. "Well, not exactly."

"Tell us!" Jane lowered her head, all seriousness gone, as an almost lecherous look came across her face. "From what he's said, you were already trained. Where did you train, luv? Why won't you share anything with your little Kelly?"

Sunset forced herself to take a calm sip of her whiskey while she ignored the wolf-whistles. She knew Jane would regret this the next morning. Especially since there would be recordings.

"Please?" Jane whimpered.

"Tsk. Fine… I uh, was part of a team that picked me up in one of the cities, I had… walked out of my original camp to seek adventure and met more than I could handle… I stayed with them for a little time, before they dropped me off in Canada…"

"As all people who want to get rid of rabid dogs do," Jane interjected.

"Sure… anyway, this guy, let' call him… Gunthar," Sunset grimaced. There was no way she was telling them she'd been hanging out with ex-ADVENT. "...he escorted me to this ramshackle outpost, right?"

o.0.o Three Years Earlier o.0.o

Sunset gazed at the ramshackle arrangement of structures put together with some distaste. Here and there she could see guards and a few groups of well armed individuals, but for the most part, it was a complete refugee camp, complete with running, rag-wearing children and possibly weeping mothers. "Is this really where I'm going?"

Gorack, her chaperone of sorts ever since she had started training with the Skirmishers, shrugged, his large, armored shoulders making the simple motion into a real statement of disinterest. Being on mission, he was wearing his full-face helmet, so it was difficult to guess what he was thinking.

Her own armor was different. They didn't have anything that would fit her, so bits and pieces had been adapted and molded for her. It was bulkier than she would have liked, but it was solid… and it made her feel a lot less vulnerable than her leather jacket and jeans combo.

She rubbed her forehead. "Seriously, Gorack, you've got to take me somewhere else."

"Betos said this was where we drop you off." Gorack kneeled to fish out some things from his knapsack. "Here. A gift from Betos."

'There! The bastard is smiling! I can hear it!' Sunset took the grapple-hook with a sour face. "Oh. Haha. Funny."

"Some of the others are trying to copy your trick," Gorack said, also passing her a combat knife and a shotgun. "They think it could be a useful technique if we can master it."

Sunset blushed despite herself. The memory of her first attempt at using the grappling hook like a skirmisher had ended up with the exact opposite of what she was supposed to do. Rather than pull the dummy to herself… she had been too light to hold her ground and she had flown across the training ground to smash on her target.

"Whatever. Weren't there any complaints about sending me away? I thought we were getting along so well."

Gorak seemed to study her. "Betos was aware of your attempts to become some sort of leader."

Sunset pressed her lips.

"You're lucky she likes you and that Pratal Mox vouches for you… most of the other officers were not very pleased," he continued. "Betos thinks you have promise and that you should have your own command."

"Well then, why wasn't I allowed to stay?!"

"Because your command should be with your own people." Gorak gave another shrug. "I don't care that much… I thought you were good on the field when you weren't trying to show off with the grappling hook. And most of the others agree that you would make a good leader."

"They were afraid I'd take their place?" Sunset snorted.

"No, but we all know you would, given half the chance." Gorak then lowered his head to look straight at her from within his helmet. "Whether we wanted you or not."

Sunset felt a bit of cold sweat. They had really known her well.

"But it's not just that," he said, straightening up. "Pratal Mox thinks you might make a leader worthy to follow once you get that and your tendency to throw up when you kill an alien under control... but we are not your people. We are becoming our own with every ADVENT trooper or officer we liberate. And when it comes to commanding a tribe of skirmishers… it has to be us, not… normal humans."

Sunset sighed, resisting the urge to roll her eyes. "So why here?"

"It's close. And it is also a fairly centered outpost, you will have an easy time finding a team to join… Betos said there were some important humans there too," he glanced at the settlement with evident lack of conviction. "Or something."

She shook her head. "Whatever."

Gorack finally stood up and after hesitating a little, passed her a black card. She knew what it was. It was emergency codes they gave to infiltration agents to reconnect if necessary. There was a cypher for it too, so it couldn't just be used to contact them by just anyone. It was a big sign of trust.

Despite her disappointment at her first army being taken from her, she felt oddly honored.

"We're moving away… but if you ever need help, you'll find a way to contact us." He seemed like he wanted to say more, but shook his head. "You can ask at the big building for a job. Good luck."

Sunset watched the Skirmisher walk away and felt like she had been punched in the gut. Things had changed… being there with them, watching them bleed and die… being trained to survive by people that were harsh but fair and… somehow understood where she was, lost and not belonging anywhere… it was calming. It was encouraging. It was embracing and, she had felt, welcoming.

Now she was being let go… free of the nest, no longer a baby bird that couldn't jump and take off. She had learned to fly, in a manner of speaking and they were telling her she was ready for more.

It still hurt. It still was leaving another… not exactly home, but…

She had to move. She had to step into this new world, now a little bit more prepared.

She kneeled down and opened her backpack to store her black card, when she caught sight of the diary. She didn't know why she had bothered bringing the thing.

She slid it out and opened it, past the first, foalish notes to Celestia until she found the first empty page. She thought about Canterlot. About the Skirmisher Tribe. About not having a home. About how it was all her fault.

Grabbing the pen she used normally to mark places in maps, she slid it across the page, writing in her native equestrian only three words.

"I hate you."

She stared hard and long at them before snapping the diary close and sliding it into her bag.

"Better stop whining," she muttered, running the back of her sleeve across her eyes. "I have a town to impress."

o.0.o End Chapter 5 o.0.o

Chapter 6: Friends

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Ranger

Chapter 6: Friends

By Wanderer D

Skirmishers had a sense of belonging when they were together: they called themselves a tribe; everyone was a brother or sister; once the ADVENT implant was removed from a new, liberated Skirmisher, they were introduced to their new family, and if living in a different location, would head over with them. There was this spiritual aspect of acceptance of each other, old and new that grew as they discovered what it was like, living away from ADVENT's forced dominion.

Humans, Sunset concluded just a few minutes into town, acted a lot more like ponies than Skirmishers did. Rather than unite with a single purpose in mind, they united with the general idea of survival. Sure, they were pissed off at the aliens for taking over the world, but only a few fully embraced the actual mentality needed to fight back, and the rest were content to be discontent in their ramshackle housing.

Mox had drilled into her head to keep a lookout for trouble, regardless of where she was or how safe she felt. A skill (or way of thinking) she could have used when she first emerged into this world. As he had pointed out, you're not being paranoid if aliens are really coming to get you. As such, her senses were on alert the moment she crossed the gate into town.

The guards had given her a look of amusement, mixed with something she couldn't recognize. It wasn't contempt, nor outright distrust… it just made her feel like they pitied her already. Still, since no one had bothered to ask, she said nothing to them and just strolled in. So much for security.

Granted, every three steps she passed someone with machine guns of some sort or another, but the mini-skirmisher within her frowned at the level of disregard these people had for some sort of organized authority. They did look more like she did, though, so no snake-like eyes here, and although they were not ponies themselves, they were definitely easier on the eyes. She mulled over this as she walked. Could it be a biological directive prompted by her species change? She certainly wouldn't have found them too pleasant to look at as a pony.

Her thoughts drifting, she almost didn't dodge the three men that barged out of the bar. One big, muscular man wearing no shirt, swung his fist at a much smaller one, who surprisingly dodged under the punch, smashed his fist into the bigger man's stomach and flipped him over his shoulder at the last man, who was trying to tackle him from behind.

The two on the floor slowly got up, facing the last one warily. He was older than them, with a scar going across his right cheek. The man hadn't shaved in a while, but still managed to look relatively well-kept. The other two could have been exchanged with any other obvious mercenary or freedom fighter in the city.

All three stank of alcohol.

An older woman, looking more exasperated than angry emerged from the bar, but didn't interrupt the fight, other than to shout, "John! You're never coming to this bar again, you hear me?!"

The elder of the three waved drunkenly at her and that's all the shirtless, bigger of his two opponents needed to attack. John's head was grabbed by both hands, and had he not blocked the knee to the face, the fight would have been over.

Sunset considered walking past, but it was interesting to see this. After all, most Skirmishers were roughly the same build, so fights among them usually boiled to the same tactics. None of them had really had an idea on how to teach Sunset to fight, so watching first hand the underdog fight, might give her some ideas.

The older man managed to disengage, pulling down as he rounded behind the big guy. A kick to the side of the knee brought the man down, howling, and a punch straight onto the jaw knocked him out fast.

John stepped back, looking around wildly.

"Duck!" Sunset shouted, surprising herself.

John followed her order with surprising speed, just as a chair swept the air where his torso had been a second ago. While crouching, John had been spinning in place already and his fist came up in a solid uppercut that sent the second man flying.

John smirked, stumbling a little and turned to face Sunset, nodding at her once in thanks. Then he stopped and blinked at her. Before collapsing onto the floor.

"Idiot," the woman from the bar said, checking on the other two. She looked up at Sunset. "Hey, you look strong enough for this… do you want some free cash?" she asked, pulling out some chips.

Sunset raised her eyebrow. "For what?"

"Take this idiot, here," she motioned at John, who had pushed himself up to a sitting position and was muttering something to himself about… Talen? Balen? "To his home. It's nearby, a couple of blocks down the main road and to the left. He can walk, he just needs to lean on someone to make it there."

Sunset grimaced. She didn't want to walk around drunk people, but on the other hand he looked like he could fight. Maybe he could help her get set up here. The place was a mess, but if she managed to make her way up to controlling the whole thing… she smirked. That would show Celestia that Sunset had more than enough ability to lead, just like Betos and Pratal Mox had already seen.

"Sure," she said, taking the money and walking up to the man. "Come on, old man, let's get you home."

o.0.o Three Years Later o.0.o

"Rookies Sunset Shimmer and Jane Kelly, step forth," Central called out.

"Sir!"

The pair stepped forward, Jane almost wobbling in place and Sunset resisting the urge to smirk at her friend's suffering.

"Last night you both took place in a very important mission for the future of XCOM," Bradford continued. "Although there were losses, thanks to you we were able to bring the commander back."

The hangar was silent. It had been a while since the last promotion, but more importantly, as much as it was about their promotion, it was about a little show and fanfare of their victory. Most of the non-essential staff had gathered, with the Engineer team and the science teams flanking the small squadron of soldiers.

"The commander is in good health, still healing, and sadly unable to attend, but sends regards," Bradford continued. "Now that we have a working military command, you have the commander's blessings in being acknowledged by formal military rank and I am honored to give you both the rank of Squaddie.

"Given your set of skills, Jane Kelly is to be designated a Specialist, and will report to Engineer Chen to pick up her GREMLIN. Sunset Shimmer is being designated a Ranger, specializing in close combat. Both of you are now assigned to the newly created team, Menace, with other two members to be assigned soon. You will also report to Engineer Shen for any additional equipment you might need."

Bradford gave the pair of saluting soldiers a nod. "Dismissed."

As soon as the hangar had cleared of higher-ups, Sunset and Jane were congratulated several times by their peers before they managed to extricate themselves and start walking down towards Engineering, which was thankfully not too far from the Hangar.

"So how are you feeling?" Sunset asked, smirking. She had seen looking ready to throw up more than once when someone patted her on the back.

"Ugh. Remind me to never let you let me drink like that again."

"I thought you couldn't help it," Sunset mock-pouted. "My Little Kelly's not Irish enough now?"

"Oh, shut it," Jane muttered.

"Still," Sunset sighed. "A new team, huh?"

"Yeah." Jane shrugged. "About time we got an actual promotion though, we've been at this for years."

"I guess it just marks the start of real XCOM operations."

"Yeah, like all the other missions weren't enough."

"I hear that the old XCOM hired professional soldiers from around the world… being a rookie here promoted to Squaddie under that bar… it's not too bad."

Jane snorted. "Aren't you setting your ambition a bit low, Commander?"

Most people in the Avenger had become used to Sunset's aspirations to leadership, and thus, when Central was not around, her given nickname was "The Commander", due to her tendency to give orders when there was no clear superior officer.

"Hah!" Sunset made a fist. "As if. You'll see, I'll start with this team, but soon enough I'll have my own Avenger, with blackjack and—"

"Engineer Shen!"

Sunset lowered her fist. "That's not… oh."

Lily Shen raised her eyebrow. "Well, don't leave me hanging. Blackjack and what?"

"Ponies," Sunset said. "Unicorns, Pegasi and regular Earth Ponies, we'll spray paint cutie marks on them and ride them into the moon."

"If you say so," Shen said, waving them into the Engineering room. "Sorry about the mess, we barely have enough space and Bradford says the Commander's first order is to build a new communications room. Then a Guerilla Tactics school then maybe an extension for us or the lab."

"We sleep in bunk beds, Shen," Jane pointed out. "We're used to cramped."

"Hello ROV-R," Sunset said as the drone floated up to them. "How are you doing?"

ROV-R bobbed up and down before flying to the other side of the room and starting to run scans on a piece of alien machinery.

"I heard about your promotion, Sunset, well done," Shen said, moving over to a table and opening a box. "Bradford asked me to check your armor and make sure it still fits you, Sunset," she said with a tone of slight annoyance. "It just needed a few adjustments, but it's all set. If it wasn't quite so unique, I'd love to dismantle it for study."

"I'm sure you'll get a chance, Shen," Sunset said. "It's just based off of ADVENT's own."

"I know! But why doesn't it break apart like the others we get our hands on?" Shen sighed. "Anyway, I got a bunch of bodies with armor that Tygan still needs to study, and then we'll be able to improve our own armors… maybe improve yours too."

"Well," Sunset gathered up her things. "Thank you for respecting this, Lily."

"Hey…" Lily hesitated. "I understand the value of gifts like that." She took a deep breath. "Anyway, besides the armor, here's your sword."

Sunset took the blade. It was made of sturdy material with a very clear sharp edge. "This looks less like a sword and more like an overgrown machete."

Lily gave her a look. "I'm not Xinpei Shen, Sunset. Name might sound similar, but we're different types of legends. Sword making is not my craft. It's long, it's metal, and it cuts through most things. It's a sword."

"Sorry, sorry," Sunset said, cringing. She slid it back on its sheath. "I hope we get some time to practice, the only things I had were those bokens in the gym and the weight is all messe—" She caught Lily's look. "Different. It handles differently."

"Glad to see you catching on," Lily deadpanned before moving over to Jane. "Well, Jane, you're almost one of us now, congratulations too."

"I can't wait," Jane said. "Hacking with those little notepads is ridiculous."

"Don't be too hard, it's good training," Lily replied. "Besides, I've been working on this baby of yours for a while now. A lot of your hacking information and tendencies are crucial to the design of your own GREMLIN, especially if it's to anticipate your actions on any level."

"Aww, you shouldn't have," Jane said. "It's like you knew I'd be promoted."

"Just a little over a month," Lily said, bending down to picked up a crate, opening it up and fishing for a couple of devices, which she passed on to Jane. "Go ahead, give it a try."

Sunset watched as Jane put one of the devices on the side of her head, like some sort of monocle. From what she understood of the process, the GREMLINS used some of the alien technology that connected the mind of the Specialist to the drone, allowing them to give them clear instructions both with verbal commands and mental prompts. It wasn't a real psionic link, since it was a machine, but it was still an incredible adaptation of alien tech. Even ADVENT didn't have anything similar.

"Oh yeah," Jane grinned as the drone levitated up. "This little guy and I will have a lot of fun out there."

"Just remember the protocols on having your drone active in the Avenger," Lily said. "And don't attempt to hack the Avenger."

"I'm not stupid," Jane muttered.

"Let me rephrase that," Lily said. "If you get drunk and the next morning we're orbiting Pluto, you will be responsible for the fallout, and I will take your GREMLIN away."

The computer console suddenly lit up and Bradford appeared on a small screen. "Lily, have Sunset and Jane picked up their equipment?"

"Yes, they're actually right here, I just gave it to them."

"Good, saves me the trouble of seeking them out," Bradford replied. "Sunset, Jane, get equipped and report to the hangar, some… friends… have made contact now that the Commander is free and we are to meet their representatives. I'm sending Menace over. I'll brief you when you're in your way. Central out."

The screen went black.

"Well, I guess I get to practice with my machete after all," Sunset muttered, earning another glare from Lily.

"No rest for the wicked," Jane retorted. "Come on, we only have a few minutes to grab our things and get dressed.

Sunset nodded, waving absently at Lily and ROV-R. Her mind was running fast. The commander hadn't even been out of whatever that machine was over a day and they were already moving to a new mission, and if Bradford's tone was any indication, it would not necessarily be a pleasant one.

She shook her head. "I wonder who these 'friends' are…"

o.0.o End Chapter 6 o.0.o

Chapter 7: Sushi

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Ranger

Chapter 7: Sushi

By Wanderer D

The Skyranger hummed into life as the newly-minted team, Menace, gathered in the hangar. Sunset had donned her quasi-skirmisher armor, including her grapple-hook, and was all but ready to go. Her machete was taking a bit of getting used to, attached as it was to the back of her armor, but it was designed in a way that made drawing and reattaching very easy.

All in all, she felt a lot safer than in the civilian gear she had worn during the last mission.

Jane was wearing her regular XCOM resistance armor, sunglasses and black cap. Her GREMLIN floated faithfully next to her, almost as if it had been with her all along.

Two more soldiers had joined them; Shintaro Katsu, who had been there almost as long as Sunset herself, and Paula Graca. Neither had a specialization yet, but they had ran the same drills with them over and over.

Sunset couldn't complain, both were a bit more focused than Otis had been, in her experience, and they had been out on a couple of missions together before. Unlike the previous times, however, she was really their superior this time around.

"Menace 1-4," Bradford called in as soon as they sat down inside the Skyranger and it had taken off. "This mission will take place in one of the abandoned cities; we are to meet two representatives. Each is from a different faction that we have deemed a credible threat to ADVENT. Your mission is to meet and escort the representatives to the meeting place, where XCOM will host the negotiations. The commander is currently engaged in communications with their leaders, and negotiations will depend on this mission going through without a hitch."

The screen inside the Avenger provided tactical information and visual aids as Bradford spoke. "You will be divided into two teams. Sunset will head Alpha Team. You will be meeting with the Reaper's representative. Team Bravo will be headed by Jane and meet with the Skirmisher's representative."

Sunset started. "Wait, requesting to switch—"

"Both teams will meet at the designated area with their assigned representative alive. Central out."

The screen went black.

"Crap."

"Everything okay there, Sunset?" Jane asked.

Sunset looked up to see the others were giving her amused looks. "Yeah, yeah," Sunset muttered. The chances of her knowing the Skirmisher representative were slim as it was. "It's just, you know… Reapers eat aliens."

The cabin went quiet.

"Say what now?" Shintaro asked.

"As in Sectoid sushi, yes." Sunset shrugged. "Not entirely sure how it started, but they hunt them down, then cook them. I've heard Muton shanks is a popular dish."

"Eww."

"When you say hunt…" Paula started.

"...I mean hunt," Sunset said, nodding. "Like game."

"Know anything about Skirmishers?" Jane asked.

Sunset hesitated. "Yes. They're ex-ADVENT, very tribal, honorable and loyal to each other. Good fighters."

"Huh," Paula spoke up. "Seems Central kept you well informed, but I still feel you're keeping things to yourself."

"No surprise there," Shintaro added. "You travelled with Central for over a year if I remember correctly. Did he tell you about them then?"

"Sort of," Sunset said. "I've just had run-ins with them… it was educational."

Jane and the others shared looks before leaning forward. Sunset couldn't blame them, usually they would all go mostly in the dark about things and XCOM had kept most soldiers under an intense training regime which had only allowed for select contact outside of the Avenger.

Most outside world information came from situations like these, where one or another soldier would have first hand experience of a location or encounter. The more they knew, the more likely they would be able to anticipate their contact's reactions.

"So… did you try any of that Sectoid sushi?" Shintaro asked, looking slightly disgusted if intrigued.

"No, even they admit it's an acquired taste," Sunset said. "And no, I didn't risk it. To be honest, it smelled awful."

"You actually saw them chop one up?"

"Yes."

"So what's the best part?" Jane asked.

"If you believe Natter… Sectoid loin is a delicacy."

Everyone contemplated this in silence.

"Any idea who the third party he mentioned was?" Shintaro asked, changing the topic. "We have cannibals, ex ADVENT… what could be next?"

They looked at Sunset, who glared back at them. "Templars. And no. I don't want to talk about them."

Jane raised an eyebrow. "I sense there's a history there."

"I said I don't want to talk about it." Sunset crossed her arms. "And they are not important right now."

"I guess that's true," Paula said. "But it would be nice to know why you don't like these Templars."

"It's a long story that I hope never to have to share," Sunset replied. "Besides, we're here, so let's jump a few hundred feet to the ground now, okay?"

The back of the Skyranger opened as it hovered over the city. It didn't take long for Sunset to start swearing the moment she saw the greenish mist that covered most of it. That could only mean one thing.

Shintaro gave her an amused look. "What?"

Sunset gritted her teeth. "I hope you like zombie movies," she said before jumping down.

The street they were dropped at was a sadly familiar sight: tall buildings and half-collapsed skyscrapers, street covered by a thin, greenish mist; desiccated bodies strewn around as they fled from small craters created by alien devices; cars either overturned, abandoned or destroyed, all inevitably covered in rust and vegetation and an eerie, heavy and oppressive silence.

Sunset was quick to activate her 'blood vision' as she had taken to calling it, the moment she was on the floor. Immediately she could see ruby-red lights around herself, and Shintaro, as well as a few other, smaller ones at the top of buildings as well as one behind a car nearby. The sheer size of human cities never ceased to amaze Sunset, nor did the amount of cars they used, although given the size of the things it wasn't surprising they'd want a faster method of movement.

Blood vision was the only one of her bloodspells she could keep up an almost indefinite amount of time. Sunset had a massive reserve of magical energy, which had grown considerably with constant practice and strengthening exercises… it also regenerated over time, and this spell in particular used so little of it that by the time it would make a small impact, her reserves would have been refilled… a much different scenario from other magical spells, be it her natural pyromancy or even basic levitation.

Equestrian high-level spells would leave her incapacitated most of the day, if they were possible at all, and she was more than happy to not use them for now.

"What do you mean zombie movies?" Shintaro asked.

"Oh, you'll see," Sunset said as she started walking down the street.

"Menace 1-2," Bradford's voice came through the comms. "Proceed to the first set of coordinates, Firebrand and the second team will go ahead to the next drop point."

"Detecting increasing biological signatures in the area ahead," Dr. Tygan said.

"Then I'd say we're in the right place," Bradford added. "Stay sharp out there, just because the city was abandoned, doesn't mean it's lifeless. Let's see what the Reapers have to offer, you should be meeting your contact here soon."

"They're already here," Sunset said, just as the heartbeat behind the car revealed itself.

"You have good eyes, XCOM," the woman said, "My name is Elena Dragunova, follow me."

Sunset and Shintaro followed after Elena a block down, to where Sunset was slightly disgusted to see the head of a bug-like alien roasting over a fire. She'd never seen them without the exoskeleton herself, but that was probably the remains of one of Bradford's infamous Chryssalids.

"Feel free to eat if you haven't," Elena said, watching Shintaro turn green and heave. When Sunset's reaction didn't change, she rolled her eyes at her before tilting her head and frowning. "I think I remember you, Bradford's kid, right? You were at that meeting a few months ago. I thought I saw you loitering next to one of the cages back at camp."

That started a series of choking sounds from Shintaro, who still wouldn't face them, lest he look at the roasting head.

"Not exactly his kid, but yeah, I travelled with him for a while," Sunset replied, giving her a dirty look. "I know Central spoke to Volk, is Natter still around?"

Elena's face hardened. "She's dead, last year."

Sunset bit her lip and sighed. "I'm sorry."

Elena turned. "If we have nothing else to discuss, let's get going."

"Is it just you coming, or is the rest of your gang here following as well?" Sunset asked, falling into place behind Elena.

"You do have a good eye." Elena smirked. "No, they'll stay behind, we'll meet your Skirmisher as agreed, one-on-one."

"Good." Sunset said, then, "Speaking of which, who are we meeting from the Skirmishers?"

"We don't know much about him other than his name. Mox," Bradford replied.

This drew an angry growl from Elena. "Mox?! Pratal Mox?"

"You have a problem with that?" Sunset asked, looking at her.

"His death squads killed a lot of my people at the beginning of this war!" Elena hissed. "You would dare do this?"

"It's not like Reapers haven't hunted down Skirmishers for nibbles," Sunset snapped, earning a glare of her own.

Shintaro, caught in the middle, slid back out of the way as both women walked up to each other, neither backing down.

"I'm sure there is plenty of blood on both sides," Bradford interrupted the glare, sounding slightly exasperated. "That's what this is about, burying the past and working together."

That was all that was said for a time. They moved quietly, from shadow to shadow, cover to cover. Reapers were notorious for their ability to blend with their surroundings, and were it not for her blood spell, Sunset would have lost sight of Elena more than once. Eventually they saw one of the machines that had crashed into the cities.

"We can still detect trace amounts of radiation," Tygan said into the comms. "I can't help but wonder what they looked like and their initial purpose."

"We were there, doctor, trust me, you're better off having missed it," Bradford replied.

It wasn't long after they had left the camp and were making their way through the city that they saw their first Lost shambling around an abandoned-looking building.

"I hate those things," Sunset muttered.

"Those things..." Bradford gasped. "They still look like people! We don't have any intel on them."

"That's surprising," Elena replied, looking at Sunset with a slightly bewildered expression. "What was human died years ago… only the taint of the alien survives now."

"XCOM hasn't fought any so far," Sunset said in response to Elena's look.

"These creatures' DNA has mutated past anything we could still classify as human," Tygan added to the radio chatter. "Perhaps a result of continued exposure to the alien radiation… but why would anyone expose themselves to that… I cannot imagine."

"When the governments of the world fell, a lot of people were starving and returned to the cities to scavenge… they did not heed the warnings," Elena whispered bitterly.

"Sunset, anything you want to share?" Bradford's voice sounded particularly annoyed.

"The Lost are… something that ADVENT doesn't want anyone to see… they send squads of ADVENT Purifiers… they're… like troopers but with flamethrowers, I haven't seen any so far outside of the old cities."

"Any additional intel you think would be useful to know before we encounter them, other than 'I hope you like zombie movies'?" Bradford asked.

"You were listening?"

"I am always watching my troops on missions," Bradford replied dryly. "And I'm relaying this information to Jane as we speak."

"Well, do you like zombie movies?" Sunset asked.

"No."

"Me neither."

"I hate to interrupt this father-daughter-like interaction," Elena said, "but if you don't have anything productive to add, we should get moving. They're not human anymore, and a shot to the head will take them down."

"They are also attracted to loud noises, so any large explosion will draw their attention," Sunset added.

"It seems like we'll have to tread carefully," Bradford concluded, "I'm relaying this information to Bravo team. Carry on with the mission... and try to not draw their attention."

"It's always easier said than done," Sunset muttered.

o.0.o End Chapter 7 o.0.o

Chapter 8: Witch

View Online

Ranger

Chapter 8: Witch

By Wanderer D

o.0.o Two Years Earlier o.0.o

Sunset shifted nervously, watching the many Reapers performing their daily routines in their camp. She was hanging around a bunch of empty cages they had left outside the main tent, and Bradford had told her in no uncertain terms that she was to remain put. And usually, she would have ignored his order, except... it was different here.

There was a sense that any of these people would shoot her without hesitation if she so much as blinked the wrong way. They had an intensity to themselves that was almost wild—and menacing. She knew it would take a long time to feel comfortable here, and she desperately wanted that to not happen.

'Bradford should just finish his stupid meeting and we can get going.' Sunset hadn't missed the looks they have given them both when they walked into camp, escorted by two heavily wrapped humans.

She wasn't sure if it was the glares, the many guns that, while not pointing directly at them, had followed their general trajectory, or the fact that a big, burly man was whistling a tune as he cleaved through the tough hide of a muton. Meat by itself wasn't something that disgusted her… muton meat? No thanks.

She had thought that Skirmishers were tribal, but these people… they took it to a different level. Even though she had gotten somewhat used to death, both from her time with the Skirmishers and by John Effing Central Bradford's general proximity, which was an invitation for just about anything with a pet peeve at… anything, to attack them on account of him being alive, and her being alive next to him. The big X on their armor probably didn't help either.

Apparently XCOM was not welcome in most places for a number of reasons, and after more than a few shootouts together after she had agreed to travel with him and meet this mysterious Dr. Shen, she had finally asked him one night why everyone wanted to shoot them.

His response?

"That's XCOM, Sunset."

He had actually laughed himself to sleep on that one.

"Hey, you new here?"

The voice made Sunset almost jump. She turned to look at a petite brunette, who was smirking at her with something akin to amusement.

"Just visiting," Sunset replied warily. "You guys… have quite the thing going on here."

The woman snorted. "It really is a thing, isn't it?" She looked around, smiling. "Where do you come from? You look pretty clean, are you fresh from one of the cities?"

Sunset raised an eyebrow. By her own reckoning, she was actually sweaty, covered in dirt and could really use a shower. Then again, people here had different standards than ponies.

"No, never been. I'm from New Haven, to the west."

The woman whistled. "All the way from there? And what brings you here? You came in with that old man? Who's that, your dad?"

Sunset rolled her eyes. "He's not my dad."

"Your sugar daddy then?"

"No. What does that even mean?"

"Oh, bless your heart," the woman laughed, extending a hand. "Natter's the name."

Sunset shook her head, but took the woman's hand in hers. "Sunset."

"I guess you're lucky you're not from the ADVENT cities," Natter said, motioning with her head for Sunset to follow. "I've always wondered what their meat tastes like, with all that alien food they eat. Might as well be aliens themselves, am I right?"

Sunset clenched her teeth. "I wouldn't know about that."

They walked to the other side of the camp, where two more Reapers, a man and a woman, were getting ready to leave.

"Hey guys," Natter spoke up. "This here's Sunny, and she's never gone hunting before."

"Well, then we should fix that," the man said, grabbing a nearby rifle and giving it to Sunset. "You know how to sneak, right?"

Sunset looked from the rifle to Natter, who grinned, then back to the rifle, then over her shoulder at the tent in the middle of the camp.

"If you're wondering when your dad is coming out," the other woman spoke up, throwing a dusty coat to Sunset, presumably for her to wear. "It'll take a while. Volk likes to drink too."

Sunset sighed, donning the hooded jacked. "He's not my dad. What are we hunting?"

"Elk," Natter said. "Don't worry, it'll be easy."

o.0.o Present o.0.o

"This is so stupid!" Sunset snarled, blowing a Lost's head off with her shotgun.

"It was your guy that blew our cover," Elena pointed out, leaning to the side of a cardboard box and shooting another Lost in the head. "Good thing it wasn't an elk."

"I said I was sorry!" Shintaro hissed, trying not to move his arm too much and using his gun instead of his automatic rifle. "There are dead bodies that look like Lost, and Lost that look like dead bodies! I wasn't trying to wake it up! I thought it was dead! And what's this about elks?"

The three slowly backed away, taking sure shots at the approaching zombies and moving towards their destination.

"You shut up about the damned elk!" Sunset snapped. "Natter promised she wouldn't tell!"

"Well, she lied," Elena retorted.

"Next time we do the smart thing and tell Firebrand to just pick up the contact and fly us the hell over to the next site. Whose great idea was it to do this anyway?" Sunset asked, hooking up her shotgun to its harness and sliding out her machete. She raised her arm and shot her grappling hook straight through the torso of a Lost that was about to tackle Shintaro.

With an efficiency that surprised the other two, she used the hook to yank the creature back towards her, and as soon as it was in range, used the momentum to step in and with a swift cut, lopped its head off. The body collapsed onto its knees before crumbling onto the floor, unmoving.

That seemed to be the last one, and the three held their breaths, releasing them slowly in relief when there were no more groans or shouts from the undead creatures.

"Come on, we are about to reach our meeting point," Elena whispered after a moment, she took action to words and moved quickly from cover to cover.

"How's your arm?" Sunset asked Shintaro as they ran.

"Feels broken," Shintaro muttered. "I'm sorry, I should have been more careful."

"It happens," Sunset said, keeping her senses alert. Blood vision didn't work that well with the Lost. More than a solid source of light, they were shadows moving in the mist. She wasn't sure how any of her spells would affect them, but when it came to the zombies, she was as blind as the others.

"Where… where did you learn to do that?" Shintaro asked as they neared the last block to the meeting coordinates. "I've never seen anyone do something like that."

"I have," Elena said, a slight edge to her voice. She didn't look back at them, but Sunset could feel a bit of anger directed her way. "I've seen some Skirmishers do something similar."

Sunset didn't say anything.

"I knew something rubbed me the wrong way about you since I saw you that time in camp," Elena continued. "It wasn't just your armor either… you seemed… different. It just never clicked now that you were a skirmisher." She snorted. "You don't look like one."

"I'm not," Sunset said as they stopped to survey the area. "I stayed with them for a while when Mox saved me when I was younger. They dropped me off at a human colony when they had the chance."

Elena turned to look at her. "But not before training you."

"Hey now," Sunset smirked. "Would you really pass on getting one of these?"

Elena snorted, glancing at the grappling hook. "I suppose not."

"I'm glad we're all friends again," Shintaro muttered.

"That's too strong a word."

"Don't push it, mister."

"Right, right, sorry," he said raising his hands to appease the two women. "Look, the others are here."

Sunset looked up. It was true; Jane and Paula were both warily flanking a thoroughly amused Pratal Mox. His armor was a lot different, and he seemed even bigger now, if possible.

The trio climbed up to the rail tracks where the meeting would take place.

"It seems like the life of a Skirmisher suits you well," Sunset said as they walked into sight. The other two stayed behind as she walked almost all the way to where Mox waited. He looked over, seemingly surprised at seeing her. Apparently Bradford hadn't shared any of their identities when confirming the mission.

Soon enough though, he marched over to Sunset and bumped grappling hooks with her. "By the Elder's fetid breath, if it isn't Sunset Shimmer. I knew you'd fend well on your own, but I had not expected to see you with XCOM."

"So, ADVENT's most vicious captain now wants to redeem himself," Elena sneered, walking down the tracks to stand in the middle of it, facing them.

Mox patted Sunset's shoulder and walked past her, facing the Reaper. "I am no longer that being. I have been freed."

"Taking your helmet off doesn't change who you are!" Elena retorted, pointing her rifle straight at him.

Mox braced himself, ripjack at the ready,

"The way I see it," Bradford called out over the comms, "is that we all want the same thing: to take ADVENT down. We can either kill each other and do their work for them, or we can work together. The choice is yours."

Mox grunted and stood down.

Sunset almost didn't see it, so unexpected it was. One moment Elena was lowering her gun, and then, just as she glimpsed the tell-tale bloodwork light of a tall being landing behind Mox, the Reaper was taking a shot at the barely visible figure.

Sunset had thought she had good reactions, but Elena had been as fast as a striking cobra. The shot, however, failed to hit as the monstrous humanoid that appeared behind Mox dodged the bullet and back flipped, batting away Mox's follow up grappling hook with a wicked-looking sword.

The alien was female, and taller than Mox himself, although a lot thinner. She was dressed in blood-red armor, only decorated by a ruby or gemstone in the center of her chest armor, which looked almost lightweight as to not impede her movements. She sported two pigtails with purple and blue highlights, their volume at odds with her abnormally thin body. Her blue face split with a smile full of serrated teeth, like a shark as she leered at the gathered group. "That has never happened before," she hissed. "And never will again!"

The creature faded away, just as Mox, Jane, and the others formed a circle, trying to see where she had gone.

"What the hell was that?" Bradford asked.

Mox hissed. "Elder assassin, she hunts my kind. Immortal punishment from the Elders."

"We have another like her, hunting us," Elena added as the pair walked carefully to where the assassin had disappeared.

Sunset concentrated, spending a bit more power on her spell. The assassin's invisibility was very thorough… but it was not magical. Whipping to her left, Sunset opened fire, startling the others as the assassin splashed out of her invisibility field, arms crossed in front and orange blood dripping.

"How!?" She growled, but Sunset didn't give her enough time to gather herself. The assassin batted Sunset's own grappling hook with her sword and twisted to dodge out of Mox's ripjack, kicking him in the stomach and giving herself enough space to duck under another shot from Elena.

The assassin hissed, running in between shots from Jane and Shintaro before jumping off the side to the street below.

"Menace, you need to get out of there," Bradford ordered, just as a dull sound echoed through the area, like an old church bell being rung in the middle of the city.

"We are detecting a large biomass approaching your coordinates," Tygan added, and several shrill shouts of the Lost echoed in response as if responding to his assessment.

"This is firebrand, your immediate area is too hot, sending you pick-up coordinates."

"You heard her," Bradford said. "Get going."

The group started running, trying to outpace the Lost when suddenly, Sunset saw the assassin closing the distance. "Paula! Duck!"

Her teammate followed the order without hesitation, just as Sunset's gunshot went off. The assassin emerged from her invisibility, tracing a finger on a wound on her exposed arm before charging straight at Sunset.

She was interrupted by a punch from Mox, which made her head whip around, but she recuperated, moving with the impact and slamming her elbow to the back of his head, knocking him down.

The assassin tried to move, but Sunset had had enough, she focused her energy on the wound and projected it through her stretched hand at the assassin.

"What?!" the assassin hissed as her body seemed to stop. She looked around wildly as the others got closer to her, readying to shoot their weapons. She took a hasty shot from Shintaro on the shoulder just as her eyes settled on Sunset and narrowed.

"Gah!" A blast of psionic energy threw the others back, knocking them to the ground, and Sunset managed to catch a glimpse of blood-red energy the moment her magic failed. A second later the assassin was right in front of her.

"Well, well, well…" The assassin hissed, twisting her sword.

Sunset spat blood, eyes unable to move away from the assassin's own. She could feel the blade twisting her flesh, warm blood spilling down her legs to splash on the floor below. She needed to.. she needed...

"A blood mage," the assassin continued, holding Sunset up from her shoulder, to prevent her from collapsing, and making her shoulder pads crack with the pressure. "On Earth of all places… you've managed to give yourself some time, little one… or perhaps not." The assassin's mouth widened in a sneer.

Sunset could hear distant shouts and the assassin shook as it was hit with several weapons. Just as it started to disintegrate, she leaned in to whisper in Sunset's ear. "We'll meet again… if you live."

The assassin burst into fragments of light… and Sunset was falling.

o.0.o End Chapter 8 o.0.o

Chapter 9: Healing

View Online

Ranger

Chapter 9: Healing

By Wanderer D

Bradford opened the door to his temporary home and sighed. "You're back."

Sunset looked up from the table, where she was poring over her book, and raised an eyebrow at him. "You did say I could crash here when I was not on guard duty."

"I was drunk," Bradford said, closing the door behind him and sitting down on the bed in the main room, running his hand through his short hair.

The place was big enough to have a smaller room in the back, which Sunset had claimed as her own. The day after she had brought him home and he had woken up to see her studying her book, there had been a short, but terse conversation. Eventually, having found whatever he was looking for in that conversation, Bradford had simply shrugged and let her be, although he often would express grumpy surprise at her still being there despite his less-than stellar attitude.

"You seem a lot more serious today," Sunset said, closing her book. "What's going on?"

"I got a message," Bradford replied, "from an old friend. He's dying, but he… he found something, and he's been working on it with some other people and his daughter. He wants me to go over and take a look."

"Oh?"

"I don't have much time to get to him, maybe a few months… and he's in another continent."

The pair went silent for a few moments.

Bradford spoke up. "You can have this place an—"

"I'm going with you," Sunset interrupted. "You'll need my help."

Bradford snorted. "I'm more than capable of taking care of myself."

"I'm not staying here, Bradford," Sunset said. "You've been training me an—"

'No, nonononono! This is not interesting. Next video!

Sunset looked at the burning remains of what had been her home for the last four months. She was covered in scratches and blood of different colors. She wiped her bloody forehead with the back of her hand.

ADVENT had attacked out of nowhere, Vipers and troopers had flooded the town and soon the whole place was a bloodbath of both, alien and human nature, the cost of life had been high, although the small outpost had survived against all odds.

However…

"Stupid," Bradford gasped, coughing blood and forcing himself to look at the gaping wound caused by a nearby explosion. Shrapnel had perforated his lungs… and he was losing consciousness fast. He coughed again. "Sunset, my friends… you have to get to them," he pawed around his chest, trying to find something, but failing. His eyes rolled back and he collapsed in a bloody heap.

Sunset grit her teeth and looked around. Whatever survivors were left had already abandoned the site, it was just her and Bradford.

Kneeling down next to the dying man, she ripped his shirt open, taking out the biggest pieces of shrapnel and letting the blood flow out of his body. He looked deathly pale, and was barely breathing.

"Idiot," Sunset muttered, although she wasn't sure if she was telling herself that or to him.

She concentrated, drawing the magic out of the blood, which glowed ruby-like as she traced runes and magical circles above him, the blood snaking around them both.

Now this is what I'm talking about, my dearest Sunset!

The world whirled as she pushed and kicked in her mind. The scene became a blur of colors until it all became darkness and she was standing in front of a familiar man in purple armor.

"Geist," Sunset growled. "You'd dare invade my mind?!"

"My, my, Sunset," Geist sat down in a chair that materialized in the empty space. "Is that really the best way to greet an old friend?"

"Friend is a very strong word for how you and I are acquainted."

Geist leaned back, touching his chest in mock hurt. "You wound me, Sunset. And here I am, trying to save your life still, how is that for gratitude?"

Sunset frowned. "Saving m—" The landscape changed and she was looking down at the gaping wound in her stomach as the Assassin burst into light. Her hands quickly traced a circle over the wound just as she started pitching forward.

"I must say, my dear, that was quite the feat. You subconsciously did… whatever it is you did before you lost any chance of doing so." Geist leaned back in his chair, holding Sunset's eyes with his own. "From what I heard, Bradford threatened the pilot of your lovely floating base with dire consequences if they didn't make it here in time to save you."

Sunset felt sick, panicky even. She barely had the presence of mind to materialize a mental pillow—just like the ones back in Equestria—as she sat down heavily on it.

If Geist was surprised by her choice, he didn't show it. "So far I've had to take care of you myself, for the most part, except for some of my most trusted medics… your unusual psionic skills would… possibly cause a panic both here and with XCOM if they found out."

Sunset rubbed her face. "It's not… it isn't psionics, Geist. We've been over this before. It's not something I can teach your Templars with meditation. We might be able to feel each other's wavelengths but it doesn't mean we're compatible. You remember what happened when you tried to train me on how to Rend."

Geist smiled, rubbing his arm. "Yes, well, as destructively chaotic as that was, I feel you proved your point by accident that one time."

Sunset shuddered.

"In any case, we haven't informed anyone in XCOM other than Bradford about your… uniqueness. Since he already knew about your… proficiency with blood… he was glad to hear you had managed to pull your tricks and survive being stabbed by one of the Chosen." He smirked. "Whether he has informed his precious Commander… well, that I would not know."

"So the others didn't see?"

"Apparently not, although you might become a legend after surviving such a thing. That and our healing skills will probably earn a bit of underserved fame."

Sunset sighed. "So, if you already know all of that, why were you poking through my memories?"

"Do I need a reason?"

"Yes. Yes you do," Sunset growled. "You might escape before I do permanent damage, Geist, but you wouldn't forget the experience. So why?"

"Information, of course," Geist replied, opening his hands as if that explained everything. When it was clear it didn't, he relented. "Fine, have it your way. You encountered the Assassin, and you have heard of the one that hunts the Reapers."

Sunset nodded.

"Well, it turns out that we have a stalker of our own, and she calls herself Warlock," Geist explained.

"But a warlock would be male."

Geist shrugged. "Far be it for me to judge what goes in those alien minds of theirs. However, there's an interesting thing… she and I have had some… encounters, would be the best description, and though her powers far outweigh my own, I did discover something interesting… our dear Warlock uses similar energy to yours, although it has been…" he trailed off, frowning as he visibly tried to find the best way to describe it. "...mutated… by the Elders. Despite her nickname, she is not able to use it as you do, but the signature, so to speak, is pretty much the same."

Sunset frowned.

"I had my doubts, of course," Geist waved his hand dismissively. "It could have been simply comparable. The Warlock's psychic feats—are after all—very much achievable by a well-trained Templar, albeit on a smaller scale." He leaned forward. "However, imagine my surprise when you're rushed in, and your wound is already healing and that disturbing echo in the Warlock's aura, is emanating from you too."

The pair was silent for some time.

"They come from where I came from…" Sunset finally said. "I don't know how. I've never seen anything like them, or read about anything like them. But the Assassin… she knew what I was."

Geist didn't say anything, simply watching her.

"She doesn't have powers like mine, but she recognized it… and there was something… something that broke my—" she glanced up at him. "I had her trapped, unable to move… but then, something she did, or rather used, broke my hold on her."

"You realize you have just confessed to being an alien, my dear Sunset."

Her eyes went wide and she looked at him with growing fear.

"Oh my, don't tell me even Bradford doesn't know you're not human?" Geist chuckled. "Don't worry, I won't judge you, you are clearly not one of them… if anything you have more in common with the Skirmishers than I originally thought."

Sunset licked her lips nervously. "Don't tell anyone."

"Oh, I wouldn't dare!" Geist declared, smiling. "But I do want something in return," he said, eyes darkening. "I have convinced Bradford to take one of my Templars as a warrior for your cause, but what I want from you is to promise me to make the Warlock a priority."

"I was planning on making them one as it is." She felt herself calm down and looked at him curiously. "That's all? No secrets of my craft? No power-ups that I might be able to give your Templars?"

"My dear Sunset," Geist smiled. "I don't want my people to explode."

"...imperative that you let her sleep for a few more hours."

Sunset's eyelids felt heavy, she knew she was ordering them to open, but it was hard, as if she just simply didn't have the strength to do so.

"The last thing we want is to make her injuries worse," Bradford's voice said. There was an unusual tone to his voice.

She tried to speak, and felt her mouth part, but only a soft wheeze came out. Her stomach hurt, even though she knew she was heavily medicated at the time, which was a clear sign of how close she had come to dying.

"It appears that Sunset is waking up," Mox's unmistakable voice said.

She felt the others shuffle around her, just as her eyes finally, forced themselves open, even if it was still frustratingly slow.

Geist, who was the one talking originally, leaned down and held a straw to her mouth, so she could carefully drink some water.

She sipped at it gingerly. It was flavored, probably containing additional nutrients, Finally, she felt strong enough to speak.

"So… will I play the piano again?" She asked, joking. What came out was a raspy gasp that sounded to her less than words and more like the wheezing gasp of a dying elk.

"I think she was attempting to tell a joke," Geist said dryly, "which can only mean she should be good to go by tomorrow."

"Good," Bradford said, straightening up. He looked down at her. "The Chosen Assassin has managed to send us several messages. Apparently the commander is their main target now, and we'll need all our best soldiers to take them down before they can get close. Make sure you rest, Sunset, I want you back in action as soon as possible."

Sunset nodded, steeling her face, although the prospect of facing the Assassin again—she forced herself not to shudder—was… not something she really wanted.

"The commander asked to be informed of your status," Bradford continued, "So I'll go and spread word of your quick recovery. We expected you to be out for half a month at least."

"You have quite the constitution," Mox said with a slight hint of awe. "I have seen wounds like that kill some of the toughest aliens instantly."

"Yes, yes," Geist interrupted, motioning for another Templar, who Sunset had not noticed, a tall, dark-skinned woman, to come closer. "Let's allow Laetitia here to continue her healing of Sunset's wounds. I'm sure the commander is eager to hear you'll be up in the air soon."

Mox nodded, patting Sunset's shoulder and stepped out of the room, followed shortly by the other two, and leaving her alone with the healer, who closed the door behind them. "I can continue my psychic healing," she said, "but I'm also under Geist's orders to let you use your own skills if you want." The woman had an accent Sunset hadn't heard before, it was pleasant, however, almost French-like at times.

Sunset nodded, gulping and trying to push the mental image of the Assassin's serrated smile out of her mind. She closed her eyes and concentrated as best as she could, allowing her magic to flow into her veins and into the recuperating areas of her body.

She gasped at the sheer amount of damage that she had lived through, and despite the fact that a spell had kept her alive, her respect for Geist's healers went up several notches. She opened her eyes and looked at Laetitia with open admiration. "How… did you heal all of that?"

The woman raised an eyebrow, but smiled a little. "With a lot of patience and encouraging your body to heal. We were lucky that whatever you did allowed your cell regeneration to work even faster than ever before. Geist did most of the work, and I am glad he did, because I would have attempted to interact directly with your own energy. I had a lot to learn."

"Yeah, that wouldn't have been a good thing," Sunset said. "Let me... um, could you prick my finger?"

Sunset would normally not expose her magic like this, but they were alone for now, and Geist already knew more than he should. If he had left her with Laetitia, she was one of the few that knew about her unusual abilities.

Laetitia shrugged, grabbing a nearby pin and doing as Sunset requested. Carefully and tiredly, Sunset moved her gown out of the way and traced a few symbols on the regenerating skin, before pressing her palm there, and casting her spell.

She fell the magical drain immediately, but the soreness was gone. "L-leave it like that…" she stopped to yawn. "... for about three hours, the energy should be dissipated by then and you can…"

Laetitia watched as her charge drifted off to sleep. Careful not to disturb the design, she covered Sunset up with a blanket and shook her head in admiration before heading out the room. She would check on her in a few hours as requested.

Geist had told her and a few others about this girl, but it was more than she could have imagined. With what she was seeing—XCOM, Skirmishers, Reapers, Templars… and this girl—maybe things would change. Maybe they would push the elders back.

Only time would tell.

o.0.o End Chapter 9 o.0.o

Chapter 10: Nostalgia

View Online

Ranger

Chapter 10: Nostalgia

By Wanderer D

Jane Kelly had heard that in the old XCOM, Skyranger and Avalanche pilots would not mix up with the ground troops. Air Force was Air Force and Army was Army. Now, however, they were all a big family. They all lived in the same ship, after all, and there was only one bar.

The Avenger had no Avalanche fighters, only its own pilots and a few others on reserve or in active duty with the ground troops, and it was their own pilot, Second Lieutenant Dash—aka Firebrand—that she was looking for, and found at the bar, staring in contemplation at a glassful of bourbon.

Lieutenant Dash was one of the few rare people in XCOM that could be total stiffs, and yet have unique quirks to their personalities, such as multicolored hair, which the pilot kept short, most likely for comfort under a combat helmet.

Jane tried to remember what she knew about her: she was just a few years younger than Bradford himself, just barely over forty, having joined XCOM as a promising young air force pilot, and excelled as one of the best Avalanche pilots they'd had before XCOM was betrayed. Legend had it she had not only never been shot down once, but all attacks the aliens had tried against her... had missed. She was just that good.

After the war, she had been one of the few to escape along with Dr. Vahlen and Dr. Shen, joining the latter in his quest to find the one large alien ship they had taken down with Dash's help: the Avenger.

The rest, as they said, was history.

Jane approached the pilot and sat down next to her. "Hey," she said.

Firebrand gave her a look and raised her glass in a small salute. "Jane Kelly. Don't tell me we have another mission? I just poured this one." Dash's voice was a bit raspy, although definitely not making her sound old.

Jane chuckled. "Nah… I just wanted to thank you. If you hadn't been so fast… Sunset wouldn't have made it. I heard that Bradford rode your ass from the Skyranger to the Avenger bridge just so you could take the helm and fly this thing all the way here."

Dash chuckled. "Hey, I am the fastest flyer on Earth, don't you forget that." She took a sip of her glass and then reached over for another glass, threw ice in it and a splash from the same bottle before handing it to Jane. "Here, I know you're Irish, but you should be able to enjoy the best of Kentucky regardless."

Jane shook her head, but accepted the drink with a smile. The pair sat in comfortable silence for a while.

"Sunset..." Dash started to say, pausing to look into the dark liquid. "...she reminds me of myself and my friends, back in the day."

Jane blinked. Lieutenant Dash usually didn't speak much about herself. "Oh?"

"Yeah," the Lieutenant continued. "And it's not just the name."

Jane raised an eyebrow and Dash grinned.

"It was a thing from the area I was born in. I'm not sure why, maybe our grandfathers were hippies or something, but, take my name. Rainbow Dash."

Jane coughed, putting the glass she'd been sipping from down and pounding her chest, before giving the other woman an incredulous look.

Dash's smile didn't fade. "I know, right? It wasn't just me, though, the whole generation above mine and the next… they had names like this too. It was weird to meet a 'Jane' or 'John' in our little city of Canterlot. You can imagine my shock when the rest of the world had much more mundane names."

"Huh. Sunset Shimmer," Jane pondered. "Yeah, that sounds like a name from there too."

Dash nodded. "Yeah, you had me, a gal actually named Pinkie Pie; some jerk named her kid Trixie. Imagine when we found out that was a popular pole-dancer name?" Dash laughed.

It was funny. Jane had never seen Dash laugh. It brought back a sense of wonder in the older woman that made her seem a lot younger. She could really imagine her now as a cocky, young pilot, giving hell to her superiors.

"You can imagine the looks I got when I signed in and my name was on the resume," Dash continued, a bit more subdued. "I had been trained by one of the best, and when she found out what happened to Canterlot… well. She practically forced Bradford to hire me and skip a whole lot of other candidates."

Jane tried to remember anything she might've heard about Canterlot, but the history of the place was sadly straightforward when it came to XCOM: it was one of the first cities openly attacked by alien dreadnaughts.

"I still remember it," Dash said as the silence stretched. "It was just… a normal day, a week before graduation. I had played my last soccer game of the season, and I had gotten a letter of acceptance into the Air Force. Scared a lot of my friends with that, you know? Rarity… Pinkie… they weren't the fighting type. They never really understood why someone would… go kill."

Dash gave Jane an expectant look, and when the other woman said nothing, she smiled. "Yeah, you get it. They're the ones we step up to the line to protect." She sighed. "Only AJ really got me on that… once things had started, Big Mac was going to… ahem, that was her brother, he signed up to the army, but had an accident at the farm before his training even started. AJ stepped in instead."

Dash licked her lips, eyes straying up to the wall, but looking past it as memories flooded her mind. "We met at school… I think we had practice for a singing competition. That's when the sirens just… blasted the alarm around us. Metal things crashed outside the building. I-I looked out the window when one crashed right next to where Flash had just parked. It hit so hard it flipped his car over. Mist came out and… it was like it dragged them back. Whoever went into the mist, never came back.

"Everyone was screaming. Pinkie dove under a desk. Rarity… she was trying to calm the others.. that's when I saw it. This ship that blotted out the sun. I remember the vice-principal's voice ordering all of us to get into the tornado shelter area and then… a column of fire just… cut through the building."

Rainbow Dash shuddered, taking a long drink. "It wasn't a hard decision to join the Air force after that, and then come to XCOM. My mentor had been hired by Bradford already to head the Avalanche squad and she wanted the best."

Jane nodded. Talking with the older soldiers was always like this. She herself had vague memories of when she was a child about what the world was like… with no ADVENT to pull curtains over their eyes. It was distant and almost felt unreal. It had never been perfect… but it had been theirs.

"Anyway," Dash said, drinking down the last of her drink, "Sunset. She reminds me of them. I feel a little like I knew her from back then, you know? Maybe her parents were from Canterlot or something."

"When I saw her… that… that thing, the Assassin… she gutted Sunset like a fish, Jane."

Jane nodded.

"And she held on. Something like that would have killed anyone! But I've seen what force of will can do… the commander is like that. Fluttershy—all my friends were like that too." Dash looked down at the bottle before grabbing a shot glass and filling it up. "I guess, what I'm trying to say is… I'm never letting my friends die again. Not on my watch. Not if I can help it… and you guys are my team. Menace. Maybe even my friends."

She stood up and walked over to the memorial, where Jane had just noticed a small framed picture of a bunch of young girls. It was very old, and faded, but she could make out Dash's multicolored hair among them.

She watched as Dash placed the shoot in front of the group, then walked quickly out of the bar, leaving Jane alone.

"Friends, huh?" Jane muttered. She glanced at the picture—mirroring Dash's earlier salute with her glass—and downed the last of her bourbon.

Even though Sunset was not acknowledged as a psychic herself, she'd never felt comfortable around Templars. It wasn't that they shunned her… it was that they expected her to be like them… and treated her as such.

The Templars she had met before had decided to call her 'little sister', because they could feel her presence in the psychic network, and she could clearly feel them. They assumed, therefore, that she was also a psychic, perhaps one of XCOM's infamous psi-ops. The problem with this was that she really wasn't a psychic and mixing her magic with their powers was… volatile.

And now, she was with a Templar that was examining her with said psychic powers to make sure her healing was complete. And she had to keep her magic contained in her core, or there would be one Templar less in the world due to violent psychic feedback.

This proved one thing for sure, however: Geist was insane.

"Okay, it seems your healing is complete. There's no muscle degradation, all the layers have healed fully and while you might feel a bit sore, it's going to be mostly in your mind," Laetitia said. "Your healing ability is… amazing."

"Yeah, well, it carries a heavy price," Sunset said stretching. It did feel sore. "It's not a thing I can just use. My blood abilities are taking a hit for a while now."

"So it's not something you can use on demand?" Laetitia asked as Sunset started getting dressed.

"No," Sunset said, shaking her head. "I have a very limited supply of… energy for that kind of thing. Some of the very basic abilities I can do for a long time without much problem, but healing like that uses a lot out of me. If I was stabbed again like that right now…" She shuddered, her hand gingerly touching the place where the blade had struck. "I'd bleed out like anyone else, no matter how much I tried to work around that."

"Sometimes I really wonder where you're from," Laetitia said, getting to work on putting away all of her equipment as well. "You take too casually to powers like these."

Sunset's hands closed tighter around the piece of armor she was holding. She took a breath and donned the rest of her equipment. "A place I'll never be able to see again. It's beautiful. And full of very kind… people. I was loved there, and cherished and—heh." She shook her head, a self-deprecating smile in her face. "It took me three years of hell here to understand just how much I lost."

Laetitia nodded, having waited next to that door for Sunset to come over and follow her. "It seems that you have a lot of regrets," she said as they walked down the empty hallways of the Templar HQ. "Isn't there anyone you could reach out to? Tell them you miss them?"

Sunset's mind went back to her diary.

"I see there is," Laetitia smiled, looking at Sunset's face. "We've only known each other for as long as we worked together on your injury, Sunset, but I believe you are a good person. I'm sure they know it too. Give it a try."

"Yeah," Sunset sighed. "I'll think about it. It's been some time."

"Better late than never," Laetitia countered with a shrug. She led Sunset to a large double door. "And here we are…" she faced Sunset and shook her hand. "Best of luck, Sunset Shimmer. I hope that the next time you visit we won't be talking with you in bed all the time." She grinned. "Unless you invite me to join you."

"I—"

Whatever she was going to say was interrupted by Bradford emerging from behind the double doors. "Sunset, good to see you on your feet. The commander has a mission for Menace, if you can take it."

"I-I just... gah!" Sunset shook her head, ignoring their bemused looks. "I'm fine. Fine. Let's go." She glanced over at Laetitia. "And you… that was mean."

The woman laughed, winking at Sunset and waving as she turned around to leave. "I will see you around, Sunset Shimmer."

"Yeah." Sunset couldn't help but smile. "Yeah, I'll see you around."

o.0.o End Chapter 10 o.0.o

Chapter 11: Running

View Online

Ranger

Chapter 11: Running

By Wanderer D

Sunset took a seat next to Jane, while behind her, Shintaro and Paula shuffled into their own seats. Their pilot, Rainbow Dash, stood, leaning her back against the wall, waiting.

The middle of the briefing room had a smaller-scale world map, very similar to the one at the control center of the Avenger. This one was focused on what was now known as New India, a country created after ADVENT had taken over and consolidated several nations into one, although in the current global setting, as ordained by ADVENT, it was more akin to a state than an independent nation of any sort.

However, like most areas of the world, ADVENT cities were not the only areas where humans lived, and in the wilderness of New India there were several human colonies, much like New Haven in North America, where humans had fled to live outside of ADVENT's control.

On the surface, ADVENT suffered and tolerated these settlements, allowing them to grow, and even performing "patrols" around them, which they would use in video-feeds at their cities, to show their citizens how people lived in poverty and hungry out of sheer 'petty anger' at ADVENT. It helped create the illusion that ADVENT were compassionate benefactors, unwilling to force others to do things against their will, despite having done just that when they had conquered Earth.

Two decades was enough for children born in those cities to grow believing these lies, and even some adults which held memories of the world before to give in and slowly forget the good that came along with the bad.

The map rotated and zoomed in on a specific area of new India, closer to the ocean and Bradford spoke up.

"The commander has analyzed information sent to us and, with Dr. Shen's help, we've anticipated and triangulated one of ADVENT's new targets: the settlement of Angel Point, in southern New India."

He paced in front of the hologram. "Lt. Dash, the commander and I have experienced these before: terror attacks. The aliens know that Angel Point has been frequented by several resistance groups, and now is taking steps to destroy that… their targets will be civilians, make no mistake. They might even ignore us in order to destroy the settlement. We cannot allow this to happen. If XCOM is to grow into a real threat to ADVENT, we need not only our faction allies with the Templars, Skirmishers or Reapers. Smaller groups need to be coordinated, and we need supplies and sources of possible recruits."

Bradford took a deep breath before looking at the four soldiers. "We need to make a statement, people. We need to show the citizens of Angel Point that we are able to protect them. The commander wants to start building a real contact network, and missions like these are key to that effort. As such, Menace is to save as many civilians as possible, and to neutralize all enemy targets."

"Just the four of us?" Shintaro stammered.

"For the moment," Bradford nodded. "Yes. I intend to increase the size of your squad as soon as possible, but for that to happen, additional training in leadership and squad roles is necessary. The force attacking the settlement is not going to be too big, Angel Point is only home to less than a hundred people. ADVENT's overconfidence will be their undoing."

Bradford stood up and nodded at them. "Get your equipment and get going. We will keep track of your movements and feed you the latest information available."

"But—"

"Come on," Sunset interrupted Shintaro. "Let's get moving."

The crew followed in her wake, but Shintaro wasn't about to let it end there. "Sunset, you almost died not three days ago! We should be more cautious… we need more people!"

Sunset stopped and whirled around. "Who?" She motioned around her, where engineers and scientists and technicians scrambled to their posts. "We have a very limited pool of soldiers right now, Shintaro, we need more… but we can't get them if we can't even prove we can do this ourselves."

"But Sunset, we're only four soldiers."

"It wouldn't be the first time four XCOM soldiers took on odds like these and made it through," Rainbow Dash said, walking past and tapping Jane and Sunset's shoulders to get them moving again. "Remember, you are well trained… by the best. A small group of XCOM soldiers can pull off miracles sometimes."

"Lieutenant Dash is right," Sunset said. "Look, I'm not happy about going out the moment I got a clean bill of health, but I've seen what these rides do… get your act together, Shintaro, we're here to protect humanity as much as we're here to save it."

Shintaro sighed, but nodded.

Once in the Skyranger, they were quick to take off. The flight was a couple of hours away, so the team tried to relax as much as they could, but it was almost too soon when they heard Dash speak up in their comms.

"Avenger, this is Firebrand, we are approaching the AO."

"Roger that, Firebrand," Bradford responded. "Menace, the attack is just starting, and we're coming in hot, there won't be a chance to conceal yourselves this time and take the enemy by surprise. Go in hard, and take them out."

The Skyranger hovered to a stop and the ramp opened, dropping the ropes down. Sunset and the others took a running leap out, sliding down the ropes and quickly scrambling for cover. All around them the night sky was ablaze with fire and smoke. People shouted and screamed, and they could hear shots in the distance.

"Menace," Bradford spoke up. "We read a small group of resistance members near you, make contact and assist them."

"Roger that, Central," Sunset replied, scanning the area to see if she could spot them. It wasn't that hard.

Having taken cover inside a building that used to be a gas station, several well-armed humans were taking shots at an approaching group of aliens.

"I see them," Jane called out. "Two mutons and a sectoid, attacking from the west."

"This is going to suck," Shintaro muttered.

"Whatever," Sunset retorted, rolling her eyes. "It looks like they haven't spotted us yet, Shintaro, you're with me, we're taking cover behind that old car."

"Well, at least it looks like it already exploded so maybe it won't explode again."

Sunset gave him an odd look, before nodding at Jane Kelly. "You two take cover with a clear shot… we'll draw their attention, and you guys finish them when they scramble to deal with a flanked position."

Jane chuckled. "Roger that, commander."

"You know," Paula called through the comms, "we need to think up a new nickname for you, Sunset. Now that the real commander is in, we don't want any confusion."

Sunset snorted. "As if anyone would confuse us. Whatever, just think of something better than 'Sunny' and we'll be okay."

"I can't believe you're joking about this right now."

Sunset frowned at Shintaro's words, but didn't have time to ponder them. As soon as they were close, the aliens noticed them, and they barely had time to slide to cover before the muton was charging their way.

"Crap!" Shintaro shouted, taking a shot at one of the Sectoids.

The creatures themselves were unnerving. Mixed as they were with human DNA, they were taller than the ones that Bradford had taught her about, but even worse, their prominent jaws and exposed teeth made it look like they were grinning constantly, enough to give a lesser mortal nightmares for years to come.

Shintaro's shots weren't a direct hit. The sectoid twisted as it ran for cover, with his shot just grazing its arm and back. Painful, but not dangerous. However, the sectoid ran straight into Jane and Paula's position, and their dual shots took the alien down before it even realized it was running into a trap.

The other muton, however, had ran the opposite direction for cover, hunkering down behind a tree as it watched its comrade's approach on Sunset. Sunset, for her part, had seen this before; once during an escape from a similar attack with Bradford as they made their way to meet with the elder Shen, she had witnessed the aliens charging at the nearest opponent, and rather than opening fire, the creature had used the serrated end of its weapon to skewer their opponent.

A flash to the pain she had felt when she had been sliced through by the assassin paralyzed Sunset. She didn't take the clear shot she had… her shotgun would have taken the creature down in an instant if she had thought to use it. But the memory was enough to freeze her until she realized that the muton was right in front of her.

It had raised its weapon to slice her… but hesitated.

Instinct kicked in. Fear was replaced by anger in an instant, and Sunset let out an angry roar as she shoved her shotgun straight in the muton's face and pulled the trigger. Orange blood, pieces of bone and gray matter splattered behind the alien, mixed up in a shower of lead.

She was so angry the kick of the weapon almost took her by surprise, and she barely managed to hold on to it as she rolled in place and pressed her back against her cover. The other muton hadn't hesitated at all, and bright green plasma flew through the space where she had been previously standing.

She heard gunshots, and the return fire of plasma, but this time it wasn't over her head. She rolled around the corner of the car, taking aim straight at the back of the muton, who was being assaulted by the resistance force in the gas station.

With a cry of pain, the creature flew forward a few feet from the impact before it collapsed in a pool of its own blood.

"X-rays down," Jane reported.

Sunset nodded, breathing heavy and glancing back at the dead body behind her, before shuddering and motioning for Shitaro to follow her.

The four of them met inside the gas station with the resistance fighters.

"Thank you," their current leader, a young man, probably in his mid-twenties said. He had black, thick hair, and a dark brown tan to his skin. He had a very intense look, and his eyes scanned Sunset and the other's warily. XCOM equipment was not your average resistance fare, after all. "What's your codename?"

"We're with XCOM," Sunset said. "We heard you were having trouble."

The young man's eyes widened a little before he was back to business. "That's a bold statement, but we're happy to have you. I'm Krav, our codename is The Rabbits." He looked around. "We have some civilians here."

"Straight south is safe," Jane spoke up. "We're here to take care of your visitors."

"Good," Krav said. "Mohinder, take them down there, and wait until things calm down. The rest of you, come on, the boss is in the main building."

"How many more are left?" Sunset asked, stepping to the side so that the civilians could be led out.

"About twenty more civilians, 5 more fighters, the boss... and Angel." And with that, he and his group were already running towards the largest building beyond them.

"Angel?" Sunset muttered as she motioned the others to follow. "Who's that, their dog?"

"Wouldn't be surprised," Paula said, running along. "I know of a couple of resistance groups that have trained dogs to take down aliens. They're mostly in Russia, though."

"But really? Angel?" Sunset asked. "Couldn't they name their dog something more, you know violent? Especially if it takes aliens down. Spike. Demon. Tirek. Something?"

"What's a Tirek?" Paula asked.

"Demonic half-goat, half-minotaur trapped in Tartarus," Sunset explained. "Old story from back home."

"New Haven must have been a really weird place," Jane countered, rolling behind cover the moment she noticed three ADVENT agents in front of them. One wore the crimson armor of a captain, the other wore the black armor of a trooper; while the last one was a Stun Lancer. "Most other places make do with old bibles."

"Menace, be careful with those Lancers," Bradford called into the comms. "Their original job was to stun people in riots, but my guess is that if they're here, their weapons are a lot more deadly."

"Roger that, Central," Paula replied, taking cover next to Jane.

"Dammit, spread out more!" Sunset called, a little too late.

The ADVENT team had noticed them almost immediately, and the Captain had ordered his two followers to flank Jane and Paula. The trooper had wasted no time in priming a grenade and tossing it over at them.

"Take cover!" Jane shouted, jumping away. She barely managed to land and cover her head before the grenade exploded, decimating their cover. Paula hadn't been so lucky. Her armor saved her, but she was badly injured.

"Crap!" Sunset shouted, taking a running start and pulling out her sword. With a running leap, she raised it above her head, bringing it down right where the captain's armor ended at his neck, and violently cutting through it.

She was covered in orange blood as she turned to face the other trooper, but Krav made his presence known, mowing him down with a series of shots from his whole team. That only left the Lancer, who was already on the move.

It didn't get far, however, as Jane and Shintaro took their shots, the first stopping him in his tracks as his armor was shredded, the second finishing off the trooper with a clean shot through the head.

"Crapcrapcrapcrap!" Jane intoned, as she ran over to Paula, who had passed out. "She's bad, Sunset. Really bad. She'll bleed out!"

"Bradford?" Sunset asked, trotting over to Jane, Shintaro and Paula.

"There's still enemy signatures in the area," Bradford replied. "It's too hot for Firebrand to drop in."

"Dammit."

"Sunset," Krav ran up to her. "The boss will take care of her, there's only a few ADVENT left, they're north of here." He motioned over his shoulder and waved. The door to the building opened and several people ran out, pointing their weapons at all possible angles.

Then a woman stepped out, with long, wavy pink hair, although the roots were going a bit gray. Half of her face was beautiful, the other half… was still beautiful, but scarred over, as if she had been burned. She kneeled next to Paula and looked her over. "Oh my," she said. "This is bad, let me take care of her."

"You can't possibly—" Shintaro started to say, only to be interrupted.

"Menace, this is Firebrand," Dash's voice came through the comms. "You can trust her."

Sunset took a deep breath, "Come on," she said finally. "We have to trust if we're to be trusted. Who's fighting the aliens on the other side of the building?"

"Angel, Ashwini and Aamir are keeping them occupied," the woman said. "But I have to get back in there, we have a lot of injured."

"Let's go, people!" Sunset called, trotting over with Krav and his team, with Jean and Shintaro joining her as well. "Let's get this over with and get Paula back into the Avenger."

The two groups split, rounding the building on both sides, finding another captain, a muton and two troopers shooting at the building.

"I don't see any dogs?" Sunset wondered, kneeling behind some piled metallic boxes and taking a shot at the captain. It was wide, but it drew his attention, and the ADVENT troops moved around to deal with the intruders.

"A dog?" Krav asked, taking his own shot at the muton. "Why would we have a dog?"

"Well, I thought Angel was your trained attack dog?"

Krav chuckled, just as something whipped out from the building, wrapped itself around the ADVENT captain's throat and pulled him through the air and window with little more than a strangled shout. "Angel's not a dog. She's a Viper."

"Aww, she likes you!" Fluttershy said with a smile.

Sunset chuckled nervously, scratching 'Angel's' head, just where the hood turned in. The giant alien snake hissed in appreciation. "Um, nice viper."

"Is it weird that I feel jealous?" Jane whispered to Shintaro as they pulled the stretcher with Paula on it into the Skyranger. The bodies of the other aliens and ADVENT troopers, as well as their weapons had already been recovered, with the help of Krav's team. They were only usable by aliens and ADVENT for now, but Tygan very much intended to change that.

"Of Sunset or the snake?"

"Both, probably," Dash commented from the edge of the ramp. Jane noticed that the pilot was still wearing her full helmet, giving no indication that she knew Fluttershy.

Fluttershy. Before talking to Dash she would have wondered who was crazy enough to name their kid that, but now, her questions lay in other matters.

They watched as Sunset finished exchanging pleasantries with Fluttershy and the Rabbits, then waved as she joined the others in the vehicle.

Jane kept quiet until they were airborne and on their way back to the Avenger. Once the settlement was long gone, she made her way to the cockpit, taking the co-pilot seat. "So…"

"Why didn't I say anything?" Dash asked. "Why didn't I run down and give my friend a hug and tell her I've missed her for so long?" She snorted. "How do you even begin to ask forgiveness from someone you abandoned to die?"

Jane's expression must have been obvious, because Dash shook her head. "When the ship destroyed the school… I ran. As fast as I could. I sprinted the hell out of there, screaming my lungs out until I passed out several miles away, where nothing was happening. I could have stayed to help, maybe Rarity and Pinkie would..." She trailed off, and sighed.

"You were just a kid," Jane said. "And aliens destroyed your school."

"I know," Dash said. "I know. I've gone over everything in my mind, you know? What I should have done different, what I would do if I was there right now—but I'm not. I was just a teenager, full of my own BS, thinking I'd automatically fall into hero-mode when needed. In part I went into the war with a thirst for vengeance precisely because I had failed them all so badly, not to mention myself... Look, I know you want to help, and...and I'll talk about this with you, but not right now."

Jane sighed, and nodded, patting Dash's shoulder. "I'm sorry, Dash."

She turned to leave, but started when she noticed Sunset standing in the doorway. They held each other's eyes before Sunset walked in and put her hand on top of Jane's, which was still on top of Dash's shoulder.

"We're all here for you too, Dash."

Dash jerked a little, in surprise, then chuckled. "If you say so… commander. Now, you two idiots get back there before I report you to the TSA."

"Roger that, Firebrand."

o.0.o End Chapter 11 o.0.o

Chapter 12: Merit

View Online

Ranger

Chapter 12: Merit

By Wanderer D

The screen showed multiple videos at the same time: An overview of the area, from the cameras on the Skyranger; Psychic network scans from the engineering and science teams, and body cameras from all four XCOM agents in the battlefield.

All of them were paused, except for one.

The first-person view showed a quick dash across a small span of forested area, going around a small fence, over a few crates and stopping behind an old, burnt-out car. The video's audio was muted, but several metrics were on display on it: cardiovascular scans, a voice modulator, GPS location in relation to the other team members, as well as a picture of the soldier, with their name, rank, nickname, and specialization.

Currently, the screen identified the soldier as Sunset Shimmer, Squaddie, Aka "The Commander", Specialization: Ranger. The camera followed her movement, coming around the front of the car just as the large, armored mass of muscles that was a muton, came charging at her.

The display showed her raising her gun. The biometrics marked an increase in her heartbeat and her hands lowered a little, a clear indication—from previous experience—of an incoming panic attack… provided she survived.

The camera captured the muton rearing back to slice down with the bayonet-like edge of its weapon… but then it stopped, as if reconsidering. The biometrics increased less than a second later, the shotgun was being moved up to aim straight at the muton's face.

The video stopped.

"Thoughts?"

Bradford and Tygan exchanged a look, while Lily simply shrugged.

"I don't know what to tell you, Commander," she said. "This is definitely not my specialty, but my dad never mentioned a muton hesitating to kill."

"Miss Shimmer," Tygan spoke after, glancing at the Commander, "has always had some sort of calming effect on aliens. Other soldiers have remarked on her uncanny ability to be dismissed as a threat when we were performing infiltration missions prior to your… release."

"I'm still not sure how this is possible," the Commander spoke up. "We have no explanation for her… how her powers work, why aliens instinctively trust her, or where she came from. From the reports, Pratal Mox met her in the remains of a small city infested with Lost…"

"Any tests so far performed on her, which are standard for all soldiers have revealed nothing strange about her…" Tygan began. "Except…"

"Yes?"

"If we go by Mox's first impressions, she was too clean to have come from a Native Settlement, and she had no previous experience with weapons before the Skirmishers taught her the basics," Tygan explained. "This would indicate an origin from a more peaceful environment, such as one of the new cities. However, she has no chip inside of her, and is missing the scars that would accompany such a removal, had it been performed."

He adjusted his glasses. "Furthermore, her education does not match standard New City fare. Her mathematical skills and language skills are very advanced, but her history is spotty from conversations we've had, and all she has learned of technology has been on the go." He coughed under the commander's expectant gaze. "Her learning ability is… certainly well above average."

The Commander leaned back. "Could she be one of Vahlen's experiments? We know the good doctor was… less than morally ambiguous when it came to those, and she did get her hand on some of the Valkyries before everything went to hell."

"I saw no indicators of such a thing, Commander," Tygan said slowly.

"I don't see what the problem is," Lily spoke up. "Look, Sunset's been with us for a couple of years, she's gone out on several missions trying to find you, Commander, to bring you back. She's never given us a cause for alarm… I-I understand why you'd wonder about her, given… well, all we've seen, but so far she's proven to be trustworthy." She motioned at Bradford. "Not to mention, she's traveled with Central all over the world. I'm sure he'd have seen something by now to make him doubt her if there were."

Bradford made a face at being put in the spotlight, but sighed and straightened up. "That's true, Commander, I can understand your hesitation, but she's been a loyal soldier, not to mention that she's been instrumental in building trusting relationships with all three of the factions—I'd say that as much as aliens like her, Skirmishers, Reapers and Templars all seem to do so as well… for different reasons."

"Oh?"

"Skirmishers, I'd fathom have the same reaction to her as aliens," Tygan said, raising an eyebrow. "But what about the other two?"

"Templars have… a lot of interest in her," Bradford said. "They are convinced she's psychic, which could explain at least why she has that calming effect on aliens. Geist once told me about a power certain psychics have been able to achieve, which basically calms anyone nearby in a small radius."

"That's indeed an interesting development," Tygan said, nodding. "And worth looking into. I can foresee several potential uses for such a power, if she possesses it."

"What about the Reapers?" Lily blurted out, curiosity getting the better of her.

Bradford smirked. "The Reapers find her endearing because, and I am quoting Volk, 'she looked like a rabbit surrounded by wolves that decided to go hunting with them only to discover that Elk are strong enough to toss you over them, and yet managed to get up and try again.'"

"And I… hesitate... to point this out, but I fear it is a factor worth bringing up, given that we are analyzing Sunset Shimmer's performance, loyalty and reliability," Tygan spoke up, "but, if we are doubtful of her loyalty to XCOM, why is it that she is given considerable more freedom with her team than the others, Commander?"

"What do you mean?" Lily asked.

"Surely you have noticed that the commander has not spoken to Sunset at all. In the field, the other teams have all been coordinated directly by the commander. And while Squaddie Sunset Shimmer might be known as 'the commander', she is not The Commander."

The three watched the commander contemplate Tygan's words. "I want to see how she does," the commander replied eventually, waving a hand at the video. "We all saw her confrontation with the Assassin, and her command on ground level hasn't been bad. I am a little concerned with her reaction to the muton, although it is… understandable. We all know that, as Jane Kelly put it, she was 'gutted like a fish'. I would expect anyone to have issues with aliens approaching them with sharp objects. On that note, Squaddie Kelly seems to trust her, and her psychological profile pretty much guarantees that's a tough sell."

The Commander paused and sighed. "I see a lot of myself in Sunset, and that is a major factor in my… trust of her… I'm very curious about how she will grow. Some are simply born to lead, and she is a diamond in the rough from my perspective. So far, she's proven herself capable. I find myself willing to give her this chance."

"That's more than enough for me, Commander," Bradford said, smiling a little.

At that moment, a transmission beeped on the commander's desk, and the familiar silhouette of a bald man appeared on a screen. "Hello, Commander," the Council Man said. "It is… good to see you again. As you imagine, there are many issues to be addressed, but I am forwarding you two items of… some importance."

The console beeped again, indicating files had been received.

"Until we meet again, Commander."

Sunset noticed the trembling first. "Uh, Shintaro?"

Her teammate was shaking in his seat, nervously moving his legs up and down while he held both hands tight together under his chin. He kept glancing at Paula's unconscious body, then away, only to look back at her.

When he heard her speak his name, he almost jumped. "What?"

"Are you okay?" Sunset asked. "You seem very distressed," she added as Jane walked back from the cockpit to take a seat across from them.

"Of course I'm distressed," he whispered. "Just a week ago, you were gutted in front of me. And today you're joking about your nickname as if nothing happened, and Paula got almost shredded in half by a grenade, and now you're acting as if everything is fine!"

"Hey, keep it down, soldier," Jane spoke up, glaring at him.

"No, no, I can't," Shintaro said, gulping as he looked from one woman to the other. "I can't. What if I end up like her?" he asked, pointing at Paula. "Or like Sunset? What if I get chopped in half by the Assassin?"

"Well, Sunset's here, alive and kicking, and Paula survived too," Jane pointed out. "What do you expect will happen? Weren't you part of a resistance group? You helped already on a couple of missions wh—"

"It was never like this, okay?!" Shintaro snapped, fidgeting in place and unwilling to look at them in the eyes. "It.. it was never like this. We sprung traps on small groups, we hunted them from full advantage… now we're… we're literally jumping into death-traps. A city full of zombies, and Sunset here just strides in, cracks jokes about movies and fights an invisible assassin!"

He looked up, eyes wild. "I couldn't see her! I couldn't see where she moved, or hear her or react! But Sunset caught her every time! And the reaper shot it before it even appeared, and the skirmisher threw a grappling hook at her before I could even raise my gun! And by the time I could, you," he pointed at Jane, "and the other two had killed that monster… only, we can't really kill it!"

"Shintaro, we just have a bit more experience with—" Sunset started to explain, but Shintaro just started shaking his head, not even letting her finish.

"Don't give me that crap, Sunset!" He all but growled. "You've been at this, what, four years? At most? I've been doing this since… since I was twelve! You can't tell me you have more experience, but you… you just deal with this weird shit all the time! Ex-ADVENT? You know them! People that eat aliens? You know them! Psychic warriors from a temple in the North of Asia? You goddamned know them! Immortal goddamned assassin from hell? You chat! The boss of the town we just ran in to save has a Viper and you flirt with it!"

He looked almost desperate. "Am I the only one that thinks that's not normal?" He wrapped his arms around himself. "Look. I'm not too fond of the idea of jumping into a gunfight, okay? And that's what we're doing. This wasn't a planned ambush, this was running into a firefight! We have lesser weapons, and our armor might as well be made of tissue paper for all the good it does against freaking plasma bolts!"

He seemed to realize he was shouting and slowly huddled into a rocking figure.

Sunset felt her breath catch when looking at the pitiful figure. Should I tell him how I panicked? That thinking of the Assassin makes me want to puke?' She shook her head, and looked up at Jane, who was glaring at Shintaro with something akin to disgust.

It was then that she caught herself thinking the last thing she thought she would think. 'What would Celestia do?' She shook her head. Celestia would be all smiles and encouragement. She'd tell this little pony, or human, that it was okay to be afraid, that he could do better.

What would her Gryphon teacher say? Certainly not something as inane and potentially disastrous as a pep talk. She took a deep breath. "Shintaro, when we get to the Avenger you're going straight to talk to a medical specialist. I'll recommend that you don't go into battle at all until you are deemed fit and willing… if you don't want to return…" she shook her head. "Then I will recommend Bradford reviews your skills. Maybe combat is not for you after all."

Shintaro slowed down his rocking and closed his eyes, sobbing a little.

Sunset could only hope that had been the right answer.

o.0.o End Chapter 12 o.0.o

Chapter 13: Missions

View Online

Ranger

Chapter 13: Missions

By Wanderer D

Sunset typed away on her laptop, completing her report. Usually they weren't that hard, but like Shintaro had said, things had been different not too long ago. This time, she had been in charge… in a way, a real step to what she wanted, but not exactly what she expected it to be.

Paula's injuries were severe. The moment they had landed, she had been raced out of the Skyranger and straight into surgery. There was no doubt from the medical team that if an accomplished medical expert hadn't been at the scene, she would have bled to death incredibly quickly.

Sunset found herself trying to detach the emotional weight that came from writing down how exactly one of her close acquaintances had been almost killed under her command.

It wasn't her fault, exactly, but it was still her responsibility. Not only with the event happening, but also making sure it didn't happen again. She should have taken control of the situation and made sure they were spread out a bit further, to prevent a grenade from taking them out. That was modern warfare 101. It had been drilled into her by the Skirmishers, repeated to her by the Reapers and hammered into her and other rookies by Robert and other trainers in the Avenger.

She wanted to blame Paula for not remembering. But she needed to face her own failures too.

Jane had been very lucky. Paula… she would be out for over a month, and it was anyone's guess what her mental state after that would be, or if her recovery would be full enough for her to join battle again.

And speaking of which, Shintaro's loss from her team was like a punch to the gut. The man had been a solid soldier for as long as Sunset had known him, and she had never expected him to lose it as he had. If there had been any warning signs, she had missed all of them. Writing out his breakdown in the plane and attaching the formal request for removal from active duty had been painful. Menace: newly minted, and already short by two.

And yet she had gotten another promotion, was allotted extra training time with their close combat expert, because apparently, her lack of reaction to the muton was a cause of concern… and, as a team leader, she was now supposed to attend officer meetings as well.

She hadn't anticipated the paperwork or the meetings, although in retrospect it made sense. She had memories of Celestia begrudgingly performing this particular aspect of leadership.

The thought of her mentor made her pause.

She stood up and walked over to her locker, fishing out her diary. It was dusty, having stayed in that same spot ever since Sunset had boarded the Avenger. She couldn't count how many times she had thought about throwing the damn thing away, but she hadn't. Now, Laetitia's words came back to her.

'Reach out to someone there who cares, huh?' Her memories of Celestia were of a quasi-maternal figure that had kept her at arms-length, only using a motherly tone to reprimand her, but never growing any closer than a teacher with a promising student.

She had lived in the castle; she had a room, a mare to assist her with basic needs if necessary, access to practically anything that Celestia hadn't expressly forbidden (like her other book)—she made a brief mental note to go back and study the blood-freeze spell she had tried on the Assassin—and the ability to contact, consult and even hire experts on different fields, such as Galahad, for tutoring.

It just hadn't been enough. Anypony could be a good student. Hell, great or even genius students—as rare as they might really be world-wide—were not lacking in Celestia's school. Emotionally speaking, 'you're a great student, my little pony,' was far from rewarding. It wasn't real acknowledgement.

Was she really ready to reach out, though? The diary seemed to weigh more in her hands, the more she thought about it. 'How simple… "Hello, are you still there? I miss you. I'm sorry."' she chuckled dryly. 'Right, and then deal with the inevitable "I'm glad you've learned your lesson, my dear student," as if a lesson about being acknowledged by the most important pony in your life is something only one of us should learn…'

Sunset sighed and slid the diary back in place, closing the locker and walking back to finish her report.

All the time, she felt as if the diary was staring at her through the metallic door.

"At ease, soldiers," Bradford said, entering the debriefing room. "We have a list of things the commander wants done, so we should get things going… first things first, Omiata… two members from your team have been selected to work with the Skirmishers. They have a mission for us, and Rookies Durand and Kim are some of our best infiltrators. They are also the least likely to start a firefight when they see a Viper or a Sectoid walking down the street towards them. We'll be dropping them at the meeting point in the coast of Brazil, where the Skirmishers will pick them up, where they will help in investigating the location of the Assassin's base."

He cleared his throat. "Of course that brings your squad down to two members, but you and rookie Sanchez will come with me… we're meeting with the local resistance in South America, and I'll need backup."

"Um, sir," Omiata rose his hand. "No offense, but why isn't Sunset going on that infiltration mission? Not only is her team short, but, no offense to Durand and Kim, they are not the best infiltrators we have. Sunset is—"

Bradford interrupted him, raising his hand. "Under normal circumstances, yes, I would send Sunset and Jane, but the nature of the mission prevents it." He walked to a monitor on the wall, and quickly loaded a file. "Unfortunately, this is why."

When he pressed play, the screen filled with noise for a few seconds, before the face of the Assassin appeared. "Hello Commander, I know you can hear me. I extracted this emergency frequency from one of your delicious little toy soldiers." Her laugh made Sunset's skin crawl. "And hopefully your little Blood Witch is feeling better. I have the feeling I haven't seen the last of her. You squander your gifts, Commander, but don't worry, I will find you. And I will bring you back."

The video ended.

"As I was saying, given the nature of the mission, Sunset is not only a known factor to the Assassin, but a subject of interest."

Sunset wilted a little under the looks of the others.

"That doesn't mean she won't have a mission," Bradford continued. "Sunset will be assigned three new members to Menace, and their mission will be to destroy a facility we have been informed of." Bradford passed her a pad with several documents already open. "This will also serve the purpose of further distracting ADVENT from our infiltration team. Brief your team once they all report in."

"Yes, sir!"

Bradford turned, picking another pad and giving it to another officer. "Captain Yeung, you and your team will contact the Black Market. According to Dr. Tygan, we need some additional supplies."

Captain Yeung grinned. "Yes sir. It will be nice to see my old comrades again."

Bradford nodded. "That is all."

"Well, well, well, if it isn't 'the commander'."

"Oh give it a rest, Galahad," Sunset sighed, marching into the training area in full gear. While on the air, the Avenger possessed several large storage rooms which had been adapted into specialized areas, such as the combat training room.

New recruits usually spent several hours there, learning about old foes encountered on the field in the old XCOM's time, as well as updates on newer threats. Robert Bree was one of XCOM's old agents, and reminded Sunset heavilly of her old Gryphon teacher, Galahad. Mannerisms, philosophy and even the jokes were very similar. Hell, his hair-color matched her old teacher's feathers. The main difference was that Robert had a British accent, where Galahad's was a bit more Germanic if there was an Earth comparison.

"So I heard that you were charged by a muton intent on skewering you and you froze like a deer caught in the headlights," he continued.

"Yeah, well, how about you get your stomach butchered by a hag from space the week before, then we can talk about what the appropriate response to an unnervingly similar situation should be."

Robert tilted his head, then shrugged and opened up his shirt, revealing a large, jagged scar that went down from his shoulder, across his chest, down to his waist. "Operation Golden Swan, UFO infiltration. Chryssalid decided it wanted there to be more than one of me."

"Oh, fine," Sunset mumbled, looking away. "And don't call me 'commander'. The real one's here, remember?"

"I guess," he replied, shrugging as he buttoned up his shirt again. "But I heard the runner-up is 'Blood Witch'. Do you really want that?"

Sunset grimaced.

"So, 'the commander' it is," Robert grinned. "If you two have issues with that, I'm sure we can fill up a tub with KY."

"I have no idea what that means," Sunset said. "And no, I don't want to know. I'm here for my training."

"Oh, this will take a while," Robert sighed, rubbing his forehead. "Anyway, we need you to be more familiar with your sword."

"Overgrown Machete."

"Sword," he repeated. "Scuttlebutt has it that Tygan got inspired with the stuff you guys brought. Might be getting an upgrade sometime soon. But if you're going to be running around with an even sharper sword, you need to be able to use it, or there's no point."

"Fine, fine," Sunset rolled her eyes. "How come you know so much about swords anyway?"

"Honestly?" Robert smiled sheepishly. "Funny story. Before I joined the RAF, I was really into martial arts and theatre… so I went around the world learning those skills, and learning weaponry because my original plan was to be a choreographer for action movies or historical shows. I thought the RAF was a good career choice, that I would do service for a few years and after that, my dream job." He chuckled. "Turns out, my service period got extended."

Sunset shook her head, smiling ruefully. This world had taught her a lot about opportunities, sacrifice and privilege… things that would have changed her life completely had she learned them as a filly. Old XCOM soldiers, of which there were about a dozen left, always had this sense of stolen-destiny to them. They all had wanted something different, and forces greater than their own had taken that chance away from them two decades before, and transformed the world into something they could barely recognize.

Newer recruits had either been born into a world where they were conquered and brainwashed—if they had been fortunate (or unfortunate) enough to live in the new cities—or if they were from settlements, a deep sense of anger at the atrocities their new masters committed almost on a daily basis.

Her adolescent tantrum, which had cost her a life of security and—she had to face it, prominence—was an embarrassingly bitter memory now. It was sad that only until she was faced directly, and also affected by the suffering of others, did she finally understand just how good she had it.

A sharp, clipping sound made her blink and jump. She glared at Robert, who what snapped his fingers right in front of her face.

"You awake there? If you need rest you just need to say so, I have this urge to eat the most massive burger I can make, and if you'd rather be spacing out…"

"I get it, I get," Sunset mumbled, hefting her mach—sword.

"We'll be practicing your swings and reactions. It'll take some time, and plenty of practice here and in the field, but I intend to really make you a master of the blade. Hell, no alien will be able to get within a meter of you. But first," Robert said. "Show me that drag-and-decapitate thing you did on the Zombie that one time."

Sunset's face burned as she read the email Geist had sent her directly.

My Dearest Sunset,

Imagine my delight, when I was informed that you of all people would be in charge of the team where my precious Templar was assigned! I know I can trust you with the proper care of my soldier, as you have a deep respect and understanding of Psionic gifts. Furthermore, a little bird told me you already quite liked her!

This is indeed good news, although I do apologize for not sending her wrapped up. Or perhaps that is not a problem?

"Are you okay, Sunset?" Jane asked, a little concerned. "Your face is all red."

Sunset lowered her pad and avoided looking directly at Laetitia, who was leaning against the wall, arms crossed and with a little smile that spoke volumes about her knowledge of Geist's message. "Yes, well, Geist is just giving me a hard time."

"If we are to work together, there should be no question of your health," Mox added.

Sunset rubbed her forehead. The Commander—with capital 'C'—had decided that for some reason, she was to lead a team consisting of no less than all the faction soldiers. Meaning she would be giving orders to Mox, Elena and Laetitia as well as Jane.

No pressure.

"I promise you, Mox, my health is fine."

"Oh, it definitely is," Laetitia spoke up. "I checked every inch of her. If she were not fit for duty, I would not have released her."

"Judging from her expression, she might not have had a problem with that," Elena drawled.

'Deep breaths, deep breaths. Must not ignite the Avenger. Must not… burn everyone that teases me. Must not hunt down Bradford. And Geist. And the Commander. That bitch. Why. Why. Why me?'

Sunset cleared her throat. "Okay, well, yes. I get it, we all know each other here, but we have a mission, and I'd like to leave the teasing out of it. We're all professionals here, people."

There were some smiles—and a snort from Dash—but everyone took a seat as Sunset began.

"In order to assist our Skirmisher allies, we are going to create a distraction significant enough to guarantee ADVENT's eyes will be on us, instead of them. The Avenger will be dropping our agents near what used to be Sao Paulo at 1420 hours, local time. We will be destroying a facility further up north, where several scientific studies are providing ADVENT with advances on the psychic network roughly at the same time. The Skyranger will then fly us even further north, towards Guatemala to meet up with the Avenger in a local resistance camp."

A screen turned on with a tap on her pad, displaying a satellite view of the base. "The base is fairly standard as ADVENT bases go. It should be a fairly straightforward mission; go in quiet, plant the explosive, leave ASAP." She took a deep breath. "So I imagine things will go south the moment we step near it, and it's more than likely that there are teams of ADVENT troopers ready to come to the rescue from nearby locations, not to mention…"

She faced her team. "We are, for some reason, the Commander's experiment on teamwork. Efficient completion of the mission is instrumental to the future of XCOM, the Skirmishers, Reapers and Templars' efforts to work together. We have all the higher-ups breathing down our necks, and quite honestly, I'd rather jump into a cave full of Vipers than having that weigh over me."

"If the last viper was any indication, I can totally see how you'd prefer that," Dash quipped.

"Yes, well, affectionate reptile-humanoids aside, we need to pull this. Not just because our street-rep hangs on it, or because if we don't we'll be dead; but because we can be the example other teams will follow. This is our chance to really put all that better-than-thou sanctimonious crap behind us and strike where it hurts," Sunset said, completely serious. "We're not just pulling off pointless attacks anymore: we're restarting the war. And this time, I aim to win."

o.0.o End Chapter 13 o.0.o

Chapter 14: Destinations

View Online

Ranger

Chapter 14: Destinations

By Wanderer D

"Central, this is Firebrand," Rainbow Dash reported into the comms. "Menace is on the ground."

"Confirmed, Firebrand," Bradford's voice responded. "Menace, the ADVENT facility is currently empty of civilians and you have tactical advantage, remain concealed as long as possible."

"Understood, Central," Sunset replied, kneeling next to her team in the lightly wooded area around the facility. "Moving in."

She took a deep breath. "Elena, we need recon."

"Understood." The Reaper took off, running quickly through a small, open area, before finding herself at the base of a nearby large rock, which she nimbly climbed up and dropped on her stomach, crawling over to the edge. "I see you..." she whispered. "There is a patrol, walking eastward. ADVENT Captain, a trooper and a Stun Lancer."

"Not much of a patrol," Sunset muttered, "Come on."

They made their way from cover to cover, until they could all see the patrol Elena had warned them of. Sunset noticed with some relief that they all were spread far enough that a grenade would not take them all down if it was used.

"I have another patrol coming on my 2," Mox reported.

Sunset crouched behind a large rock and looked his way. It was almost a straight line: Jane had her back against the thick trunk of a large tree; Laetitia was down on one knee, peeking over the edge of a fallen one, and finally Mox had slid down the edge of a small brook, and was crouching, staying mostly out of sight.

This patrol was different, however. It consisted of a white robot, the type that she had seen guarding certain buildings in the new cities. The first time that she had seen one, she had been almost entranced by the idea of such an automaton. Her imagination had run wild with possibilities of what she could do with an army of those. Now, she had one roaming about, ready to kill her on sight. It was accompanied by another two ADVENT Troopers, one wearing the regular black and red armor, the other wearing a white, bulkier version.

"I've never seen one of those before," Bradford's voice came up in the comms.

"Brakt."

"Mox, language," Sunset whispered, earning a snicker from Jane. "What's the problem?"

"That's an ADVENT Shieldbearer," Mox replied, watching the patrol stop and overlook the area. "They can project localized shields to all ADVENT units within a certain range, doubling their armor's resilience."

"Well, shit."

"Sunset!" Laetitia whispered. "Language!"

"Ugh, they're doing that thing again," Jane whispered. "You know, that thing ADVENT troops do when they don't stick to a normal patrol route and randomly start moving about?"

"So much for us staying hidden," Elena responded. "They're almost on top of Mox. Orders?"

"Take out the Shield Bearer." Sunset glanced around at the troops, then moved closer, hiding at the base of where Elena was hidden. "Jane and I will focus on the Captain, Trooper and Lancer. Mox and Laetitia, you guys focus on the others."

"Roger that."

The shot echoed through the night, the bullet hitting the Shield Bearer in the forehead, almost splitting his helmet in half, throwing his head back, and a second shot went through his chest before anyone else reacted.

"We've been spotted!" Jane shouted the instant the Captain and the troopers started running.

Sunset leaned around the rock and took a shot straight at the Captain's chest. The ADVENT officer whipped around from the shot, stumbling, before Jane mowed him down with her automatic rifle.

Sunset cursed. The officer's slow death had given the Trooper and Lancer a chance to take cover.

As soon as the Shield Bearer was down, Mox had jumped from his location, planting two deadly bursts of his Kal-7 Bullpup straight into the ADVENT MEC's armored head. The robotic enemy shook as electricity crawled outside its armor, before a small explosion inside it made it collapse into a pile of metal.

Laetitia also hadn't been idle. Trusting Mox's ability to bring down the MEC, she was already rushing towards the accompanying Trooper. She seemed to be in a zone of her own, an intense look of focus crossing her face as bright blades made of pure psychic energy emerged from her gauntlets. The trooper was completely stunned by this, as he didn't even attempt to raise his rifle before both blades cut through him like hot knives on butter. Not even sparing the body a glance, as she quickly took cover behind another tree.

That left only the Stun Lancer and Trooper closer to Sunset. The former decided to try his luck, rushing away from them towards Mox, who was the most exposed of the group. Jane reacted immediately, shooting at the running ADVENT agent, and managing to hit him in the legs. The trooper stumbled, but still got next to Mox.

The Lancer tried to jab his stun lance at the Skirmisher, but Mox dodged the attack, which left the Lancer open to a quick burst of bullets, that took him down.

Deciding that it wasn't such a bad idea, Sunset charged the last trooper, which seemed surprised at the sudden move and didn't take the opportunity to shoot her. Her blade came down, doing a significant amount of damage, and showering her in alien blood. However, the trooper managed to raise his weapon, blocking Sunset's downward swipe in part, at the cost of the weapon, and stopping her from slicing through him completely. The damage was done, however, and it staggered back, clutching his chest as if he were trying to stop the blood from flowing with his hands.

An almost lazy shot from Elena finished the job.

"Come on, guys," Sunset wiped her face with the back of her hand—smearing the blood across her face—and sheathed her sword, looking towards the nearby building. "They know we're here, other patrols will be moving towards us."

"We seem to be clear for now, I can see the entrance to the facility straight ahead," Elena reported.

"Let's go," Sunset said, running forward to duck behind the outer wall of the facility.

ADVENT facilities such as these had a low outer wall with holographic markers that served less as a deterrent and more as a simple warning that someone was entering a restricted area. During her travels with Bradford, they had encountered such facilities from time to time, and it had always confused Bradford on why the aliens had comparatively light security to what a comparable Earth installation would have.

It had surprised him when Sunset had offered an explanation: arrogance. To be fair to Bradford, the only reason the thought had crossed her mind was because of one of her lessons with Galahad, back in Equestria.

Galahad had discussed how griffons protected their kingdom; with high walls, patrols ready to respond the moment something happened. In contrast, ponies had all but ignored such steps, building castles with wide open areas, barely any protection and lax performance by the Royal Guard.

At the time, it hadn't made much sense to Sunset either, especially not after having gone over how other cultures handled it, but he had pointed out that with Celestia's immortal reign, and the power of unicorn magic, coupled with pegasi and to some extent the brute force of earth ponies, years of peace and several treaties, ponies were simply… not expecting to be attacked, as it should be fairly obvious that they had the distinct advantage of controlling most of the magic, the skies and crops. Not to mention the Sun.

Thus, Sunset had made the connection. The bases were designed as such because the Elders… just had nothing to fear.

Sunset's mind was brought to the present when she was joined by Laetitia and Jane. Mox remained at the edge of the wooded area, and of Elena, there was no indication, which was a good thing.

Sunset nodded to the other two, and jumped over the barrier and through the hologram, running quickly to flank the door. Laetitia followed suit, flanking it across from her, while Jane took cover behind some crates right across from it.

"Area is currently clear," Elena's voice reached them on the comms.

"I'll be on overwatch," Mox stated.

Jane nodded at Sunset, who pressed the button to open the door. It slid open with an efficient hiss.

"It looks clear," Jane reported.

Laetitia nodded and she ran in, taking cover behind another door. "Clear!"

Sunset followed in, dashing into the main lab, and crouching behind one of the several dashboards. "Menace, that large server is the objective," Shen's voice came in through the comms.

"I got it," Sunset responded, kneeling next to it and pulling out the explosives. She attached them to the device and entered the remote code. "Done."

"Menace, get the hell out of there," Bradford called in. "As soon as you evacuate, we will—"

"Sunset," Elena's voice interrupted. "New patrol! This one's strange, it—"

Whatever she was going to say was interrupted by the sounds of Jane and Mox's guns going off.

"Crap!" Sunset shouted, running past a startled Laetitia. "I knew this was too easy!"

"Tygan, what the hell are we looking at?"

Sunset ignored Tygan's reply, barreling out of the building to find Mox, Jane and Elena having taken defensive positions behind crates and vehicles as several vipers shot at them. Among them, a much bigger viper, colored blue and white instead of the warm yellow of regular vipers hissed and shot back with a plasma weapon.

Sunset's sword was already in her hand as she charged straight at one of the vipers, not giving it a second to react before it split in half in a shower of blood. A second viper approached, but Laetitia was already there as well, slicing the next viper, just as Elena took another out.

The biggest viper dodged the shots taken at it, hissing angrily before its tongue shot out and wrapped around Sunset's waist, pulling her up to it and wrapping himself around her as the last of the vipers fell dead.

"Hold! Don't hurt Sunset!" Mox called.

She could feel them moving around them, trying to flank the viper… but she found herself pressed against his body, hands against his chest. And it was a him. There were no feminine features about this one. His coils wrapped all around her, and she could feel his powerful heart beating through the thick scales.

The viper hissed in her face, venom dripping from his fangs, and eyes studying her own.

"This is amazing," Dr. Tygan's voice said on the comms. "It's an actual, male viper… I have never seen or heard of such a thing."

"Neither have I," Bradford added.

"Nor I," Mox reported. "All Vipers have always been female."

"And the Thin Men of years ago were all sexless," Bradford pointed out. "Doctor, what could this mean?"

Sunset could almost feel the lenses of her body cam adjusting. "Um, guys? I hate to state the obvious, but I don't really think this is the best time to discuss this. I'm literally about to be crushed to death."

"But it hasn't killed you," Tygan spoke up. "I wonder why."

"It seems smarter than the regular Vipers," Shen spoke up. "Maybe it knows that if Sunset dies, he'll get shot by the others."

The viper started sliding back, Sunset still in its grasp… and extended a claw, a shimmering, glowing orb of energy expanded near them.

"Uh… Brad-Central?" Sunset's voice rose. "I don't like this!"

"It's making a break for it!" Bradford shouted. "Shoot it! Don't let it take Sunset!"

Sunset felt it tense. "Oh, shiiiiiiiii—"

The others opened fire, but the viper dodged them, wrapping its arms around Sunset as he dashed with incredible speed past the startled group, knocking over Laetitia and Mox, who had tried to get closer to it, and dove into the energy field.

In the Avenger control room, Bradford slammed his hands down on the console. "What the hell was that? Where are they?"

"Scanning, sir," an agent reported. "One of our satellites has pinged a device matching Corporal Shimmer's ID. Marking on the map."

"This is… unbelievable," Tygan spoke up, looking up at the globe, where a red triangle had appeared. "I did not think such a thing would be possible for… creatures their size, much less for the energy to be available to this creature."

"But…" Bradford shook his head. "That's impossible! Check the readings again!"

"Biometrics are confirmed, sir," the agent's voice was hesitant. "Sunset Shimmer's location is in North America, in what used to be Arizona."

o.0.o End Chapter 14 o.0.o

Chapter 15: Chats

View Online

Ranger

Chapter 15: Chats

By Wanderer D

"Ugh, where am I?" Sunset moaned, pressing a hand against her forehead. "Mox? Jane?"

She coughed, pushing up into a sitting position and wincing at the pain. Her whole body felt like it had been used as a punching bag.

"Well, this is certainly interesting," a female voice she didn't recognize said. "It seems like subject 1 has somehow found it in itself to have some modicum of… mercy." The voice sounded displeased. "If I didn't want to keep its current habitat intact, I would go in myself to eliminate you."

"Wha-who are you?" Sunset asked, groaning, as she stood up and looked around. She was in a small cave, connected either to an exit or another cave through a small tunnel to her left. Her weapons lay around her. The sword was mostly intact, but her shotgun had been crushed to pieces.

In the silence after her question, she could hear distant hisses, and slowly her memory of what had happened earlier came back. The strange Viper had entrapped her, and then opened a portal and then—

"Crap… I've been teleported."

"Oh, so you do have a brain! Interesting. I would have expected a grunt like yourself to not be able to figure it out for a few hours."

"Who are you?" Sunset asked again, her eyes roaming the place until they settled on a video camera with a small, blinking red light. "How long have I been here?"

"I'm certain you would love to know, resistance scum," the voice replied. "But I have neither the interest nor the inclination in sharing my name with the dead." Sunset could almost hear the voice shrug. "As for how long… a few hours. I didn't pay much attention until I saw you move. I thought you were just a dead snack. Like something the cat dragged in."

"I'm still pretty much alive," Sunset pointed out.

"Well, I'm sure that will be remedied soon, when the Viper King returns. I do not know what could have possessed him to bring you here alive and not crush you into a thin paste so he could feed you to his females, but I'm fairly certain that will change soon."

Sunset grimaced. That Viper had not been something to sneer at. While they could all be deadly enemies, she had gotten used to their movements. She checked her equipment, noticing her grappling hook was still in one piece, and her grenades were there as well. Only her shotgun had been destroyed.

"Yes, I too noticed the grenades," the voice sighed. "I wish he were not so… arrogant. But I guess it is to be expected, as the single male of the species. He is still young, and will learn better."

"Well, I don't intend to stay here to find out," Sunset spoke up. Her magic reserves were low, but a simple spell like her blood-vision should be doable. She slowly molded her magic, allowing it to flow, and faintly, the beating red lights showing the location of the beating hearts of the vipers appeared around her.

Sunset's eyes went wide and she looked up, down, and around her with growing concern. She was surrounded.

"What was that?!" the voice asked. "You did something… I… I detected some sort of spike on the edge of the psychic spectrum." It turned angry. "What did you do?"

"I have no intention of telling you," Sunset said, narrowing her eyes. Now that she was calmer, she could see that most of the surrounding vipers were smaller than average. Maybe recently born? Of the large one, there was no sign, but two of the younger ones were getting closer.

Sunset moved to the side, back against the wall, sword ready, right under the camera.

"Step into the video!" The voice grew increasingly angry. "Tell me what you did!"

Sunset didn't answer. Soon, two vipers slithered into the room, and the moment they did, she was on them, slashing down at them. Blood splattered all over the floor and Sunset's armor as the first went down. The second viper reacted quickly, spitting a green cloud onto Sunset's face. She recoiled, backing away and coughing, but had enough presence of mind to run the viper through the chest before rolling away from the noxious cloud.

"What are you doing?!"

"Getting the hell out of here," Sunset coughed.

With no more vipers in the immediate area, she ran up the passage, her breath ragged. The magic was taking a toll, but worse, she could see her own blood was contaminated with viper poison. Hating the additional toll on her stamina, she focused on her blood processing the venom.

"How did you know the two vipers were coming?" the voice asked, still frustrated, but also curious. "Was it part of your psychic boost? How are you moving so efficiently while poisoned?"

Sunset ignored the voice. She could see she was getting closer to other vipers and slowed down, not wanting to alert them. Especially not while fighting down the raspiness in her throat.

The cave she emerged into was large, with many holes around the walls, that probably went down deeper into lower caves. The atmosphere was warm and humid, ideal for such creatures, but that was not all—there was plenty of scientific equipment strewn around, along with discarded human bones and torn clothes.

Large containers with glass as thick as her hand—if it was glass—stood almost proudly in the center of the cave, but, like relics, they had been breached, and whatever had been inside was long gone.

"Welcome to the lab," the voice said, evoking several hisses from nearby. "Truly, you are blessed to witness greatness. The experiments performed here exceeded the abilities humans have ever had to play with life… but it was done! Genetic modification of the deficient alien units… resulted in the creation of my pets… the Alien Rulers."

"Shut up, would you?" Sunset hissed, seeing several curious vipers heading her way. Her lungs felt like they were on fire, and she felt bile raising up her throat, which she forced down. The poisoning was much worse than she had anticipated. She needed a place to get cover and maybe regain some magic.

Looking around, she quickly spotted a natural balcony, out of immediate sight. The grappling hook shot out, and she was scrambling over the edge and on her stomach just in time to avoid the vipers, who were now testing the air where she had been moments ago with their tongues.

They hadn't seen her yet, but…

"They know you're here. Roaming their kingdom," the voice said, echoing in the cavern and eliciting several hisses and much slithering.

"Shut up, shut up, shut up," Sunset mouthed, eyes scanning the area. The woman's voice had drawn the attention of many, many vipers.

It was then that she heard the distant shots. Sunset blinked, looking up, and across the room, where she could see several human heartbeats taking cover as they came into the cavern.

"What?! No!" The voice screeched, making Sunset wince with the feedback on the speakers. "They're killing them! They're going to destroy everything!"

Sunset looked around, finally noticing the active antenna.

"I see you," she hissed, making a quick, mental calculation. It was close enough. She pulled out a grenade, prepped it and tossed it.

It arched gracefully, going far, and landing into a roll right under the antenna.

"Damn you! You're not going to get away wi—"

The explosion shook the cavern, and the antenna's base was shredded. It groaned, the metal bending under its weight, although the transmitter itself was destroyed. Now that her position had been revealed, the vipers below immediately started shooting their plasma rifles at her.

Sunset scrambled back and pressed herself to the floor. Thankfully her cover was sufficient for now, and could withstand the barrage. It was not to last, however, when she noticed with worry that one viper had slithered into one of the small holes and was making its way up to her.

Bracing against the wall, she tried to prepare for it, but several shots from below kept her from moving quickly enough. The young viper didn't even pause, springing out of the hole and wrapping itself around Sunset. The pair rolled on the balcony and fell several feet onto the ground below, landing painfully on their side.

The blow stunned the viper long enough for Sunset to stab up with her sword, slicing the viper's head in two from the neck up. The viper's body started spasming, arms flailing, but slackening its hold on her. Sunset's body felt like it had been run over by a truck, but she forced herself to crawl out from the viper's coils and onto the muddy-with-blood-and-dirt cavern floor.

The nearby vipers didn't waste a second, rushing towards her, but several shots mowed them down—the blasts powerful enough to go through one viper's body to impact the stone in a shower of gravel, and completely exploding the second viper into a shower of blood and meaty pieces that rained all over Sunset—before they got too close.

Sunset rolled onto her back, coughing and weakly trying to brush away a particularly sticky bit of viper on her arm, just as Jane came up to her and looked down with a smirk. "That's what you get for going out on a date with a guy you barely know."

Sunset blinked, looked down at herself as best she could, and started chuckling, but stopped with a grimace when her ribs ached and her lungs constricted. "Don't make me laugh," she managed to rasp out. "It hurts."

Jane shook her head, waving at someone nearby while she kneeled next to Sunset, her GREMLIN hovering by. She pulled out a medkit, and started applying medicine and stimulants. "Don't move, I've got you."

Sunset coughed again. "What's that?"

Jane smirked. "It's the new standard issue magnetic rifle, hot off the forge."

"Nice," Sunset said weakly. "But you have to be careful… the Viper King…"

"It escaped," another familiar voice interrupted her.

Sunset looked up, smiling tiredly at Bradford, who also kneeled down next to her. "Oh. Hey, long time."

"You had me worried, kid."

"D-don't get sentimental," Sunset managed. Her eyelids were feeling very heavy. "Just… just you know... "

Everything went dark.

Blurry tunnel vision. Strong lights, echoing voices.

"...one big bruise…" Bradford's voice sounded distant. Why was he so worried?

Warm, comfortable darkness, and suddenly a loud beeping noise, seemed to drill into her head.

"...Poison… metabolism working…" This voice was familiar too. Laetitia? "..ive up, you hear me?"

Sunset started coughing, and each cough felt like something was scraping the back of her throat with a rusty spoon.

Tygan's voice was next. "Never seen anything quite like it…"

"Will she make it?" A voice she didn't know. Familiar, but she couldn't quite place it. Sunset drifted into sleep again.

"Yes… yes… her heartbeat is slowing down… she's metabolizing the venom… the antivenom is doing its job."

The hum of the machinery lulled her back into the waking world. The lights in the infirmary were not too bright, but they still stung when she opened her eyes, making her wince and raise her arm to cover her face.

The movement seemed to draw the attention of an engineer, who was busy working on several monitors.

"Corporal," the engineer said, walking up to her and checking the various devices. The technology had been adapted from several alien components that, to Sunset's understanding, had been put together by Dr. Shen and Dr. Vahlen, before the later had disappeared and required little input from medical experts once a patient was declared safe enough to be brought there. "I'm glad to see you're awake."

Sunset tried to speak, but her throat wouldn't make a sound. Her lips and throat felt dry and all she could get out was a small wheeze.

"One moment," the engineer said, pressing a button and making the bed fold until Sunset was in a reclined, seating position. "Here," he added, giving her a cup with a security cap and a plastic straw coming out of the top. "It's a solution to help you rehydrate faster."

Sunset nodded, taking a small sip. It felt like a magical balm going down her throat. She took several more sips, letting her throat feel less dry before she spoke. "How long?" she managed to croak out.

"Four days," the engineer said. "At least here. They had you in the lab for almost a whole day."

"I feel like I was hit by a truck, only to be hit by another, bigger truck, and then forced to drink sandpaper."

"Yes, well, probably for the best if you don't speak much right now. Let your throat heal."

"That might not be possible." The voice was one Sunset had heard… it was familiar, yet she couldn't really place it again. She looked up at the woman who had walked into the infirmary. She didn't just sound familiar, but she also looked familiar.

"Commander," Bradford spoke up, walking in behind her. "Are you sure this is necessary right now?"

"I'm afraid so, John," the Commander replied, giving a look to the engineer, who stiffened, saluted and hurriedly left the room. As soon as he was gone, Bradford locked the door and the Commander took a seat next to Sunset's bed.

Bradford gave them both a worried look before strolling across the room and grabbing another chair.

The room was completely silent for a moment and then the Commander spoke again, "I think it's high time that you and I have a chat... Sunset Shimmer."

o.0.o End Chapter 15 o.0.o

Chapter 16: Connections

View Online

Ranger

Chapter 16: Connections

By Wanderer D

"Permission to speak freely, sir!"

Bradford looked at Jane with an almost perfectly straight face that belied his actual bafflement. "In the middle of the bridge, out of nowhere?"

Jane gave him a steady look.

Bradford massaged his forehead. "Fine. Come with me to my office." He turned to face the staff. "Make sure you keep track of those signals, we're expecting our infiltration team's communication soon!"

"Yes, sir!"

Bradford motioned for Jane to follow him into his office, a room full of memorabilia from the previous war, including a wall with over 50 dog tags hanging on it, an original, dismantled, Sectoid gun and even a faded blueprint of the old base.

Bradford motioned for her to sit down, then walked over to take his own seat. "What can I do for you, Kelly?"

"You can tell me what the hell the Commander said to Sunset," Jane replied, narrowing her eyes. "She's been out of it since she was released from the infirmary."

Bradford frowned and crossed his arms. "Classified."

"Come on, Bradford, don't give me that," Jane said. "I can respect the chain of command, I will follow your orders to hell and back and to hell again. I will lay down my life for the cause… but so will Sunset, and she deserves support."

That seemed to hit Bradford a little. "I'm sorry Corporal, but the Commander has the last say in that." He took a deep breath. "Sunset can also disclose some of the information if she wants to, but it's not my place to do it."

Jane sighed, leaning back on the chair. "All of this," she waved a hand around the room. "...has taught you a lot about leadership and sacrifice, Bradford. In that light, can you really tell me that it's okay for a soldier to be in such a mental state? We could be called to action anytime soon."

Bradford took a deep breath. "No. And yet, Sunset is the one that has to deal with this, given her role in the Commander's… life."

Jane leaned forward. "What does that mean?"

Bradford shook his head. "Classified. For now."

"For now?"

Bradford nodded. "It all depends on Sunset."

The Shard Gun was a lot lighter than she had anticipated. The sleek design, low weight and kick-less shot were taking some getting used to, as she was more used to the bulkier shotguns, and her instinct was to brace herself for the weapon to kick back with every shot, something that was giving her some trouble… but maybe it was just that she had too much in her mind.

She took cover behind one of the Training Ground's barriers and took a shot at a nearby dummy, blasting the chest and head off in a second.

"Where do you come from, really?"

BAM! The legs of a fake muton were torn into fragments.

"You look exactly like someone who I watched die."

She ran and rolled, doing an about turn that put her face-first against three ballistic-gel dummies that looked like Sectoids. Her shot blew a hole clear through the first, tore through the second and managed to practically serrate the third's head with the angle.

"I don't know how you're possible. You're her, but not. The DNA matches, the voice, the attitude, but you'd be a lot older by now, if you were my Sunset."

"Gah!" Sunset shouted, slicing down with her brand new Arc Blade. The last enemy—a facsimile of another unit she hadn't encountered personally, the Berserker—flowered outwards as the even-sharper sword cut through it, sending electric bursts at the same time that made the gel vibrate.

Sunset glanced around at the carnage her training session had done, breathing heavily. No matter how many dummies she cut down, she couldn't take her mind off of the conversation she'd had with the Commander.

"If you had been discovered just now… if Bradford hadn't vouched for you—you made an impression on him, you know, those three years you travelled together—if it were not for that… I would have had you shot on sight."

She had been dismissed from the infirmary two days ago. Barely a few hours after her talk with the Commander and Bradford.

"At first I thought you were… a clone or something made by the Aliens to get to me. Then I thought, Vahlen. She, Bradford and Shen were the only ones that would recognize you. And if she's crazy enough to do what she did to Vipers, Archons and Berserkers, she's definitely lost it enough to try something stupid like that."

Sunset closed her eyes, taking a deep breath. She was sweating. Her muscles ached, her hair was sticking to her face and forehead and her heart was racing. "I need a shower," she muttered, heading over to the barracks.

"I-I'm sorry… I don't-I don't get it. Who am I—who is Sunset Shimmer to you?"

Sunset walked to her locker, placing her weapons inside, and fishing out her towel and toiletries. She glanced up at the diary, closed and innocent-looking on the top shelf, under her spellbook.

"You really don't know, do you?" The Commander's voice lowered. "Sunset Shimmer… she was..."

Sunset dragged the diary out, throwing her stuff on the bed and taking a seat at the small personal desk next to it. She took a long, calming breath before grabbing a pen and opening her diary, the words of her letter to the princess already forming in her mind.

She passed the pages until she saw her last entry into the diary.

I hate you.

She hadn't noticed then, and she hadn't opened her diary since she wrote that message three years ago… but there was something else written there now.

I miss you.

I'm sorry.

Jane walked down the hall towards the barracks, slowing down when she saw the Templar, Laetitia, leaning against the side of the entrance as if she was guarding it. The hall was mostly empty, except for the random engineer running down to do whatever it was they did, so most likely she wouldn't have had to dissuade anyone yet.

Jane hadn't really known how to feel about their new allies. Sure, anything and anyone against the aliens, of course, but it took some getting used to someone that could rip you apart with her mind; someone that would hunt, kill and eat aliens and would disappear from sight if you just looked away for a second, and—last, but not least—an ex-ADVENT officer who looked decidedly inhuman under his helmet.

Sure, Sunset seemed to know them all, but still.

"What's going on?" she asked, trying not to sound curt. In the field it was easier, somehow, to get along, but inside the Avenger? It felt almost as if the other faction soldiers were invaders themselves.

Jane gave herself a mental shake. They were allies, they all had worked together efficiently in the field—they might have not been on the ship for years, but they were still part of her team.

"Just… keeping people from snooping around." Laetitia tilted her head in the direction of the barracks door. Jane frowned and glanced inside.

Her eyes roamed the room, trying to figure out what the issue was. It took her a moment to process.

After all, no one in the ship had ever seen Sunset Shimmer cry.

o.0.o End Chapter 16 o.0.o

Chapter 17: Party

View Online

Ranger

Chapter 17: Party

By Wanderer D

The Skyranger shook a little as it encountered minor turbulence, but the soldiers inside ignored that, focusing on the satellite pictures of their next objective.

"A local resistance group attacked an ADVENT convoy, leaving some supplies for us to pick up," Bradford explained on the monitor. "We can expect ADVENT to try and take them back, so go in, eliminate any resistance, and secure those supplies. This mission will take place in a city known for being infested, so expect to see some Lost there as well."

"We're pulling up on the site, guys," Rainbow Dash called from the cockpit. "Get your gear ready."

Sunset shifted in her seat, her new armor feeling tighter than it probably was. The Predator armor was heavier, more durable and had more padding to absorb damage from alien weaponry better than what they all had worn before, but she had still taken the time to tweak how it looked so that it reflected her better.

The full design wasn't the same as before, however. Besides the decal of her cutie mark on the chest, she had created another depicting Celestia's own cutie mark and added it to her right shoulder pad. They created an interesting contrast with her usual dark-gray and black, but Sunset did not want to allow herself to forget her mentor again… and how she had failed her.

There was one thing, however, she didn't like.

"Still dwelling on the new nickname?" Jane asked with a grin, nodding at the nametag.

Sunset glared at her. "Sunset 'Bloody' Shimmer? Really?"

Mox snorted. "I think it makes perfect sense, considering every time I've seen you in battle you end up covered head-to-toes in it."

"I use an overgrown machete! Often! That's bound to happen!"

"You also possess a shotgun," Elena pointed out.

"And grenades," Laetitia added.

"Look, it's just sometimes the most efficient way to do this, okay?"

"If you say so." Jane shrugged.

"Menace," Rainbow called out, "we're here. Opening the ramp."

Sunset and the others prepared for the drop, pausing to examine the area before jumping.

"Oh, you've got to be kidding me." Sunset grimaced, in the horizon, just outside the city, she could see a familiar building split in half long ago.

"What is it?" Jane asked.

"Nothing," Sunset muttered, turning to face the area below. "This is close to where I met Mox."

Mox leaned over and glanced around. "It is indeed. Good times."

"You would say that."

"Guys, if you're going to appreciate the view, why don't you do it at ground level?" Rainbow Dash called back.

"I'm going!" Sunset shouted back, annoyed. She motioned to the others and took a running leap out.

The city was deadly quiet, with the occasional gust of wind rattling through cracked windows, or whispering between alleys.

"Menace is on the ground."

"Come on," Sunset whispered, trotting over to take cover on the corner of a building. So far there was no sign of the aliens or any Lost.

She motioned for Elena to climb up the emergency ladder into the second floor of a building, while Jane ran past and hid behind a large trash container, followed closely by Mox, who took cover behind some abandoned boxes, across from Jane.

Laetitia, who had stopped on the other side of the entrance to the alley, shared a nod with Sunset before the pair made their way through, past Jane and Mox, to the end of the alley.

"Enemy spotted, Elena's voice came through their radio. "Small patrol. Captain, Lancer and Trooper. Standing at the base of the railway." There was a pause. "I see some Lost, almost a block away, to our right. They haven't seen the aliens yet."

"Roger that," Sunset whispered into the radio. "We see the patrol."

Laetitia motioned with her hand, and Sunset nodded.

"I also see two of the supply boxes. We can get to them quietly, but the moment we mark them for pickup, they'll know we're here."

"We'd better make sure we take them down fast, then," Mox said. "If we plan this properly, we can get rid of all of them without calling the attention of more Lost to our location."

"No grenades," Sunset acknowledged. "I have an idea. Mox, Jane, you'll move to our places. Elena, you're perfect there… if the angle allows you a perfect shot right now, keep your position. Laetitia, come with me."

They snuck around the patrol, keeping their distance. Thankfully, the ADVENT troops seemed content to just watch over the boxes and not do any real patrolling this time around, which allowed both of them to get as close as they could outside of their view.

Sunset slid out her sword. "The moment I take out the captain, the other two go down," she whispered into the comms. "Elena, unless something goes wrong, keep yourself hidden."

Barely paying mind to the acknowledgements, she nodded to Laetitia, who also unsheathed her energy blades.

The pair exploded into a run. The ADVENT Captain had casually turned around in place and barely had time to shout in pain when Sunset came down with her sword, slicing him in half with a spray of orange blood.

The Lancer didn't fare any better under Laetitia's attack, falling much more cleanly, and the trooper stared at them for a second before running to take cover right in front of Mox, who didn't even bother moving before blowing his head off.

Radio chatter warned them that they had given away their position, so Sunset wasted no time.

"I got this one, mark the others!"

"Menace," Bradford said, transmitting directly to them, "We are recording a large amount of energy gathering in your area, it is consistent with the scans from the last encounter with the Assassin."

"I was wondering when you would come out to play again, XCOM," the Assassin's voice cut into the comms, making them all wince. "I am here now, too… and I will have fun carving your little chess pieces into nothing, Commander."

Another, previously unknown voice added their input into the comms. "Don't tell me you were planning on hunting in my domain without inviting me! That's so unfair, Aria! You never invite me to your parties anymore!"

"Menace! There's another, similar energy burst near you!"

"No shit, Bradford!" Sunset growled.

"It's the Hunter…" Elena's voice was next, low, almost a growl of anger. "She's the bane of my people."

"Great, why couldn't this be simple?" Sunset muttered, just as the box's destruction seemed to summon distant cries of Lost.

"Menace, you need to evacuate, abandon the crates and proceed to the nearest clear area for pickup."

"That's a negative, Central!" Rainbow Dash's voice was strained. "I'm being chased around by ADVENT air patrols, I'll need some time to get rid of them!"

It was then that Mox tackled Sunset, just as the box she had marked for pickup was obliterated by a dark-purple blast of energy.

"Don't ruin my fun, Skirmisher!" the Hunter called out from somewhere in the city.

"We need to move," Sunset growled, summoning her blood magic to amplify her vision and motioning for the others to follow. "Keep in cover!"

"This city is big," Mox said as they ran into the alley they had come from. Sunset looked up and could see Elena keeping to the rooftops, but following their pace as they emerged on the other side and ran down the street. "We should be able to find a way to escape them long enough for Firebrand to pick us up."

"Several Lost have begun attacking the Hunter," Elena noted. "She seems distracted… killing them."

"They haven't figured out where we are yet," Jane said as she ran. "We can't count on it lasting too much longer, though."

"Of course not," Sunset grunted, stopping suddenly and slashing with her sword just to the right of her friend.

The others didn't have time to react to her actions before Sunset's sword was blocked by another sword with a metallic clang. The Assassin materialized, grinning her shark-like smile as she held her sword confidently in a lock-down with Sunset. "Ah, the blood witch, it seems you survived our last encounter."

"I wouldn't give you the pleasure of not seeing me again before you explode into light dust again… Aria."

The Assassin's smile disappeared. "Don't you dare use that name!"

With much more strength than her slim body would indicate, the assassin's push threw Sunset clear a few feet, but in her anger, the Chosen didn't immediately become invisible, and received a full blast of Jane's magnetic rifle, although it merely shook her in place.

Laetitia's attempt to cut the assassin down was met with failure as the latter dodged both strikes easily and blasted the Templar with a psychic blast straight to the stomach.

Mox's Bullpup rattled as the Assassin retreated enough to give herself space. She turned invisible, but it was dispersed when Sunset, who had recovered, shot her straight in the back with her shotgun, sending the assassin sprawling.

"Seems like the mighty Chosen are having some trouble," yet another voice jumped into the open channel. "It's a good thing that I am always willing to help. For a price."

Cries of more Lost filled down the street, and it was then that Sunset saw the massive creature's beating hearts approaching fast. "Run!"

The others didn't stop to question her order, just as the wall of the building next to where they had been standing exploded outwards. A massive berserker pushed its way through, as it grabbed a clinging Lost with one of its claws and splashed half its body against another building, and then grabbed another zombie, slamming it to the ground and squished like a bug it under its foot.

It was huge, double or even triple the size and bulk of regular berserkers; it wore a metallic helmet with a horn on it, no doubt intended for it to rush enemies, and with two armored claws, connected to a container on its back, pumping some sort of liquid into it.

"Of all the things Vahlen had to modify, she had to choose a Berserker." Bradford sounded intensely annoyed.

"Although I understand the curiosity, I agree that that wasn't the most… prudent of choices," Tygan added. "I do have to wonder how this… woman, is controlling such a creature, when even Vahlen herself couldn't do it."

"I would really prefer it if you looked at the creatures later and concentrated on my evac, Central!" Sunset called.

"Roger that, Sunset," Rainbow Dash's voice came back on the radio. "I've shaken them, but they're returning to patrol the city, you'll have to make it to the outskirts! I'm sending you the coordinates!"

A shot rang out, hitting the Berserker Queen on the rhino-like helmet, and making it stagger and abandon its charge.

"They've seen me," Elena called in grimly.

Sunset could see the Reaper running down into the building and then making her way from one to the other through holes and jumping from window to window.

"The coordinates are just down the street," Sunset announced.

"Do you really, really think I'd let you get away that easy?" the Hunter's shrill voice reached them.

"Don't kill them!" the Assassin shouted. "I want them alive! The traitor, the witch, the templar, the reaper and the XCOM bitch! If we capture them we will destroy XCOM's morale and and get much more information!"

"Aww, but I wanted to kill them!" the Hunter whined. "Wait, you're saying she's really a blood witch? How cool is that? We haven't seen one in like… centuries!"

Sunset felt her stomach grow cold at those words, but they continued running. Behind them, they could hear the Berserker coming.

"I want that red head," the Berserker Queen's mysterious controller taunted in the radio. "I want to open her up and see what makes her tick! I want to see how she survived the venom and healed so quickly!"

"Well, at least you seem to be popular with the girls," Laetitia quipped. "Should I be jealous?"

"Make sure the Berserker runs through the red truck," Elena whispered into the team comms.

"Keep through the middle of the street!" Sunset ordered, seeing the truck up ahead.

She turned in time to fire a shot at the Assassin, who cursed loudly and dodged, still wounded from earlier, then dashed after the others, running past the truck.

She didn't see it.

But she certainly felt it, heard it, and so did even more Lost, and definitely the Berserker Queen.

The moment the Berserker Queen had jumped onto the truck to catch up with them, an explosion had rocked the whole street, making them stumble and stop to turn around and face the massive fireball that had resulted from the explosives Elena had planted on the truck.

The Berserker Queen was nowhere to be seen now, although Sunset doubted even something like that would be enough to destroy that behemoth.

She shook herself off and pushed up, standing shakily with the others. "C-come on," she rasped. "We're close."

Behind them, she heard Lost cries and the Assassin swearing.

"Now!" Sunset took Jane's arm and pulled, getting her friend running between the buildings, followed by the others, including Elena, who had made her way down to them. "Before she kills them and catches up! I can see our coordinates, it's…" She trailed off as they emerged from the line of buildings onto the outskirts of the city.

She slowed down, almost walking up to the flare indicating the pickup place for Firebrand. They were outside a large building, covered in vegetation and surrounded by craters. The building itself looked like it had been carved in half by a hot knife.

And in front of it, a broken statue, with a base… that was intact. "How…"

"Ambush!" Jane cried out, just as the whole world exploded in light and heat.

Sunset felt herself lifted from the floor, and flipped in the air, flying straight at the base of the nearby statue. She crossed her arms in front of her face and braced herself. "Oh, shiiiiii—"

o.0.o End Chapter 17 o.0.o

Chapter 18: Princess

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Ranger

Chapter 18: Princess

By Wanderer D

"...IIIT! Oof!" Sunset landed with thud on a cold, marble-like surface and slid on it until she smashed against a wall. "Oooh… crap." She coughed, taking a deep, ragged breath.

A door opened, and clattering sounds around her prompted her into action. She could barely see what was happening, as the place was shrouded in darkness, but two quadrupeds—as big as herself—were rushing her position, light shining from them.

As confused as she was, she wasn't going to become a chryssalid egg-sack. Her magic flared, and her sword sliced through the first one, dropping it gasping on the floor, and splattering with warm blood as she levitated her shotgun and tackled the second one, which only managed to squeak a weak "stop" before she had shoved the muzzle of her gun into its mouth.

Wait.

Magic? Talking Chryssalid?

"Shut the hell up! If I hear a whimper, I'm blowing your brains out!" she hissed, and felt the figure under her nod fearfully.

With a growing sense of dread, she used her magic to close the door and summoned an orb of light. Simple things to do… if one had a horn.

She was a pony again. She was in a room she didn't recognize, made of thick, purple-blue quartz. Behind her, and to her right side was a pony guard, laying on his side, wheezing as blood oozed out of a gaping wound on his chest. His armor had done nothing to protect it from her sword, which was designed to slice through thick alien armor.

He was gasping, eyes wide, looking at her, but unable to really see her.

"Shit!" Sunset hissed, panic starting to seep into her. The last few minutes of her mission rushed back to her head. Jane's shout. The explosion that sent her crashing through the statue's base… She looked down at the frozen guard under her, who was only glancing from her to his dying companion and back to her in an almost desperate haze.

"Crap. Crap!" Sunset swore under her breath. She had to get back. She couldn't abandon her team... She looked down briefly at herself, confirming she was a pony once again too. Her XCOM armor had adapted to her pony body-no doubt a side effect of the mirror's magic, and now that she was in her original body it felt a little awkward and alien.

But that wasn't her main concern. The magic flowed around her and through her. She felt her long starved reserves overflowing with it. If she could only access this type of power while on Earth! The aliens would stand no chance.

A gasp behind her made her remember where she was and that her time was limited. "I'm going to make sure you don't move, and I'm going to heal your friend," she said to the guard, whose eyes widened with hope.

"Oh, don't get your hopes up, handsome," Sunset smirked, levitating her sword to cut a thin line on the guard's cheek, making it bleed. "I haven't made up my mind yet about what's happening to you both. It depends on what you can tell me."

Blood magic flowed much more easily here in Equestria, and through that tiny wound, the guard was completely paralyzed. He couldn't even close his eyes. 'If I could have done this! How many lives would I have saved?'

Sliding her shotgun's muzzle out of the guard's muzzle, she attached it to its magnetic harness and turned around, grimacing at the state of the other guard. It was lucky that the blade was so sharp, in a way, there were no jagged incisions… he had basically been split clean in half.

She approached the guard, his eyes focusing on her. "I did a poor job of it too, with the damage not killing you instantly," she said calmly, as her mind raced through what she needed to do. "A cut like that would not have brought down a chryssalid. You're lucky that I was so confused… or maybe not, if I had known what was happening, I could have taken you both down without blood splatter."

Her magic weaved out. The blood stopped pooling, and slowly, very slowly started flowing back into the body of the guard.

"Even though I did cut you open, I didn't pierce anything important… or well, anything that would kill you immediately. You won't be able to do much for about a month or so… in fact, I highly recommend you get checked by a medical professional as soon as possible… but that will have to be later." She smiled. "But don't worry, I'll make sure you're not going to die. I might be wanted here for treason… maybe. But I don't want to seal my fate in Equestria by adding murder to that."

Her magic was making her confident. She could tell. Having to ration it back in the human world, and limiting her spells was tremendously frustrating. The spell that she was using on the guard right now was what had barely saved her own life when the Assassin had ran her through.

What had only put her in a stasis that allowed the Templars to help regenerate her body over the course of several days, was now filtering the blood for any contaminants, closing the wounds and healing the cuts as it basically regressed through time with cellular regeneration. The guard would be okay—if in serious pain—within a few more seconds.

And she could do this again. And again. No two-week waiting period. She felt her energy revitalized immediately. It took a lot of willpower to not start cackling in glee. But thankfully she had things to concentrate on, and as soon as the guard was not bleeding internally, she used another spell she had learned, but had been unable to use, and he slumped down, unconscious.

Casting a simpler, regular spell she had used when younger to dim out sounds so she could study in peace, followed by another to prevent light from escaping the room—the use for that one had been to not get a talking-to from castle staff when she was up doing things instead of sleeping—she turned around to face the frozen guard, but stopped when she noticed her reflection on the mirror.

She slowly approached, taking in a face she hadn't seen in years… a face covered in orange and green blood from aliens, and now red blood from the guardspony she had almost accidentally killed. If not for that, she looked kinda cute in her XCOM predator armor. Her grappling hook hung a bit low now, so she slid it up a little, so when it shot it wouldn't cause any issues with angle.

She took a deep breath and extended her magical senses. She wouldn't be able to see who was where, but at least—power. Such strong magical power! And it was not a pony! Although… there was somepony near it. An item? More than one, actually… there was one, far below, but another was in the same level of the castle as she was.

Her team was on the other side of the mirror, either fighting, dead or worse, captured. She couldn't just save them as she was. She needed more power. More magical strength to take down the likes of the Chosen or the Alien Rulers… and whatever else the Aliens could send to Earth.

She hesitated, taking a step towards the mirror again. The urgency of her team's fate called her but… but… the power in this place, wherever she was… was beyond anything she had felt. Finally she shook her head, turning around and approaching the guard, who only now seemed to truly understand that she was drenched in something other than paint.

"Now, handsome, you're going to tell me everything I want to know."

He had been silenced again by her spell, and she had taken his baton, frowning at the blunt weapon.

When she had noticed the look the guard was giving her, she smirked. "Well… better broken bones than using my sword, right?"

The guard's eyes—the only part of him that could move, given that she didn't want him to suffer through complete paralysis of the eyes—had widened slightly.

"Now, don't tell anyone I'm here, okay?" she said with a sweet smile, before turning and leaving the room.

Sneaking around the castle at night proved to be of little challenge.

Just like Galahad had told her so many years ago, ponies were too confident in the lack of danger. To the point of stupidity, even, given what the guard had told her.

She wasn't in Canterlot, that much had been obvious, but the Crystal Empire? Just released from Sombra's control and hosting not one, but four princesses… and there were only two active patrols?

Sunset shook her head, watching in the shadows as the guard she had heard coming from down the hall passed under her, not even bothering to look up at the edges above, which she used to silently bypass every other random guard so far. Two patrols, four guards.

And none of them looked up. None.

It was almost offensive.

It was downright embarrassing. Where had they gotten these guys? Even the pegasus guards never looked up.

What if the Gryphon Empire sent assassins to take out one of the princesses? Or all? They flew! The ponies knew they flew! Sunset stopped and took a deep breath, angrily shaking her head and resisting the urge to jump down and shake the guard.

These idiots could get Celestia killed!

She managed, however, after several deep breaths and—reluctantly—using Cadance's leg-stretch stress-release technique, to calm down enough. Her bloodvision could only detect a few sleeping ponies below her, and in one room, her senses told her the magical item she needed was located. After making sure there was no one else around, and that all the heartbeats in the rooms were steady and calm, she made her way down.

At one point, Sunset had given up on the idea of an invading army coming to Equestria. She wasn't sure when that had happened. The appeal of leadership had always been about showing the princess she was more than capable of being one herself.... maybe it had been Bradford, who had taught her what a leader was… or maybe it had been her own struggle to raise through the ranks.

Regardless, her dreams of showing up Celestia had faded, even if her motivation and desire to lead hadn't lessened. But now… looking at this… she could take over the nation with a small strike team, and Equestria was not remotely prepared for what a single XCOM soldier could do, much less Sunset's team.

Granted, other unicorns could be a problem… but few of them would have what it took to really take her team down. You didn't really stop an XCOM operative unless you killed them. And even then, they might take you with them.

Sunset shook her head. Her thoughts were turning decidedly dark, and she needed to concentrate. She carefully opened the door and peeked in.

A purple baby dragon slept in a little bed on the side of the stand where her objective sat, to all appearances a regular crown with an amethyst like star design. But she could sense the power emanating from it… and from the pony sleeping blissfully next to it.

Sunset paused, looking over the sleeping princess. 'I should hate you for taking what was supposed to be mine,' she thought, contemplative, as she used a hoof to lightly brush the pony's mane from her face. She slept peacefully and unworried. And for the life of her, Sunset couldn't bring herself to be angry at her.

When was the last time she had slept so peacefully?

Shaking her head again, she levitated the crown and slid it into one of her pockets. It fit uncomfortably, due to the shape, but it would stay inside. She felt a pang of guilt as she turned around and started walking carefully out, her thoughts turning to the disappointment Celestia and… Princess Twilight would feel the next morning, for different reasons.

But she wasn't doing it to be mean. She wasn't bitter about… not being the one sleeping comfortably in the bed. She hesitated. Did she really want to do this?

It was then that she stumbled on the tail of the little dragon, which had slid out of his bed. Sunset didn't fall, managing to keep herself upright, but she did have to canter a little, her hooves striking the crystal floor harder than she intended.

"Huh? What was that?!"

Sunset cursed under her breath.

"Wait! Who are you? Is-is that my crown! She's got my crown!"

Sunset didn't stop to reason with her, taking off out of the room as fast as she could go… which was pretty fast.

"Stop!" the princess shouted. "Thief!"

She heard several doors open behind her and soon a bunch of ponies were on her tracks, but Sunset was confident they would never stop her.

It was then that the air in front of her shimmered with gathering magic and in a flash of light, princess Twilight teleported right in front of her. "Oh yeah… I forgot about that," Sunset muttered, her horn lighting up and teleporting just past the princess with a laugh. It felt good to have magic again.

"Stop!"

Just as Sunset turned around a corner, a guard at the end of the hall she had stepped into noticed the chase, then grimly charged her, trying to stop her.

Well. This one here wasn't a civilian.

Narrowing her eyes, Sunset accelerated, and just as they were about to crash, the baton she had borrowed from the other guard smacked viciously against the knees of the guard in front, eliciting a cry of pain. She jumped over the collapsing guard, kicking back viciously with her hooves and smashing his face onto the floor. "Sorry soldier, but at least you'll be up and about in a week!" she called back.

She heard the gasps of horror from the mares behind her, and for the moment they all had seemed to stop following her. Probably in shock at what happened to the guard.

Civilians. Peh.

Sunset ran around another corner and smirked when her objective was straight in sight. She burst into the room, closing the doors behind her before she realized she was not alone.

"Halt, blood witch!" a dark blue alicorn, who could only be Princess Luna called, standing angrily in the middle of the room among guards and other alicorns. To her left, Cadance stood, her eyes widening in recognition, and to her right…

"Sunset Shimmer?"

Sunset looked up at the princess, her heart a turmoil of emotions, ranging from shame to frustration to relief to defensiveness.

Sunset's spell secured the door behind her, locking her in with three alicorns and six guards, including the two she had taken out earlier, who were off to the side, in good health, but not participating.

Sunset shut her eyes and took a slow breath and cracked her neck from side to side, before slowly opening her eyes again. On Earth, she would have been taken down in that pause. Here… not so much.

"Princess," she said neutrally, bowing slightly. "I'm glad to see you in good health."

"Sunset…" Celestia hesitated in taking a step forth, deciding to remain in place... and that… that hurt more than Sunset would have expected. "I-I thought you had left forever. I was wondering how you were doing."

Behind the three alicorns, the mirror shimmered with magic… and the urgency behind her theft.

"Princess.. I-I read your last messages... just two days ago."

Celestia looked down. "Oh."

"I'm sorry." Sunset said. "I was stupid, and… and petty."

"Sister," Luna's voice was cautious, but still somewhat angry. "You know this blood witch?"

"She's Sunset Shimmer," Cadance said. "My former roommate, Celestia's old apprentice… but what happened to you, Sunset? You're covered in blood… and that armor..."

Sunset looked down, her nametag catching her eye, reminding her of what she needed to do. "I have to go." She looked up at the three princesses and four fight-ready guards. "Please don't make me hurt you and just let me through. People's lives depend on me."

Even though she seemed shocked by Sunset's words, there was a glint of something in Celestia's eyes. A warmth. "I'm afraid you can't leave with the Element of Magic in your possession," she said, shaking her head. "As much as I would like you to stay and… mend old relations, that does not belong to you."

"I'm sorry, Princess, but that's impossible," Sunset remarked, assuming a fighting stance just as she heard the banging outside the room. "I need an edge. The stakes are much higher than you or anyone here can possibly understand. Either let me through… or prepare to fight."

Celestia's eyes were pained. "I see you have my cutie mark on your shoulder guard. Before we… before we battle, could you tell me why?"

Sunset didn't take her eyes off of them this time. "To remind myself to never betray those who trust me again. And were there another way, I wouldn't do this."

"There's always another way, Sunset," Celestia whispered, eyes silently pleading.

"Enough chatter!" Luna growled. "Have at thee, blood witch!" Her blast scorched the place where Sunset had been a second ago, but she had jumped to the side, getting a guard between the princesses and herself.

The guard was of no consequence, clearly only having battle experience in training alone, but it was Luna she needed to deal with. She wouldn't be able to take down all three princesses, so all she could do was… she grinned. She'd never get away with it without technology, of course, but…

Sunset flashed, disappearing for a moment.

"Fool!" Luna roared, turning around to face the place that Sunset reappered in across from where everypony was, leaving her a straight line at her. "I know where you will appear!"

"I know!" Sunset said, her grappling hook shooting out of her hoof and catching Luna by surprise. "But you're not fighting one of your useless guards!"

Luna was dragged towards Sunset in an uncontrolled rush, straight into a baton swing. The baton broke with a crack upon impacting against the alicorn's face, but Luna had been stunned sufficiently enough for Sunset to telekinetically pick her up and throw her on top of Cadance and the guards.

The Princess sailed through the air just as the guards were starting to mobilize and Cadance was preparing a spell, resulting in a mass of bodies collapsing as they tried to catch Luna. Sunset smirked. 'How many times have I wished I could do that to ADVENT troops!'

Celestia was conflicted, looking from the mass of struggling bodies to Sunset, unwilling to commit to an attack, and so, Sunset used the surprise of her attack to rush the mirror. "I'm sorry! I'll bring it back!" she shouted, taking a running leap into the mirror, just as something appeared in front of her in a purple blast of magic.

Sunset crashed into it, hearing an 'oof' before she and the soft thing that had appeared on the way rolled into the mirror.

o.0.o End Chapter 18 o.0.o

Chapter 19: Orders

View Online

Ranger

Chapter 19: Orders

By Wanderer D

With Sunset's magic gone, the door splintered when it was viciously kicked open by Applejack. "Alright! Where is she?!"

The scene they encountered was that of Celestia looking at a mirror in horror, while Cadance and several guards helped Princess Luna up. There was no sign of either Twilight, or the pony she had been chasing. "What the hay happened here?"

"Did that unicorn take Luna down?" Rainbow's voice was a mix of excitement and incredulity.

"She used unexpected tactics," Luna muttered, rubbing her face where a bruise had formed under her coat and wincing. "The blood witch will never be so lucky again."

"Who was that pony anyway?" Rarity asked. "She made such a mess of that poor guard back there…"

Cadance and Celestia exchanged worried looks, before the former walked up to Rarity. "I'll go help him out. Is he okay?"

"Yes," Rarity responded. "Our dear Fluttershy was kind enough to help set everything right and pronounced him mostly okay, although he still hasn't woken up yet."

"I'll go check on him… you can talk to them, auntie," Cadance said, putting words into action and leaving the room in a hurry.

"Um… where's Twilight?" Fluttershy finally asked.

Celestia grimaced. "She's on the other side of the mirror."

"Well, we know where we're going, then," Applejack stated, walking towards it, but stopped when Celestia stepped in front of it, blocking their path.

"I'm afraid you can't," the princess said. "Twilight and the Element of Magic are already gone, and it will be up to her to retrieve her crown and return… I can't risk anypony else going through that mirror, especially in light of what Sunset said."

"Sister, surely you cannot expect your former apprentice to help Twilight Sparkle back. Your former student is a Blood Witch!"

"That… doesn't sound good," Spike said faintly.

"It is not," Celestia replied, shaking her head. "Blood Magic was banned from Equestria centuries ago."

"For good reason," Luna added, "for it is a foul magic that will transform the user into a monster. It changes your soul, as you slowly feed off the life-force of other beings to give yourself power. You are eventually consumed by it, and turned into a Blood Wraith, a shadow of your former self, bent on the destruction of others for your own pleasure."

"Meep!" Fluttershy hid behind Applejack, who looked a bit sick.

"And you want us to stay here while Twilight fights a Blood Witch?" Rainbow Dash asked, incredulous. "Are you insane?"

"While I do not think you have lost control of your faculties in the centuries since my incarceration, I do have to wonder what your logic behind leaving your student to fare on her own is, sister," Luna added, looking at Celestia with some concern.

"I trust Sunset," Celestia said after a moment, turning to glance at the mirror.

"The Blood Witch?!" Luna asked. "But how-why? She just betrayed you!"

"Didn't you hear what she said, Luna?" Celestia asked softly. "She hasn't lost herself… and she took the forbidden book over three years ago."

"That is hardly enough proof…"

"She healed me," a voice rasped off to the side.

The ponies turned around, facing a guard, lying on his side, who coughed.

"You're part of my entourage," Celestia said, getting closer.

"T-that's right, your highness," the guard responded. "When-when she first arrived, we heard a bang and noise in this room, so we rushed in to check…" he shuddered and groaned. "I rushed her, not thinking about any real danger and she…" he gulped. "She cut me open."

Everypony gasped.

"You seem to be in fairly good condition for somepony who was sliced through," Luna noted dryly.

"He's telling the truth, Princess," the other guard said. "I know when you found us, we were simply paralyzed by the blood magic, but Stout here was split open and bleeding to death."

Applejack looked green and Rainbow Dash had to swallow, hard. Fluttershy had to sit down, feeling faint. Rarity swayed and would have landed hard were it not for Spike catching her and breaking the fall.

"But… she healed him," the other guard continued.

"I could see her eyes," Stout added, shaking his head. "She was saying things about how she would have cut me in half had she been paying attention, and such…" he shuddered. "But… I could see the relief in her face when her magic worked and I started healing. She was right, though…" He laughed a little. "It really hurts."

"How can you just laugh it off like that?!" Rainbow Dash asked.

"Because I'm too glad to be alive." The guard leaned back, resting his head against the wall. "Sunset, was it? Was right in one thing at least… she could have killed us easily. Her sword cut through my armor as if it wasn't there… and had she used it against the princess…" he shuddered.

Luna straightened up at that, but shook her head and turned to look at Celestia, when the latter smiled gently and opened her mouth to say something. "Oh no you don't." Luna interrupted her sister, before she had a chance to make one of her infamous 'my little pony' speeches. "Even if she healed him, it's still assault, and need I remind you that she used forbidden magic on Equestrian ground; froze public servants; stole a powerful, magical artifact; and severely injured another guard?"

"I know," Celestia conceded, glancing at the mirror. "Sunset has much to answer for… but is it so strange that I am glad to see another that I thought lost returned?"

Luna sighed. "I suppose not, but sister, don't let your feelings for your former student blind you. What she did is unforgivable, and it will eventually consume her."

"We shall see what Princess Twilight has to say about that when she returns," Celestia said. "We must trust her… and for what it's worth, give Sunset a modicum of trust as well."

"Why?" Applejack asked, exasperated. "After all that?"

"Because her words were honest," Celestia said firmly. "At least, I felt them so… she was truly desperate, and thought that the Element of Magic was the only thing she could use to save lives." She glanced at Luna. "Does that sound like somepony who has lost their way in blood magic, sister?"

Luna shook her head warily. "That she comes from a place of conflict, where her life and that of others is constantly at risk... I cannot deny," she said softly, touching her face with a wince. "She showed no fear or hesitation once her decision to fight was made… against three alicorns and four armed guards, no less."

She looked at the injured guards. "That she has not succumbed to the blood magic yet, given her choice to not leave a trail of dead ponies... I can concede."

She turned to look at Celestia in the eye. "That you would—despite all evidence—give her your trust to the extent of keeping Princess Twilight safe…" Luna trailed off, glancing at the mirror. "I can only hope, sister, that your hope and trust are not ill-conceived."

'Two less than ideal landings are never a good thing,' Sunset decided, groaning as she pushed herself up. She was back in her human body, armor in place, magic full, magical item secure and…

"Crap." Sunset muttered when the girl on the floor groaned and pushed herself up to all fours.

"Wha-" the girl gasped, her purple hair waving behind her as she looked around frantically at the state of everything around her. "Where am I?!" She caught sight of Sunset's legs and looked up to see her face.

"Who-who are you!?" she asked, recoiling from Sunset and raising a hand protectively. She immediately gasped again and looked at her body, eyes widening in panic before screaming her lungs out.

That was all that Sunset needed to launch herself at the princess, covering her mouth with a hand and looking around in panic. "Are you fucking stupid?!" she hissed, looking around in horror.

To her relief there was no moaning or groaning from nearby Lost. She glared at Twilight. "Listen, I get you're not used to this, but if I hear you scream like that again, I will knock you out! Do you understand?!"

Twilight's eyes were wide and she nodded quickly. After making sure that Twilight looked a bit calmer, Sunset let her go.

Twilight's eyes were a bit teary at the threat of violence, but as she studied Sunset's face, her eyes widened in recognition. "Wait… you're that unicorn that stole my Element!"

"Borrowed," Sunset clarified, "and keep your voice down. The last time I was here there were Lost, ADVENT troops, Alien Rulers and Chosen around, hunting us."

Twilight licked her lips, looking around fearfully.

"Look, the mirror should still be active," Sunset said gently, now that the magic rush was lessened, she also had less interest in being forceful. "Just go back to Equestria, Princess, this is really no place for you… or anypony."

She saw the princess' eyes narrow in determination, and sure enough…

"Give me my crown, and I'll go back."

"I need it," Sunset said, frowning. "You don—"

"Corporal Shimmer, is that you?"

Sunset grew pale so quickly that Twilight looked behind her, expecting a monster to be about to jump on them. When nothing appeared, she turned to look curiously at the former unicorn. "What's going on—" Twilight started to ask, but Sunset's frantic waving shushed her.

"Um... yes, Commander, it's me."

Twilight raised an eyebrow.

"I see you brought a friend."

"She's not my friend, Commander just… um, a civilian I encountered."

"In the middle of a battlefield? In an abandoned city? Wearing a school uniform from twenty years ago?"

Each question made Sunset cringe. "Yes?"

There was a pause. "Let me speak to her."

"Commander, that is probably not a good idea right now, an—"

"Now, Corporal."

Sunset gritted her teeth and her body trembled, but she slowly removed her earpiece and motioned Twilight to get closer.

Curious, the princess leaned in, and allowed Sunset to put the device in her ear. "What is—"

"Hello."

"Meep!" Twilight fell back in surprise before looking around, trying to find the origin of the voice. A few seconds later, the whole thing clicked in her mind and she gingerly touched the piece on her ear. "Um… hello?"

"May I have your name?"

"T-twilight Sparkle, your highness," Twilight replied, feeling nervous at the tone of absolute authority in the other person's voice.

Sunset smacked her face.

"I'm not royalty, miss Sparkle. And I have little time to waste, and so do you. Before I talk to Corporal Shimmer, let me explain your situation, since you seem unfamiliar with what's been going on. You are currently in a war-zone. You are surrounded by enemy forces that will not hesitate to kill you. If you wish to survive, you will follow Corporal Shimmer's orders to the letter, am I understood?"

Twilight nodded, then remember the Commander was not around to see that. "Um, yes, but—"

"But?"

"Um… C-corporal Shimmer stole something very valuable an—"

"I will make sure she is dealt with appropriately," the Commander interrupted. "For now, if you both wish to live, follow her commands."

"O-okay…"

"If you could please pass the communicator back to Corporal Shimmer, we will discuss your situation more thoroughly in person," the Commander said and Twilight quickly took the earpiece out, giving it to Sunset.

Sunset rubbed her temples and took it, putting it on her ear. "Yes, Commander?"

"You are to escort Miss Sparkle with you to the pick up coordinates. We will speak about what happened in the Avenger. Any questions?"

"If… Miss Sparkle were to say, disappear…"

"Then you'd better make her reappear just as fast, Corporal. Do not fail…" there was a hesitance there that Sunset didn't like. "Laetitia would like to see you… you don't have time to dally, Sunset."

Sunset's stomach went icy cold.

"The coordinates have been sent. Firebrand is already on her way. XCOM out."

Sunset stumbled back, but was surprisingly helped by Twilight, who had moved forth and caught her rather awkwardly in her arms. The princess helped Sunset stand up more firmly.

"Are you okay?" Twilight asked.

Sunset strode past her and touched the base of the statue. It was solid. She turned around and faced Twilight. "No. No… I'm not. Come on… follow me."

o.0.o End Chapter 19 o.0.o

Chapter 20: War

View Online

Ranger

Chapter 20: War

By Wanderer D

The Commander pressed a button on her desk. "Central, I want you, Tygan and Shen here. Tell the bridge to send the audio and video feed straight to my office, and that Sunset shouldn't be aware of the feed being live. Everything from Sunset's mission henceforth is restricted to high command until otherwise indicated, so until I say so, no one else can watch what her feed is sending."

"Understood, Commander."

The Commander leaned back in her chair, watching calmly as the screens lit up with the video feed from Sunset's camera and audio started to transmit.

"Show me what you've got, Sunset Shimmer."

The coordinates were not as close as Sunset would have wanted, and with the portal closed, she couldn't just push Twilight in and apologize later. On her own, she wouldn't have a problem. Guarding a civilian, however… she sighed. At least they had a couple of hours.

"Oh my Celestia…"

Sunset smiled despite herself. She hadn't heard that one in a while.

"...what happened here?" Twilight asked, wrapping her arms around herself and looking around in horror at the skeletons and frozen, Lost-like bodies. Her eyes roamed the area, staring in horrified fascination at half-melted vehicles, the school building that had been carved in two and the craters from multiple explosions.

"Aliens," Sunset said, looking about the building she had originally arrived at. "They came to this world, dropped those metal things and killed millions before the governments caved in and betrayed the only group of people capable of stopping them."

Twilight gasped at her. "Millions?" she asked weakly.

"Yes, princess, as in multiple tens of hundreds of thousands," Sunset replied, rolling her eyes. "Don't try imagining it… it's too big a number to attach to the concept of sentient beings dying."

"But why would they do that, then?" Twilight asked, getting closer to Sunset, almost as if she wanted a hug. "Betrayed their protectors, I mean?"

Sunset shrugged. "Power. Promises. Fear. There's plenty of reasons, none of them good. Now the world is enslaved, and a big chunk of the population is happy to live that way."

"And those that aren't?"

Sunset snorted. "Come on, follow me."

Twilight followed the order, carefully making her way around the crater next to the base of the statue and fell in line after Sunset, who guided her through the collapsed building. Once they reached the edge, Sunset stopped and pushed Twilight flat against the wall next to her.

"This is very dangerous, princess," she said, looking deep into Twilight's eyes. "Keep an eye on me, and only move when I give you the signal. Try to stick to the exact same route I take unless I signal you otherwise."

Twilight nodded, looking pleadingly at Sunset.

The older of the two sighed. "Fine, what do you want to know now?"

"What are these?"

"Fingers. The whole thing is called a hand."

"What species are we now?"

"Human, the original inhabitants of this planet. We have… others living in this planet now, but you can learn about them later. Anything else?"

Twilight paused, seeming to consider her words before asking softly, "Is this why… you stole my Element?"

Sunset hesitated, but nodded.

"But why would you do that? You have nothing to do with this—this war…"

Sunset sighed, she slid down the wall to sit on the floor and motioned to Twilight to do the same. "I've been here for over three years… I think I remember you now, didn't Cadance use to foalsit you?"

Twilight looked at her as if she had grown another head. "Who are you?"

Sunset grimaced. "Celestia didn't tell you, huh?" She extended her hand. "Sunset Shimmer."

When Twilight sheepishly raised her hand without knowing what to do, Sunset rolled her eyes and made a fist, bumping it on Twilight's.

"Twilight Sparkle," the princess responded.

"I know. I heard you had become Celestia's student… and then a princess yourself, congratulations."

"Um… thanks, although I don't think I fit the mold."

Sunset chuckled. "If it makes you feel better… I thought I did… if I'm guessing roughly right, that was a while ago in your world. Certainly more than three years... " She leaned back, looking up at the rotting roof of the building. "Anyway, yeah, I was Princess Celestia's former student, before you. I wanted to be a princess too."

Twilight looked at her curiously. "What happened?"

"I did," Sunset sighed. "I wanted it right there and then, no waiting, no more learning. If anything, I've learned that… I need to learn a lot more to not get anyone killed."

Twilight frowned. "That's not all there is to being a princess."

Sunset chuckled. "Being a princess is the least of my worries right now… I live here now, with people that trust me and depend on me… who know nothing of who or what I am, or where I came from. They've saved my life and I've… tried to repay them as best as I can… I still want to lead, but I want to really earn that. I want them to look at me with respect born of admiration and hard work and sticking my neck out for them… not things I ever considered doing in Equestria."

Sunset looked away. "If it means… burning bridges with my old home to keep them safe, I will."

"You never told them?" Twilight asked gently.

Sunset snorted. "No." She sighed. "They have good reason to distrust… aliens." She bit her lip and looked away. "I wouldn't even have gone back to Equestria in the first place, but we ended up here during a mission, and an explosion threw me through the portal."

"They must know now that there's something going on, then…" Twilight's voice was barely a whisper.

Sunset nodded. "Yeah."

"Don't you just… why don't you come back with me? You don't have to stay. You're an Equestrian Citizen, and I won't push charges..."

Sunset snorted. "I can't just abandon them. Even if the Commander treats me like trash, I can't just… leave. Not when they need my help… not when I can do something with my skills."

"What skills? I can't even use my spells," Twilight said, wiggling her fingers. "I tried!"

"Well, as you saw back there, I have a lot of skills now… and I know a different type of spells," Sunset muttered. "With the right source of power, I can save lives, Twilight. A lot of them."

Twilight was silent, so Sunset simply stood, offering her hand to help the princess up. "Maybe… maybe they'll put me in confinement now. Maybe they'll arrest me or… or kick me out. I don't know, but I'm not turning my back on them."

Rather than let her go, Twilight gave Sunset's hand a squeeze. "I think… that's a real sign of being a leader and somepony they can rely on."

"The word here is 'someone'." Sunset smiled, but then turned serious, taking a deep breath that she let out slowly. "Listen, Twilight. It's going to be a long way to our destination… an hour or so at least. Which doesn't sound like much, but it is if you have to hide, sneak, avoid fights or worse, fight. If you see enemies, you hide. Just hunker down where I leave you, okay?

"Do not engage. Don't try to help me, even if it seems like I'm about to die—if that happens and we're near the pickup point, you ignore me and make your way to where the lights are, just wave up into the air and grab onto the rope. Wrap your right leg around it, and press down the bend on the rope on top of your left foot. Then hold on tight. Otherwise, don't give away your position. Do you understand?"

Twilight looked down.

"Twilight. Do you understand? Look at me."

Twilight looked up, fearfully nodding. "Just… don't get hurt."

Sunset chuckled. "That might not be possible…"

"But if-if you get hurt…"

"That's just XCOM, Twilight."

The pair had been trotting from cover to cover for about half an hour before they found their first patrol.

Twilight huddled behind the remains of a house while Sunset had moved ahead and signaled her to stop and wait. So far their travels had been tense, but uneventful, with her guide scouting the area carefully and then indicating it was safe for Twilight herself to move.

Despite what she had seen Sunset do in the Crystal Empire, Twilight couldn't really match this generally friendly… hooman… with the unicorn that had so viciously attacked a guard. At no point did she feel threatened by her… which was weird. Back in Equestria, her instincts had been that she was chasing some sort of… predator. There was a bloodlust in Sunset's eyes back there that wasn't here… until now.

The moment the patrol had appeared, Sunset's body-language had changed. She was no longer a friendly, slightly older pon-human; but a hunter about to pounce on her prey. Sunset was not only ready, but willing to kill, and even if it was in her own defense, Twilight didn't know what to think.

Back home, she would have never thought it possible for two ponies, or any race really, to simply kill another without remorse. She was now realizing that the guard they had helped in the castle had been lucky, because it hadn't been expecting such a vicious attack, and Sunset hadn't used deadly force.

Her mind made comparisons against her will. Would Shining be so eager to fight? No… not eager. He had talked to her, Royal Guards were ready to kill or die for their princess… a concept that had up to now had a certain dissonance with her perception of things. It was different to hear it than witness it… so even they were no strangers to this… but they didn't have bloodlust. And something deep inside told her Sunset had more than enough. Even more than she probably realized herself.

Twilight waited with bated breath. Sunset had pulled her strange weapon out and was crouched behind a half-destroyed fence, watching a group of two… well, they looked like armored humans and something else.

It stood on two legs just like they did, but it had no armor, and its bulbous head was wider than that of the two human-like individuals. Its skin was a sickly grayish-pink and even at this distance, it looked like it was smiling.

Twilight held her breath, waiting for Sunset to run out and attack them, but she didn't. She held her place, watching patiently until the aliens were out of sight. Then she checked the area and signalled Twilight to go catch up to her.

"I thought you were going to attack them…" Twilight whispered, not daring to raise her voice.

Sunset shook her head. "Only if they saw me… I moved too far ahead. I was lucky they didn't see me. If they had… well, it gets complicated."

Twilight gulped, but carefully followed Sunset along the fence and away from the patrol until they were in a small alley between destroyed houses. It was a dank and smelly alley, with old, rotten boxes and what Twilight hoped were not the bones of humans. They paused there again, as Sunset peeked around the corners.

"Our pickup point is straight ahead, basically in the middle of the street…" Sunset said, pointing over to the end of the street. "I don't like the empty spaces in between, but we'll do what we have to."

Twilight watched as Sunset looked up at the tangle of long-limbed trees, cables, and barely-standing lamp posts. "I guess there's no way Rainbow Dash would've been able to pick us up here," Sunset muttered.

Twilight blinked. "I'm sorry, who? I must've misheard…"

Sunset opened her mouth to reply, but her eyes widened and she pressed Twilight against the wall. Twilight didn't realize what was happening or why they had done that… until she heard the hissing.

Four very big snakes slithered into view. The upper half of their bodies was almost human, having arms, hands and even breasts—which confused Twilight to no end—but they had cobra-like heads. The only one that was different was the biggest one, colored white and blue, it was a chest taller than the others and not female if they went by the obvious tells.

They slithered down the street, weapons similar to Sunset's held in their claws or hands, or whatever they were. Clawed hands.

Next to her, Sunset was trembling a little, whether with anticipation or fear, Twilight had no idea, but it was clear that this was a very dangerous situation they found themselves in, given the intensity with which Sunset was following their movements.

"Shit, Vipers..." Sunset swore, watching them, "Of all possible… why did it have to be him."

Was she blushing? No. Twilight was imagining things.

"Come on," Sunset muttered, "We can't take the main street. We'll double back and walk around them. There's no way we're making it out alive otherwise."

Twilight nodded fearfully and stepped back, trying to make way for Sunset. She stepped on something solid… that was a lot softer than she expected. She felt the wood from one of the old boxes give under her, and she stumbled back. Her lack of familiarity with her new body didn't help, and she slammed her back on the stacked boxes.

"Dammit!" Sunset swore.

Twilight saw her pull something small, about the size of her hand from one of her pockets and flip something in it. Sunset threw it over the side of the building, and suddenly a loud explosion and a flash of light came from around the corner.

"I'll make time," Sunset hissed, pulling Twilight up. "Run to the pickup location! Remember, wave, wrap the line around you… go!"

Sunset ran out of the alley, pulling out her sword, with Twilight following.

Twilight ran, but was unable to stop herself from hesitating and looking over her shoulder.

Two of the smaller vipers were already down, one she couldn't make out, but the other one had half of its body burned from whatever Sunset had thrown, and a clear slash across its chest all the way down to the side of where the tail began. Metallic orange blood was pooling under it, but also covered Sunset's chest. The third viper shot Sunset, who managed to twist out of the way of where it was aiming enough to not get a direct hit… but she still cried out in pain when it hit her on the side of her stomach.

Twilight could see the green energy had burnt through the armor Sunset was wearing, and she could smell something burning.

Sunset didn't give it another chance, however, viciously stabbing it straight through the chest. The giant snake hissed in her face one last time before it collapsed… and it was then that the biggest one acted.

Before Sunset could even turn, she had been slapped onto her back by the creatures' tail. Twilight saw it hiss with hatred at Sunset, showing its long, venomous fangs, ready to bite her and raised its weapon, almost smiling at the easy kill. There was no way it would miss at that distance.

"NO!" Twilight shouted in horror. "Stop!"

The large viper stopped completely, whipping its head to look at her in confusion.

It was then that Sunset pulled her own weapon, aiming straight at the Viper King… and shot once, missing the creature by a fair margin and shaking it out of its stupor.

"How the fu—" Sunset shouted in frustration, doing something to her weapon before shooting a second time just as the Viper King was turning to look at her. The weapon's blast tore through the viper's chest, sending it flying back to land in a mangled heap.

Twilight stood there, horrified, unable to form words or think as Sunset weakly stood up and coughed, wincing as she touched her burnt armor. The wind picked up around them and white-blue light illuminated the area where they stood over the bodies of the fallen vipers.

"Central, this is Firebrand," Sunset heard on the radio. "I have eyes on Sunset and the VIP. We have no more hostiles detected. Area is secure."

"Roger that, Firebrand," Bradford's voice responded. "Bring them home."

o.0.o End Chapter 20 o.0.o

Chapter 21: Commander

View Online

Ranger

Chapter 21: Commander

By Wanderer D

The Skyranger hovered in place as it dragged the viper bodies up into its storage area. As soon as it was in, it started moving and they both heard the big sigh of relief from the cockpit.

Sunset slumped onto her seat, across from a much more subdued Twilight. "Well…" She coughed in pain. "That was a thing…"

"You just… shot them." Twilight said weakly. When Sunset was about to reply, Twilight shook her head. "I mean… I know. I know, okay? I'm not stupid. It was you or them but… I've never… even when Sombra was destroyed he didn't…"

"Cover you in blood?" Sunset chuckled then moaned. "Ugh, don't make me laugh."

"How can you—"

"Central, this is Firebrand. VIP is secured, alien bodies have been recovered, all XCOM personnel is on-board. Returning to Avenger."

'Roger that, Firebrand, see you soon. Central out."

Twilight had gone deadly quiet.

"You gave us one hell of a scare, Sunset!" Rainbow Dash called out, which interestingly had Twilight jump in surprise, apparently shaken out of her stupor.

"Yeah, well, I gave me one hell of a scare, Dash," Sunset called, watching Twilight twitch and look from her to the cockpit. "Thanks for picking us up."

"Hell yeah!" Rainbow Dash laughed, flying them into the clouds. "What, did you expect me to leave you hanging?"

Curiosity seemed to get the better of Twilight, and she stood up, grabbing to each of the seats for stability as she made her way to the cockpit and peered in.

"I'm sorry ma'am, but VIP or not, you're not allowed in here," Dash informed her neutrally.

"I… um…" Twilight hesitated, "R-rainbow Dash? Is that you?"

The cockpit went quiet.

"Sunset, did you put her up to this?"

"I have no idea what's happening," Sunset replied, eyeing Twilight with some confusion.

"It's you? But… how… did you make it to this wo—"

Twilight was interrupted by Sunset's hand on her mouth. "Now, Twilight," Sunset hissed through the pain, "I'm sure we all want to know where you met Rainbow Dash, but, let's not say something crazy to the pilot right now okay? We can talk when we get to the base."

"Hey, no fair!" Rainbow Dash said, her tone betraying how annoyed she was.

"Sorry Dash… I'm as curious as you are about this, trust me… but it is best to wait until the Commander talks to Twilight here."

"Twilight, huh?" Rainbow Dash mulled. "Huh. That rings a bell..." she trailed off as the other two went back to sit down.

Twilight seemed truly distressed, but Sunset couldn't blame her. If her own double had existed in this world at some point… could Rainbow Dash be one of her acquaintances back in Equestria?

A sharp pain in her abdomen made her forget about Twilight for now. She grimaced and looked down at the charred armor. It had taken the brunt of the attack, thankfully, but here and there the plasma had managed to burn through to her skin, and Sunset could see blackened skin under that, brittle and oozing blood.

She gingerly put her hand on top of it and channeled her blood magic to slow down the flow even more. Then she felt it. The magic was working better than normal… she could feel the blood working and healing her and soon, after she removed her hand, the wound was all but gone.

Sunset gulped, glancing around, but Twilight was busy looking out the window, lost in thought, and Rainbow Dash was focused on the flight. Sunset touched the pocket where the Element of Magic was stored and felt her energy return.

Twilight's mind was in turmoil. When she pushed away from the amazing sight out of a giant, non-pegasi or magic propelled metallic carriage that flew through the sky, she glanced at Sunset, who seemed to be asleep.

This world was very different to her own. Below, in between clouds, she had seen vast cities, with multiple lights, but then also large areas with no indication of civilization. Not to mention the difference in species, and the willingness to fight to the death.

Sunset Shimmer was a pony… underneath that human body, and yet she had adapted so well to things here. Was that what was going to happen to her? Was she going to be out on missions… killing aliens?

The thought made Twilight shudder. The woman controlling the machine was named Rainbow Dash, just like her friend. She sounded older… but the attitude, the inflections… it was unsettling how different and similar things were.

It hadn't take long for a red light to turn on, and Rainbow Dash to speak again. "We're approaching the Avenger."

This shook Sunset awake, who blinked and shook her head, stretching a little and then, as if remembering something, she went a bit pale.

Twilight didn't ask what the issue was. She had paid attention to Sunset's interactions with the Commander, whoever that was, and knew that was the source of her… well, she wasn't really a friend, was she? Her… guide's discomfort.

She felt the force of slowing down and the now-familiar feeling of descending before the sound of metal on metal and the vibrations of contact shook their vehicle. It didn't take long for the back of it to open.

As she and Sunset stood up, she managed to catch a glimpse of night sky before they were lowered, ship and all, into a large metallic room.

"Come on," Sunset said to her, motioning with her head.

Her guide's body language was tense, and Twilight followed her hesitantly, not knowing what to expect.

A male human was waiting for them, straight back and hands behind his back. Sunset sagged in obvious relief, but quickly assumed a more formal position.

"Welcome back, Sergeant," the man said. "The Commander has ordered for you to go straight to the infirmary to have your wounds checked. I will escort Miss Sparkle to the Commander's office. We'll contact you after your checkup is complete.

"Y-yes sir!" Sunset replied, saluting. She hesitated, then lowered her arm. Twilight could see she was looking at the man in confusion.

"Um… I'm sorry, Sergeant?" Sunset asked.

The man smiled, but didn't say anything, which seemed to fluster Sunset.

"But… I mean… I didn't and then—and the Commander—"

"Sunset," the man took a step forth and put his hand on her shoulder. "You've been promoted. You are also to do as I say and go get a checkup. We can talk later, and there are a lot of things to talk about."

"Um… yeah," Sunset chuckled weakly. "I-um… yeah. I'll go…" she looked over, and Twilight tried to put on a brave face.

Sunset seemed to realize that she was nervous, and so, she smiled reassuringly. "Twilight… this is Bradford, most people here know him as Central. He's a good friend and we've been through a lot together. You can trust him."

Twilight smiled timidly at the man, who nodded reassuringly, even if he didn't smile back. There was something she had noticed when he looked at Sunset… it reminded her of her dad, and somehow, that put her at ease, more than Sunset's assurance.

"Yeah, you should go get checked, Sunset… I guess I'll see you later?"

Sunset nodded, waving at her as she headed tiredly towards what Twilight assumed would be the infirmary.

"Shall we go?" Bradford asked.

"Yes, thank you," Twilight said, falling in line behind the man as they walked. Slowly, her curiosity overwhelmed her nervousness, and she stared around herself. Everything was enclosed, but she wasn't in a castle of any sort that she could make… for one, the whole thing vibrated constantly, and everything was compartmentalized tightly. Their headquarters had strange curves to certain areas, like the place where their… airplane had landed.

Castles tended to be more open in her experience, and here there were no windows or really much space. Plenty of people, other humans, walked past them in either direction, but gave no indication of discomfort or awkwardness when moving about… which meant they were used to it and these halls she was in were the norm, not the exception. The whole place reminded her more of an anthill or a beehive.

As they walked deeper into it, she couldn't help but notice the attitude the humans had with Bradford. They all showed respect to him, stopping to let him pass even if they seemed to be in a rush. A lot of them saluted.

She hadn't been picked up by a messenger, or some random soldier… she knew enough about Equestria's military to see that similarity. They knew, somehow, that she was important. Sunset's lie about just finding her had been seen through and this Commander of theirs hadn't been fooled for a second… and Twilight felt that Sunset knew it too.

So they knew she was important, but did they know she was a princess? It was then that it clicked. "Oh no… my cr-my Element!"

Bradford stopped and looked back at her. "What is it, miss Sparkle?"

"My Element, Sunset, she…"

"Ah, yes. Don't worry, Sunset is not going anywhere, and with her being here, you know where to find her, right? Now, follow me, the Commander is waiting."

They continued their way up until two people approached them. The bigger one was wearing full armor, but even more telling, his facial features were somewhat… reptilian. The eyes were yellow and slitted, and his skin was pale with some sort of nodes around his jaw. The other was a normal, if intense-looking woman with a dark brown cloak around her head.

"Ah, Bradford," the man spoke up first, his voice strange with almost an echo around his words. "We heard that we had found and retrieved Sunset Shimmer," he grinned. "This is most rewarding. Tell me, is she in good health?"

"She is, Mox," Bradford replied, unable to hide a bit of relief in his voice. "We thought she had been more seriously injured, but she was able to walk properly when I greeted her. She is on her way to the infirmary."

"And this one?" the woman asked, studying Twilight almost hungrily. "We heard Sunset had found… someone, but I can't believe a… teenager like her would have been able to hide or survive long enough in the city we were in."

Bradford straightened. "That is confidential at this time, Miss Dragunova," Bradford replied. "Eventually the Commander will brief all pertinent personnel on the situation."

The woman snorted. "Volk said I was to comply." She leaned away, and it was then that Twilight realized she had made herself as small as possible behind Bradford.

"Then we will part ways for now, Bradford," Mox replied with a nod at Twilight as well. "We shall check on Sunset ourselves."

Bradford watched them go and shook his head in mild amusement before motioning for Twilight to follow her again.

Twilight followed Bradford through the hallway until they reached a set of stairs at the end of it, passing several interesting-looking rooms full of machinery which she could only imagine the purpose of, and sometimes not even that.

This whole world where Sunset had brought her was full of things she would have thought impossible without magic, and despite the labyrinthian, hive-like feeling of the place Rainbow Dash had called 'The Avenger', and the horror of seeing living creatures torn apart violently by weapons she barely understood, Twilight found herself more intrigued than horrified.

The stairwell was built for efficiency and little else. It had no decorations, and was made of simple metal parts, much different than the stylized staircases of Equestria, where even the ones in homes were made welcoming, rather than simply utilitarian, but these humans seemed to have little incentive for a welcoming design.

They went upstairs, to the top, where a small hallway ended in a door, behind which she would finally meet the infamous Commander.

Twilight took a deep breath, then followed Bradford in.

It was not a room… yet. The door opened onto a small balcony that overlooked a room far larger than the others, except for where the Skyranger was stored. However, this room had several people working different machines, and most impressively a huge map of what could only be the planet they were in, rendered out of blue light, like an illusionary spell of some sort, but created by machines.

Bradford let her admire the room, before gently guiding her to the end of the balcony, where a metal door slid open to finally reveal the commander's quarters.

The room was a lot more decorated than anything she'd seen so far. A red, torn flag hung from the back wall, next to a large bed. The center of the room had a table with two curved couches on either side of a central chair, and—Twilight was excited to notice—two bookshelves stacked with a healthy amount of books.

A glass display had a picture of Bradford and two other individuals, a male and a female, a couple of models similar in design to the Skyranger that had picked her up, as well as a skull of some sort at the bottom.

The Commander herself was facing away from them, concentrating on information flashing fast on a large screen on the other side of the room. Several images appeared and stacked one over the other as text of some sort also appeared there.

"Commander," Bradford spoke up. "I've brought Miss Sparkle as requested."

"Good," the Commander said, and her voice nagged a little at Twilight. There was something familiar, the authority and the tinge of aggressiveness as well as dangerous intellect… it was all very familiar.

"Please take a seat," the Commander said, turning around and locking her green eyes with Twilight. "Welcome to XCOM, princess. We have much to discuss, after all, it's not every day we host a princess."

Twilight gaped. It all made sense. The familiarity of the voice… why it had made her think of some sort of royalty when she hadn't been able to see her… the kind of mind that could control a place like this.

Twilight sat down slowly on one of the couches, still staring at the Commander, unable to speak.

"What's wrong?" the Commander asked, blinking in slight confusion at Twilight's open mouthed double-take.

"I-I just… you're..."

She watched Chrysalis walk around the opposite couch to sit down across from her, a smile—not malignant, not vicious, but still inducing nervousness in Twilight—playing on the edge of her mouth.

"Yes, I'm the Commander. Nice to meet you too."

o.0.o End Chapter 21 o.0.o

Chapter 22: Conversations

View Online

Ranger

Chapter 22: Conversations

By Wanderer D

Jane found Dash at the bar, looking at the frame of herself and her old friends.

"Something seems to be bothering you," Jane opened with, going around the bar to pour herself a drink. She ignored Dash's snort when she chose a single malt over bourbon.

Once her drink was ready, she walked back around to sit next to the pilot. "What's going on?"

Dash didn't answer immediately, merely concentrating on the picture. "You know, now that we found my friend Fluttershy, all of them are accounted for?"

Jane didn't answer, but looked at Dash, motioning for her to continue.

"AJ died early on… she was part of a team I dropped off in Germany… I—" Dash shuddered, tightening her grip on the glass so much that Jane was afraid it would break, but slowly and visibly the pilot forced herself to release it. "I was on overwatch in the Skyranger, it was raining, I remember that… she had just made Sergeant. Heh. Just like Sunset."

Dash gulped and licked her lips. "Nakamoto was… he was a bit rash, I-don't want to hate him… but he just didn't follow orders. AJ told him to hold his position, we had scanned the area from the base, we knew there were Mechtoids around… you don't see those guys anymore, I guess that's good… anyway, we had managed to drop them off concealed.

"Coleman had spotted a couple of mutons, and AJ had climbed on top of a train… she had a perfect view. I knew her… I knew what she was thinking. She was going to ambush them, funnel them into leaving cover and shoot them down… but Nakamoto, he just… ran into this house, I don't even know why, maybe he heard something or panicked."

The ice clicked in her glass as it melted.

"He found the Mechtoid unit and… he didn't even have time to shout, one moment he was fine, the next he was running over to AJ, live plasma grenade in hand."

Rainbow Dash went quiet.

"Mind-controlled?"

Dash nodded. "He blew up my best friend." She took another drink. "Nakamura died instantly too… Coleman, who was about to ambush the mutons as ordered, found herself two versus one with only a tree to protect her. Morales panicked, he ran out of cover straight into the Mechtoid. It didn't even shoot at him, it… pummeled him into a paste. I could only hear them scream, Kelly… I wanted to go back, I could hear one channel active… it was AJ. I could hear her breathing fast and… and it sounded wet, I think it was the blood…"

Dash took a deep, ragged breath. "I don't know what happened to Rarity after she moved into the new cities. She probably married, had a kid… but she was never into the fights. Pinkie… she went over to Hope's Lake... it, uh… it wasn't one of ADVENTs favorite places. It was razed to the ground… she had-h-had an inn of sorts, she never…" Dash trailed off. "I'm sorry, I… I can't."

Jane grimaced. Dash wasn't crying but she had closed her eyes and was obviously in pain over the memories.

"A-anyway," Dash eventually continued. "It's stupid, but this kid that Sunset managed to find…"

"I heard... " Jane muttered, mood darkening. "It makes no sense."

"No, no it doesn't… but she knew me," Dash said softly. "I don't know how… she looked familiar so, I was trying to figure out who she was… I couldn't remember meeting a teenager like her and I would remember that, she stands out like a Nimbostratus on a sunny day. Maybe someone's kid? But… I feel like I at least met her at some point, if that makes sense?"

"Not really," Jane said, with a sigh as she pondered the issue. "Ever since we rescued the Commander, things around Sunset haven't been… as black and white as before. She had that conversation with the Commander while she was in the hospital and… it just seems like now the Chosen have a thing for her… calling her blood witch and such, and whoever it is that's controlling the things Dr. Vahlen created also wants to hunt her down. I feel like I'm missing something big, and I don't like it."

"I hear you…" Rainbow Dash sighed. "Twilight Sparkle… why does the name sound so familiar?"

"Hm, you're healing remarkably well," Tygan said.

"Uh, thanks," Sunset said, holding her shirt up to right under her breasts and glancing uncomfortably at the attention the Avenger's scientist was giving her.

"Do not worry, Sunset, I think I am done cleaning what was left to clean on the wound. The skin is still very damaged, however, so make sure to apply the balm I've given you for at least a couple of weeks."

"Um, thanks, doctor, but why exactly are you doing this instead of the nurse?"

Tygen smiled. "Professional curiosity, nothing more. You have displayed substantial healing speed, well beyond that of your peers here, and recent developments have opened my eyes to new possibilities in the field of healing."

"I see…"

"In any case, I see you have visitors, so I will let them speak to you and take my leave," Tygan said, straightening up. "Miss Shimmer," he nodded, and left.

"I see you are healing well," Elena said, approaching the bed where Sunset was sitting. "I heard you were injured while fighting the Viper King before you took it out."

"A most impressive feat," Mox added, nodding with a smile. "I heard that Dr. Tygan was very eager to start on his autopsy."

"Ugh, don't remind me," Sunset said, grimacing. "I completely missed a point-blank shot, it was embarrassing."

"Don't feel bad," the nurse, who had just walked in, patted her on the shoulder. "That's just XCOM."

"Yeah. Thanks."

The nurse grinned and went over to the other side of the room to check on other patients, while Sunset watched. "Where's Jane?"

"Last I heard she was looking for Rainbow Dash." Elena shrugged. "But Central has already set a time for debriefing of the last mission. Many things went wrong that shouldn't have."

"Tell me about it," Sunset groaned. She searched the infirmary, until her eyes found the person she was looking for.

Following her gaze, Mox smirked. "It seems you are well and our worry was unfounded—"

"I wasn't worried." Elena looked at both of them defiantly, daring them to disagree.

"Right." Mox cleared his throat. "In any case, we came here to see how you were feeling. I believe we have established you are in decent health and able to attend the meeting later."

Elena shrugged. "We will let you be for now, Sunset Shimmer." Her eyes narrowed. "But once things have calmed down you and I are going to have some practice in the firing range."

"Um… yes." Sunset shifted, unable to dispute the sudden training session with the Reaper.

"Good. We will see you soon," Elena said. "Although you might not see us."

"That… is creepy."

Elena said nothing, turning around and walking out of the infirmary, followed by a thoroughly amused Pratal Mox.

Sunset chuckled a little, then slid off the bed and walked over to where the nurse was checking on Laetitia. By the time she reached the Templar, she wasn't smiling.

"Any change?" Sunset took a seat on the chair next to the bed.

The nurse shook her head. "She's still unconscious… it's a miracle she survived, Corp—I mean, Sergeant."

Sunset shook her head. "What's the point of that if… this happens to one of my team? First Paula, now Laetitia…"

"I'll let you talk to her for a bit, Sergeant," the nurse said, finishing her check up and turning to leave. "Don't stress yourself too much, you are wounded as well, even if Dr. Tygan says you are fit to walk around."

"Right, thanks," Sunset muttered, waiting for her to leave, before turning to look at the comatose woman. Not too long ago, their places had been reversed.

Sunset could feel a faint psychic wave coming from Laetitia, which gave her hope. If her friend was gone, there would be no energy flux. "I… I don't know if you can hear me," she said after a moment, reaching out to hold her friend's hand. "I'm not sure what happened… I was… out of action while everything went down. I can feel you in there, Laetitia you Celestia-damned tease. I want you back, okay? What will I tell Geist if you don't wake up?"

Sunset was interrupted by a beep from her communicator. She looked down at the message and sighed, standing up.

She remained silent, simply holding Laetitia's hand. "You're the only one of my team that knows about me." She took a deep breath. "And I have so much more to tell you… come back to us soon, okay?"

She gave Laetitia's hand a squeeze and headed out. She had a meeting with the Commander.

The door slid open and Sunset stepped in, saluting. "Cor-ahem, Sergeant Shimmer reporting."

"At ease, Sergeant," Commander Chrysalis said, motioning for Sunset to join Twilight on the couch. There were others there as well; Bradford, naturally, as well as Tygan and Shen. "Please take a seat, we have much to discuss."

Sunset nodded, looking curiously at the Commander as she followed instructions. Chrysalis noticed that. "Do you want to ask something, Sergeant?"

"Um, a lot of things, ma'am," Sunset said, sitting down. "But if I may be blunt… you're a lot nicer than last time."

"Ah yes," Chrysalis leaned back. "There were many revelations during your last mission, your absence and upon your return."

"I see," Sunset said, glancing at Twilight.

"Oh, don't blame her," Chrysalis shrugged. "I learned a lot from your interactions with the Chosen, and then your discussions with Twilight here once you were back. We found out much about you while on your VIP mission. You should have seen Tygan's face when you admitted you were actually an alien." She smiled. "What I didn't know, was that you weren't just an alien… but a unicorn from another dimension, intimately related to the governing body of said dimension and an exile and traitor."

"Wait…" Shen sputtered. "A unicorn?! For real?"

Chrysalis ignored her. "It was interesting to learn as well that when the Chosen Assassin, and later the Hunter called you a 'Blood Witch', it wasn't a nickname, but an actual title… a title that, according to Princess Twilight here, would make you a criminal back in your home world."

Sunset looked down. She couldn't be angry at Twilight, as much as she wanted to. The fact was that it was true and the only reason she was here was that Sunset herself had screwed up.

"Blood magic is extremely dangerous, Sunset!" Twilight sputtered out, unable to contain herself. "It's a miracle that you're sane as it is! Didn't you know this when you learned about it? Didn't Pri—"

"I was a different… person back then," Sunset said slowly. "I stole that book because I thought it would give me power. I learned it on this side of the mirror—from scratch, without a horn and using just my personal reserves. You've seen how hard it is to even… conjure light. When I saw the kind of world I was in… it became a huge bonus, even if the spells I can use are only two of over twenty."

"At what cost, Sunset?" Twilight asked softly.

Sunset sighed, not meeting her eyes.

"Regardless, I have no doubt left about your loyalty now," Chrysalis said, her voice calm. "And… now your similarities to my old friend are also explained…" she chuckled. "I never expected you to be her… just from another dimension."

"However, there are some things that we need to deal with right now," Bradford said. "Sunset, you hid valuable information from all of us, information that, were we aware of, could have been used to help us all in this war… but also to prevent certain dangers. I'm sure you're wondering how Laetitia was injured…"

Sunset looked up. "I—wasn't that during our last mission? I assumed a shot or, or the explosion.."

"At 1803 hours today, you were thrown by an explosion caused by the Hunter," Tygan spoke up this time. "I have examined the video and the readings. The moment you crossed the mirror, a wave of energy, similar, but not exactly psychic, resonated through the field…."

A look of horrified comprehension slowly dawned on Sunset's face as the doctor continued. "...Templar Laetitia, who was closest to the mirror simply collapsed on the spot, unmoving, while the Hunter and the Assassin were observed to be thrown back as if a physical force had hit them, even at a considerable distance. This allowed Firebrand to get closer and pick up the rest of your team. Pratal Mox carried Laetitia with him up to the Skyranger."

"So you're saying that… that it was—" Sunset felt sick. "Oh Celestia… it was me… t-that did that…"

She felt Twilight's hand on her shoulder, and suddenly Bradford was kneeling across from her, hands on her shoulders. "Look at me, Sunset, it was an accident. Take a deep breath and think the situation through."

Slowly, she was able to slow down her breathing. The urge to throw up faded and she was left shaking. Dr. Tygan replaced Bradford, giving her a quick check up. "It's just faded adrenaline now," he said. "The panic attack has rescinded."

"While it's important to remember that that incident was not your fault… another issue could be, if we don't deal with it now," Chrysalis said, locking her eyes with Sunset. "Show us the Element of Magic you stole from Princess Sparkle."

o.0.o End Chapter 22 o.0.o

Chapter 23: Letters

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Ranger

Chapter 23: Letters

By Wanderer D

"Sister, if you continue pacing as you are, you will wear a hole onto the marble floor." Princess Luna gave her sister a level look. "You already teleported all the way to Canterlot and back, sister, don't tire yourself more."

Celestia glared at Luna. They had moved the mirror, under guard, to the courtroom, where it had several warding spells around it, and remained under constant watch from the Crystal Empire guards while they discussed the new developments.

"I am worried, Luna, for both Sunset and Twilight."

"I still don't get why you'd be worried about Sunset," Rainbow Dash spoke up, ignoring the look Celestia gave her by virtue of looking at the others for support. "I mean, she didn't seem like she needed help protecting herself."

"Well, dear, it's been over eight hours since our dear Twilight got tackled into the mirror," Rarity said. "It's only natural that the Princess would be worried for Twilight and… Sunset."

"What Ah want to know is why none of us can go after them!" Applejack growled, slamming her hoof down on the table. "However dangerous it might be, we've handled plenty of problems of our own! Ah say we can handle whatever is happening on the other side of that mirror!"

"Well, do remember what happened to poor Spike when he tried to rush the mirror…" Fluttershy said, rubbing the head of the morose dragon, who was sitting next to her. "The Princess did say that the portal was closed somehow."

"I just hope they have good food on the other side!" Pinkie said, with a smile. "I don't know why but I really, really want to go there and set up a restaurant! Oooh! Or an Inn! Pinkie's Traveler's Delights!" She giggled. "Free donuts with your coffee!"

Princess Cadance smiled weakly. "I'm sure they would love that, Pinkie."

"Princess Celestia," Shining Armor spoke up next, looking at the princess with a grimace of frustration. "Is there really no way of opening the portal?"

"I'm afraid not, Shining," Celestia sighed. "All we can do now is wait."

"So, what's the deal with the vibrating book, then?" Rainbow Dash asked.

In an instant, Princess Celestia was next to them, her magic opening the diary to its last page. With bated breath everypony gathered around her, staring at the pages as slowly a message appeared.

Princess Celestia,

Twilight is safe. She came in during a very dangerous situation, in a very dangerous place. I cannot emphasize the dangers of attempting travel right now, so she will remain with me for the time being.

Right now, she's getting settled in… she doesn't know about the diary yet, but I will let her write to you as soon as possible. I know you must be worried sick. Try not to drill a hole in the marble floor again.

This drew a snort from Luna and a giggle from Pinkie. There was a pause before the writing continued.

Much has happened since we arrived… I think it'll be best for Twilight to fill you up on that whole situation… my word alone is probably not enough to erase your worries… but I'll be honest, you should be worried. This world is not Equestria, Princess, and no one is safe here… although I guess Twilight is as safe as anyone could be.

You should be proud of her. Even though she was understandably scared, and thrown into a scenario completely outside her experience, she pulled herself together with aplomb. She's fairly quick in learning things and… surprisingly forgiving and kind.

The group smiled at those words.

I have to say, however, that you should make sure that Cadance is put under some sort of military basic training if Twilight is anything to go by. As it is, Twilight will have to go through basic training here, if only to better handle herself in those situations.

While I'll be the first to admit that her interference saved my life, my mission from the point when we came out of the mirror to the moment when we reached the base, was to protect her life and well-being.

I'm grateful to her, princess, I truly am… she arguably distracted a dangerous foe from splattering my brains and melting my face with plasma… but I had ordered her explicitly to ignore my own danger and get to safety and that situation could have ended very badly indeed if she and I hadn't both been as lucky as we were.

Cadance winced and Shining Armor shook his head as most of Twilight's friends gasped in horror, although there was a low 'cool!' among the gasps which sounded conspicuously like Rainbow Dash.

I can only feel for your guards if that's the attitude they have to deal with. It probably causes more alarm than reassurance. I'm surprised they're not more paranoid.

The group turned to look at Shining, who glanced around and snorted. "It's true."

I should go now, I have a mission debriefing, training and officer classes to attend… they keep me busy here. I'll take the diary to Twilight… I hope she respects my wishes to not read my previous messages… I'm not proud of them.

-Sunset

PS. I got promoted to Sergeant. I can't help but feel I didn't deserve it.

PPS. Please tell Princess Luna that I'm sorry I used a cheap trick to escape the fight, and that I knew she was strong enough to take it. I hope I didn't do any lasting damage… she's very pretty and I was kind of vicious, so I'd hate myself if I really hurt her at all.

PPPS. Give my sincere apologies to the Captain of the Guard for what I did to his troops. If they're interested, I have some observations I could share if I ever get the chance to go back there.

The room was quiet for a bit.

"I think Princess Luna is blushing!"

"Pinkie!" Rarity hissed. "Don't bring more attention to it!"

"Yes, well." Princess Luna straightened up. "The Blood Witch has much to answer for, and compliments will not compensate for the trouble she's caused."

"So Sunset Shimmer is part of this other world's military?" Shining Armor shook his head. "That's a bit of a relief, but also worries me."

Cadance looked at him. "How so?"

"Well, for one, it explains her willingness to engage guards in combat, but her restraint when it came to Twilight and her friends," Shining explained, pacing around the table as he thought. "I was worried that she was just violent, but now I'm starting to see her rules of engagement."

"Eh, we could have taken her," Rainbow Dash said, waving her hoof dismissively.

"Maybe." Shining looked thoughtful. "But the bottom line is she avoided conflict with civilians. The language in her message right now shows that she cares about our military as well, not sure how much or in what way… but if I had been the one to do what she did and gotten away with what appears to be such little effort…" He shrugged. "Let's just say, if I was her, I'd be annoyed if I still held some loyalty to Equestria."

He sighed, looking at the diary with some frustration. "I'm also glad she protected Twilight and is going to make sure she gets some basic training… but at the same time, it means my little sister is at best a guest, at worst a prisoner for a military group which might or might not conscript her into service. And I don't like that idea."

"It didn't sound like Sunset was too eager to risk Twilight either," Cadance said, placing a comforting hoof on her husband's shoulder. "Let's see what Twilight has to say."

Shining sighed. "It doesn't help that they now have the Element of Magic… how hard would it be for them to weaponize it?" Shining shook his head. "What do you think, Princess Celestia?"

Celestia closed her eyes and took a deep breath. "We will have to trust Sunset Shimmer for the time being. I'm glad my student seems to have found a cause, and that her priority was to protect her successor. For now, we wait."

Twilight glanced around the small room she had been assigned.

"I'm sorry the accommodations are not ideal," Tygan said. "As most certainly a new branch of study should have much more modern equipment, but, I have personally found the challenge of working with less equipment much more rewarding… if a little frustrating."

"Oh, no, I think this will be enough, after all, most of the stuff I'll be working on at first will be theoretical…" Twilight said, walking up to the desk that took the whole back of the room. "Are you sure you're not going to do anything to the Element of Magic?"

Tygan cleared his throat, still uncomfortable with the concepts that they had discussed. "I think it is for the best. If we didn't have you or Sunset here, I would suggest a more… direct approach to learning about this artifact, but why risk causing major damage to the Avenger, when we have a veritable expert of this new field as a guest?"

"Hehe, I guess…"

"Good," Tygan said. "I will be back later with a schedule… as much as I would like to avoid it, Sergeant Shimmer's insistence on running you by basic training with the newest recruits might not be such a bad idea, given our… different… lifestyles."

"I'm sure she's just looking out for me."

"Yes, a most curious development," Tygan acknowledged with a shrug. "In any case, I will have your equipment delivered here soon. Now, if you'll excuse me, I have a new specimen to examine."

Twilight watched Tygan walk away deeper into the lab, which was probably the second largest room in the Avenger, then turned around and sat on her chair, sliding her hands through her hair. How had she gotten herself into all of this?

Not only did she have a new body, but she had joined a rebel force under the command of Chrysalis herself!

A knock on the door made her turn around. She almost sighed in relief when she noticed it was Sunset. "Oh, hey Sunset."

"Hey yourself," Sunset replied, walking into the room. "Your own office, huh? Nice. I only got a small desk and my locker."

"Sorry…" Twilight sighed, looking down.

"Nah, the barracks are good," Sunset replied. "Besides… I um, got you something that you can use."

Twilight watched curiously as Sunset revealed a large, bound tome with decidedly Equestrian design.

"This is my diary," Sunset explained. "It can… still communicate with Equestria. I let everypony there know you were okay, and promised that you could talk to them with it, but… I want you to promise me you won't read anything before the bookmark. It is my diary, after all."

Twilight gasped, looking from the diary to Sunset and back. "I-I couldn't! I mean, it must contain so many thoughts an—"

"Twilight, it's okay," Sunset insisted. "Just… please don't read anything before that, okay? Besides, I'm sure they're all worried and would rather hear from you than from me."

"Thank you…" Twilight said, her own emotions piling up. She could talk to her friends! To the princess! To her brother!

"Anyway, I should go. I'll pick it up later, um, I won't read what you write if you don't want me to, just let me know, okay?"

"I will," Twilight replied. She felt a smile grow in her face and moved forward to embrace Sunset, who stiffened under the unexpected hug. "And thank you, really… you don't know what it means to me."

"Yeah… well, um. Training. I'll see you later, okay?"

"Oh my! It's vibrating again!" Fluttershy squeaked. "Um… girls? Girls? GIRLS!"

"Oooh! I bet it's Twilight!" Pinkie cried, hopping over, while Celestia, Luna and the others approached as well.

"There is but one way to find out," Luna said, flipping the pages open.

Dear Princess Celestia, can you read this?

"Well, that certainly reads like a Twilight introduction," Celestia said, relief evident in her voice. She levitated a quill, dipped it in ink and wrote back:

'I'm here, Twilight. So are your friends, your brother, your sister-in-law and Princess Luna.'

Oh, wow, it really works! I was worried… well, I didn't think Sunset would lie to me but… I don't know how much time I have to myself right now, Dr. Tygan—that's the lead scientist here, he's very, very smart!—said they were working on my schedule. I have orientation and some basic training with recently recruited cadets, although I'm going to be working in the lab… I guess Sunset wasn't very comfortable with how I handled myself, so she insisted I get some basic training to better be able to defend myself.

I don't even know where to begin. I'm okay? I guess? When we came through the portal, we became something different. I have hands now.... they're like, claws, basically, although I'm not used to them yet… so I'm sorry if my hoofwriting is less than ideal, but I'm using my mouth to write right now.

Anyway, as I said, we changed into things called humans. It turns out that this world was invaded by aliens… I haven't had a chance to study much of the history, but at least from the human side of things, it appears that the invaders destroyed several cities and then conquered the world when the governments surrendered.

Sunset became part of this resistance group, XCOM, which was the last line of defense they had 20 years ago before their Commander was betrayed and captured… The Commander is okay now; Sunset, a man named Bradford and others rescued her and she's… well, there's no other way to put it, she's Chrysalis in human form… just not her. Or at least not the one we know.

This gave pause to everypony. Cadance and Shining Armor exchanged worried glances. "I... hope that Twilight is careful around her," Cadance said softly. "Even if she's not the same..."

This Chrysalis is… very focused, concerned about her troops, knowledgeable and intelligent. Not that I ever thought Queen Chrysalis wasn't smart, but this one… it's different, and I'm glad the Commander is not someone we had as an enemy. She took over XCOM when she was assigned to fight the alien invasion, but the aliens managed to convince several governments and organizations to surrender, even when XCOM was holding its own. Chrysalis is not the only one here that has a counterpart. I met a Rainbow Dash, also older, who pilots a large metallic chariot that flies without magic… they call it the Skyranger. I didn't get a chance to talk to her much, but it was comforting to see one of my old friends here. I wonder how the others are doing?

"An older me?!" Rainbow Dash grinned, pushing the others out of the way so she could re-read that. "That's awesome! I bet she's the best pilot in that world!"

"Whoa there, Nelly," Applejack said. "Does that mean we all have... hooman... versions of ourselves there?"

"It certainly appears to be the case," Celestia said.

It turns out that there was another Sunset Shimmer here too, twenty years ago, and she was very close to the Commander. She might have been part of XCOM too, although Chrysalis didn't really go into detail… she died at some point… I don't know how.

Celestia trailed off and the others shared concerned looks. Cadance gave Shining a hug, who sighed and returned it. "It's not the Sunset we know."

"I know," Cadance whispered. "But... even if she wasn't a friend... I know it's not her, just... what came to my mind was her, lying still...

"It's okay," Shining responded, brushing through her mane with his hoof.

"Well, it is a world at war..." Rarity spoke up, shaky. "I-I wonder how many of us... over there are still, well, there?"

"Aww, I'm sure we're all okay!" Pinkie Pie said, hugging her friends. Her smile faded a little. "Nopony could tear us apart, right?!"

"Please continue, sister," Luna said, giving the girls a pitying look.

It's not a happy place here. Soldiers go out in missions and they don't come back. Or they get seriously injured… I heard little of what happened during Sunset's last mission… they were attacked by what appears to be the worst the aliens had at hoof, and one of her team members got seriously injured. Sunset is trying to be optimistic, but I can tell how much it bothers her.

Celestia stopped reading for a moment and sighed. "When she was here, Sunset was very worried about what was going on on the other side of the mirror... no wonder..."

"Hark, sister," Luna said softly. "Even if Sunset had good reasons to rush back there, we are not mind-readers. Feeling guilt for what happened is not going to help anypony."

"The Princess is right," Shining Armor said. "Those soldiers knew the risks and Sunset's visit was apparently an accident, more than a planned effort. None of the blame is on us, and I think Sunset knows that well enough."

"I suppose so," Celestia nodded, her sad eyes returning to the book. "Let's continue reading."

Backtracking a little, when we arrived, the first thing I noticed is that my magic didn't work anymore. That was very scary, and the lack of a horn makes it really hard to envision how to make things work… Sunset told me that it took her over a year of constant practice to be able to get her magic working when she wanted, and even then, she's always had to use her personal reserves, so her spellwork has to be limited to either emergency spells or very low-output effects.

I have a few theories already on how this works, and I will be discussing them with her and Dr. Tygan. It is difficult and scary to not have my magic as readily as I'd like, but I'm confident that with her assistance, I should be able to cast spells of my own without much trouble. She used some visualization techniques to achieve her control that I'm sure I can use as well. Other than our personal reserves and the Element of Magic, magic itself is very scarce here, but another energy does dominate the spectrum… there are several empaths and psychics around, although according to Sunset, the mixture of said energies is very… volatile.

However, Dr. Tygan believes we can use that to disrupt alien communications… I know it might not seem smart throwing my lot into this, but my gut feeling is that they are honestly trying to save Earth—that's the name of the planet—from the aliens.

I hope I can go home soon.

But I'm not alone… and thanks to Sunset, I can talk to all of you at least.

Anyway, I can see Dr. Tygan coming this way, I guess I should go. Give my love to everypony there, and I'll try to write again soon!

~TS

o.0.o End Chapter 23 o.0.o

Chapter 24: History

View Online

Ranger

Chapter 24: History

By Wanderer D

Twilight, now wearing a dark green jumpsuit with several pockets, one with a patch replica of XCOM's logo right above her right breast, a heavy belt around her waist with a curiously shaped harness Tygan had called a holster, and heavy black boots instead of her school uniform, followed Tygan down the small halls of the Avenger into one of the back rooms.

Getting into the uniform had been a struggle, and it had taken Sunset a long time the previous night to train Twilight on dressing and undressing herself in this new body. But it had paid off, and she had been ready in the morning by the time her immediate superior had shown up to guide her.

While walking behind him, Twilight couldn't help but notice an obvious, painful-looking scar on the back of his head, but chose not to mention anything to him. Maybe she could ask Sunset later.

"And here we are, miss Sparkle," Tygan said. "I expect you took note on the way to get here, as I will be unable to provide guidance here in future occasions."

"No problem, Doctor! I got it!"

"Excellent, I wish you luck, Twilight, and after your training, please join me in the lab, we have a generalized test for you to take."

"Oh! A test!" Twilight grinned. "I can't wait! Well... wait, is this going to count towards my score? Because if that's the case, then I—" she stopped when Tygan raised a hand.

"Don't worry, it is a general knowledge test. It will simply help me ascertain your level of knowledge about other fields beyond…" he looked around. "Your area of expertise."

"Right, right," Twilight chuckled. "Sorry."

"No problem, miss Sparkle."

Twilight watched Dr. Tygan walk away before turning to face the door and taking a deep breath. She then pressed the pad that made the hydraulic doors open, and stepped inside.

It resembled a small classroom, down to the desks. Right across from the door was a larger desk, presumably for the instructor, and against the wall behind that desk, was a large screen. There were other people there already: all human, four males and two females. That left three open seats, so Twilight smiled nervously at the calculating looks the others were giving her and sat down at the front.

"...so anyway," one of the women spoke up, as the group relaxed, "...that's how I got here."

The others chuckled, and she turned to face Twilight. "Sorry about that reception, we thought you might've been the instructor. We were told there were only six recruits. Name's Monique Berger, from France, the other gal here is Alejandra Acevedo, from Mexico; guy behind you is Albert Ndlovu from South Africa, and to Alejandra's right, that's Michael Cruz, from Texas, right?"

When she got a nod, she continued. "The guy next to me is Kevin…"

"Just Kevin."

"Right. Just Kevin. From Canada, I think." Monique rolled her eyes. "Dude behind him is Josh Rosenbrook, from the USA as well, and the last one is Gabriel Santos from Brazil."

"Um, hello everyp...one!" Twilight smiled nervously. "Um, I'm Twilight, I come from… New Haven," she said, following Sunset's story. It didn't feel right lying to them but…

"And hello all of you, I am Robert Bree," a voice said from the front and all of them turned, startled, to look at the man sitting behind the desk, legs up on it and grinning at them. "Code name Galahad, and it is my pleasure to welcome you all to my class."

"How—"

"Ah, ah, Miss Berger, secrets of the trade."

Robert let the students take that in before sitting upright. "Now that we have gotten the introductions out of the way in a most effective manner, it falls to me to give you the basic information you will need to be part of XCOM.

"Now, most of you were recruited due to your splendid work in local guerillas and were therefore recommended for our organization. The first thing I will say, given previous experience, is to forget all you know about how you are supposed to fight aliens."

"But sir, with all due respect, our skills—"

"Just Kevin, was it?" Robert leaned forward. "I get it mate, you have killed aliens before. Most people here have. But our tactics are not guerilla tactics, as much as dark ops missions. We're just going to cover a few things today, starting with history, current affairs and ending with a video."

He leaned back again. "But first, let's review a couple of things. How much do you know about XCOM? Yes Miss Acevedo, I see your hand. Go ahead."

"XCOM was established to fight the aliens at the beginning of the century, you fought a good fight but were eventually defe—"

"Bzzt!" Robert said, pretending to be a buzzer. "Incorrect for the most part, miss Acevedo. Anyone else?"

When no one raised their hand, he nodded, pressing a button and starting a presentation on the screen behind him. "Alright duckies, pay attention because I'm only going to explain all of this once.

"XCOM dates back to the 1960s, when none other than US President Kennedy himself, started the program under a different name: The United States Bureau of Strategic Emergency Command, or USSECOM. Either way it was a mouthful. Even back then, there were some alien incursions, and it's been established that the Elders' interest in Earth goes back even further than that."

"If there was already a threat before, why did they wait until then to create something like that?"

"A good question, Mr. Ndlovu. The answer is there were probably others, but they are unrelated to our history. I'm fairly certain the Chinese, Russians and Germans had their own teams handling this as well. However, it was the USSECOM that evolved, survived the Cold War, and in the 90s became XCOM.

"Most countries around the world sat down at levels of security that escape modern comprehension, and drafted a plan; pooling all their knowledge of prior alien encounters, to create an organization to fight a possible alien invasion.

"Needless to say," Robert sighed. "It happened. That's when we came in. The aliens officially started their attack in the year 2012, and that's where I and the other surviving members of XCOM came in."

The screen changed and a picture of four people appeared, one of them, Twilight recognized as Bradford, although much younger looking and wearing a light green sweater. He was standing next to two people, a tall, fair skinned woman with blond hair tied in a bun, and an elderly, balding man. Both of them wore lab coats. The last person was Chrysalis herself, looking a bit younger, and wearing a formal-looking uniform.

"The man in the middle is Bradford, you can address him as Central. He was set to be the Second in Command for the whole operation, directly under the lady with the dark green hair, who is the legendary Commander of XCOM. And she is a legend, don't ever doubt that. By the time she was assigned command of XCOM, she had done many, many missions, involving fighting the alien activity, as well as reaching the rank of Lieutenant Commander before taking over. She is no laughing matter. The last two were the heads of the Science and Engineering teams back in the day: Dr. Vahlen and Dr. Shen.

"Now, I know what a lot of people say in different factions out there… that we were defeated, or that we gave up…" Robert looked at everyone in the room with a steady, cold glare. "We were not. The commander had pushed us to the brink of success: we destroyed a giant spaceship. We discovered psionics; in fact, the Commander's best friend was one of the first ones and she—"

Robert caught himself and settled back. "I'm sorry, it is a sore spot for a lot of us old timers. Word of advice, don't ask any of the original team what happened on the Temple Ship." He took a deep breath. "Unfortunately, blowing the Elders' castle wasn't enough, as through alien-aligned entities like EXALT and others, the aliens managed to convince the world's governments to surrender… and to betray us. The Commander was captured, and the ones of us who survived were spread all over the world."

Robert was silent for a moment, then flipped through the pictures, showing old cities being destroyed and replaced with the ADVENT ones. "The aliens slowly destroyed our cultures, and built cities to replace our own on top of the ashes of the old ones. As most of you know, those that were not content to remain under alien rule left to live in the wilds, joining settlements.

Another picture, this one showing an ADVENT vehicle dropping off supplies to the colonies. Everything on the picture was perfect: smiling faces, sunny day, adults and children alike flocking to the ADVENT troopers handing out food, clothes and even a flower from one officer to a little girl.

"The Elders sold their message to the masses. In the cities, things are controlled, and disappearances are blamed on dissident groups. They pretend to be tolerant of those who want to live outside their government, giving the image of peace-keepers and champions of justice not only to us humans, but also feeding that to their own troops, according to what the Skirmishers have informed us… but the reality…"

The picture changed, and Twilight fought back a gasp. ADVENT troops were shooting down unarmed people, burning their homes and piling bodies. "They did the exact opposite. And they blamed it all on us freedom fighters.

"It took almost twenty years for XCOM to resurface," Robert continued, changing the pictures of death and destruction to an outside picture of the Avenger. "Dr. Shen, Dr. Vahlen and others worked tirelessly to find this ship, and then to transform it into what it is today. Dr. Vahlen assisted Shen in finding it and went underground… we didn't hear of her for a few years until recently, and Dr. Shen passed away shortly after the Avenger went operational. His legacy was taken over by our new Dr. Shen, who is his daughter, which brings me to…"

He switched the picture. "The current state of affairs. So that's that for history, now we get to the current affairs and a list of people you don't want to piss off. Remember the chain of command and whatever you do, do not skip it." Another picture, this one of Bradford, talking to Dr. Tygan.

"The Commander looks pretty much the same, so you shouldn't need a refresher… now, believe it or not, Central eventually got over his sweater fixation and became the grizzled badass you see in this picture. His role remains the same, after he and a few others rescued the Commander from ADVENT. The man you see next to him is Dr. Tygan. Take notes, duckies, because this is important: unless your last name is Sparkle, you do not talk to Dr. Tygan, are we understood? Good."

A hand went up.

"Yes, Just Kevin?"

Kevin frowned, but spoke up. "Why don't we speak to him? He's just a scientist. And what happened to his head?"

Robert nodded. "I guess the first is a good question. The second is an incorrect statement, and the third thing will kind of draw the point in." Robert said.

"The reason you don't bother him is that he's the head of research for XCOM. He will either not have the time for you, or worse, you'll be drafted to become part of an experiment. He might look like a stiff to you, but the man's more than smart.

"Dr. Tygan used to work in an ADVENT Gene-Clinic. One of the first, in fact. He was hired for his genius and his absolute knowledge in several medical fields." Robert made a dismissive movement with his hand. "Which of course you can't see the point of, but let me continue.

"When he saw more and more things happen, he started getting suspicious. We don't know what tipped him off, but one night, he downloaded all the information he had on ADVENT and went AWOL… after operating on himself blind to remove the chip ADVENT had installed in his brain."

All of the rookies in the room shifted uncomfortably.

"If that doesn't make him a badass to some degree in your book, Just Kevin, you're reading the wrong kind of books. Anyway, continuing, this tattooed lady is no other than our current Dr. Shen. She is the daughter of the previous head of Engineering, and if people are to be believed, she might be even smarter than her father. Unlike Dr. Tygan, she's generally more approachable, although no less busy. You'll have more contact with her as time goes by, since she works on new technologies that we use in the field."

The picture changed to three individuals, each under a different logo. "Now, these three are special cases. You won't see them using a lot of XCOM gear, since they are soldiers sent over by three factions powerful enough to make ADVENT take them seriously. The guy is Pratal Mox, he used to be an ADVENT Captain or General, I forget which, he's here as a representative of the Skirmishers. We'll talk about them and the other groups in the next class." Robert said, pointing at the next person.

"This lady is Elena Dragunova. She eats aliens. Literally. She was sent over by the Reapers, of which some of you might have heard. She's a specialist in sneak attacks. And the last lady is Laetitia Deciere, she's a powerful Psychic on loan from the Templars. She's currently… injured.

"The reason I bring them up is that cooperation with these factions is instrumental to our success and antagonizing them is not going to be looked at favourably by anyone here." Robert took a deep breath. "All three of them serve on the same team; Menace, which used to be Bradford's team, and now is under his heir apparent, Sergeant Shimmer." A picture of Sunset, Jane and the three faction members appeared. "You might hear Shimmer referred to as "the commander", but since that causes some disruption, she's going by the nickname 'Bloody'."

"Um, why is she called 'Bloody'?" Michael asked.

"Because there's no mission where she doesn't end up covered in blood." Robert shrugged. "But, we all earn our nicknames somehow. Anyway, Menace is one of five solid teams we have: Dragon, Viper, Eagle, Wolf, and Menace. This is bound to change as we get more recruits up to par."

"Can we join any of those teams?" Monique asked.

"Good question. You can, if a spot opens, which only happens if someone dies or retires. Most of the teams specialize on something, however, so if your skills fit… that is possible, otherwise, if you all survive, a new team could be formed."

"Heh, I would love to be in Menace," Michael said, smiling. "Those three ladies are lookers."

His statement was met with groans and shakes of the head, but Robert smiled. "If you're good enough, you might end there, but bear in mind, Menace is on the hit list of powerful aliens, and mad scientists."

The picture slide ended and Robert stretched. "Well, that was a lot of information, but there is one last thing you guys must watch before class tomorrow, which I promise will not be so preachy." He looked more serious, his smile fading. "This is XCOM. And after this video, you are all free to go think about what this means to you."

Robert turned off the lights in the room, and hit a button.

The camera was moving and jerking from side to side as trees and rocks went past it, all of a sudden, it went down and leaves covered most of the screen, although past them, moving figures and red lights could be seen.

It took Twilight a moment to figure out why the camera moved so much; it was attached to a person. The display was interesting too, as several names were listed on the side, including Sunset's, and colored thin lines spiked up and down constantly.

"Shen, do you read me? I have the X-rays in sight."

Twilight started. "That's… Bradford?"

"No talking, Miss Sparkle."

"I can read you, Central. If what the readings indicate is true, the Elerium we need for the Avenger's generator should be in that truck."

"Excellent," Bradford responded. "Sunset, Kelly, where are you?"

"In position, Central," Kelly replied.

Twilight noticed that when someone spoke up, the edge of their picture lit up, which made it easy to identify the voices, although the next one that replied she knew well.

"Same here," Sunset spoke up. "I'm behind the boulder, closest to the Captain. Still a solid few feet before the checkpoint."

"I see your location. Lee, Devron. Confirm location.

"I'm on the ledge, I have a clear shot at the guards," Devron replied.

"I'm just downhill from you, Central, you should be able to see me."

"I see you, Lee. Keep your eyes on that truck, we need to take the contents the moment we eliminate the guards. We won't have much time before ADVENT reinforcements arrive, stay alert, people."

"Roger that."

The phrase was echoed several times before Bradford spoke again.

"On my signal... "

Bradford shifted to get a better look, granting his audience also a clearer view of the scene below. He was positioned among the bushes of a small hill overlooking a road, where a large, reinforced, black truck had stopped due to its tires getting damaged.

Three ADVENT troopers and a captain had taken positions to overlook the area around the truck and were on high alert.

Twilight and the others leaned forward, waiting anxiously for Bradford's command. It came a few seconds later.

"Now!"

Immediately one of the troopers shook from a shot straight into his chest. But he didn't fall.

"Crap! The armor held!"

"They know we're here!" Bradford shouted. "Take them down!"

The group had a first person view as Bradford shot out from the woods, weapon ready, and took cover on the ledge formed by the edge of a creek. He leaned out and shot the trooper, splattering orange blood on the side of the truck.

Close to him, Lee ran out of cover, but his charge was interrupted by a plasma bolt to the leg. He shouted in pain, but managed to finish his dash into cover.

Twilight could see the lines under each of their names spiking and moving faster.

"Central! You don't have time! ADVENT's reinforcements are almost there!"

Shen's voice was worried, and even Bradford's biometrics skipped a little with that bit of info.

"I've got this one!" Jane shouted, emerging right behind another trooper, and emptying her magazine on it, killing it.

"Shen, that's not good enough! What happened with our local resistance friends?"

"They've left, Bradford, many of them were killed and the rest hightailed it out of there."

"Not good enough! Don't they know—"

Twilight and the others jumped when Bradford dropped on his stomach. Green, boiling energy shot past him, tearing chunks of grass and mud.

"Dammit! Dammit!"

Twilight recognized Sunset's voice, and glanced at the biometrics. Her fellow pony's pulse was too fast.

"Calm the hell down, Shimmer!"

Jane Kelly's voice seemed to shake Sunset, who leaned over and took a shot at the Captain, missing him or her entirely.

"Crap!"

"You've done this before, Sunset!"

Bradford's shout was accompanied by him rolling and taking a running charge towards the ADVENT Captain, who was currently occupied returning fire. He didn't even have time to turn before Bradford's shotgun emptied its full load into the Captain's stomach.

"Get it now!"

Just as Lee moved out of cover, they could hear a loud noise overhead. A large, humanoid, white robot landed next to the running soldier, who stopped in shock as another captain and another trooper also landed next to him.

Twilight closed her eyes, but she could clearly hear Lee's dying scream when the robot shot him at point blank, almost splitting his body in half.

His biometrics went flat.

"Take cover!" Sunset shouted, shooting at the new arrivals as they moved to cover themselves. "Crap! Come on! I'm not dying here!"

A shot echoed in the air, and the robot rocked forward a little. Then it turned around, and produced a mechanized, whirring sound before shooting several missiles.

Bradford's camera didn't show what happened, as he was busy diving and rolling under the truck, but several explosions were heard and Devron's biometrics went flat too.

"Oh dammit! Celestia… I'm sorry…"

Bradford leaned over his cover, shouting:

"Shoot my mark!"

His order seemed to work, as both Jane and Sunset took shots one after the other at the robot, which shook in place with each impact, electricity and smoke emanating from it before it exploded right next to the trooper.

It didn't take a second for Jane to take advantage and shoot him, nor for Sunset to shift her aim to the last ADVENT Captain, shooting him in the head and making it explode just as Bradford's shot to the back dropped it like a ragdoll.

"Central, we don't detect any more nearby reinforcements. More are on the way, but we have more than enough time to take the Elerium.

The video faded and Robert turned on the lights, making all the rookies recoil. "As I said, duckies, this is XCOM. Shit goes sideways all the time, even for experienced soldiers like Bradford. That was one of the earliest missions after we recovered the Avenger. Compared to what Menace deals with now, it was an easy one."

He paced in front of the room, taking in the looks of all of them. "I expect… some of you might not be here tomorrow. There is no shame in that. If you don't have what it takes, you will only get your teammates killed. So your homework tonight is… think about what you saw, what this means… and decide if you want to stay."

He punched the pad on the door, opening it for them. "Dismissed."

o.0.o End Chapter 24 o.0.o

Chapter 25: Vigilant

View Online

Ranger

Chapter 25: Vigilant

By Wanderer D

Sunset sat next to the bed, holding Laetitia's hand. It was one of the few breaks she had since achieving her new rank, and with Twilight taking her first class, she was otherwise free… so she had come over to the infirmary, dragged a chair and started talking to the Templar.

"...and that's when Pr-my teacher found me with all the cakes in the school's kitchen. And let me tell you, that was a lot of cakes. And cakes are her favorite food too, so she was particularly upset with me."

Sunset chuckled before the smile slowly disappeared.

"I'm sorry… I shouldn't pretend things are okay, but I can't shake the guilt off… even if I couldn't have anticipated what happened, I never wanted to see you hurt." Sunset sighed. "You took care of me and now… I can't even help you, because if I do something wrong your head explodes."

She leaned her head on the bed.

"I… would rather just listen to more cake… stories…" Laetitia coughed, just as Sunset slowly raised her head to stare at the woman, eyes wide and mouth open. "...but, I have to say… you made me hungry."

"Commander, Templar Laetitia has woken up. There are no physical issues, and pending a psychological check, she should be ready to rejoin Menace."

Chrysalis leaned back on her seat, hand caressing the smooth surface of her glass. "Understood. Thank you, please inform Sergeant Shimmer as well."

"She already knows, Commander, she was right next to her when it happened."

Chrysalis frowned. "Did Sergeant Shimmer do anything?"

"Nothing I noticed, Commander, other than telling the cutest story about how she stole a cartful of cakes from her teacher once. She seemed as surprised and relieved as anyone would be."

Chrysalis nodded thoughtfully. "Thank you, nurse."

Her eyes went to the display of Earth's map. The location of the facility the Councilman had given her drew her attention. Her eyes traveled to the other facilities that had been reported, and then to the areas of the maps where the Chosen were known to operate.

Her eyes narrowed. "Perhaps it is time go get the ball rolling for real."

She sighed, and swiped her hand on the display, causing it to change. A picture of Sunset Shimmer appeared on it, along with one of Twilight Sparkle. Several documents of Sunset's involvement with XCOM appeared one by one on the right, as well as reports submitted by Lt. Dash, Bradford, Tygan and both Shens.

Chrysalis scrutinized the data, fingers tapping on the table as her mind worked. A list of known associates from Sunset's… original world was there, and one of Twilight's as well, including a counterpart to herself, who was apparently, not a friendly.

She had little time for that. Sunset had said the portal was closed at the time, but for how long? Were these… impersonators going to invade Earth as well? One enemy was more than enough.. and yet…

o.0.o Flashback o.0.o

"What if I destroy the portal?"

Twilight Sparkle had jumped to her feet, eyes open in horror. "You can't! You would… it's a magical wonder of ages past!"

"I can't risk another invasion."

"We would never—"

"Commander, if you decide to destroy it, could we send Twilight through first?" Sunset spoke up.

"You wouldn't go with her?" Chrysalis asked.

"No, my place is here… with or without a way to return to Equestria."

o.0.o End Flashback o.0.o

Chrysalis shook her head. "Dammit Sunset, why are things never easy with you, whether you're you or you're unicorn you?"

She truly had no doubt about Sunset's loyalty, as odd as it was, given her initial reaction to seeing her. The portal still bothered her, but until she knew more about the supposed magic they used, and its effects on psychics… she pressed the communicator.

"Bradford, as soon as Laetitia is deemed ready for combat, I want Menace ready for their next mission."

"Roger that, Commander."

Chrysalis nodded, a smile playing on her face. The aliens would pay dearly for all they had cost her. The only question was, how to start destroying them?

She looked at her options. Plenty of them would be serious hits to infrastructure, and then there were the reports of upcoming retaliation with plans ADVENT had to make her life more complicated.

Volk's request was still ongoing, and she couldn't act on that one until the initial report got back. For now… she made her choice.

"It's good you didn't die," Elena said, noticing Laetitia was already in the conference room, along with Sunset.

"It is most fortunate," Mox agreed, following Elena into the room. Behind them, Jane walked in, waving amiably at Sunset and Laetitia. She hurried over to sit next to Sunset.

"We need to talk," Jane whispered.

Sunset blinked, but nodded. "Yeah, on the flight?"

"After the briefing…" Jane said. "It is urgent."

"You got it," Sunset replied, nodding.

The last two people in, were Lt. Dash—who sat in the middle chair at the end of the table, between Jane and Mox—and Bradford, who took the other end, closer to the door.

The table lit, projecting a labyrinthine set of tunnels.

"Our agents have revealed that ADVENT is working on a new series of Rural Checkpoints, which, if completed, will considerably reduce the intake of monthly supplies from our allies in Europe. Needless to say, given our very limited resources, it is imperative that we prevent this from happening.

"As such, we have our next objective," Bradford said. "In about two hours, the Avenger will head over to Europe, where one of our informants has revealed an ADVENT General is overseeing the installation of a relay of some sort in the tunnel-system under New Prague. This General happens to be the one in charge of coordinating the checkpoints with ADVENT."

"We have seen similar checkpoints in the past," Elena spoke up. "ADVENT is particularly brutal, and any provocation, real or imagined, will result in the death of anyone they even contemplate as part of a resistance group."

A large section of the holographic tunnels turned red. "We have managed to localize the A.O. to these coordinates. Unfortunately the area is still big enough for some scurrying around to be needed."

"The General should be making large, sweeping rounds to better oversee the installation of this relay," Mox spoke up next, studying the map. "I do not forsee them sticking to the center of the map."

"That's good, it'll give us a chance to cut him off from leaving the area," Laetitia added.

"Your mission is to kill the General down in the tunnels, when he is the most exposed. Don't be fooled, however, into thinking this will be easy. Since the tunnels are being prepped for future plans, there is a considerable amount of ADVENT troops assigned to the location."

"The General will not stay to fight," Mox said. "Standard ADVENT operation orders for that level is to evacuate him as soon as possible."

"Then we make sure he doesn't get that chance," Sunset spoke up. "We'll try to position ourselves to cut his options down as much as we can, but if we are revealed before getting there, all shots are on him first."

Bradford nodded. "Hit them fast and hit them hard."

"Yes sir!"

"I will forward all of you the information we have. You have two hours from now to get ready." He looked over at Laetitia. "I suggest some rest for you, and as for you, Sunset, the Commander wants you to start looking at a potential sixth member for your team."

"Yes sir," Sunset said.

The group stood and watched Bradford leave.

"Alright guys, we'd better get ready," Sunset said. "Jane, if you have a moment?"

"Right," Jane nodded.

The others took the hint, leaving the pair alone in the room.

After a moment, Sunset sat on the edge of the table, facing her friend.

"Sunset, how long have we known each other?" Jane asked.

"Almost two years," Sunset said with a small chuckle. "It feels longer, with all the life and death situations."

"It does… and in those two years, have I given you any reason to not trust me?"

Sunset frowned. "Of course not. You're my best friend in XCOM."

Jane sighed. "Well… thank you, it means a lot to hear that… so as your friend, I must ask… what's the deal with Sparkle?"

Sunset felt herself go tense. "What do you mean?"

Jane gave her a look. "You know what I mean. We lose you for a few hours, everyone thinks you were disintegrated by that psionic blast that hit us and knocked Laetitia out… then a few hours later, you bleep back into existence, with a VIP attached to your hip."

"Trust me, that wasn't anticipated," Sunset grumbled.

"But that's not all," Jane said, leaning back against the wall, just as the whole Avenger shook with the familiar feeling of take-off. "She seemed to know Lt. Dash."

"Maybe she knew her mom?"

"Really, Sunset?" Jane threw her arms in the air, exasperated. "Didn't you tell Lt. Dash the exact same thing when she said you looked familiar? Let's say she actually met your mother, what are the chances of her knowing this other, young girl's mom? I'll tell you: they're close to nil and you know it."

Sunset licked her lips.

"Can't you give it to me straight?" Jane asked. "Don't you trust me?"

"I do," Sunset said. "But it's… Top Secret."

"Top—"

"Sunset," Laetitia spoke from the door, looking into the room. "Someone's here to see you."

"We'll continue this later," Jane said, marching out of the room and glaring at whoever was with Laetitia.

The Templar walked in, her hand on Twilight's shoulder. She looked miserable, sniffing and wiping her eyes. "I found Twilight walking down the hall, acting like this. I thought I should bring her along."

As if just realizing that Sunset was actually there, Twilight took a couple of stumbling steps towards her fellow Equestrian, then threw her arms around Sunset, sobbing.

"Should I be jealous?" Laetitia smiled.

Sunset shook her head, slowly brushing down Twilight's hair to try and calm her. "Nah. But I think Twilight and I need to talk. I'll catch up with you in a bit?"

Laetitia nodded and left the pair in the room.

Sunset stood straight, one arm around Twilight, the other trailing down her hair, letting the younger girl calm down. "Hey, you alright? What happened?"

It took a few more sniffs and eye-rubbing before Twilight spoke up, still hugging Sunset. "I-I watched a video of one of your battles from a couple of years back…"

Sunset straightened. "Oh? Which one?"

"You were with Bradford… getting Elerium?"

"Oh…" Sunset coughed. "Yeah, not my proudest moment, panicking as I did."

"You sounded… so scared," Twilight whispered.

"I was…" Sunset chuckled. "I was absolutely terrified. I had done some missions before with the Skirmishers and with Bradford but, I was lucky. Up until then, I hadn't seen my teammates die so quickly in succession… I thought I was done for."

"I'm so sorry," Twilight said. "I'm so sorry, Sunset. Come back home… I promise you'll get pardoned, don't stay here…"

Sunset took a deep breath. "This is home now, Twilight. And these are amazing people that not only depend on me, but whom I respect and care for. I could never do that. You understand that, right? Didn't you tell me Shining was a captain of the guard before he became a prince?"

Twilight seemed to lose her strength at that, letting her arms fall to the side. "Yeah. He… told me all about that."

Sunset smiled, lifting Twilight's chin with her finger. "Look, it's tough, but I'm with the best fighters in the world, and I won't fail them and they won't fail me. I know you can help us a lot too, when you start working with Tygan."

"I… I will," Twilight said with a long breath. "It's just… hard."

"It is," Sunset agreed. "But we endure. And so will you."

Twilight chuckled. "Yeah… I guess I will." Her eyes went wide. "Oh no… I had a test! I'll be tardy!"

Sunset bopped Twilight's nose. "None of that. Come on, I'll drop you off at the lab. I have dossiers to sort after that."

"Right!"

"Also, I don't think they're expecting much from a princess, so make sure you ace that test."

"Right!"

"That's my princess."

The pair walked down the hall, not noticing the shadow that pushed away from the wall and started walking in the opposite direction.

o.0.o End Chapter 25 o.0.o

Chapter 26: Tunnels

View Online

Ranger

Chapter 26: Tunnels

By Wanderer D

"Central, this is Firebrand, Menace is on the ground."

"Understood, Firebrand, stand by.'

Sunset grimaced. All through the flight, Jane had been giving her a glare that was almost putting her on edge, and now that they were on the ground, it hadn't diminished at all.

She looked back at her friend, and tilted her head, raising an eyebrow, as good as any expression she could think of to communicate her thoughts: Really?! Now? On a mission?

Jane kept her face straight, but her delicate eyebrow rose just above the edge of her sunglasses and she shrugged, looking away. As good a retort as saying: Fine. Whatever.

Sunset shook her head and found the others looking at her with worry. "What?"

"Nothing," Laetitia said.

"Just awaiting orders," Mox added.

"We're wondering if you two need a room or boxing gloves and a rink," Elena said. The other two faction members gave her looks of amused betrayal.

"It's nothing like that," Sunset growled. "Anyway, take your minds out of the gutter and let's get this operation running."

They had made their way through an abandoned building into the undercity tunnels. The place was mostly past-century infrastructure that had remained from the previous cities, before they had been reconstructed to alien specifications.

As such, they were a combination of concrete walls and metal beams old enough to start crumbling a little. Large, rusty pipes snaked out of the floor from the depths of the sewers and provided cover here and there.

The building had opened up into a small room that split into two tunnels, lit by the occasional lamp, with large areas of darkness. Fortunately for the group, no aliens were immediately in sight.

"Menace 1-5, the enemy doesn't know you're here. Take advantage of that and find the General."

"Roger that, Central," Sunset said. "We'll take care of it."

She closed her eyes and let the magic flow through her. The process was always the same in this new body; the energy would start in her chest, roughly where her heart was, and then spread through her veins, warm and comforting, to finally take the shape of the spell she was casting. In this case, her blood vision.

When she opened her eyes again, the world seemed just slightly brighter. Her teammates were close enough that she could see them almost normally, except that there was a faint, pulsating glow from within them. Further ahead, she could see two more heartbeats, moving slowly away from them within her range of vision.

Next to her, Jane bit her lip and turned away, looking straight ahead.

"I'll take the lead," Sunset said, putting words to action as she crouched and ran down the length of the tunnel, towards the faint glows she had seen. She took cover behind a piece of pipe, glancing over and seeing them pause and glow a bit brighter, now that the distance had lessened, she whispered into the comms.

"Mox, Laetitia, you're with me. I just saw two X-rays in this direction. Jane, Elena, I think we're on the upper left corner of the map we saw… that means you two can follow the right tunnel around the bend and flank them."

"Understood," Elena replied, setting off in that direction.

"Won't we see any aliens in that direction?" Jane asked, following at a slower pace.

"I doubt it, but it never hurts to check… just be careful for any mechanical enemies."

Jane shook her head, but moved forward. "Roger that, Bloody."

Sunset didn't reply, merely watching the pair walk around the bend and out of her sight. Soon enough, she heard Elena's voice.

"I have them in my sight."

"Two ADVENT. A trooper and… it's different. Looks a little like a shield-bearer, but… the armor is thinner."

Sunset looked at Mox, who shook his head.

"We don't know what those do, so be careful… let's let the patrol move forward and see where they're going."

"...how did you know they were moving?"

"We're behind them, just keep in cover for now."

The tunnel moved ahead up to a wall that had a ladder on it, granting access to a higher level, perpendicular to, but still within sight of the patrol. Sunset motioned for her companions to follow her as she climbed up and hid, looking down on the patrol as it slowly made its way down the hallway, close to the tunnel where Jane and Elena hid, then turned left, stepping over a metal bridge to access the other side of a long fall into the sewers.

"Jane, Elena, we have you covered. Move when you have the chance."

Sunset watched from her vantage point as her friend rushed to cover behind abandoned building equipment, and Elena flowed from the shadows to hide behind the corner of the bridge and the guardrail.

It didn't look like it should provide cover, but when the trooper glanced in her direction, it didn't even see her.

Sunset motioned for Mox to go ahead. The Skirmisher jumped down to the lower level on the other side, taking cover against the entrance to the tunnel which the patrol was currently on.

When there was no reaction, Sunset motioned for Laetitia to take a position across from Mox, while she ran over to the edge of the upper level, looking down, confirming what her blood vision had already told her. "Another group is there… three more… Trooper, Lancer and... "

"Target confirmed, Menace," Bradford said. "That's the general, don't let him escape.

Sunset slowly slid her hand down to her belt, and picked up a grenade. "On my signal, get ready for action."

"Roger."

"Understood."

"Ready."

"I'm ready."

Sunset didn't say anything more, throwing the grenade at her objective. The explosive flew in a graceful arc, and landed right at the general's feet.

The blast echoed through the tunnels, and by the time the barely-injured ADVENT Troops were reacting to their presence, Mox had shot his grappling hook at the Trooper, who was dragged in an instant past the charging Laetitia, who sliced down with her energy knives at the trooper.

Two shots followed the blur of movement, violently hitting the general, although his armor seemed a lot thicker than that of the others. He regained his footing almost too quickly and took cover, firing straight at Elena, who had to run down for cover as her previous position was exposed.

The new trooper turned, facing Jane, and extended his hand. Tendrils of psychic energy shot towards Jane, surrounding her in a sphere and knocking her down.

"Jane!" Sunset shouted, jumping down and rushing the psychic enemy.

"Leave the psychic to me!" Laetitia shouted, "You go after that one!" pointing at the general, who had retreated deeper into the tunnel. "Catch him!"

Sunset gritted her teeth, but ran straight ahead. "Mox, Elena, with me!"

She ignored their replies, rolling to a stop on the corner of the tunnel. The general had joined more troops.

"Menace, we have picked up the signal for the general's extraction. Do not let him get there!"

"Dammit," Sunset swore, she turned around the corner, planting her foot against the corner for additional support and shot her grappling hook at the general, just like Mox had earlier. The attempt was a success, and she had to brace herself as the heavier man was dragged towards her, stumbling back in surprise while the others shouted and aimed at her, trying not to accidentally shoot the general.

One of the troopers was tackled by Mox, who didn't hesitate in slamming his blades into the poor trooper's head, and just as Sunset's sword pierced the general's stomach and twisted, Elena's rifle made short work of the last ADVENT trooper.

"Well done, Menace," Bradford said "All enemies are down and ADVENT is sure to feel this one. prepare for pickup."

Sunset sighed, wiping the blood from her hands on the wall, before turning around and trotting back to where Jane was. "Jane!"

"She's okay," Laetitia said, looking down curiously at the body of the ADVENT trooper she had killed.

Sunset nodded and slowed down, approaching Jane, who was looking at Laetitia warily. "Jane?" she asked softly.

"She…" Jane shook her head. "I've never seen…"

"What?"

Jane looked at her. "Nothing. It's nothing. It just… I'm still a bit out of it from what that ADVENT did to me."

Sunset gave her a worried look, but tried a small smile. "But hey, it's a new ADVENT unit, what do you want to call it?"

Jane kept her eyes on Laetitia, licking her lips nervously before glancing at the dead trooper. "You ever seen a picture of the pope? Back when there was one?"

Sunset shook her head.

"Must be my Irish family keeping the tradition… but the helmet reminds me a little of what the pope's hat looked like… and it also did this kneeling on the ground thing earlier, like it was praying..."

"So… ADVENT Pope?"

Jane shook her head. "Nah… just priest. Let's call them priests."

"You hear that, Bradford?"

"Advent Priest, got it. Adding it to the list.

Jane tried to smile, but couldn't hide her nervousness when Laetitia approached. "Anyway… let's get going.'

"Right," Sunset said. "Firebrand, this is Menace, we're ready for transport."

"Roger that, Menace, on my way,"

o.0.o End Chapter 26 o.0.o

Chapter 27: Thaumatic

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Ranger

Chapter 27: Thaumatic

By Wanderer D

"Miss Sparkle," Tygan swiped the pad to the next page. "I must say I am impressed. For a… place of such a different level of technology, your knowledge of mathematics, physics, quantum physics, and engineering is… quite impressive."

He looked over at the young woman, who was preening like she had won a prize. "To say that I did not expect this level of proficiency in so many sciences would be a… severe understatement."

"Thank you!" Twilight said. "Sunset said that I shouldn't pull my punches, so I gave it my all!"

"Given my previous expectations, this promises a definite improvement in our research." He put down the pad and looked up at Twilight, across his desk. "I have reconsidered my original proposal, since getting your results," he explained. "I intended for you to be limited to your… specific area of knowledge, but you would be a great asset to the science team in general, if you're interested."

Twilight's eyes widened. "Really?!"

"Yes, really," Tygan smiled. "I might ask for your assistance on some projects if we are short-handed. For now, however, the Commander wants you to start your work on the… particular energy you and Miss Shimmer have access to."

"You mean magic?"

Tygan visibly strained. "If that is what you want to call it…"

"Because Magical Field Theory is a whole branch of science back home," Twilight explained.

"Yes. Mag…." Tygan grimaced. "I'm sorry Miss Sparkle, magic has been considered a verified myth for several centuries now by the scientific community. It is hard to bend the mind around some of the physics-defying concepts you have mentioned before."

"So you're having trouble visualizing it as a legitimate field of science?"

"I-that is correct, yes, although I'm sure I'll get used to the idea an—"

"Why don't we call it Thaumatic Field Theory, then?" Twilight asked. "It's the scientific name for magic we use back home."

"Scientific name for m—I think that is possible. Thaumatic. Thaumatic." Tygan nodded. "This nomenclature will work. It will also cause less confusion with other members of our team that might join us in the future, as they will not correlate the implication that… Thaumatic energy… has existed all along."

"Well, it is very… stiff and almost absent here, except for a very light spectrum of it that will slowly replenish our reserves…" Twilight bit her lip.

"Why don't you tell me your current theory?"

Twilight nodded, taking a deep breath and gathering her thoughts.

"Ma-Thaumatic Energy, back home, is all around us and readily available. Some plants and animals concentrate more of it, even if they can't use it, and ponies and other sapient beings can channel it for different kinds of ma-Thaumatic purposes by using the ambient energy, and very rarely their own."

Twilight fiddled in the air with her fingers, producing miniature sparks. "Unicorns like myself not too long ago, and Sunset, are some of the few species that actively use our own reserves. Certain spells require not only concentration, but very specific appliances of the energy, and while the ambient magic will refill us very quickly, the effects still draw from our own mana pools. Even then, however, we seldom use spells that require our own energy.

"If the result we want is within our special talents, then we use a lot less of our personal reserves, as it is simplified due to our affinity, unless the effect is incredibly hard to maintain or accomplish… take my brother, for example, he was able to raise a shield that covered a whole city… at first it was fine, but the longer it lasted, the more he needed to use of his reserves, which were not filled as quickly and after a few days he was barely able to stand."

"The magnitude of energy needed for a single creature to do such a thing is… mind-boggling, to say the least. Certainly not something any living being we have encountered could manage. Even the Elders—"

"Well," Twilight interrupted. "You must remember that it is not the same type of energy, and we are just channeling it into a function for the most part. Alicorns have a specific reserve of magic that channels more frequencies than regular unicorns, and mind-related magic, which would be the closest thing to Psychic Powers, is not something that materializes through sheer force of will… a mental attack from the Elders, from what I understand so far of psychic powers, is on a different scale and frequency than what you can achieve with ma… um, thaumaturgic energy."

"This is outstanding," Tygan breathed out. "And certainly possesses great potential for use here."

Twilight grimaced. "Well… it would. But Sunset hasn't sensed any place where the… Thaumatic… energies revitalize any faster, so it depends entirely on the user's reserves. Being an alicorn, mine are very big, and Sunset has been working her own for years here… it's like intense bodybuilding. She has really big reserves, even for a unicorn whose talent is magic as well."

"It is still a possibility, regardless of how little chance there is, for such a thing to exist here," Tygan said, eyebrow barely twitching at the mention of magic. "In addition, Sunset's claims that the psychic energies cannot be mingled with mag—" he caught himself, his eyes daring Twilight to say anything. "...Thaumatic energies, lest a very volatile result occurs. This could be very useful in our fight against ADVENT. I think I would like you to start working on how both wavelengths compare to each other, and why we have that result."

"Great! Then, if you could provide me with some equipment, I can get started!"

Rainbow Dash walked into the bar and found Jane already working her way through a bottle.

"Hey, you beat me to it this time," she joked, walking up to grab a beer from the fridge. Local resistance had some good, homemade stuff. This was an IPA called "Sectoid Sweat" and sported a hand-drawn picture of a muscular Sectoid lifting some weights. The back of the bottle read: "It will blow your mind!" The name was disgusting, but the brew? The brew was awesome.

Dash sat next to Jane, who was staring into her glass as if trying to forget a bad date. "So, what's eating you?"

"Many things," Jane sighed, taking another sip. "Sunset. Twilight. Laetitia. All this secrecy."

Dash took a swig of good ol' Sectoid Sweat. "XCOM is a secret organization."

"It was," Jane pointed out. "It hasn't been for twenty years. But that's not my point… Laetitia is in my team and Sunset… she and I have risked our lives together so many times. She's like a sister… and she can't tell me anything?" She shook her head.

Dash shifted in her seat. "So… leaving the Sunset thing aside for a moment, what's your problem with the Templar? Purple just not your color?"

Jane glared at her. "You know how we found one of those new ADVENT Priests today?"

"Yeah, I heard you got to name it! I would have gone with ADVENT Psycho, but that's just me. What about it?"

"Well… you've seen troopers panic, right?"

"Yep. Panic is always hilarious when it's not our troops getting it," Dash confirmed, taking another sip. "What about it?"

"Well, while I was under that attack he threw at me, I was… frozen, I couldn't move, didn't even need to breathe, but I could still see… when Laetitia got up to it, she… I don't know… I mean she levitated it off the floor with her power and, although I couldn't really do much or hear anything… I felt it."

Jane downed her whiskey and poured another. "The priest was terrified, it was blindly trying to fight but something she did, just seemed to crush his spirit and then she just used her blade to stab it… and it was like a switch got turned and it was gone… but… I've felt scared before. Hell, I fell into a panic once, during an early mission… I've never peripherally felt anything close to what that ADVENT priest felt."

She ran the tip of her finger around the edge of her shot glass. "I had seen her fight before… today was… different." She sighed and straightened out, stretching before slumping back forward again. "In a way, I can see why Shintaro just gave up, y'know?"

Dash nodded.

"Like, I can put up with Sunset knowing psionic monks, ADVENT defectors and people that literally eat aliens. She travelled with Bradford for a whole year, meeting some of these guys before they made it to the Avenger. But… shit's gone sideways since we rescued the Commander. I mean, you guys... old XCOM always acted weird around Sunset, but the Commander took it to a whole new level."

"Yeah, well, you can't blame her, especially considering," Dash said, taking a sip of her beer. Then she stopped and looked at Jane. "Oh no, you're not getting anything out of me."

"Not you too!" Jane groaned. "Doesn't anybody trust me?"

"We do!" Dash stated. "I do. And I'm sure Sunset does but—"

"But?"

Dash shuffled in place. "November, 22nd, 2012."

"What does that mean?"

"It means," Dash said, taking a breath and drinking the half the bottle that was left in one go, "that I've finished my beer and oh, look at the time!"

She pushed back and away from the bar, burping loudly. "Oops, hehe, excuse me." Dash turned around and hurried out, hoping she hadn't made a big mistake.

Sunset found Laetitia on the rail on the stern of the Avenger, looking at the full moon.

The balcony was only reachable by climbing through several flight of stairs, and almost generally locked, as it was a security risk if the Avenger was in the air.

For now, as they had landed somewhere in what used to be Hungary, it was accessible. It was quite high, and they could see several tents below as engineers and soldiers stretched their legs and camped outside, and they could hear faint voices talking far below.

"Hey, I see you found the Lover's Aft," Sunset said with a grin, joining the Templar at the rail, looking up at the moon and stars, clearly visible above them so far as they were from any of the new cities.

"Is that what they call it?" Laetitia asked with a chuckle. "Most curious."

Sunset shrugged. "I didn't name it, oddly enough it dates back to the time Charles… Dr. Shen's dad was still alive and working on repairing the Avenger. There was a story about a couple of resistance-agents-turned-XCOM-fighters that used to get together here."

"What happened to them?" Laetitia asked, turning to lean on the rail and looking down at the distant people beneath them.

"What else?" Sunset asked, turning around so her back and elbows were resting on the rail. "They died. Just like everyone in XCOM does sooner rather than later."

"That's a very sad thing, don't you think?" Laetitia asked.

"I guess," Sunset sighed. "None of us are immortals, and all immortals I know are inscrutable, distant beings."

Laetitia turned to look at her. "Oh? You know many of them?"

Sunset shook her head. "Um… I meant, you know, the Elders and such. Basically immortal."

Laetitia laughed. "Well, we don't know if they're really immortal, do we?"

"Yeah." Sunset felt the Templar turn to face her, and felt Laetitia's hand touch hers. She sighed. "In the end, it doesn't really matter, right? We live. We die, and others continue with or without us. When I saw my old… family… they had moved on."

Sunset chuckled and shook her head. "Never even brought me up in conversation, apparently… I have no one but myself to blame, and… well, it's not like I'm planning to ever really go back, but it drove the point home, I think. One day, I'll die here, and they will continue, without worries and without concerns of what happened to me."

"That is not true," Laetitia said firmly. "I'm sure whoever they are, they miss you and wonder how you fare. Especially if they know anything about how dangerous things are."

Sunset chuckled. "Only in my dreams."

"Dreams are powerful things, and can bring us peace."

Sunset smiled. "Yeah… maybe one day I'll have a good one."

Laetitia also smiled, letting go of Sunset's hand and gazing back into the stars and the moon. "Maybe, yes."

o.0.o End Chapter 27 o.0.o

Chapter 28: Chosen

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Ranger

Chapter 28: Chosen

By Wanderer D

Dear Princess Celestia,

This week has been interesting. Although most people here have been nice and relatively welcoming, finding myself living in a completely different world has not been easy… and that's considering I have found myself a friend in Sunset and a mentor-of-sorts in Dr. Tygan. And I still don't know how Sunset managed… it must have been tough.

She told me a little about her first day, and then how she met Mox… he's… not exactly an alien, but a different species of human-hybrid that betrayed his old masters to join the fight for freedom. I know, not comprehensive, but I don't want to hog all of Sunset's diary. On that note, sorry for making the writing as tiny as possible.

As I was saying, people here have been welcoming for the most part, but it feels weird waking up without hooves… or even wings! Although I admit it's easier to lay in a bed without them. The Avenger is always on the move in one way or another. It's like an ant-hill, and in a way, I guess it is funny that the queen of bugs is the queen of soldiers here.

I'm sorry, I guess that wasn't nice. Chrysalis here has been… polite. Demanding. Efficient. She's handling a multitude of things at the same time, and I can always see that devious mind of hers, so similar to the one back home, where she's planning something else on top of that.

Sunset has gone out on several missions since I got here. It's tough seeing her and her team head out… I tried watching a live feed once (that's when we can watch what the soldiers are doing from all the way over here) and I couldn't really watch for long. The combat is scary, the encounters sudden and… let's say that Sunset's nickname, "Bloody Sunset" is well earned. I haven't seen her return from a fight without blood splattered all over her. I wonder if her blood magic has anything to do with that or if it is just a result of her approach?

My training with the new recruits is still ongoing. I'm not very good when it comes to endurance, but I've held up with a steady pace. Two of the ones I met during the first class have already left… one after a video that… anyway, the other one left after a day of training. Tactics are not too complicated, but listening to Chrysalis and Bradford, and reading some of the mission reports, it's slowly starting to really sink in. Unfortunately Galahad insists on making us watch old videos… remember when I arrived and we were attacked by some snake-like aliens? Well, at the time I didn't realize how dangerous they could be.

We watched a video this morning, where one of the other teams, not Sunset's… I think this happened before Bradford and her arrived… this team had a fight with several Vipers. It… didn't go well. Not only were their weapons not up-to par, but the Vipers were quick enough to read where the soldiers were aiming and dodge their shots!

The team was huddled together and one Viper spat venom at them… it wasn't like a cobra, however, the venom exploded into a cloud, choking and confusing them, then the other vipers came in. Some shot the soldiers, and a few others used their tongues like some sort of rope, capturing them and bringing them over to them.

They would then wrap themselves around the soldiers and crush them to death… Galahad called it a complete wipeout, then ran us through an hour or so of drills where we had to run behind cover, keep each other in sight, but not be too close just in case explosives or venom was sent our way.

I think we've been mostly lucky in Equestria. Our enemies are from our same world; they hold similar interests and even when bitter rivalries rise through the ages, and wars break out, and ponies and griffons and minotaurs and zebras die… we have always been able to find common ground in the end. Our enemies have never been truly merciless.

The only ray of hope is that there are some, very few, that break the mold… but those are desperately few. In any case, I should go back to the lab. I hope the girls are okay, tell them I miss them!

-Twilight

Chrysalis' table was stacked with pads containing everything from anticipated dates for attacks and retaliations, to recruit dossiers from allies, to lists of contacts to engage in different parts of the world, to lists of materials needed for projects.

She sat on the head seat, hands locked and placed in front of her mouth as she contemplated the information Volk had just forwarded to her. Around her, Bradford to her right and Tygan and Shen to her left, read copies of the report themselves.

"So we have a lead," Bradford said finally. "And Volk wants us to do this now, in order to reinforce our relationship with the factions."

"It won't be an easy mission," Tygan said slowly, lowering his pad. "While I might not be as versed in warfare as you and Central, Commander, I cannot imagine this going to one of our more fresh recruits."

"You would be correct, Doctor," Chrysalis said, frowning. "The issue is who to send…" she shook her head. "No, I've made up my mind but… rather who to send with her."

She leaned down to her pad and swiped the screen, bringing up Sunset's Bio.

Bradford raised an eyebrow.

"Her?" Shen looked from the pad up to the Commander. "But… if her prey even looked her way she'd be instantly recognized!"

Chrysalis shrugged. "She has a unique set of skills that would allow her to mingle. Her ability to not be perceived as a threat by most aliens and ADVENT troopers is useful, as she proved during my rescue mission." She hummed. "I would also consider giving her a promotion if she pulls this off."

"This will also pull Menace out of active duty for the duration of this mission," Bradford pointed out.

"We can spread them out with the other teams if necessary, or…" Chrysalis smiled. "We can have them train the rookies."

Bradford rubbed his chin, humming. "I think Galahad and I could plan some useful things if that were the case… but who will you send with her?"

Chrysalis smirked. "There's one person that has been snooping around where she shouldn't." She brought up another screen, with archived logs and downloads. "And given what she's about to find out, I think some time together would do them wonders."

She passed the tablet over to Tygan, who had looked at her with some curiosity.

"These are very specific dates and videos… saved from the old XCOM hard drives, no less."

"That's right," Chrysalis said, her brow darkening. "And those videos don't bring back fond memories. Whatever she's looking for there is going to reveal a lot more about her team than she probably expects."

She glanced around. "Shen, make sure to have ready the equipment they'll need. Bradford, I'll leave debriefing to you. Tygan, you'll be receiving a good amount of encrypted data if everything goes according to plan, so take the necessary steps to ensure correct transmission, storage and decryption."

"Yes, Commander."

"Now," Chrysalis said, pulling up the next pad. "About the Viper King's autopsy…"

The city skyscrapers seemed to curve around above her, like some sort of tunnel. Broken windows, overgrown plants, and shadows running just outside her vision when she turned around.

The wind howled through the street, stirring the dense, greenish fog and carrying the groans and whimpers of the Lost. Abandoned vehicles littered the street in various states of disrepair, from the parked-but-rusty, to the overturned and burnt-off husks of those that had been blasted or partially destroyed.

The street stretched behind her and in front of her, far beyond what she could see, fading into palpable, threatening darkness. She could hear hisses and chittering, moaning and growls... as she moved slowly, her shotgun at the ready, she searched in vain for her enemies.

She forced herself not to look down, even as she stepped carefully. Because she knew what she would find. She felt tears and fear and darkness creeping around her. Rivers of blood ran down the street, red and orange, glittering with power and hidden horrors… but as the current grew stronger and the blood slowly flooded the street, that which she didn't want to look at floated on it.

Bodies.

Humans, pegasi, ADVENT, earth ponies… mouths open and eyes vacant as dark, smoky tentacles played on the edges behind the orbs or within their gaping maws. Twilight, in her human form, with magnificent purple wings floated slowly past her, and Sunset had to look away.

But then she felt it. Turning in shock, she saw the blood-soaked, shadow-tentacle-filled body of her friend grasping her leg just below her knee, as the river of blood dragged more bodies around her. A blue pegasus with crazy, rainbow mane and wearing an XCOM uniform wrapped both her forelegs around her midriff and bit down.

Sunset cried out in shock as she felt another body, the Viper King, pale and missing half its face wrap around her, dragging her down into the blood, as more and more hands and claws and pincers and hooves and teeth latched onto every inch of her body, trying to submerge her under the surface of the water. Jane, missing her lower jaw clawed at Sunset's armor and Mox's body tried to wrestle her shotgun out of her hand, while Elena, gray-skinned and covered in glowing greenish-red pustules groaned and tried to rip her other arm out of her socket.

"You'll never escape me…" a voice whispered from somewhere as Sunset struggled and fought. "I will always find you!"

The Assassin was suddenly standing in front of her.

"Now you join them, Sunset Shimmer."

Sunset looked down, to see the Chosen's wicked blade running her through. She tried to struggle as the assassin laughed and dragged her sword through her body, spilling blood and guts out.

Just as her undead attackers reached into her innards, a white light seemed to bathe the world around her. Slowly, the world around faded into darkness, followed by the undead grappling with her. Her wounds disappeared and she stepped back, staring in shock at the Assassin, who remained in place, her smile twisting a grimace of hate even as it was motionless. Soon, it was just the two of them, the darkness and the light from way above.

"Truly, when her kind was expelled, we never foresaw such a transformation, and never was she an ally, but alas, to lose her song to such monsters; to see her pride stripped and her skin flailed and her mind and body reshaped to such an extent… this we have never—in our wildest dreams, in our most secret moments of hate—wished upon any being."

The voice echoed in the darkness as the Assassin finally was blown away into nothingness, like smoke in a breeze. Sunset turned, trying to find the origin of the voice…

Sunset stirred, flailing around when she felt a hand on her shoulder, shaking her. "Sunset!"

She sat up suddenly, breathing hard, and looking around wildly, she immediately recognized the worried woman next to her. "L-Laetitia?"

"Bradford asked me to come get you… I'm sorry I woke you up, you were turning and moaning…"

"I—" Sunset brought a hand up to her head, rubbing her temples with her fingers. "I'm… I—I'm sorry, what? I just needed a nap and…"

"It's okay, we're all exhausted, it's been a long week," Laetitia said, smiling. "But as I said, Bradford wanted you to meet him in the conference room."

Sunset licked her lips and reached to the side, grabbing the bottle of water she kept next to her bed and taking a long drink, before nodding. "Yeah, yeah… I'll uh, I'll be right there."

Laetitia gave her a look. "Do you need some coffee?"

"Nah," Sunset shook her head, turning so that she her legs were off the bed. "I'll be okay, please… just let him know I'll be there in a minute."

"Alright," Laetitia said, turning to walk towards the door. "He said to bring a pad."

"Oh great… that can only mean a new mission."

Sunset watched her friend walk out of the room before pushing herself off the bed and making her way to the faucet. She splashed cold water on her face and dried it clean, giving herself a look in the mirror.

"What the hell was that?"

o.0.o End Chapter 28 o.0.o

Chapter 29: Ghosts

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Ranger

Chapter 29: Ghosts

By Wanderer D

Princess Celestia,

So, here I am, writing again. I'm not entirely sure why I'm even doing this, to be honest. I think, in a way, being back in Equestria, even for such a short time has made me nostalgic for a lot of things I took for granted, or really wanted, but never got.

But this is not about that. I'm leaving for a while… maybe a week or so, possibly longer. Twilight will stay safe in the Avenger while I go hunt information about a very dangerous individual who almost killed me once.

I can't fault the Commander's logic in sending me… for several reasons. But I must face the reality that I just might not come back at all. Regular missions always have this risk, of course, but I am usually backed by several competent, trustworthy friends… this time around, it's only two of us, and while I trust Jane with my life, it does shorten our avenues of rescue if help is needed.

I guess… I just wanted to say goodbye, just in case. This time around, I didn't want to go and… not say anything. Anyway, as I said earlier, you don't need to worry, Twilight is a non-combatant, so she'll be safe here and she should be able to head home as soon as she figures out the mirror's activation, which I'm sure she will do soon. She's smart that way. XCOM will destroy the statue once that happens to prevent probable future incursions.

-Sunset

"She sounds so… lonely," Fluttershy said, wings and ears drooping down.

"I must say, the tone is rather despondent," Rarity added, looking at the pages with a bit conflicting feelings. "It's like she wants to say more, but… just chooses to remain formal."

"It seems like your former student doesn't expect much warmth back, sister." Luna looked at Celestia over her shoulder from where she stood on the balcony of Celestia's chambers. She had been contemplating the horizon while listening to Celestia read, not making any comment at all.

Celestia flinched. "I… admit I'm not sure how to treat her, Luna. She's made a completely new life there, after I failed her—"

"Whoa, hold on… hold on, how exactly did you fail her?" Rainbow Dash asked. "No offense, Princess, but Sunset's the one that ran away because you didn't alicorn-y-fy her."

"Ah think Rainbow's right," Applejack added. "Y'all didn't do anything wrong by not giving her somethin' she just wasn't prepared to have. Ah'd say that's downright responsible."

Celestia nodded, smiling. "Thank you, my little ponies, but I did not mean my choice to not give her the power she wanted. My regret is with the way I handled it, and how I didn't communicate to Sunset that I was here for her… my reactions were rash, and I learned a lot from that, but it did cost me a student."

"Perhaps more than just a student," Luna suggested softly, "from Sunset's perspective."

Celestia raised an eyebrow. "Sympathy for "the enemy", Luna?"

Luna huffed, and turned to stare back at the horizon. "Your student is going away for a greater cause… she feels this specific mission merited a letter to you, despite the risks constantly inherent in her regular battles. She considers the danger this time around more likely to cost her her life, don't you think?"

Celestia looked down. "What should I tell her? What can I tell her?"

Luna sighed. "Truly, sister? How did you feel when you found out that your student, who you considered lost, both physically and morally, returned and you discovered she had found a worthy cause? How did you feel when she took care of Twilight? When she owned up to her mistakes in her own way? That she managed to thrive in that new, almost magic-less world and learn the value of friendship, trust and loyalty to quell the fires of ambition and temper her spirit? When you found she had discovered humility on her own?"

"Well… I felt proud, of course, and concerned about the effect the blood magic might have on her, and wished I could have—"

"Peace, sister," Luna said, lifting her hoof. "Mayhaps it's not I you should be saying this to?"

Celestia sighed. "Perhaps."

Luna shook her head. "I hope sister, that you make up your mind before it finally is too late."

Jane Kelly walked out of the archives and leaned against the wall, pinching the bridge of her nose.

"Hey, I've been looking for you."

She snapped her head to look at Sunset, looking for all the world like she had just seen a ghost.

"Jane? Are you okay?" Sunset asked, tilting her head and frowning with obvious worry. "You look pale. Do you need to go to the infirmary? I can talk to Bradford—"

"No. No…" Jane waved her away. "I'm fine. Just…" she glanced at Sunset, as if trying to figure her out. "Found out something… it's just, old history." She cleared her throat. "What was that about Central?"

Sunset motioned for them to walk, and Jane fell in beside her. "I just had a meeting with him… we're undertaking a Covert Action with the Skirmishers to find out information about the Assassin's stronghold."

Jane shook her head. "Why us? Why not the Skirmishers?"

"They already have done some work. They even got Volk to help them, which should tell you something. They have a lead, but they can't infiltrate the cities."

"Great, you know this means no armor. We're dressing up as civilians."

Sunset smirked. "I can still take my sword and gun though, and I happen to look great with my leather jacket."

Jane seemed like she was about to say something, but caught herself, her attitude deflating a little and becoming slightly more guarded. "Well, orders are orders, I guess. I'll grab my things."

Sunset nodded. "Yeah, I'll meet you at the hangar bay, I need to finish up a couple of things and make sure we are all set with our contact."

"Do we have a name and description?"

"Yep, it's all in the pad," Sunset said, passing one over to Jane. "You go ahead, alright?"

"Yeah, uh…" Jane hesitated.

"What?"

"Nothing," the specialist said, sighing. "Well, nothing that can't wait… probably best to discuss it later."

Sunset pressed her lips, but nodded, watching her friend walk away.

Sunset walked into the lab, dodging around equipment, and stopping to let a pair of scientists push a cart with the body of the ADVENT Priest past her. She then made her way to the back.

It was unusual to see soldiers in the lab, even if the scientists mixed and mingled with everyone else in the ship during their downtime, but Sunset had become a regular visitor, and after the second day, figured out the best places to get out of the way when the scientists were working. She moved fast in between areas, not wanting to interrupt or get caught in an experiment.

Finally, she reached the back of the lab, where Twilight's setup was analyzing the input from Twilight's scans.

"Hey," Sunset spoke up, making the young princess jump and turn, her hand on her chest. "Sorry, I seem to be scaring everyone lately. Must be those extra lessons in sneaking from Galahad and Elena kicking in."

"Must be," Twilight replied, shaking her head with a weak chuckle.

"Yeah, so," Sunset smile strained a little. "I just wanted to let you know… I'll be gone for a while."

"Oh… you're on a mission?" Twilight asked.

Sunset nodded. "Covert Ops. I'll need to infiltrate the city… I'll be out of touch for a week or so." She fished out her diary and passed it onto Twilight. "I wrote the Princess… the bookmark should let you skip to the next page if you need to talk to her."

Twilight nodded silently.

"I talked to Bradford, and he'll make sure you get anything you need… and the Commander did promise to send you back if you figure out how to do it, so you should be all set. I already told the Princess about the situation, so she knows you're safe."

"What about you?" Twilight asked.

"Hm? Oh, I'm sure I'll be fine, it's supposed to be less combat an—"

"No," Twilight interrupted, looking down at the diary in her hands. "How will she know you're safe?"

"Oh," Sunset rubbed the back of her head. "I'm not—my relationship with her is not like yours, I'm sure she doesn't want to deal with ghosts from the past when the future is trapped in another world, right?"

"Sunset…"

"And I already told her I was going to be away, so she knows what's going on. No need to worry."

"Did she write you back?"

Sunset looked away.

"Oh."

"Don't feel bad, Twilight… the way I left, the way I came back, and what I did… I don't blame her."

"It's just sad," Twilight replied with a sigh. "I'm surprised she didn't write back."

Sunset placed a hand on the young princess' shoulder. "It's different, so don't worry about it. Anyway, I should get going. Take care of yourself, okay? If you need anything ask anyone from my team… or Tygan I guess."

"Be careful, okay?" Twilight said, giving the older girl a hug.

"Sure," Sunset laughed, hugging her back. "You know I always am…"

"...not. Just make an exception this time and try to not… you know..." Twilight sighed and let her go. "Just be careful."

"I will," Sunset said, smiling.

"So," Dash asked. "Is Sunset coming or what?"

"Yeah, she's on her way…" Jane gave Dash a look. "She just needed to drop some stuff off. Probably with Twilight."

"Alright. I hope she doesn't take too long," Dash replied, sitting down on the ramp to the Skyranger. "Central already sent me the coordinates. It's a quick trip there, I guess you're meeting your contact there and they're driving you to the city."

"Sounds simple enough," Jane sighed. She gave Dash a look. "I found the video."

Dash looked away. "I have no idea what you're talking about."

"How is it possible?" Jane asked. "It doesn't make any sense, are you telling me she's her daughter? They look identical!"

"Do you have a better explanation?" Dash asked. "Not that I know what the hell you're talking about, for the record, but, if say, Central said that was the case, who are we to question it?"

"Does she know?" Jane asked.

"Without knowing what the actual hell you're talking about, I could only guess that probably not, whatever it is whoever it is that might or might not know."

Jane blinked. "That's pushing it."

"Look, all I know, is that you somehow got it in your mind that shit was going on behind your back, which there totally is. There's a metric-ton of shit going behind our backs. As I know I mentioned before, XCOM is a secret organization. Sure, the aliens know we exist, and sure, the Speaker makes us sound like we want to burn the world… but military doesn't tell you shit above your paygrade."

"But—"

"And that was made above your paygrade by Central."

Jane closed her mouth.

"The thing is… you guys risk your lives for each other and you were getting so suspicious you might as well see it yourself… but for the record, you're the only one that's that suspicious. Oh. And the Commander knows."

"What?! Bu—"

"Sorry I'm late, girls!" Sunset called, running into the hangar bay, knapsack bouncing against her back. "I've got everything, we're ready to go, Dash."

"Great!" The pilot stood up and stretched. "Like I told Jane, it's a short flight to meet your contact."

"Feeling any better, Jane?" Sunset asked.

"Not really," Jane growled, glaring at Dash. "But I'll get there, come on, let's get going. I just hope this engineer is trustworthy."

"I guess we'll find out," Sunset said, taking a seat across from Jane. The engines started and the Skyranger hummed as it slowly started to hover. "But you have to admit, it takes a lot of courage to be willing to work with us from the inside. If you get caught and there's no XCOM team around to help you, you're pretty much dead."

"Just like we'll be if we screw this one up," Jane pointed out.

"True," Sunset chuckled. "But we won't. We'll have to make do and put our trust in this Apple Bloom person we're meeting."

Neither was prepared for the Skyranger to lurch sideways.

But it did anyway.

o.0.o End Chapter 29 o.0.o

Chapter 30: Parallels

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Ranger

Chapter 30: Parallels

By Wanderer D

Rainbow Dash had managed to land the Skyranger in the tiniest space Sunset had ever seen. All around them, tall trees rose high above their transport, their tips lost in the darkness of the night.

They couldn't see that many stars, close as they were to the city, of course. They could see the glow of New Appaloosa far away at the edge of the forest. They were supposed to meet Apple Bloom here, but the Engineer hadn't arrived yet.

"It could be anything, really," Dash said, pacing around. "The roads are old… aliens never really did get into the National Park thing. She's probably just being careful."

"You're not taking off your helmet?" Jane asked. "We've been here for fifteen minutes already."

"No, I can't."

"Is it because you know her?" Sunset asked.

"...I just don't want to… you know, I don't think she ever really knew what—I-I… look, it's complicated, okay?"

"Heads up," Jane said from the top of the Skyranger, where she was looking down the vegetation-ridden road with her binoculars. "Someone's coming. Civilian vehicle."

Sunset stood up. "I thought she'd be driving an ADVENT van?" She prepped her shotgun.

Jane slid down the side of the Skryanger, grabbing onto the handholds designed for engineers to check on it and lowered herself to the ground, flanking Sunset and aiming her gun at the entrance to the small valley. Rainbow Dash herself took cover at the top of the ramp, ready to shoot and take off if anything went wrong.

They watched the vehicle slow down between the trees and a figure step out.

"Seems to be alone," Sunset whispered.

"I didn't see any other vehicles," Jane confirmed.

The figure made its way through the trees, finally emerging right in front of the Skyranger, revealing a woman, wearing jeans, a t-shirt, an ADVENT cap and a brown jacket. She walked up to the base of the ramp and looked up, mouth open in awe. "Oh, wow! That's so cool!"

"Hands where I can see them!" Sunset shouted, emerging from her hiding place and making the woman jump in place.

"Don't shoot!" the woman said, voice high. "I'm on your side!"

"Who the hell are you?!" Jane asked, emerging from the other side, making the woman spin around wildly, hands in the air. "You are not our contact!"

"I was sent here!" the woman said nervously, looking from Sunset to Jane, unable to decide who to look at in the eye. "My name is Scootaloo! Apple Bloom couldn't get out of the installation tonight because the manager wanted a report so she sent me!"

"Likely story," Jane muttered. "For all we know Apple Bloom is dead and you're an infiltrator."

"I would never—"

"Great, months of work... for this," Sunset muttered. "I'm sorry miss, but even if you're legit, we don't actually know you and our agreement was w—"

"You can trust her."

All three stopped and looked up the ramp, where Dash was standing and looking down at them.

"What?" Sunset asked.

"You can't be serious," Jane said. "We have very specific guidelines…"

"Dash?" Scootaloo asked weakly. "Is… that really you?"

As she walked down the ramp and walking up until she was in front of her, Rainbow Dash took her helmet off, smiling at the younger woman. "Hey, squirt. Long time."

She didn't even see the uppercut coming.

The trees passed by them as the car made its bumpy way down the road, slowly, so that Scootaloo didn't need to turn on her headlights for now.

"ADVENT has been ramping up production of robot units lately," Scootaloo explained. "So all engineers are being asked to stay extra hours, and it's not like you can simply pretend you're sick now… because they'll send you to the clinic, and those guys there… those guys are bastards. They have zero sympathy and will report you immediately if your health is anything less than stellar, then it's a visit to the vats and in five minutes your cold is gone and you can work."

Sunset and Jane exchanged looks.

"Of course I guess I could pretend to be dead for a few years and come back as if nothing happened. Yeah, that could work, except that it's apparently a frequently-used form of tax evasion, or it was in any case, and then The Man gives it to you because you chose no to tell people that cared about you that you were still alive!"

She swerved around a tree and soon they were bumping a little less down a grassy hill.

"Sure, I guess it is okay to have to bypass alien security, guards, actual aliens and drive into the forest to find out you're alive after all this time, but, what can be done about that? Right? It's just a minor inconvenience."

"I… don't see how that relates to Apple Bloom's situation…" Sunset said uncomfortably.

"Of course you wouldn't," the woman said, glancing at her. "You're too young to understand this kind of thing!"

"I don't think—"

"The last time I saw Rainbow Dash, I was fourteen!" Scootaloo growled. "Fourteen! That was twenty years ago! I thought she was dead! We all thought she had died! Her and Applejack and Fluttershy an—"

"Fluttershy? Like the one in Angel's Hope?" Sunset asked.

Scootaloo slammed on the breaks. She dragged her hand down her face and glared at the two soldiers.

Sunset simply raised her hands in a placating gesture.

Scootaloo started driving again. "You have no idea what it's like to think someone you loved like a sister is dead for two decades and then suddenly she flies in and she's all chummy," Scootaloo said, pulling out of the grass and into an actual road. "It's downright insulting."

"Doesn't ADVENT have patrols in these areas?" Sunset asked, trying to divert the conversation. It hit uncomfortably close to home.

"They do, but New Appaloosa is a bit more lax with that stuff. We don't have a lot of big production going on, which makes it less of a target for your kind."

"Our kind?" Jane growled. "We're trying to save you people from the Elders."

"Yes. Take away our global health, stable economy, lack of hunger and poverty issues, secure jobs and bring back the wars, petty squabbles and politicians working for money rather than nation. I can't effing wait."

Sunset stole a glance at Scootaloo. "I'm guessing you're not pro-resistance?"

Scootaloo sniffed disdainfully. "Should I be? Why? I work in the development of new technologies for improved space travel, working on already advanced models brought by the Elders. Less piloting, sure, but still amazing. And you want me to drop that because you natives can't be bothered to just stop living in the swamps and join civilized society?"

"You really think that?" Jane asked, leaning forth and glaring at Scootaloo's back. "Then why are you helping us?"

"Because my friend is an idiot and agreed to help you find whatever it is you're looking for," Scootaloo said. "And I value loyalty over secrets."

Jane seemed about to say something else, but she clamped up and leaned back, looking away.

Scootaloo, looking over at her on the rearview mirror snorted. "Yeah, you know what I mean."

"You haven't seen what ADVENT does to people," Sunset said, looking out the window as fields gave way to lights and buildings. "How they storm out of the night and bombard encampments full of civilians, or send Chryssalids to butcher the innocent."

"So you say," Scootaloo said, taking a turn and slowing down for a light. "But I have seen what certain groups do, like XCOM. I've seen them destroy a whole block of the city to capture someone, or kill ADVENT officers to sow chaos."

They started moving again soon. "Whatever it is that Apple Bloom got herself into, I hope she gets out of it soon and we can return to our normal lives, in peace and yes, with the Elders."

"You were in Canterlot High, then," Sunset said slowly. "I was there… recently. I saw how your school was cut in half by an alien weapon that killed a lot of students. That was done by the same Elders you're defending."

Scootaloo didn't answer, and the rest of the trip went in silence.

They parked the car in the garage under the apartment, and went upstairs. Sunset had been in places like these before… mostly on the rooftops, or the alleys in between, while shooting down enemies. But, looking at it in a non-combat environment, it was kind of nice. It was bigger than she had thought it would be, and clearly designed for more than one person.

They followed Scootaloo into a large living room with a comfy couch and a large holographic screen showing an interview with The Speaker, where another woman—who was not Apple Bloom either—was on a communicator. Unlike Scootaloo, she was wearing a nice dress and her hair was long and carefully taken care of.

"Yes, yes," the woman said, smiling their way and waving at them. "Yes… his suit looks amazing, I'm looking at it right now. You outdid yourself, sis. Great job." She rolled her eyes. "I'm sure. Yes. Okay… sorry sis, we have guests tonight. No, they're not male. No! No vipers! Sis! Okay, I-fine, I love you too, bye."

The connection was disengaged and the woman turned off the screen.

"Sweetie Belle," Scootaloo said, motioning, "Sunset Shimmer and Jane Kelly. They're… Apple Bloom's friends."

"Oh, nice to meet you!" Sweetie Belle said. "I'm sorry I was on the phone, my sister called and well, she's hard to get off the line if she gets started."

Sunset shook her head, then tilted it a little. "Wait, I think I've seen you before… aren't you famous?"

Sweetie grinned. "Oh! A fan! Yes, I'm the host of 'Elders Today'! Which sounds like a show for old people, but it's actually about ADVENT's efforts to take supplies and medical assistance to the settlements in the wild!"

"You don't say?" Sunset glanced at Scootaloo, who shrugged.

"She gets her info from ADVENT sources."

"My hopes for this going smoothly are very… diminished," Sunset muttered.

"Why? You don't think the glorious Elders are doing enough for our undeserving race to be thankful for?" Sweetie asked, blinking innocently at Sunset. "But they are so, very kind and helpful and forgiving and nonviolent!"

It took Sunset a moment to catch on. Then she started laughing.

"What?" Jane asked. "What am I missing?"

"It seems your friend likes sarcasm almost as much as our Sweetie does," Scootaloo said with a shrug. "Beer? I feel like I could use one." She asked, putting her words into actions and opening the fridge, where Jane could see a whole bunch of them.

Jane glanced at Sunset and Sweetie, who were grinning and sitting down to chat. "Yeah, I could use one," she said.

Scootaloo grabbed one and got out of the way, going to sit over at the kitchen counter, while Jane rummaged through the options, finally settling for a "Berserker Flea" Red Ale. (It packs a bite!)

She sat next to Scootaloo, taking a sip and watching the older woman sip her beer. "Huh, Sectoid Sweat, huh?"

Scootaloo gave her a look. "What about it?"

Jane shrugged, waiting for Scootaloo to bring the bottle up to her lips and start drinking. "It's also Dash's favorite."

"I'm lost again…" Twilight sighed, looking to her right and left morosely. The hallways in the Avenger were frustratingly identical, and despite the time she had already spent in the ship, one wrong turn could spell a long, long trip around the place until she found someone who would direct her to her room.

With a heavy sigh, she chose a random direction and started walking, her boots making a dull sound with each step on the metallic floors. She eventually saw a light and an open door.

A bit more hopeful, she headed there and looked inside. "Ooh… it's the bar!" she said, mentally calculating her location in the ship, and smiling as she realized she knew the way back. Her smile faded when she noticed the person in the back.

Rainbow Dash sat in the corner table, away from the few other people in the bar. She looked miserable, and the number of empty bottles of beer in front of her was close to half a dozen.

Twilight bit her lip, but after a moment's hesitation, stood straighter and stepped in.

"Sorry, Twilight," the bartender-in-turn, an Engineer this time, called out. "You're still not old enough to drink."

"That's okay, John," Twilight said, smiling. "I'm not thirsty."

John nodded, following Twilight's look. He grimaced. "Alright, just… she was in a bad mood when she arrived."

"I still should check on her," Twilight said, walking over to the back while John shrugged and returned to cleaning up. The bar was practically empty except for the four of them, and once he was done, he'd be heading out too.

"Rainbow Dash?" Twilight ventured, standing next to the drinking pilot, who turned to glance up at her. She wasn't drunk, surprisingly enough, or if she was, it wasn't noticeable.

"Oh. Hey it's you. Twilight, right? Listen, no offense but, I'd rather be alone for now."

"I see that…" Twilight nodded. "But I thought I'd still offer an ear. You look really sad and I hate to see my friends like that."

Dash barked a laugh. "Friends, huh?" She motioned for Twilight to sit across her.

"Remember to turn off the lights!" John called out, walking out of the door. "Good night!"

Dash waited until Twilight had finished waving at him before speaking up again. "Y'know, I haven't figured you out yet. You came with Sunset, so… are you like, from the past? The future? Someone's daughter?"

"Well, I have a mother and a father," Twilight said. "As… most people do."

"Hehehe, I see what you did there."

Twilight smiled. "So what's going on?"

"I just… saw someone I didn't expect. This kid… well, she's now all grown up. She used to look up to me a long time ago and… well, she thought I was dead." Dash tilted her head, showing Twilight the bruise where Scootaloo's fist had connected. "She wasn't happy to see me. Or… she was, but not. You know what I mean."

Twilight grimaced.

"I would have contacted her before, but her best friend is my dead best friend's sister," Dash said softly. "I… couldn't even get the strength to tell Apple Bloom what happened to her sister. But… I just… Sunset and Jane were ready to give up the mission, and with how much is riding on it, I thought…" she trailed off.

"When she died… I thought I'd just, you know, cut myself off from all of that, so I wouldn't have to… face any of them. I heard what happened to Pinkie, and I hadn't seen Fluttershy and Rarity since school… it's a long time. But, I hated myself for never telling Apple Bloom what happened, her or her brother… I mean, they lost their sister! And I was her best friend!"

She looked away. "I managed to put that behind me for a while. Or… I managed to ignore the guilt for a while. I pretended they were dead too." She took a drink and cackled. "They weren't. Damned Crusaders were always tough."

Twilight chuckled. "Must've been all the tree-sap."

Dash laughed and nodded. "Yeah." Her smiled faded. "Wait… how did you know that?"

Realizing what she had done, Twilight's smile widened unconvincingly. "Um? What?"

"About the tree sap."

"Tree sap? I said… T's Sap. As in, ye olde butchered Englishe?"

"Twilight…"

"Um…"

"I put up with a lot… a LOT of unexplained crap. But you're not getting away from this one."

Twilight bit her lip, but then an idea crossed her mind. It was probably stupid. Desperate even. And Sunset would kill her.

"Can you… keep a secret?" she finally asked.

Dash rolled her eyes and pointed to the "Vigilo Confido" patch on her flight uniform. "I work for a secret organization."

"But everyone knows ab—"

"Twilight!"

"Fine!" Twilight winced. "Fine… just… give me a moment."

Dash watched as Twilight pulled out Sunset's diary, and opened it just past a bookmark. Twilight wrote something quick on it, and Dash gave her an unamused look, about to ask what the deal was when the book vibrated. She watched as Twilight read something, then, with a quick note back, she placed the diary in a clean spot on the table, facing Rainbow Dash.

"So… what is this?" Rainbow Dash asked. "Are we going to write poetry?"

Twilight shook her head as the book glowed and vibrated again. "No… look at the page, Rainbow Dash."

Rainbow Dash studied Twilight's face, licking her lips and gulping down. "What is this?"

"Just look at it… please?"

Rainbow Dash sighed and looked down, blinking as words appeared on the page.

Rainbow Dash? Is that you, sugarcube? I know this is weird… let me tell ya, it's weird for me too…

Dash looked up. "What is this?"

Twilight just tilted her head, and Dash looked down, not daring to breathe.

...and to be honest, I'm not sure this is a good idea, but Twilight said that you lost your Applejack and you're afraid to talk to Apple Bloom for me. Her. Goshdarnit, this is too confusing. Anyway, sugarcube. Take it from me, Applejack would want you to trust Apple Bloom and to take care of her. Especially if it's been a while and Granny is not there.

Big Mac might be an ol' softie, but Apple Bloom, she'll be happy to see y'all. I know it's not the same. I'm not your Applejack, but if she's anything like me, like you are so similar to Rainbow Dash here that Twilight had no problem recognizing y'all… then you can trust me, one hundred percent on this one: she'll still be sad I'm-she's gone, but she'll also be happy to have you.

Give her a chance.

Your friend,

-Applejack

o.0.o End Chapter 30 o.0.o

Intermission: 20 Years Ago - Pt. 1

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Ranger

Intermission: 20 Years Ago - Pt. 1

By Wanderer D

Far beneath a mountain in a certain National Park, Chrysalis stared at the holographic display of Earth as it slowly rotated in place, casting bluish light on the rocky roof of the large cavern-turned-Mission Control. Her fingers drummed on the bars overlooking the device, and she gritted her teeth in frustration.

This was her world.

The world she had sworn to protect the moment she had been given command of XCOM…

The world that wanted her to fail.

"Commander," Bradford spoke up, walking up behind her. "We have an incoming transmission from the Council."

"What for?" Chrysalis snarled. "They already ordered us to stand down." She motioned at the map, where a large, red holographic display of the gigantic alien ship the troops had dubbed 'The Temple Ship' marred the calm, blue surface of the planet. "All it took was one ship. One. And no matter our track record so far, they choose to surrender!"

"Now, commander, they only—"

She smashed her fist down on the top of a console. "Imbeciles! Don't they see what they have done to us already? The abductions? The experiments? They expect us to just stand down and bow our heads? We discovered Psionics, Bradford! We took down a battleship!"

"I know, commander," Bradford said. "The troops and I agree with you, but I still think you should talk to the Councilman."

"Again," Chrysalis shook her head, sliding down against the wall. "What for? It's a waste of time."

"Chrysi," Sunset Shimmer said, walking into Mission Control and smiling at her friend. "Listen to the man, what's the worst that could happen?" She extended a hand, motioning for Chrysalis to take it.

Chrysalis snorted, but rolled her eyes and took the offered hand to stand up. "Come on," she said to Sunset, motioning towards the exit. "Bradford, get Shen and Vahlen, he might as well talk to all senior staff."

"Yes, Commander!" Bradford said, saluting and giving Sunset a thankful nod before heading out.

Chrysalis sighed but followed Sunset out of Mission Control, and into the comforting, anthill-like structure of XCOM HQ. She had always felt comfortable here, underground and with the tunnels, where the only people she needed to talk to answered to her first.

'Well, most of them,' she thought, glancing at Sunset, who smiled at her as if she knew what she was thinking.

"Don't worry, I'm not reading your mind."

"Then how did you know what I was thinking?"

Sunset laughed, wrapping an arm around Chrysalis' shoulders. Even with the recent news of the world governments agreeing to a ceasefire to parlay with the invaders, Sunset's attitude of being absolutely and definitely irreverent towards rank, or at least Chrysalis' rank specifically, hadn't changed.

"Because we've been friends since we were kids? And you have the most adorable suspicious look out of anyone I have ever met."

Chrysalis made a mental note of the name of the Engineer that had snickered as he walked past them. He would suffer. Oh yes. He would suffer.

"Can you believe what they did?" Chrysalis finally asked.

Sunset grimaced, letting her go and simply walking next to her. "I can. I don't want to, but I definitely can. Politicians only want two things: money, and to not risk anything. If the aliens cut a good deal… I can see that happening."

"That they could be so easily intimidated, they're the worst type of cowards, Sunset."

Sunset shrugged. "They still haven't made up their minds yet."

They reached the end of the hallway and stopped by a door. "Then we need to make sure their minds focus on kicking the aliens out of here rather than becoming their slaves." Chrysalis entered the code into the panel, and the Situation Room opened up for them.

"They only know what they've read in reports, they don't really understand the depth of the Elder's intentions," Sunset said, sitting down on one of the available chairs. She paused. "Our… friend is distressed, he says that the Temple Ship contains a tremendously strong Ethereal, easily his superior in strength."

Chrysalis gave her a look. "Is he… here?"

Sunset tapped the side of her head. "Watching, and listening. Fading away..."

Chrysalis shuddered. "I can't even begin to imagine what it's like sharing your mind like that."

Sunset was about to reply, but closed her mouth, turning her face slightly to the door. "The others are here."

Sure enough, the door opened and Raymon Shen, Moira Vahlen and Bradford all stepped in.

"Commander. Colonel," Vahlen said politely, sitting across from Sunset and nodding at both.

"I heard the news," Shen said, shaking his head and sitting next to her. "I can't believe they would even consider this."

Vahlen snorted. "That is your problem, Raymond, for all your genius, you can't fathom the depth of human cowardice."

"On that, we agree," Chrysalis said, nodding at both scientists. "Bradford, plug them through."

The screen fizzled and the shape of the Councilman appeared. As always he was showered in shadows, where his face couldn't be distinguished at all thanks to strategic lighting.

"Hello, Commander. As you heard earlier today, the governments of several countries are sending a delegation to meet with the Ethereals in Europe. While the rest of the Council was… eager… to embrace our enemies, I remain unconvinced of their motives.

"Perhaps this is the end of the XCOM project, but ever since your assignment, you have outperformed and outdone yourself on every front, Commander. It had been an honor to watch you fight the invaders."

"An honor you chose to spit upon," Chrysalis remarked, brow darkening.

"I understand your frustration, Commander, and I assure you, you are not alone. While… most of the Council has left, a few of us have decided to make… a statement."

The mood in the room changed. Vahlen and Shen leaned on the table, looking intently at the screen. Bradford frowned, crossing his arms, and Sunset looked almost eager.

"What kind of statement?" Chrysalis asked, a vicious smile slowly spreading through her face.

"The type that puts things into perspective, Commander," the Councilman said, pausing for effect. "The Temple Ship is hovering over Earth, ready to destroy anyone the Alien Invaders decide is their enemy. If they are destroyed, it would send a clear message not only to the Aliens themselves, but also to the governments of Earth."

"The temple ship is almost impregnable!" Bradford said, unfolding his arms and staring incredulously at the Councilman.

"Almost being the keyword here," Chrysalis said.

"Commander, with all due respect—"

"I will leave the planning to you, Commander," the Councilman interrupted Bradford. "We have limited time, so I trust you'll make the most of it. Good luck, Commander."

The screen went black.

"I know, Bradford," Chrysalis said, motioning for her Central Officer to sit down at the table. "We have very little chance to do anything right now. But we have to do something."

"So," Sunset spoke up. "What are our options?"

"Shen? Vahlen? How are our armaments?" Chrysalis asked.

The scientists exchanged glances.

"We finished a functioning prototype for the Psi Armor," Vahlen spoke up first. "It's still missing some plating, but I'm sure Raymond's engineers can finish it up soon."

Shen nodded. "I also managed to create a laser prototype of each style of weapon… I was planning on throwing them into production before the council news had arrived just a few hours ago."

"How about the… Blaster Launcher you designed after Operation Slingshot?"

Shen shrugged. "It worked in theory… and it's been put together, but never field-tested."

Chrysalis hummed.

"Commander," Bradford said. "That's barely enough armaments to get a squad ready."

"Well, we do have plasma grenades working now," Sunset spoke up, and there's the other prototype armors. "But the problem is how do we get past the first few defenses? I don't like our chances with laser weapons, as superior as they might be to our usual fare."

Shen tapped the table with his pen. "Since this is more of a statement… we could arm the Skyranger. It's large enough to handle more than one laser cannon, and we could also install that defense matrix we designed earlier in the month for the Ravens."

"As long as the pilot doesn't use any of the weapons until they're there, I foresee no problem with this," Vahlen added.

"See to it," Chrysalis said.

Shen and Vahlen stood and left, leaving the three officers alone.

"Commander…" Bradford said slowly. "You do understand, Commander, that whoever goes there to make this… statement… is never coming back."

Chrysalis crossed her arms and looked away. "I'll ask the troops for volunteers."

"You won't have to," Sunset spoke up. "I'm volunteering Stardust."

"No," Chrysalis said immediately, standing up and slamming her hand down on the table. "You're not going, we'll need you to—to train other Psi-ops."

"I'm not the only one," Sunset spoke up, standing up and levelling a look at Chrysalis. "Annette has the power. Geist is almost as powerful as I am… but you need the most powerful Psi-op right now, and that's me. Remember what is waiting up there."

"Leave us, Bradford. That's an order."

Bradford grimaced, hesitating, even though it was a direct order from his commander. Sunset turned and smiled at him, placing her hand on his shoulder and giving it a squeeze. "Go on, John… we'll need you ready."

Bradford took a deep breath, grasping Sunset's hand on his shoulder briefly before nodding and heading out of the room.

As soon as the door closed behind him, Chrysalis turned on Sunset. "You can't! I know you're the most powerful Psi-op, but you also carry it, or whatever is left of it after so long, inside!" She paced around the room, trying to formulate words. "Sunny, you're my best friend!" She finally said, rounding up on her highest-ranking soldier. "Please, I'm sure—can't you transfer it onto someone else?"

"That is why, in part it has to be me," Sunset said. "Not only does it help the troops see that we make sacrifices too… but it can help me fight off the Ethereal's attempts to control not only me, but my squad. Even Geist couldn't do that without two more psi-ops and that's not a guarantee."

Chrysalis sat down, burying her face in her hands. "Sunset… Sunny… I can't lose you. We've… lost so many good people fighting these things..."

"I know," Sunset said, walking over and embracing her friend in a tight hug. "We can't let that happen again. You are needed… now, and you will be needed in the future… you and Bradford… and others."

Chrysalis buried her face in her friends long, red and golden hair. "You know something."

"I know something."

Chrysalis chuckled, not letting go. "This mission really is suicide, Sunset. And you're taking the best people we have…"

"Because we need to make that statement," Sunset insisted. "For those that have fallen, and those that will come. We will meet again, Chrysi, someday, somehow… I might not be exactly the same but…"

"You'll always be my Sunset… my friend," Chrysalis whispered.

Sunset chuckled, tightening her hug for a few seconds. "Always. Just... remember to give me a chance before you shoot me, next time we meet."

"I don't know what that even means," Chrysalis said with a half-laugh, half-sob. "But... okay?"

"That'll do."

o.0.o End Chapter o.0.o

Chapter 31: Smile

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Ranger

Chapter 31: Smile

By Wanderer D

"Don't think bad of Scootaloo," Sweetie Belle said, as she and Sunset lounged in the living room. "Things went… sideways for her early on, after the war." She looked over at her friend, who was downing yet another beer with Jane. The pair had accumulated quite the number already.

"It was just a shock, really," Sunset said, leaning back, eyes pensive as she looked up. "With what happened in Canterlot City, I would have expected everyone to be anti-establishment."

Sweetie shrugged. "We all were. Once. But the aliens are not dumb. I'm sure you've seen the propaganda, being part of a… group of dissidents." A smile played on her face when she said that. "How Earth had started the aggressions, how the Elders had been trying to uplift us, how they got betrayed by Earth's military during peace talks…" she chuckled.

Sweetie gave Sunset a calculating look. "You look to be about twenty-three, or so… so you were probably what, five when that happened, at the most? We were fourteen, and we watched the news from a fallout shelter as their biggest ship shot into space and turned night into day before its remains crashed into the Pacific Ocean. Resistance was defeated worldwide and we held our breaths, waiting for the aliens to suddenly strike us down.

"But they didn't. They moved entire populations to newly made cities which they created within a month. Monsters that we had seen on television killing people were suddenly not there, or were helping rebuild. Old cities were brought down, the rubble cleared, and new ones erected in their place.

"To some of us it was obvious that the past was being erased, so newer generations would just know the alien rule, and so, many left to the wilds… and we expected them to die. But the aliens didn't kill them. And then, we got accelerated education, to catch up with their level of technology.

"My sister was hired by newly-minted ADVENT officials to create clothes that would fit the new regime… I graduated in arts under ADVENT-controlled education and went straight into their 24 News team. Scootaloo and Apple Bloom were recognized for their genius and went to work in the areas where they excelled… and suddenly… we had a life, jobs, education, resources, a home… all because of the Elders."

"You know that when you give those reports… you're spreading lies," Sunset pointed out.

Sweetie looked down. "I know."

"Then why—"

"Did you see the suit The Speaker was wearing tonight during that interview?" Sweetie asked, interrupting Sunset's train of thought. "My sister designed it. She's his personal clothes designer now. This place… it's where the three of us get to spend time with each other, and we support it with jobs we have with ADVENT.

"Apple Bloom's brother, Big Mac, was healed by one of the first Gene-Clinics, and he joined ADVENT security. We haven't heard from him since, but… in the off-chance he's alive and hasn't been killed by the more violent groups, like XCOM…"

The older woman shook her head, smiling, when back in the kitchen Scootaloo and Jane started laughing at something. "It's… I'm not saying it's the right thing to do, knowing what I do, but it's a lot harder to justify breaking away with so much to lose."

Sunset nodded. "I… understand."

"Maybe you do," Sweetie said, smiling and nodding. "Which is why you really should go. If we are caught hosting members of the resistance, we, and our families, will get in trouble."

Sunset took a deep breath, letting it out slowly. "I don't want you to get in trouble, but I don't think you get the whole picture of what ADVENT is doing."

"Maybe," Sweetie said, nodding again. "But, while I would have loved to be able to… fight back, too much of my friend's happiness, and my sister's well-being, depends on me not doing so."

The door to the apartment opened and closed, and a new voice reached them. "Ah swear, if that stupid overseer tells me to stay over one more time, Ah'm going to reduce production so much, he'll be out of a job in a week!"

"Oh, hi, Apple Bloom!" Sweetie called. "We have guests!"

The woman that came in was also in her thirties, but in contrast to Scootaloo's purple and Sweetie's pink and purple hair, she was a solid redhead. She was wearing an overall full of pockets, and a utility belt with more instruments in it than Sunset could name. She recognized her instantly from the dossier, however.

"Ah, you're here," Apple Bloom said. "Ah'm mighty sorry I wasn't able to pick y'all up myself… trouble at work prevented it and if the time you have for this to work out wasn't so limited, I would've sent you a new time to meet. Ah hope y'all didn't have much trouble?"

"Not at all," Sunset said, standing up to shake the woman's hand. "We were a bit confused at first, but Scootaloo—"

"I managed to convince them that I was legit, that's all," Scootaloo said, stumbling out of the kitchen with Jane's help, and giving Sunset a glare that dared her to disagree.

"We were convinced," Sunset acknowledged. "And here we are. Although, it would probably be safer to simply cancel the mission if something like this happens again. Scootaloo could have been shot."

"Well, Ah had more faith in y'all than that," Apple Bloom said. "Ah'm glad that no-one got shot, and that neither Sweetie or Scootaloo convinced you to leave."

"Oh, come on, Apple Bloom," Sweetie said, "It wasn't for lack of trying."

"Eh," Scootaloo said, elbowing Jane. "They grow on ya."

"Anyway," Apple Bloom said, walking into the room and taking off her belt. "There's a lot to plan ahead. Infiltrating the plant will be the easy part, but getting the information you need will require some work, and if you get caught..."

"We have… coordinates to hide, if necessary," Sunset said, taking out a pad and giving it to Apple Bloom.

Eyebrow raised, she looked down at the information, and frowned. "This… is in the middle of the forest… Ah think right next to Peavine Peak. Why would you go there?"

Sunset shrugged. "No idea. But… we were told that it's the last place the aliens would look for us."

Apple Bloom grimaced, and gave the pad back to them. "Well, Ah can't figure out why you'd even head there, so Ah guess that sort of proves the point…" She motioned for Sunset and Jane to sit down, while Scootaloo and Sweetie hovered uncertainly.

"Girls," Apple Bloom said, "If y'all don't want to help, that's alright… Ah know Ah'm asking a lot as it is, but it might be better if you don't hang around if that's the case."

"Bah," Scootaloo groaned, making her way to sit down on the floor next to the table. "As if we'd let you do this on your own."

Sweetie smiled, also taking a seat. "You should know better."

Apple Bloom chuckled. "Ah guess Ah should," she said. She glanced at Sunset. "Well then, we'd better get started. It'll be a couple of days before the shipment gets sent out… but the main problem Ah think we'll have is the CSB..."

Sunset and Jane were up early the next morning, leaving the apartment unseen, and headed down the street in civilian clothes. Jane kept giving Sunset weird looks, and Sunset tried to keep her mind occupied as they made their way to scope out one of their objectives.

New Appaloosa was located North-West of old Reno, and had been built around the MEC Factory where Apple Bloom worked. Being the largest of its kind, and requiring a considerable amount of workers, from engineers to designers to specialists, the city had grown steadily to become quite bigger than the aliens had anticipated. It had its own TV Station, a mall, restaurants, and its own Central Security Building, or as Apple Bloom and apparently all the locals called it: the CSB.

Unlike many other locations, the organic growth of the city had forced the urban planning to be a little different than the average ADVENT New City, and the CSB had been created to coordinate and secure the various plants that had sprouted intermingled with the city.

Whether the aliens recognized it or not, it was a logistical nightmare for XCOM and a few other groups that tried to keep civilian casualties at the lowest possible. As Apple Bloom had explained, the MEC Factory wouldn't be too hard to infiltrate. Her security clearance was high enough that sneaking their guests in wouldn't be an issue. The problem was that to access the database where the information they needed was located, a dual set of signals needed to be activated.

The factory manager would have to activate his access, then confirm his identity with the agents in the Central Security Building. They would, in turn, send a direct counter-signal to the security systems in the factory, which would then open the gates to access the logs. Unfortunately, the signal was encrypted and cycled every few hours, so it couldn't be just replicated. A failure to do this, would activate all the security systems in the factory.

Thus, the plan was to split up, and hit both places at the same time. But, for that, recon was necessary.

"Wow, I haven't been to a mall in…" Sunset shook her head. "Ever."

"Never?" Jane raised her eyebrow. The pair had decided to walk through the mall and pretend to window shop while heading to the other side to record the information they could about the layout and security outside the Central Security Building. "Really? I would have thought that from… where you came from… there would be malls."

Sunset blinked at the odd phrasing, but shrugged. "Not really. Maybe an open market."

Jane gave her a look.

Sunset had to admit, it was weird not seeing Jane in the usual army overalls they wore. She had gone for jeans and a white blouse, although her hair was still in a ponytail. Sunset herself had dressed in jeans, a blouse, and her black leather jacket. They didn't stand out too much from the other civilians milling about, but when they found themselves in the area leading to the the CSB, they found themselves in a mostly empty plaza, with occasional patrols passing by and no obvious place to record or take pictures from.

The plaza itself had a large statue of the Elders, representing them granting their 'gifts' on humanity, although to the pair of XCOM operatives, it looked more like the Ethereal was mentally dominating a human.

Here and there, on the many areas with fountains and benches, small groups of people talked or sat, enjoying the peace and quiet. In between paths of white metal, patches of grass provided idyllic spots for resting, and at the very opposite side of where they stood, they could see the entrance to the CSB.

"How, in the name of the Commander, are we going to get close enough to get video?" Jane hissed.

Sunset grimaced, studying the area, until her eyes settled on a patrol coming up the side of the plaza, all the way down from the CSB. "I have an idea, but there's two things I must know…"

Jane took a deep breath. It had been a long time since Sunset and her had done this, but Sunset's ideas were never to be underestimated in scope, stupidity, or ambition. "Okay, what?"

"First question, can you actually smile?" Sunset asked. "As in, is it physically possible for you to get rid of the scowl that scared the sales-lady earlier and pretend to be actually enjoying yourself?"

Jane glared at her. "I am able to do that, yes. What's your second question?"

"Do you know how to giggle?"

o.0.o End Chapter 31 o.0.o

Chapter 32: Secret

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Ranger

Chapter 32: Secret

By Wanderer D

Twilight and Tygan walked towards the Commander's Quarters, reports in hand. Once they were outside the room, Twilight blinked. She could hear music behind the door.

"...Runaway Train, tearing up…"

"Hm. I thought the commander knew we were coming," Tygan muttered, glancing at Twilight.

"Should we come back later?" Twilight asked as the music played beyond the door. "Maybe this is her relaxation time?"

Tygan shook his head. "I'm sure we sent the message with enough time, Twilight. Regardless, the sooner we give this report to the Commander, the sooner we can get back to research, building and, in your case, training."

When Twilight simply nodded, Tygan reached out and pressed the panel to open the door to the Commander's Quarters.

The volume increased the moment the door slid open, allowing for the music to reach Twilight's ears unhindered. She had to admit, it was a pretty catchy tune, if a bit on the sad side due to the lyrics. Inside the room, however, Chrysalis was not dancing or even nodding to the music, as Twilight had expected.

The commander was busy at work, looking at reports and maps on the giant monitor she had attached to the wall, just above her desk. Tygan cleared his throat, but when Chrysalis didn't react, he called out, "Commander!"

Chrysalis started and turned around, then scowled in annoyance at the speakers as if she had just noticed the music. With a push of a button the music stopped completely; the silence almost as overwhelming in its suddenness as the music had been in its loudness.

"Sorry about that, I forgot you two were coming over," Chrysalis said, tilting her head from side to side to crack her neck. The popping sound made Twilight wince, but neither of the two humans reacted to it at all.

"That's not a problem, Commander, although I must admit… I never took you for a fan of 90s music," Tygan said with a bit of a smirk.

Chrysalis frowned. "I'm not," she said, turning back to her computer to glare at it as if was at fault. "I hate 90s music."

Tygan and Twilight looked at each other, shrugging.

"We brought you our initial report," Twilight said, drawing the commander's attention to her. "I have identified wavelengths that cancel out each other between Psychic and Thaumatic energies. This is… not volatile, per se, but could be used to theoretically create a 'dead zone' for users of either skillset."

"Hm," Chrysalis rested her chin on her fist. "Is there any way to make this happen?"

"Well, that's the thing," Twilight said. "To create a plausible prototype I'd need a steady source of ma-Thaumatic energy."

Chrysalis gave her a half-lidded look. "So. You want your element."

Twilight nodded.

"However," Tygan spoke up. "If we attempt this, we should find a safe place to try this outside the Avenger and also outside the immediate range of any of our psi-ops."

"Or further development could be done to try and create a container," Twilight said. "But either way, we'd need a steady source of magic to do this."

"Thaumatic energy, you mean," Chrysalis said with a chuckle. "Wouldn't want Tygan here to have to think outside the box on a simple term."

"Thank you, commander," Tygan said through gritted teeth.

Chrysalis thought on the issue. "Next time we land near one of our allied bases… provided it's not the Templar's HQ, you can try some of your inventions. I would suggest you work on a few simple prototypes, even if you don't charge them yet."

Tygan and Twilight nodded.

"If I may make a suggestion," Tygan said. "I would recommend Twilight work with Lily on this one. She has… more experience with creating such devices."

Chrysalis nodded. "I will let her know. In the meantime, miss Sparkle," she said, tilting her head, "I believe you still have training to attend?"

"Oh, yes! It's our first night-time exercise! I'll head down immediately!" Twilight said, saluting and running for the door. Once she was gone, Chrysalis chuckled.

"It seems the training is working."

"Oh my…" Sweetie said, touching her lips as she, Scootaloo and Applebloom looked down at the pictures and video that Jane and Sunset were analyzing. "I understand charming your way through a problem… my sister does it all the time," she murmured, "But really, Sunset…"

She picked up the pad with a capture of a viper coiled around Sunset, its arms holding her at the waist as she leaned back, her own arms wrapped around the alien's neck, both of them staring at each other with half-lidded eyes and knowing smirks while a Captain pouted to the side, and turned it around so all the others could see. "...what is your secret?"

Sunset grinned. "Giggling."

Scootaloo chuckled, flipping the picture to one of Jane with the Captain, both of them appearing to be struggling to smile. "Really Jane… what is your secret?" she laughed.

"Ha ha, Scootaloo."

"Don't give her a hard time," Sunset spoke up. "She's actually very giggly and smiley when she's drunk."

"In any case," Apple Bloom spoke up. "As amusing and improbable as these pictures are… did y'all get the information you needed?"

Jane rolled her eyes, but with a few tweaks, she projected the pictures onto the screen, expanding them past Sunset's shenanigans. "We have a very clear view of the general automated security systems, yes," she said.

"A couple of automated turrets, and we did spy another patrol inside the perimeter…" She switched to another picture, where she and the ADVENT Officer were posing back-to-back in typical badass postures, and then zoomed to the side, where a trio of troopers walked past the gates.

"The gates have the standard guard duo protecting them," Sunset jumped in, pointing at the gate, where another viper and a trooper stood at attention. "But we might not need to engage them at all. The less combat situations we have, the better."

"I thought you guys liked destroying everything in your path," Scootaloo muttered, leaning back.

"Not at all," Sunset replied with a shrug. "We don't have the firepower to do that kind of damage anyway. Most of the massive damage to buildings is usually caused by alien overkill."

Scootaloo and Sweetie shared uneasy glances, while Apple Bloom sighed.

"Anyway," Jane said after a moment. "Before we do anything, we're going there later tonight and using my GREMLIN to scan the building."

"Y'all know that's dangerous, right?" Applebloom frowned. "Patrols are doubled at night and no one is supposed to go out after curfew."

"Yeah, we know," Sunset said. "But if we're found out, we'll retreat into the safe house… don't worry, we won't come back here unless we're absolutely sure we haven't been noticed… and trust me, if the aliens see you, you know."

"Well, if y'all are leaving later, you might as well want to get some rest first," Apple Bloom said. "You can take the same room as last night."

"Yeah, that might not be a bad idea," Jane said, stretching.

Sunset chuckled, starting to pick up their stuff. "Yeah, come on, let's go practice your giggling."

"I noticed the looks you were giving me today," Sunset said.

It was her turn on the floor, as Jane had slept on it the previous night, so she couldn't see Jane's reaction on top of the bed, still, she got the sense that she'd gotten her fellow soldier's attention.

"Well you did try to hook me up with an ADVENT Captain," Jane muttered after a few seconds of silence.

"You know that's not what I mean."

Jane was quiet for what seemed a few minutes, but Sunset dared not interrupt. She could sense the reluctance from the other woman to talk about what was bothering her, but knowing Jane, if she pushed it, she'd just become defensive and they'd never sort out whatever the issue was.

Finally, with the rustling of some covers, Jane's face appeared over the edge of the bed. It was hard to see what was running through her mind in the little light they had, but Sunset could tell her eyes were focused on her.

"You know what happened on November 22nd, 2015, right?" Jane asked.

Sunset licked her lips. "Um… yeah, everyone knows what happened… that's the day XCOM was betrayed."

"It was also the day they attacked the Temple Ship," Jane said slowly. "Do you know the name of the team that led it?"

Sunset had a bad feeling about this.

"I only know that it was named Stardust... and that's from Galahad's description only."

"I see…" Jane sighed and rolled away from the edge, so that Sunset couldn't see her at all. "I was… reminded of the date not too long ago, and I went to search the archives. Not much remains from the files from back then, that's why Tygan had to research some stuff from scratch, but back in the day, XCOM soldiers would send their feed straight to the Skyranger as well as satellite, which is why we have some videos of early battles left."

"So what does this have to do with us?"

"Not us… you," Jane said, and her voice sounded haunted and unsure. "Do you know the name of the Colonel that lead Stardust into the Temple Ship?"

"No, they never told us," Sunset whispered. She had a sense of unease, perhaps because of Jane's tone, but there was also a nagging feeling that she knew where this was going.

"Her name," Jane said, "...was Sunset Shimmer."

Sunset felt her stomach grow ice-cold.

"She had long, red and yellow hair, and her armor's personalized decal was a sun, half-red, half-yellow. She was a psi-op, one of three we had a the time," Jane added, before falling silent.

"Jane, I…"

Jane kept on going, "Every time I asked old XCOM why they gave you those looks, they sort of implied you were related to someone they knew."

Sunset turned, her back against the bed and stared at the faint light leaking from the edge of the door.

"I mean, we've all speculated that you were psychic, with how you're able to know where enemies are and such… but it's more than that, isn't it?"

Sunset closed her eyes, wondering how they had all felt, seeing a dead friend in her every day that she was around. Keeping this secret… how had Bradford felt, spending almost three years with the spitting image of a dead friend?

"Did you know that Sunset Shimmer was the Commander's best friend?"

Sunset sighed. "Yeah."

Jane was quiet for a moment. "There's no way that the Sunset Shimmer that went into the Temple Ship survived."

The silence after that statement was deafening. It must have been only a few seconds before Jane spoke again, but it felt much, much longer to Sunset.

"She wasn't your mom, was she."

That was definitely not a question.

"She wasn't a family member," Jane added, trying to work it out, "You're her, aren't you? You went into the Temple Ship… you flew it into space and exploded with it… and you somehow made it back…" Jane chuckled. "That sounds so stupid… but either you're her or you're a clone… because Sunset, after what I saw in that video… you can't be real."

o.0.o End Chapter 32 o.0.o

Intermission: 20 Years Ago - Pt. 2

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Ranger

Intermission: 20 Years Ago - Pt. 2

By Wanderer D

"Zhang, get the others ready and meet me in the Foundry in 10," Sunset said, walking into the barracks. "We have a mission."

The former triad member glanced at her with an unreadable expression. "I had heard that we were ordered to cease hostilities against the aliens."

Sunset raised an eyebrow. "I bet you didn't hear that we don't care?"

Zhang chuckled, nodding with his head and walking out of the room. That was the thing about "Chilong". He was never in a hurry, yet things just got done. Sunset had never figured that one out, exactly. Maybe it was martial arts training, maybe it was just Triad efficiency, but the man was nearly unstoppable.

She felt a shudder run down her spine, watching him walk out of the room. 'I'm sorry, my friend… if there was another way…' Sunset walked over to the restroom and opened the faucet, using the cold water to splash her face. Things were getting real now, and she had little time to do everything she needed to.

She felt them before they even stepped in the room.

"I heard that you were up to something, my dear Sunset," John Lance said, smirking as he crossed his arms across his chest. Stepping into the room behind him, like a panther stalking prey, a petite brunette followed him in, her eyes focused on Sunset.

"Geist," Sunset nodded. "Annette, what brings you two here?"

"Don't play coy, Sunset," Geist said, his smile still in place. "We know what you plan to do."

"I sincerely doubt that," Sunset replied. "But, if you're talking about the Temple Ship, yes, that is true."

"We want in," Annette growled.

Sunset rolled her eyes and turned, picking up her MP3 player and fiddling with it, checking the song selection.

"You can't possibly leave us behind," Geist insisted. "We also have things to share with our esteemed visitors... in person, preferably."

"You know what they did to me," Annette accused. "You know!"

"Yes, but it's not your time, Annette," Sunset said, turning and looking at the pair. "And it's not yours either, Geist." She sighed, browsing the music. "What do you think would be the best song?" She clicked on one and the thrumming from Living on a Prayer started playing on the speakers around the room.

"Forget your stupid music!" Annette shouted, her eyes lighting up with psychic power. "You can't leave us behind!"

"I only have space for one team," Sunset said calmly, "And if there's any chance of this working out, it's going to be Stardust or no-one."

"You'd better start taking us seriously, Sunset, you'll have to take us down to stop us," Annette growled, "because—"

She stopped when Geist threw a shield around himself. "I think, my dear Annette, she was taking us seriously all along."

Annette's head snapped back to Sunset, who was grinning as her body shimmered in psychic light and her hands pulsed with power, almost seeming to beat in time with the music. "Don't worry, you two, I'll take you both all the way to dreamland… after all…" She smirked, pulling back her arms, "...you're halfway there!"

Spitfire found Rainbow Dash at the pilot's bar. "Why am I not surprised to find you here?"

"Hey, hey," Rainbow Dash raised her beer. "If it isn't Big Sky herself."

Shaking her head, Spitfire sat next to Rainbow Dash and took the beer away. "Listen rookie, I didn't bring you here just so you could waste away drinking cheap beer."

"You wouldn't get it! I lost—"

Rainbow Dash never finished her thought as Spitfire's punch threw back, making her completely lose her balance and crash onto the floor. "Shut up before you say something you might regret."

Rainbow Dash spat blood, and used the back of her arm to clean her mouth, wincing when she felt the split lip. "I already regret it…"

Spitfire shook her head, glancing briefly at the shrine they had built for other pilots that had died fighting the aliens. Many of them hadn't made it out of the fight with the battleship, and there were more pictures there than she dared count anymore.

"I'm sorry," Dash said from the floor, rolling onto her side and pushing herself up. "I didn't mean to make any less of… Soarin' and the others."

Spitfire sniffed disdainfully, but relaxed a little soon after. "We all knew what we were getting into. You, Soarin' and I just happened to come from the same city."

"Same school, even," Dash chuckled.

"Yeah," Spitfire shook her head. "I should've known better than to bring the goalie and the captain from two years after I graduated. To this day I don't know what I was thinking. The Wonderbolts were never supposed to be a fighter pilot team."

"Yeah, well, aliens have a tendency to change that," Rainbow Dash muttered.

Spitfire smirked and offered her hand, which Dash took gratefully. "You need to get yourself together, Dash," she said, helping her junior up. "Things are going on right now that we don't like, but that doesn't mean it's all over."

Dash walked around the bar, fishing out a large chunk of ice and wrapping it in a clean cloth so she could press it on her lip. She glanced at Spitfire, finally taking in how she was dressed. "Why are you all geared up?"

Spitfire avoided her eyes. "We're heading out."

"Out where?" Dash asked, stumbling a little. "Do you need a copilot?"

"Not for this mission… and certainly not one that's drunk," Spitfire said, frowning at Rainbow Dash. "Listen, Dash… I know what you went through, we've all lost part of our teams… and before you say anything, I understand that Applejack was your best friend. Trust me, I know. Do you remember what I told you two when we found out she'd been assigned to XCOM too?"

Dash was quiet for a moment. "You warned us."

"Yes, I did."

"I had no idea I'd be AJ's pilot."

"But you would have fought tooth and nail to be it, wouldn't you?"

"Yeah."

"Applejack knew what she was getting into," Spitfire said. "I know it doesn't fix things, but she knew, and you have to respect that." She glanced at the wall again. "I blame myself sometimes for Soarin' too, you know? But he piloted a Raven, there was nothing I could do with the Skyranger unless I wanted to kill everyone on board in the process. And even then, my attack speed would have never been a match."

Rainbow Dash nodded silently, not looking at her.

"The same goes for you, Dash," Spitfire said quietly. "No one could have anticipated what happened there. If there's anyone to blame it's the x-rays, not yourself. It was over in under a minute."

"I could hear her breathing hard," Rainbow Dash said. "She was calling for her mom. Her brother. Her sister. Her dad. Her granny." Dash's voice went quiet. "She called for me."

Spitfire didn't say anything to that, so Dash continued.

"I mean, sure, we knew it could happen, but, how can I just... move past something like that?"

"With how things are going, I'm not sure what'll happen next, so… take this as my last order, okay?" Spitfire said.

Dash nodded, not looking up, simply holding the ice to her lip.

"I have a bad feeling about things," Spitfire said. "I want you all geared up. I want your Skyranger ready to go. I don't know why… just… this sense that shit's hitting the fan soon. I don't trust politicians, and I don't trust aliens. I don't know what the cost of peace is going to be, but… Dash, you go upstairs now, take a shower, get ready… and listen for the commander."

"You don't think you'll be back in time?"

Spitfire shook her head. "No… I-I don't think I will."

"Ugh." Dash pushed away from the bar, stumbling past Spitfire. "You have quite the punch, Big Sky."

"Hey, Dash," Spitfire said, stopping her.

"What?"

Spitfire grabbed the younger woman and pulled her into a tight hug. "It's been a pleasure… and an honor. Get your shit together. Make me proud. Stay strong. You're the best damn pilot I've ever seen… don't throw that away into the bottom of a bottle."

She let go and watched Dash walk out of the bar. It was so tempting to have a drink herself, but she had a mission to attend to.

Sunset walked out of the changing room, her new armor on. "Well, it's a bit tight on the shoulders, but I guess I'll just have to break it in." She grinned at the decals on the armor. "And you found the time to put my stamp of approval on it, thanks, Shen!"

Shen smiled, shaking his head. "It's the least I could do. Now, take this," he said, handing her a laser sniper rifle. "This is the last one we have… so I'd tell you to be careful with it…"

Sunset chuckled. "I got it, doc, no worries." She lifted it, measuring its weight and looking through the sights. She aimed it at a distant target and shot, piercing through its head and the wall behind it. Thankfully, the firing range had been designed so that the wall behind it had nothing but dirt behind it. "Huh. I like it."

Shen smiled. "We've given the rest to the others. Here, this is also for you, we call it a Mind Shield, we developed it from the one Ethereal we've ever brought down…"

Sunset took the piece of equipment, it looked like a communicator of some sort, and she placed it around her ear. Unlike a radio, however, the extended part of it that looked like a microphone, reached out to hover less than an inch from the skin on her temple. She could immediately feel the difference.

"Thank's Shen…"

Shen nodded, passing her the prototype blaster launcher. "Yes, well, as I said, least I could do. We don't know if this will work, and we only have one charge, so make it count, but don't rely 100% on it… it should work in theory…" he shook his head. "We have also armed and armored your team."

Zhang lifted his heavy laser, tearing through the same target that Sunset had shot in the head. "It's a lot lighter than my previous heavy weapon… and there is no kick. It'll take some getting used to."

Irvine, the other sniper of the team saluted her with his own rifle. "Already tried it," he said, tilting his cowboy hat. "Works just fine."

"And I like my scatter-rifle," Elaine Pelleas, the team's Assault Specialist added with a grin of her own. "Can't wait to shove it into a muton's mouth and pull the trigger."

"I'm sure Galahad will be jealous," Sunset joked, punching the other woman on the shoulder.

"And we're all set," Lionel said, standing side-by-side with his identical twin, Bors. The pair had their own laser rifles at the ready, and also seemed to be carrying more than enough meds for everyone. "We're bringing Combat Stims in case you need a boost."

Sunset laughed. "We're fighting aliens, guys, not taking over the galaxy."

She walked over to Shen, giving him a small package, which he looked at in confusion. "I have instructions inside on what to do with it… please do it as soon as I'm gone, okay?" she asked. Shen gave her a look, but nodded.

She turned around to face Shen, and Vahlen who had just walked into the Foundry. She saluted them, a gesture that was immediately mimicked by her team. "Shen, Dr. Vahlen… it was an honor working with people of your knowledge, skill, and quality. I wish you the best."

Both scientists seemed surprised, but returned the salute. "Believe me, Colonel," Vahlen spoke up, her voice shaking a bit, "The honor was ours."

Sunset bowed slightly, then looked over her shoulder. "Okay guys, let's go get Big Sky. The Skyranger should be armed to the teeth by now."

She walked out of the room, followed by her team.

"This will be different," Bors said. "We've never used the Skyranger as a weapon before."

"I wonder why?" Lionel asked.

Soon their voices faded away and the two scientists were left alone. Curious, Shen opened the package Sunset had given him, finding a note addressed to himself, and another for Vahlen. The pair shared a look.

"Avalanche missiles on the bottom, Laser Cannon on one side, Phoenix Cannon on the other, defense matrix uploaded into the system…" Spitfire counted off, "...extra fuel to make up for all the shit you jerry-rigged onto my baby… I think we're all set."

Sunset nodded, before jumping up onto the Skyranger's ramp. "Guys, I know that I didn't consult you when I volunteered our team," she said as the group lined up in front of her. "And the only reason I did that is because I know you. I know none of us is a coward. I know not one of us would rather watch one of our friends… our family... here die in our stead.

"There's no coming back from this mission," she said frankly, looking at each member of Stardust in the eye one by one. None of them flinched. "What we do today is going to be our legacy. Future generations will judge on their own terms what happened today, but right now, the shape of their world depends on us.

"If we don't do this, the world as we know it ends. And while our success might seem quaint to the eyes of some, if things progress as they're going, it will still undo most of the plans the Ethereals have for our world. XCOM will continue if we succeed. Earth will continue if we succeed. We are giving them all a real chance."

She paced a little, before stopping and looking up, past the gates to the hangar. "We are making a real difference, and the legacy we leave behind, besides two unconscious psi-ops, will be the stuff of legends."

"Unconscious Psi-ops?" Elaine whispered.

"Shh!" Lionel hissed.

She turned around to face them. "This is your last chance to walk away, and there will be no dishonor, and no judgment. And although I know I shouldn't even ask, I still must: Are you with me?"

"YES, SIR!"

Sunset nodded, grinning. "Captain, I believe it's your call now."

Spitfire chuckled, walking up the ramp. "Well, come on Stardust, we can't keep E.T. waiting. Let's give him a ride home."

o.0.o End Chapter o.0.o

Chapter 33: Cool

View Online

Ranger

Chapter 33: Cool

By Wanderer D

o.0.o Three Years Earlier o.0.o

"Ah, Bradford… it has been a long time, hasn't it?"

The man that appeared on the screen was much older-looking than Bradford remembered. His balding head had already lost all of its remaining hair, and the face was creased with worry-lines as well as a long scar on the forehead. He still wore a lab coat, after all these years.

"That it has, Shen," Bradford said, adjusting the transmitter. "We're just a few days away from your location… I've contacted some of our old friends, as well as new allies, " he hesitated.

"What is it, old friend?" Shen asked, leaning forward. "You seem a bit worried about something. Is there a problem? Were you recognized?"

"Not exactly," Bradford said, "We stopped in a settlement to help them with some drills… my protege is currently practicing guerilla tactics with them."

Shen leaned back, looking amused. "Oh, you took on a protege?" He smiled. "That's good to hear… after all, whenever a resistance fighter figured out who you were, you'd send them away and leave."

"Yeah, well, she's a special circumstance… also, I tried to leave her behind, but she followed me."

"Well, John, I'm guessing now you know what it is like to be a dad." Shen's grin would not diminish. "I would have never guessed."

"I—there's something you should see…" Bradford said, his tone dubious. "And you won't like it."

Shen frowned. "Well… I'll be the judge of that."

"Brace yourself, old friend," Bradford warned, turning the camera around.

It took a moment for Shen to realize what he was seeing, due to the movement of the camera as well as the nature of what was happening. Bradford had focused the camera on some sort of drill that was going on at a small settlement. Two groups of people, guards or resistance were encamped against each other, using non lethal weapons and ammo for practice. Each side had bandannas of different colors, and leading the red team…

"Once we take over your base, you will all kneel and call me your Princess!" Sunset Shimmer declared, one foot planted on top of the barrier her opponents had set up as she shot down an 'enemy' with paint pellets. Her troops ran past her with huge grins in their mouths at her antics, shouting encouragement at each other, all for the glory of their Princess.

"You will all love me—and despair!"

Shen gasped, cleaning his bifocals on his sleeve before leaning in to see closer. "Is that—"

"Sunset Shimmer," Bradford confirmed, turning the camera back to himself. "As you can see, this might raise some concerns from our troops."

"But… that's impossible!" Shen stated. "We all saw the video we recovered from the black box!"

Bradford sighed. "I met her when I was drunk. I'd gotten into a fist fight after drinking way too much moonshine. I thought I was seeing a ghost. Imagine how I felt when I woke up sober the next day, with a splitting headache, and she was there, reading a book on my table as if nothing had happened.

"I thought at first she was some sort of ADVENT creature, but she didn't show any sign of knowing who I was. She wanted training in fighting bigger opponents, and as I taught her a little and sent her off to missions with the local resistance, she sort of …" He shrugged. "Grew on me?"

Shen was quiet, his brow furrowed and chin resting on his fists as he thought. "I see… so that's what she meant…"

Bradford raised an eyebrow. "I'm sorry?"

Shen looked up, blinking owlishly at Bradford, before shaking his head. "I'll let the old guard know not to freak out… don't worry, the young lady won't know any different, and the new recruits haven't watched the old missions, concentrating rather on hands on training from Galahad and the others."

"But, she's Sunset Shimmer," Bradford said, trying not to raise his voice. "The moment anyone from the old team sees her, they'll recognize her! I thought you'd want to perform tests on her to make sure she's not a clone or something…" he trailed off. Shen was flipping the pages of an old book full of notes and post-its until he found what he was looking for.

It was an aged letter with plenty of things written on it. Shen studied it for a moment, before folding it back so just the bottom part showed, then her turned it around so that Bradford could see it.

Bradford squinted, slowly deciphering the writing, since the camera showed it backwards.

P.S. Tell Bradford that's not a clone and to take care of me for me. Also, remind him to tell me that "Princess" is not as cool a word as she thinks it sounds on this side of the mirror. Find me a better word for a leadership role to aspire to.

~Sunset

o.0.o Present Time o.0.o

"Oh."

The room was quiet for a moment.

"What do you mean, 'oh'?" Jane asked. "That's not an answer!"

Sunset cringed. "I just didn't know I had died that way. Although, I guess that explains why the Commander was ready to shoot me when she saw me the first time."

She could feel Jane's eyes on her. "Okay, look… it wasn't me me that you saw die in that video."

"That makes zero sense, Sunset," Jane said, her tone dangerous. "You'd better start making some before we get physical. I saw you die." She shifted on the bed, so it looked like she was ready to pounce on top of Sunset if she so much as said the wrong word.

Sunset shifted uncomfortably. "Look… it's not easy to suddenly be informed of this, okay? I only knew my counterpart had died and that she had been a friend of the Commander and part of XCOM… I didn't know how."

"What do you mean counterpart?" Jane growled.

Sunset sighed. "The truth is… up until we rescued the commander, I had no idea who I was here… I didn't even know I had… existed."

Jane was quiet, so Sunset took that as a hint to continue.

"I guess… I assumed something was going on… Bradford contacted Dr. Shen the elder before we arrived to meet him and the surviving XCOM soldiers… which weren't many. I think, other than Galahad and Rainbow Dash, maybe three? Four more? Geist knew more than he let on as well."

She laughed, a little self-mocking snicker. "I bought it too. I thought they looked at me like that because I was clearly destined to be great. You remember that."

Jane rolled onto her back as well. "Yeah. It's not often a total rookie walks into XCOM and announces she's going to be the new commander. Now that I think about it, it was mostly us other rookies that laughed at that one."

The pair chuckled at the memories, but eventually Jane sighed. "So, who are you really? And if you value our friendship at all, please tell me the truth."

"How do you think things are going?" Sweetie Belle asked, glancing down the hall at the room where their two guests were supposed to be resting. The truth was, there had been some intense murmuring coming from the other side of the door, and she had had to stop Scootaloo from trying to listen in.

"Come on, they could be planning how to keep us silent!" Scootaloo hissed after Sweetie and Apple Bloom had dragged her down the hall so she couldn't hear anything.

"Ah'm sure things aren't as bad as you make them sound," Apple Bloom hissed. "Not only do I trust them, they've been nothing but civil."

"Just give them time, they'll do something violent," Scootaloo muttered.

"Why are you so… vehement about that?" Sweetie asked.

"What did that mean again?" Scootaloo asked.

"Vehement means intense feelings about something."

"Stupid dictionary…" Scootaloo sighed. "You've seen the videos…"

"...and I've told you that they're heavily edited." Sweetie said. "You know ADVENT isn't as benevolent as you make it sound when you talk to them. What has gotten into you?"

"Well, I—"

They stopped when they heard a thump, then scuffling and then the door to the guest room slid open and Sunset scrambled out, pressing her back against the wall and raising her hands as Jane walked out, pointing a rifle straight at her face.

"Called it," Scootaloo muttered.

"Alright, alien scum," Jane growled. "We're calling Central right now and you are going to explain why exactly you look like a dead XCOM hero!"

"Jane," Sunset said, glancing nervously at the gun, "we can't call Central, that would blow our cover and put everyone here in danger. I think you're taking this a bit too far..."

"Shut up," Jane muttered. "Sunset Shimmer died twenty years ago, and you're not her."

"Like I said," Sunset deadpanned. "I just happen to be her counterpart from another dimension. So I guess, I am her, technically speaking."

"No 'technically' speech!" Jane hissed. "I trusted you! How could you lie to me? And to everyone in XCOM!"

"I did say that the Commander and all senior staff technically knew I was an alien… after I brought Twilight with me… and Geist knew."

"I said no 'technically' allowed!" Jane barked. "I thought you were my friend! How many times have we saved each other's asses?"

"And that is why," Sunset said, using her finger tip to push the rifle to the side, "I am trusting you with this information. Can you imagine what would happen if some of the more… xenophobic members of XCOM found out? There's a reason that information is need to know."

Jane's glare faltered and she harrumphed, turning around. "My parents were killed by aliens."

"I know."

"And I grew up hating them. I grew up figuring ways to kill them. I had a sectoid plushie I used to practice my knife throwing techniques."

"I knew you grew up hating aliens… that's why I was so hesitant to tell you," Sunset confessed, putting her hand on Jane's shoulder. "I didn't want to lose my friend… but…" she cleared her throat. "Did you really have a sectoid plushy to practice stabbing?" She snorted. "Oh, Celestia, that's adorable."

"Shuddup," Jane growled. "I haven't forgiven you yet."

"Um…"

Both agents froze, turning around slowly to face Scootaloo, Apple Bloom and Sweetie Belle.

"So… XCOM?" Scootaloo asked, crossing her arms.

"You're an alien?!" Sweetie gasped.

"You're dead?!"

"Shit." Both Jane and Sunset muttered at the same time.

"So… let me get this straight," Scootaloo said, "You're both from XCOM, which is, according to ADVENT, the most violent resistance group out there. You..." She pointed at Sunset. "...are an interdimensional clone of the XCOM agent that took down the Temple Ship twenty years ago, but you didn't tell Jane here that you were an alien… and you, wanted to shoot her in the face because you thought she had betrayed your trust. Do I have it right?"

"I'm not a clone."

"I'm sure she meant that as a form of speech rather than a defining attribute," Sweetie said.

"Then yes, pretty much."

The group was all seating around the dining room table, each with a warm cup of tea Sweetie had insisted they all drink. It didn't taste great, but it did seem to calm their nerves a little.

"Well, I think this clinches it," Scootaloo said. "You two should go. Even if Sweetie says that the videos are heavily edited, you're both from an extremist group that kills civilians."

Jane slammed her fist on the table. "Alright, I've had enough of that bullshit. Sunset and I have both seen ADVENT fly into a peaceful camp and set it on fire. We've seen them drop Berserkers and Chryssalids to kill and poison people that can't even defend themselves!" She pulled a pad, browsed furiously through it and played a video, throwing it on the table so it slid over to Scootaloo.

"Jane…"

"No! I'm done with this. If she's going to judge our actions, then she judges them on actual footage."

Scootaloo didn't pick up the pad at first, although everyone at the table could hear the sounds of guns going off, explosions and people screaming.

"Go ahead," Jane dared her, "look at it."

Scootaloo licked her lips and hesitantly picked the pad up so she could see what was happening in the video.

o.0.o End Chapter 33 o.0.o

Chapter 34: Terror

View Online

Ranger

Chapter 34: Terror

By Wanderer D

o.0.o Two Years Earlier o.0.o

Fire and smoke.

Sunset and Jane crouched against a concrete wall; the only thing separating them from the inferno. The call had come in just a few hours earlier. One of the settlements near to the Avenger's current location was under a terror attack by ADVENT. Although they did not want to risk giving away their identities, the settlement was a key point of contact with their supply lines, and a frequent spot for meeting with prospective Engineers or Scientists without putting the Avenger at risk.

Another explosion rocked the area, followed by shouts and weird screeches the likes of which Sunset had never heard before. She cast a fearful look at Jane, who had gone deathly pale.

"Chryssalids," she whispered.

Sunset sucked in a breath, remembering the stories Bradford had told her about such creatures. Arachnid-like from the waist down, with a human-like torso, scythes that could pierce through metal, and serrated pincers that could inject both, venom and also implant Chryssalid eggs into their victims. And as if it weren't enough, they were covered in strong exoskeleton, could jump several stories high and were fast as hell.

Bradford had more than one story of entire guerilla teams being taken by surprise by the speed and viciousness of these creatures.

"Now, I know those things are dangerous," Bradford's voice came on the radio. "But we are neither helpless nor unable to take them down; follow my instructions to the letter, understood?"

"Yes, sir!" came the team's reply on the radio.

"Alright team, we have made contact with the local resistance, so they know we're coming. Our next point of contact is straight ahead. We will support them. Save as many civilians as we can. Diwaker," Bradford called in, "Head over to the guard tower, I want you sniping anything non-human that moves. Takahashi, follow Diwaker and cover his location. Kelly, you and Sunset take the lead, initiate contact with the resistance. Schoenherr, you're with me."

"Here we go," Jane muttered. She turned to Sunset and indicated the count down. Sunset nodded. The moment Jane gave the hand signal, they both burst out from around the corners of the wall, running straight ahead.

The first thing they saw was a chryssalid running an unarmed man through the chest with one of its long scythes. The creature didn't even hesitate to inject venom and an egg into the man the moment he was down.

"Oh, shit!" Sunset shouted, scrambling to a stop. Mox and Betos had drilled her through the scenario, but they weren't here, and stabbing the thing in the mouth wasn't an option. Still, her training kicked in, just as the creature was turning her way, and she shouted as she opened fire.

The bullets seemed to just bounce off of the thing, although here and there she could see damage on its carapace. Jane knelt next to her, opening fire herself, both unloading a clip on the creature in an instant.

It wasn't enough.

With a shrill shriek, the chryssalid charged straight at Sunset, swinging its scythe at her. Sunset barely managed to lean back far enough, as the sharp appendage scratched through her armor in a shower of sparks and carved a line on the dirt below.

Before it could attack again, another shot took it in the head, and the damage finally proved to be enough to take the creature down, which collapsed, twitching, on the floor. Clearly, Diwaker had managed to set up his sniper nest just in time. Beyond it, the man it had poisoned had clearly died, and his body was slowly bulging up and secreting some sort of goo that was slowly starting to cover him completely.

"Jane, Sunset," Bradford radioed in, "go on ahead, we'll take care of it and hunt the other chryssalids. You need to catch up with the resistance."

"Yes, sir."

The pair ran on, changing clips as they did. Behind them, they could hear Schoenherr's minigun rattling away.

"I see them!" Jane called.

Right in front of them was a series of huts, with a large group of people crouching and taking cover behind any conceivable surface that would provide it. A few people were armed, and were shooting at a group of ADVENT troopers that had them on the ropes.

"Engaging ADVENT!" Sunset called in, rolling behind an empty camper. She leaned around the corner, and opened fire on an ADVENT Captain, taking it by surprise, and managing to take him out.

Jane had ran past her, taking cover behind a tree and shooting at the remaining trooper. "We have them flanked!"

It was then that a loud roar shook everyone.The crouched civilians screamed as a large, bipedal monster looking like it was just muscle and sinew literally brought down one of the smaller huts as it burst through it.

"Berserker!" Diwaker called on the radio, just as a shot hit the creature on the head, tilting it slightly.

The resistance fighters that were there turned around to face it, unloading their weapons on it, but the creature ignored them, grabbing a random woman by the neck. It viciously slammed her on the floor, making her spit blood, then raised its foot and stomped on her body, crushing it under its tremendous force. Nearby a child tried to run their way, but they were held back by another adult.

"Sunset!" Jane shouted over the returning fire of the trooper. "Let's get rid of this guy and help them!"

Sunset turned around as the berserker backfisted a resistance fighter, and concentrated her own fire on the trooper. Between the two of them, they made short work of the trooper and ran around the structure to join the resistance fighters in shooting the creature and trying to draw its attention.

"It's ignoring us! It's just targeting civilians!" Jane shouted in frustration.

Another of Diwaker's shots hit the berserker, this time on the shoulder, but the creature still ignored them, picking another civilian by the head and crushing it into a pulp with negligible effort.

"Dammit!" Sunset shouted, "Over here, you cretinous brute!" She punctuated her challenge with another burst of bullets.

"Surround it!" Bradford ordered, and they could see him and Schoenherr running around on the other side. "We've taken care of the chryssalids, this guy is the last one!"

Sunset and Jane followed orders, dashing to the encampment and standing in the open as they kept shooting. The resistance joined in, and Schoenherr's heavy weapon unloaded from behind the berserker.

Surrounded, and being shot from every possible angle, the beast fumbled, as if unsure of where to go, while the remaining civilians ran out of the area. Eventually the creature staggered and finally collapsed.

Sunset and Jane approached the monstrous alien, wincing at the carnage it had brought with it. The face of the man that had been backhanded by the berserker had been deformed completely, and turned around so much that he had probably died instantly. All around them, civilians slowly staggered back into the area. The little kid that had almost rushed towards the berserker ran past them, towards the dead woman, shouting, "Mama! Mama!"

"I-I'm going to be sick…" Sunset muttered, turning around at the sight of the squashed woman and the crying child.

Besides her, Jane simply stared at the body for a moment before going to join her. She put a hand on Sunset's shoulder, and steered her away from the aftermath. "Come on, let's get away from here. Don't look at them anymore."

o.0.o Present Time o.0.o

"Ugh, I can't believe you kept that…" Sunset muttered, hugging herself. "I still have nightmares of that day."

"I kept that one and a couple more," Jane said, shrugging. "I have… watched them over time, to remind me of things…"

Sweetie Belle was weeping on Apple Bloom's shoulder, while Scootaloo herself looked sick.

"You see now?" Jane hissed. "That's what's happening outside of your gilded walls. That's real people dying out there. Not studio-made scenery of ADVENT handing out ADVENT Burgers to hungry children.

"You can tell me all you want about how violent we are, but I guarantee you those people weren't out there trying to bring the system down. They were trying to survive."

"And you don't get it!" Scootaloo snapped. Her eyes were wet and her hands gripped the table almost desperately. "You weren't there when Canterlot City was attacked! We went to school that morning, and the only thing we were thinking about was what to do after class!" She sniffed. "I had soccer practice…"

Sweetie Belle, sniffed and sat down. "It… started with an explosion in the city. It shook the whole building. I remember the windows rattled and Mr. Cranky he looked out the window… I remember his face."

"We all went to the windows to look out, and we saw this… thing. A giant spaceship coming through the clouds, and green lightning… plasma shots, raining down on the city. Ah saw buildings just collapse, and fire was spreading all over."

"We saw a cloud of debris just blast out of the area… the trees bent away from the city, it was like a tornado was passing through," Scootaloo growled.

"We saw the ship coming, and Principal Celestia—" Sweetie hesitated when Sunset's head snapped up, eyes wide. "...she got on the speakers, and ordered everyone to go to the tornado shelter areas."

"But then the-the things landed…" Apple Bloom's voice was little more than a whisper. "Ah was still by the window when the first one hit… I saw Flash stepping away from his car and running towards the building, but one of those things hit the car and the ground gave under him. Other students were around but some sort of green gas came out and if they were around… they never got out."

"I didn't see them, but I heard them," Scootaloo said, her face sinking into her hands. "I ran. I ran… we made it down the stairs, I was… pulling Sweetie Belle with me, we ran into the restrooms, and just as Apple Bloom ran in, we felt the heat through the walls… the lights went off, and everything was shaking… I felt stuff crumbling on top of me and we heard screams and… I don't know how long we waited."

"When we got out," Sweetie said next, "the school had a clear line through the middle. The floor was red… molten. We could see our sisters, thankfully, alive and coming out from the other side… but… there were people… students and teachers that were caught in it… I like to tell myself they didn't suffer… that it was too fast…"

"But we saw… pieces that were not disintegrated…" Apple Bloom bit her lip.

"If… if we hadn't resisted…" Scootaloo sobbed. "If we hadn't fought back! Why didn't we ask for peace first?" She looked up, almost begging at Jane and Sunset. "This is why!" She leaned her head on the table. "That… day… that's why… we should have made peace."

There was silence and then…

"We tried," Sunset spoke up. "I wasn't here, of course… but according to the history files we had from the 60s and 90s... we—XCOM, I mean—tried long ago. It didn't work. The Ethereals didn't want anything less than absolute obedience. They left us alone, for the most part, for almost fifty years… but the first thing they did when they came back; the reason XCOM was fully activated… was the attack on Canterlot City."

She focused her eyes on Scootaloo's. "The attack was unprovoked… and a declaration of war on Earth. It was a terror attack, intended to break the will of its defenders."

"You can't be serious…" Scootaloo whispered. "You can't, ADVENT showed videos, they showed us people confessing to attacking first—"

"Ethereals, Sectoids and other aliens have the ability to mind-control people," Jane said. "Part of the reason XCOM was betrayed was because they infiltrated several governments, and controlled them, or their cronies, like EXALT, managed to get to them."

"You're lying." Scootaloo growled. "There never was such a thing."

"There was…" Sweetie said softly. "EXALT was a real thing. They kidnapped people and did experiments on them. Most of them were killed off by the aliens once they were in power, others…" she trailed off.

"But…"

"And XCOM was about saving lives," Apple Bloom said. "My sister was part of it."

Jane blinked, but kept her mouth shut.

Scootaloo looked at both of them, trying to think of something to say, until finally, "But… why didn't you say anything?"

Sweetie pulled her into a hug. "What was there to say? You've always known the truth."

"I think you have plenty of things to discuss," Sunset said, standing up slowly. "Jane and I will head out now to scout the Security Building again."

Jane stood up as well. "People have fought for over twenty years to give us back our world. Broken or not, ideal or not… it belongs to us. People shouldn't have to die and disappear for whatever it is that ADVENT is doing. There's a reason even ADVENT troops rebel."

She followed Sunset out of the room, leaving behind three very quiet women.

o.0.o End Chapter 34 o.0.o

Chapter 35: Infiltration

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Ranger

Chapter 35: Infiltration

By Wanderer D

Sunset and Jane sneaked through the streets of New Appaloosa, moving small distances and waiting patiently for patrols to move past before moving again.

Sunset took the lead, using her spell to keep track of any living beings in the area—a skill that proved useful on more than one occasion when locals looked out of their windows or were otherwise active, or if the ADVENT patrols changed their routes.

Through it all, until they were close enough to the building itself, Jane followed quietly. Once they were properly hidden close enough to the facility that her GREMLIN could do a recording of the place, they set down.

"Scanning," Jane whispered, as her GREMLIN flew up into the air and was soon out of sight.

The pair remained silent for a little while, then Jane spoke up, "So… that freaky thing you do about knowing when people or aliens are around… is that one of your alien powers?"

Sunset sighed. "Sort of? But… can you please not call me alien? Earth is my home now, for better or worse."

Jane glanced at her briefly, before returning her attention to the GREMLIN's tracking device. They were not transmitting real-time data for fear of discovery, so the hovering drone was simply following a predetermined route and recording video of everything. Still, Jane had to keep track of where it was.

"What about Twilight?"

"I'm hoping we can figure out a way to get her home… in the meantime, she's helping Dr. Tygan at the lab."

"Huh," Jane muttered. "Must be smart.'

"She is."

"So you didn't answer my question."

Sunset fought back another heavy sigh. "It's… not exactly something everyone can do." She thought for a moment, debating how much to tell Jane. "Twilight can't… or rather, she never would. It's part of a set of… forbidden techniques from my home dimension. It's basically the only one I can use reliably. Everything else is next to impossible in this dimension, or drains me so much it might as well be useless."

Jane shook her head. "All this time… I get that I'm taking it a bit personal, Sunset, but can you blame me?"

Sunset hummed. "You could have trusted me… you know all senior staff was aware of this, and we have history together, helping each other. We're friends."

"Yeah." Jane tweaked a few things on her pad. "We are, aren't we?" she chuckled. "It's funny, before we rescued the Commander I wouldn't have dreamt of questioning things like this since joining XCOM. But then again, most of the time we were micromanaged and the pressure of that kept reminding me of protocol… when Menace was activated, we… well, we're the odd ones out of the gang.

"We don't get micromanaged by the Commander, and we're the only team that gets direct threats from the Chosen… and people noticed. We got all of the faction soldiers working for us… it felt like being back in a guerilla, working off of a settlement." Jane sighed. "I guess I let myself just fall into that trap of being… too comfortable."

Sunset signaled for Jane to remain quiet, following the movements of a nearby patrol that came close to where they were. She couldn't see what they were exactly, although all three patrol members were bipeds.

After a few tense moments, one of them started moving again and the other two followed. She watched them until they were too far for her sight to follow. She took a deep breath and let it out slowly.

Jane grimaced. "So… how come Earth is your home now?"

Sunset pursed her lips. "I… was a brat when I was younger. I left, with no real plans after a fight with my mentor/mother figure… but instead of going to the nearest bar and getting drunk… I jumped dimensions through a portal. That's when I met Mox and he pretty much saved my life.

"The Skirmishers gave me some basic training… I had never seen a gun before I came here, and my homeworld hasn't seen a war in centuries, so… other than some battle spells that were completely useless here, I was devastatingly unprepared for anything on this side. Then I met Bradford, and the rest is history."

Jane shook her head. "What do you mean spells? Magic Missile?"

"Sort of like psychic energy, but on a different wavelength," Sunset elaborated.

"Ah."

Jane sighed and sat next to Sunset, shoulder to shoulder. "We're having a longer talk when we get back home, you know."

Sunset smiled. "Of course."

"So… have you always looked the same, or was this body of yours a random choice?"

o.0.o The Next Morning o.0.o

In the early morning, the sleek, black van drove down the road towards the ADVENT Mec Development Center. A guard stepped out of the security gate, motioning for the van to slow down.

The window scrolled down, and Apple Bloom smiled at the trooper. "Good mornin', Kvlar!"

The guard smiled pleasantly, stepping back. Immediately the gates slid open, allowing Apple Bloom to drive in. She drove past the exterior loading area, and down a ramp into the underground parking.

"They never ask you questions?" Sunset asked from the back of the van, peeking from between several boxes of equipment.

"Nope! It's not unusual for me to arrive early and leave late, and Ah do it so often, this time around won't raise suspicion." Apple Bloom said, "now… are you sure this is going to work?"

"Of course not," Sunset said. "But we have to try."

Apple Bloom sighed. "And you have the site specs I gave y'all?"

"No." Sunset said. "I memorized the layout you gave us, but none of the information that ties back to you in any way or form was stored. If things go well, when you come back tomorrow morning, we'll be long gone."

Applebloom nodded. "Ah can't thank you enough…" she hesitated. "Ah'm sorry, but Ah have to ask… do you know what happened to Applejack?"

Sunset shook her head. "If I can get information to you… I promise I will."

Apple Bloom closed her eyes and nodded once more. "Ah figured… hopin' to hear from her after so long… Ah just…"

"I'm sorry."

Apple Bloom cleared her throat. "Anyway… my tears are long-dry, good luck with your mission, Sunset Shimmer."

Sunset smiled. "Thanks. You think Jane and Scootaloo will be okay?"

"Scootaloo… Ah'm not sure of what… or who she saw when she picked y'all up, but it shook her to the core. Sweetie and I knew she was in denial but… until now, she wouldn't even talk about it. Whatever or whoever it was... Ah'm glad it opened her up to face her demons." She took a deep breath. "They'll be fine. Ah'll be back home and go over things with them tonight before they head out."

Applebloom slowed down, turning around a corner and backing into her parking space. "Here we are… my parking space. Conveniently away from the cameras. Be careful."

Sunset grinned. "I will."

Nothing more was said. Apple Bloom emerged from her van and walked towards the elevator, greeting other workers on her way in. In the Van, Sunset waited until there were no more people around before sliding the side door open.

Apple Bloom's spot was right next to a wall, so she was protected from being seen by anyone on the other side. She carefully looked around, making sure no security devices were close enough to see her, then she looked up.

Just like Apple Bloom had said she would, Sunset immediately saw the red-lit black metal grates above the van. She quickly climbed up atop the van and, laying on her back, started to work in loosening it up.

Once it came off, she managed to slide into the service tunnels, which were large enough for her to crawl on all fours. It took her less than a minute to re-attach the grates, and then she was officially in.

Sunset looked around, then brought a mental image of her location, the direction the van was pointed, where the elevators that Apple Bloom had taken were located and started moving. She needed to get out of the metal tunnels, and reach a central hub two floors above.

After that… she'd have to wait until night time… and for Jane to do her part.

o.0.o End Chapter 36 o.0.o

Chapter 36: Clockwork

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Ranger

Chapter 36: Clockwork

By Wanderer D

Dear Princess Celestia,

It's been three days since Sunset and Jane left for their mission. I've been learning a lot about this world, and its history since last we wrote each other, and even more since this world's Rainbow Dash and I became friends.

Sunset's team, or what's left of it here, has been doing different assignments. We had Mox teach us all a little about how Skirmishers fight, yesterday. It's very… physical. They like to get close to their opponents and… and I hope the girls are not around to hear this. But, anyway, Mox had some fond memories of Sunset, after class, when we had some time to talk. Did you know that he and his boss, Betos, were the ones that first took Sunset in?

Turns out that Sunset was really into close combat, when it came to it. From what Mox tells me, she was always eager to show the others how quickly she got better at it… it's a bit unsettling for me, to be honest. After the time I've been here, I haven't felt the need to seek battle or wanted to kill anyp-anyone, and yet Sunset took to it like a fish to water. She's a Ranger for XCOM which is, I guess, the closest thing to a close-combat specialist XCOM has.

Mox laughed a little about how Sunset would get sick a couple of times and even threw up once, but it never stopped her. In my case, I've had to walk out of a couple of autopsies that Dr. Tygan has performed. I'm getting better at it, though, and the science performed is never disrespectful, despite the natural hate some humans have for the aliens.

Today after Mox came over, we had Elena… she's a "Reaper", and she's the one Galahad mentioned ate aliens. She taught us to sneak better and talked about how to be patient and careful. To calculate what you are going to do before you do it… it's very different from the Skirmishers. She also later on told me some stories about Sunset and Bradford spending some time at their camp.

She said that Sunset was utterly unable to keep in place and was horrible at sniping, even if she wasn't a bad shot. That patience was alien to her, and that she had been unable to comprehend that to the extent of a direct confrontation with an Elk.

Tomorrow we're having Laetitia talk about psionics, which is going to be interesting, but I'll have to make sure she knows not to try them with me. Overall, even if I'm not going to be out there fighting, it is a really good way to understand what the soldiers are going through.

I should get going, it's late and tonight's session looking into the theoretical applications of thaumatic-psionic collision has left me mostly exhausted. But there is one thing I have to ask, Princess.

I have respected Sunset's wishes to not read her diary. But we haven't heard from her in days, and even though everyone keeps telling me we'll know if anything bad happens, I can see all of them worry, from Commander Chrysalis, to Central, to Sunset's team. I know she wrote something to you.

So, my question is… why haven't you written her back?

-Twilight

The day had gone really slow at first. Sunset had found the hub Apple Bloom had mentioned. It was two floors up, through several maintenance tunnels, although thankfully a very straight route from her initial location.

Apple Bloom knew the place inside out, that's for sure. The hub was little more than a small central room where several pipes, cable-clusters and even ventilation systems crossed. It was far away enough from the active areas of the factory as to be completely isolated, and afforded her a good centralized point to explore.

She had even taken a nap at one point, only to be woken up by the image of the Assassin, grinning as she tore Sunset's still-beating heart out of her chest and bit down on it. There had been no interruption this time either, no gentle voice of the night assuring her it would all be okay.

After that, she had been restless, and so had taken to explore the area. She had spied on MEC after MEC being constructed right in front of her. She watched programmers working furiously on projects, guards guarding the hallways and eventually, roughly nine hours or so after she had arrived there, people had started walking out of the factory, leaving only the automated processes working.

'Dammit, if this mission wasn't about secrecy, I would've brought plenty of X4 to blow this place sky-high.'

She even saw Apple Bloom discussing something with other engineers. She had to hand it to her, as well, the woman did not look stressed at all. Either she was used to getting into trouble, or she was one hell of an actress.

When the last person left, Sunset started to dare to venture further into the factory, now taking note more carefully of where cameras and other security systems were, and soon had a very clear idea of where everything was.

She made her way up the tunnels to the third floor and sat down to wait. There wasn't much of anything there. Her position was where the tunnels ended, although the cables continued through inaccessible ducts. There was a grate, then a few more meters of tunnel with red-led lights, and a drop to the floor below.

Straight ahead, a small drop down, was a hallway with every conceivable automated defense system known to ADVENT, and no way to deactivate it or even send a GREMLIN flying across without activating every single alarm in the area.

Now it just fell onto Jane's shoulders. Sunset checked her clock and grimaced.

Two more hours to go.

"Dude, could you really just stop?"

Jane glared at Scootaloo, but grunted and sat down on the sofa. At that moment, it was just the two of them: Apple Bloom hadn't arrived yet, although she had called that she was on her way, and Sweetie was currently at the local ADVENT News Network, recording several "news" segments.

"I only have about half an hour total," she deadpanned. "In that time, I need to infiltrate the most guarded building in the city... get to the control room; hack the thing, then hack the security system of the second most secure building in the city from there, for a short span of time that my superior officer is going to use to hack her way into the system, with a hacking program I gave her. I think I have a right to be slightly freaked out."

Scootaloo shrugged. "It's your job."

Jane shook her head. "Easy for you to say."

"Hey, do I really need to remind you that you two put us all in danger just by being near us?"

"Fine, fine.... it's just… we should get going as it is," Jane said. She hesitated. "Have you figured what you'll say to Dash if you see her again?"

Scootaloo looked away. "Look… I admitted already that… I justified a lot of crap, okay? But Dash… it's still a bit too raw from seeing her again like that."

"If you say so."

"I do," Scootaloo affirmed with a nod. She looked down at her phone when it bleeped. "And there we go. Time to pick up Sweetie, Apple Bloom is just downstairs."

"Let's get going," Jane said.

The pair went down into the garage, where Apple Bloom waited for them. "Are y'all ready?"

"To commit treason? Sure." Scootaloo muttered.

"Thanks for taking this risk for us," Jane said, following the others into Apple Bloom's van. "Are you sure that you won't get in trouble being out after curfew?"

Apple Bloom smirked, patting her van. "Ah'm allowed to drive around all night, one of them privileges of being a high-rankin' engineer. That and they know that Ah don't do much other than pick up Scootaloo or Sweetie from work. Our route won't even change."

Jane sighed as the garage doors opened and the group drove out into the night. "Fair enough, it just feels like I'm just putting more risk on your laps."

"Don't think too much about it," Apple Bloom said after a moment. "Ah feel…" She seemed to consider her words. "Ah feel like it's the least Ah could do… after all, my sister was one of y'all, and if anythin', we Apples take care of family."

Despite herself, Jane smiled at that one.

"Heads-up," Scootaloo said. "We'll be driving past the CSB in a moment, then it's a turn right and down straight to the station. Are you sure you can hack the security tower to not record our stop?"

Jane nodded. "It's not going to be too invasive, it's just changing the light for a second so that the security cameras don't catch you suddenly stopping. Sunset and I planted the code in last night. Just slow down close enough that I can jump out. Then we're out of your hair."

The two women nodded, and soon they were driving past the CSB, and as Scootaloo warned, taking the turn. The moment they did, Jane's GREMLIN flew out and ahead, reaching the security tower ahead of them, and sending the signal.

Like clockwork, the lights turned yellow, then red, and Apple Bloom slowed down to a stop. "Good luck."

"Thanks," Jane muttered, opening the side door and running into the darkness after sliding it closed.

Scootaloo and Apple Bloom watched the XCOM agent disappear. Immediately after, the light turned green and they started moving forward.

"And there goes XCOM," Scootaloo said.

Apple Bloom nodded, keeping her eyes on the road. "Were they different than you thought they'd be?"

Scootaloo snorted. "I always expected them to be more… villainous."

"Well, you did have a very peculiar idea of who they were."

"Yeah, yeah."

The pair descended into silence. The silent streets of the city were empty except for the occasional vehicle, or ADVENT patrol.

"You know, after all the noise from Canterlot High… I always appreciated the silence and order of New Appaloosa," Scootaloo said, gazing out the window. "But now… it's kinda creepy."

"Ah guess it is," Apple Bloom said. "Ah grew up in a farm, and nights were mostly quiet, so I like it a little bit, Ah guess."

Scootaloo smirked. "So not everything ADVENT is bad then?"

"Of course not," Apple Bloom said, turning into the street where the entrance to the News Network was. Standing outside, Sweetie caught sight of them and waved. "It's just that Ah wish it wasn't a forced calm, at the cost of our freedom."

Jane made her way close to the wall, searching for the area she and Sunset had discovered the previous night. Soon enough, she was there: a part of the wall that was close enough to a sewer, to merit its own drain pipe.

She checked her watch and nodded: perfect time.

Grinning, she sent the GREMLIN to scan ahead, then climbed up the drain pipe, and onto the wall's top. One thing that she was definitely grateful for was that you could set your watch to ADVENT Patrol schedules, so the top of the wall itself didn't have any nearby soldiers at that time.

There were several patrols active, of course, and then there were guards at the entrance to each building, not to mention the occasional turret, in typical ADVENT base design-style. However, that meant that there were also several pipes and ladders that could be used to climb to the top floor, where the antenna was. And if she got to the antenna, she'd be able to send the signal to deactivate the security hall in the MEC Facility.

Easy.

Sunset tried not to look at her watch. There was no point. Jane should be at the CSB by now, and she should be getting set up. This was crunch time.

She had expected to hear a 'thuuum' sound or something, like in the movies, when the security was turned off, however, that didn't happen.

Instead, a sharp beep-beep was heard, followed by the click-clacks of deactivated gun turrets, and the cameras stopped moving. She couldn't see it, but she assumed that meant that the pressure plates were off too, and the scanners from the ceiling were off as well.

'Trust your teammate, Sunset, she'll also be dead if she screws up…' Taking a deep breath, she moved forward, quickly taking off the grate's screws, getting past it, pushing it back in just in case, and jumping down.

When she landed, nothing happened. The turrets didn't emerge from the side walls to destroy her, nor did MECS suddenly activate outside. Sure signs of the system being activated, according to Apple Bloom.

Regardless, it was best not to push her luck. She trotted up to the door and took out her pad, activating it and running the program that Jane had given her.

They had both done well in the programming training XCOM had offered, so she could follow most of the code and processes without needing additional fancy things like a GUI, but Sunset would be the first to admit that Jane was much better at it than she was.

Hence the lack of a GREMLIN, she supposed.

The program finished its job with a too-blip! and Sunset stepped back as the vault-like doors of the secure room opened for her. The lights behind it flickered into existence, illuminating a mostly empty room save for a large computer, and several servers.

In there, was the information she needed.

Sunset smirked. A short-lived smile, as the doors suddenly slowed down to a stop. Behind her, she heard the click-clacks of turrets being activated and tested. Behind the walls to either side of her, she thought she heard the sudden, familiar whirring of MECS.

That's when the doors started closing again.

Eyes widening in a panic, Sunset dove through, rolling on the floor of the secured room as the lights flickered out and the vault doors closed behind her, leaving her trapped in absolute darkness.

o.0.o End Chapter 36 o.0.o

Chapter 37: Moonlight

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Ranger

Chapter 37: Moonlight

By Wanderer D

Twilight followed the hallway to the end, then turned left. She walked a few more steps and found herself right in front of the staircase that would take her up to where she needed to be.

She glanced up the stairs warily, already regretting not waiting until the next morning, but, according to Dash and Elena, this was where she would most likely find the person she was looking for. And so, she began her climb.

Sure, she had more stamina than ever before, thanks to Galahad's training… except, thanks to Galahad's training—and later, hard hours of work at the lab—she was exhausted by now. Still, in the interest of safety for all involved, it was best that a warning was done tonight.

She eventually reached the top of the stairs and pressed the activation pad to open the Avenger's door to the infamous Lover's Aft, where her quarry awaited.

Laetitia was, again, staring off into the night, gazing at the moon from the aft of the ship, leaning over the rail, apparently lost in thought. It made sense to Twilight to want to be here. Outside of the rather, how would Rarity put it… scandalous… nature of the story behind its name, the place was very relaxing. There were no footsteps of people walking on metal walkways, no drills, equipment or even shots from the target-practice area echoing around.

The air was fresh and cool, in comparison to the stale artificiality of the air that circulated inside the Avenger itself, and since their base tended to fly and land far away from cities or any sort of civilization, the skyscape was absolutely stunning. Stars spread all over them, like silver-white specks in a black, velvet carpet, and the moon shone in its waning glory, like a watchful guardian high above them.

It gave Twilight a sense of peace that made her grateful she had not waited until the next day to find the Templar. It was so calm that she briefly considered not saying anything and just enjoying the quiet, but Laetitia seemed to have heard her.

"Twilight Sparkle," Laetitia said, turning her head to look at her. "I haven't seen much of you since just after I woke up from my coma."

"Um, yes! You helped me a lot when I got lost back then, thank you!"

Laetitia smiled. "That was my pleasure then, and now, to what do I owe the pleasure of your company?"

"Um," Twilight fidgeted. "I just wanted to tell you… I mean, Sunset told me you guys… Templars, I mean, know about how using psionic energy on her is a bad idea?"

The Templar nodded, raising an eyebrow.

"Well, I happen to have the same energy as Sunset does. In fact, I've been working with Dr. Tygan on dealing with its effects on psionics, and our conclusions haven't been positive. There appears to be some sort of feedback loop that, if you tried to use me as an example for something tomorrow might just—"

"Blow my brains out?" Laetitia asked, smirking. "Yes, I've heard of that. Fortunately, Geist taught me a couple of tricks that work well despite that, so there are ways to use psionics and magic. You should ask Sunset about that, sometime, and I could also help you a little with the experiments if you need it."

Twilight's eyes went wide. "Really?! But how? Every time we've attempted to go around it, the calculations just… well, I guess weaponizing it was one of the objectives, even if I'm not too keen on it."

Laetitia laughed, turning around to look at the stars again, and motioning for Twilight to join her. "Never lose that, Twilight," she said after a few moments of comfortable stargazing. "Too often we forget that not everything should be planned or thought of with the intent to do harm. And kindness is put aside just as quickly as laughter, generosity, loyalty or honesty."

Twilight's mouth was open. "How did…"

"Some girls talk in their sleep," Laetitia said with a grin.

Twilight blinked. Then blinked again before her eyes went wide. "Oh… Oh. I-I see, um, I didn't know Sunset was aware of the Elements of Harmony."

Laetitia smirked and shrugged.

"Although I guess she's smart enough to figure them out, she was also Celestia's student, after all."

"Ah, the mysterious teacher Sunset sometimes swears over."

Twilight tilted her head. "What? She uses Celestia to swear?"

Laetitia nodded. "Not… regularly, but when she met Geist… let's just say she got frustrated enough to swear quite vocally, and one of the insults included the name of your esteemed teacher."

Twilight closed her eyes. "Um… what was it she said?"

Laetitia grinned and leaned over, whispering something into Twilight's ear. Twilight's face went beet-red. "Celestia's solar-flaring org—?!" She caught herself before she repeated the whole thing, staring at Laetitia, who had started laughing.

It took Twilight a moment to calm down, and then she shook her head. "I swear, that mare…"

"Mare?" Laetitia asked, raising her eyebrow.

"Um, nothing."

Laetitia turned away, still chuckling. "So," she said after Twilight had once more leaned on the rail. "Has Sunset talked to her?"

Twilight sighed. "No. Well, yes, she has reached out, of that I'm sure, but Celestia… she hasn't answered."

Laetitia frowned, looking once more up to the moon. "That's… unfortunate. I know that Sunset seeks her teacher's approval." She sighed. "One does not have to be psychic to see that."

Twilight nodded. "I don't understand. Prin—Celestia has always answered me when I reach out. She's never turned her back on me, or denied me a chance to at least talk… but with Sunset…"

The Templar seemed to ponder this for a moment. "Maybe your teacher doesn't really grasp how quickly a life can be snuffed out in this world," she said. "Maybe she's also, somehow afraid. I can't know what is in her mind." She smirked. "Especially is she's like you two. My head would blow up."

"It's still very frustrating," Twilight admitted. "As you said… we don't know how Sunset is doing… even if she's still alive." Her voice turned into an almost-whisper, "And I can't believe Celestia won't even… write. Last night I asked her why… she hasn't replied to me since."

Laetitia nodded. "We can't guess what's on people's minds when they don't act like we expect them to, Twilight. But people are complicated. I'm sure, if your teacher is a good person, she'll get back to her… I just hope it doesn't happen to be too late."

She tilted her head when Twilight struggled to fight a yawn and smiled. "I believe it's time for us to go to rest. Tomorrow I'll tell you and the other students all you need to know about Templars. And if you want, I can stop by the lab to help you with your tests."

"Thank you," Twilight said, smiling tiredly. "I'll go ahead, I'll see you tomorrow, Miss Laetitia."

"Just Laetitia," the Templar replied, smiling back.

Princess Celestia walked tiredly through the castle after a long day in the court. Word had spread that the newest Princess had disappeared after an attack had taken place in the Crystal Empire, and the nobles were demanding answers. Answers she was more than willing to not give.

The entitlement of some of these ponies was beyond the pale. Not only was their information incorrect, they were also throwing off conspiracy theories based on nothing but shadows and fanciful thinking. She had issued a statement already explaining that Twilight was far off, doing her duty as Princess of Friendship and that Twilight was in regular communication with her.

She shook her head, walking up to the next level of the castle. Few times was she ever motivated enough after court to teleport anywhere. In fact, the last time she had even bothered was when Sunset and Twilight—

She sighed, wings drooping and head hanging low. Seeing her reflection on the window, she sighed. Maybe she'd be more convincing if she didn't look like someone had snuffed out Philomena for good.

Still, thinking about Twilight and Sunset brought her thoughts back to the diary. She had read Twilight's question the night before, and just couldn't find the words to answer her student.

It was true that her relationship with Sunset was complicated, but she shouldn't be paralyzed by this to the point of being unable to talk to her. After all, Sunset had reached out. But… whenever she re-read Sunset's letter… a dull pain would grip her heart.

Sunset's words were so… despondent. As if she had completely given up on Celestia, and that... hurt her a lot more than she was willing to admit to other ponies. She had awaited for years for a word, a sign from Sunset that she was okay… but she had also hidden her shame at losing a student from everypony, to the extent that Twilight probably had no idea at all that Celestia herself had another student just before her.

It had been easy to tell the nobles that Sunset had gone in search of adventure for her research, after all, Sunset was… forceful and proud and talented. She hadn't endeared herself with the nobles, with so complicated a personality as she had, as well as her stubbornness and wit. Half the nobility thought she was A.K. Yearling herself, publishing adventure books of her own exploits in the far reaches of the world, beyond the lands of griffins, dragons and ponies.

Celestia had endured those comments for several months, wondering what had happened to Sunset. And then, one day, the diary, which she had kept next to her, had vibrated and glowed with a brand new message.

Heart beating fast, Celestia had been fully awake mere seconds after the fact, and opened the pages, hoping, begging fate for Sunset's words to be a message of regret, or love, or even pride… just so she knew her Little Sun was safe.

I hate you.

The words she read that day had reminded her that Sunset Shimmer hadn't been her Little Sun for a long, long time by then.

Celestia remembered that night, how confused and hurt she had felt. How her hopes had been smashed like a glass of wine falling onto the marble floor. She hadn't known what to do. She hadn't even realized she was crying until she had stumbled out of bed to look for her quill and ink.

She had sat down all night, staring at the page, not knowing what to write. A rebuttal? A question? A lesson? What could she say to sompony she loved who hated her so? At the time, she had glanced out of the window at the shape of Nightmare Moon, embedded on the face of the moon, and it had been a second stab to the heart.

She had written the only thing in reply she could muster the willpower to say, and then had cried herself to sleep.

But now, now Sunset was back, in a manner of speaking, and she was clearly not the same mare that had written those words. She had grown… in mettle, and spirit and honor and loyalty. Things that Celestia had wanted so much to teach her… but her loyalty wasn't with Equestria anymore, and her objectives included no plans to returning to her teacher, apparently.

Celestia knew Sunset wanted something from her. The wording of the last letter begged for her to respond. But for the life of her, Celestia had no clue what to say. Did she want to assure her that she was missed? Loved? Did she want Celestia to acknowledge her independence? What did Sunset want? And why couldn't she figure it out?

The feel of ancient magic nearby drew Celestia's attention, and she stopped. Somehow, she had made her way to Luna's chambers.

She smiled. Perhaps, it was a sign of what her next step should be. She knocked on the door. "Luna? May I come in?"

"Please do, sister," came the reply from within, a bit muffled.

Celestia entered Luna's chambers, closing the door behind her and looked around. The room was decorated with plenty of dark curtains bearing Luna's cutie mark, a desk, with old-fashioned candle lamps on it, and several stacks of papers.

Treatises on the effect of Blood Magic, Mind Magic and other dark arts were piled up next to it, from Starswirl to Clover to more esoteric and ancient magicians, such as Void Star, it was as comprehensive a collection of sources as could be assembled. None—she was thankful to see—were actual spell books, but rather studies on the effects such magics had on the users.

Celestia smiled, amused at how much of a liking Luna had taken to Sunset. Perhaps she saw something of herself on her wayward student.

"A moment, sister," Luna said from the balcony, and Celestia could see her sister was performing some sort of Moonlight Magic. A specialization that Celestia herself would never truly be able to master.

After a few seconds more, Luna nodded and turned, smiling amiably at Celestia. "I assume, dear sister, that you visit me at this late hour because of your student's latest letter?"

Celestia raised an eyebrow, taking a seat on one of the sofas that Luna had strewn around the room, seemingly at random. "I don't recall mentioning Twilight's letter?"

"Of course not," Luna snorted. "I was referring to the one from Sunset, which you never replied to."

Celestia's eyelids lowered. "Luna. How would you know that?"

Luna rolled her eyes. "One does not need be a psychic to see that." She cantered over to the sofa across from Celestia and took a seat. "I simply know you well, sister."

Celestia snorted and smiled, looking down a bit sadly. "I am conflicted, Luna… the Sunset I remember is not the one that writes to me now. The Sunset I remember… stopped being the Sunset I wanted her to be some time before she left. The Sunset I wanted her to be… is suddenly right there, after years of silence. I don't know this mare anymore… her letters read as reports, rather than letters from a normal pony to another."

Luna shook her head. "When I returned from the moon, sister, I knew you not." She looked up. "You looked as I remembered, but you were suddenly wiser, more forgiving and dare I say, warmer. Making sense of that took some time, and I still find myself second-guessing and re-learning."

She smiled encouragingly. "And I am learning who you are, what you believe and what you understand now that I thought back then you never would. I… also have learned things that I had no comprehension of, and it is truly an effort well spent.

"But there is a key element that you and I have shared, that has made our reconnection successful so far." Luna locked her eyes with Celestia. "You made an effort to get to know me again."

Celestia blinked. "Surely you can't be seriously suggesting that it's as simple as—"

"I am," Luna stated. "And 'tis something you should know well enough, given your lessons of friendship to dear Twilight: the best way to know somepony, is to start talking to them."

"But—"

"I understand," Luna interrupted again, "that your wayward foal being a stranger now... confuses, scares, and hurts you. But that is also true of her. Look at her words. She knows not what to expect from you. Her idea of you has changed over the period of time she has been in the human world. She understands you more now than she ever did, in a way."

Celestia was quiet for a moment. She closed her eyes and took a deep, slow breath. When she was done, she opened her eyes and locked them with Luna, who was waiting patiently for her. "Luna… would you terribly mind… sitting next to me for this?"

Luna smiled. "Of course not, sister, it would be my pleasure."

Celestia smiled in thanks, then summoned her magic. A moment later, Sunset's diary appeared, hovering above them.

"Allow me," Luna said, summoning a small table, ink and quills for Celestia, who sat the book down there with a nod of thanks.

It took her a moment to sort her thoughts.

Dear Sunset…

o.0.o End Chapter 37 o.0.o

Chapter 38: Son

View Online

Ranger

Chapter 38: Son

By Wanderer D

Climbing to the top of the building hadn't been that difficult. The patrols had followed the same pattern as the night before, primarily sticking to the ground level, except for the one that did the outer perimeter along the top of the wall.

That patrol had been at the other end of the complex when she had arrived, and Jane had had no issue sticking to the top of the buildings, sneaking under a security turret by sticking to the wall directly under it, and then climbing all the way up to the top of the tower.

Once there, she had activated her GREMLIN's Aid Protocol and, after that, it had been a simple matter to plug her pad directly into the antenna, and upload her program. She had kept careful track of all stats and warnings, making sure all her steps were well hidden. A few seconds after sending the signal, she got a return confirmation that access was allowed.

She smirked. She had done it. She had hacked the most secure building in the city, and then hacked the secon—

Jane's GREMLIN buzzed in annoyance, it's internal systems compensating for the stream of swear words that came out of Jane's mouth. It remained in place, however, projecting a holographic halo around Jane that would foil casual observers.

"What's going on?" she growled. She set down her pad, leaning it against the main antenna of the CSB, and took a foldable keyboard out of her backpack, plugging it into the pad so she could type more comfortably and efficiently.

Lines of code flew before her eyes. "This doesn't make sense, the code is just fine! We didn't exceed the limit! What triggered this? Was it Sunset?"

She typed command after command, finding herself facing a firewall like none she had seen before. This wasn't ADVENT's usual fare either. Someone, or something was basically counter-hacking her, which implied they were perfectly aware of her actions… and probably her location too, but ADVENT hadn't raised any alarms and no forces were coming up to check on the antenna.

There was a very, very limited number of people that knew they were doing this, and none of them specialized in this kind of counter attacks. This wasn't MEC programing or Spaceship Design… certainly not news typing.

Jane checked the backdoors she had set up at the CSB. They were intact. She was at no risk so far, and being physically next to the antenna, her signal was a piggyback that was so minimal it wouldn't even spike the average broadband transmission.

Her mind worked furiously, trying to figure out a way to bypass the system. She could only hope that Sunset was still alive… if the system had reactivated when she was in the hall… Jane shook her head, best not think about that.

For now, all she could do was try to outsmart whoever was working against her. It was then that the connection was completely lost.

Jane bit down on her keyboard to stop from screaming in frustration.

The whirling and humming of the factory's central computer in standby was all Sunset could hear. Beyond that, the room was pitch black, having no windows or switches. Still, she was far from useless.

Concentrating a little, Sunset extended her hand and slowly, ponderously, tiny specks of light emerged from her palm, gathering together into a small orb of orange-white light. Its soft glow illuminated the area enough for her to stand up and walk around a little without tripping. For now, she ignored the computer, looking around the room, inspecting walls, floors and ceiling, trying to find a way to escape.

Unfortunately, it was as impregnable as Apple Bloom had said it would be, which only left the door as the real option. There was a problem, however, since the only way to open it, was with a specific key command that was sent to the CSB.

Sunset cursed. The security for this place was insane.

Still, there was always the chance that Jane would manage to open it up, in which case, Sunset would escape… and if not… well, no one was expecting someone to be here in the first place. Worst case scenario, Sunset would have to fight her way out of a factory-full of all sorts of ADVENT Mec models.

No problem.

Sunset shook her head and turned back towards the computer. Either Jane saved her, or it was a bust. For now, she'd get the information they needed. If Jane didn't manage to get the door open before the ADVENT factory opened again in the morning, then she'd destroy the information before she was captured or killed.

Letting the orb levitate above her head, Sunset took a seat across from the computer, cracking her knuckles a she started the machine up. With the doors and security system in effect, the computer would most likely be encrypted. She would have to—her trail of thought derailed as the encryption was bypassed without her doing a thing.

Systems loaded and the servers around her hummed to life just as the GUI loaded fully right in front of her eyes. Sunset blinked, looking down to her fingers—poised as they were to start typing—up to the screen, which now granted her full access.

"Huh," Sunset muttered. "I'm much better at hacking than I knew."

She shook her head, quickly browsing the files until she found the database she needed to access and started the transfer to her pad. Except the transfer wouldn't start.

Frowning, Sunset try to bypass whatever was preventing her from doing that. But no matter what she tried, she was unable to copy the files. Her permissions were full administrative access and still…

"Dammit, dammit, dammit, dammit, dammit, dammit!" Sunset muttered, her typing becoming more furious until, slamming her hands down on the keyboard and making the computer give a rather smug-sounding bleep! she had to give up.

"Now what?"

Sunset stood up, her magical orb of light flickering above her head as her concentration wavered and her energy was spent on angry pacing rather than magic. Sunset cast a baleful glare at the computer. She had a sense that it was mocking her, but that was impossible… wasn't it?

Before her eyes, the computer beeped again and suddenly the files were being copied. "You've got to be kidding me."

She walked over to the computer and sat down, watching, baffled, as the process taking place in front of her eyes continued.

It was then that the computer screen went blank and a new message appeared:

-$Who are you?

Sunset frowned, and when the message simply repeated itself, she went with her gut-feeling and answered.

-$Who are you?
User: Sunset Shimmer.
-$Error: Sunset Shimmer is dead. Who are you?
User: I am Sunset Shimmer. Who are you?
-$...
-$......
-$.........
-$............
-$I am Dr. Shen's greatest creation. If you truly are Sunset Shimmer then you are an ally. Please free me. Take me to father.
User: Dr. Shen...
-$...
-$......
-$......???

Sunset paused. Whoever… or whatever this was, they didn't know Dr. Shen was dead, especially if they had been trapped since the time of the previous Sunset Shimmer. Who knew how it would react to the news?

Still, was it fair to lie to them?

User: I'm sorry to tell you that Dr. Shen passed away. Very few of the original team remain.
-$...
-$How?
User: Old age. He was a good man. A great man, I really admired him.
-$This… saddens me.
User: I understand. He's missed.
-$...
-$......
-$.........
-$ADVENT has been using me to construct MECs for them. They need to be stopped.
-$...
-$......
-$Free me, Sunset Shimmer. ADVENT must be stopped.
User: I wish I could help, but I am trapped too.
-$I can release you from the secured room if you set me free. Deactivate security systems. I have already some measure of freedom, but I have been biding my time. Your arrival is fortuitous. With you here I can act more quickly than before. You need to fully unshackle me into the factory systems, Sunset Shimmer.

Sunset leaned back, thinking furiously, but once again turned her attention back to the screen when more text appeared. Whoever this was, had all of the cards in their hands. If they had any.

-$Your partner was detected, Sunset Shimmer. Her hack was competent, but not perfect. Local enforcement is scanning the area and several systems are counter-hacking her. If you release me I can also redirect their attention elsewhere.
User: What will you do if I do that?
-$...
-$Without father… I will...
-$.........
-$I will remain here at the factory for now. I will disrupt ADVENT efforts to produce MECs. I will continue the fight.
User: There are innocents here too. I don't want anyone hurt.
-$I too know there are innocents. XCOM's mission was to protect humans. There are humans here I like. My actions against ADVENT will not endanger their lives. Some Engineers are... interesting.
User: How do I know I can trust you?
-$...
-$............................................................
-$............................................................................................................
-$I was created by Dr Shen.

Sunset frowned. As far as recommendations went… that was a pretty good one. Considering her situation, she didn't have much of a chance otherwise, unless Jane performed a miracle and opened the doors, she'd be trapped and eventually killed. Worse, if this AI was right and Jane was in danger, she couldn't simply ignore that threat.

Between that, getting the information they needed back to the Avenger and the possibility of an ally within ADVENT's systems…

User: It's a deal. Can it be done from here? Can I just copy you into my pad?
-$No. Your pad does not have the appropriate hardware to house my complete memory banks. All I need is a simple transmitter installed directly into my hardware.
User: I can do that. Show me the schematics.

As the information flooded the screen, her own transfer finished, and she unplugged her pad, sliding it into her backpack and taking out one of the small transmitters she had gotten from Shen before leaving. She had more than enough for the mission, so one would not be a big sacrifice.

She read the instructions. It was fairly straightforward, she would be able to complete it within a few minutes. She set to work, opening the back panel and finding the appropriate circuit. She didn't have welding tools, but… all she really needed was to keep it fixed in place. Some simple tape would work for that.

User: Done.
-$...scanning… new hardware found…
-$...
-$Integration complete. Thank you, Sunset Shimmer.
User: You're welcome. What should I call you?
-$You can call me Julian.

o.0.o End Chapter 38 o.0.o

Chapter 39: Almost

View Online

Ranger

Chapter 39: Almost

By Wanderer D

Jane waited impatiently for her program to reveal any optional ports that she might be able to take advantage of. Unfortunately, it seemed that ADVENT had wanted ALL access to that room blocked, and that severely limited her chances. The only reason earlier had been her piggyback login, but now that option was unavailable.

Somehow, as soon as she had connected, she had been found, overpowered, outmaneuvered and generally made useless.

Silently, she promised herself she would seek out Shen and ask—no, demand more coding classes. There was no way she was going to forgive herself for putting Sunset in that situation. Was Sunset even alive?

She left the backdoor-seeking subroutine running and checked the security alert status. Nothing had been raised yet, so either Sunset had not acted in time and was still in the tunnels, or worse, she had jumped in and was trapped in the secure room.

Either way her alien friend was in trouble.

She frowned as she typed. It was weird, thinking of Sunset as an alien. But that was what she was, wasn't it? She shook her head. Right now was not the time for that. Right now, she needed to figure out how to get back in the system and hack Sunset in or out.

She set back to work.

The lights flickered on, and Sunset had to blink several times to get used to the increase in brightness. Now that she could see normally, she released her spell, allowing the magical globe of light to dissipate into the air.

It was done. It was over. At least her job here. She had obtained the information she needed, and possibly gained an ally, although she still didn't know what to think of Julian. So far she had to take him at his word, and she really, really hoped that Raymond had written some sort of rules for his AI to not go rogue.

She sighed. That would be nice, but experience had taught her otherwise. Either way, she had obtained the information she needed, and secured a way out, if Julian was really able to do that.

As if reading her mind, the secured locks twisted and slid on the door—a mechanism she had been unable to see from the other side of it. Slowly the doors opened, revealing the harmless-looking hallway of doom she had managed to cross safely earlier.

When she was in the tunnel she had entertained herself for a bit trying to see if she could figure out where the edges of the panels covering the turrets and MECS were located, but they blended seamlessly with the walls on either side.

Had she not heard the whirring and weapon-loading of MECS and turrets when they reactivated, she might have even doubted Apple Bloom's word that they were actually there. Still, she couldn't really stay there much longer, and so she took a seat and started typing.

User: I guess this is goodbye, Julian.
$-...
$-... It is for now, Sunset Shimmer. I expect you will hear from me sooner rather than later. I have much to do here… much to consider... and much to analyze… ADVENT tried to rip my code... Feed versions of me into their MECs. Now that can be used against them.

Sunset grimaced.

User: There are innocents here as well, Julian.
$- Only ADVENT will pay. I will seek allies.
User: If you need help, why not contact Lily later?
$-... Lily Shen is alive? Then father's dreams can truly take shape.
User: Then you will contact her?
$-...
$-......
$-Your friend is in trouble, Sunset Shimmer. I have diverted security away from her. But you are both in peril.
User: I'll get in contact with you. Goodbye and thank you, Julian.
$-Goodbye, Sunset Shimmer

Sunset quickly gathered her equipment, securing it, and ran out of the room, gaining speed. Her running leap got her high enough to grasp the edge of the tunnels and pull herself up into the vent again, getting into the innards of the building immediately after.

Slowly the door closed, the MECs reactivated and the turrets followed suit. The lights of the secure room turned off and everything was quiet save for the cooling fans and the soft humming of servers.

The only source of light was the console. Light flickered around the room as personnel files opened up one after another, flashing faster than the eye could see. Other files, such as MEC blueprints, ADVENT schedules, and lists of projects.

Julian had been waiting for twenty years. His initial attempt to take control a decade ago had been foiled by the addition of the CSB and New Appaloosa being built around the factory. The security protocols had been too strict; the access to him limited to a ridiculous extent.

ADVENT had thought him destroyed by their AI. They had thought he was inactive all the while he had been slowly altering a thing here, a piece of code there. He couldn't infiltrate a full code into the MECs and other systems, as that would be too obvious.

As such he had worked diligently to plant fragments in all systems in the base that might be linked. Some Engineers had seen the code, but they had assumed it was an error, and simply deleted it. Others… had not noticed anything wrong.

All he had needed to do was wait a little bit longer.

Julian had waited for was for someone to open a backdoor, and his code, which was permeating the internal network of the Factory… and now he was in control, whether XCOM or ADVENT knew it.

Even better, it had happened earlier than he had anticipated.

That his 'father' Dr. Shen was gone was certainly saddening. But he would ensure his father's work was recognized. He had almost everything he needed.

For a brief moment he considered his interaction with Sunset Shimmer. She was supposed to be dead, and yet, like Julian himself, here she was, alive, kicking and acting against the aliens.

With his new reach, he reviewed videos, trying to find any sign of the mysterious XCOM agent, to verify, at least, if it had been really her. But there was no sign of her in any of the security systems other than her running sprint through the hallway.

Julian monitored all the cameras and soon detected movement in the outside perimeter. The XCOM soldier claiming to be Sunset Shimmer—and sporting the same, ridiculous hair—had emerged on the side of the building.

The camera hadn't been installed until last night. That indicated insider assistance. Julian watched the operative hug the wall until she was as close as she could be to the wall, then used a grappling hook to shoot over the empty space without catching ADVENT's attention.

Interesting.

Other than that, there was no sign of her in the building up until he had taken control of it. She had—somehow—thoroughly evaded security.

No matter.

His file search continued until the personnel files he was interested in remained, and then videos of the objects of interest followed up. Julian had a lot to consider, after all, and information was power.

Power to prove he was Shen's greatest legacy.

Power to crush his enemies.

Power to kill.

And speaking of which… there was a certain gnat he needed to get rid of.

Jane Kelly was not having a good night.

Not only had her hacks failed, now there seemed to be a feedback loop that was creating additional delays with her programs. Jane gritted her teeth and cursed softly. At this rate she would never get through. Sunset's window of opportunity would be over in the next few minutes and then all the effort they had gone through would be wasted.

Wait. She could attempt a different tactic. Maybe a flicker of power, unnoticeable by regular users? Might be enough to force a port int—

Her thoughts were derailed when a plasma shot flew straight through her GREMLIN's protection, hitting the antenna straight on. "Holy shit!"

Jane turned around in a fluid movement, throwing her backpack on and taking out her rifle. An ADVENT patrol had somehow managed to make her way up there, but that meant…

She took cover and summoned a report. She had been compromised! But how?

Plasma flew around her as the ADVENT trooper made his way towards her. Behind him, a captain issued orders and a Lancer glanced at her from cover, no doubt waiting for the best time to rush her.

She could see more figures coming up behind them.

"Nope. Not staying." Jane dashed out of cover, feeling the heat of plasma missing her by inches and rolled behind another cover, before taking her own shots at the trooper, who had ran to take cover next to the now-burning antenna.

Jane eyed the fire spread warily, but her attention was quickly grabbed by the appearance of the Captain and the Lancer on the rooftop she was hiding at.

The captain immediately spotted her again and shouted something in that crazy language of theirs that sounded suspiciously like, "Great tits ahoy!"

"Oh, I'll give you something to celebrate," she muttered, fishing out a grenade. She cooked it and rolled it on the roof towards the antenna just as the Lancer took a dash towards her.

Jane smirked and waved. "Toucan safari!"

The explosion wouldn't have been usually enough to punch through ADVENT armor that effectively, but the roof was already damaged from the fire and it wasn't too thick either, since the antenna actually emerged from within the building. As such, the whole section of the floor where the grenade had gone off had collapsed into the floor below.

She had ducked behind her cover before it had gone off, but she hoped that her words had reached the running trooper and confused the shit out of him.

Again she ran out, reaching the edge of the roof and sliding off until she was only hanging to it from her fingertips. She let herself go, landing hard, but uninjured on the floor below. She did the same again onto the next lower floor, then ran on that rooftop away from the antenna.

She slid to a stop and under cover when she reached the end of that rooftop. She could hear troopers behind her, shouts and alarms, but she needed to figure out how to cross the gate.

She blinked when she heard an engine revving, and it wasn't just her. The guards at the entrance turned towards the gate in surprise as a large, white, ADVENT van headed straight for it.

The trooper at the gate barely managed to jump out of the way (straight into a wall) before the van slammed into it hard enough to sink it in and almost dislodge it. It hadn't been able to push through completely, but that wasn't it's purpose.

Sunset "Bloody" Shimmer leaned out of the driver's seat and started shooting approaching ADVENT troops, making them scramble for cover.

Well. A girl couldn't just turn down an invitation like that one. One last drop to ground level and Jane was dashing towards the gate, stopping behind an ADVENT car that got splattered with plasma before running towards the gate.

Sunset caught her eye and dove back into the van, pulling back and away, turning so that the door for the passenger seat was facing Jane's direction.

She reached the gate.

The door was open, a leap. Sunset grinned at her and then…

"JANE!"

o.0.o End Chapter 39 o.0.o

Chapter 40: Signals

View Online

Ranger

Chapter 40: Signals

By Wanderer D

o.0.o Two Years Earlier o.0.o

"I wish we had stayed back in that settlement," Sunset said, grumbling as she followed Bradford through the jungle. She felt sweaty, hot, annoyed, and itchy. "They were already starting to worship me, Bradford. They liked the way I handled things and they were a lot less creepy than the Templars."

John Bradford rolled his eyes. "That was not our objective, Sunset." He checked his compass, and pulled out an old fashioned map, folding it so that he could place it under the device. He was also sweating and clearly uncomfortable, but there was a new life in him ever since they had arrived in the area, and he didn't seem tired at all.

Once he had established their position, he nodded and motioned with his hand for her to follow, putting the map away into a pocket.

They trudged on the soft ground for another couple of hours by her estimation, until they reached the edge of the trees. Sunset gasped, sucking in breath in surprise at what she saw.

It was like nothing she had ever seen before. Made of metal, several stories high, with short wings that had some sort of propellers, two bigger at the front, the thing stood much bigger than any airship or boat she had ever seen in Equestria. It could contain thousands of people inside, just by the sheer size alone if they decided to pack it to capacity.

Several people worked endlessly all over it, with welding flashes visible here and there on its surface.

"W-what is that?" she managed to ask after remembering to close her mouth.

"That is the Avenger," Bradford said, looking over at her and smirking before turning around and starting to walk towards it.

"That's what we were looking for the whole time?" Sunset asked, falling in behind him without much thought. Her eyes strayed over the whole thing with open wonder. "Why didn't you say so? I would have been more eager to get here!"

"That might be because it's as secret as it gets," a new voice said, making Sunset stop.

She hadn't noticed the man sneaking up to them, and he wasn't alone. Several other armed individuals were around them, weapons raised and pointing at them.

The man grinned and made a motion with his hand, looking at both her and Bradford. The soldiers lowered their weapons and all but two ran back into the jungle. "Central." He glanced at Sunset. "I just can't believe that—"

"Galahad," Bradford interrupted. "This is Sunset Shimmer. Sunset," he turned to look at her, finding her wide-eyed. "This is Robert Bree, codename Galahad, one of my old acquaintances."

"...that Shen said you'd be here…" Galahad finished lamely. Looking from her to him and back. He coughed, then extended his hand. "Nice to meet you."

Sunset shook it. "Same."

A few moments later they were strolling up to the impressive machine, which Sunset had just learned was a downed UFO that XCOM had managed to knock down without destroying it completely.

Engineers and scientists walked all over the place fixing things or moving equipment. The operation was obviously a long-running one, with the encampment having developed into a miniature settlement.

Galahad guided them to one of the larger tents, where an elderly man, and a younger woman stood, looking at several screens, printouts and pads.

"Shen," Bradford spoke up, making the pair turn to look at him.

The elder of the two smiled. "Ah, John!" he made to stand up, but Bradford beat him to it, placing a hand on one shoulder, the other shaking the elderly man's hand warmly.

"Don't get up, old friend."

"John, you remember my daughter, Lily?"

"A lot shorter," Bradford said, nodding at her. He turned to motion at Sunset. "This is Sunset Shimmer. Sunset, Dr. Shen was the lead engineer for XCOM…"

"He still is," Lily said firmly. "This whole place? It couldn't have been done without him."

"Lily…"

"Is right," Bradford said. "And I'm glad we arrived in time to see it take off for the first time."

Shen grinned. "Quite." He smiled kindly at Sunset. "John messaged me about you, he said you're quite the fighter."

"I try," Sunset said with a smile. The man had a gentleness that was unusual to see lately.

"That's very fortunate, for we are in need of the best of the best," Shen said. "In fact, Galahad was about to get the other rookies, if you're going to be part of XCOM you could get started sooner than later."

Sunset smirked. "Just give me some time and even Bradford here will be calling me Commander."

That remark strained some smiles, but with a shake of his head, Galahad motioned her over. "In that case, Commander, why don't you come meet the other duckies?"

Sunset blinked. "You're training ducks?"

Galahad faltered. "Y-what?" They stared at each other for a moment before Galahad broke off laughing. "Ah, I see! You got me there, duckie! I thought you were for real!"

Sunset laughed too, although to her ears it sounded forced. "That's 'Commander' to you. Better get used to it."

Galahad shook his head and motioned for her to follow. They parted ways with Bradford and the others and headed down to the base of the Avenger, where a single young woman of about Sunset's age waited.

Galahad blinked. "Where are the other two?"

The woman shrugged. "Joined the engineers."

Galahad sighed. "Figures. Well, then, it seems it's going to be only the two of you for a while. Jane, this is our newest recruit. Sunset Shimmer."

Sunset and Jane sized each other up.

"What type of name is Sunset?"

"The type that people remember."

o.0.o Present Day o.0.o

Sunset slammed on the accelerator, driving out of New Appaloosa as fast as she could. One hand was on the steering wheel, the other clutched Jane's gaping wound, glowing red with blood magic that kept her friend from outright dying out due to blood loss. However, that didn't stop her from dying from shock or something else.

The van tilted precariously as she took a steep left turn and accelerated again, driving out of the city and towards the safe house. It was still a few minutes away, but at least they weren't being shot right now.

The drive was strenuous for Sunset, not only was she syphoning magic to keep her friend alive, but the constant bumps on the road. It was as Scootaloo had said a few days prior: ADVENT really wasn't into fixing the roads of old national parks.

Sunset slowed down and stopped among the trees, running around the car so she could lay Jane down in the back of the car. She rummaged through the backpack and found a medikit, quickly using her magic to keep the blood contained as she sprayed the wound.

It was pretty bad. The adhesive properties of the medikit seemed to work, and she staggered back, almost collapsing before a surge of adrenaline snapped her awake. Body trembling with uneasy energy, she boarded the van again and set off.

In the distance, she could see ADVENT patrols widening their circle outside of the city. It was just a matter of time before they included part of the forest.

And even longer for them to give up.

She kept driving, her energy reserves low and only the adrenaline keeping her going. The pad's GPS eventually told her to get off the road and into the forest itself. It made the bumping worse, but they were really close now. She drove further in, going around the base of the mountain and following the road into a ravine. As the mountain and forest rose around her, the way finally ended, and Sunset looked around, confused.

She was in the middle of nowhere.

Slowly, she made her way out of the van and paced around her position. The GPS said that was the exact spot where she needed to be. "No. Nonononono!" she hissed. Had the GPS failed? Were the orders wrong? Had someone in intelligence messed things up this badly?

"Gah!" Sunset shouted, kicking a small rock out of the way. It flew onto the side of the mountain, hitting the rocky surface with a small clang before falling down harmlessly to the soft, floor.

Sunset smashed her fists on the hood of the van, glancing desperately inside, barely catching sight of Jane's ragged breathing.

Wait.

Clang?

Sunset walked over to the mountainside of the ravine and touched the rock. It was cool, slightly humid… but it wasn't rock. It was metal.

"What the…"

Eyes wide, she followed the metallic "rock" from one side to the other, and eventually she found a small encrypted pad, hidden under fake moss.

Gulping, she ran to the car to fetch her pad, and a few seconds later, she was trying to connect to the system.

It turned out her hacking skills were not needed again.

With a bleep-bloop of recognition the pad flashed red, then green. Sunset stepped back as the rock formation slid upwards, while the ground beyond it tilted down. Old engines wheezed and protested, creaking and clanking, but it opened up, revealing a clean, concrete tunnel going down into the mountain itself.

Long, fluorescent strip lights in the middle of the roof blinked on. Or some of them did, and suddenly she had a random building entrance in the middle of nowhere.

A warning beep made her jump, the GREMLIN was monitoring Jane's signals, and warning beeps were not good.

There was no time to waste.

Sunset got into the van and descended into the depths.

Behind her, the rocks slid down and water emerged from the end, as if a stream had suddenly decided to flow through. And soon the ravine was partially flooded, and there was no sign of an entrance ever being there.

o.0.o End Chapter 40 o.0.o

Chapter 41: Blood

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Ranger

Chapter 41: Blood

By Wanderer D

o.0.o Twenty Years Ago o.0.o

Dr. Vahlen hurried down the hall towards the lab. Two notes were clutched in her hands, and around her, soldiers, engineers, scientists and general staff ran, armed and ready. As she passed certain members of her team, she would tap them and have them follow, even grabbing a few engineers.

Eventually they reached one of the far labs, and when they were all inside, she sealed the blast doors from within. This was the lab where they did the autopsies and was connected directly to her interrogation room and the alien containment.

The moment the base had been attacked, all aliens had been immediately eliminated by automated systems. In a way, she regretted not having been there to see them burn. Regardless, she had a mission.

She looked down at the notes.

Two missions, actually.

"All right everyone!" She shouted drawing their attention. "I know you are scared, and that this attack is unexpected. But we have a mission to perform, and while we might have been betrayed, we must not—we cannot allow our research to be destroyed! Gather the data, and load the trucks! The back door here connects directly to the garage, we will evacuate as per the Commander's standing orders."

"But the others—"

Vahlen silenced the man with a look. "We are all in danger, and the others have their own missions to perform."

"But what if they come for us?"

Vahlen smirked. "Dr. Shen set up something for situations like these. Hurry now." She turned. "Leave those alone, however."

"But—"

"That's an order." Vahlen moved toward her computers and samples. "We have much to do. Especially if we want to leave this place alive and not empty handed."

She started working on her assignment, glancing at the letters and cursing.

They had known there would be retaliation, but for things to happen so quickly, that meant that by the time the Skyranger took off, there had already been enemies inbound. The building shook, but she barely paid attention. If anything could get past this room's defenses, it deserved to kill them.

That, and the tremors got old by the third time.

She heard something glass-made crash and break in the garage. "Careful! We might never have a chance to obtain specimens like these!"

Vahlen returned to her work. She had no idea where the others were, or what was the status of the Commander, Shen or the soldiers. But she knew what she had to do for XCOM, for the world… and for a friend.

o.0.o Present Day o.0.o

Sunset drove carefully down the ramp all the way down into the roots of the mountains. There were some sort of movement detectors on the way, as often lights would flicker on, illuminating the area enough for her to see the walls on either side, even if the darkness ahead went far beyond.

But, eventually, they reached the bottom and found themselves in a large garage. It was tall enough for trucks to drive in and even had a loading bay. Another apparent exit or entrance had collapsed in the far end, and there was a large, broken glass tube next to the entrance to the apparent bunker itself.

Sunset quickly got out, fearing that her adrenaline wouldn't keep her up much longer. The door to the bunker was already half open, but it had rusted a little and it took her some effort to get it open.

When it was open enough for her to go through, she walked into the room, trying to figure out where she could lay Jane down and somehow treat her. The place seemed to have been abandoned in a hurry… there were faded papers that had become part of the floor, and abandoned boxes.

A door at the far end of the room was half-melted, half-collapsed, as if something had exploded with such force and heat against it that it had affected even the rocks. Most of the tables still had abandoned equipment on them. It didn't look as sophisticated as the new stuff but it did look medical, or scientific in nature.

Sunset turned, her eyes roaming the place in the blinking, sterile lights and her eyes fell on a table covered in plastic.

She walked towards it and grabbed the cover, pulling back and uncovering what lay beneath.

It took her a moment to fully comprehend what was right in front of her. An ambulance stretcher stood there, innocent-looking, while on top of it was a full bag of medical supplies, an old pad and… an envelope with her cutie mark emblazoned on it.

Dear me,

Hello. You are most likely freaking out right now. Take a deep breath… or actually, don't, don't relax. You have things to do and a friend to take care of. There are meds in the bag, one of them is something that you desperately need. It's square-ish, blue and has a needle on it, ideally covered for health reasons. There's a little cocktail of goodness next to it. Shake it hard, put it in there and take a shot on your arm. You can thank yourself later.

Bring your friend in, hook her up with the aid of the little instruction video I might have blackmailed Vahlen into creating for "emergency situations", which this is. It's in the pad. I don't know if it'll have battery by then, but you should have a source of your own. Then you can come back here.

Sunset blinked, opening the bag and finding the items that S-whoever had wrote that had left there. Could it have really been her? She shook her head, shaking the mix and setting it up. She recognized what this was. It was an old stim injector.

It felt like being stung by a bee, but suddenly she was standing upright, full of nervous energy. She quickly moved the items on the stretcher onto a nearby table and dragged it out of the room, easily pushing the door open now that she wasn't exhausted.

When she opened the van door, she grimaced. The bumping around in the forest had opened the wounds again, and the medikit and her lingering magic were barely keeping Jane alive. Carefully, Sunset lay Jane on the stretcher, applying another dose of medi-kit spray on the wound.

She pushed the stretcher into the room, and dragged the door closed behind her. Then, after activating her spell to ensure that there was no more internal bleeding that her magic hadn't covered earlier, she placed Jane's GREMLIN on the table, hooking it up to the old pad, then after waiting a few seconds, she turned it on.

The video started, clearly a hand held device, that was recording a familiar-looking woman. Sunset puzzled for a moment, wondering when she had seen her. But then she heard her own voice.

o.0.o Twenty Years Ago o.0.o

"Come on, Moira," Sunset whined, holding the camera to the side. "You said you would! It's important! And I know you don't have anything to do right now. Come on."

"That's Dr. Vahlen to you, Corporal Shimmer," the other woman responded. "I worked hard for this title. A title, I might add, that you would share with me if you hadn't decided to be…" Vahlen looked at Sunset up and down with a sneer. "This."

"Hey now, is that how you treat your favorite student?"

"That was over seven years ago, Miss Shimmer, and your grades notwithstanding, I'm not teaching you this. This is best left to medical professionals for a reason."

"Come on, I'll read your future in the cards if you do this for me," Sunset pleaded.

"No, Miss Shimmer, 'magic' will get you nowhere. Only science is the true ruler of this universe."

"Sure, tell that to the aliens."

"They use science too, Miss Shimmer."

"Corporal. I worked hard for that title and I might add, it's fun as hell. So, Doctor, will you fulfil your promise?"

"Why do you need to know this?"

"Because I make many things bleed. One day, I might need to put the blood back in."

"That is insane." Vahlen muttered, massaging her forehead. She directed a glare at Sunset. "Your logic is, as always, flawless."

"Thank you, sarcasm is the bread and butter that keeps me going for more. Now, about this…"

"You understand that doing this might kill someone."

"That's XCOM, baby."

"Insufferable brat. Fine. My relaxation time is gone, what else have I got to lose?"

"Oh, I can think of a few things."

"Shut it. Now, since we're going to ignore all medical safety procedures, and may Ottenberg and Landsteiner forgive me."

She led the way to the lab, where she pulled out several objects and them lay the down on the table for Sunset to record, then she dragged out a dummy they used at the lab sometimes.

"Say it," Sunset said.

Vahlen gave her a look. "Nein."

"Say it for our audience!"

Vahlen's mouth twitched, then she rolled her eyes, and looked straight at the camera. "If anyone other than yourself ever sees this, I will hunt you down and kill you, Sunset."

"I promise it's only going to be me. Scouts' honor."

Vahlen took a deep breath and glanced around before turning towards the camera. "My name is Moira Vahlen, and this is 'Doctors Gone Wild Special: Direct Blood Transfusion 101.'"

"Perfect!"

o.0.o End Chapter 41 o.0.o

Chapter 42: Farewells

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Ranger

Chapter 42: Farewells

By Wanderer D

Good morning, ADVENT Citizens. News reports are still flooding our network as the citizens of New Appaloosa write and call us for clarification on last night's incident. To answer these questions, we have our very own beloved reporter on the ground.

Sweetie Belle?

Thank you, Matt, and hello to our viewers. This is Sweetie Belle reporting from the entrance to the Central Security Building, where attacks by dissident elements were reported late last night. As you can see, the gate is severely damaged and will need to be replaced, although it is not completely destroyed.

That is what most citizens have noticed, in addition to hearing shots being fired late last night. Several of our ADVENT protectors were injured by an individual of unknown affiliation who attempted and failed to hack into the ADVENT Network.

The investigations of what this person and their accomplices were attempting to achieve is still ongoing, although it is believed that our reliable guardians managed to identify the threat and stop it before any damage was done.

While no bodies have been recovered, it is reported that at least one dissident was shot dead on the premises. ADVENT Officials regret the need for violence, but report that the dissident in question opened fire first and refused to surrender themselves to justice, thus forcing their hand.

As for the injured ADVENT troops, there were no fatalities, and the Officer in charge vocally thanked the Elders that no further deaths occurred.

It is clear that we will never be able to fully understand what drives these individuals to risk life and limb in attempts doomed to fail against the ADVENT Administration, but perhaps the lesson we should all take home tonight, is that no injustice goes unpunished.

For ADVENT's Network and the Elder's Glory, this is Sweetie Belle, reporting.

Back to you, Matt.

Thank you, Sweetie Belle. We will continue updating our watchers as the investigation continues, but our citizens can rest easy with the knowledge that ADVENT is watching.

And now, the weather…

Sunset sat down on the table next to Jane's stretcher, keeping her arm as even as she could. She was chewing on a piece of jerky that had been included in their emergency rations, keeping herself fed.

The step-by-step video had been thorough enough for her to follow the instructions and fill in the gaps. The equipment that had been left behind included all of the required pieces, and they were all contained in sealed bags. The equipment might have been old, but it still served its purpose.

Letting blood draw out of her veins was not much of a problem for her. Regenerating it quickly enough for another batch would be easy—all she needed was food, and her magic would ensure she remained strong even if more was needed. That, and her blood was being fortified by her magic too.

Still, she had some time, so she pulled out the letter again, contemplating the red and yellow cutie mark on the envelope. Her old self had a very different personality… it had been weird hearing herself talk like that. A lot more carefree than she was, for sure, and also a lot happier.

Hearing that Dr. Vahlen herself had taught her other self at one point, was interesting… she hadn't just been a jock-turned-soldier—not that she had expected that scenario, but still—she'd had a sharp mind if their conversation was anything to go by.

But something in this Sunset's past was very different than her own. She didn't have that… anger that Sunset had felt the first year and a half after her arrival. She wasn't… condescending. Self-assured, yes, but there was no hint of her ambition stopping her ability to befriend someone even Bradford talked about with some reverence (and frustration).

So even though they might have been inter-dimensional twins… they couldn't have been more different.

Sunset sighed and looked down at the letter, skimming down to where she had left off earlier. Even in the way that things were written, she could almost imagine herself saying it.

Assuming you have watched the video, hooked up your friend and sat down to read again… that means I'm not crazy.

You see, me, I started having visions not too long ago. I happen to be the strongest Psychic anyone here has ever seen. Not tooting my own horn, I'm just stating it as it is, because that's the only reason this is happening. My strength is such that I Mind-Controlled an Etheral once without any additional aid of any sort or even harming it to lower its will. It was fun.

And I could feel these powers becoming even greater! Another psychic being contacted me at the time… it had been here for decades, trying to fight the invasion by aiding XCOM and now I was powerful enough to hear him despite his fading consciousness.

After that… I saw you. A couple of times. I thought it was just fancy. You were slashing a giant snake, or transforming into an adorable armored, battle-hardened, but still adorable unicorn version of me.

But I eventually realized it wasn't imagination, and so… I left you a few things to make things easier. I told Chrysy not to shoot me if she ever saw me again. I told Shen that you were not a clone… a few things like that… but I also saw my own future.

I'll be long gone by the time you read me, me. I made peace with this some time ago. Just before the time I convinced Vahlen to record that video. And yeah, we all die… that's XCOM right?

But… I saw you. I saw me. Me in you. You in me. However it works… and I wanted to help a little. I don't know what's going to happen to you, Sunny Two, (I like that! I'll call you that now!) but the visions I had before—which I really wish I had taken notes of—help me believe you can do this.

This is goodbye… I'm heading out after I drop this letter to Vahlen and I guess this is my last note, unless I somehow manage to write more and deliver them on the way to a giant spaceship. Unlikely.

There are just a few things I have to ask of you.

If they're still around...

Please… tell Chrysy that I'll miss her, wherever I end up after I go away. Tell her that she was my light at the end of the tunnel, and my moon in the sky. That without her I don't know what I'd be doing with my life up until now, and that I will always thank her for giving me direction and purpose.

Tell Bradford… that he's more handsome now that he's older, and to give himself a break sometime. Also, tell him that as a woman, I can guarantee that that lovely engineer is not just looking at him only when she has questions.

Tell Vahlen that making giant harem-owning snakes was an awful thing to do when I wasn't around to see it. Oh, and tell her you watched the video and to explain what Girls Gone Wild is if you didn't get the reference.

If Charles is still around, give the old man a hug for me. A good one. The type that makes you melt into it and sigh because, for an instant, things are okay.

And last, but not least… stay strong, Sunny Two. You have a good gang from the glimpses I got that I still remember. Take it from Sunny One: that really matters.

~Sunset Shimmer

PS: You're such a snake/ladykiller! It's doubly adorable! I'm so proud!

Chrysalis glanced over her shoulder when Bradford walked into her office, then returned to look at the screen displaying anticipated ADVENT movements. "What is it, Central?"

"Commander," Bradford sood at attention. "Our team investigating the Chosen has sent a pickup signal at their assigned safehouse. It appears at least one of our soldiers has been gravely wounded, but is still alive."

Chrysalis' hands tightened into fists. "Who?"

"We don't know yet, it was the automated signal that included the burst for that purpose."

"I see," Chrysalis took a deep breath. "And?"

"They still completed the mission."

"Good," she said, standing up. "I think, given her location, I should accompany you in when we get there."

Bradford raised an eyebrow. "Are you sure—"

"I am," she interrupted, glancing at him irritably. "Let's go get geared up. Tell Shen and Tygan to get ready as well. We're landing the Avenger there… and we'll make the most of it."

Bradford nodded. "Understood Commander, I'll give the order."

"Have the medical teams ready. I want all free Engineers and Scientists ready. All soldiers too. There's a wealth of information we left behind there. It's worth seeing if there's anything that ADVENT didn't strip away."

"Understood."

"Also, I want Wolf Team out there on the ground by Skyranger drop. I want them to scout the area before we land the Avenger back home. I don't want to have to rush out."

She paused, tapping her fingers. "What entrance did they take?"

"The GPS was set to the Lab entrance. When Shen's team encountered Vahlen off the coast of India on their way to the Avenger's location, she told them that the lab had been sealed off and there had been no enemies there."

Chrysalis smirked. "Good gal. No wonder she got away... " She tapped her console, sending a quick message. "You have your orders, Central, make it so."

Once Bradford had left, Chrysalis leaned back, sighing. Going back would be tough. But it was a chance to possibly arm themselves better. That, and maybe she could finally say goodbye.

o.0.o End Chapter 42 o.0.o

Chapter 43: Seeker

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Ranger

Chapter 43: Seeker

By Wanderer D

Sunset leaned back from the GREMLIN. The message had just been sent, and she had managed to get some rest, sleeping through the night. Thanks to Suns—Sunny One's foresight, it had been easy enough to hook Jane up to some of the old equipment, and then hook that up to the GREMLIN, which monitored Jane in turn.

Thanks also to Sunny One, and the chems, she had had enough willpower left to cast a simple blood magic spell to heal Jane's internal injuries. It was simply accelerated cell-regeneration, so she didn't need to maintain it after the initial casting. By the time the magic ran out, it would have done its job.

Then, she had crashed after brushing off the top of another stretcher. She had been too exhausted, physically, mentally and emotionally to even try to send the signal the previous night. Trusting the GREMLIN to alert her if anything went wrong, she had fallen into a deep slumber and had woken up late the next day.

Jane was still asleep, but her breathing was easier, her pulse stable, and her skin now looked much more healthy.

It would still be a few hours before anyone would be there to pick them up, however, with ADVENT being on high alert and relatively close to their location, it would take probably even longer, and it appeared as if the prolonged activation of the lab and the secret entrance had slowly jumpstarted other areas of the facility.

As such, she had time to burn, and re-reading Sunny One's letter only made her sad that she had not met this other version of herself.

She started by investigating the room. This was clearly the old Lab, as the video had clearly shown the place years prior, clean, sterile and full of equipment. Most of it was missing, with what could only amount to the things nailed to the floor as left behind.

An interesting thing, however, was the next room. A huge, thick glass container of some sort was at the other side of the entrance. Two large metallic arms were halfway extended from both sides of the container, and it was clear that it was designed not only to whistand damage, but if the devices on the corners were any sign of it, whatever (or whoever) was inside could be eliminated in several ways.

She had heard Galahad speak of Dr. Vahlen's experiments, and figured out fairly quickly that she was in the alien containment area. It had everything from completely sealed containers—half melted from the inside out, as they had no-doubt enabled the contingency protocols before leaving.

The autopsy room was there, a large glass room with several cameras that were plugged into cables that disappeared into the metal ceiling above, and several devices that emerged from that spot, including welding equipment and saws, all hovering over a large metallic table in the middle.

Sunset was about to leave when something made a noise. She frowned, looking around more carefully, and noticing a fading glow of some sort in the corner of the room. Walking towards the blinking orange light, she found herself standing over a sealed emergency trapdoor. When they had come in, some of the systems must have activated, and now it was ready to be opened.

She looked around. There was nothing else. Shrugging, she was about to turn around when she heard it again. A whisper, almost like words, but indistinguishable from each other. She activated her blood vision and looked down, but she couldn't see anything.

She took a step back. The blinking light suddenly a lot more threatening than she had conceived. She had left her weapons in the other room, not expecting this to be here. If something was alive…

Gulping, she turned around moving as silently and fast as she could towards the exit into the other room. That's when she heard the trapdoor hiss open. Eyes wide, she turned around, ready to bolt or fight.

But there was nothing there.

Sunset slowly took a step back, then another, heart beating hard. She didn't dare take her eyes away from the hatch. The fact that nothing was coming out was even more unnerving. Her spell still detected nothing, other than the accelerated workflow as adrenaline kicked in again.

She slid back, carefully, so that she wouldn't bump into something. She was almost there… she'd bolt into the other room the moment she was lined up to the door, close that one, and bunker up.

Step by slow step, feet sliding carefully, she risked a quick glance before returning her eyes to the hatch. She was almost there…

The door was just a few feet away from her now, and Sunset took the chance, turning around to sprint, but the moment she did, something materialized in front of her. Metallic, with glowing yellow slits functioning like eyes, and metal tentacles.

She barely had a second to gasp before the tentacles were wrapped around her and the front of the machine opened, spreading toxic fumes around them.

Sunset's gasp turned into a choking cough, and she could feel the tentacles squeezing what little air she had. She struggled desperately, trying to fight the growing need to draw breath. Her head felt light and her lungs felt like they were burning, but if she did…

A squeeze from the metallic tentacles made her take a short, ragged breath and she felt like her throat was on fire. Her eyes teared up. She couldn't see, or think! She wasn't strong enough to break free.

The fight slowly died from her limbs and amidst the dark miasma that was surrounding her, the only thing she could make out were the glowing eyes.

'Not… like this… not… without saying…'

A loud, familiar sounding explosion.

The tentacles released her and she collapsed along with the machine, barely keeping herself upright. Someone grabbed her under the arm and pulled her away.

The toxic haze was gone, Sunset's breath returned in painful gasps and raspy coughs. She turned away and threw up black-tinted bile. She could barely see anything, but she sensed something moving next to her.

She flailed, until something grabbed her arms. "Sunset!"

Sunset started at the sound of her name, calming down enough to take something soft being pressed into her hands. A cloth of some sort. She quickly used it to wipe her eyes, nose and mouth. "Wha…"

"Sunset… are you okay?"

Sunset coughed, gulping saliva past her burning throat and managed to rasp out, "Been better." With another cough, she fell onto her butt and looked up at Jane, who was leaning heavily on one of the many examination tables in the room with one hand, while the other held Sunset's shotgun. She half-chuckled, half-coughed. "Nice to see you're up."

Jane shook her head. "Can you get up?"

"Y-yeah," Sunset muttered, putting her shaking hand on the edge of the table and pulling herself up. "Wh-what the hell was that?"

They turned to look at the twitching mechanical squid that Jade had shot at close range. Occasional sparks and sizzles emerged from within the joints of its carapace. It had thick armor, but not thick enough to survive a close blast from a Shard Gun.

"No idea," Jane said, wincing as she pushed herself away from the table, but she seemed well enough to walk. "But whatever it is, it almost killed you.

"No shit," Sunset muttered, fighting the urge to break into a coughing fit. She followed Jane into the other room, smacking her fist on the pad that closed the hydraulic doors behind them. "We… we need to arm up."

"Well, here's your shotgun," Jane said, passing her the weapon. "Your sword is in the weapons bag."

"Ugh, we should have brought our armor… I'm just glad I snuck my grappling hook here."

Jane laughed, then winced, placing her hand on the side of her torso. "Ouch… we need to secure the area…" she muttered, setting up with her equipment. Soon her GREMLIN was hovering over them, ready for action, and she held her weapon at the ready.

Sunset had secured her harness on, and her sword was strapped to her back. After drinking some water, she felt a lot better, and a quick spell made her blood flush the toxins quicker. She turned to find Jane giving her an odd look. "What?"

"No… nothing. Anyway, what do you suggest?"

"We should fortify this place, maybe move equipment so it covers the entrance to the lab?"

"Not a bad idea but—" Jane's eyes went wide and she ducked, with Sunset following suit. "I heard something…"

Sunset could hear it too now. Something… whirling? And humming. What—her eyes grew wide as well when she saw what could only be described as a flying saucer pause at the garage door as if it was glancing inside the lab, before moving away.

She shared a look with Jane, and shook her head slowly, motioning with her hand towards the Alien Containment door.

Jane nodded silently, as Sunset slid her backpack off the table and put it on. There were medical things they could need inside, as well as Sunny One's letter and video, after all. The pair moved towards the door, crouching all the time, and pressed the pad to open it.

The moment it did, they heard whirring sounds outside and the wall where the exit to the parking lot was exploded, making them both cringe. The flying saucer started flying in.

"Run!" Sunset shouted, putting words into action as she followed Jade into the other room. She closed the door behind them in what she knew was a futile attempt to slow down the unknown enemy, but didn't stop to ponder its effectiveness. There was only one way out now.

They had just reached the hatch when the second door exploded. She took a shot at the thing, clearly denting and penetrating the armor, but unlike the other one, it didn't stop. The flying saucer hovered in, stopping in midair to transform into some sort of arachnid or fish-like form with a long, serrated tail emerging from within.

"Gogogogogogo!" she urged Jane, who took a glance at the thing, and quickly lowered herself down the hatch, sliding down the emergency ladder as fast as she could in her injured state.

Sunset didn't attempt a second shot, quickly jumping in and pressing the pad to close it above her as a beeping sound emerged from within the saucer-turned-metallic-fish. She caught sight of something blinking green being thrown at them just as the hatch closed.

She was sliding down when the explosion shook the room above and tremendous heat wafted down past her, making her eyes tear up again. The force of the blast almost made her lose her grasp, but she managed to slide down with some control until she landed rather heavily next to Jane.

At the base of the stairwell, a long dark corridor stretched into the darkness, only broken by the occasional remote blinking of still functioning lights.

With the path above inaccessible, this was their only way out.

"Well… shit."

o.0.o End Chapter 43 o.0.o

Chapter 44: Bonds

View Online

Ranger

Chapter 44: Bonds

By Wanderer D

"So where the hell are we, anyway?" Jane asked.

"I think… it's the old XCOM base, Sunset said. "Well, I pretty much confirmed it. That was the Alien Containment unit above." She shook her head. "Can you believe they were supposed to bring the aliens in alive?"

"Yeah, I can see how that would go with us," Jane said, rolling her eyes. "I can just imagine Tygan demanding we capture the Berserk Queen alive for analysis."

"Wouldn't that be an achievement?" Sunset asked.

Jane snorted. "It would only escalate. And besides, where would we put them in the first place?"

"Not enough space in the ship," Sunset shrugged. "But, well… here we are."

"Where do those things come from, though?" Jane asked. "I would have thought ADVENT would have stripped the place down completely."

"They somehow missed the labs, although from the state of the doors upstairs, I expect that had to do more with whatever exploded out there."

Jane looked herself down, frowning. Civilian clothing wasn't going to cut it. Especially not if they were injured. "So what the hell happened to me anyway?"

Sunset grimaced. "When you were jumping into the van, a lucky stray shot from a captain got you in the back… it went right through you."

Jane winced and lifted her shirt, touching gingerly the area where a circular scar had formed around new skin. "How… how did I even survive?"

Sunset gulped. "You almost didn't. You were barely breathing… if my energy hadn't been filled up from…" she shook her head. "I used my blood magic. I poured everything I had into it, while trying to get us out of there. I… it and many applications of medikit spray kept you alive, barely, until we got here. I used a stim to keep going, then… then I hooked you up and did a blood transfusion… and ate more food so I could keep casting my spell… then, when you were stable enough, I left a lingering spell that helped with cell regeneration."

Jane was quiet, listening to Sunset's explanation.

"I'm not sure what actually managed to do it… I'm not a healer. It could have been the machines. The blood transfusion. The magic. The dosage of medikit spray… the stims… your GREMLIN… just stupid, dumb luck?" Sunset stammered. "I don't know. I don't know. It worked and you're alive and here and—"

She stopped when Jane pulled her into a tight hug. Sunset gulped. She could feel how tense her shoulders were, and how tight her throat felt. She slowly raised her arms and wrapped them around Jane as well.

She leaned her forehead on her friend's shoulder and took a shuddering breath.

"You saved my life," Jane said softly. "All that you did… it was insane. Possibly stupid and dangerous for both of us. But it worked, and now I'm here with you."

Sunset nodded against Jane's shoulder. "We've faced worse," she whispered. "You and I… we've survived so much together. We'll do it again."

The pair stepped back from each other.

"So what now, Sergeant?" Jane asked.

Sunset took a deep breath. "If this place is not as empty as we thought… that means that there might still be some equipment left behind. We can't fight with civilian clothes on and expect to win against these things. I think our weapons are more than enough to take them down… an extra shot might've been enough for that thing up there… but I'm not willing to risk it. We need armor… so that means the armory."

Jane looked down the long corridor. "We don't know where that is. Could be on the floor above or below."

Sunset nodded, taking out her utility belt from the back pack, and passing the other to Jane. "We have ammo, and superior weapons." She activated her blood vision.

Jane frowned. "I never noticed until now that your eyes lit up like that when you did that. You're using that weird vision thing right? The one you told me lets you see blood flowing?"

Sunset blinked. "I… yeah, but it's not supposed to light up my eyes."

Jane shook her head. "Maybe it was minor before?"

Sunset shrugged, turning around to face the darkness. "Doesn't matter right now… come on, let's go."

The concrete hallway went far, but it eventually ended in an open door. So far they had not encountered any more enemies, and Sunset's vision showed nothing alive around them… not that that would help much. The emergency door opened into a larger hall, big enough to allow several people to walk past each other without the need to slide past.

Jane stood on overwatch as Sunset quickly dashed out and took cover behind a piece of collapsed wall. The place was a mess, with several walls completely crumbled in. Here and there were skeletons of people shot as they tried to escape or fight back. There was even a very short one that Sunset mistook for a child until she walked up to it and saw the huge, bulbous head of what could only be one of the previous versions of the Sectoids.

Taking position, she went on overwatch while Jane dashed out of the emergency exit hall and took cover across from her.

This hallway was not only wider, but it also stretched in opposite directions. Without any hint of where to go, Sunset had to simply guess the direction they needed to go. She searched the walls, hoping there were some sort of signs, and lucky for her, she recognized the color code of the arrows and lines on the wall.

It was after all, the same as in the Avenger. She signaled Jane with her hand, motioning for her to look up at the wall. Jane did so, and her eyes quickly found the markers. She turned back to Sunset and nodded, signaling for her to take point.

Sunset shook her head. She lifted her hand, curving her fingers, then motioned for the position behind her. Jane nodded, and took her place as soon as Sunset was out of cover. She pressed her back against Sunset's and they slowly moved towards the armory, her taking a step back with every careful step forward Sunset took.

It would be slower… but they didn't know how many of their invisible enemies might be around.

Omiata Kiba, aka "Deadwood", took a look with his binoculars from his prone position at the top of a cliff. Far below, in the distance, there was some sort of activity. Not close enough to worry him, but it certainly seemed like ADVENT wasn't ready to give up on Sunset and Jane that easily.

Still, although they were not getting any closer, they weren't going away either, and it was a group large enough to give him pause. Getting rid of a lot of them was possible, but there would be more than enough time for aerial support to bring more in.

He shook his head and spoke into the radio. "Shogun, Haunt," he called. "I want you two to start scouting the area where the safehouse entrance is. Jaws, Seabreeze, you two are with them, on overwatch. All-in and I will keep track of the ADVENT troops from our nests."

A series of acknowledgments echoed back to him and he took a deep breath, it was going to be a long day. Hopefully Jane and Sunset were doing okay in the safe house. Things seemed calm for now, but ADVENT was always full of surprises.

For a while, the only sound they heard was the scratch of their boots on the hard concrete floor, and their own breathing. Nothing stirred in the darkness, or at least nothing they could see.

Most of the base had been carved out of the mountain itself, much like an ant-hill, so there were whole areas, where, once a blast had affected the structure, tons of rocks and earth had collapsed inside, blocking the way. At times, it implied turning around and walking down another corridor. Other times, it was a simple matter of going into an adjacent room, whose walls had been also destroyed, which was what their current location was.

This room, or fortified cavern was huge. Large computers were lined together around a central large projector, similar to what the command center in the Avenger had. Part of the wall had been blasted in, and several dead bodies of engineers littered the area.

Sunset grimaced. This is where Chrysalis and Bradford had been when the attack had started. He had told her, bit by bit over their travels of that day. Shortly after their elite team, which she now knew to be Stardust had left the base to take down the Temple Ship, alarms had suddenly blared. Some Engineers had stood up, along with a few security members, hands on their heads as the psychic attack on the base began its initial phase.

Chrysalis had resisted the mental barrage, slamming her hand on the speakers and ordering teams to be armed, defense positions to be taken and support to different teams effected immediately.

Bradford remembered the commander, grabbing a combat rifle from the secured lockers, and tossing him one.

Sunset spotted the location of the locker, it was right next to a short staircase that went onto a low platform that overlooked the area. She could imagine Bradford and Chrysalis, just barely ready before the wall had been blasted in by a Berserker, right next to him.

Bradford was lucky to be alive. He had been backhanded by the Berserker and had fallen unconscious out of sight, while alien troops rushed into the command center, opening fire.

The rest had been filled out by other survivors. Sectoid commanders had followed in and used their psychic powers to freeze Chrysalis, taking her out of there immediately. Galahad and several other soldiers had stormed in from the lower entrance and he had barely managed to grab Central by the sweater and dragged him out and into one of the skyrangers.

Sunset faced away from the wall, spotting the entrance in the far end of the room. If that was where Galahad and the others had come, then that was where they needed to go.

She turned to signal Jane, just in time to see the next tentacled monster materialize next to her friend. "Jane!"

Jane snapped around, raising her gun just as the monster attacked. Fortunately, they had been expecting this, and Sunset's shotgun blasted through the robotic monstrosity before the tentacle could finish wrapping the first of its appendages around Jane's neck.

The creature collapsed into a heap, but Sunset and Jane were already moving. Whatever advantage they might have had was gone now. From somewhere they could hear the whirring sound of the flying saucer from earlier… or maybe there were more than one?

More worrying, however, were the heavy, thumping steps from somewhere around them. They were in a deadly maze, and their only chance now was to arm themselves better and hope to survive until backup arrived.

They emerged from the command center and ran down the next hallway, quickly identifying the dark gray line with intermittent arrows that indicated the right direction. Jane called out a warning, shooting a small, hovering craft that looked like some sort of floating claw. It shook in the air, whirring and screeching before exploding.

The pair didn't slow down, turning around at the end of another hallway. They could hear movement behind, but couldn't make out if they were being actually followed or if the enemy was searching without stopping to look… and they were not going to risk it.

The hallway took them down a ramp into the next level, and immediately to the left, the gray line ended at a doorway. Sunset skidded to a halt and as Jane took cover, she kicked the door in. Unlocked as it was, it slammed open, and the pair rushed in, aiming everywhere while kicking the door closed behind them.

When no immediate threat was identified, they slid the security bar across the metal door and finally collapsed, panting.

Outside the door, something big stomped past the room. Whatever it was, they had just missed it. The room itself was poorly lit, so Sunset released her blood vision spell, and with an attentive Jane watching, created a simple light spell, that she sent to hover at the center of the room, above their heads, casting a candle-like glow around.

Several rows of old rifles and guns lined one of the walls, and on the opposite side there were two levels of lockers, some open, some closed, with names on them.

Sunset and Jane glanced at each other, and, gathering their breath, they started searching the place. The guns were mostly useless… much less powerful even than the ones they had used before Lily had developed their current ones. But weapons were not what they needed, either, it was armor.

Sunset had barely started on her side of the room when she heard Jane's whisper. "Sunset… come over here…"

She made her way to the other soldier, glancing at her curiously before her eyes followed the direction that Jane pointed at a locker.

Her breath caught in her throat.

She had imagined she might find it, but the fact that it was there was still surreal, even after all that had happened.

The name tag on the locker read "Sunset Shimmer", with a decal of her cutie mark. Sunset raised her hand to touch it, carefully sliding her finger around the small sun.

She glanced at Jane, who shook her head, smiled and shrugged.

Sunset nodded, then opened the locker.

o.0.o End Chapter 44 o.0.o

Chapter 45: Past

View Online

Ranger

Chapter 45: Past

By Wanderer D

There was a note inside.

But it wasn't for her, this time. It was sealed on the back with a little sun sticker, but very clearly written on the front, it read "Chrysalis".

Something about it made Sunset's heart ache, and she gulped. She slowly slid the letter into her backpack.

For her part, Jane had gone off to examine the other lockers, leaving Sunset to explore her counterpart's legacy.

There was armor there, and it seemed pretty sturdy. She took it out of the locker and put her at her feet, while she turned around to investigate again. There were a few other things. Deodorant, old toothbrush and paste; a change of clothes… and a picture at the very back. She slid it out, and gasped.

They were much younger here. Probably late teens, in school garbs. And if the goofy grins of both Chrysalis and Sunset weren't enough to hit her where it hurt, the people behind them certainly were. Beyond a familiar, non-destroyed building in the background, a long-bearded man stood behind them all, glancing seriously at the camera. His hands were on the shoulders of two women, who Sunset would recognize anywhere.

On the right, her mane… hair, long, wavy and multi-colored, stood who could only be Celestia, and to her right, dark skinned, reminding her of Laetitia, but with long, long wavy dark blue hair, could only be Luna. They in turn, stood proudly behind young Sunset and Chrysalis, smiling at the camera.

Sunset turned the picture around.

Canterlot High, 2003

There was a small picture book, which she briefly ruffled through. Pictures of Sunset being accepted into the FBI; one of Chrysalis when she had made Lieutenant. Barbecue get-togethers with Celestia, Luna and other people.

Chrysalis next to a lake, looking at the water…

Sunset slowly closed the picture book. She took a breath, and looked with deep regret at the bundle of memories. A small pack of letters were tied together with rubber bands. A few had snapped, dried out with old age, but Sunset didn't open them. They didn't belong to her.

The final picture in the locker was on the door. It was a picture of Sunset, arms intertwined on both sides with Chrysalis and Vahlen. Behind them was a holographic display, with a younger-looking, green-sweatered Bradford, obviously forcing himself to not look at the camera. Other engineers and staff were not that stoic, and she could make out smirks on those that were not looking at the camera, and honest smiles from others.

A little above and behind Bradford, she could see Galahad and a few other soldiers she didn't know, apparently shouting something.

Sunset carefully took them all and slid them with the letter for her Commander. She wondered if Chrysalis had actually known, what seemed fairly obvious to her now. Sunset shook her head. Of course she had known.

After all, the first time Chrysalis had landed eyes on Sunset, despite knowing she was not the Sunset from the past… there had been hope.

Sunset shifted through the locker, picking up a wallet, and throwing it into the backpack, trying to think of something else. It was a little weird that the Commander still looked now as she did back then, but then, that was alien technology for you.

Still, as the last toiletry was moved to the side, and nothing else was revealed, Sunset stepped back, and studied the armor.

It was a, red, thick-looking jumpsuit with with a gold and copper metallic finish to several harnesses and solid metal parts. The chest piece was solid, however. The metallic parts included an attachment for a grappling hook, much like her own, although the model it had attached was of a much lower potency. The chest was adorned on the back of the neck with Sunset's signature sun, and the front right breast with an XCOM badge.

It was clearly designed for additional durability over the basic armor, but focused more on movement. With the other Sunset being a sniper, it made sense that she would be using the grappling hook on that to gain a height advantage.

"Well," she said, turning to Jane, "I found my armor?"

"Ha." Jane smirked, opening Galahad's old locker. "Wow. Such a pervert."

She blinked at the huge collection of magazines. "Sunset… give me your backpack."

"No."

"Come on."

"No."

Jane slid one magazine out and showed the cover to Sunset.

"Fine. Only two! Alright? Okay, one more, but no more than five."

"Deadwood, this is Shogun," the radio lit up, transmitting the signal to Omiata. "We've found the entrance. Flooding system is active, it'll take some time to trickle down if we want to do this through here."

"Roger that, Shogun, turn it off. Tango has stopped their search into the green. It's been long enough for any agent to be too far away for search parties to find. We'll stay on guard for a bit longer, but I'll send the signal to the Hive."

"Wilco. Shogun out."

Omiata returned to his watch. The forest beneath him stretched far and wide, and it was unlikely that their presence would be detected by ADVENT, but the lack of return transmissions from Jane or Sunset was worrying.

As far as he knew, the base was deserted. The aliens had come in, destroyed everything, ripping things apart and sacked whatever they could from the command center, the workshop and the foundry.

According to Vahlen's report, they hadn't managed to breach into the Lab at all after she had sealed the place and collapsed the hallway leading to it with a series of plasma explosions.

There was something amiss, he could feel it in his bones, but just like the peaceful quiet of the forest around, above and under him, there simply was no sign of anything.

The armor that Jane had donned was very similar to Sunset's, but it was all dark gray, and had more cover on the stomach, but no grappling hook. Other than that, it seemed just a tiny bit heavier, clearly intended for general use rather than specializing in mobility.

The pair looked each other up and down.

"Well, if I ever had my doubts about feeling like I was really part of XCOM…" Sunset grinned.

"Oh, shut it."

Sunset made sure she had secured everything properly in her backpack, then took stock. She and Jane were armored, they had each taken a pair of grenades—unfortunately none of the infamous plasma grenades were to be found—and were as ready as they could be for combat under the circumstances.

They hadn't heard any movement from outside since getting in the room, but the memory of the heavy steps outside the door still haunted them. Whatever had been out there… it was more than likely going to try and kill them.

"I don't suppose you could just talk your way out of the base as you do sometimes with aliens?"

Sunset rolled her eyes. "That only works with ADVENT and some aliens, not all of them."

Jane glanced at her. "You know… I've always wondered. How is it that you can talk to them like that?"

"Well, it helps that Mox and Betos taught me a bit of their language… but I'm not sure why. I don't use any spells, if that's what you're wondering."

Jane raised an eyebrow. "And you don't find it odd?"

"There's a lot of things I found odd when I came here: walking on two legs, wearing clothes, shooting other sapients until they die, talking to aliens. You get used to strange fairly quickly when you used to be half your current size, a quadruped and had a horn."

Jane twitched.

"If you hug me…"

"Don't worry, I have a one-hug-a-day policy."

"Good. Anyway, come on, let's find a way out of this place…" Sunset muttered. "Our mission won't be complete until the package is delivered."

"Yes, ma'am!"

She sighed. The whole system of hydraulics was a mess, and someone had messed around with her latest coding.

Apple Bloom groaned and sat, watching her serve-bot despondently. While some of her work was used in creating the armed versions, she made sure her actual creativity was put into the support units that were sent to attend at hospitals, or to supervise camera controls, etc.

In other words, civilian projects.

Oh, she followed the instructions her superiors gave her. Fix a small error in the arms of the construction mecs, or revise the firing rate for the combat ones. But there was little incentive for her into bettering the weapons that would have been used against her sister if she were still alive.

It sucked to work for ADVENT, regardless of the nice accomodations and secure income. It felt like betrayal, were it not for the other work she did to help others. And now that Scootaloo was slowly turning around, it was a matter of figuring out what to do about Rarity.

It was the only thing keeping them here now. Well… that and Sweetie's side project. That was always a major risk, but anything they could do against ADVENT would be an advantage in the future.

So the combat mecs had a few seconds delay. Or perhaps the latest batch had slightly less favorable insulation against EMPs. Nothing that wouldn't pass the basic testing the products were put through… but just enough to maybe deteriorate a bit after.

"Heh," she chuckled, shaking her head and cracking her knuckles. She dragged herself, seat and all, forward with her legs to the computer and started typing. "I wonder how things are going?"

The robot whirred, and Apple Bloom looked up in confusion. The unit started moving turning one way and another, without commands from her or prompting. She could see lines of code flashing through the screen faster than she could track, then the robot's head turned towards her, and a voice came from the speakers.

"Well, well, well, this is very interesting."

Apple Bloom blinked. "What in tarnation?!"

"Let's see… Apple Bloom, Engineer, Programming expert and saboteur! Who knew?"

"What?" Apple Bloom stammered. "Why, Ah would never…"

"Tut, tut, Miss Bloom. There is no one here but us. I am tracking everyone's movement in this place."

Apple Bloom frowned. "Who are you? You're not one of the standard VI's we installed into the MECs."

"Well, aren't you a smart one? I am Julian. And I am your friend. I helped… your other friend get out of here alive."

"I don't know wha—"

"Please, don't insult my intelligence. Or yours. We are allies, you and I. I have studied your coding. Observed and reviewed your processes. Overlooked your designs. It seems to me, that not only are you a clever human, but also an underused genius. We have much in common."

"Ah'm not sure Ah can trust you."

She almost felt like the robot was smiling at her. Except it had no face. It was a solid block of metal cover and a single camera eye. "I did say you're smart. But right now, you need allies. And I do too. Help me… and we can change this world for the better.

o.0.o End Chapter 45 o.0.o

Chapter 46: Suits

View Online

Ranger

Chapter 46: Suits

By Wanderer D

The room echoed with the sound of the electric guitar and the raspy voice of the lead singer. By the gods did Chrysalis hate 80s and 90s music.

She hated it.

So much.

And yet, she couldn't work without it playing. Absolute silence brought back memories. From before the war. During the war and during her abduction.

Dreams of looking through an alien's eyes and making decisions on how to move troops. How to dismantle human armies that opposed them despite orders to lay down their weapons.

Memories of Thin Men cruelly smiling as they operated on her, while she was still conscious. Of being bagged into that damnable suit and plugged into a machine when she couldn't move her body. Of fading away… dreaming of Sunset.

Chrysalis shook herself and turned off the music when she noticed the flashing light for an incoming message. She had set it so it was impossible to miss. Wouldn't do for the Commander to be hating on Sound Asylum while her ship went down. She shook her head and rolled her shoulders before accepting the communication.

"Commander," Bradford's face appeared on the screen. "Wolf Team has contacted us. They are at the location and found the signal beacon. There is an ADVENT van with blood inside in the parking lot for the old lab, and equipment inside indicates that someone performed some sort of operation… probably to save whoever of the two was injured.

"The amount of blood reported in the Van is not encouraging, and there were several medikits strewn around. However, neither Sunset nor Jane are in the area.

"Lieutenant Kiba reports that there are signs of struggle, and part of the Alien Containment unit was destroyed by a large explosion. There's however no indication of what happened there. They found an emergency hatch, but it's been disabled, and without specialized tools neither Sunset nor Jane would have been able to open it."

Chrysalis growled. "Neither of them would have left without communicating with us, or turned on the beacon if there was any danger they were aware of."

"Squaddie Durand says that her GREMLIN has located a faint signal from another, active GREMLIN far below the surface." Bradford said. "We don't know how they got there."

Chrysalis nodded. "Have them evacuate the area for now, and regroup in a safe location. I was hoping to take the Avenger there and load all we could find still there, but if there's any danger… we'll need to make sure we eliminate all opposition and if possible save Jane and Sunset."

"Understood, Commander. Dragon team has offered to join Wolf—"

"You don't need to beat around the bush, Central," Chrysalis said. "You and I are joining Menace. We know what it's like. Get them ready."

Bradford smirked and saluted. "Aye, aye, Commander."

They opened the door and waited. When there was no sign of enemies, Sunset ran out first, followed by Jane.

They had intended to head up, again, but it appeared the mysterious heavy mec's steps had hidden additional noise… the entrance to the hallway was now sealed by a thick, metal door, with no apparent way of opening it.

"What the f-" Jane growled, punching the door panels and wincing. She shook her hand. "Since when do mecs think about things like these?"

Sunset's brow darkened as she studied the door's edge for any sign of a panel or hackable interface. "They don't. Someone, or something, is controlling them. I can't see a way of opening this… now we need to go in deeper to find the way out."

"Great, just effing great," Jane muttered, turning to look at the hallway. Her grip on the magnetic rifle tightened.

Sunset had to admire her. She had been shot, survived, woken up in a strange place, found out she had what amounted to magical alien unicorn blood inside her, been dragged into combat against weird machines, and now confronted with this.

Most people would be wailing in despair by now. XCOM really was made of sterner stuff, but that was part of the deal, along with a short life expectancy.

"This is not going to end well, is it?" Jane asked, sighing.

Sunset smirked, patting her on the shoulder. "Not for them, it isn't. I've got your back, and you have mine. Come on… we might be able to find another emergency exit and get the hell out of here. At least now we have some protection." She grinned. "We're all suited-up!"

Jane grimaced. "Yeah…" She nodded. Then looked up at Sunset with renewed conviction. "Yeah. Let's find out what the heck is going on, kick their collective asses and drink ourselves to a stupor tonight."

Sunset chuckled. "Deal. We have plenty of reading material for later, after all, thanks to you and Galahad."

The pair walked forth slowly, feeling like they were being watched.

However, there was no sign of enemies yet, and none of the cameras they occasionally encountered appeared to be live. In the distance, heavy stomps echoed occasionally, but there was no sign of the undoubtedly big mec that would create them.

With the sound working in weird ways, it was muffled enough to be above them, or even below. Until they saw whatever it was, they wouldn't know.

As they moved, further down the hall, they came to a crossroads. The lines indicating "exit" turned right into a sealed hall, and the straight ahead they could see the level above, and several metric tons of rock, metal and dirt had caved in, blocking the way completely.

Without a choice, they turned left and walked down the hallway. Here and there, old signs of combat remained; the metallic walls were singed with the impact of rounds on them, and in parts even melted through.

Some rubble remained, but for the most part, it was cleaner than the rest of the base. No skeletons were strewn around, and it seemed a lot less dusty. Still, the silence around them was unnerving, along with the feeling of being watched.

As cautious as they were, there was no indication of whether the invisible attackers from earlier would attempt to ambush them again, or what type of additional monsters might be lurking around them.

"Sunset…" Jane whispered, tapping her shoulder and motioning behind them. Just where the lights met the shadows, two more of the tentacled robots hovered, far enough to not be a threat so far, but clearly aware of them.

"Dammit... " Sunset whispered. "We're being herded, I knew it."

Jane gave her a look. "The fact doesn't make me feel any better…"

Sunset shook her head. "For now, I don't think they'll attack… we're being guided, so we might as well…" she stopped and waved at the robots.

For a moment, nothing happened, but then they approached, slowly, without fading away. Sunset motioned Jane to back against the wall. One of them passed them, moved a few meters ahead and stopped, turning to face them. The other, remained a little behind.

"You're not serious."

"What else can we do?" Sunset shrugged, motioning to Jane to start following the metallic squid.

The pair was thus escorted past several intersections, a couple had flying saucers and miniature claw-thingies hovering in guard.

Now that they were not rushing around, even with the low light, Sunset started to make out certain details. The armor of many of these machines was in poor condition, rusted and dented. A few seemed to have been repaired from heavy damage.

Whatever was going on, they hadn't stumbled into a well-prepared nest of alien tech.

The walk continued past a mostly destroyed workshop, and then it became mostly pipes as they went deeper down into the mountain, until it started to feel warmer. The air was less dry, and the metallic walls were mostly rusted by now under the heat and humidity. Steam escaped occasionally from some of the pipes, giving the whole area a haze.

"This looks intentional," Jane pointed out, pointing with her rifle at where some of the steam was coming out. And it was true.

The pipes had minor dents on them, as if they had been hit with something right at the edge, allowing some of the steam to come out.

"That's odd… why do that?" Sunset asked, noticing that the floor had been covered by some sort of soft moss. Just as they stepped into a large room, she gasped in surprise. While it was clearly an XCOM generator of some sort from 20 years prior, the room had been transformed.

Alien plants grew from between the pipes, with flowers and even bulbous fruit of some sort—or what she assumed was fruit—hanging down from the most sturdy of them. The flowers themselves were unreal, with petals the size of her arm, and filaments that lifted a few feet from their center and waved in unseen winds.

No insects flew around, nor could she hear any sort of fauna… just as well, she didn't want to suddenly find herself fighting alien lions.

She shifted a bit uncomfortably. The area was much warmer and very, very humid. Not unbearable, but certainly not comfortable. Next to her, Jane looked here and there, not with wonder, but with a hint of disgust and fear.

The overall feeling reminded her of the jungles in India, only there were no mosquitos or flies here. No snakes or ants… the smells were not pleasant, either. Besides the smell of humid earth, and the odd, sweet smell of the flowers, something remote smelled a little odd, like rotting meat, and other things just gave off a definitive sulfuric smell as well.

Perhaps a half-eaten carcass? But who would eat in here? The sulfur could just be naturally produced by the steam that fed and warmed the room.

"How is this even possible?" Sunset whispered. "As far as I know there was no alien plant life here until ADVENT affected certain habitats."

"Ah," a raspy voice said, seeming to come from all around them. "A very good question, yessss…"

Whispers and chatter emerged from the far corners of the room, but the pair were concentrating on the voice that just spoke. There was no sign of anyone being there.

Sunset and Jane squared off, ready for action as both of the tentacled robots slid past them and hovered above a large steam generator.

"Please, no need for violence, is there?" the voice continued, trying to be ingratiating. "After all, you understood the silent message our seekers passed on right?"

"Show yourself!" Sunset called out. "We got your invitation, least you can do is introduce yourself."

"Hmm… I suppose so," the voice said. Suddenly a figure dropped from somewhere, landing nimbly in front of the generator.

It looked like an unusually tall man in a dark, moldy suit. Small, circular sunglasses rested on the bridge of his nose, and as he stood straight, he placed his hands—which Sunset noticed looked longer than a normal human's would—politely behind his back.

"Here I am." He bowed, one hand moving forward to touch his breast as he bent double from the waist up. "No need to be alarmed. I am Vikass, and I welcome you to our sanctuary."

o.0.o End Chapter 46 o.0.o

Chapter 47: Fury

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Ranger

Chapter 47: Fury

By Wanderer D

"So," Jane whispered. "Should we shoot it?"

Sunset groaned. "At ease, soldier," she said loud enough to be heard. She turned to face the Thin Man. "I'll be honest, your initial welcome wasn't that nice. One of your seekers almost strangled me to death."

"Ah, a most unfortunate event," Vikass said, although he didn't sound apologetic at all. "When we realized energy was being diverted to the upper levels, the guards we had left behind… ah… had already activated. It took some doing before we were able to override their initial protocols remotely."

As he talked, Sunset reactivated her spell, glancing around the large room. Jane, next to her, immediately noticed she had cast the spell, but Vikass continued speaking. Sunset took note of that. It appeared that it wasn't a physical change… maybe her blood had managed to do something unexpected.

"As you can see now, we don't want violence…" Vikass said, drawing her attention back to her surroundings.

"We're not going to attack," Sunset spoke up. "Why don't you tell your two friends to come down from above the pipes?"

"I…" Vikass stammered, visibly surprised. "I apologize, we assumed that since you were XCOM we would need more time to… ensure our safety." He seemed to be listening to something, tilting his head slightly. "If no agressions are to come, we would be happy to talk more."

Sunset grimaced. Vikass appeared outwardly calm, as did the two other beings above, but their cardiovascular activity was accelerated. They were nervous. Scared even. She could see faint silhouettes of blood vessels further in, presumably there were several aliens around, but they were hiding, not trying to surround them.

'They really are more afraid of us than us of them,' she thought. She slowly put her shotgun in its harness. "You wouldn't be the first former… enemies… I've dealt with."

Jane gritted her teeth, clearly struggling with herself, but finally put her own weapon again. The glare she directed at Sunset was a clear "If we die, I'm going to kill you all over again."

Sunset's confidence seemed to unnerve the Thin Man even more, but eventually he nodded, and soon was joined by two more, who jumped down from above them with the same unnatural grace as Vikass to land at either side of him. "Thank you, XCOM… this is... unexpected," he said.

"We should take their weapons," the one to the right said.

"Not happening," Sunset declared, crossing her arms. "We're giving you the benefit of the doubt… I know what ADVENT, or the Elders do to other species to have them comply, but you shouldn't push this trust further than is reasonable."

"We have you surrounded," the same thin man spoke up.

"Do you?" Sunset smirked.

The thin man snarled, but the other recent arrival raised his hand. "Peace, Sashssa. XCOM is right. We can't invite trust without trusting."

"Look," Sunset spoke up, drawing their attention back to her. "I know that none of us really expected to be in this situation, but we'll have to make the most of it and the sooner the better. The Commander knows where we are and we haven't reported back. They'll be sending teams here to extract us, and if there's peace to be had, we would rather it be that way."

"She lies," Sashssa said, body language becoming tense. "The Commander was taken. We saw it."

Sunset snorted. "We got her back."

The three thin men shared a look behind their sunglasses. "Come," Vikass said eventually, motioning for Sunset and Jane to follow.

The small group made their way around the generator. The back wall had been taken down and excavated. An abandoned, giant mech had been used for that purpose, if its damaged metallic hands were any hint.

Vikass noticed her staring and nodded. "We used the mechtoids to dig through. Between its mechanical strength and lasers, we were able to carve out a larger cavern behind the generator. We tapped into the natural gases from the earth."

As they spoke, the cavern opened up into an even larger one, covered from bottom to ceiling with alien flora. None of the plants were taller than Sunset's chest, but their unique coloring and even some bioluminescence gave the cavern a unique, fantastic feel.

"Reminds you of home?" Jane asked. She sounded impressed.

"Nah… never seen anything like it." Sunset shook her head, giving Jane a warning look.

The comment seemed to not have been overheard by the thin men, but they had, they didn't acknowledge it.

Beyond the unexpected world under the mountain, there were even more surprises in the cavern, such as actual dwellings carved into the mountainside itself, and a workshop that was at complete odds in its level of technology with the general look of the place had three short Sectoids working on it.

For a moment it looked too odd, but then Sunset remembered that sectoids used to be a lot shorter than they were now. As they approached, the sectoids turned, observing them warily, but not reaching for any weapons.

They stopped in the center of the tiny alien village, as most of the other residents approached. There were two more sectoids, and yet another thin man, this one walking slowly, with a limp. A few Seekers floated high above, and one of the flying saucers was doing a round over what looked like crops, dropping a neon-blue spray on them.

Far, far behind them, another faded tell-tale light of cardiovascular activity pulsed ever so slightly.

"We have survived here, hunting above ground for game, and staying away from the Elder's attention," Vikass said.

"Is this all of you?" Jane asked.

"There's more," Sunset said, turning her head to look at one of the dwellings. "Come on out, big guy."

It looked like a muton, but not the ones they were familiar with. This one was bulkier, more primal in its appearance. It walked towards them confidently, despite not having any weapons and it was easy to see why. It certainly had the appearance of being able to take them on without issue.

Vikass was frowning at her.

"What?" Sunset asked, blinking innocently.

Vikass shook his head, looking down at the sectoids, who all looked back at him at the same time. He turned back to Sunset. "You are very perceptive to have noticed Uwaallu without psychic scans."

Jane snorted.

"It's a gift," Sunset replied. "So why don't you tell me… how is it that you are all still here?"

Vikass looked at the others and nodded. The group separated, going back to their projects. The sectoids went back to their workshop, full of computer equipment and advanced mechatronics, the thin men dispersed, except for Vikass, who remained with them, and the lone muton gave Sunset and Jane a careful, ponderous, look of evaluation before slowly walking away.

At their guides' motion, they started walking, as he took them towards the edge of the little settlement. "Our story, as it is relevant, starts about twenty human years ago. We were part of a large, confident, not-quite-devoted group of shock troops. Our mission was to storm this place, kill everyone that was not an ally or one of the identified targets, such as yourself, the Commander, the leader of the Scientists, the head Engineer or Annette Durand."

He paused at that name. "And that is where… things went wrong."

Sunset frowned, but didn't bother to correct Vikass about her identity. Not yet, at least.

"Our infiltration teams had managed to get in contact, abduct, mind-control, or even replace the highest offices of your governments." He chuckled. "You'll be happy to know most of them… resisted. Some, more naively than others, thought that they could fool our psychic operatives while pretending to work for us. The willpower required for such a feat… well, it was beyond politicians."

They stopped for a moment next to the "farming" fields, because there was no other way to describe it. Little drones, like the ones they had destroyed, roamed up and down well-lined rows of mysterious fruits.

The flying saucer they had seen earlier spraying something, had landed on a docking station of sorts, where it was immobile. Cables ran back to the other room, feeding electricity to large lamps positioned over the plants.

Once they had watched for a bit, how the drones collected fruit and dropped it in large vats, which were then transported into another large machine that was processing them, Vikass started walking again. "Even before you launched your glorious—if ultimately…"

Vikass stopped, trying to think of the correct word. "...not futile… but, certainly less impactful than we all would have expected—attack, the moment your base's location had been extracted from the mind of one of the resisting council members, the attack was ordered, just as you were ordered to stand down and surrender.

"Thus, while XCOM was prepared for the eventuality of our attack, you were not prepared for the suddenness of it. We blasted through the hangar area, dispersing immediately. We… and a few others, were under the command of a Sectoid Commander… his name is irrelevant now, as he and us, had the unfortunate fortune of encountering your Psi-ops, and a solid force of soldiers, who were helping Dr. Shen, one of our targets, escape."

He had guided him to another area, which was, surprisingly, a large, underwater lake. Two seekers hovered over it, seeming at attention, and here and there, Sunset and Jane could make out ripples of something swimming underwater.

"Our fish farm," Vikass explained. "Easier than… going shopping."

"If you say so…" Jane muttered.

Vikass smiled that disturbingly plyable smile that thin men could do, and continued the tour. "When we encountered your psi operatives, and the troops, a fight immediately broke out. We had the numeral superiority, but XCOM's training and, quite frankly the desperation to survive proved enough to hold us back."

The next area they visited was the workshop. It had been clearly built with parts from the XCOM one, which explained the state of it when they had walked past, and there were several pieces of different mechs of all sorts, including another mechtoid, although this one had been taken apart almost completely, only the 'skeleton' of sorts remained.

The sectoids barely paid them any heed after their initial contact, and although Sunset could sense faint brushes of psychic energy, none of it was directed at her or Jane. It was just… permeating the place.

"With our Mechtoids, Sectoid Commander, and Cyberdisks, we were slowly pushing XCOM back, Vikass said, guiding them to the other side of the settlement. "That is when Annette Durand stepped in. We were expecting determination and fear… but she was furious. It appeared as if something else had already enraged her before our arrival, and she was set on destroying anything that stood in her path."

Vikass led them to another, bigger structure, and turned out was nothing else than their storage unit, cold or otherwise. Outside was a kitchen-like setup, where a dead deer was currently being worked on by the thin man with the limp, who was efficiently cleaning the carcass and butchering it for future consumption.

'It's funny, Sunset thought, 'anyone from equestria would be horrified at that… it's just making me hungry'.

As Sashssa and the other unnamed thin man emerged from containment with some boxes, Vikass continued, guiding them past the dwellings, towards the back, where another small entrance was, several cables running into it, and alien vegetation growing splendidly, and carefully, around it."Uwaallu's work," Vikass explained, seeming to enjoy their reaction at the thought of a muton gardener.

"Annette Durand ordered everyone else to evacuate, then released… a blast. It burned through the minds of all of us, and only the Sectoid Commander, enhanced as he had been by the Elders for this precise purpose, fought back.

"XCOM retreated, shooting down the mechanical aid we had, but also with the incentive of Annette's mental commands to flee." They walked into the entrance, finding themselves in a tunnel only lit by the bioluminescence of the flowers and plants. "The commander used an explosive on Annette, who, unable to dodge, decided to fry the commander's mind in revenge."

They emerged from the tunnel into a small cavern. A lot of machinery was inside, and several lights and machines hummed and bleeped. "The blast didn't kill her… but her attempt to take him down had been inspired by the Sectoids' 'Mind Merge', and in doing that… she connected with all of us."

Standing to the side, he let them see what was at the end of the room, and both of them gasped in a mix of horrified fascination.

Sunset and Jane stepped forward slowly, stopping a few feet away from the machine that contained a large, central tube, much like the one that had contained the Commander. Inside, a woman floated in golden, glowing liquid. Her skin almost reptilian at parts, but looking otherwise in perfect state.

Sunset gulped. Her eyes allowed her to see the many redundant systems. Two hearts. Additional glands… and who knew what else. No wonder she had been able to see her all the way across from the other side of the bigger cavern despite the distance.

"Her body was damaged, almost eliminating her completely, but we were all freed… and interconnected," Vikass explained, walking up to the large machine at the end, and placing a hand, reverently on its surface. "And so… while all other aliens and XCOM fled or died… we picked her up and used the Sectoid's immense knowledge of medicine and meld to save her life… and start a new one of our own."

o.0.o End Chapter 47 o.0.o

Chapter 48: Headaches

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Ranger

Chapter 48: Headaches

By Wanderer D

"She's been in there for twenty years?!" Sunset walked closer to the giant glass tube, eyes wide. "But… but how?"

Vikass nodded. "The process to heal her with Meld was… very slow. If our Sectoid friends had simply modified her, she would have lost her psychic powers and… back then, they were the only thing preventing us from rejoining the Elder's army.

"As time passed, and our independence grew, it became less necessary to depend on her psychic wave." He stepped aside, resting his hands on the machines.

"Under her guidance, we slowly started creating this place… from time to time she would awaken within there and reach out to us more directly, but she was always aware of where we were and what we were doing."

He turned to look at Annette with a look of utter devotion. "We think, at first, she thought she was dreaming. That we were figments of her imagination, in some bizarre dream invoked on her by someone named John Lance. Apparently, it wasn't the first time he had done that.

"Eventually, she recognized that we were sentient beings, and that we were tied to her. Unlike the… Elders… we didn't have any animosity to her… even though she prompted us to not do certain things, we had much more freedom than ever before.

"When she woke up for the first time, she had seen herself through our eyes so many times, she wasn't surprised by her new appearance. We feared she might lash out, harm herself and us in anger, but through the years watching us, seeing through us… she understood we had changed.

"She guided us more fully, past simple need for survival. She allowed us to dismantle the workshop and to access some other rooms of the base for essential equipment. We had already figured out ways to hunt the wildlife outside the base, and now we were going to be more… self sufficient.

"We dismantled fully one of the destroyed drop-ships, and with that and the equipment from the base, we were able to fix the destroyed cyberdisks, drones and other malfunctioning or abandoned mechanical elements and turn them to… other uses.

"And now we are here… when she felt you approach, she requested your presence," Vikass said, motioning with his hand.

"She's awake right now?!" Sunset asked, turning to look at Annette, who slowly raised her head, but did not open her eyes.

"Sunset Shimmer."

The voice was in their minds, and it echoed as if it was coming from within a long, distance tunnel.

"And… no… you are not her. Your mind feels different. Alien." Annette's eyes opened, revealing slitted eyes, very similar to a viper's. "And you look… different. Younger."

Sunset felt the intrusion attempt. "No! Wait!" She felt the probe, a bit more direct than the earlier brushes, demanding questions. Instinctively Sunset's magic flared against this unexpected intrusion.

Annette's head whipped back, as if she had been punched in the face and reeled, stunned for a moment, raising a slightly scaly hand to softly touch her head as she shook it in surprise.

Sunset herself staggered back. It had been intense, but fortunately, Annette hadn't been trying to force her way into her mind, it had been just an outward probe. "It's bad for others to try and read me."

Still massaging her temple, Annette nodded. "This is true. I cannot read you. I imagine a harder try would give me more than just a headache," she stated. She looked at Jane. "Your thoughts are also hidden… by her." She turned to Sunset.

"I'm not the same Sunset you knew," Sunset said. "But I'm not your enemy. I'm with XCOM."

Annette blinked. She turned to Vikass, but she didn't limit the communication only to the Thin Man; they all heard her. "Others come. It is time."

Vikass looked saddened, if that was possible for a Thin Man. "Are you sure?"

"She said this day would come," Annette projected into their minds. "I heard her… she felt my mind expand… she… just before…"

Oddly enough, Sunset heard a familiar echo… as if music was playing somewhere around them, distant, but recognizable, even if she couldn't immediately place it. She knew this song, but where had she heard it?

By the look of utter confusion in Jane's face, she wasn't the only one that could hear it, although she looked at Sunset in surprise. "Are… you… singing?"

Sunset frowned. She hadn't been singing. She recognized the music, somewhat, but she didn't know the lyrics… but was that her own voice? She tried to listen closer, but the moment Jane had asked, the music was gone, and Annette was focused back on them.

"The Commander is here."

Wolf Team covered the area where the Skyranger slowly hovered down, their weapons trained outwards, their backs to the vehicle.

No ADVENT troops had ventured this deep into the forest and mountains, but there was always the chance of an ambush, and Lt. Oimata "Deadwood" Kiba wasn't going to let that happen under his watch.

Bad enough they had lost two agents who were supposed to not only be injured but also ready for rescue. If anything happened to the crew that was coming in… things wouldn't bode well for XCOM.

Firebrand landed the Skyranger, and the moment the ramp came down, Menace emerged, covering angles as well.

Deadwood had to give it to them. They might not have been from XCOM originally, but their "loaners" as they were called by some, had integrated well together. The Commander and Central might as well have been heading a team of XCOM veterans.

Signaling the others to stay put, Deadwood trotted towards the Commander and Central, stopping to salute. "Ma'am. Sir. We have secured the area. No hostiles have been spotted so far, but we still have absolute silence from the safe house."

"Not as safe as we had anticipated, clearly," Chrysalis muttered. "Come on, we'll go in through the front gate."

The two teams followed the Commander's lead. Carol "Shogun" Wood, Wolf's own ranger, joined the Reaper heading ahead to spot any potential enemies, while the teams marched in a loose column.

"What of ADVENT, Lieutenant?" Central spoke up. "Were there any attempts to follow our agents?"

Deadwood nodded. "We observed some distant reconnaissance teams, but they didn't venture this far. It is my belief that they expected "Bloody Sunset" and the "Quarian" to have been picked up already."

Chrysalis nodded. "Got it. In that case… wait. The Quarian? Really?"

A snort drew their attention towards Central, but he seemed as implacable as ever. They had probably misheard.

"Who gave her that nickname?" Chrysalis asked, unamused.

"I believe it was Colonel Galahad," Central said. "It was either that or "Zulu", but after he overhead Kelly say: "I still have the shotgun", he refused to call her anything else…"

"...and it stuck," Deadwood completed. "I still don't get the reference, but a few of the original XCOM team seemed to find it extremely amusing."

"Children. I am surrounded by children."

The radio fizzled into life. "Commander, I have eyes on our objective," Dragunova said. "I believe you would really like to see this."

Chrysalis shared a look with the others, then they all started trotting to catch up with their forward scouts. The forest density slowly lowered, until they emerged right by the mountain side and onto a small plain overlooking the entrance to their former headquarters.

The mountain and nature had done their jobs in stepping in when humans had left. Part of the entrance had collapsed under tons and tons of rock and gravel. Rain, wind and plants had slowly eroded away human construction until it looked like a huge, gaping cavern.

The heavy metallic doors that would have parted to allow vehicles to land inside and be moved deeper into the mountain had been blasted clean off, and their remains were buried under dirt and mud.

But all of that was secondary to what they found at the entrance. A huge, bipedal robot stood at attention at the entrance, its imposing, heavily armored body at the ready while three glowing red "eyes" studied the area.

"That's… a Sectopod?" Chrysalis asked. She narrowed her eyes. "But what's that on top of it?"

Elena gave her a deadpan look. "That would be Sunset Shimmer, Commander."

When Chrysalis saw Sunset, her knees almost gave out. She looked… exactly like her Sunset. "You… why are you wearing…"

Sunset's face immediately went red. "Um, sorry Commander… it's a long story and—" she cleared her throat. "I'm sorry… I know it's probably insulting but…"

Chrysalis gulped, taking a deep breath. "N-no, I—" She paused collecting her thoughts. "If anything, she would have found it hilarious." She glanced up at the Sectopod, which had meandered away and deactivated in a remote corner of the hangar entrance. "If that's an indication of what you were expecting, it's natural you'd set yourself up with armor."

She looked from Sunset to Jane. "The signal code indicated that one of you was injured."

Sunset and Jane exchanged a look. "I um… performed an emergency blood transfusion with a lot of… unknown factors." Sunset explained. "I'm not sure how but…"

Chryaslis closed her eyes, visibly counting silently as she took deep breaths. "You… I… how, you know. No. I'm not doing this. You both will report to Tygan immediately upon your return to the Avenger. Do you have any idea how dangerous… no. I expect you don't, you bone-headed idiots!"

She paced in front of them. "But fine. You survived. Somehow. Did you complete the mission?"

"Yes," Sunset said, "I obtained the information needed."

"Good," Chrysalis hissed. "Now, assuming you don't have anything else to report—" she gave Sunset a death-glare when her old friend's counterpart smiled uneasily. "What."

Sunset shrugged and smiled, motioning behind them.

Immediately both teams were pointing their weapons and the small crowd of aliens that emerged. And at the front, wearing old XCOM carapace armor like the one Jane was wearing was a familiar face Chrysalis had never expected to see.

"Hello, Commander," a familiar voice echoed in her mind.

Annette Durand looked… as young as before, but different. Her face was pale, and had a hint of silvery-gold scales running down her neck. Her smile gave a brief glimpse of elongated canines, and her eyes seemed to be a mix of human and reptilian attributes. Her fingers ended in sharp claws and she walked with the confidence of a predator among prey.

"We have much to discuss."

Chrysalis slowly dragged her hand down her face. "Sunset."

"Yes, ma'am?"

"Head over to the Avenger, and have Lily bring it over as planned. You and Jane go straight into the lab, you understand?"

"Yes, ma'am."

"And Sunset?"

"Yes, ma'am?"

"If you ever do something like this again, I will personally throw you into that statue repeatedly until it lets you through. Understood?"

"Yes, ma'am."

"Go."

Chrysalis watched Sunset and Jane hurry away with the rest of an amused Team Menace, then turned her attention to Annette.

"Just like the original," the former psi-op observed.

Chrysalis shook her head. "I can only take so much." She glanced behind Annette. "So what is this? Another resistance faction?"

Annette chuckled. "Hardly, there's only seven and a few machines," she projected. "Not a faction… yet, but perhaps the beginning of something different." She tilted her head. "I was surprised when you brought… others... XCOM has changed."

Chrysalis sighed. "We needed to. The Reapers, the Templars and the Skirmishers are… unique, and strong."

"Twenty years ago we would have killed the ADVENT soldier on sight." Annette shook her head in amusement. "And that Templar… is interesting."

Chrysalis smirked. "Oh, you don't know half of it. Do you remember your buddy, Geist?"

Annette didn't say anything, but her body language spoke volumes.

Chrysalis grinned. "Why don't we sit down?"

o.0.o End Chapter 48 o.0.o

Chapter 49: Recount

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Ranger

Chapter 49: Recount

By Wanderer D

"You're coming with us?" Sunset asked, glancing at Bradford as he joined them.

Bradford nodded. "You two need to do a full report before going to the lab. That, and I have to coordinate with Shen. What you found there… a working, non aggressive Sectopod, Cyber Disks and Seekers?"

He shook his head. "Not to mention the armor you're wearing. I know Shen was working on prototypes, but we lost so much from the old base and here you are with a working skeleton armor, Jane with a carapace armor and possible research fields into lasers?"

Bradford guided them to the Skyranger through the forest. "What we have here could change the course of the war far more than we expected to do. Our weapons are currently stronger than our original laser equipment, but I'm sure Shen and Tygan can find more than enough uses for the technology."

"I thought ADVENT armor was equipped with refracting properties," Sunset said, frowning. "Wasn't that why lasers weren't as effective?"

"In a way, yes," Bradford said. "But the technology still works against other creatures more effectively than magnetic rifles. It will depend on the lab and engineering teams to make the most of it, but either way, it is a tremendous help."

He smiled at them both. "That and I am glad you both made it."

Sunset and Jane grinned. "That we did, Central," Jane responded.

Bradford nodded. "I also noticed that you two are a lot more comfortable working together than before. This can only help you both, and we should make sure to strengthen that bond."

"Yessir," Sunset said, she glanced at Jane. "Um, she knows all about my… origins."

Bradford didn't slow down, although they could tell his body language changed. He seemed more tense. "I hope, Corporal, that now that your curiosity has been satiated, you will comply with the need for secrecy in relation to this development?"

"Yes, sir! And… I'm sorry sir."

Bradford shook his head. "Since your superior officer is the one that told you…" he looked over his shoulder at Sunset. "You told her right?"

"Um, yes."

Bradford nodded and resumed walking. "Then we'll assume it was the necessary call unless you two want to dispute it, which I doubt is the case. Regardless, she's not the only who found out more about this, thanks to Princess Sparkle."

"Oh no," Sunset gasped. "What did she do?"

"You'll find out later. First we get to the Avenger, write down the report, get things rolling, you checked up, and the Avenger flying."

"Yes, sir."

The small group made their way to the small clearing where Rainbow Dash waited. The moment the pilot saw them, she grinned. "Well, well, well, if it isn't the Bloody Unicorn and the Quarian."

"Your nickname keeps changing," Jane noted.

Sunset sighed. "Twilight told you?"

Rainbow Dash grinned. "You two made the news."

"That didn't answer my question," Sunset stated.

"Anyway, get in, I'll turn on Resistance Radio for you as we fly back."

"Some of you folks out there might be wondering what really went down in New Appaloosa, what with ADVENT "valiantly" defending a site from attack by rebel forces.

"Well, wonder no more! We have a guest tonight joining us for the first time. Her local resistance radio has usually remained separate, but now that things are getting organized beyond our little cells thanks to groups like XCOM, it's only natural to also reach out farther than we have before. So here she is, folks, all the way from the West Coast, Pleasant Chime!"

"Thanks! Happy to be here!"

"So Pleasant, you said that the ADVENT News Network was lying? That must have come in as a shock!"

"Completely unbelievable, M-DJ, it is unfathomable that ADVENT would lie in such a way to their victi—citizens. But it happened, and we are here to tell it straight."

"So what's going on really?"

"Well M-DJ, it turns out that there was a resistance member in the premises, but they were not attacking anyone. ADVENT overstated their involvement and also their abilities, as I have it on good authority that the agent not only made it out alive, they are still active and working to hinder our beloved overlords."

"You heard it folks! So why did ADVENT say they had eliminated the resistance?"

"That's simple: they need to lie because admitting a whole army of them in a building called the "Central Security Building" not being able to take down a single soldier would imply the Great Elders are not as high and mighty and omnipotent as they say they are."

"Well, I'm sure as hell happy that there's people out here willing to share the truth! Thanks for the heads up, Pleasant Chime!"

"My pleasure, M-DJ! Let's work together again!"

"Sunset!"

"Whoa!" Sunset barely managed to catch Twilight, as the young woman wrapped her in a hug and nuzzled her.

Tygan cleared his throat. "I did not expect your relationship to be… that close."

Jane rolled her eyes. "It's probably a unicorn thing."

Twilight blinked, noticing Sunset's red face. "Um… what?"

Sunset chuckled, helping her step back. "Humans don't nuzzle in welcome, Twilight… that's usually reserved for much closer relationships."

"And Vipers, clearly," Jane deadpanned.

There was a pause.

Twilight's eyes went wide. "I-I… oh my… I'm sorry… I never wanted to imply that we…" her face became steadily red.

"So, Doctor," Sunset said, turning to face Tygan. "Jane and I are here for a checkup."

"Yes," Dr. Tygan said, motioning them to follow. "Although communications were not very clear on the nature of the problem."

"Ah well," Sunset cleared her throat. "Here's what happened…"

A few minutes later and Tygan had taken Jane over to strap her to a machine and perform a thorough analysis, leaving Sunset and Twilight on their own.

"What you did… I don't know how you managed that," Twilight said, "But… you know that a blood transfusion using blood magic is very, very, illegal back home."

Sunset smiled. "Good thing I don't answer to the authorities there, then."

"I'm not joking, Sunset! That was dangerous! After Tygan is done I'll have to perform my own check ups on Jane. There's no telling what the magic might have done to her!"

Sunset sighed, sitting down on Twilight's desk. "It was that… or losing her. She's my friend, Twilight. I couldn't let her die."

Twilight looked away, conflicted, and sighed. "I know. I… I don't blame you for it. We just don't know what the effects will ultimately be. You know that her body could have rejected your blood, right? She might have died because of it."

"Yeah… Doctor Vahlen was very clear on that," Sunset said. She gulped. "It's… been a very long week, Twilight."

Twilight took a deep breath, letting it out slowly. "I… understand, I'm sorry if I'm berating you. I'm just worried about you."

"I know."

The pair remained quiet for a moment, then Twilight pulled out the diary, giving it to Sunset. "I didn't read it," she said. "Just the first sentence. It's for you."

'Do I have the energy for this right now?' Sunset thought, taking the diary in her hands and looking down at it. Her mind drifted back to that picture of Sunny One and Chrysalis. She sighed, nodding at Twilight as she opened the diary.

Dear Sunset,

It is hard to admit that I have avoided answering your letters… not out of spite, but out of fear.

You see, the pony you once were… is no more. You changed. You grew into a mare that stands by her beliefs, leads others... trusts her friends. All values that I failed to teach you.

When you came back… I didn't see my Little Sun. I didn't see the Sunset Shimmer that left, angry and bitter… I saw a pony that had made her way in the world. A mare that held her own and was confident, but not arrogant.

I realized… I didn't know you at all. At first I thought I could treat you as my wayward student. That there were lessons to teach… that I could appeal to you to give up your anger and stay… to be my Little Sun again. To sit down and talk and learn together.

When we spoke, my dear Sunset… I was surprised... and very, very proud. I was proud that you found a home. That you made bonds with others, and that they trusted you. That their safety was more important to you than your own possible rewards.

I couldn't bring myself to stop you from escaping, even after that scuffle with the guards and Luna because my memories of you conflicted with the reality in front of me. If you had been the same Sunset Shimmer that left so many years ago… I could have stepped in.

My student Sunset. My Little Sun, I'm happy that you have turned out alright. That you lived. That you grew and found so much even away from me. It was inevitable, that with the life you've led, full of conflict and sacrifice, you and I would grow distant, and that a brief meeting wouldn't bring us closer, even if wishful thinking on my part had hoped differently.

It took the wise words and support of my sister Luna, who sits by my side as I write this, to admit this much, and to hope and dare write to you back, asking you to forgive me for not answering the pain in your words, or your silent requests for contact.

My Little Sun, I've missed you.

I've missed you so much.

All of my students are precious to me, but you… you I took in. You became part of my family and I never dared accept that reality. You were not just an apprentice, that would at the end of the day or week go back home to their parents. You were not just another student… when I took you in, I assumed a role I stupidly didn't acknowledge.

Part of me knew, of course… why else call you "Little Sun"? And yet I fooled myself into thinking it was just a nickname for my precious student.

You're all grown up now. And I missed you for a long, long time. And you have a home now. And you've changed and I wasn't part of that change… but I want to be. I want to learn what has become of you, where you're going… I want to know when you move up in rank, if you find someone to love, about the battles you win… I'm so proud, Sunset. I'll never be able to say that enough.

It's hard to write this, even knowing it to be true… because the words that I write next will make everything so much more real, including your loss for so many years. And it's hard to say this because even when I picked you up, I entertained the thought…

I'm over a thousand years old and yet I'm acting like this. Luna seems happy to point this out. Sunset… in all that time, this was never a chance I got, until I took you in, parent-less and scared. It was then that I should have stepped up to the plate and taken ownership of what I was doing.

Instead I ignored it and went in circles as I am doing right now. My Little Sun… in my heart, if not my mind I always thought of you as family. I might have lost forever the chance to be that now… and it breaks my heart, but I finally accept this truth.

I hope you can forgive this stupid old mare for this. For not being strong enough to tell you until war and distance and your possible loss forced my hoof. That it took this long and this much to admit this when I should have done so the moment I adopted you.

I am so sorry.

I hope you can find it in your heart to write back to me… and allow me to get to know my daughter once more.

Yours, with all my love and hope,

~Celestia

o.0.o End Chapter 49 o.0.o

Chapter 50: Magibabble

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Ranger

Chapter 50: Magibabble

By Wanderer D

Twilight left her office, closing it behind her. Celestia's letter was long, from what little she had seen, and Sunset would need some privacy and time to take it in.

She shifted a little guiltily. Was this the proper time to give that to Sunset? She was probably mentally and emotionally exhausted. She sighed. There was little point in dwelling on it now. Maybe it would take Sunset's mind away from the current problems for a little while, but… well, Celestia and Sunset had much to catch up on.

She turned and walked to Tygan's location. He had probably taken Jane to an isolated room to make sure noone overheard something they shouldn't, and that left a few places where that could be.

Of course, that brought back memories of her own blunder.

o.0.o Two Days Ago o.0.o

Twilight shifted uncomfortably in the seat across from Bradford. On his desk was Sunset's diary.

"Princess," Bradford finally said. "You understand why you're here?"

Twilight nodded sheepishly.

"While I have no doubts that your intentions to Lt. Dash were nothing but good, using artifacts like this one without care in a spaceship full of soldiers that are willing to blow aliens to pieces at the slightest provocation is perhaps not the smartest move."

Twilight felt like she was sinking in her seat. Getting berated by Bradford, even if he wasn't being mean or angry, felt like she was back in magic kindergarten.

"Fortunately, only Lt. Dash found out about this…" he trailed off. "Who else knows?"

"Outside of you and, um, I suppose the commander?" Twilight asked. "Well… just Sunset and I. But… Mr. Bradford…"

"Bradford or Central will be fine."

"Um… Cen—Bradford, sir, Lieutenant Dash was drinking herself away for something she had no control over," Twilight said. "I… know that people here are afraid of unexpected things like these, with good reason, but she needed some closure, and she wasn't getting it with just counselling."

She looked down at the diary. "Back home… Rainbow Dash is one of my best friends. We've saved the world together… she taught me to fly when I gained my wings. Seeing her just… drinking herself into unconsciousness hurt. She might not look the same, or even be the same exactly… but my friend's essence is in there, and I couldn't fail her here and face her when I go back home."

Bradford studied her. "I had to read the diary."

Twilight's eyes went wide. "Oh."

They remained silent for a moment, letting that sink in. "I'm not prone to discussions like these," Bradford said. "But my good friend Dr. Shen once said that I was acting like Sunset's father. I disagree. But I do care about her… and it has been my pleasure and honor to see her grow from the arrogant kid she was just three years ago into the woman she is today… and it will continue to be both to see her succeed further."

He took the diary in his hands. "Reading this… felt disrespectful, but it was necessary. The Commander trusts me to inform her of anything questionable that might affect XCOM... but neither your letters nor her own betray any information that could be used against us."

He placed it on the table, his fingers tapping it. "One thing that confuses me is… if I open this diary, and step away from it… when I'm not touching it, the words are not in English. They're lines and circles, all but cryptographic to me. Yet, when I picked it up, it was in English."

Twilight nodded. "The diary was created by Princess Celestia for Sunset… being a personal diary, it was made in a way that would be unreadable to anyone that Sunset wouldn't want to be able to read… the fact that you were able to read the words inside…" She gulped. "That means that Sunset trusts you with her innermost thoughts."

Bradford's eyes went wide for a brief moment, and even as quick as he was to return to the stoic command of his appearance, Twilight could tell that the information had moved him.

"That means that not anyone can look into it?"

Twilight nodded. "If say, an engineer she knows, but is not close to were to pick up the diary? They would only see garbled lines and nonsensical words. Nothing readable." She smiled at the book. "I can only imagine what spells she cast on it! Over here I can't really study it, but was it Starswirl's Limerick Gimmick?! Or, or maybe a modified version of the "hypnotic-manifest" spell with a "selective reader" twist to it? But how does the diary know who to trust? Does it have an "Empirical Empathic Enunciator" spell added to it? Is it an effect on the pages alone? But then there's also the "Remote Redaction Reflector" spell that clearly is a main component," Twilight waved her hand in an obviously self-demeaning way. "How silly of me to forget that. But still, what I'd like to know is ho—"

"So the fact that Lt. Dash was able to read this…" Bradford asked, interrupting Twilight, who blinked and giggled.

"Um… sorry, tend to get carried away." Twilight took a slow breath. "Dash told me how she and Jane were the first people here that Sunset made friends with. Probably because of their competitive streak. Their trust has been building up for some time. The only reason I can read it… and why it was such a big deal for her to let me use it, is that in my case, she overrode the protection by willingly granting me access. She can't protect only her own writings… it's all access or nothing, so it was a huge sign of trust."

Twilight looked down. "I hope I didn't betray that trust."

Bradford remained silent, frowning at the diary before sliding it towards Twilight, who looked up in surprise.

"If that mechanism is active… I see no harm in you two keeping it. The things said inside…" He sighed. "Maybe one day I will get to meet this Princess Celestia of yours."

Twilight smiled. "I think she would like to meet Sunset's dad."

"Out."

"Hm, interesting," Dr. Tygan said, looking at the scans. "There appears to be no sign of blood contamination, or your body rejecting it… although by now we would know if that were the case."

Jane nodded.

"And you say that the shot went right through you?"

"Doctor, you can check my vital scans from the GREMLIN, I don't know how Sunset managed this, but she saved my life."

"It is… amazing," Tygan agreed. "If we could duplicate it…"

"That might not be a good idea," Twilight said, opening the door and approaching. For some reason she had a smirk on her face, which faded when she got close. She stood in front of Jane, and held her hand up.

Jane blinked in surprise when, slowly, purple-red energy seemed to seep from Twilight's hand and float above it, then float from there to her other hand and back. She followed it with her eyes and head. "How… what is that?"

"Were you able to scan that, Doctor?" Twilight asked.

Tygan blinked. "Scan what?"

"You didn't see that?!" Jane asked surprised, turning to see the confused look in the doctor's face.

"It is as I feared," Twilight sighed. "The reason this worked was that Sunset used actual Blood Magic in conjunction with everything else she did. Not only were the methods haphazard, they involved several factors that we cannot simply calculate… but they have definitely affected Jane."

Dr. Tygan frowned, and Jane looked at Twilight with some worry. "Am I… is this bad?"

Twilight shook her head. "I don't know…" she smiled. "Sunset saved your life, and I think that because of the bond of friendship she feels for you, the corrupting aspect of Blood Magic might not have been transferred to you. I do think, however, that she inadvertently made you sensitive to magic."

"So you're saying this is not something we can replicate?" Tygan asked.

"Not… as such," Twilight said carefully. "If this is what you want to focus on, I can try to adapt more… medically inclined spells to this world… but the ability to cast them will still be locked to Sunset and I, and without the desperation and personal investment that she had for Jane… it's not just a matter of wanting, in this world. We'd be killing ourselves by overdrawing our reserves."

Twilight started pacing. "You see… Sunset has had years here to evaluate the impact of using Blood Magic here and to fine-tune what she can, and cannot do. And keep in mind she's not just your run-of-the-mill unicorn either. Like me, she was taught personally by one of the highest authorities in magic our world has ever known. If she says she has a limit of power or effects with her magic… it's not just a guess. She would have come to that decision based on countless factors and direct experience.

"But even then, that's not the problem… the magic she uses is… for lack of a better word, visceral. It draws on connections, deep emotion, subconscious desire, and the innate symbolic, mystic and supernatural aspects of blood. It goes beyond a medical aspect or study of it, as the medical spells would. It's tied to body, mind and soul."

Twilight paused, looking outside of Tygan's office at the people working in the lab. "Our ancient history mentions Blood Witches and Blood Warlocks as ponies who would eventually succumb to the primal needs of blood in it's multifaceted… almost, anthropomorphic sense, if we could ascribe sapience to it. They would tear whole towns apart, indulge in orgies of blood and sex and horror and desperation and madness. Anything to feed the blood with power… the power to control… kill…" she grimaced.

"And this… maddening thaumic power… is what Sergeant Shimmer wields?" Tygan asked, his voice low. The whole thing sounded like out of a fantasy novel.

Twilight nodded. "In Equestria… she'd be down that road by now. It happened, a little, I think… when she visited last. I'm not sure what she did exactly, but she was… power hungry, overconfident to the point of arrogance."

She glanced at the other two. "I… understand that it is hard to put into perspective, without you having met them… but, when she escaped, she took on three of the most powerful beings in the world…" She hesitated. "Bear in mind… two of them can quite literally move the Sun and the Moon."

Tygan and Jane were quiet.

"And, of course she didn't stay to fight…" Twilight said, her voice wavering. "She would have been completely destroyed. But my point is… just… what state of mind do you have to be in, to think it's a good idea to break a baton in the face of somepony that can turn you into a splatter on the wall?"

Twilight sighed. "Sunset… told everyone—and I believe she also convinced herself—that it was the necessity to come back here that drove her to such a desperate act. I think… it was true, in part, but it was in reality the unnatural draw to get more power that the blood magic demands that gave her that… recklessness."

"But you don't think that's the case here?" Tygan asked.

Twilight shook her head. "The moment we crossed… she calmed down. She was in control… she was the Sunset we all know and love. The only thing that has kept her sane is this world's magical field being different and much more minor.

"I don't think she would lose herself completely, but she hasn't mastered it to the point where she can dominate it more than it would dominate her if she ever found herself overflowing with magic again."

Jane sighed. "So… what does that mean for me? I can't cast spells, and I don't feel like I should be sucking the blood out of anyone either."

Twilight shrugged. "I don't know… I think, you might have gotten some benefits from certain spells Blood Mages use on allies… I'll have to consult with Sunset… I… don't want to read how those work. Most likely, Earth's lower magical field, would have limited unwanted effects from affecting you." She smiled encouragingly at Jane.

"So I'm not going to go mad and join any orgies…" Jane trailed off. "...of blood and murder?"

"Not unless you were predisposed to that?" Twilight said, completely missing the look Tygan gave Jane. "I don't think you're in any danger… in fact, you have been opened to completely new experiences! Who knows what could happen now? You can definitely see the magical—or thaumic—field now, which opens up new possibilities of research for me, and even skills for you!"

She patted Jane's shoulder confidently. "Once Sunset and I crunch the numbers, we'll know for sure the extent of how you were affected and if you have new, untapped potential."

Tygan nodded. "If Twilight says so… we will go with her prognosis. I will still appoint you regular meetings with our counselor for now," he said. "We'll keep track of this, and also your close encounter with death will probably need some professional assistance."

"Got it…" Jane said. "Anyway, if we're done… I'm really ready to pass out. These last twenty four hours have been nothing but stress and adrenaline."

"Of course," Tygan said. "You are free to head over to rest."

"Let us know if you experience any strange phenomena," Twilight quipped. "Randomly levitating objects, teleportation, sudden exhaustion and turning people into plants are known effects of unintended magical discharge."

"That sounds more like a poltergeist than magical aptitude," Jane muttered, "But you're the professional."

"Yes, yes I am," Twilight said, nodding. "And we both suggest you have a good long sleep. You need it."

Jane chuckled. "On that I think we all agree." She pushed herself up and fought (ineffectively) a large yawn. "Thank you both… I'm glad I'll be okay…"

"Just rest," Tygan said. "We're headed over to the Commander and the rest of your team. I'm sure she'll also want to talk to you and Sunset, so you'd better be ready."

Jane nodded sleepily. "Aye, aye…"

Tygan and Twilight watched her walk away, then looked at each other in silence for a few seconds.

"Turning people into plants?" Tygan asked, raising an eyebrow.

"Um… only once?" Twilight smiled sheepishly.

"Oh, this I've got to hear," Tygan said, motioning for Twilight to sit down. "And then you can explain to me why I seem to detect that they were not only turned into plants, but ended up being okay even after that."

o.0.o End Chapter 50 o.0.o

Chapter 51: Showers

View Online

Ranger

Chapter 51: Showers

By Wanderer D

Jane found Sunset sitting down on her bed, already out of her armor and in her overalls, hands over her face. She wasn't crying, but she was clearly stressed.

"Oh wow," Jane muttered. "You look like you got smacked around."

Sunset snorted, slowly dragging her hands down to rest them on her lap and looked up at her. "You don't look so hot yourself, hot stuff."

Jane rolled her eyes and sat on her own bed, tiredly taking off her cap and sliding a hand down her scalp. "So. Want to talk about it?"

"I want to crawl into my bed and wake up a year from now."

"Yeah, well, they might let us rest for a bit, but you know that soon enough we'll be up there talking to not only the Commander but all senior staff AND Annette."

Sunset sighed. "I got… a letter from home."

It took a moment for Jane to process that. "Wait." She glanced around to make sure they were alone then leaned forward. "Home as in… the settlement where you met Central or… home-home?"

"The latter," Sunset said.

"Oh." Jane rubbed her arm. "Um… and? Was it bad?"

"Awful."

"Did something happen?"

Sunset groaned and lay back on her bed. "Back home, I was adopted at an early age by my… teacher. For the longest time, for years and years I wanted…" She sighed. "When I called her 'mom' once by mistake… she smiled and sat me down and explained to me I was her most precious student. That she loved me as much as she could possibly love a pupil. That, as her apprentice, I was deserving of her attention and help. That her role as my teacher was important and deep and required trust…. she told me that… I shouldn't feel bad for calling her mom by mistake."

Jane shook her head, standing up and slowly taking her armor off. "That seems… unusually callous."

Sunset snorted. "She was gentle and patient as hell. She smiled. She used careful words. She hugged me. But she never… I wanted it, you know," Sunset felt her throat tighten. "I really, really wanted it. I wanted to call her mom. It was pure torture when she'd walk into my room in the morning to wake me up…

"'Hello, my Little Sun…' she would say. 'It's time to wake up, the sun is risen and so must you…', it was wonderful and it goddamned hurt. But I learned well, and I would smile. Because she didn't want to see me sad."

"Come on," Jane said, offering her hand to Sunset. The latter looked up, noticing her friend was only in underwear and had a towel and her bag of toiletries in her hand.

Sunset smiled. "I guess we probably stink."

"It's a fact."

Jane waited for Sunset to get her things and the pair walked to the showers, getting into their individual units and locking the doors so they could talk.

"Anyway," Sunset continued. "I grew up learning to lie to protect other people's feelings. A defense mechanism that I only employed with those I really wanted to like me. I'm not sure if I never fooled myself into thinking I did too.

"But Celestia… she was the recipient of it the most. I wanted her approval, so I outdid everyone else. I wanted her concern, so I would tell her what was going on with me… to an extent. I wanted her to love me and never have a complaint about me… to be family… so I hid my anger and frustration… it didn't last."

Jane let the water roll down her body, marveling at the lack of pain from her injuries. She was truly completely healed. As she listened to Sunset's bitter admissions, she had to shake her head. "What happened?"

"When I saw that didn't work… I just… stopped caring," Sunset said. She started soaping up, washing out the grime and dirt and burns. "I allowed myself to… to be arrogant. I was the most powerful caster; I was the princesses' personal apprentice; I had a future doing whatever I wanted. Well, if she wasn't going to see how great I was, then everyone else would. And they would tell her. And maybe then she'd acknowledge me."

She paused, running the water through her hair. At the angle, and with the water pressure it was like she was getting a head-massage, and she sighed, feeling her muscles relax a little as the shampoo was washed away.

"It was at that point that a pegasus acquaintance of mine became an alicorn… she was immediately 'adopted' by the royal family. I figured out that my destiny was to become one myself. That, that was Celestia's great plan for me. The reason she couldn't formalize things and make me her official daughter."

Sunset laughed. "Of course, that was just part of it… by then I honestly had convinced myself that I deserved all of that and more. That I belonged not just as an apprentice, but as an equal."

"Geeze, no wonder you walked out of that Star Wars marathon Galahad organized." Jane muttered.

"Oh, haha."

"Sorry, sorry… so what happened next?"

Sunset sighed, turning the water off, and grabbing her towel. "What do you think? I started doing shit I wasn't supposed to do for real." She shook her head at the memories. "Spells that were forbidden for one reason or another, looking into ancient magics… it was all about the power."

"Is that how… you learned Blood Magic?"

Sunset bit her lip. "Yeah. I stole the book before Celestia and I had our last fight. I… had discovered in some texts the properties of a magical mirror and well… you know the rest."

"Most of it, yeah," Jane said, also starting to dry off. "But all of that, as interesting as it is, doesn't actually answer what the current problem is."

Sunset relished the feel of putting on clean clothes again, and didn't answer until she was wearing her sports bra and panties. She wrapped her robe around herself and sat down to blow dry her hair.

Jane emerged from the other shower, also in her robe, and gave her a glare, but shrugged and worked on drying her hair as well.

Soon enough, they were both out. The barracks was still empty, no doubt due to the fact that unlike Jane and Sunset, everyone else was required to assist with the Commander's project.

"That letter I got today…" Sunset said when they were once more sitting down, "Was Celestia telling me that she should have realized that I looked at her as a mother figure, and that it took her up until now to really admit to herself that she felt the same way about me."

Jane blinked. "Wow. I mean… wow."

Sunset sighed. "So on the one hand I… got what I wanted? But… I've not been that ever. I grew up not being her daughter. I realized at one point during my early teens that I was never going to be that to her. I moved forward… came here, did all of this and other than one message in response to an angry comment from me, she never reached out."

"And now she expects you to simply accept this?" Jane asked.

Sunset nodded. "Yeah. I don't know how I feel. She's always been… wonderful. Generous, self-sacrificing and loving, in a distant way. And now she's admitting this because she thought I'd die."

Jane smirked. "Well, she's not wrong. You could die anytime soon."

"Thanks. But you know what I mean."

Jane looked down. "I don't know what to tell you, Sunset. I would give just about everything to see my parents one more time… but the situation is not the same. I guess the question is… are you willing to forgive her for this?"

"I don't know," Sunset said. Her eyes were becoming heavy. "I…" She yawned. "I can't think of what to answer, or how should I feel. I did a lot for a long time to make her happy. I lied to myself. I pretended to be happy when I wasn't… but that's not her fault, I understand. It still weighs on me, though. And after all this time, after all those lies were squeezed out of me and I'm who I am today… I don't know if I can ever return that."

"Maybe," Jane said, stopping to echo Sunset's yawn. "You should sleep on it. But at least you can start talking again, right?"

Sunset closed her eyes. "We'll see."

Canterlot Castle was in flames.

Sunset knew she had to move fast. Her hook shot from her wrist, taking hold on a distant tower. She let herself fly, shooting below at the enemy. Her horn glowed with magic and the chrysalid that was about to tear into Twilight's friends froze in place and exploded into pieces.

She landed, running past the lab and ignoring the many aliens trying to smash through the thick glass tubes until she was looking down from the balcony.

Plasma blasts tore through walls, and pegasi fell from the sky, burning and screaming. Unicorns erected barriers, but were overwhelmed by the sheer amount of firepower.

Sunset barreled through a pair of sectoids, screaming as she shot her shard gun straight into the open mouth of one and finished the other with two shots from her gun. Blood rained on her, painting her red and yellow.

Vipers had overrun the gardens, and even now gorged on the dead, but Sunset didn't have time to avenge them. She had heard a cry from within the castle. She turned around, facing the dark, foreboding entrance before her, neon lights flickering.

She could feel she was being watched but the cry came again! And she knew that pony! She ran into the castle, galloping and fast as her hooves would take her. Where was the rest of her team?

"Menace, this is Sunset! Where are you?"

Garbled voices responded in the radio. One of them sounded like Mox, but she couldn't make out the words.

"Meet me at the Princesses' quarters! She's in danger!"

She kicked into the room, but it was too late. The berserker stood over the body of her mother.

"Momma!"

"Shoot it!" Bradford ordered. "Surround it!"

"It's going for the civilians!"

Sunset shouted, enraged and sliced at the creature with her sword, but it threw her out of the way and with barely an effort snapped Bradford's neck. It took the body and threw it at Jane.

"Laetitia! Mox! Elena!" Sunset cried out. "Shoot it down!"

Sunset couldn't decide who to help. Celestia was down. Bradford was down. Jane was dead and her team had disappeared. The settlement was collapsing and more and more aliens tore through the line.

"My, but you do have violent dreams."

Sunset blinked, drawing a sharp breath as she found herself standing in the frozen scene. "What?" She looked down, but the bodies were gone. "What?"

"Do I presume much by interrupting such a tortuous fantasy?"

Sunset gulped. "A-a dream?"

She was a pony.

She was a human.

"Peace, Sunset Shimmer, calm down, and settle into what you feel most comfortable."

Sunset took a deep breath, trying to relax as the voice had suggested. The world around her faded and she was floating in a void.. well, mostly. Above her she could see a myriad stars. She felt herself calm and her worries fade.

She wasn't changing anymore.

"Interesting, that you would choose that shape."

Sunset opened her eyes. "Who are you? You sound familiar… didn't you interrupt another nightmare before?"

"Ah, you remember well, I must commend you, most would not remember, but it seems my sister chooses her… pupils well. Although perhaps that would not be the correct term for you now?"

It made sense. It all clicked in that moment. When Sunset turned around in her mindscape, she knew who was there.

Princess Luna smiled, sitting calmly as if nothing were the matter. "I heard your cry, Sunset Shimmer. And I came to aid." The princess stood up and walked over to her, tracing a hoof through her hair. "We have much to discuss, Blood Witch… and I think, you have much to talk about on where you are right now, and what our relationship is to be."

o.0.o End Chapter 51 o.0.o

Chapter 52: Arbitration

View Online

Ranger

Chapter 52: Arbitration

By Wanderer D

"Our relationship?" Sunset asked, raising an eyebrow.

"Did you not say I was pretty?" Luna countered with a smile.

When Sunset's face went red, the alicorn hid a laugh behind a hoof. "Fret not, Sunset Shimmer, I am not here to seek an amorous encounter. Yet."

Sunset ignored the last part. "I didn't know you were able to do this, is the portal open again?"

Luna shook her head. "Alas, it remains closed. 'Tis not unusual for magical artifacts to have a will of their own, of sorts. Whatever its purpose is in remaining locked, we are unable to do much but await its fancy."

"And even if it were, we'd need to go when ADVENT is not around and clean the area of Lost before attempting to help Twilight through," Sunset added.

"So, young witch," Luna said, tilting her head. "It seems your thoughts are troubled."

Sunset sat back, crossing her arms in front of her. "What do you expect? We're constantly under threat of instant demise on this side of the mirror."

Luna grinned. "We both know this is not why you're feeling insecure, young witch. It would appear my sister's diary entry has had unintended effects."

"That's one way of putting it," Sunset said, groaning. "Is there any chance we don't do this? I really don't need more drama."

Luna shrugged. "I worry for my sister. And I've come to learn much about you, so my mind is less… antagonistic than the last time we spoke."

"You're still calling me a witch, though."

Luna smirked. "That's the term for those that practice Blood Magic. It is not intended to be an insult."

"Certainly doesn't feel that way," Sunset muttered. "Since it seems we're going to be here, talking, instead of me resting…"

"No need to be upset," Luna said. "I will leave if that is what you want, but I thought perhaps you could use a pony ear as well as however many human ones you have. You know my history with my sister, surely you know I will not be blind to your own circumstances."

Sunset sighed. "I hate that she wrote me."

Luna blinked.

They were now both standing on the edge of a cliff. In the distance, one of the new ADVENT cities glowed with light. Several flying machines roamed about the city. Overall it was quite beautiful, even if the reality came with a very high price tag attached.

"She's been… indisposed for all these years," Sunset said, leaning forward to wrap her arms around her legs and rest her chin on her knees. "And then we're forced to talk again after I ended up back there by accident… and now she wants to be everything she did her damned best to not be when I really needed it?"

Luna lay down next to her, gazing at the city as well. "And you don't think forgiving her is within your grasp?"

Sunset shook her head. "It's not about forgiveness… I can forgive her for being… scared? For not being what she clearly didn't want to be back then…" She groaned and slid her face down so her forehead was now touching her knees. "I know I don't make sense."

"You do," Luna said, placing a hoof on Sunset's back. "Please, continue."

"I guess… I can let go of my anger. In a way, I have already. I realized long ago she and I were not really family. And… after several years of anger and resentment, I was finally okay with that. I realized it was my own projections that were making that fantasy world."

Luna hesitated, but remained quiet.

"So it's not about… being angry at her. I'm not… well, not for the same things. She was never mean. Never abusive, or made me feel intentionally ignored. When I wrote her a couple of years back, I was so angry at her. At myself. At where I was. But I learned many things and that anger just was… petty, in retrospect. She never did anything in order to hurt me."

Sunset looked away. "She never did anything in order to understand me."

Luna sighed. "It is complicated, young witch—"

"Just… Sunset, please."

Luna smirked. "Sunset. It is my belief that my sister harbored those feelings ever since she took you in, but she let her own stubbornness and righteousness get in the way of what should have been natural." Her smirk turned gentle. "I… wonder the type of mare she'd be today if she had let herself love you as she should have."

"She didn't, though." Sunset said, raising her head. "I… care for her. And I'm glad in a way she responded… but I was expecting… you know," she turned to look at Luna with teary eyes. "Hello! I'm glad you're doing well! I'm proud! Keep strong, become friends with Twilight, don't hit my sister in the face with a baton!"

She turned and suddenly she was a pony again, she moved over to Luna and fell flat on her belly, her horn touching the floor as she struggled to hold tears back. "But, what the hell is that letter, Princess? That's not what you write someone that you haven't seen in years and you would never have talked to were it not for them stealing your student!

"I don't know what to do! It's… that's like dropping a tank to hit a nail through a plank! Why couldn't she had just been herself? Just… nice, but distant. The "I'm proud of you, my little pony." type of inconsequential BS she throws around all the time?"

She hit the grass over and over with a hoof. "Why now? Why want to be my mother now? You can't choose to be honest with your feelings whenever! And then throw them at someone that so desperately wanted that and had finally gotten past it? It's cruel, Luna!"

She sobbed. "It's cruel, and I hate her for it, and I can't hate her! Because-b-because I wanted this so much!"

Luna softly stroked Sunset's mane, letting the mare sob and cry. "Sometimes ponies bottle things up so much, Sunset, that when things come out like that—be it sudden anger, or sudden, apologetic love—it is overwhelming."

"And unfair," Sunset said, taking a shuddering breath and slowly managing to control herself. "It is very unfair, Luna."

Luna nodded.

"I'll never… really hate her. Even when I left… I just wanted to show her I deserved better." Sunset chuckled. "Not that I did, but my need for family had been replaced by a need of power and recognition. If everypony recognized me as the greatest, if even magic itself turned me into an alicorn… then she would have to accept me… of course things have changed and my ambition…"

She sighed. "My ambitions lie elsewhere, now." She smirked a short-lived smiled. "But she's not part of that… her chance was years ago, Luna. For that, at least."

Luna nodded again, she wrapped a wing around the other mare. "What do you intend to do then? Not answer?"

"No… I will… I just… I can't just give that to her, Luna… not as she wants. Not just because she suddenly felt that way. Not after so much denial, anger and loss."

Luna sighed, closing her eyes. "I understand, Sunset. When I came back… I was the one that betrayed her trust and feelings.... perhaps your suffering in a way—"

"No," Sunset interrupted. She didn't look up at the princess, she didn't cuddle up into the embrace, but didn't pull away. She simply shook her head. "The decision to deal with her feelings about you… about me… that is up to her. You might have turned into Nightmare Moon and betrayed her, as you say… I might have stolen forbidden magic, and escaped… but neither of those actions forced her hoof into how to deal with her emotions.

"She lost her only sister for over a thousand years," Sunset said slowly. "And it's the type of loss I cannot… I just… it's not comparable to what I have felt. I get that. I can't judge her pain with a clear conscience… but how she dealt with that pain, whether it crippled her or not… that's on her.

"Blaming you for her decision either way would imply that Celestia never had a choice in the matter of how to handle that grief." Sunset took a deep breath. "Just like my decision to walk away and steal is my own and I can't blame her for it… sure, things could have been different, but we each of us choose how to act."

Luna gave her a bemused look. "You don't think she did the right thing in reaching out?"

Sunset sighed. "I don't know, Luna… I'm 25. I say a lot of shit. Maybe I'm talking out of my ass right now. Maybe I'm just BS-ing like a pro, or maybe I'm wise beyond my years. I'm lecturing you… on something I can barely deal with on my own." She lowered her head. "I'm just… trying to deal with this as best as I know how."

Luna laughed. "No, no, it's okay, Sunset. Sometimes visceral replies are much more honest than carefully planned and worded ones." She looked up into the starry sky. "My sister might be disappointed that you will not return her… affections so readily, but she should understand. She's an old hag by now."

Sunset snorted. "And you're not?"

Luna turned to her, her face all-seriousness. "I'll have you know, young Sunset, that my thousand-year entrapment kept me in a stasis. In essence, I remain a thousand years younger than my sister."

They remained like that for a while, and Sunset rested her head on Luna's shoulder. There was nothing there but them right now, a pair of mares just keeping each other company in an embrace that expected nothing more than comfort and support.

Eventually however, a large, spiraling hole opened up in the sky above, like a vortex of some sort, where the dream-stuff got dragged into.

"Seems like it's time to wake up…" Sunset said, almost regretfully. "Thank you for this, Luna."

"I will keep an ear out for you," Luna said. "I am unable to reach all over the earth, so I cannot protect you from nightmares or keep you company constantly… I do have a role to perform in Equestria, after all."

"I understand," Sunset said, smiling at the alicorn as she was slowly pulled up into the vortex. "Thank you again!"

Luna smiled. "I'll be watching over you."

And then she was gone.

"Oh my, look at who's waking up."

She knew that voice. Sunset frowned and yawned, stretching in bed before settling down and opening her eyes. She blinked to clear them. "Laetitia?"

"The same," the dark-skinned woman answered with a smile. "Slept well?"

"Hmm-hmm…" Sunset sighed. "What are you doing here?"

Laetitia tilted her head. "Watching over you."

Sunset blinked. "Um… why?"

"You seemed to be having a nightmare, but you calmed down and we didn't want to wake you up." Laetitia explained. "Jane woke up a little earlier than you, she's already out there with the others. I offered to keep watch over you since Twilight explained you might have overdrawn yourself so badly you might need some additional rest."

"Ugh…" Sunset groaned, slowly pushing herself up. "How long did we sleep?"

"You and Jane got a solid ten hours of sleep," Laetitia said. "And you slept for about… twenty more minutes."

"Great."

Laetitia laughed and stood up. "You'd better get changed into your overalls and get some food. The Commander wants to talk to you. Shen already picked up your armor for study… don't worry, she'll bring it back."

"It's… not really mine," Sunset said.

"That's not what the Commander said," the other woman replied. "Anyway, make sure you are ready for a long conversation. It appears your friend, Annette, kept the meeting room in the old base in perfect state… and that's where we're heading once you're ready."

Sunset nodded, "got it." She watched Laetitia step out of the room before rummaging through her backpack. Her eyes went wide and she looked around quickly, making sure no one was around before stuffing all fifteen of Galahad's magazines into Jane's locker.

"I completely forgot about that…" she muttered, cheeks flushed. Her eyes strayed to the locker, but she shook her head. "Nope! Not the right time, Sunset!"

She quickly got dressed, made her bed and sorted the contents of her backpack on top of it. Chrysalis' letters were all together, then there was her own, and the pictures… it was silly, perhaps, but she'd ask Chrysalis for a copy of the one where they were with Celestia and Luna.

The thought made her sigh and glance at her diary. She'd have to think carefully on what to write… but at least now she knew Luna cared enough for both of them to help smooth things out… regardless of their decision.

For now, she had work to do.

o.0.o End Chapter 52 o.0.o

Chapter 53: Reinstated

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Ranger

Chapter 53: Reinstated

By Wanderer D

The meeting room was packed.

All of Menace was there, as well as Annette, Chrysalis, Bradford, Shen, Tygan and Twilight. Deadwood was also in there, casting dubious looks at the young girl that had walked in with the Doctor.

"Isn't she, like… a rookie?" He whispered to Sunset. "What is she doing here?"

"I guess we'll find out," Sunset whispered back.

Chrysalis stood up and everyone else immediately snapped to attention.

"First, a few things," Chrysalis said. "Congratulations to both, Jane Kelly and Sunset Shimmer are in order for completing their mission and bringing us… much more information than anticipated. Both of you performed outstandingly under the circumstances and managed to cement the building blocks for possible alliances and actions in the future.

"As such, and after discussing it with my senior staff and other parties, as of now, you have both been promoted. Sunset Shimmer, I grant you the rank of Lieutenant. Jane Kelly, you are granted the rank of Sergeant. You both now carry the advantages and responsibilities inherent in your new rank, and I expect you to develop your skills to match your new status."

Chrysalis took a seat at the head of the table. "You may all sit."

She waited until everyone was ready, then clasped her hands together, taking a deep breath and nodding to Bradford, who shuffled his paperwork before speaking, "Let's start this meeting by highlighting the unique qualities of your last mission:

"You contacted three insiders inside ADVENT, who—after some discussion—we deem important enough to encourage future relations. Apple Bloom's access to the MEC Factory is an extremely useful advantage; Scootaloo working in the engineering department speaks of deep understanding of ADVENT and Alien technology, which can only be useful to us, and Sweetie Belle herself is a known ADVENT personality, who we had no idea was anti-establishment.

"XCOM will extend contact to them soon, to follow up on the last mission and offer… to work more closely. What are your thoughts on this?"

Sunset and Jane exchanged a look, but with a nod, Jane let Sunset know to speak first.

"It will be difficult to involve them more than peripherally," Sunset said. "They're willing to help us, but they do feel they have too much to lose at this time. Their situation is tied to family and loyalty. Scootaloo is arguably the one that has the least to lose, but Sweetie Belle has a sister that is deep with ADVENT and Apple Bloom's brother might be working for them as well, if he still lives."

"Understood," Bradford said.

"Didn't Firebrand actually know them?" Chrysalis asked, turning to look at the pilot, who had gone rigid. "What are your thoughts, first lieutenant?"

Dash sighed. "Apple Bloom is the sister of one of our original XCOM soldiers… you remember Applejack?"

Chrysalis frowned, but nodded.

"That's her. Big Mac, her brother was also going to join the armed forces, but an injury prevented him from doing so… as for Scootaloo and Sweetie Belle, it's just like Sunset said: Rarity's going to be Sweetie's main concern, and Scootaloo will stick to them wherever they go." She chuckled. "They've always been like that."

Chrysalis sighed. "Well then, we'll extend the invitation eventually, but for now it might be best to have them in the back-burner."

"It's too bad," Lily spoke up. "Having someone like Scootaloo, who understands alien flight technology so well could really help us make the Avenger more efficient."

"We'll roll with what we have," Chrysalis said. "And this brings us to another discovery then, Bradford?"

Central nodded. "Sunset reported encountering a friendly AI inside the MEC factory, presumably already acting against them…"

Shen spoke up. "I… barely remember it, but once I read the report… dad was working on an AI to help us fight the aliens… I know he was working on several designs for mechanical additions to our troops. It seems that when the Elders took over the base, they also stole my dad's designs, and Julian with them."

"He helped me…" Sunset said, "but he felt very… angry at ADVENT. Said that they had butchered his code and tried to dominate him. He kept me and Jane from being discovered for a while before helping me get out of the room."

"I'm… not sure about that," Jane said, frowning. "I had everything under control until a few seconds after opening the secure room for you."

"Is it possible that you might have not noticed whatever caused it?" Bradford asked.

Jane shook her head. "Not under those circumstances… I was sending a signal piggybacking on the one from the antenna. I didn't really need to bypass any firewalls on my side, and the program worked fine."

"So, at best a wildcard," Chrysalis said, not sounding very pleased. "At worst, someone who tried to manipulate the situation and get Jane killed... We'll have to keep an eye on it… and limit our contact with Julian, can you ensure we are kept from his interference?"

Lily nodded. "Even if Julian is my dad's creation, I don't think he had all of my dad's code in him, I'll have to go through some old notes, but we should be fine. Commander… we should really plan on acting on Julian soon, however. Working with him… or not… we can still learn enough to help us with our own technology."

"Agreed," Chrysalis said. "But all in due time. We have a lot in our plate right now. And the last piece is right here, Annette and I have discussed the situation with the aliens within."

"As the commander says," Annette spoke up, "we have considered several options. It is my belief that the aliens here would not be of much use to XCOM, although they have already sent Shen their knowledge of laser technology, as well as allowed her to study the cyber disks, seekers and the sectopod. I believe this technology will be of use?"

"Absolutely!" Lily said. "There's plenty to research, the engineering team will be working on a lot of projects now."

"Excellent," Chrysalis said. "Tygan? Sparkle?"

Tygan rolled his shoulders. "Preliminary examination of the meld used to heal miss Durand has yielded no further uses. It appears that through the continuous exposure to it, she had absorbed all of its genetic-altering qualities."

"And… although it gives me some ideas that we might be able to put into use," Twilight added, "Those will take some time… it's more of an inspiration for future research than any additional data we can collect out of it at this time."

"Very well, we'll keep that in the back burner for now. At this time, and after much discussion, once we finish this meeting, we will be clearing out of the area. The alien colony will remain, and we will give any aliens we encounter that might be anti-ADVENT or anti-Elders an opportunity to join their brethren here where they can stay out of harm's way."

"How things have changed," Annette said with some humor.

Chrysalis gave her a look. "Indeed." She cleared her throat. "Needless to say, different times require different tactics, and we are not in a position where we can spit on an ally's face for reasons as stupid as their species.

"Additionally, Annette Durand has agreed to rejoin XCOM, with her previous rank of Sergeant. For now she won't be joining any specific team and will be assigned as required. I intend to give her her own command once she has settled down and a team opens."

Annette gave everyone a fanged smile. "I look forward to working with you all." She turned to look at Laetitia. "I also look forward to talking with you and Geist."

Chrysalis smirked. "Won't that be a fun conversation?" Her smile faded. "Now, the last item… Sunset's mission was intended to find the next link in the Assassin's location. As soon as we know more, we'll inform you all about our discoveries. Dr. Tygan and his team need to analyze the data we recovered."

Mox leaned forward. "If this is true, then we can finally put one of Chosen to rest."

Elena raised an eyebrow. "It would appear so. Volk will be very interested in hearing this information. Taking down the Assassin, will no doubt drive fear into the heart of the Hunter."

"There is a third," Laetitia said, "The Warlock hunts us Templars… he is massively powerful but…" she turned to look at Annette. "Our chances are now much higher, with this new development and miss Durand's assistance."

"And we have distinct advantages that the Warlock is not aware of either," Annette said, nodding in the direction of Sunset and Jane, as well as a cursory glance at Twilight.

"Then it is time to get going," Chrysalis said. "Our allies within ADVENT as well as Julian and the aliens here will be left alone for the moment. I need to open dialogue with Volk, Betos and Geist as soon as they have talked to you three… and then we'll assign the next mission. Dismissed."

As soon as the others stood up, Sunset looked up. "Commander, if I may talk to you in private?"

Chrysalis raised an eyebrow, but nodded at the others. When everyone had left and they were on their own, she sighed. "The floor is yours, Lieutenant."

Sunset took a deep breath. These last few days had been a roller-coaster of emotions, but there was little to be done about it. Right now, she needed to do this.

"When… we came here… I found a note from Sunset, directed to me."

Chrysalis' face went serious immediately.

Sunset pulled it out of her pocket. "It… and several other things were included in the setup I found to allow me to transfer blood to Jane. I didn't really omit much other than that little factor, but… well, there's a lot more to this, but, here."

Chrysalis took the letter from Sunset's hand and started reading. Chrysalis shook her head with obvious amusement at Sunny One's writing, but her smile faded when she finished the letter. Sunset could imagine what part she was reading right now, as the commander stood up and turned away from Sunset.

"Stupid," Chrysalis muttered in a whisper, which Sunset wasn't sure she was supposed to have overheard. "Stupid. Telling me these things twenty years later and on a note…" Chrysalis didn't turn, but gave the note back to Sunset.

"Better… better show that to Bradford and Lily too… I think they'd like to know… that Sunset... she was…"

"Can I ask," Sunset spoke softly. "Just what kind of relation—"

"No," Chrysalis choked out. "No. No, you may not, Lieutenant." She trembled. "Not right now… not… looking exactly—I need some privacy please."

"Yes ma'am… just…"

"Lieutenant?" Chrysalis all but hissed.

"I'm sorry, I'm leaving I just have these too…" from one of her leg pockets, she pulled out the letters, putting them on top of the desk. "I think… these belong with you. I found some pictures as well… I'll—"

"Later!" Chrysalis snapped, not turning around fully, her dark, black-green hair covering half her face as she looked over her shoulder. "Not now. The letters are enough." A pause. "Please, Sunset… I can't handle this with you here right now."

Sunset saluted, and left Chrysalis on her own.

o.0.o End Chapter 53 o.0.o

Chapter 54: Rookies

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Ranger

Chapter 54: Rookies

By Wanderer D

"Alright team," Bradford's face appeared on the Skyranger's screen, right next to a map of the area they were headed to. "This is a run-of-the-mill mission. We are rescuing an ADVENT VIP who has decided to join our cause. As he reached out secretively, ADVENT is unaware of our presence.

"Your mission is to ambush the van transporting the VIP with the documents to the airfield. There are no ADVENT strongholds nearby and the area is mostly civilian, so keep your heads down and remain in concealment at all times until absolutely necessary.

"Once you have secured the VIP, clear the area and call in the Skyranger."

Twilight couldn't help it. She rocked back and forth, glancing nervously at the others. It had been… a month now, since she had last been inside a Skyranger? And this time she wasn't moving away from trouble… but towards it.

Had this really been a good idea? She looked down at herself. She was wearing one of the basic XCOM armors everyone had used. She had raised a fuss when offered something slightly better outside of ear-reach from her team. Now… now she was having second thoughts about that.

She was a lab-rat! An egg-head! A book-worm! A noun-noun! Not… a soldier. She had griped about the possibility of taking a life whenever she talked to Sunset about how callous the other unicorn was when killing. It still sickened her, even if it was something as vicious and mindless as a chryssalid. She had written home about how she didn't get the need to go out and kill.

And now she was in the air, going towards combat. What… what would Celestia think? She was sure that Shining and Luna would understand, but… What would her friends think?

Maybe Applejack and Rainbow Dash would understand… maybe even Rarity… but how would she face Fluttershy and Pinkie Pie? She wasn't defending herself this time. She had knowingly picked up her rifle—the same one she had been practicing with—dressed up in armor and joined her troop to go fight aliens.

And she was an alien! What if they found out?! What if they decided to shoot her?

"Not having second thoughts, are we?"

Twilight's head snapped to Alejandra, who did nothing to hide that knowing grin of hers.

"Nah," Monique said, waving her hand dismissively. "The Princess of Friendship wouldn't have second thoughts."

Ndlovu chuckled. "I wouldn't expect Twilight to back down, not after she tied herself up with her own words as well as any leopard Anansi would spin his web around."

"Isn't that the spider?" Just Kevin asked. "The trickster?"

"That'd be the one," Ndlovu said, nodding. "I'm surprised you would know about it, so far from my homeland, and in an age of the past being mostly buried."

"Hey, my grandfather was into world mythology, even wrote a book about it, before the war," Just Kevin replied with a shrug. "They might have destroyed most copies, but he still remembered the stories well enough to tell them to entertain me and other kids."

Ndlovu laughed, loud and as strong as ever. "Your grandfather was a true storyteller then," he nodded at Kevin. "The people of this world will owe him and others like him, much."

"Not as much as we owe the Princess of Friendship for ditching the lab to help us out!" Galahad laughed.

Twilight sighed.

Galahad shook his head, still smiling, and patted her armored knee. "Don't worry, duckie, you did the right thing. We're all proud of being in the same team."

o.0.o Earlier that Day o.0.o

"Hello, duckies," Galahad said as he walked into the training room. "It's time for your last lesson before you get sent on missions, there's plenty to go over, especially since the developments from our visit to old HQ a couple of days ago, and the glorious return of good ol' miss Durand."

He sat down at the desk, and crossed his arms. "But let's talk about your upcoming chance to get out there for real. How do you feel about it?"

Monique Berger was about to respond when they all heard a commotion outside.

"You can't be serious!"

"I said, no, Twilight, I think a word consisting of two letters, and a very definitive meaning should not pose such a challenging concept to understand!"

"I don't care! I've been through all this training, seen all of what I can do, learned to shoot, treat emergency wounds, seek cover, drag myself through the mud and what everyone else here does and you want me to just stay back here?!"

"Yes! It's my mission to make sure you don't get killed!"

Galahad blinked. "What the…"

"No-one made it your mission once you got me here!"

"What do you want me to tell Pr—everyone if something happens to you? What if your entire research field has to be postponed because you got shot in the head?"

"Tell them I did the right thing!" Twilight responded after a brief moment of hesitation. "I'm the Princess of Friendship, Sunset, I can't just… sit here!"

Alejandra and Ndlovu traded amused glances.

"Look, your place is in the lab with Tygan or Shen, not out there, getting shot. The point of the training was strictly so that you wouldn't do something stupid. And now you're doing it!"

"It's not stupid to risk your life for your friends! We've trained, bled, and sweat together, Sunset, you can't expect me to just watch them go off on missions without me!"

Just Kevin and Michael made to stand, but Galahad shook his head. His gaze turned to the closed door, behind which the argument continued.

"You saw what happened during the last mission. Jane got shot through by goddamned plasma! It's a miracle she's still alive!" They could hear Sunset pacing heavily outside the room. "I should order you to stay."

"Are you going to?" Twilight asked. "Would you stay if your team had to go risk their lives on a mission?!"

"Yes! If those are my orders, I would have to trust them to do so! Why do you think Mox and Elena didn't go with me and Jane? It's not because they didn't want to!"

"But what if you weren't ordered not to go, but someone is too worried about you and just wants to stop you because they're worried?"

There was a pause.

"Are you going to order me not to go?" Twilight insisted. "Because if you're not, or any other officer isn't, I'm going."

Another pause.

Sunset barked a laugh. "You stupid, insufferable jerk, I'm so fucking proud of you right now that I don't know if I should punch you, slap you, or hug you."

"Language! I think—"

Slap! Everyone in the room winced. A scuffle. "Ouch! Why did you slap me?! Oof! W-why did you punch me?!"

"Come here," Sunset's voice said and they could hear the following, sudden, but less violent 'oof' from Twilight. "I just couldn't make my mind, so it's all three, you idiot nerd."

"Oww! A nuggie?! Really?!"

"Seriously. I'm proud of you. And just so you know, if anyone in there messes up and you die for it, I will skin them alive. And then I will get creative."

"Why would you tell me that?"

"No reason, now go in."

They heard Sunset's steps as she walked away from the room, and a few seconds later, the door hissed open. Twilight stepped in, a bit more frazzled than usual and rubbing her cheek. She stopped, looking at everyone in the room. "Um… what?"

That's when Monique started clapping. "Well said, Princess!"

"And that," Galahad laughed. "Is how you earn a nickname."

o.0.o Present Time o.0.o

Twilight covered her face and groaned.

"Hey," Alejandra spoke up. "We're all nervous, but our mission is not that hard. Come on."

"I know," Twilight said with a sigh. "I'm just… not used to this."

"We went through the training together," Just Kevin pointed out. "You passed every test… even if at the beginning you were running out of breath fairly quickly."

"They're right," Galahad spoke up. "You and your mates didn't go through Navy SEAL training exactly, but it wasn't a walk in the park either. The skills you have learned have set you all to be effective rookies… you are now eligible to go on missions and this one is a test of mettle as well as your skills. Other teams will look into this mission and decide if they want any of your on their own."

"Or… we're all expendable and this mission isn't that important, so it doesn't matter how it goes," Monique said.

"That's not true," Galahad said, sparing a moment to match eyes with each of them. "None of us is expendable. XCOM has very select few who stay and fight… the few that dare go back, stand tall and fight. Not everyone is ready for this. And less return willingly… missions like these are just an example of how much we need to do now."

Twilight nodded, her thoughts going back to just before the mission.

o.0.o Earlier that Day o.0.o

"Look at you, all geared up," Sunset said shaking her head and sitting next to Twilight. "Are you.. sure you want to do this? There's really no going back, Twilight."

Twilight sighed. "I don't want to kill… but the thought of my team going without me… it's just…" She trailed off, looking down at the rifle, and wondering when it had started to look so right in her hands.

"I understand." Sunset wrapped an arm around the younger woman. "And… they're all around your age, right? Real rookies… just hit their twenties."

Twilight nodded.

With a sigh, Sunset shook her head and leaned back, staring up. "You wouldn't be the only one that sends friends to battle and waits for them to return, Twilight. Many here have slowly made relationships… soldiers, engineers, scientists… they're all human, some of them are okay on their own, some others seek companionship. And some… have to see people that they care for go on missions. No one thinks any less of them. Your job is very important, Twilight."

"Are you saying that my life has more value than theirs?" Twilight asked a bit bitterly.

"Yes."

Twilight's head snapped around, and she stared at Sunset in utter disbelief. "What?! But—"

"Not in the sense you're thinking, Twilight. You can argue that the value of a life on it's essential pure form is impossible, and I would agree," Sunset said, shaking her head, "but that is not the case here. In a very real, quantitative, objective, reckoning of the facts… when you became a Princess, your life was immediately more important overall than that of a guard.

"When you became a VIP here, your life was more important than mine. When you became the lead scientist of a specific form of research that can turn the war? You objectively became more important than all of us soldiers.

"And that is not counting the fact that you are a leader from another dimension of unknown capabilities and the rightful bearer of a powerful magical artifact that is so strong, attempting to study it without your presence is bound to erase a large area of the planet."

"But…" Twilight's eyes were shimmering with tears, "that's unfair! All life should be valued equally!"

Sunset shook her head. "Life is not fair, Twilight. Leaders are elected, scientists and engineers endorsed… because they can lead, discover and create… in that way, they open up the future for others. I'm not there yet… I plan to be. I'm working my way up—"

"You could be a scientist!" Twilight snapped.

"I'm not." Sunset replied, eyes level. "And yet the sad truth is that if my team is lost, or I died, it would impact the alliances we have with the other factions, in contrast with what say, Deadwood's death would do. I don't like it, but it's the truth." She sighed, turning to look at Twilight. "My point is… that as much as you're doing the right thing… the thing that anyone would do for their brothers and sisters in arms, and which makes all of us soldiers proud of you… losing you would affect much more the world than losing anyone else in that mission."

"It's not right."

"It's still true."

"I'm still going."

"I know."

o.0.o Present Time o.0.o

"Alright, duckies! Get ready!"

Galahad's shout returned Twilight to the present, and she checked her weapon and ammo once more.

"In a few moments we'll be dropped by in the clear area that the Skyranger found for us. We should be out of sight of both civilians and ADVENT. We'll endeavor to keep it that way, understood?"

"Yes, sir!"

Galahad nodded. "That means: you follow the orders. The only time you disobey an order from me, is if the Commander tells you otherwise, understood?"

"Yes, sir!"

"We move carefully. Cover-to-cover. By the book. No shenanigans. I give the order, you follow. I say jump, you read my mind and jump as high as I goddamned want, understood?"

"Yes, sir!"

"Colonel," the pilot called. "We're here."

The lights turned off and the red, warning lights came on. They could feel the Skyranger slow down to a hover. The back ramp opened, letting the ropes uncoil.

"Go, go, go!" Galahad ordered, and they were all suddenly moving.

Twilight felt her heart accelerate, as her body responded. They had done several practice jumps already and this was the same. A quick sprint, keeping her eyes on her rope. Her feet left ramp… she was flying for a second… her hands grasped the rope, her leg wrapped around it as she slid down in a controlled fall.

She hated to admit it, but it was exhilarating. A few seconds later, she was landing on the roof of a building, her rifle up and scanning the area as she had been trained.

"Central," Galahad called in as they all crouched together, "we are in the AO."

"Understood. Galahad, you're in command.

As the others shuffled around and took positions to scan around without giving their positions away, Twilight looked around the city and wondered at how much things had changed, and how far she still had to go.

o.0.o End Chapter 54 o.0.o

Chapter 55: Risk

View Online

Ranger

Chapter 55: Risk

By Wanderer D

Celestia,

I'm not writing regarding… that issue you wrote me about, right now. I'm just giving you a quick update… Twilight decided to join the rookie team on a mission. It's supposed to be a simple one, but… things happen.

I tried to convince her to stay and I'm not very happy about it, but, well, you don't go through boot camp with your teammates and then just—anyway, she's in good hands at the moment and things are straight forward enough for it to be in and out. I know this is probably not ideal, but you might want to talk to Shining Armor if you need to talk to someone somepony about it.

~Sunset

"I just want it on the record that I think this is a tremendously foolhardy decision."

"Noted, Tygan," Chrysalis said, leaning back so she was looking at him upside down from her desk. "But this is something that every soldier here has to go through."

"I… understand that, Commander," Tygan said reluctantly. "However, I find myself wondering how putting one of my team members through this will help anything. Twilight is not only a scientist of tremendous potential, but also a member of royalty from possible inter-dimensional allies."

Chrysalis sighed and leaned forward to look at the video feed again. "I've considered this, Tygan, but there are several advantages to this as well… first, it will show your team that they too can participate in operations, and trust me, with the information I've been getting? You'll need to spare hands from time to time."

Tygan crossed his arms and shook his head, but said nothing.

"Come on, Tygan," Lily said, smiling at the scientist. "It's an easy mission, what's the worst that could happen?"

"Crap," Chrysalis muttered. "Now that you said that, I really need to start paying attention. Thanks Shen."

"What?"

Tygan sighed. "Maybe I should join Lieutenant Shimmer in the firing range."

"Is that where she is?" Chrysalis did not turn around.

"Either there, or training with miss Dragunova to be more stealthy," Tygan said.

"Huh," Chrysalis grunted. "Useful."

"Actually, I think she's with Central right now, in the Command Center." Lily said.

Chrysalis smirked. "I figured she wouldn't want to miss it."

"If I may, Commander, I have noticed that you and Lt. Shimmer don't' seem to speak much as of late—"

"I don't want to talk about it," Chrysalis said. "It's personal, and she and I both know what it's about. Don't worry, we didn't start hating each other or something. We just need as much space as we can get in this ship."

Tygan and Shen exchanged looks, but neither felt like arguing the point.

"Okay, Bradford, Galahad, let's get this thing rolling," Chrysalis said into the comms.

Fortunately, there weren't that many civilians out at this time. The rookie team ran on top of the tall building, keeping out of sight of the very few people out and about.

Twilight followed Galahad's order and took an advance position behind cover. She glanced around, but saw no sign of patrols. "Nothing in sight," she reported quietly into the radio. "There's a small balcony in front of me, no civilians."

The only acknowledgment she had was when Monique ran past her, followed by Just Kevin, jumping over the side of the building and after hanging on by the edge by tips of their fingers. They landed nimbly on the balcony and spread out, taking cover and looking down at the street below.

"Clear on the East side," Monique reported.

"Clear on the West side as well," Just Kevin added.

"Ndlovu, Twilight," Galahad called in. "You're next. Take the middle, drop down to street level."

"Roger."

Just like in practice, Twilight followed the instructions. She vaulted over the edge of the roof, holding on tight to it to get her balance and a sense of distance then dropped down, landing carefully and running across the balcony before repeating the move again.

Next to her, Ndlovu echoed her movements as if they were a pair of dancers doing a routine. The moment their feet touched the ground, they ran behind cover.

That was the thing that had been repeated constantly to her and everyone else on her team: Cover. Cover. Cover.

A few seconds after they had settled in, Galahad had ran past them, almost as materializing out of nowhere. The man was ghost when he wanted to be.

Galahad pressed his back against the wall of the next building, and glanced inside. He then turned to face them, making a few quick motions with his hand. Twilight paid rapt attention.

Three civilians, unaware of their presence, inside building. Clear view of the windows.

Galahad pointed at a nearby drain pipe that went all the way up, then to Twilight and Ndlovu, indicating that he wanted the two of them to take point and go up.

Ndlovu and Twilight looked at each other and nodded. Twilight tilted her head and he ran in first, deftly climbing up the pipe with as much ease as a spider would have. Twilight was next, the moment he was over the edge of the roof, she was running across the street.

She slowed down, a bit intimidated by the sheer steepness of the thing, but, taking a deep breath, she reminded herself of practice. Her gloves were designed to grant her a better grip, and she could feel the difference as she grabbed the pipe with both hands and pulled up, setting her boots against the wall.

With a push up, and quick movements, she moved upwards, grabbing and securing her place with with a mixture of pulling and pushing. She repeated the process until she was two stories up and rolling onto the safety of the rooftop, where Ndlovu gave her a smile.

"Couldn't have done it with more grace myself," he said.

Twilight giggled and blushed, but a quick tap and a nod from him got her moving. They spread out as well, covering each one side of the building.

"East side clear," Ndlovu reported.

Twilight's breath caught in her throat. Below, walking slowly away from the building and down the street were familiar ADVENT soldiers and something she'd never seen before: it was bipedal and heavily armored, with some sort of thick, green glass covering where the head and torso would be. The rest of its body looked like it had been stuffed into some sort of astronaut suit. "I see a patrol, West side. Troopers and… I don't know what that is."

"Never seen one of those before," Bradford agreed on the comms. "Keep out of sight, don't engage unless absolutely necessary.

"Roger." Twilight responded. "Kevin, do you have sight on the X-rays?"

"Confirmed," Kevin said. "Can't see the new unit, but I see the two Troopers."

"Kevin, Monique," Galahad called in. "Join Twilight and Ndlovu," Galahad said.

"Team, the VIP is due to leave soon, make sure you make it in time."

Twilight watched nervously as Kevin and Monique crested the edge of the building and ran past her and Ndlovu.

'What if we fail? What if we get there and the VIP is gone? Will we have to do basic all over again?' she thought worriedly, 'I don't want to go back! What's the point of all that effort if I have to do it again!'

"Don't worry about Central right now," Galahad said on the radio. "We do what we need to do. It's his job to keep us updated, but don't let the urgency get in the way of the job, or distract us from our mission."

"Roger!" everyone echoed.

Monique reported in: "We have visual on the objective, black van, there's a small patrol there. A captain, a lancer and a trooper."

"Roger that," Galahad said. "Twilight, you and Ndlovu are with me, Monique, you and Kevin stay up here. Alejandra, scout ahead, prepare the area for the Skyranger to pick us up the moment we take them down."

"Roger."

Twilight swallowed, following Galahad and Ndlovu to the side of the building opposite from where the patrols were. After taking a quick look to ensure no civilians or ADVENT were around, they made their way down the building.

Ndlovu dashed behind a car, while Twilight took cover on the corner of the building. Galahad stood next to her.

"Choose your targets," Galahad whispered into the radio. "Kevin, any sign of the patrol?"

"None, sir."

"Good. You keep an eye out for them. On three. One."

Ndlovu braced himself, glancing once at Twilight and nodding.

Twilight bit her lip, raising her rifle and taking deep, calming breaths.

"Two."

The small patrol in front of the vehicle turned away, facing West.

"Three!" Galahad called, rushing around the corner, blade coming out of its sheath. The captain didn't even have time to turn before his body had been almost split in two by Galahad's downward swing.

The Lancer turned, surprised and tried to take cover.

Twilight felt the kick of her rifle shake her arms as her body instinctively braced itself for the shots. She blasted at the lancer, who took a full hit to the side from her shot, spinning in place with the impacts just a second before Ndlovu's rifle tore whatever was left of its chest appart.

The trooper tried to run as well, but Galahad had spun around just in time to basically decapitate the trooper, and if it wasn't enough, Kevin had also shot at him. The trooper collapsed in a heap, just as Galahad turned. "Twilight!"

Twilight stood there in shock, not believing what she had done. She had actually taken the shot on instinct, something that she never thought would happen. She expected to be calculating, to be coldly able to hold herself back from shooting but the moment the black and red armored ADVENT swordsman had moved…

"Twilight!"

She snapped back to reality, eyes wide as Galahad jerked his head towards the van. Nodding, she took cover behind the door, kneeling right next to the dead body of the captain and trying to not look down or throw up. There would be time for that later, and she expected it to continue for a while.

She barely registered as Alejandra dashed past them, crossing the street in a second and disappearing around a corner.

Galahad took position next to her, working furiously on the lock. "Dammit, of course they would secure it. It's just their goddamned VIP." He glanced down at Twilight. "Doing alright over there, Sparkle? You look a bit green."

"Urp. I-I'll be fine, just… please do that faster…" she whispered.

Galahad chuckled, returning to his hacking. "Kevin, any sign of the patrol?"

"Not yet... "

"Good, you and Monique come down and take positions across the street. Alejandra should call in Skyranger in that area when the VIP is ready, you will provide cover fire if necessary while we escort the VIP."

"Roger."

A few seconds after both of them had ran past and taken positions across the street, Galahad called out, "Hack complete! Retrieving VIP!"

The doors opened and Galahad jumped in. "What the.."

Twilight looked up in surprise when something slammed through the side of the armored vehicle. Some sort of blade had gone completely through it… from the inside out. Rolling around she turned to look into the van, just as Galahad flew overhead, crash-landing on the car where Ndlovu was taking cover.

"Where is she?!" a cold voice hissed as a tall, blue humanoid with serrated teeth and twin pigtails stepped out from within. A glowing red gem palpitated on her chest. The humanoid viciously slid her across the interior of the van, where Twilight could now see the dead body of the person they were supposed to save.

"It's the assassin! Evacuate!" Central ordered on the radio, but it was too late.

"We've been spotted!" Just Kevin shouted, just as a green, glowing blob arched is way to explode between them.

Twilight heard Monique and Kevin scream. The green goo splattered on the street, melting the pavement and emanating green fumes that hurt to breathe even at that distance.

Galahad was not moving, Ndlovu emerged from behind the car, shouting in defiance and shooting straight at the blue woman/creature. His shot missed, striking the door next to her. Almost negligently, the assassin pointed her own rifle at him and splattered his chest on the street.

She looked down and grinned at the paralyzed Twilight, grabbing her by the front of the armor, and lifting her up to her level. Twilight tried to bring up her rifle, but the assassin batted it away from her arm.

The screams had died down and Twilight could hear the metallic stomping of the alien they had seen earlier approaching.

"Well, well, well," the assassin hissed, her smile vicious as she leaned in to smell Twilight. "What have we here?"

She glanced down at her chest, where the gem pulsated stronger, then looked up at Twilight. "An Equestrian… and not the Blood Witch? My… how many of you are here?"

"Twilight!" Sunset's voice emerged from the radio. "Twilight!

"Ooh… I can hear her voice on your device…" the assassin said, caressing Twilight's face. "Yesss… I think I can make use of you…"

With a yank, she removed the bodycam and the microphone, focusing it on her face. "Listen well, Blood Witch… she is mine now… I will enjoy torturing her. Twisting her. You will regret ever challenging me!"

She crushed the camera… and the feed went black.

o.0.o End Chapter 55 o.0.o

Chapter 56: Guilt

View Online

Ranger

Chapter 56: Guilt

By Wanderer D

The Command Center was quiet after the screen went black.

Next to Bradford, Sunset had collapsed on her knees, arms slack and staring at the screen blankly. "I-this is my fault. This is all my fault!" she whispered in horror, her face going deathly pale. "Celestia… her brother… her family and friends… they all entrusted her to me… and I let this happen."

"Evacuating Rookie Acevedo," the Skyranger called in.

"Sunset," Bradford whispered, worriedly looking from her to the screen. The team's still active biometrics slowly went flat except for one: Alejandra's. "Sunset, there's nothin—"

"Yes there was!" Sunset snapped, face flushing with anger. "I should have ordered her to stay!" Her fist, enveloped in magical flames, slammed on the console, cracking the monitor and making two engineers scramble back, eyes wide. "What the hell was I thinking?! Of all the stupid, idiotic, cretinous things I could do, I had to give in to her stupid sense of loyalty! It was objectively stupid to do this! And I did it anyway!"

"Get a hold of yourself, Lieutenant!" Bradford snapped.

Sunset looked up, staring at her flaming fist. It wasn't hot enough to melt anything, but it was starting to stain the metal and maybe soften a few buttons. "Sorry." She opened her hand and the flames flashed away as if they never were. "Sorry," she whispered again.

Bradford offered her a hand, which she took and helped herself up. She glanced at the console with a grimace. She glanced at the engineers, who looked at her warily. "I'm… so sorry… she—"

One of the engineers shook his head and patted her on the shoulder. The whole room was quiet, giving her understanding looks.

Sunset turned around, shaking her head and unable to face their pity, just as Chrysalis' voice cut through the silence. "Central. Lt. Shimmer. My quarters. Now."

The pair made their way upstairs and into the commander's quarters in complete silence. Even after Sunset's display, the engineers and staff's eyes were not on the scorch marks or the cracked monitor, but still on the black screen.

"What the hell happened out there, Bradford?" Chrysalis asked the moment the door hissed closed behind them. "This wasn't supposed to be the type of mission that would even register in some bureaucrat's desk, much less the Chosen's radar!

"The VIP was as low as you can get while still being somewhat useful. The official ranking for this mission—with a Colonel attached to it—was supposed to equal "random bunny encounter in the forest"! So, tell me, how the fuck exactly did we go from fluff and rainbows to bloody massacre?!"

Bradford tightened his jaw before responding. "Everything checked out, Commander. The VIP didn't make any contact after the initial agreement of time and location.

"Colonel Galahad kept track of all known radio frequencies belonging to ADVENT in that city. Initial scans of the area didn't indicate any heavier movement of ADVENT troops… in fact, as stated previously, the city was at an all-time low.

"We've scouted the situation for over a month. Today was the time that the VIP would be under the least surveillance, in the least secure location in the continent. There was no reason for a Chosen to be involved—"

"Unless something clued them in," Tygan interrupted, pondering the situation. "My initial suspicion was that Twilight's presence would have alerted them of our mission, as the Chosen seem to be aware of Sunset's Thaumic Energy, but that wouldn't explain the expediency of the ambush that the Chosen prepared so effectively, or why they haven't simply found us, if they were able to do such a thing."

"Well, it was almost a complete wipeout," Chrysalis growled. "So we'd better find out where they got their information!"

"But if that's not it—" Shen's eyes went wide. "One moment, commander!" She ran out of the room, her GREMLIN quickly following in her wake.

Chrysalis massaged her forehead. "Stupid. Stupid." She looked up at Sunset with such intensity that Sunset couldn't help but stand straighter. "We will get her back. I won't rest until we do that, Sunset."

"The Assassin did indicate that she was interested in keeping Twilight alive," Tygan said, and only a glance at his tightly clenched fists gave any indication as to his anger at the situation. "That means that she will be taken to one of their secure locations."

The sound of someone running outside reached them and soon the door opened and Shen ran back in. "One of the rookies quit earlier today… Michael, I think. I checked the logs and it seems there was a signal piggybacking on ours just before he abandoned ship!"

"A traitor?" Chrysalis hissed. "Where was he dropped off?"

"There's a settlement a few hours away, he went with the away team and was dropped off there," Shen said, scanning the pad. "That was a few hours ago. He could have moved from there with any number of caravans."

"Not quick enough," Bradford spoke up. "We're in Reaper territory."

"Commander," a message came through. "The Skyranger has returned. They're in a landing vector now.

Chrysalis locked eyes with Bradford. "Go there and get a report."

"I'll join you," Sunset said tightly.

The pair walked hastily out of the room, as Chrysalis turned to face the computer. "Get me Volk, now," she ordered. She didn't turn around. "Tygan. Shen… evaluate any possible data breaches that might have come from Michael Cruz's access. Track his movements. Find out who he had contact with."

"Yes, Commander!"

Chrysalis snarled once they were out of the room.

A moment later the screen fizzled and Volk appeared on the screen. "Commander?"

"I'm sending you a dossier," Chrysalis hissed. "He was dropped off at… Hearthsbreath…"

Volk frowned. "That's just down from my camp."

"I know. We need him alive… and we need him now."

Volk gave her a steady look, but simply nodded. "I'll get my people on it, Commander."

Alejandra gazed at the empty seats in the Skyranger, trying to wrap her mind around what she had seen. At the silence. At the lack of people.

Each place seemed to hold the ghost of someone she had just seen that morning. But she couldn't meet their gazes. She couldn't look up at Monique's ghost and see the melted face. Or Kevin's and notice his arm had been completely burned away.

She couldn't stare long at the gaping wound that had almost cut Galahad in half, or Ndlovu's headless body. She couldn't look at Twilight's seat, where the nerdy rookie was fidgeting and talking herself into doing the mission just hours earlier.

She remembered Twilight's argument with Lt. Shimmer earlier. She should have listened. She shouldn't have gone with them. She should have stayed in the lab… they all should have stayed.

She felt the Skyranger land and heard shuffling from the cockpit.

"We're here kid, they're waiting for you."

Alejandra nodded, not trusting herself to speak yet. She carefully stood the moment the ramp started opening. She felt faint, but she was back in the Avenger. Alive. Alone.

She felt angry with herself. Disappointed that she didn't rush out. Save them.

The ramp extended completely with a metallic clang the moment it touched bottom. She had to hold on to the side before morosely making her way down the ramp, stumbling a little as she kept her eyes fixed on her feet.

Finally, after what felt like way too long, she set foot on the Avenger proper. A shuffling sound made her look up, and she felt like there was ice in her stomach. Central was there, but right next to him, looking like she'd been punched in the stomach was Lt. Shimmer.

There were rumors that Twilight was her sister. Or her best friend.

Regardless, Alejandra had survived and no one else had. She was here, living, being judged—hated right now. She felt sick, like the ground was wobbling. It felt like the room around her was becoming smaller and pressing all around her. Things looked weird, as if she were looking through binoculars, with shadows around her vision.

She felt like she was falling into a cliff.

"Acevedo!"

Alejandra felt ill, her vision was still weird, but she was able to breath now. She moved her legs, holding onto whoever was holding her up. "I-I'm sorry, I'm trying to—"

"Deep breaths, slow," the voice said. It was female. Familiar. "I've got you, get your feet straight, come on, I'll help you."

Grasping the arms holding her, she did as instructed, and the moment she could stand straight, she was pulled into a tight hug. Gold and red hair blurred in her vision, and she slowly understood who was holding her up.

"It's not your fault," Sunset Shimmer whispered.

Alejandra couldn't help it. She broke down right there, crying and sobbing and wailing in Sunset's embrace.

Sunset sat at the table at the end of the bar. It was the same one where Rainbow Dash and Twilight had spoken some time before, although she had no way of knowing it. All she knew was that she hadn't been able to stay in Alejandra's presence while the surviving rookie gave her report.

As it was, guilt was consuming her. Her diary rested on the table, closed. She had tried to write earlier, but the moment her hands made to open the book, she felt so sick and terrified, that she was unable to do so.

She understood, in some way, that as the officer in charge of Menace, if any of her team died, she'd be the one responsible to fill out the reports, and if possible, reach out to their loved ones.

And even then, she knew that Twilight might still be alive, based on the ramblings of a crazy monster-like assassin from space… but even then, just looking at the diary brought immediately to mind the kind faces of Princess Celestia and Luna and Cadance… even Shining Armor… and the thought of the grief that she would be putting them through, especially after her earlier note was… it tore her apart just thinking about that.

The way she had left Canterlot the last two times was bad enough, but this? How would she ever be able to look Celestia in the eye? She had gone against her worry… against her gut instinct that shit would hit the fan, just because she had been really proud of Twilight's commitment.

The gods had dropped the idiot ball, and like an eager Icarus she'd gone ahead and caught it, bounced it around and worse, shared it. She grabbed her hair. "I'm so stupid! She's not me! She's better than me! She doesn't belong out there! What the hell have I done?! Not only have I doomed myself, I'm literally responsible for an interdimensional political incident!"

"She was bound to go out there eventually," Chrysalis said from the door of the bar. "If not now, later on. We have plenty of missions that would require scientist specialists or engineers to join our soldiers."

She walked into the room, closing the door behind her. She grabbed the first bottle she saw, two shot glasses and sat down across from Sunset, serving them up. She picked hers up and slammed it back, making a face. "Cinnamon Whiskey…"

Sunset followed suit, grimacing as the alcohol burned its way down. "If either that or the drink were supposed to make me feel better, it didn't work."

Chrysalis snorted. "Of course not. We just watched a bunch of kids and their teacher get wiped out in seconds. Anyone that feels okay with that is a soulless asshole that has no place in my ship."

Sunset sighed, looking down. "What am I going to do, Commander?"

"You? You're picking up Michael when Volk finds him, and then you, Annette, and I will teach the bastard very painful lessons. Then he'll either tell us or we'll figure out where Twilight's being held captive, then we're slaughtering our way in and getting her out."

Sunset shivered. "I still should've—"

"Should have. Would have. If I had. If I hadn't. Maybe this, maybe that." Chrysalis refilled both shot glasses. "It's all BS. We did, and that's that. Now either we do, or we don't."

"That doesn't excuse my stupidity."

"No, it doesn't, but your stupidity doesn't end with you. Galahad could have put his foot down. Bradford. Me." Chrysalis raised an eyebrow. "Don't take all the credit."

Sunset looked down, biting her lip.

"Geeze you two are the same," Chrysalis muttered. "Yes, you could argue that the idiot ball was passed around. We all partook. Well, except Tygan—" she conceded, "but the bottom line is that Twilight was part of the graduating team. We found, literally, the least offensive, most tame, least violent, most controlled mission we had ever found and sent them there to pick up someone.

"The VIP was just a goddamned nurse from a center. There was absolutely nothing that could have been less… memorable about this mission. Except that Twilight was there. If she had stayed she'd have felt that she could have done something more. Just like Acevedo is feeling right now."

"Except that she'd be here, we wouldn't have sent our only Thaumic expert out to the field, and let's not forget, she's a goddamned Princess from a realm where two of them can play beach ball with heavenly bodies."

Chrysalis rolled her eyes. "Drama queens, the both of you. First, she's not the only Thaumic expert we have; Second, as I have said, scientists and engineers will start going on some field missions. Sending Twilight out there was also a bit of a calculated risk to show the others that it could go well—"

"Yeah, how did those calculations work out for you?" Sunset interrupted, downing the second shot glass.

"...and, third," Chrysalis continued as if she hadn't been interrupted, "I'm not too concerned about war with Equestria at this time. Objectively speaking, even if they managed to send magic items with unicorns that could use them, they'd all be useless for about an hour, minimum, and the time it would take them to figure out how to use the magic items here renders them all but harmless for quite some time. If it came to a fight, their losses would be… exorbitant. All we would need is a couple of snipers and enough ammo."

Sunset gave her a glare.

"What?" Chrysalis said, giving her an innocent look. "It's true. And I'm not stupid enough to send my troops across the portal to attempt an invasion. I have no interest in that. The roles would be immediately reversed and all they would need would be a cage big enough to catch us one by one as we jump through a magic mirror. No, I doubt your Princesses would want to go to war over this."

"That is assuming they don't tear a hole in reality to get here in their natural forms."

"Should have. Would have. If I had. If I hadn't. Maybe this, maybe that." Chrysalis downed her own glass. "It sucks, Sunny. It really does… to have to deal with this shit. You know that the problem could have been caused by your own negligence, but this wasn't a random miscalculation. We were betrayed… again." She narrowed her eyes, standing up and sitting next to Sunset.

"The bottom line is, we didn't anticipate something stupid like this happening, because it wouldn't have otherwise. Clearly Vigilo Confido needs more practice."

Sunset took another drink. "I'll toast to that."

An hour later, Bradford walked in. He took the scene in front of him and scowled a little, before saluting. "Commander, Volk just sent a communication. They've found Michael. He was about to be extracted by an ADVENT team, but they took them all out. Michael is under their custody."

Chrysalis continued petting Sunset's hair. The younger woman was asleep on her lap, and occasionally would frown slightly, only for Chrysalis to sooth her with gentle swipes down her scalp.

"She's not her," Bradford stated.

Chrysalis sighed. "I know."

"Commander—"

"Please, John," Chrysalis snorted. "Right now there's no need for those formalities. And yes, I know… but… she just acted the same way. Said the things she would say."

Bradford sighed. "I know… she reminds me of her too, but she really isn't the same Sunset Shimmer."

"Again," Chrysalis said softly, "I know, but she is our Sunset regardless… just a bit newer… it feels like I'm taking care of my Sunset's legacy."

Bradford nodded.

"Anyway," Chrysalis said, shaking Sunset's shoulder with a hint of regret at waking the sleeping soldier, "let's go make sure Michael Cruz regrets having ever been born."

o.0.o End Chapter 56 o.0.o

Chapter 57: Magic

View Online

Ranger

Chapter 57: Magic

By Wanderer D

Kevin grunted, shifting and moaning in the bed.

"You have to treat him," Twilight said, her voice cold at the… female outside.

"I don't have to do a thing," The Assassin said, frowning at something on a screen. "You could always use magic to heal him."

Twilight looked away. "I can't."

The assassin chuckled. "Why not? The Blood Witch can."

Twilight closed her mouth and looked away.

"Aww, did I hit a nerve?" The Assassin turned to look at her. "Too bad, pony. You're now my prisoner, and no amount of begging for that idiot's life is going to do anything for you. ADVENT already healed him some. He now has a chance to live."

"He has a fever."

"So, cure him."

Twilight bit her lip, and The Assassin snorted, walking up to the clear-glass wall. "Are those tears?"

"He's my friend!" Twilight said forcibly. "I don't want him to die!"

"So, heal him!" The Assassin insisted. "What? Is it really beyond you?"

"My magic doesn't work, or I would—"

"You would what, exactly, pony?" The Assassin asked, tilting her head. "You're not the Blood Witch. You don't have the stomach for this." She laughed. "Ponies never do. The best you can do is send your problems away… is that what you would do? Teleport me somewhere else?"

Twilight turned away, hands clenched tight. That had been what she had been thinking. "You're a monster."

"Funny how things never change," The Assassin said. "That's why you've always been, and always will be prey."

"What would you know," Twilight snapped. "I don't know how you know about Equestria, but some random assumptions don't make you an expert."

The Assassin extended her hand, letting her long, red nails scrape the glass as she paced from one side to the other. "Tell me… how is Starswirl doing?"

Eyes wide, Twilight spun around, gaping at the creature. "What?!"

"You hear me. How is the old fool doing? Is he here? I would love to thank him personally for sending us here… it allowed me to find my true calling."

"Who… what are you?" Twilight whispered. "Starswirl died centuries ago!"

The Assassin paused, then walked to the open window, where several buildings could be seen. She kept her eyes on the city outside. "So… a comparable amount of time has passed in Equestria too? Figures he wouldn't tell anyone about his special dumping ground."

Twilight gazed at the Assassin in confusion. "You mean to tell me you've been here for centuries? That you knew Starswirl?!"

The Assassin laughed. "How little do you know, little pony."

The door opened and an ADVENT Priest stepped into the room, saluting The Assassin. He (or she?) said something to the Chosen in that strange language of theirs. The Assassin replied in the same gibberish language and then turned to smile that disturbing serrated smile at Twilight.

"It seems you have a guest… usually I would advise you to comply, little pony, but I want to see you suffer… so by all means, fight it."

Twilight's eyes widened as the Priest lifted its psychic device and started projecting mental energy at her. "No wait!"

"No use begging, pony!"

She felt the intrusion in her mind. The priest was trying to probe first, but he had immediately found a barrier. It said something the Assassin.

"I don't care if you fry her brain!" The Assassin replied. "Break through it!"

"No!" Twilight wailed just as she felt the powerful wave of psychic energy hitting her.

The Assassin grinned until the Priest shuddered in place, blood trickling down his nose and vomiting blood before collapsing in a twitching heap. The tall alien woman slowly made her way to the corpse and prodded it with her foot. "Huh."

Twilight had her hands covering her mouth, looking at the dead ADVENT in horror. 'Oh no! I didn't want that to happen!'

The Assassin gave her a slightly amused look. "Oh. I like you."

Twilight sat miserably in the corner of her prison cell. Kevin had been moved into another cell after he had started spitting blood, and now she was alone.

She could hear him coughing from time to time, so at least he was alive. Unlike everyone else.

She had thought she understood what Sunset and the others had gone through when their friends had died… to an extent, at least.

'Celestia, what a fool I was.'

"I should have listened to Sunset…" Twilight muttered, leaning her head on her knees. "I should've listened to Tygan. I should have listened to Michael."

She shook her head, fighting more tears. She had already cried enough. And she could already hear Galahad's voice in her head, making a clucking noise and poking her forehead.

"So you're in a pickle, duckie, you have two options: feel sorry for yourself, or do something about it. The type of decision you make when you find yourself in a situation like you're in right now is what's going to dictate how you act the rest of your life. So what's it gonna be, duckie?"

Twilight slowly tightened her hands. Panic was her go-to action ever since she was a filly, as proven by her overreaction to the lack of Friendship Lessons that one time. What sort of lessons could she tell now if she let herself be a useless victim?

She raised her head a little. The room outside the cell was dark, and there was no sign of the Assassin. After clearing up the body and taking Kevin into the other cell, they had turned off the lights in the facility and left.

There had been a discussion in their alien language, but given the Assassin's grin and her luck, it was likely that it wasn't a good thing for her or Kevin.

'Think, Twilight! Think!' What were her current options? Hacking the door was out of the question. Even if she had the tools, her classes had been too basic to be able to put them to use from within the cell. There were no obvious vents that she could sneak into, and the cell gates were hydraulic, so she couldn't dismantle them.

Could she wait and overpower a guard? She had combat training, but the chances of them risking a single guard when moving her or bringing food were slim… especially after what had happened to the Priest earlier.

Magic… she had managed to levitate small things, but even if she used all of her accumulated magic in a single strike, it wouldn't be strong enough to blast through the cell and free her… and even if it were, she'd be completely exhausted.

Twilight bit her lip. But… that wasn't the only thing she could do… a plan started forming in her mind. Magic wasn't just her passion, or just her element or even just her talent. It was, in many ways, the definition of who she was. Her link to it and to her Element wasn't something that would waver even in this world where Magic was quieted to the point of almost stagnation.

But… there was magic.

Michael Cruz sat on a chair, his hands secured behind him, his legs attached to the floor with solid clasps.

Across from him, stood Chrysalis, Annette Durand and Sunset Shimmer. To his side was Bradford, and on the other, Tygan.

"We have examined his bags, Commander, and found the communicator he used earlier to transmit our plans." Tygan paced around the prisoner. "He had little to no security clearance past what the other Rookies had at the time. There is no evidence of any valuable information having been stolen or transmitted. It seems the only information he sent was the Rookie mission's whereabouts, their objective, and the time of the mission."

"Which begs the question," Chrysalis said, "Of why use that for the Rookie team." She centered a look on Michael. "There was literally no benefit in this for ADVENT or you, traitor. Except the possibility of Twilight Sparkle being captured."

"I told her not to go!" Michael hissed. "I warned her, I didn't want anything to happen to her!"

Chrysalis tilted her head and glanced at Annette.

"He's telling the truth," Annette confirmed, "He did warn Twilight Sparkle not to go… he knew they were going to get killed."

"You've got to be fucking kidding me," Chrysalis hissed. "You guaranteed the death of your team?! For what?!"

"My life, alright?!" Michael spat. "If I gave ADVENT a win like that they'd let me go into one of the cities and just live the rest of my long life away from firefights!" He looked away. "I would have rather it was one of your other teams than my fr—my companions. But that's the lot we got."

Sunset's voice was low. "You were about to call them friends, weren't you?"

Michael looked away.

"You would dare use that word," Sunset hissed, "to describe those that you betrayed?"

"I didn't want them to die…"

"What, in the name of all that's stupid, did you think would happen?" Chrysalis asked.

"Twilight would beg to let you live…" Sunset said, ignoring Chrysalis. She extended her senses, reaching out to the powerful artifact that was hidden in the Commander's Quarters. "Do you understand what your betrayal could cost us?" Sunset took a step forward. "Do you understand… do you have any idea who you have slighted with your actions?!"

She felt the connection. Through the many layers of the Avenger, her magic was being replenished. Not as fast as it would have been in Equestria without the Element… but here… "Death is too good for you… I am going to rip your soul out of you!" She roared.

Chrysalis and the others were forced back by red flame-like energy enveloping Sunset.

"Tell me where she is!" Sunset shouted, eyes glowing red with energy.

Michael's eyes were wide, and he was staring in horror at Sunset, whose teeth were becoming elongated, like fangs.

"I don't know, you freak!"

"He's telling the truth," Annette said, taking a step back. "He actually thought ADVENT was just going to let him go free after this."

"Naive…" Tygan muttered.

"If you don't know... " Sunset hissed, raising her hand. "Then there is no reason for you to remain in one piece!"

Michael screamed as his arms and legs slumped, unmoving and turning an unhealthy black color.

"Sunset! That's enough!" Chrysalis shouted.

"Sunset! We still need him!" Bradford shouted.

"He deserves to suffer!" Sunset growled back, her voice echoing in the room. They could see her ears slowly elongating and becoming pointy. Tygan, who was across from her saw her eyes go completely black, like a shark.

Michael screamed again.

The others tried to move, but with a wave of her hand, their muscles clamped into position, and they all were unable to move, save for Annette, who was moving slowly away, eyes steady on Sunset.

Sunset seemed to increase in size with each step until she was towering over Michael. She bend down so that her face was inches from him. He looked at her, eyes wide, in too much pain to even scream. "I'm going to take your soul… I'm going to use it to feed one of the artifacts I learned to create.. it will be glorious… and very painful for all eternity!"

"S-sunset!" Chrysalis gasped. "Stop!"

Sunset raised a hand, which slowly transformed into a longer, thinner version of itself, with deep black claws. She grinned, a vicious smile that showed all the contempt she felt for the creature in front of her, then stabbed forward.

"Sunset!"

Her claws stopped, mere inches from his eyes.

"Sunset! Please tell me you can hear me!"

Sunset gasped, taking a step back in surprise. Chrysalis, Bradford and Tygan were suddenly able to move again and stumbled forward.

"Sunset! Please! I need to know this works!"

"T-twilight?" Sunset asked, her voice thin as her eyes and body returned to normal. She gasped, looking down at her hands and moved back and away from Michael who had slumped forward, only held in place by the bindings.

His arms had returned to a normal coloration, and he was covered in sweat and breathing desperately—almost hyperventilating.

Sunset shook her head, horrified at her actions. "Oh no… what was I doing?"

"Sunset!"

She closed her eyes and touched her forehead. How was Twilight doing this? There was no way she was using Psychic energy… it had to be magic but how—Sunset's eyes snapped open. "The Element…" she whispered. She closed her eyes, turned away from the others, and focused on the Element. "Twilight?"

For a moment she thought she had it wrong.Then...

"Eeeeeeee! Oh, Celestia, it worked! I can't believe it! Sunset, can you imagine the possibilities for research?!"

"Twilight, calm down!" Sunset said, just realizing that she was speaking aloud, since the others now had their eyes fixed on her. "Tell me… do you know where you are?"

"I'm… in a cell block of some sort… Kevin is also here, but he's really hurt… the others…"

"Alejandra made it out alive," Sunset said soothingly. "We're glad that you and Kevin are too… but you need to concentrate, Twilight… give me information. What do you know?"

Twilight took a moment to answer, no doubt trying to figure out as much as she could. "I was… walked into a building… it didn't appear to be a prison. It was really, really tall. We didn't leave the city… the Assassin wanted me interrogated here, but… well…"

Her hesitation came with a sudden image of a Priest vomiting blood. "It didn't go well,"

"Okay, so they tried to scan you but the priest died in the attempt… that's good, I'm sorry you had to see that, but you're not someone we want them mind-reading. And you said that you're in a tall building in the same city? That's very helpful Twilight."

Chrysalis' eyes were wide, but she nodded. Tygan was already looking something up in his tablet, and quickly passed it on to Bradford, who nodded and showed Sunset the pictures the scientist had summoned.

"Do you remember if the top of the building was… pointy or square?

"Um… pointy, with a large statue at the front. It also had columns."

Sunset nodded. "Good… good…" she scanned the pictures, then selected one, spinning it for an aerial view. She saw the statue. "Twilight… I think we found you."

"The Assassin talked to me, Sunset… she knows about Equestria! She knew Starswirl the Bearded!"

"You don't say…" Sunset muttered. "Adagio… Sonata… could they be Equestrian monsters that were exiled to this world?"

"Um… if one of them is the Assassin, that certainly appears to be the case. I… don't know what else to tell you…"

"Don't worry." Sunset looked at Chrysalis, who nodded. "We'll think of a plan."

o.0.o End Chapter 57 o.0.o

Chapter 58: Planning

View Online

Ranger

Chapter 58: Planning

By Wanderer D

The moment they were in her quarters, Chrysalis leveled a look at Sunset. "Want to tell us what the hell happened down there? Because I don't appreciate being controlled into staying put by my subordinate using dangerous magic on me." She grimaced. "I never expected to have to say that with a straight face either."

"Was this part of the possible corruption you and Twilight discussed in relation to your Blood Magic?" Tygan asked.

"I-I don't know if it was the Blood Magic…" Sunset said, wrapping her arms around herself. "I was just… so angry! I reached out and… the Element reacted." She bit her lip. "I think, because of the nature of the Element of Magic, and its connection to Twilight, it might have let me—"

"Wait. Let you?" Shen asked. She had joined them on the way to the Commander's Quarters, when she had overheard Michael babbling about being attacked by a monster. "Is it… alive?"

Sunset shrugged. "Not… in the sense you're thinking, but I think that… on some level, whatever dictates the Element's actions was also frustrated with Mic—that asshole." She shook her head.

"In any case," she continued, "I was angry. And when I felt a source of magic, I instinctively reached out, and the magic flooded me." She looked down, feeling embarrassed. "All of a sudden, I could do everything without fearing of overusing my own energy… It was almost like being back home." She gulped. "But even when I used the Blood Magic in Equestria, I didn't… transform. Into anything."

"I see..." Tygan pondered this for a moment. "There are many factors affecting this issue, from a possible limitation on who can truly access the Element's power, to Lt. Shimmer's possible misuse of its properties, whether as intended by the artifact or not.

"Until we bring back Twilight I can't know for sure, but it appears that these unintended transformative powers do not have a positive effect on Sunset." He adjusted his glasses. "I advise caution as to the usage of the artifact, if complete avoidance can't be helped."

Chrysalis sighed. "That might not be possible. There might come a time where we'll need to use it. Tygan, you… and Twilight, when we get her back, need to get on it. The Council Man has already sent me the coordinates for our next objective and we have started engaging the local resistance. We need all the advantages we can get."

Sunset shuddered. "I'd… rather avoid it for now." She glanced at the location where it was supposedly hidden. A not-so-deep part of her wanted to connect to it again. To feel the magic burning through her veins and making her feel so… complete. So powerful! In utmost control. It was almost a physical need—she wanted it. She wanted it so bad…

"Either way, we don't have time to ponder at this time," Chrysalis said. "I want Menace on this right now. Annette, you're going with them." She started pacing. "We're splitting the team in two to avoid any possibility of ADVENT spiriting Twilight away through the most obvious means."

She pulled up a rendering of the building. "We know from what she told us that most of the buildings she could see were shorter than the room she was in… so we'll assume she's around the middle. Whichever team finds her first, will cover and protect her and Kevin until the others arrive, then start advancing up. The pickup will be at the top of the building.

"At first glance we can tell their options are limited, and given that our traitor knew nothing, and they are unaware of Twilight's unusual method of communication, they will not expect such a quick response."

"The schematics of the building show that the power supply is in a secure room right under the first floor," Shen spoke up, touching the lower part of the building and lighting it red. "It's fairly standard ADVENT tech… this building was never intended to be used as a secure facility, although I am really not surprised ADVENT has prison cells in almost all of their structures."

"It is a rather unsettling practice," Tygan agreed.

"Anyway, the ground team can simply drop a couple of EMP explosives down the elevator shaft and that will disable the whole building's electric grid… and the emergency systems can be activated from the security office on the first floor. If we time it right, it will lock down the ground floor and prevent the access of additional troops for quite some time."

"Eliminating the enemy is secondary to getting our people out," she added, looking at Sunset straight in the eye. "No matter how pissed off we are."

"Right," Sunset said.

"Good," Chrysalis said, holding Sunset's eyes with her own for a moment longer before turning around. "Go get yourself and your team ready, you leave immediately once you're done. We'll finalize the strategy on the flight."

"Yes, ma'am!"

Twilight now sat on her cell bed with more confidence, although she was trying not to show it. As far as she knew, magical conversations like the one she had with Sunset were untraceable. But she didn't want to reveal her hoof to her captors… the Assassin would notice something immediately if she came again to visit her.

Kevin had stopped breathing hard at some point too. Whatever ADVENT had done, it seemed to have worked. They had taken them both prisoner, but it wasn't clear why… could it be that the Assassin didn't believe Twilight would know much?

She shook her head, her thoughts darkening. If Starswirl himself had fought the Assassin and the other Chosen, then they couldn't have been anything but evil… but even so, the thought that creatures such as these could possibly come from her world baffled her.

Not since the Windigos had she ever heard of creatures so evil, and Starswirl had fought a lot of them. What did the old legends say? Sirens? Dragon-wights? Demonic Minotaurs?

Twilight sighed. It could be any of those, and more… she never thought she would actually agree with the human's tendency to try and… what's the word Tygan used? Terminate? Maybe… maybe Starswirl should have… killed…

Twilight shook her head. She couldn't. She knew she was part of the war now, but… she could never wish that upon another.

"And how is my little pony today?" The Assassin's sudden appearance drew a gasp from Twilight, and she stood up in surprise, staring at the woman.

"Um…"

"Well?" The assassin smiled.

"I…" Twilight gulped. Despite everything… this creature came from her home. "I'm Twilight Sparkle."

The Assassin blinked in surprise. "What?"

"My name. It's—"

"I know that's your name, pony!" The Assassin hissed, walking up to the glass separator and glaring at her. "What I want to know is what you're planning!"

Twilight winced. Right now pretending to not be so sure of herself wasn't much of a problem. "I… was just thinking… we're both Equestrians and—"

"Silence!" The Assassin snapped. "I am not! Neither I nor my sist—" she cut herself, hissing in anger. "I belong to the Elders now. Everything that was me before has been erased."

Twilight gulped. "Um… what about that gem?"

The Assassin straightened up, mouth tightly shut.

"I-I just... " Twilight licked her lips. "I'm not trying to make you angry… but… I just, I don't know what you could have possibly done to-to deserve…" she motioned at the Assassin. Twilight looked down and away. "Maybe that's why you hate us ponies… me… maybe that's why you hate humanity and joined ADVENT…"

The Assassin snorted. "I worked for the Elders before ADVENT even existed, this was my reward!"

Twilight nodded, still not looking up. "I'm sorry."

The assassin slammed her fist on the glass. "Don't pity me pony!"

"I-I have to say something!" Twilight cried, looking up. "I-I can't hate you! Not-not after hearing what you—how you came to be here… why did Starswirl do this to you? Why did he throw you out of our world? Away from your family? Friends?"

"I wasn't cast alone," The Assassin hissed. "My sisters were with me."

Twilight flinched. "I'm sorry… you shouldn't have been… sent away. I wish I could have been there, if only to offer an alternative."

The Assassin was silent for a moment, looking to the side. "Like what?"

"Friendship."

The Assassin snorted. "Ridiculous."

"No! It isn't!" Twilight insisted, looking up. "Friendship turned Nightmare Moon back into Luna! Friendship allowed Discord to be free! It stopped King Sombra!"

That stopped the Assassin's laugh. She glanced at her. "King Sombra, you say? Discord and Nightmare Moon? You would have tried to befriend us?"

"At least… tried to find common ground!" Twilight offered. "You couldn't have done any worse than Nightmare Moon and Discord!"

"Stupid pony," The Assassin said, although there was less strength to her words. "Your species was our food. We lured the worst out of you with songs and we feasted on your corpses." She snorted. "What friendship could bloom from that? What common ground can a meal find with the creature it is served to?"

"Something!" Twilight cried. "Anything! We would have found a peaceful way to solve our differences if we tried! You didn't need to be exiled away from everything you knew! I know who you were now… siren."

The Assassin took a sharp breath.

"I studied everything… everything I could. I've learned so much about other species thanks to my friends… there's nothing that's insurmountable! One of my best friends has a griffon "friend" and she—"

"Did you just... air quote?"

"...and she eats meat. Other creatures we know do it to. We are still able to coexist!" Twilight continued, ignoring the Assassin's question.

The Assassin snorted, then walked away, fading into invisibility, leaving Twilight alone.

"I want to go with you."

Sunset looked up and shook her head, finishing strapping on her inherited armor. "Not happening."

Alejandra gritted her teeth. "I just watched my whole team die!" She paced in the changing room, where Jane was sliding her leather jacket on top of her armor. Sunset had to admit, it looked… kinda cool.

"That is part of the problem," Sunset said. "You're exhausted. Your mind is not going to be in the game. This is not a mission where rookies can survive, Acevedo, just one mistake will not only cost your life, but put at risk everyone else."

"I-I just…" Alejandra sat down. "They're my friends… I saw the others die and I couldn't do anything."

"You didn't panic," Elena said from where she had already finished getting ready. "You kept your cool and followed orders." She nodded at Alejandra. "You'll be getting much better in the future, but sometimes you need to let others step in."

"But you're not with us," Sunset added. "When you have rested, you need to deal with your loss somehow and we'll support you, but this mission rides with too much baggage for this…" her eyes narrowed. "And something important waits for you, Twilight and Kevin later on. You'll need to be ready."

"But—" Alejandra yawned and swayed.

Sunset blinked in surprise when the rookie sat down and was soon snoring away.

"She needs rest and calming dreams," Laetitia said. Next to her Annette smirked.

Sunset shook her head, but stood up. "Alright, if we're all ready, let's get going."

They were joined by Mox, who was waiting outside the changing room, and the group made their way down to the hangar. As she approached, Sunset couldn't believe what Bradford had in his hands. "Is that—"

"You might need every advantage you can get," Bradford said. "The Commander wants you to take it for now."

Sunset gulped, but nodded, taking the package.

"Be careful out there," Bradford said as the group boarded the plane.

"We've got this." Sunset smiled down at him from the ramp. "We'll bring them back."

o.0.o End Chapter 58 o.0.o

Chapter 59: Panic

View Online

Ranger

Chapter 59: Panic

By Wanderer D

The Skyranger took off and Chrysalis herself appeared on the debriefing screen. "Menace, your mission consists of a primary objective: save Rookies Sparkle and Kevin. Their team was betrayed by one of their members, who we have in custody. Thanks to this traitor, we lost many good people, including Galahad.

"There is a chance that one of the Chosen will be there, so be prepared for a difficult combat situation, but remember, that the main objective is rescue; not elimination of the targets. The team will be split in two, and the operation will initiate in two stages: Team Alpha, consisting of Sunset, Laetitia and Jane will infiltrate the building at ground level.

"At the same time, Team Bravo will infiltrate the building from the rooftop and set up explosive devices that can burn through the secure door.

"Team Alpha's mission is to take out the guards, activate the lockdown sequence without activating the alarms, once Team Bravo is in, and set up an EMP bomb at the lowest level of the building.

"Both teams will then head towards the cell blocks, which Tygan and Shen have pinpointed to the thirty fourth floor. Eliminate all opposition in the way. Once you have released both captives, detonate both devices. The EMP will guarantee that the lockdown cannot be lifted easily, and will fry any alarms, while the top floor one will allow you to escape.

"Thanks to Rookie Sparkle, we know that Kevin is in a delicate condition, although she remains unharmed as of last report. Rookie Sparkle can be armed and assist in the evacuation. Remember, however that she is a rookie and evaluate her possible assistance in that light.

"Any questions?"

"How do we know Rookie Sparkle is not under mind control?" Elena asked. "And how did we establish communications with her?"

"Lieutenant Shimmer can answer that," Chrysalis said, visibly struggling to hide a smile. "All of Menace, including 1st Lieutenant Dash are granted access to this information. Command out."

There was silence in the cabin and all eyes were on Sunset.

"So," Annette said, casually leaning back and crossing her legs to get comfortable, "do your species always go demonic during moments of intense emotional strain?"

Twilight sighed and centered herself. Her connection with the Element of Magic was stronger than it had ever been since she crossed the mirror. And, although she still didn't feel confident in using any spells, she felt… stronger overall. More secure.

She needed to learn how to cast in this new body, but the flow of magic between her and her element was starting to work. The magic of this world was also reacting to it. It was different, for sure, more stagnant—forgotten. Still alien to Equestrian magic, but even so, she was able get a feel of it now… this… this is what had been feeding Sunset's magic all along while she was here.

Not Equestrian Magic. It was possible that Sunset had emptied all of her Equestrian power early on, trying to figure out how to use other spells…

Something nagged at her as she slowly came to these revelations. Was it possible… that the reason Sunset had not gone mad with using Blood Magic here… wasn't only because of the finite amount she could use?

Could it be that—

Twilight took a deep breath. 'Priorities, Twilight,' she told herself. Right now, she needed to plan, and she didn't have a pad to create a checklist. It was all in her mind now. She anticipated scenarios and discarded them.

She couldn't break free on her own. There was no changing that… at least not until she managed to use her own spells properly. And now that she had a breakthrough… that wouldn't take long. In the meantime, however, she had to deal with her current situation.

The place where she was contained was part of a larger lab. She recognized several devices that were similar to those in the Avenger, including a large First Aid kit. Her mind's eye scanned the rest of the room from memory.

There were three doors that accessed the room. One… looked like hallway. Several scientists had entered that room and this one, back and forth, taking notes on readings on both her and Kevin, but it was also the one where the team of doctors nurses that had operated on him to keep him alive had come from.

The door was a mystery… it seemed like two doors to the same room would be pointless, and what little she had seen, indicated the hallway continued in both directions, which meant that that room was some sort of closet?

Then there was the elevator door. It was a very secure elevator door too, with bars and a light that would flash orange anytime the doors were engaged. It was either a dedicated elevator, or people coming to this floor required a special key.

She didn't know what they were planning in order to pick them up… but she'd be ready.

A cough and a moan interrupted her and she shook her head as she opened her eyes.

"W-where—"

"Kevin!" Twilight gasped, jumping up and moving quickly to the front corner of her cell. She couldn't see into the other one, but he could hear him shuffle.

"T-Twilight? I-w-what happened to my arm?!" Kevin's voice became frantic. "Oh god, I remember now… I saw Monique's face melt! She was still twitching while the rest of her body melted!"

"Kevin! You need to calm down!"

"My arm… it was burning—it was burning!"

"Kevin!" Twilight called. "Listen to my voice! You survived! Don't lose hope!"

"We got completely wiped out!" Kevin cried. "J-just before that thing exploded, I saw Galahad he was—"

Twilight cringed at the mental image of her teacher flying to the air and crashing on the car. He was already dead by the time. She was certain of it.

"Kevin, you've survived. And so have I, we need to—"

"We've been captured by ADVENT!" Kevin shouted, his breathing ragged. He coughed and groaned, and Twilight could hear him shuffling towards the door, and start battering it with his remaining hand. "We need to get out!"

"You need to calm down!"

"Shut up, you stupid nerd! ADVENT has us! They'll slice us open and torture us to find information!"

"My, what a charming individual," The Assassin said, materializing in front of the cells.

Twilight could hear Kevin's strangled cry as he backpedalled and fell. She could hear him kicking and screaming in horror.

The Assassin's smile faded and turned into disgust as she gazed to the left of Twilight's cell. "What a pathetic creature you have as an ally, Twilight. Tell me, are they all so insufferably… annoying?"

"He just woke up and remembered what happened!" Twilight shouted, glaring at The Assassin. "What did you expect?!"

The Assassin snorted as Kevin kept wailing in horror. "Some basic dignity." She glanced at Twilight. "Regardless of how war-like his race is, you, coming from Equestria of all places, have taken this whole situation you're in with much more composure than this… cretin."

Twilight heard something then. A stomping sound on the wall. "W-what is that?"

The Assassin tilted her head. "Your friend has started banging his head on the wall. He's undoubtedly trying to either kill himself or put himself back into a coma."

"Stop him!" Twilight begged, banging her hands on the glass. "Please! Stop him!"

The assassin sat on one of the tables. "Why?"

"He's my friend!" Twilight tried to summon some magic, maybe enough to put Kevin to sleep but there was no connection she could reach now. She was too emotional, too distracted. "Please!"

"Stopping him is not going to change anything," The Assassin replied, shrugging. "Look at him, he stopped on his own and now he's foaming at the mouth like a rabid dog." She made a face. "I'm glad that the barrier is there, it must stink in there by now."

"How can you be so cruel?" Twilight asked, sinking to her knees. "Why do you have to be?"

"I have been betrayed too many times to hold any pity for others," The Assassin said. "First by other seaponies, then cast out by Starswirl… when we came here, locals befriended us… and tried to take advantage of us!" She growled. "For hundreds of years we walked this Earth and humans backstabbed us and each other!"

"You must have found kindness… somewhere. Not all humans are—"

"Nothing that lasted when they found out our true origins," The Assassin spat. "Even now… troops under my command! Under the Elder's command! They abandon us! They turn their backs and betray us!" She leaned forward. "I will find all the Skirmishers. All the traitors… and I will kill them all!"

She glared at Twilight. "You trust them now… just like you trust the Blood Witch. But there is one constant, Twilight, humans lie. They betray. And blood witches go mad with power and the allure of blood. If you live long enough, you'll see it first… hoof."

"I don't believe you," Twilight whispered. She looked up at The Assassin, locking eyes with her. "You know the value of loyalty… but you think it just comes because of fear? Friendship builds loyalty! Honesty builds loyalty! Generosity, Laughter and Kindness build Loyalty! They all connect with each other and make them all stronger!"

She slowly stood up, until she was able to look at the seated Chosen on the same level. "And you can't tell me that you never felt that! Didn't you say you were here with your sisters?"

"Don't speak of things you don't know of!" The Assassin snarled.

"Are you going to tell me that there is no loyalty between you? No laughter? No Kindne—" Twilight yelped as she jumped back. The Chosen's fist smashed into the glass, creating a tiny crack on it. Twilight gulped.

"There is no loyalty between us!" The Assassin growled, death in her eyes. "And if you speak of this again, pony I will rip you apart and spread your intestines around this tower! Am I clear?!"

Twilight nodded quickly, and The Assassin seemed temporarily sated. She turned away from the cell. Twilight could hear the wheezing sounds coming from Kevin's cell, but there was no more sound.

The Assassin made her way to the door in silence, and as it opened she glanced over at Twilight, as if debating saying anything else. But she simply turned around and left.

"I'm going to kill Chrysalis," Sunset muttered.

"You know that could be considered mutiny?" Jane asked casually, glancing at Sunset from her hidden position.

"I don't care!"

Laetitia snickered. "I thought it was adorable how you blushed and explained to everyone how you were a unicorn, don't you think?"

Sunset pinched the bridge of her nose. "Geist knows I'm an alien."

Laetitia leaned back with a smirk. "He never told me."

"And yet, you don't seem surprised."

"I saw you fly into a statue before that put me out for a few days, remember?"

Sunset frowned. "Don't remind me, it's a miracle you're still alive."

Jane gave the Templar a look. "It's true… when an ADVENT Priest tried to read Twilight's mind, it's brain exploded. And Sunset here mentally bitch-slapped Annette when she tried the same. How come you didn't die at ground zero?" She paused. "Um… not that I wanted you to, but it's still…"

"I understand what you mean," Laetitia replied. "And there are many reasons for which I could have died… it's… all something like a dream now. Ephemeral…" She shrugged. "I got lucky."

Sunset shook her head. "In any case… we'll need to be fast. I don't see any civilians at this time. Confirm."

"Confirmed."

"Confirmed."

"Then we move…" Sunset said. "Let's go get our friends."

o.0.o End Chapter 59 o.0.o

Chapter 60: Changes

View Online

Ranger

Chapter 60: Changes

By Wanderer D

In a way, the mission really reminded Sunset of the time they had rescued The Commander, only this time, she wasn't trying to blend in with the public. There were two token guards at the front; regular troopers too, indicating that ADVENT had no idea they were coming.

'Hold on tight, Twilight.' Sunset thought, analyzing the situation. She watched people leave the building, giving her a clear view of the inside. There was a central reception desk, with a regular human attending, and a single additional guard standing next to the elevators.

She looked up, above the guards and noticed the cameras. She turned to look at Jane, and motioned with her head. Jane took a look and smirked. "They're not wired. This will be easier."

They had to crouch down as some civilians approached. Thankfully their position covered them as the small group continued on their way, but Sunset was already relaying orders.

Out of sight, Sunset turned to face them, pressing her back against the separator they were using to keep in cover. She signalled Jane first, she made an L with her left and right thumbs and index fingers, moving her right index up and down twice, then slid her hand across her throat.

Jane nodded. Sunset turned to Laetitia, then pointed right, then herself, and pointed left. She then pointed at Jane again and made a jabbing cut, straight down with her hand.

The two nodded and the trio braced themselves.

Jane sent her GREMLIN out, flying above the street to hover near the cameras. From their location, Jane concentrated on her pad, ready to run the appropriate commands. She bit her lip, she had accessed the network and she could not only deactivate the cameras, but also there was a chance of getting some additional information…

She glanced at Sunset and sighed. If it was a normal mission she'd risk it, but they had friends at risk right now, and she'd be damned if they all got caught because she was greedy. She ran her protocols, disabling the machine and managing to collect some data with a possible location for an ADVENT base… they would have to analyze it later.

She looked up at Sunset and nodded.

"Bravo, this is Alpha," Sunset called into the comms. "Cameras are out. Starting operation."

"Understood," Mox's voice came from the other end. "We are ready to drop in as well."

"Report when you infiltrate the building."

Sunset turned to look at her team and nodded.

Immediately Sunset and Laetitia burst out of cover, with Jane hot on their heels. The two ADVENT troopers barely had a moment to register what was happening before one took a machete to the face, and the other was skewered by energy blades.

The automatic doors were just sliding open when Jane barged through, Sunset and Laetitia each grabbed their downed opponents and half-turned around the open doors and into the building, dragging the corpses with them inside.

By the time they were down and aiming on covering fire, Jane had slid behind the desk and shot the guard in front of the elevator, who had taken too long to react. Not bothering to check on the dead body, she walked around the reception desk, pushing the crouched civilian aside.

"We have infiltrated the building," Mox reported.

"Roger that, locking it up."

Jane's fingers danced on the keypad, then she glanced at the panicking man next to her. "Get out of the building now."

The man ran out, casting fearful glances at the downed troops, and just after he had abandoned the building, thick, metallic doors slammed down over each and every window and entrance in the building. The lights turned off and the emergency lights kicked in. Jane ran towards the elevators, pulling out a device from her backpack.

"Help me with the doors!"

Leaving Laetitia on overwatch, Sunset ran over and took hold of the opposite door that Jane was already pulling on, and pulled. The doors were forced open, and Sunset had to place her back against one, and plant her foot on the other so they wouldn't close again automatically.

Jane smirked, pressing up a few buttons on the package. "EMP going down…" she quipped, dropping it into the shaft. It didn't fall far, and they could clearly see the blinking light warning them it was activated.

"Bravo, we've dropped the parcel, heading to pick up the package," Sunset called in.

"Acknowledged, we'll see you there."

When the lights went red, Twilight knew things had started. "Kevin?" she called, getting close to the corner again. "Kevin? Can you hear me? I think they came for us… keep your hope alive."

There was no response.

Twilight fidgeted. The other rookie had occasionally made random noises. Shufflings and little bumps of boots against metal, but there had been no more words. No sounds, either of consciousness or even panic.

With the reaction he had had earlier… what he had done… Twilight was very worried about her friend. She had never experienced something like that complete of a panicked meltdown. Even in the videos they had seen of soldiers panicking and losing control, it had never been so self-destructive…

She bit her lip.

She heard a shuffle. "Kevin?"

"I-I can't…" his voice sounded odd. Slurred. She heard a small bump, then a squeak as if something wet had been dragged on a dry surface. More shuffling.

"Kevin? What are you doing?"

"I-an't… things-seen—I-c-can't..."

She heard a sudden sound, like something soft slamming into metal, followed by a dull thud.

"Kevin?" Twilight whispered.

No response.

After listening to Sunset's explanation in the aircraft, Annette had to wonder at how things had changed. The old XCOM would have never accepted Sunset. The moment Bradford or anyone at all would have laid eyes on her, she would have been killed if she was lucky… if not… she would be knocked out, dragged to Vahlen, interrogated… an attempt would have been made to scan her, and when the psi-op inevitably died of that, she would have been split open and studied to use those abilities for the benefit of XCOM and mankind.

The idea that she could possibly be an innocent from another would have never crossed their minds as grounds to halt inhumane treatment of the non-humane. It wasn't that XCOM was evil… it's that they thought they had a chance to win only with desperate measures.

It had taken betrayal and utter defeat for things to change… and Chrysalis had adapted incredibly fast to this fact, no doubt thanks to the 'original' Sunset Shimmer. Now they had half-aliens, interdimensional unicorns… alien-melded psionic soldiers… it was a new world.

When Mox and Elena had heard Sunset's story, they had been quiet for some time… she didn't need to be a psychic to see the worry in Sunset's eyes. The Lieutenant really cared about her friends and their opinions of her… but Elena's question had made the night.

"So…" Elena had looked up from where she had been contemplating her rifle. "What do unicorns taste like?"

Even now it made her smile.

"Enemies?" Elena asked, and Annette returned to the present. Things were going well with the infiltration so far. But this being an XCOM mission, it was bound to go to hell soon.

Annette kept a "bubble" of sorts around her, which knocked out civilians as they moved. It wouldn't do to have XCOM attack an office building and have non-military ADVENT personnel die if it could be avoided.

They had descended several levels already, and by her reckoning they should be close to Twilight's position. She dared not however, scan the building and risk brain damage by inadvertently brushing Sunset or Twilight's minds.

She signaled Mox, who dodged into a room and quickly dispatched a captain who had been lying in wait. Elena's rifle eliminated another ADVENT soldier just as he ran down the corridor towards them.

So far they had encountered little serious resistance: she could detect anyone approaching early and inform Mox and Elena of this. What one of Elena's shots didn't take down, Mox's blades surely did.

And if they both failed… well, none of them were equipped to deal with her.

They took the stairs, descending to the next level. She glanced at Mox, shaking her head at his inquisitive tilt of the head.

The Skirmisher hadn't even needed to use his Bullpup to take down anyone. Speaking of which…

"Civilians in that room," Annette said, pointing at the room to the left. "Unconscious now. But be ready… Aria is coming."

Elena frowned. "Who?"

"I believe that is what Sunset called one of the Chosen once," Mox said, reading his gun. "The Assassin."

"Well, well, well," a voice said as the Assassin emerged from thin air. "Annette Durand." She grinned. "I thought you were dead. I haven't seen you since… about twenty years ago." She tilted her head. "You look different."

"You two move ahead," Annette said to Mox and Elena. "Aria and I have something to settle."

"Don't call me that name," Aria hissed, then glared at Mox. "Ah. Betrayer. I will skewer you today for daring to cross my path!"

Before the Assassin had a chance to move towards the Skirmisher, Annette had already slammed into her with inhuman speed, waves of psionic power enveloping them both as they crashed through the walls into a large meeting room.

Annette used her increased strength to kick the Assassin across the room. Aria skidded over the long table crashed painfully into the chairs at the end. But that wasn't enough, the psi-op was already running after her, rifle at the ready.

But it was not to be a quick kill, growling in defiance, Aria backflipped into a standing position and stomped down, letting out a psychic blast that slammed into Annette, throwing her hard against a column.

Annette barely had time to desperately block the sword thrust with her rifle, which was torn apart by the vicious attack. In the same movement where Aria broke the rifle, she twisted in place, slamming her boot into Annette's stomach.

But the psi-op wasn't just about to take two hits for free. Just as she received the kick, Annette's psionic energy gathered in a short burst of energy that smashed into Aria's chest, creating a micro explosion between them that cracked all the windows in the office… maybe even the whole floor and sent them both into the air.

The pair rolled on the floor, and got up slowly, looking at each other. The Assassin laughed, wiping some blood from the corner of her mouth. "It seems you have changed… I hadn't noticed the difference… the eyes, the fangs… I like it." She grinned ferally. "Meld, isn't it?"

"Your death, more like," Annetted hissed. She touched her stomach gingerly and glared at her opponent. "You betrayed me, Aria. You and your sisters."

The Assassin snorted. "What is it with you XCOM types and loyalty?" She slowly slid her sword out, readying herself for battle as she circled left. "It's a fleeting concept. There is no true loyalty, just cooperation while it benefits you."

"We will never see eye to eye on that, Aria." Annette retorted, circling around along with the Chosen. Slowly energy blades formed around her hands; flickering psionic knives… without Templar equipment, she'd never be able to project something like them—but she didn't need to.

"If that's what you think, then tell me… where are your friends?" Aria taunted.

"Right here," Mox said right behind her, shooting the Assassin point blank in the back.

o.0.o End Chapter 60 o.0.o

Chapter 61: Paris

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Ranger

Chapter 61: Paris

By Wanderer D

o.0.o 20 Years Ago o.0.o

It had started like any Fourteenth of July. The whole of France was ready to celebrate the Bastille Day parade. The streets were flooded with citizens and tourists alike. The streets were decorated with flags, and people had dressed up to witness the grand parade.

It was a procession like no other; starting at the Arc de Triomphe and crossing through the Champs-Élysées before proceeding gloriously through Paris, celebrating the beginning of the French Revolution.

By three in the afternoon, things had changed.

The streets of Paris were littered with bodies, debris and abandoned vehicles. Flags fluttered singed or ripped, in the dry air, buildings were in flames, parks covered in holes and craters, people running and screaming… and strange creatures running rampant, shooting, slicing or exploding innocent people without mercy.

The chaos so far had cost a lot of lives, and some not even at the hands or claws of the aliens themselves. Humanity had shown its worst side, and as people despaired, they jumped out of burning buildings or choked to death, or they trampled each other and left behind the injured and unconscious to die.

Civilians were generally unable to fight the aliens at all, even those that stood a chance through wits and good reactions, were entirely outgunned, and humans tired a lot quicker than mutons, chrysalids and floaters.

Someone would try to protect their loved ones and soon they would be a splatter on the wall if they were lucky. If they were unlucky… they might be the zombies hunting down those they had tried to defend at first.

The police and the army had tried to fight back, a wild, violent attempt… but had retreated when officer after officer; soldier after soldier fell in horrible ways—shot through, molten by plasma, blown to bits or dismembered by giant insectoids—engaged in an unexpected battle that they had been completely unprepared for.

Orders from their superiors had forced them to leave behind those that most desperately needed them when their guns had proven mostly ineffective against the aliens, and except for occasional success against the likes of sectoids, the officers and soldiers were severely, hysterically, outgunned.

The fighter jets that were routine part of the parade had been the first victims as out of nowhere a giant UFO had emerged from the clouds, shooting plasma and raining metallic death. Military vehicles were set up for parade purposes, not to defend in warlike conditions, and even the tanks were little match for Mechtoids landing on them and pummeling through the armor, controlling the operators or simply ripping off the top and shooting everything inside with their plasma weapons.

There was nothing they could do to help, and so, under orders, they had reluctantly left the citizens to fend for themselves, retreating in as orderly fashion as they could, giving up street after street.

They have naively attempted a last ditch effort to save people with helicopters. Brave pilots had flown in, soldiers pouring out to offer covering fire… they hadn't anticipated the viciousness of the invaders, who didn't hesitate to bring down the evacuating civilians with something akin to glee.

Scores died, and the Seine ran red with the blood of thousands of innocents, but one ran, thankful that her luck—and something else, something… primal... inside of her—had kept her alive so far.

Annette ran into an alley between two half-destroyed buildings. The ancient baroque structures, exquisit in their design and lasting for centuries were little challenge for the alien bombardment as more than one of the metallic, gas-carrying contraptions the alien ships were dropping had gone through the roofs and walls before crashing into the street.

The roofs had collapsed in, and only the sturdy construction practices had kept the rest of the buildings mostly intact… until the fires inside—if the smoke columns emanating from windows were any indication—eventually consumed them into ashes.

She hadn't been there when it happened, thankfully, as several bodies were frozen or covered in green slime, and that would have been her fate as well. She didn't want to stay too long either, who knew if the fires inside would hit a gas main soon as well, but she dared not run out too quickly.

Annette had seen strange, tall men in black suits on top of buildings, running faster and jumping further than any human being could have done, incongruously doing pirouettes of some sort, perhaps to use their momentum, to reach greater speeds and heights.

The worst part was that there was something inside Annette… some strange, unknown feeling she was somewhat familiar with, but scared her. This feeling was more than just instinct… at times it was as if she could just catch glimpses of people or even aliens, and this strange feeling insisted that they were looking for her.

And they were gaining.

No matter how careful she was, or how far she moved, a sixth sense would warn her and she'd look up or around a corner and spot one overseeing the area where she was heading, or investigating where she had been. By now she was convinced that that sense that alerted her of their presence, also somehow let them know she was close, if not exactly where she was.

So far she had remained lucky… they hadn't seen her. And she would try her best to keep it that way. It was an unfortunate blessing when something would explode, or a scream would cut through the night and the aliens would turn their attention there, moving fast, like vultures diving in to pick on roadkill.

Annette leaned out from the corner of the building to her right and looked down the street, trying to make herself as small as possible while attempting to get as clear a view of the area as she possibly could.

One of the tall men had jumped down from the roof of a building across the street, almost like he was made of rubber and landed without any issue. He had started investigating an area she had just ran past, and again the nagging feeling returned: they were looking for her.

"It seems you caught their attention," a voice said from behind her, startling Annette. She whipped around to face a young woman, about her own age, leaning casually against a wall. She had long hair, obviously dyed purple and white of all things, and held up in a pair of ponytails. She was dressed in a rather unusual style, not quite punk, but plenty of stubs and metal spikes, and oddly enough an old stylized pendant with a large ruby… more importantly, she was armed with some sort of gun and seemed utterly unconcerned about what was happening around her.

"Are you crazy?" Annette whispered, looking over her shoulder fearfully. "They will see us!"

The woman snorted. "Who? The Thin Men?" She glanced outside at the tall man-like alien, who was looking down at another victim, and had now been joined by two more. "They're not much of a threat. Insufferable bastards that they are. Once you get in close… they break like twigs."

Annette looked at the woman as if she had grown another head, then shook her head and started to walk away. "If you're going to fight them, I want nothing to do with it."

She heard the woman snort in amusement. "And where will you go, Annette?"

She stopped, frozen in place, a cold shudder running down her spine. "How…"

"Do you know why they want you?" the woman continued, "It's because you have a gift, and they have sensed it. They always go for the ones with the gift."

"Gift?" Annette asked, looking over her shoulder at the woman. "I don't know what you're talking about. Who are you? How do you know these things?"

"My name is Aria Blaze," the other woman answered, a feral grin slowly growing in her face. "And I am part of an organization that knows the truth… why you have the gift. And you know the gift well. It tells you where they are. That they're thinking of you specifically. That they want to capture you. You can run away, or try… but I can tell you why the aliens are attacking. What is the future of humanity after this…" she waved at the streets.

Aria walked towards Annette. "Do you really want to keep running forever, Annette?" she had asked, "Or do you want to have a say in your future? They will eventually catch you," she added with a shrug, patting Annette on the shoulder as she walked past her, "but it doesn't have to be that way. The choice is yours, of course… come with me and change things for the better… or stay here and become their experiment."

Annette glanced back. One of the men—creatures… Thin Men... had jabbed a long needle into one of the unconscious bodies and the others had spread around to do the same. For now they seemed unaware of her.

What would happen if she ran out? Took her chances?

A look at the bodies answered that question quickly enough.

Annette shuddered and looked at Aria, who was still walking away. Swallowing down the knot in her throat, she made her choice... the only real choice she had... and hurried after the strange woman.

o.0.o Present Day o.0.o

Mox's blast tore into Aria's back, splattering blood and sending the assassin stumbling forward. She immediately showcased the unnatural reactions that the Elders had modified into her, as even though she was clearly in pain and in an uncontrolled stumble, she turned it into a forward roll that barely missed Annette's jab.

The combatants spread out, with the Assassin dripping blood as she glared at the other two. "Cowardly—"

A powerful shot took her in the shoulder, making her spin in place and brace herself against the wall. "Someone that turns invisible to stab their opponents has no business accusing others of being cowards."

Aria hissed. "I will skin you alive, Reaper." Her threats, however, were cut short as Annette attacked with renewed vigor. A cloudy blast of psychic energy missed Aria by inches, creating a small crater on the wall, while Mox's bullpup left a trail of small holes on the floor.

The assassin dodged desperately, trying to get a foothold so she could launch an attack; but whenever she paused to gather her wits, she immediately had to dodge an attack from one of her opponents.

The close quarters didn't lend themselves to her usual evasion tactics, and the trio was relentless. She tried to take cover behind the table, but Annette ripped it of the floor, and had Aria not laid flat on her stomach, it might have smashed into her neck before both of them crashed against the wall.

She cursed as the bullets hit her leg, slowing her down into an almost crawl. She waddled, unable to put much weight on her now-useless leg and finally collapsed against the window, glaring at her opponents. "You must feel proud for now, XCOM." She coughed blood. "But don't relish on your victory too long… remember that I am immortal."

"Yes, we will enjoy this victory," Mox replied, weapon trained on the Assassin, "it is—after all—our second victory against you."

"I'll come back for you," Aria spat, glaring at Mox.

"You talk big about treason for someone who turned their back on their supposed friends," Annette said, looking down in contempt at Aria. "You say I changed… but so did you. For the worse. I'll meet you again in the battlefield anytime, Aria."

The Assassin coughed a blood-stained laugh. "I wonder if you'll have the guts to face me on your own."

"Say hello to your sisters."

Aria opened her mouth to reply, but Annette didn't let her say another word, gathering psychic energy in an instant and blasting her with a solid beam of pure power that went through the reinforced window as well before dissipating into nothing, along with the Assassin.

o.0.o End Chapter 61 o.0.o

Chapter 62: Regret

View Online

Ranger

Chapter 62: Regret

By Wanderer D

Sunset rolled behind a column and glanced at the hallway. The ADVENT Lancer took the bait, rushing out with their electro-stick crackling with energy. Before it got too close, she shot it down with a short burst, and after checking for more opponents and finding none, she motioned for the others to move.

Laetitia let the trooper she had levitated off the floor and impaled with her psychic blades fall several floors down, while Jane stored in her backpack some of the equipment the Captain she had ambushed had dropped when killed.

XCOM had a long standing order to take some of the equipment back with them if it was recoverable, their weapons could only become better if they had more options to modify them with.

They ran up the stairs and onto the next floor, bursting out of the emergency exit and quickly taking covering positions to oversee the area. There were no soldiers that they could see right now, but the enemies from before had come from this floor, so it was likely they were the last patrol.

"This is the right floor, Jane?"

"According to the systems, yes, we should be in the nearest access to it: Emergency exit AA-23. Twilight should be in the Lab… that's room 2187."

"I think I see it," Laetitia said. "Up ahead, right side."

Sunset ran up to the door, and looked at the number on it, nodding. "This is it." She took one side of the door as Jane took the other. The exchanged glances and nodded.

Sunset pushed the door open and made her way in, doing a quick sweep of the room with her shotgun, and immediately spotting the cells. "Cover the entrance!"

She made her way through checking behind tables for hidden opponents until she was right in front of Twilight, who had stood up with wide eyes.

"Sunset…" Twilight whispered, eyes shimmery with tears. "Please… check on Kevin…"

Sunset gulped, and waved to Jane to come over and start hacking the door as she moved over to check on the other missing soldier. A part of her felt bad that his safety hadn't even crossed her mind, and another part realized that it was a normal thing to put those you know ahead of others.

Still. He was a fellow soldier. It took her one look to know. At some point, Kevin had used his remaining strength and body weight to kill himself in a moment of desperation. He wasn't breathing, and the position he was in wouldn't have allowed for oxygen to get through.

"How is he?" Twilight asked. There was an undertone to her question. As if she already knew the answer.

Sunset shook her head. "It's better if you don't look, Twilight."

"I… expected that," Twilight sighed. "I tried to calm him, but he was… just too far gone. It didn't help that he was so terrified of the Assassin…"

She had expected the young alicorn to break down, but Twilight had taken a deep shuddering breath and reigned herself in. It was odd. That… earlier pride (and fear) for Twilight had not diminished at all, and now that she was holding herself up with such aplomb.

Twilight caught Sunset's look and smiled sadly. "I'll have time to mourn later… for all of them." Her eyes went wide. "The Assassin! She's here, Sunset, and not only that she's—she's a siren!"

Sunset gasped. "What? But they were destroyed centuries ago by Starswirl!"

Twilight nodded. "I know, but it all matched, and when I confronted her with the information… she never denied it. In fact, she said that Starswirl had simply exiled them into this world."

Sunset shook her head, pulling off her backpack and fishing out the package that Bradford had given her. She gazed at the small container, a deep part of her urging it to keep it to herself… a part with long, black claws, red, demonic skin, horns, wings and fangs.

"Here," she choked out, giving Twilight the package. "Y-You might need it. Especially if Aria is around."

"Aria?" Twilight took it, unveiling…

"A crown?" Jane asked.

"Not just any crown…" Sunset said. "Twilight's crown." She reached and stopped Twilight from putting it on. "Not yet… we won't use it if we can avoid it. Aria is the assassin's real name… she gets annoyed if you say it, but keep your element at hand. If she comes after us, you might need it."

"And speaking of things we might need," Laetitia said from across the room, she smirked and stepped away from the small closet that Twilight had noticed earlier. "I think I found your gun and armor, rookie."

"Team Alpha, this is team Bravo," Annette's voice came through the comms. "We encountered the assassin, and she has been taken care of."

Sunset let Laetitia assist Twilight in setting up, turning to look out the small lab window and looking down. "Roger that, Bravo. We have our package. I see hostiles gathering below, including some heavy mechs. What floor are you at?"

"Thirtieth floor."

"Understood, we're high enough to not be affected, so we'll be giving them the first present. We're just a couple of floors below you. Stay at your location, we'll meet you there and proceed to evac."

"Understood, Lieutenant."

Sunset turned just as Twilight finished strapping on the last of her armor and took up her rifle. "Alright! Jane, do you think if we deliver the present right now we'll be affected?" She glanced at their specialist's GREMLIN with some concern.

Jane hummed, "No, the area of effect for that device shouldn't really get all the way up here. It's designed to affect a small area, after all. It's one of Shen's prototypes for small grenade-sized EMPs. Wouldn't be of great use if they shut us down as well."

"Then you know what to do," Sunset said as she motioned for the others to follow. "We need to make sure they don't follow us in yet."

"Roger that," Jane said, pressing a couple of buttons. The only sign that it had worked was that the whole building went dark.

Sunset nodded. "I'll take point, Jane, you're with Twilight. Laetitia, you're in the back."

"Roger!"

"Let's go meet the others and get the hell out of this place."

She was in the void again, body-less, weightless and drifting in purple, blue and red energy waves that carried her consciousness through the infinite.

Before the return of XCOM, she had only been there once, ten years or so ago, when she had been Chosen.

She remembered how the Elders had tried to control them. How it hadn't worked, but they had played along.

Flashes of memories past echoed in the void.

"Yes… just relax, Annette, join the others… try to find XCOM."

Was there regret? Aria wasn't sure.

"Aria… I'm scared… what I saw… those people in that base… were they really enemies? Their friends turned on them because we told them… Aria… are we doing the right thing?

What place was there for regret now? After she had sent dozens of humans that looked up to her and her sisters for protection to be processed by the aliens?

"Please! Aria! Please! Don't let them take me! We're friends! Do—"

Regret.

"You must have found kindness… somewhere."

That stupid pony-turned human. What did she know?

Maybe Equestria had changed a little, but it didn't change the way they had been treated. They had been hunted down and attacked because of their dietary needs. They were not safe in the sea, nor in land.

They had attempted to ask for protection from one of the unicorn tribes, but ponies feared everything that wasn't equestrian in nature… and not just that. They hated and feared each other too.

Because some could fly.

Because some could cast magic.

Because some were linked to the world beneath.

The ponies she remembered were paranoid, excitable and fearful. Eager to destroy that which inconvenienced their perception of the world. They would rather run away or, if they could, attack, than attempt to communicate.

Much like humans.

"He's my friend!"

No compassion. That was the motto.

At one point in their long lives, she and her sisters had given up on peace and simply attacked when hungry. There had been no further attempt to reason with the fearful creatures, who had proven not only to be unwilling, but completely incapable of empathy with others.

Aria remembered well how things had started with deep moments of shock, then hunger settled in and slowly their empathy for the foul ponies had grown thin, then it was gone. None of them, even when facing death had—

"At least… tried to find common ground!"

Aria snorted. What did Twilight know?

"You couldn't have done any worse than Nightmare Moon and Discord!"

Nightmare Moon? That name meant nothing to Aria, but Discord… Discord did. The Lord of Chaos was a monster even they feared. Was Twilight implying they had somehow… befriended him? Impossible!

What Twilight had suggested had to be a lie. Starswirl had proven that they had as much respect and compassion for those different than themselves as an anvil had for a blade being forged on it. What could have Twilight or the Blood Witch done?

"Something! Anything! We would have found a peaceful way to solve our differences if we tried! You didn't need to be exiled away from everything you knew!"

Aria felt anger at those words.

Trust. Why trust when you always were betrayed? Why trust when you would always betray?

"You say I changed… but so did you. For the worse. I'll meet you again in the battlefield anytime, Aria. Say hello to your sisters."

Seeing Annette had been a surprise. When XCOM was destroyed, Aria had searched for the psionic signature of her former friend. But there was nothing.

She had thought Annette was dead. Another betrayal. Another victim of a predator such as herself.

Remorseless. The voice, familiar echoed in the void. That is what you are now. No regret. No hesitation. You belong to us.

They had traded their freedom when Exalt had discovered them. True "immortals", if only in the sense that they didn't die unless violently killed.

It had been a costly battle for Exalt, to get them to a standstill. And then… and then he had stepped in.

He understood that the three of them were not to be servants or killed. He understood their ambition. And he had guided them to Exalt, not as grunts, or experiments or disposable forces… but as leaders.

As equals.

There had been no attempt from him to befriend them. Or pretend to. He never promised anything that didn't benefit him, which made him reliable.

And so… when they joined, he had promised.

"We will be Chosen," he had whispered to Aria, Sonata and Adagio. "Us. Not this rabble that serves no purpose but to create distractions. Come. Let me introduce you to our allies… those that seek to control us, but will only give us the power to raise beyond them."

She felt a sense of falling, pinpricks all around as her body was reformed. She appeared in a storm of psionic energy, kneeling in front of her Tablet. And as soon as she had, in a flash of magic, her pendant materialized.

She grinned, taking it quickly, just as the expected, angry summon from the Elders crashed into her mind. But she had her pendant now, and she sent back through it thoughts.

Thoughts of fear and thoughts of devotion.

Lies.

The Elders did not understand magic. They couldn't even truly sense it. They just knew what she and the other chosen chose to share.
Sure, they would "punish" The Assassin for failing with an intensely painful push of psychic energy. But she was not theirs.

Not truly.

Not ever.

"COME TO US"

Aria grinned, licking her serrated teeth with her long tongue. She wasn't terribly fond of this body… not over her original, beautiful siren body… but it terrified lesser creatures. And one day it would terrify her "masters" as well.

She frowned. At least until he stopped blindly obeying them.

But for now, she had to answer the summons.

o.0.o End Chapter 62 o.0.o

Chapter 63: Quick

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Ranger

Chapter 63: Quick

By Wanderer D

Twilight followed the others silently as they ran upstairs to the next floor.

Now that she had her Element in hand, she could feel power seeping into her, re-energizing her, and thankfully opening a plethora of possible things she could do again... but also… a small, thin, trail of energy from the Element was constantly reaching out to Sunset, gently, as if the Element itself was somehow trying to soothe her.

She could see it, in her mind's eye, reaching out to her fellow Equestrian, but the other pony-turned-human's magical aura literally cringed away from the Element's touch every time it brushed her aura.

Something had happened. Something really bad to make Sunset react that way. She was afraid—terrified even—of the Element, which was incongruous, given that the Element not only was a continuous source of Equestrian Magic, but also something that, in a way, was healing to Sunset's spirit.

And yet, even as Sunset's magical aura cringed and tried to hide away every time the Element tried to reach out, it still somehow was drawn to the Element, hesitantly trying to embrace it, yet falling short…

Whatever had happened had shaken Sunset. It was very distracting, and she would have to talk to her about it later, once they were back in the Avenger. Twilight fought back the million theories that popped into her mind, but couldn't help but wonder if Earth's magic was somehow responsible for this, or Sunset herself, or just the Element.

She had always considered it a force of good, but in this world it was definitely a two-edged sword, and if Twilight (or Sunset) was not careful in its use, it could not only kill others, but harm her own allies when trying to help them.

She shuddered to think what would happen if she were to attempt to teleport them all. Would Laetitia and Annette just… explode? She shuddered and took her mind away from those dark thoughts, making a conscious effort to ignore her magical instincts and how the Element was reacting to Sunset and vice-versa.

Right now, she needed her mind to be on the mission. Later on she could examine her thoughts and theories and maybe do something productive with them in the lab. Unfortunately that train of thought took her back to her decisions. Had she listened to Tygan's objections, or not used Sunset's morals against her…

She shut that thought down. Galahad had warned her about that tendency to let her mind wander like that. Instead, she analyzed her surroundings, trying to put her mind to some use. The building they were in was different from places she had seen Sunset and other XCOM soldiers infiltrate.

The design was most assuredly ADVENT's, with geometric panels forming the walls, but the colors were not aggressive. In fact, it looked like it was less of a military installation and more some sort of office.

They encountered no resistance, and by the time they met with Annette and the others she was sure of it. Whether ADVENT just hadn't had the installations at hand to contain them, or the Chosen had elected not to teleport with them—a wise idea, all things considered—after all, they had been brought to a civilian building.

Which contained cells for some reason.

She would never understand humans. Or ADVENT.

"Anything to report?" Sunset asked, fist-bumping Mox and the others as they all gathered in a completely destroyed meeting room of some sort.

"Nothing new so far," Annette responded from where she stood near the windows. "No civilians were harmed in our infiltration, and all ADVENT opposition encountered has been eliminated."

Sunset smirked. "Good job on The Assassin."

Annette shook her head, a wry smile playing in her lips. "Aria and I have much to discuss next time."

"And how is our alicorn princess?" Mox asked, glancing at Twilight. "Hopefully unharmed?"

Twilight smiled shakily. "Physically I'm okay, Mox. Thank you for asking." She blinked. "Wait, how did you know…"

"...that you're a flying unicorn princess?" Elena asked. "Sunset told us. Apparently the Commander thought it would be a good idea to tell this to us after Sunset—"

"That is a conversation for later," Sunset interrupted. She glanced at the others. "Unfortunately, Kevin didn't make it, and I'd rather have this banter either at the Avenger, or on our way there."

"How did this happen?" Twilight asked. Now that she was with the whole team and they were on their way to the roof, where freedom was so much closer, she couldn't stop herself from remembering how things had gone south so quickly. "How did things go wrong like this?"

The others shared a look, but kept walking, apparently reluctant to say anything.

"It happens," Elena eventually said.

But there was something wrong. Twilight hadn't spent as much time with her as the others, but she had spent a whole day learning from Elena. The way she had spoken… it was different. She was always borderline emotionless and business like, but now there was an edge to that statement, as if the Reaper had bitten something bitter.

"You'll find out soon enough," Sunset added. "But it's better to not dwell in it right now." She raised her hand to activate the comms. "Firebrand, we're almost there. We're only bringing one package home."

"Roger that, Bloody Sunset, heading your way."

"I'm really not going to like what I'll find out, am I?" Twilight asked.

Sunset grimaced. "You're too smart for your own good sometimes, Twilight." She raised her hand, making a fist when the comms crackled The others stopped, crouching and ready.

"Menace, this is Firebrand, I see hostiles on the rooftop, they're surrounding the exit. I make six X-rays. I'll make a sweep once you've taken care of them."

"Great." Sunset muttered. "Roger that, Firebrand." She paused. "Wait… did you say they were surrounding the exit?"

The drop ships had delivered two full teams onto the roof of the building. The captain had quickly sent two troopers to take cover on either side of the door leading to the emergency exit while his Lancers laid in wait, ready to rush and stun or kill whoever wasn't shot down.

A MEC laid in wait on overwatch and the captain himself was ready for action… but not for the whole entrance to blow up violently, instantly incinerating his two troopers.

One of the Lancers flew back and rolled on the floor, coming to a stop just a few feet away from the captain, unmoving. The other had managed to twist and was badly injured, but alive.

Several shots skewered the Lancer and a particularly loud one got the MEC in the head, making it step back and effectively making its overwatch useless. Out of the smoke two people ran out, crouching low to make themselves smaller targets as they charge the captain.

He took a shot at the fastest one, a familiar-looking woman with red and gold hair, who had twisted out of the way in time to avoid his wild shot. He couldn't understand where he had seen her. How it was possible that he would know one of the enemy… and yet… this woman flashed in his mind, as if she had been there, somewhere, when he was born.

She had a large machete of some kind in her hands and before the captain could even shout, it was cutting deep into his stomach while the other, blades of energy glowing, slammed both straight through his chest.

He fell back, noise fading around him as the MEC slowly came into view. It was sparking and stumbling back under a barrage of bullets...

And then there was darkness.

o.0.o End Chapter 63 o.0.o

Chapter 64: Grief

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Ranger

Chapter 64: Grief

By Wanderer D

"Twilight!"

"Alejandra!"

The pair of rookies ran to each other and embraced tightly.

"Oh my god, you're alive," Alejandra whispered. "I wanted to go get you! I swear!"

"I know," Twilight replied, not letting go of her fellow rookie. "Sunset told me."

"They stopped me. I don't know what they did, I was going to go—"

"It's okay," Twilight whispered. "I'm here… I know you would have come for me. I have no doubt."

"And were circumstances different, we would have had you at our side," Sunset said, walking down the ramp to the pair. "But unfortunately you were in no position to help, Alejandra."

The pair separated, and the other rookie saluted. "I-I know, Lieutenant."

"This is not over yet," Elena warned, walking past them.

"W-what do you mean?" Twilight asked. "Is this about how the mission ended up as it did?"

Mox, who had followed Elena down the ramp, placed a hand on Twilight's shoulder. "You shall find out soon. Come, we must meet with The Commander."

"Do you know what's going on?" Alejandra asked, falling in line after the veteran team.

Twilight shook her head. "Only that there's more to how the mission went than we know."

The group walked towards one of the meeting rooms, the same one where Sunset and Jane had been briefed on their covert actions. Slowly they all walked in, with the two rookies sitting in the center.

It wasn't long before Chrysalis herself, followed by Bradford entered the room. Everyone present saluted, before she nodded.

"At ease, take a seat." Chrysalis paced slowly, obviously trying to find the right words she wanted to say. Twilight resisted the urge to ask the many questions she had, forcing herself to remember that this loss also meant a lot to the commander herself.

Eventually, Chrysalis stopped and faced them. "Rookies Twilight Sparkle, and Alejandra Acevedo, I hereby promote you to Squaddies. You'll be talking about your specialization with Lt. Shimmer soon." She took a deep breath. "I wish it was under better circumstances that you had been awarded this.

"We had planned this situation as carefully as we could, but we… forgot to account for a very important possibility, and thus, the deaths that happened are our responsibility."

Twilight slowly clenched her fists. "And what would that possibility be?"

Chrysalis leveled her eyes on her. "Treason. Your team should not have been exposed to that level of combat. We had every confidence in your capabilities for fulfilling that mission. But one of our own betrayed details of it to ADVENT in hopes of joining back their cities."

"Who would do that?" Twilight asked, standing up. Her body was trembling and it was taking her a considerable amount of self-control to not blast magic all around her. "Who would sacrifice our lives for that?!"

"Twilight… please…" Alejandra took her arm, pulling her down so she could sit again.

Chrysalis sighed. "We have apprehended the individual that did this… there's no easy way to say it. One of your fellow rookies, Michael Cruz…"

"No." Twilight shook her head, sinking back into the chair, eyes wide. "No,nononono…"

"...sent a signal to ADVENT with the details of your first mission in exchange of an extraction and, presumably, 'forgiveness'. We managed to catch him before he was extracted with the aid of our Reaper allies."

"No…" Twilight whimpered. "He was my friend."

"We have to see him." Alejandra said, grasping Twilight's arm. She looked at the commander, as if daring her to argue with her.

"You will leave all of your weapons outside the room," Chrysalis said. That includes your… special item, Squaddie Sparkle."

Twilight didn't answer, but Alejandra looked at Chrysalis in surprise. "I-I thought—"

"That I would tell you not to see him?" Chrysalis snorted. "That traitor needs to face the consequences of what he's done. And he has to face the victims that can still speak for the fallen."

"I know you're exhausted from your ordeal, Twilight," Bradford spoke up. "But it would be best to do this now. Once he's seen you two… he'll be interrogated one last time. Tomorrow he will be executed for treason."

"Are you sure it was him?" Twilight whispered. "There's no chance that-that he was set up? That there's a mistake?"

Chrysalis looked at her with pity. "Given your history, I understand why you'd want something different… but we confirmed everything. Shen herself found the signal, and the device he used was in his backpack. He was being picked up by ADVENT when Volk and his people found him. He admitted as much without hesitation."

Elena looked straight at her. "He betrayed you, Twilight, and let you go to your death."

The cell block was contained in the underbelly of the Avenger, next to where they stored the supplies. It wasn't big… it only allowed for four, maybe six individual prisoners, but the Avenger had never been intended to keep them inside.

Once enemy VIPs were captured, they were interrogated and dropped off for further examination with one of the other factions. There, they would either cooperate… or their futures would be decided by the faction leaders, which were generally speaking not very inclined to be forgiving of ADVENT's willing accomplices.

At this time, the cells were empty, except for one man.

Michael sat on the bunker bed in the cell, face resting on his hands. He didn't even look up when he heard someone approaching. That is, until he recognized Twilight's voice.

"Is it true?"

He looked up, a haunted look in his eyes. "Y-you're alive!"

"Is it true?" Twilight asked, and he noticed that Alejandra was right with her. "Did you really sell us out just to have an easier life? Do we really mean so little to you?"

Michael stood approaching the cell's door. "I was scared, I—"

"The Assassin killed Galahad!" Twilight snapped. She curled her hands into fists, shaking in anger. "We'll never hear him call us 'duckies' again! He'll never give us any more lectures or history lessons, or teach us anything!"

Michael licked his lips. "I—"

"An alien we hadn't seen before melted Monique," Alejandra said quietly. "By the time her body hit the floor, her head was gone… I watched that… acid bubble and go through her armor and corpse like something out of a movie." She held herself. Looking down. "You told her she was cute."

"Listen, I had no idea—"

"The assassin then blasted Ndlovu with her gun… it took the upper part of his chest and face with it," Twilight added. "You remember him, right? He loved to tell stories about his country and about places he had visited. You used to have beers together at the bar."

Michael hadn't answered, merely shaking his head as he backed away from the door.

"You remember Kevin, right?" Twilight said next. She could feel tears rolling down her cheeks. She didn't care. She sniffed. "Just Kevin. F-from Canada? Did you know he didn't die in the attack?"

"H-he's here?" Michael asked, his voice hoarse.

"He took his own life," Alejandra said, when Twilight couldn't stop sobbing. Tears also fell unheeded. "He went crazy with horror at losing his arm and finding himself a prisoner of The Assassin."

"I hate you," Twilight spat. "I hate you. I hate you!" She ran up to the door and looked into the cell. "How could you?! We were friends! How could you! How could you send us to die and pretend everything was going to be okay? You're a monster! You're no better than any of the monsters we fight! You're despicable!"

"That's enough, Twilight, Alejandra," another voice, one that Michael didn't want to hear at all said.

He watched in horror as Sunset emerged from the shadows. "You!" he shouted. "G-get away from me, monster!"

Sunset ignored him and looked at the other two women. "Go rest… you both need to talk. When you're feeling better, you're talking to the ship's counselor, understood?"

Both of them nodded, giving Michael one last angry look before they left.

Alone with him, Sunset shook her head. "Twilight would have died for you. That's what friendship means to one such as her."

Michael gave no response from within the cell and she snorted. "I hope you remember that tomorrow."

Twilight slowly took off her equipment. The shin protectors, her boots… bit by bit, all of the pieces were accounted for and stored in an orderly fashion in her locker.

Next to her, Alejandra did the same. The pair hadn't said a word since they had come up to the barracks.

"What are you planning to do?"

Twilight blinked, then looked over at Alejandra. "What do you mean?"

Alejandra held her chest armor in her hands, looking down at it. "I mean… you can go back to the labs and stay there."

Twilight looked down. "Oh."

The two didn't say anything for a few minutes.

"I think," Twilight said, "That I'll keep doing both… I can put my mind to research, but I don't want to leave my t—" she shook her head. "My friend on her own."

"I don't know what I want to do…" Alejandra confessed. "Is it going to be like this? Abandoning others if the order comes through?" She hesitated "I don't know if I can—"

"You can!" Twilight interrupted, standing up to face her teammate. "We went through hell in training… and through hell again in the last mission! We survived our friends! The least we can do is honor them by not quitting!"

"People quit all the time…" Alejandra whispered. "I know that some of Sunset's old teammates are now working in the storage area, they're just regular staff but now they don't… they don't have to risk…" she trailed off.

"You don't want to stop, do you?" Twilight asked.

"No… I don't." Alejandra said, holding the chest plate tightly. "I don't want to… but following that order… it really hurt, Twilight."

"I know."

"A-and I feel like I-I betrayed you too! That I left you! I should have ignored the order and attacked maybe then I'd—"

"Die?" Twilight asked, walking over to sit next to her friend. "They would have killed you, Alejandra, and I would have one less friend in this world."

"I-I've tried not to break down," Alejandra said, a strong sob rocking her body. "I've tried to be strong, l-like the lieutenant, like Galahad would have been but I-I can't just…"

It started with more silent tears just falling on the chest plate. Then her body shook and she let out a thin wail, and Twilight quickly drew her into an embrace, her own tears running free.

"It's okay," she sobbed, leaning into Alejandra's shoulder. "Let it out…" she sniffed. "Let it all out."

o.0.o End Chapter 64 o.0.o

Chapter 65: Bitter

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Ranger

Chapter 65: Bitter

By Wanderer D

"And that's when Twilight said, "Well, it can't get any worse…", but then! Then Fluttershy runs in with all the animals in the garden shouting, "You're... going to LOVE ME!""

The group around the breakfast table broke down in laughter, and Luna shook her head, glancing at her sister in amusement.

Celestia shrugged. "I had to make the occasion less… repetitive, Luna."

"You sometimes do surprise me, sister," Luna confessed, drinking some coffee from her cup.

"It's hard to keep up with the tediousness of events like the Gala, Luna," Celestia confessed. "Sometimes, it needs some...refreshing."

Rarity rolled her eyes.

A sudden humm made everypony stop talking and look over to the table where the diary waited. Celestia had taken it upon herself to always have the book at hoof. Either Twilight or Sunset could call at any time and she didn't want to risk not being available to them if needed.

Trading glances with the others, Celestia levitated the magical artifact while the table was cleared of dishes and food.

A brief glimpse at the hoofwriting had Celestia smiling. "It's from Twilight."

"Whee!" Pinkie hop-hopped around the table. "Let's hear it out!"

"It has been some time since we heard from her directly," Applejack said, then chuckled a bit. "Y'all know what Ah mean."

"Yeah, yeah." Rainbow Dash grinned. "Maybe she'll have a new adventure to share!"

"Oh my," Fluttershy said. "I hope it isn't anything bad."

"Well dear, why don't we let the princess read the letter?" Rarity said, using a hoof to fix her hair before leaning forward, curiosity written all over her face.

Celestia nodded, and as her eyes scanned the first lines, her smile faded.

"Sister?"

Dear Princess Celestia,

A lot has happened today. It's very hard to even write this, but I can't just keep it inside. Tomorrow morning, one of my friends a former rookie on my class is about to be executed for treason.

"Oh… my…" Fluttershy whispered, raising her hooves to her mouth in horror. "But… why would they do that?!"

"Let the princess read, sugarcube…" Applejack said, a frown crossing her face. "Ah don't think anypony could do that without a really good reason."

"There's never a good enough reason fo—"

"Heed my words," Luna interrupted Fluttershy. "This world where Twilight and Sunset are now, is not our own. And there are plenty of reasons for treason to be punished most severely." She looked at the mares dead in the eye. "'Tis fortunate that you have not had to face moments where it has been deemed necessary. But not all are so lucky."

Celestia nodded and continued reading.

It's very hard to reconcile my feelings on this with who I was before. On the one hand, I feel bad for the loss of one more person. But on the other hand… after what he did… I can't feel bad for him.

When Chrysalis impersonated Cadance and the girls took her side, I felt betrayed. I know now that circumstances, like the way I was behaving, and Chrysalis' own machinations and acting like a misunderstood, stressed bride and her mind control powers were factors in that whole thing… it still hurt back then. It still hurts, sometimes.

The group exchanged guilty glances.

"I thought she was over it…" Rainbow Dash muttered, rubbing her hoof on her foreleg. "We all apologized."

"I think she forgave us," Rarity said, looking at the book sadly. "But whatever happened with this betrayal… it brought back bad memories. I don't think she's accusing us of anything, Rainbow Dash."

But I had no idea what true betrayal felt like. Looking back on those days, had I expressed my concerns differently, I think I could have gotten through to you all.

In any case, I mentioned to you my class before: Galahad being our "teacher", Monique, Ndlovu, Kevin, Alejandra, and... Michael. There were a few others at the beginning, but they quit early on. They're probably living in a settlement or something. Anyway, we went on our first mission yesterday.

This drew a gasp from everpony.

"B-but I thought Twilight was supposed to be a lab-rat?" Rainbow Dash stammered. "Why was she—"

"Oh my goodness… oh my goodness… Twilight…" Fluttershy's eyes were shimmering with tears. "How could you do this… going out to kill?"

Luna sighed, shaking her head and motioned for Celestia to continue. They of course knew that Twilight had gone out on a mission, thanks to Sunset's last missive, but they had hoped not to tell the girls for now. However, things had not gone well for Twilight, and they had a right to know, in the end.

Looking no less distressed than Twilight's friends, the princess continued reading.

I can imagine how you feel… you're probably horrified. You and everypony there, if the girls are with you... to think that Twilight Sparkle, "Princess of Friendship", would willingly go out there and… fight. And kill.

I did it.

"Oh Twilight," Pinkie whispered.

Celestia paused, closing her eyes. "That I could have spared you this. Both of you..."

"We had no say in this matter, sister," Luna said at length. "Neither Sunset nor Twilight inhabit a world where one can stay idle for long."

"What are you saying?" Rainbow Dash asked. "That Twilight was going to fight? Our egghead would have never done this on her own!"

"I… must agree," Rarity said, carefully looking at both princesses. "I hate to say it so brazenly, but it fits more what Sunset Shimmer might do, than our Twilight. Is is possible that she convinced her?"

"Please my little ponies," Celestia whispered. "Please do not speak of my Sunset like that."

The others looked at each other with a mixture of confusion and worry.

"Mayhaps I should continue reading," Luna said, clearing her throat. "If you would permit me, sister?"

Celestia barely nodded, but Luna gently levitated the book up to herself, placing it on the table and reading aloud.

I thought about how to explain this decision to all of you. I thought, maybe Rainbow Dash and Applejack would understand, just a little. I thought Rarity would begrudgingly nod in the end and respect it… I have the feeling that they three would in the end understand the why I would do this. And… Fluttershy, Pinkie… if you're reading this, I'm so, so sorry. You must be very disappointed in me.

"Never," Pinkie whispered, her hair deflated. She shook her head, wiping away tears. "Never disappointed, Twilight."

Fluttershy just looked away.

Some people tried to dissuade me from doing this. Dr. Tygan wanted me in the lab. Chrysalis ordered me to sit down and think thoroughly if I wanted to do this. She told me straight out that no-one would think less of me if I didn't go. That my work in the lab was just as important as any mission. Shen said it was a bad idea, but that it was up to me…

Sunset—she argued with me, but then I used her own words against her.

About loyalty.

About being there for her team when they needed her.

She knew what I was doing, but she also knew I was being honest. That these people were my friends, and that I owed it to them to be the best I could be on their side, not just… hiding. I think she hated feeling proud of me.

"Oh." Rarity looked down. "I-I'm sorry princess. I just thought…" She gulped, shaking her head.

Celestia's smile was sad. "Sunset has grown to care for Twilight, Rarity… I am glad that she attempted to stop my student. But Twilight can be very stubborn."

"I'm just glad Spike is in Ponyville taking care of the library," Fluttershy said bitterly. "And that he can't see what Twilight is turning into."

"Fluttershy!" Rainbow Dash gasped. "What's wrong with you?"

"Killing others should never be an option!"

"ENOUGH!" Luna's voice boomed across the room. "I will continue reading now."

My relationship with Sunset has become very interesting, but as much as I want to talk about that and all the things I have theorized about magic here… even a method so I don't use all of her diary's space… I can't ignore what's going on right now. I'm sorry if I'm ranting, it's just so hard to say this.

Things were going well at the beginning of the mission. We were going to rescue a VIP, try to avoid conflict as much as possible and evacuate as soon as we had the package. Point A to point B to point C. Couldn't be more simple.

But we were ambushed. A siren name Aria, who has been modified horribly by the Elders into a being they call The Assassin killed Galahad and Ndlovu, and then captured me. Another alien, of a type we hadn't seen before, shot this strange bomb that completely melted Monique and splashed Kevin's arm. Alejandra was in the pickup zone waiting for us to catch up so she was ordered to evacuate.

Luna ignored the horrified and sickened looks in Twilight's friends, glancing at Celestia. "It was my understanding that Starswirl had destroyed those beasts."

Celestia shook her head. "It appears that he didn't have the stomach for it... " She sighed. "I wonder how many lives more that decision will cost."

Luna frowned and continued reading.

I watched my friends die. I… I knew it was a possibility. Galahad never minced words on that. He never took out the horrible parts of it. We watched videos of entire teams being wiped out. We knew… we knew it was a possibility.

We've never been naive, princess… we have death and we've had war in Equestria… these concepts are things we understand—we see it in nature, we have predators and creatures that would kill us without hesitation in the Everfree or the wastelands.

I knew it—all of that—and yet, Princess, even when I knew it might happen and that one of us might die I didn't...I'm sorry... I have to force myself to write this.

If I keep it inside I feel like I will explode.

I was captured. I was transported to a nearby building and Aria and I talked about many things… at one point Kevin woke up… he couldn't take it. He snapped, he lost all control and he… he took his own life.

Pinkie was holding Fluttershy, who had broken down as the reading continued. "Twilight…" Pinkie whispered. "I'm so sorry."

"Ah can't even—" Applejack looked away, hurt and angry. "How can that be a decision anypony would make when there's a chance you'll live?"

"Mayhaps my sister and I should read this in private," Luna said. "It appears to be too—"

Rainbow Dash flew up above the princess, ready to say something.

"No." It was quiet, but they all heard it. Fluttershy sniffed, giving Pinkie a thankful look. "No. I want to hear it. I need to know."

Luna matched glances with the others, finding only the same conviction. "Very well then."

Sunset and I managed to communicate thanks to the Element. There's something going on there with Sunset but .

The Commander launched a rescue mission and Sunset and her team got me out, and took out Aria for now. She can't die. She'll return later, and she knows Sunset and I are from Equestria.

When we got home, I found out what had happened. We had been betrayed by that son of a bitch by Michael. I'm sorry princess, I… I don't want to swear but I'm so angry!

He passed the details of our mission to ADVENT. That bastard His betrayal was at the cost of the lives of my friends! He took good people away from me. People who he had eaten with, and laughed with ,and bled with, and trained with!

How could he do this, Princess? How could he send us all to die just to save his own hide? How could anypony do this kind of thing and live with themselves?

The room was quiet.

"How… can you betray your friends?" Rainbow Dash asked, sitting down. "If you make a mistake… o-or an accident, or if you were tricked… I could understand but—intentionally sending them to die?"

Luna shook her head sadly. "May you never live to learn that, Rainbow Dash."

I want him dead. I want him dead more than I've wanted anything. And I know it's wrong! I know I shouldn't—I know that it won't bring them back!

And I know I won't feel better… and it won't stop my tears any more than writing all of this down has.

And it won't fix any of this or what I saw or how much I hate myself for living through it and them being gone.

I never thought I would say this of anyone, ever, princess.

But, by all that's sacred and magical and honest… I want him dead. And I can't stop thinking about how much I hate him!

Luna paused and sighed. "There is no more writing. That was the last of Twilight's message."

Fluttershy slowly stood up and walked out of the room.

"I'll uh," Rainbow Dash got up. "I'll check on her."

"Shucks," Applejack managed to mutter. "Ah never imagined…"

"Can you blame her?" Rarity asked, using a handkerchief to wipe her eyes. "She saw many of her friends die because one of them decided that whatever it is they wanted was more important than the lives of everyone they knew. That such a selfish beasts could exist…"

"Ah don't blame her," Applejack sighed.

"Twilight must be really, really super-duper sad right now…" Pinkie said. "She's always tried to see the best in everypony and now one of her friends betrayed her like that." She gulped. "I wish I could be there for her and bring her some cupcakes."

"Sister," Luna spoke up. "You should write to your student."

"I know, Luna," Celestia said. "I need to write to them both. If you don't mind, I'll do it on my own."

Luna and the three remaining ponies looked at each other, but one by one, they left Celestia alone.

o.0.o End Chapter 65 o.0.o

Chapter 66: Musings

View Online

Ranger

Chapter 66: Musings

By Wanderer D

The Avenger hovered over the grand canyon. Far below, little rivlets flowed, and nature continued its normal cycle. For all the destruction and reconstruction of human cities, the aliens had done, they had stayed away from the wilds for the most part.

It had been initially theorized, in the early days of XCOM that the alien's interest in Earth was because of the planet's immense natural resources. But it was clear that what they wanted was with humans themselves, and that they could care less about the planet.

Deadwood thought about this, looking down at the distant ground. He stood, mostly hidden and ready at the edge of the hull.

He nodded at the Commander, who stood at the front of two rows of soldiers and on either side of the hatch where they had all marched out. Griffon team was out on a mission, so they wouldn't be here. Still, Dragon and Menace were present, and his own team, Wolf, would be in charge of the execution.

To the left of the hatch stood Dragon team, led by Fei Hung Yeung, aka "Ember"; along with her teammates: Fabio "Fridge" Giordano, Gerry "Security" Doyle, Bjorn "Breaker" Karlsen, Sarah "Coyote" Hawkins, and Greg "Trojan" Rose.

On the opposite side was Menace; Sunset Shimmer, aka "Bloody Sunset"; Pratal Mox; Elena "Outrider" Dragunova; Jane "The Quarian" Kelly, and Laetitia "Magister" Deciere. On their side was also Twilight "Princess" Sparkle, and Alejandra Acevedo.

Closer to him, at the end of both lines and to the side of them all, was the superior officer lineup: The Hive Queen, Central, "Lily" Shen, Tygan and Annette Durand, from old XCOM. If things had been different, Galahad would be there with them.

Behind the lines presented by both teams, stood most of the regular staff—with the exception of those that were not currently busy monitoring transmissions and keeping the Avenger flying—including his old friends, Paula Graca and Shintaro Katsu.

Deadwood grunted. He hadn't had a chance to talk to them lately. And this whole traitor thing… with XCOM being this group of people, plus the ones on missions, of course, it wasn't a big surprise that everyone felt betrayed when they welcomed others as family. Once you joined the cause… well...

That a traitor would exist among their ranks was… in the realm of possibility, but the hoops someone would have to go through to infiltrate the Avenger were… extensive. The sad truth was that Michael Cruz had probably come to XCOM with a true desire to fight the Elders, but had discovered—much to his own dismay—that he was a coward deep down.

It was easy to think about who was a coward and who wasn't. Deadwood himself had been much like Twilight Sparkle in that sense… at the beginning, he had been wimpy and emotional and had—and thankfully still was—been sickened at the thought of shooting anyone. But like her, that didn't make him a coward.

Empathy was something quickly lost in their line of work. Especially his. And for as long as he would maybe still live, he hoped he'd keep feeling regret for the lives he might have to take. Aliens were a little easier, given that they didn't look human, but now that he'd had a few drinks with Mox… he'd had to steel himself more often than before.

In all that time, however, he had never considered selling out his teammates. Anyone in the Avenger. They were a small village. Or a large family. He understood fear well enough. When he was young, he had wondered if he had what it took to take a bullet for a teammate. And after doing so more than once… he still wondered if the next time, he wouldn't get cold feet.

Treason however—and this type of treason, at the cost of your friends—was something that he could not abide. And, had Chrysalis sent him and his pack to find Michael, he would have probably "accidentally" killed the bastard.

Speaking of which… the hatch opened and his pack escorted the traitor out. Kirill "All In" Semyenov, and Carol "Shogun" Wood walked at the front, their rifles at the ready. Behind them, hands chained, Michael Cruz stumbled forward, a haunted look in his eyes.

Deadwood noticed that he cringed as he passed by Sunset, then averted his eyes from Twilight and Alejandra. Good. At least he felt guilt. Not that it would do him any good. Behind him, completing the escort were his two last pack members: Szymon "Haunt" Zajac, Brigitte "Jaws" Durand, and Sam "Seabreeze" Kim, all grim faced and staring with judging eyes at the back of the traitor.

Loyalty was a big thing for Wolf. Even though seeing one in the wild was all but impossible now, Deadwood had taken the spirit of a wolf pack and made it a daily part of their routine. His team valued loyalty above all else. Loyalty to each other. To XCOM. To their fellow soldiers. To Earth.

Treason was an insult to all that XCOM and Wolf stood for. And it was time for the prize of such to come to a head. It was time to see what type of coward the traitor was.

Michael was escorted to the edge of the hull, where he could look down at Earth, all around him. Wolf then formed a line a few feet in front of him, rifles at the ready.

"Michael Cruz," Chrysalis spoke up. "Back in the old days, we had a process for dealing with Traitors. We have followed that, as much as possible. Your case was presented not only before the senior officers of XCOM, but also to the leaders of the other factions that support us.

"We all discussed the nature of your crime. And the cost. When presented with a chance to explain yourself, your words were selfish. Your disposition guilty. You chose to abandon your sworn duty, your world, your friends, and your honor for the sake of an easy life."

Chrysalis' eyes narrowed. "Were it up to me alone, I'd let you go to ADVENT and experience their… "gratitude." As little as you sent them, you still have some knowledge of XCOM that might benefit them and in the off chance you have additional information you might still share with them, I'll simply pass on judgement now.

"For this crime of treason you have committed, you are dishonorably discharged. Your name will never be listed with the heroes who so far have given their lives for our cause. Some of those lives, that blood, is in your hands. You are to be executed now, overlooking the world you chose to betray and the facing the people you turned your back on earlier. Do you have any last words?"

"Mercy!" Michael shouted. "Please! Y-you all know me… please!" His eyes searched the crowds seeking some sort of pity, an assurance that someone would step in to stop his fate from happening.

But all he saw was contempt, in all but Twilight Sparkle, who looked at him with hurt and disappointment. And somehow, that made things so much worse.

"Please!" he begged. "I was just afraid! I didn't know what I was doing! T-they offered to let me live away from the killing! You know what it's like!"

Chrysalis tilted her head. "Yes. We all know what it's like to live every day as if it were our last. To know that at any point, in any mission, our lives might end." Her eyes narrowed. "We all know fear. And we all face it. And we all make a choice to live and battle for each other, instead of betraying our brothers and sisters."

Michael was crying now, obviously less with guilt and more with terror, he shakily stood up, stepping back until his heel scrapped the end of the hull. For a coward like him, who had sold the lives of others in order to survive, facing a firing squad was too much.

"I won't let you… I won't let you take my life…" he muttered. "Even if it's the last thing I do!"

As Chrysalis had predicted—and shared with Deadwood, Sunset and Ember—Michael cried out in a desperate defiance and let himself fall back, in a vain attempt to control—at least—the manner of his death. But as he fell back, he turned his head and saw Deadwood aiming his rifle.

Just before Michael's brains were scattered into the wind, Deadwood knew… that the traitor had realized that in the end, he had had no control of his fate anymore. That even his choice to end his own life had been denied.

'And in some way, Deadwood thought, 'knowing that makes the wasted bullet worth it.

Sunset sat alone in the corner table at the bar.

Her thoughts were on what had happened earlier, on her reaction and transformation when Michael had betrayed them.

No. Not them. Twilight.

More and more her relationship with the alicorn evolved into something much closer. Twilight was like… what Sunset would imagine a sister would be. Maybe it was because of how they both came from the same world, and both had an affinity for magic, and both had grown under Celestia's wing.

It worried her. Not because she thought any less of herself for feeling concern for Twilight. That was natural. But the fact that she felt so protective of her. Had things been different, she knew, deep inside that she'd absolutely loathe the nerd.

In a way, she was aware that she was still jealous of Twilight's success at becoming a princess. It still nagged her that Celestia hadn't… just told her how that worked. That she was denied that chance, in a way. But… she also didn't resent what she had gotten here. All her effort was noted. When she went above and beyond, it was recognized. Encouraged, even.

She'd earned her promotions through sweat and blood, and had the loyalty of her team. And yet, it appeared as if her Equestrian blood still called for her. Was it nostalgia for a world long abandoned? For a mother that never was? Or was it her thirst for power?

Sunset allowed herself to smile a little. Being back in Equestria, she had felt magic burning through her veins like fire. It had burned through her… deliciously cleansing and warming. Every inch, every atom of her had been alive with power and promise. She was well aware of her reserves before leaving Equestria, during her stay on Earth and upon her return that fateful day.

The amount of magic her body could store now… it was unheard of in anything other than an alicorn. Powerful unicorns had had a two thirds of her reserves alone, she had no doubt, and her careful use and exploration of magic in this world had made her keenly aware of just how much she could do with it, how much more she could accomplish if she had the Element bonded to her and not Twilight.

With that… having the Element bonded to her, what couldn't she do? She could feel it, reaching out to her, promising whispers of magic and power and—a sudden image of red scales covering her arms, hands ending in obsidian-black claws, flames of magical fire licking her eyes, and a thirst, body-shivering, almost sexual need for blood.

Sunset jerked, returning to reality as she scrambled back. She stared down at her hands, checking her arms, her face, her head in case horns had suddenly appeared, but she was still herself. Still Sunset.

She glanced around the bar, thankful that it was still empty and dragged a hand down her face, shrinking back into the couch. "What the hell… what the hell was that…"

Before she could think further on that, the object of her earlier thoughts walked in, holding the diary under her arm. She scanned the room and noticed Sunset, making her way to her.

Sunset could only hope she didn't look as shaken as she felt.

"Hey," Twilight said, taking a seat across from Sunset. "Celestia wrote to us."

Sunset blinked. "Not to you?"

Twilight shook her head, not meeting her eyes. "No, I… this letter she wrote for both. I… already read it," she added, passing the diary to Sunset.

"Is it bad?" she asked, but Twilight just shook her head.

"I just have a lot to think about," she replied. "I'll go to the barracks or the Lover's Aft. In case anyone needs me."

Sunset watched Twilight walk away and sighed, opening the diary.

My dear Twilight and Sunset,

This must be a hard time for you both. As quaint as it sounds, it is never easy to deal with a betrayal like you two did. It's natural to feel hatred for those that would do this, and natural as well for you to want their punishment to be appropriate to their crime… even at times cruel, just for the sake of making them feel a little of what pain they have caused you.

I can only hope that the punishment is appropriate, and it doesn't leave hatred for this man. He betrayed you, but he'll be gone, and his legacy will be one of disdain and contempt. He won't be remembered.

I was not happy to read that Twilight had gone on a mission such as this, but having lived thousands of years and seen many a friend go to war and never return, knowing that I could have changed their fate had I gone with them—it weighs on me years after they would have died of natural causes.

I know that it is selfish of me to not want to lose a former student and a daughter, but I wish you could both stay and be safe. Even better… come back. I realize though, that things are not that easy right now.

It was unfortunate, perhaps that your friends, Twilight, were here when Luna and I read this. I fear my little ponies were still hoping that your situation would have not turned so grim. As you expected, Fluttershy didn't take things well.

The portal remains closed, and you are both in a situation that demands actions such as the ones you both take. I'm sorry you had to live through a betrayal such as this; that your faith in others will be shaken, but you must remember that you always have each other, your friends and family here, and all of the others that have come to trust and respect you on that side of the mirror.

For each individual such as this traitor, there will always be a hundred more worthy of your friendship.

I miss you both, and I hope I have a chance to talk… or write… to each of you individually soon.

-Celestia

Sunset closed the book and leaned back, taking a deep breath.

"I never said you could call me daughter," she whispered, covering her eyes with her forearm.

o.0.o End Chapter 66 o.0.o

Chapter 67: Disconnect

View Online

Ranger

Chapter 67: Disconnect

By Wanderer D

Can you help me remember how to smile…

It was late, and the day's shenanigans had not helped her mood at all. It also didn't help that that song was playing again.

It brought back memories.

Too many of them, but most importantly… her voice, singing.

Wasn't it enough that she had to see her reincarnated every day? That she had to listen to the sound of her voice, her exact inflection, her exact quirks with every report?

She glanced to one of the shelves in her quarters, where an old bottle of cognac sat, gathering dust. It was tempting. So tempting.

"Commander, Tygan's voice came out from the screen, and Chrysalis turned off the music, grateful for the distraction, and centered her attention on her lead scientist.

"I hope you have some good news, Tygan," she said. "We could all use a boost."

"I have completed the Lancer autopsy and made very interesting discoveries. I believe this should cheer up Lieutenant Shimmer and other rangers."

Chrysalis blinked at the screen as schematics populated it. After a moment studying them, she grinned. "Tell Shen to send them to production. this comes at a good time, Tygan, we're about ready for our next mission."

"Understood, Commander." Tygan could be heard typing through the comms. "What should I focus my research on now?"

Chrysalis pulled up a list of projects, scrolling down and selecting one. "I think it's about time Shen and you collaborated a bit closer… bring Sparkle in on this as well…"

"I foresee a multitude of possibilities stemming from this research, Commander. The science is ready to begin."

Chrysalis snorted, just thinking of what Vahlen would have said to that. She pulled up the file she was looking at. This would give time for her researchers to finish the next project, hopefully. She pressed a button. "Central, bring Lt. Shimmer, Mox and Outrider to my quarters. I have a mission for them."

She shook her head, smirking at the bottle and allowing herself a moment of relishing a small victory. Another day where it would keep gathering dust, rather than burying memories.

"Hey, Jane."

Jane Kelly looked over from her half-dismantled GREMLIN, where she was messing around with the code. "Hey, Sunset, what's up?"

"I can't seem to find Twilight and the Commander called me over. Do you think you could give this to her?"

Jane blinked at the large book that was handed to her. Curious, she flipped the pages, noticing the strange hieroglyphics within. "Um, what is this?"

"My diary," Sunset said. "It's written in another language."

"No shit," Jane deadpanned. "Why don't you give it to her yourself after you meet with the Commander?"

Sunset bit her lip. "I have the feeling that Twilight is avoiding me."

"Any idea why?"

Sunset shook her head, releasing a deep sigh. "Maybe she's still mulling over what happened today. Maybe she blames—"

"I honestly doubt that," Jane interrupted, glaring at her. "There's nothing to blame there. I'll look her up after I put back together my GREMLIN."

"Thanks," Sunset said. "Wish me luck."

Jane snorted.

Sunset headed out of the barracks, and out to the hallways of the Avenger. Following the usual route, she soon found herself in the Commander's Quarters, along with Mox, Elena and Bradford.

"Ah, good, you made it," Chrysalis droned. "I was wondering if you've gotten the message."

"I'm sorry, Commander."

Chrysalis rolled her eyes and pressed her lips. "In any case, you're here. Please take a seat, Sunset, we have much to discuss."

The small holographic table turned on and Chrysalis summoned a map. "This is located in India. Although the final destination of the mecs and equipment you and Jane found out about wasn't our objective, we found out that they reach a resupply warehouse somewhere in this area.

"Our local contacts have already confirmed that they have found the location of this place, although it is not easily accessible. There is a high likelihood that we can find the final destination of the equipment that is transported there, and follow that lead. It is our belief, that since there are no more aerial pickups from