Back and There Again

by Sun Sage

First published

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

This 'Earth' is so close, and yet so far from anything Twilight described on the other side of that mirror. How is Rarity going to get back to her home when she can't understand anyponybody? And didn't Twilight say she became human, and humans didn't use magic? Yet clearly some did... and that wasn't even counting all the devices that might as well have been magical, as far as Rarity was concerned.

Who knew one strange little gem could cause so many problems? They'd taken it from her after it'd brought her straight into a lab for study, but... If she ever found it again, she was definitely going to let Spike eat it. As soon as she got home. And by Celestia, she was going to get home!

...Will Rarity ever find her way home? Is the gem that brought her to Earth the key, and is there more to the factions maneuvering around her appearance?

To complicate matters, this is an Earth recovering from its first alien invasion (Rarity being technically the second, then). ...Or does that actually explain things? No, no it doesn't. But it will.

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To go with the Teen rating (or rather to explain it) there is light profanity and violence. I don't believe either are at a level where the warning tags are needed, but I'll mention it at least.
There may be some darker, more explicit moments in flashbacks, but I'll save those for Interludes.

1. Shopping List: Milk and a Marshmallow

View Online

A soft blue glow lit the surrounding forest as Rarity considered her circumstances. Her mysterious benefactor had given her directions to follow, and really she shouldn’t have been considering a deviation. And yet… that was almost certainly another unicorn she was sensing.

It was all the more odd since she’d never had that feeling before. ‘Sensing’ another pony was not a thing, at least not for the fashionista. Perhaps some unicorn guard somewhere had a spell for that; Twilight probably did. Rarity grimaced at the thought; she missed Twilight, all her friends really but in this case… Twilight would be able to handle this situation. She’d have already flown or teleported to wherever she needed to be, with a dozen other spells ready to aid her. She wouldn’t have sat in a lab being experimented on for weeks. She wouldn’t have unearthed a gem that teleported her to another world while she stared dumbly at it. And she wouldn’t be sitting in a strange forest wondering whether she should proceed to some meeting point or detour to explore a feeling that was somewhere between ‘urge’ and ‘hunch’.

Then again, Rarity had long respected the pull of inspiration. She turned from the laid out path towards what appeared to be electric lights beyond the forest. And really, the weeks in the lab she’d appeared in hadn’t been so bad. The guards were intimidating but guards were supposed to be, and the magic they seemed to have felt artificial. That wasn’t a bad thing; any more than a carefully made painting was worse than a natural landscape. Both had their place, their own beauty. It was simply sensing anything about it that was new. When she’d first arrived on this world, it had been the second most jarring thing to hit her. The magic around her was so rough and uneven that she actually noticed it for the first time. It was like knowing that there was air everywhere but having never, until that moment, felt wind. Now, she was feeling eddies and currents, sensing changes in pressures and flows. It had given her something to focus on and work with in between sessions with the scientists in the lab.

Thus she knew, without knowing how she knew, that the source of magic she was now heading towards was as natural as any unicorn’s. She wondered if it was another unicorn being held by these humans. She hoped not. Her own experience hadn’t amounted to much worse than a very extended physical (boredom, minor humiliation, and brief bits of pain), and she suspected that had to do with the same doctor who had, just hours prior, helped her escape and given her instructions as to where to go from there. The same instructions she was now deviating from. Instructions that had been delivered via a strange device that resembled a tablet made of metal and glass that spoke and contained pictures… because none of the humans spoke Equish.

That had been the most jarring thing upon arrival. She was familiar, second hoof, with a world of bipedal beings called humans and the rather strange, nearly nonexistent nature of magic on their world. Twilight had described her exploits there thoroughly, with each of her friends taking an interest for a variety of reasons. At least the fact that they always wore clothes had held true. As to the rest...

Rarity was now under the assumption that the mirror portal was more useful than simply making Twilight human when she went through. It also sent her to a friendly town where human versions of her friends lived and gave her the ability to communicate. The damnable gem had done nothing of the sort. If she ever saw it again she fully intended to snatch it, have Twilight disenchant whatever magic it had, and watch with cathartic delight as Spike crunched the blasted thing into powder. ...Spike. Rarity sniffed and shook her head to fight away the sting in her eyes. He had to be terrified for her; surely they all were, and Sweetie Belle… Rarity’s lower lip trembled and she grit her teeth. She would not break down now! She would find this other unicorn, and together they would meet with the human doctor who’d helped her and find a way back to Equestria. Rarity would accept no dark thoughts about any other possibilities.

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Some short distance away, three humans sat in a limousine, watching icons on a tablet that Rarity would’ve found familiar. The one holding the tablet, who would’ve also been familiar, swore. “Sir, she’s gone off course.”

The balding, grey haired man she’d addressed chuckled at hearing this. He wore Marine Corps Dress Blues like a second skin, and even in the limo’s interior he leaned comfortably on a cane as he watched the tablet’s display. “I can see that. To be fair, Corporal, she did seem to hesitate first. I wouldn’t take it as complete distrust. Further, I commend you for managing to communicate well enough to get her this far.”

The corporal, one Valerie Martinovich, didn’t seem satisfied with that. “You say that, sir, but I couldn’t bring myself to try talking to her. I let the tablet’s voice program do that. I chickened out. Maybe if I’d tried harder to-”

“Val, I think you should look at where she’s heading.”

She blinked and peered up at their driver. “Knight Trellis?”

He snorted. “Call me Donovan already; we’ve talked about this. Anyway there’s a grocery store in that direction, on the edge of the town of Damascus.”

“You’re saying she’s hungry?”

“Well, I would be, but that’s not what I meant. I think she’s sensing something in that direction. General, if I’m not mistaken…”

General Albert Grumman grinned. “You’re not. I think we know why she hesitated, and changed direction despite knowing nothing of the region. This proves Corporal Martinovich’s theory that she can sense aetheric concentrations. I never believed I’d see this in my lifetime. Frankly, it’s too good an opportunity to pass up. Corporal, how soon before Colonel Owens’ security people repair their computers and figure out she’s gone?”

“Thirty minutes, tops, sir, if we’re lucky.”

“Very well then. Donovan, if you’d be so kind?”

“Shall I take us to the local grocer, then, General?”

“Certainly, Knight Trellis. I could use a gallon of milk anyway.”

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Aiden had long ago decided that noise canceling headphones were among humanity’s greatest inventions. There was simply nothing that could compare to the power of shutting out most of the world, just for a little while, and letting the music take you where it wanted. They’d long been a source of solace for the twenty-five year old, both at his current job stocking grocery store shelves and his previous, more stressful profession.

Regrettably, they were no match for a set of knuckles rapping forcefully on the break room table where he sat. With a sigh, he removed one earbud and opened one grey eye to look up at the source of the disturbance. Opening both eyes would have failed to express his displeasure at the interruption. Unacceptable. “Luke, I’m on lunch. Mark has the floor anyway.”

Luke was unimpressed. The tall, lanky farm kid was barely eighteen, but like many raised on a farm he’d grown up quickly due to the responsibilities expected of him. It was all the more reason Aiden knew he could be direct with the ‘kid’. It was also the reason Luke was just as direct. “Who do you think sent me to get you? We need you to come look at something, because you’re an Esper.”

Aiden opened both eyes wide as his blood went cold. “I… uh… no I’m… doesn’t...” Very smooth cover, he was surely in the clear.

With eyes rolling, Luke showed Aiden his phone. Specifically, he showed him a queued up recording of Aiden stocking shelves. To the point, it was Aiden stocking shelves with telekinesis, while reading on his own phone. Aiden stared at the damning evidence before him while continuing to fail at being brilliant. “You’re uh… not supposed to have your phone with you on the floor.”

“You’re reading on yours in the video! Plus that’s for the day shift when the store’s open. No one on night shift cares. ...No one cares that you’re an Esper, either. Except Craig, but he’s a jackass.”

Aiden snorted. Craig was that, certainly, but he was still reeling. So stupid, how the hell had he not noticed someone sneaking up on him and filming him? Ridiculous, he’d clearly been too absorbed in whatever he’d been reading. And now… “Wait, what do you mean no one cares?”

“Just what I said. Everyone here’s known you for years now, long before they figured it out and started watching for a time when you did something using magic. You’re alright, so no one cares. Except Craig.”

“Yeah, but he’s a jackass.”

“Right. So now, because you’re an Esper and we trust you as a coworker and friend, we need you to look at something.”

Friend… Aiden felt a slight smile tugging at his face. He’d worried about getting revealed and nothing had even come of it. The negative part of his mind reminded him that it was a reasonable worry. Espers weren’t in favor, not anymore. During the war with the Oni-koru, they’d been guardian angels, awakened among people all over the world to defend humanity in Earth’s darkest hour. But that darkest hour had been over for almost six years, and now Espers were more worrisome than a defeated alien race. It didn’t help that more than a few of them had gone crazy either during or after the fighting. A crazy person is unfortunate, even tragic. A crazy person with magic powers is somewhat beyond that.

Public opinion had also been twisted by the way the media had slanted the stories following the war. Aiden imagined how it must have been for veteran soldiers returning from unpopular wars. Add to that a fear of the unknown and powers that were often all too reminiscent of the invaders’ and most Espers just wanted to live quiet lives well out of the public eye. It was understandable from both sides, he thought. Humanity wanted to move on from a war that had spanned the planet and left over half a billion dead in the course of ten years. Espers, who were humans too, dammit!, also wanted to move on from the war that, for most of them, had taken everything away at a horribly young age and replaced it with nearly a decade of strife. There were a few who wanted special recognition as saviors, but not many.

Aiden felt that honor went far more to those that gave their lives, and those numbers included far more ‘normal’ soldiers, brave men and women who had fought alongside those few Espers in all the years of conflict. Aiden remembered every name he owed his life to. A set of knuckles rapped on the table again. He blinked.

Luke was shaking his head. “You were spacing out again.”

“Come on, man, this is a lot to take in. Some Espers have gotten beaten up by gangs and such. Getting exposed is no joke nowadays.”

“You say that, but…” Whatever he was going to say was interrupted as his phone beeped. “Oh, it’s Mark… he says ‘get your asses down here.’”

Aiden couldn’t help but laugh. “Down where though? Seriously, what am I looking at that you need an Esper for?”

“Well…” Luke looked away, looking uncertain. “We have a unicorn locked in the produce prep room.”

“...What.”

“A unicorn. It’s like a horse, but with a horn on its head. Though this one’s a bit small, so more like a unicorn pony? Or maybe it’s not fully grown. It’s head is weirdly shaped too, and it has the biggest blue eyes you’ve ever seen. And I think it’s a mare, because-”

“Luke I know what a damn unicorn is-”

“There’s something very feminine about the way it looks and moves… and yells and whines,” he continued.

“...What.”

“It seems pretty disappointed with its predicament and was being a bit dramatic about it.”

“...Give it an apple. Unicorns love apples.”

“That’s probably true, actually. I should have thought of that. But there’s probably some in there with it, so...”

Aiden facepalmed. “Luke I’ve never seen anything like a unicorn. The apple thing was a joke, since it’s a horse, pony… something.” He sighed; there was no help for it if Mark was texting from across the building. “So okay, let’s go,” he said as he got up from the table. “Ah, and speaking of how weird this is... Luke. If this is a prank I’m going to teleport you to the top of the highest tree in the area and leave you there.”

Luke stumbled a bit, surprised. “You can do that?”

Aiden chuckled. “...Sort of, yes. It’s not teleportation exactly. It’s something I can do that’s linked to my special talent.” Aiden headed out of the break room, mentally shooing away his annoyance at still looking up about a foot to Luke’s eye level. The kid was tall, but still… Stupid growth stunting physical traumas… “How much do you know about Espers?”

“Not too much beyond what’s in the news. You have special powers like out of a comic book. That’s why someone came up with the name ‘Esper’. You all have telekinesis, and a particular power you’re good at that’s based on some part of your personalities.”

Was that what the documentaries and such said? “You’re part right. The telekinesis is correct, and we also have some physical advantages from the energy suffusing us. But actually the ‘special power’ is based on the piece of Oni-Koru tech that woke us up. ...Ah, that’s Esper parlance for when we got our powers.”

“Obviously.”

“...Right. Well, mine are from a device called a Gravity Drive. It sort of folds space so as to deliver supplies or the like over a short distance without using a ship. It’s more like a magic tunnel than really teleporting. I knew a guy who could do the real deal.”

“How did one of those wake you up?” Luke asked as they approached a group of their coworkers gathered around the locked, and now barred and barricaded, produce prep door.

“When the Onis attacked Seattle, they dropped one of them full of soldiers and materiel pretty close to my family’s car on I-5. The shock wave triggered my genetic lottery ticket, and killed pretty much everyone else in the area.”

Luke winced. “I’m sorry. How… how old were you?”

Aiden smiled weakly and squeezed the taller man’s shoulder briefly. “Ten. And it’s okay; it was a long time ago.” He turned towards the crowd, in particular one individual among the four that were there. “Hey, Mark. I know you’re a meat and potatoes kind of guy, but veggies aren’t that scary. What’s with the door?”

Mark Millen was a solid looking man in his mid forties. A veteran of the war, he’d always shown Aiden a certain gruff kindness. It didn’t extend to patience for being kept waiting, so naturally snark met snark. “There’s an alien on the other side of it that looks like a unicorn the size of a wolfhound. It struck me as odd, so I figured I’d let my top oddball handle it.”

Aiden snorted, not able to suppress a grin. “Thanks… actually no really, thanks. Unicorn alien aside, how long have you known about me?”

“Since I hired you. I got a special request to do so from an old Marine buddy of mine. You’ve got more friends than I think you realize. I might’ve hired you anyway, you gave a good interview, but the background check might have raised some flags, so...”

Aiden blinked, feeling a slight burn in his eyes. People weren’t going to stop surprising him today. “R-right. Okay so… unicorn… here… how?”

“I was stocking natural foods when I saw a flicker of light around the door… which then opened on its own after unlocking itself. In walks this other flicker that wanders around in produce… like one of the Oni’s using a stealth field that wasn’t calibrated right. I pretended not to look but then I dropped a jar. That spooked it; it dropped whatever power was cloaking it and ran in here. I followed and locked the door, then barred it with the broom and then a display case. I yelled for everyone to get over here and had Luke fetch you since you probably had those damn headphones on again. Clear enough?”

“Yup.”

“So now you’re here and you can deal with the alien. Last I saw they didn’t look like unicorns so maybe you can just give it an apple.”

“Hey, that’s what I said!” Aiden laughed. Mark’s observation was correct. The Oni-koru looked mostly human, if said human was going out of his or her way to look demonic. They often had multiple horns, occasionally wings, tails, three or more eyes… frankly they matched mythological depictions of demons and the like from various mythologies. But, and speaking of mythologies, Aiden had never seen one look like a unicorn. He felt, now that he was this close, something on the other side of the door. It was a strong feeling, but not threatening. On the contrary it was almost familiar, like a pleasant scent he couldn’t quite place. “But yeah… so I’ll just… deal with it then. Whatever that’s going to mean.”

Two of the others moved the displays barring the door. Craig held the broom and a frigid stare in Aiden’s direction. Mark spoke up as Aiden moved to the door. “Aiden, I don’t know why but, I don’t think you should hurt it.” Craig sputtered but offered no words as he removed the broom from the door’s handle. Mark gave him a quelling look, clearly not the first. “It’s just a hunch, and the reason I didn’t go grab my rifle while this thing was trapped in here.”

Aiden nodded, looking at the door handle as he slowly reached towards it, gathering energy in case this was a trap, or a prank. There had been no noise, yelling or whining, from within since he’d gotten here.

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It wasn’t hard for Rarity to deduce that her strange sensation of a unicorn had pulled her to a grocery store. It further didn’t take a detective to figure out that, despite the lights within, the building was currently closed.

Well, fabulous work, Rarity. You’ve managed to find the eeeevil grocery store where the poor unicorn is held captive. No doubt she is being tortured unspeakably. They’re probably eating meat in front of her and laughing maniacally as she tries valiantly to ignore the smell of cooked flesh. She snorted derisively at herself before her stomach growled. ...Unless it’s fish… frankly I could go for a tuna steak about now.

Between suddenly realized hunger and a desire to see this through, she examined the glass and steel door only to behold that the latch for the deadbolt was clearly visible on the other side of the frame. It would be effortless to open, but Rarity paused a moment. There were several carriages parked in front of the building. Cars for short, Twilight had said. Rarity had no real clue how they worked; her attention had drifted when Twilight had started explaining that. But there were six of them, which potentially meant many humans in the building. This called for stealth.

Bending light wasn’t a foreign concept to Rarity. While she preferred using it for mood lighting and such during her fashion shows, it could also be used, in a pinch, to hide certain flaws or wardrobe issues. Starlight Glimmer had a full invisibility spell, of course she would, but Rarity was no Starlight. Still, a bit of bent light might be enough as long as no one looked directly at her. She’d have to make sure that didn’t happen…

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...Well that went splendidly! Not only had she dropped her spell (which had been more difficult to maintain across her entire body than she’d anticipated) when a breaking jar had startled her, but she’d ran blindly into the first hiding place she’d seen. Naturally it had been a room with no other door and now she was locked in. It was the last straw, really. With a growling whine that quickly led into what Sweetie called ‘full Rarity bad day’, she began:

“Of course! Simply marvelous work, darling! You’ve truly outdone yourself! It’ll be back to the lab now, where maybe they can run enough tests to figure out why you’re such a complete idiot!! Oh, why?! Why must I endure such trials?! Oh cruel fate, to maroon me on…” Rarity stopped mid-rant as a deep breath brought a distracting scent. “Wait, are those strawberries?” They certainly were, and under the circumstances Rarity was not above sampling a few. While she’d had better, hunger was the best spice, and so…

She stopped mid chew a minute later as she realized that the unicorn was now getting closer. She’d heard a bit of shuffling around and shouting in the local language while she was, ahem, expressing and then gorging herself. But things were quiet now, and the unicorn was approaching the door. She quickly wiped her mouth with a paper towel from near the room’s metal sink, quite practical that. She then turned to wait and sure enough, the lock clicked from the other side, and door swung slowly open…

Oh, Celestia damn it! That is NOT a unicorn.

Aiden’s eyes went wide. “Holy crap, that’s a goddamn unicorn.”

2. Apples for a Pair

View Online

Rarity took a deep breath and let it out in a long, dramatic sigh. Behind the one who’d opened the door she could see several other humans looking around the edges of the frame. Most notably she saw the tall, youngest looking one she’d met eyes with before ducking into this room and the older, stocky looking one that had shut her in. She had to admit, they at least looked less threatening than most of the lab’s staff. Rather than cold, or outright intimidating, these humans looked surprised, and cautiously curious. Well, except the one standing farthest from the door, holding a broom like he wanted to bludgeon somepony with it. He was staring at her like she was that somepony. He’s clearly the jerkass of the group… but now about their representative…

He was shorter than the others, and fairly thin. The grey eyes and short, dark brown mane on him reminded Rarity that the humans she’d seen weren’t as colorful as what Twilight had described. Perhaps it was a regional thing? She fully intended to compare notes when she got home; there were so many discrepancies.

It was an exercise in futility, but also proper manners, and so Rarity proceeded to introduce herself, holding out a hoof. If she was going back to the lab, she was doing so as a lady. Besides, the human standing before her still felt like a unicorn. He had magic, and it wasn’t crafted like some well designed outfit. It was as much a part of him as his… well they didn’t have coats, but… focus, Rarity… “Ahem. Well! Hello! I am Rarity, and it’s… a pleasure to meet you. This is certainly a lovely store you have, and I do apologize for intruding during closing hours. I erm… may have sampled the strawberries… extensively, but… oh dear I’m rambling aren’t I, and you don’t understand a word of it, of course. So…”

For his part, the human had stopped and his eyes had gone even wider as she began speaking. He had looked back at the others briefly as she rambled on, getting shrugs to match his own clear incomprehension. He snorted lightly, and had a small smile grace his face as he stepped forward and sat down in front of her, putting them closer to eye level. Actually he was a bit shorter than her like that. Was he trying not to intimidate her? He actually looked a bit amused, as if he knew he was doing something silly. She felt oddly at ease; she wouldn’t have used the word trust, but she wasn’t afraid.

And then he gently grasped her hoof, shook it, and spoke in return.

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“Welp, none of us have any idea what you just said, miss, but you have a nice voice? It’s a… very musical sounding language?” She was oddly pretty, as Luke had alluded to. Her eyes: huge, blue, and almost shockingly human looking, were distracting. A deep blue, perhaps indigo, mane framed her face elegantly, despite being rather disheveled. Her nose, or snout, or muzzle... horse terms… struck him as cutely petite and expressive. He really wasn’t sure what to make of it all, and the alabaster horn, matching her somehow pristine coat, seemed to almost thrum in his mind like gentle strings playing in the distance.

He shook his head, trying to focus. “Right, introductions. I’m Aiden. Ehh, full name Aiden Alexander Windborne, named after my great grandfather. Don’t know who or what you are exactly or how you got here, but… on behalf of… well I can’t really speak for…” Aiden rubbed the back of his head with his left hand and realized his right was still gently shaking the unicorn’s hoof. He let go quickly and half turned back to the door. “This is so weird. Mark, what do?”

“Hell if I know, man; you’re the alien expert.”

“What?! I fought big, scary ones with swords and guns and such. Also explosions. I mostly did it by dropping garbage on them, and large rocks. I don’t think that’s the way to go here.” He looked back at the unicorn to see that the nervous smile she’d had (which looked surprisingly human in its recognizability) had been replaced by amusement. In fact, her recently released hoof was now in front of her mouth as she failed to stifle a very refined, feminine giggle.

“Oh and now see? That’s goddamn adorable! Luke, bring us apples! We must parley with the unicorn!”

Luke laughed and flicked a mock salute as he left the door. The unicorn looked between the two and then said something else to Aiden. He shrugged, shaking his head with an apologetic smile, “I’m sorry, we don’t understand you. I’m guessing you’re the same?”

The unicorn hummed questioningly. She then shrugged, with a smile similar to Aiden’s. It was quite odd to witness. Her balance on her hind legs was flawless and the gesture seemed entirely natural. Aiden just stared. “That’s… too weird. I mean the facial expressions were one thing, but…”

“Yeah also, horses can’t move their forelegs like that.”

Aiden looked over his shoulder at Luke, who’d returned with a plastic tray holding two apples. He handed it to Aiden and continued. “Her legs are a bit too thick around her hooves, and while she doesn’t look overweight, she’s curvy in weird ways and her torso is too small. I dunno how a proper equine stomach would fit in there. It’s like someone tried to make a pony look more girly or something. Luke blinked, and then flushed and stepped back. “And…. she’s naked.”

Aiden laughed, holding the tray close to his lap, and watching as the unicorn stared at the apples with undisguised want. “Yeah, so?”

“Aiden, she’s clearly sapient, and naked. That doesn’t bother you?”

“Not if it doesn’t bother her.” He held up the tray, and then nearly dropped it. The familiar feeling from her intensified, coupled with a feeling of power that had been largely dormant. The thrumming strings Aiden swore he was almost hearing increased to a quiet symphony… and her horn lit with a blue aura while a similar one surrounded an apple and pulled it to her lips. She took a rather dainty bite, smiled, and gave a nod and appreciative hum to both Aiden and Luke.

The humans, who’d begun to relax before that display, had gone rigid. She didn’t notice, more interested in her apple. Aiden did. “Alright, relax, guys. It’s just telekinesis; we already knew she could use magic.”

“How strong is she? You can tell that kind of thing, right?” That was Robert, who hadn’t actually spoken until that point. Actually, the man rarely spoke at all. He worked two jobs supporting his family and was generally in zombie mode. Aiden supposed a unicorn floating apples around could wake a man up.

Aiden picked up the second apple and set the tray aside. He offered it to the unicorn, but she shook her head and gestured to him. He grinned and took a bite. Honeycrisp… good choice, Luke. After swallowing, he replied to Robert. “Some Espers can more than others. My perception on that kind of thing is about at low as you get for First Generation Espers.”

Luke whistled quietly. “Geez, you’re First Generation. I thought so when you said Seattle but…”

“Yeah, but it’s not that big a deal. Look point is I can’t sense much because reasons. She’s weaker than me, but not by much at all. She’s also not a fighter, but she’s got excellent control. There’s like zero wasted energy. Holding that apple in your hand would take more power than she’s using. I’m betting it’s a natural talent for her, maybe her whole race.”

For her part, the unicorn kept looking back and forth between them all, clearly a bit annoyed at not having a say in the conversation. Aiden gave her an apologetic shrug before taking another bite. She sighed lightly and did the same.

“You should ask someone from Veritech.”

Aiden nearly coughed up his apple before snapping around to stare at Craig. The man had set the broom aside and had his phone in his hand. “Their logo is on her bracelet, left leg, right there.”

Her what? Looking back at her, specifically her left foreleg, Aiden saw it. “Huh. How’d I miss that?”

“Probably distracted by the magical unicorn friendship thing you have going here. Aren’t you supposed to kill aliens? But this one you can just return. Pretty easy, right? She’s obviously government property. So what you do now is obvious, right?” Craig sounded like he was heating up for a rant.

“Craig, how could you even see this back there?”

“I was filming this whole thing for a couple minutes now. I zoomed in. While you idiots are all ‘oh wow, magic!’ I’m actually doing something.”

Aiden snorted. They were doing something. They were engaged in diplomatic… apple eating. Okay that didn’t even sound better in my head. But Veritech Labs… Colonel Owens is overseeing that place. And… he’s a xenophobic nutjob. How the hell is she even in one piece? Something’s missing here… He pointed at the bracelet. “Hey, can I see that?” Talking didn’t have much point, but he felt even dumber just pointing and gesturing.

The unicorn hummed questioningly, holding her bracelet clad foreleg up slightly before extending it to him. He examined it, realizing how he’d missed it. “This thing has a low level camo field built into it. You won’t notice it yourself unless you specifically look right at it or for it. It won’t affect a camera though, so you saw an image and then you knew it was there, breaking the effect for all of us by speaking up. Hey, nice work, Craig!” Craig coughed in surprise, and probably disgust. It sounded like a ‘harumph’ anyway, but Aiden was too busy to look at his reaction.

Specifically, his fingers were glowing with a dim, orange light and the bracelet snapped off of her leg. She gasped in surprise as it was removed and her eyes were wide as she stared at the broken thing floating between them. Aiden smashed it completely, destroying the transponder he assumed was inside. It would be too late; they likely had company incoming. She’d either escaped the lab, or they’d let her go for whatever reason to track her to… something? Aiden wasn’t sure. They couldn’t be tracking him, or rather wouldn’t be. He’d retired but he wasn’t hidden. Owens could’ve located him with a phone call. Was it a trap? See if the Esper would help an alien escapee? Was she even an alien, or one of Owens’ cybernetic…

“Geh…” Aiden slapped himself with both hands and hopped up to his feet. “Alright we’ve got trouble here. That bracelet meant she was, or is, in Veritech’s possession. That lab’s overseer is a one Colonel Jeffrey Owens,” Craig made a strangled noise as Aiden continued, “and he’s no one I’d hand anyone over to, least of all a peaceful seeming alien. The guy’s nuts. Sooo… Mark, I’m taking the rest of the night off…”

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Rarity was astonished. Things had been progressing well, she thought. True, they couldn’t speak to one another, but they were all being civil, and she’d gotten more to eat. The sitting human, whom she was calling Pipsqueak for now after his brown mane and stature, seemed endearingly kind, as did the younger (though much taller) one, officially called Silo for being tall with a hay-colored mane. The others had spoken up a bit, and even the angry looking one, Sweepy for his clear desire to use that broom, had added something to the conversation. Rarity admitted to herself that her nicknaming skills were not really on point at this late hour.

She’d started considering ways to communicate her need to leave and meet up with her benefactor when Pipsqueak had gestured to her left hoof, and then removed an item from it with his magic. Where did that bracelet come from? That symbol on it was certainly from the lab; Rarity wasn’t likely to forget such a detail. She’d jokingly considered it the place’s official Cutie Mark, and wondered idly if the rather unpleasant looking man in charge of the place had the same symbol somewhere under his clothing. She had yet to see an unclad human so she couldn’t be sure if they had Marks or not. She gasped as Pipsqueak’s magic crushed the bracelet into powder and he slapped himself before jumping quickly to his feet. Rarity edged back from him as he addressed Bouncer, the one who’d locked her in this room. He turned back to her, with a placating look on his face and opened his mouth to speak, for what that would be worth.

And then the whole building shook with the force of an explosion. The muffled sound, like a massive firework detonating outside, drew Rarity’s attention away from the distraction that was Pipsqueak’s aetheric presence. There were three more presences outside: two were the fabrications, and the third… was this what a pegasus might feel like? An Earth Pony? She wasn’t sure, but it wasn’t the same as the guards, or Pipsqueak. Before she could decide what to do about it, a sound she’d come to recognize began repeating… from Pipsqueak’s pants.

-------------

They were all reeling from the explosion, or at least staring out towards it with concern. It had been fairly far off, but…

“What the hell was that?” Craig demanded, staring at Aiden as though he’d know.

Which was fair… he had a good idea. “Offhand I’d say it’s Veritech’s people on their way; I felt that even with my senses. It was a magical energy blast designed to explode, and it was strong.”

“Why are they blowing stuff up outside?” Mark asked. “That sounded like it was in the parking lot.”

Aiden shook his head. “Further away than that, and I don’t know. Maybe she’s not the only escapee? Or maybe-” he cut himself off as his phone began ringing. ...It was almost 3 A.M. and very few people had that number. That wasn’t to say no one he didn’t know could get it though. He took it out and stared at it like it would be the next explosion. The caller ID read ‘unavailable’, naturally.

No help for it… He sighed and took the call. “Hello?”

A cultured, grave sounding voice answered, “You know… the road to Hell is paved with good intentions…”

Aiden’s eyebrows climbed his skull as his eyes did their dinner plate impression. “But…” he grinned; he just couldn’t believe this. “But without them, we wouldn’t need the road.”

On the other end of the line, the voice chuckled dryly. “Indeed so. It’s been a long time, my young friend. Too long. I trust you’ve been well?”

Aiden laughed. “Goddammit, Grumman, I know this isn’t a coincidence so skip the small talk. I know you can’t be working with Owens, so…?”

“Just because you left the service you think you can speak so casually to me, eh?” General Grumman replied with the same chuckle apparent in his words. “We’ll be discussing your lack of discipline before I put you back to work. I have a job for you. And before you remind me, again, that you’re retired, hear me out fully. For now though, put me on speaker, if you would.”

“One thing first, sir. What was that explosion?”

“Ah, you heard that? My driver is having a discussion with a couple of locals who appear to be lost. He’s giving them directions on how to get back to their home as we speak.”

“Uh…” Aiden frowned slightly. “...With explosions?”

“He’s the demonstrative sort.”

It clicked. “Oh no way! Donny boy’s with you?! I haven’t seen him in years.”

“Knight Trellis is currently assigned as my attache, yes. You can catch up later, but for now, speaker please.”

The grin on his face matched a kid at Christmas, and Aiden happily complied. “Sir, yes, sir!”

General Grumman’s voice came through loud and clear, “Gunnery Sergeant Millen, are you there?”

Mark stood a bit straighter as he stared at the source of the authoritative voice. “Yes, sir, this is Gunnery Sergeant Millen. Is that you, General?”

“It is indeed, Gunny Millen. I’m afraid I need to borrow Knight Lieutenant Windborne for the foreseeable future, along with your new acquaintance. I sincerely hope she is unharmed?”

“Ahh… so far as we can tell, sir,” Mark replied.

“Excellent, thank you, Gunny. She will be leaving with young Aiden, and I have a security detachment on the way to make certain no one from Veritech disturbs any of you, and to explain things, at least as much as we know. Rest assured that the alien before you is no threat to humanity, quite the contrary. She doesn’t know it yet, I suspect, but her arrival may be the best news we’ve had since the war ended. All of you have been a part of something historic tonight, and I’ll ask you, for now, to keep it to yourselves. In due time, I imagine you’ll be able to appreciate it more.”

Shaking his head, Mark laughed wryly, “No one would believe it anyway.”

“Not yet. But in time, I think that will change. Mr. Windborne, if you’d come out to the parking lot along with the unicorn-”

“Wait so she’s actually a unicorn?” Aiden interjected.

“...What else would she be?”

“Well, I mean… unicorns are myths, so I was just… I… hmm… I have no follow up here.”

“I will explain everything I’m able to, young man, but we need to get moving. I’d prefer to lead Veritech’s people away before my team arrives and we end up in a firefight outside your building. They can shoot at us all they like, especially with you in the vehicle.”

“Right… erm… how do I get her to follow me? This situation can’t be inspiring trust.”

“Well now… allow me to address that.” And he began to speak in a language Aiden had recently heard for the first time...

-----------

Rarity, who’d been watching the speaking device and their interactions with it, suddenly jolted to full attention, her ears perking toward it sharply as she heard, accented but comprehensible: “I greet you, sister of Ponykind, as a distant friend wishing to meet. Please, go with the one holding this talisman that projects my voice. He is a friend as well. His name is Aiden, and mine is Albert. Your friend from the lab is with us as well. We will help you any way we can, in the name of Friendship.” She took in a sharp breath, and stared shakily at Pipsqueak… no... Aiden.

“...Ae...den?” She roughly pronounced, holding his wide eyes in her own. He said something in response and nodded as a smile lit his face. He held out his hand once again. She smiled as well, and gestured to herself with her hoof before extending it to him. “Ra-ri-ty.”

He frowned just slightly, focusing. “Ra… ...Ra-ra-ty?”

Close enough. She placed her hoof in his hand, and again they shook.

---------

Aiden was flabbergasted. “General… what the fu-”

“Language, Mr. Windborne. Now double time it, you two need to be in this limo right now.”

“Right… right okay. But you ARE going to explain this… right?”

Grumman laughed. “Only if you get here in the next sixty seconds.”

“Oh ha ha…” his eyes narrowed as the General started counting. He gestured to Rarity, and she nodded as he shut off his phone. “Mark, Luke, everyone... I’ll let you know how it goes. Craig, sorry but…”

Craig shook his head, looking angry as ever but stepping aside to let them pass. “No, don’t say anything. That Owens guy is bad news; I’ve seen crap about him on my news feeds. Third Generation Esper cyborg army, just no. Get outta here and take that thing with you before he catches you and makes clones of it or something.”

Aiden blinked. “Uh… right.” He clasped Craig’s shoulder for a moment. “Thanks, man.”

“Don’t touch me.”

Aiden laughed and pulled his hand away. “Sorry.” He headed for the door, Rarity right by his side.

Luke called out to them both, “Have fun storming the castle!” Aiden chuckled as he heard him speak with Mark, “Sooo, rest of the night off?”

“Hell yes, and Grumman’s men are buying the drinks when they get here. Rob, go hit up the beer aisle and grab whatever everyone wants.” A cheer went up from the crew.

“Luke’s underage, and we can’t sell alcohol at 3 A.M.”

“Craig, right now, no one cares.”

Aiden laughed as they stepped out into the parking lot and headed towards their rather obvious ride: a stretch hummer limousine. His own car would be fine here for a few days, and if… whatever was about to happen took longer, arrangements could be made. As they approached, the rear door opened to reveal a smiling woman of perhaps thirty, wearing glasses and a white coat with a name badge. Rarity made a sound something like a happy squeal. Aiden chuckled at the cuteness of it. He stopped at the door, stepping aside and gesturing to the unicorn. “After you, my lady.”

Rarity didn’t understand the words, but the gesture was apparently clear enough. She bowed slightly to Aiden, extending one foreleg as she did so and saying something in her own language, presumably a thank you. She stepped into the vehicle, Aiden followed, and both took seats across from the woman.

Next to her, of course, sat General Grumman, leaning forward on his cane and wearing a pleasant smile that was quite disarming on his usually sharp face. “By God, I really would never have believed it a month ago. A true citizen of Equus, here on Earth. I owe my dear, departed father an apology. Corporal, remind me to purchase a decent Cabernet tomorrow. Something from this town, where she appeared, would be appropriate.”

“Yes, sir.”

Aiden was shaking his head. “Okay… explanation time… or wait.” He looked to the driver. “Don, man, how’ve you been? Still blowing things up for the betterment of mankind?”

“Naturally. How goes the grocery business?”

“Steady. Folks gotta eat, you know?”

“Truth. Oh, speaking of that… General, we forgot your milk.”

“...Dammit.”

3. Stay Awhile and Listen

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Looking around at the interior, Aiden suppressed a whistle. “Pretty swanky ride, General.”

“It makes for a pleasant mobile command center, yes. My long and illustrious career has afforded me a few perks over the years.” Grumman feigned buffing his fingernails on his uniform. “But before we get any further… and speaking of perks…” He reached into a compartment by his seat and removed a pair of devices that resembled smartphones. He placed one next to himself and tapped the screen. A picture of a stylized horseshoe appeared as the small screen lit up. “This will translate our speech into Miss Rarity’s language.” As he said this, words came from the device, and Rarity’s eyes widened as her eyes swiveled to the little translator. Grumman leaned across and placed the second next to her. With a tap, he activated it, showing a silhouette of a human hand. “And this one, as you surely can guess, will translate her speech into English.” He grinned. “For the benefit of those in the vehicle who aren’t fluent in Equish, of course.”

Aiden listened as the Equish translator finished telling Rarity what the General had said. “That’s amazing…” Rarity nodded, wide-eyed, as the device dutifully translated Aiden’s words. “Right, so, everyone speak slowly and clearly, I assume, and don’t talk over each other.”

“Understood, darling.”

Cocking an eyebrow at the white mare, Aiden mouthed ‘darling?’ but didn’t say it aloud. He assumed it was a linguistic idiosyncrasy. Rarity’s translator even sounded a bit like her voice, complete with a rather refined annunciation. ‘Darling’ was somehow a fitting address. He smiled, and nodded to confirm his own understanding before turning to Grumman. He took a deep breath, “Okay… so… How?! When?! Where?!” Rarity nodded once with each question as she too stared holes in Grumman.

For his part, the old officer chuckled. “I suppose you made it in close enough to sixty seconds. Simply put… we’ve had access to the Equish language for around 1500 years. Give or take a few decades.”

“...What.”

“What?!” Rarity piped in.

Grumman was grinning like the Cheshire Cat. “You have no idea how much fun it is to tell this story when proof sits right before me. Sincerely, Miss Rarity, while I regret the circumstances that brought you here, I cannot overstate how wonderful it is to meet one of your people. I lived most of my life believing you were a myth.”

“No, stop. Don’t digress, don’t change the subject. How? Seriously, 1500 years ago Earth was in the Dark Ages, and… okay unicorn myth is… wait older than that, right?”

“Considerably. Whether that’s coincidence or alien influence I can’t say for certain.”

“I… okay but we… humans… have had this Equish language, a language of a sapient race, for 1500 years? Are there other unicorns on Earth?”

Rarity perked up even further, nearly falling forward off her seat. To be fair, it wasn’t really optimized for a pony’s posture.

Grumman shook his head. “To our knowledge, no. We, humans, brought knowledge of the language, and a fair bit about their culture, back with us from Equus, 1500 years ago. And until just a few weeks ago, we had regrettably had no further contact with that world or its people.”

“How the Hell did Dark Ages humans get to another world? And why have I never heard about it?”

“We had no proof. The descendants of those that went, disperse and innumerable as they are today, mostly don’t know. A few families, including my own as it happens, kept a few of the artifacts, mostly tomes, that were returned here and preserved over the ages. But without physical proof they’re no more compelling than story books. An allied world occupied by an alien race friendly to humans, out amongst the stars where we can’t reach? It’s a fine story, but even I never really believed it.” He sighed. “My father always did; he was a man of faith. The war with the Oni-koru vindicated him; they’re also mentioned in the particular tome my family has. And that’s the answer to your first question. Humans were taken from our world, voluntarily, by an ancient race that asked our help in defending Equus from an invasion. I think you know the invaders.”

Aiden’s eyes were wide, completing the stunned look on his face. “So humanity has fought the Onis before. 1500 years ago, on another world… Why didn’t you tell everyone?”

Grumman smiled wanly. “To what end? The tome contains only basic, cultural information. The ancient race, we call them Angels though we never had a true name for them, did not give us technical data beyond what they trained us to use. The tomes were gifts from the Equestrians, to remember them by. In the same way, humanity left gifts behind before returning to Earth. And for the record, the world’s governments were informed of all we knew about the Oni-koru after they appeared, for what little good it did. The general public wasn’t informed since it would accomplish nothing but false hope. No help could be expected, so why bring up ancient history?”

“So they attacked us to… avenge a lost war 1500 years ago? Have they attacked Equus since then?”

“To attacking us… yes and no. From the intelligence we recovered from them during the war we don’t believe they deliberately sought us out. They discovered us through intercepted signals in deep space and took the opportunity. But the Angels had deliberately made sure we were difficult to find. That’s one reason they gave us no technical knowledge when they returned the volunteers to Earth. One random backwater planet in this supercluster wouldn’t be noticed. As to Equus, ask our new friend here.”

Rarity blinked, staring at Aiden with her head tilted to the side a bit. She shrugged and shook her head. “History isn’t my strongest subject, darling, but I think I’d remember reading about that. Events before 1000 years ago are particularly sketchy though, maybe they returned prior to that? Twilight would probably know, but it’s not as though I can ask her right now.”

“Is that another unicorn back where you live, then?”

“Ah, she’s actually an alicorn, though she was born a unicorn, yes.” Seeing Aiden’s blank expression, she elaborated, “an alicorn is a unicorn who has aspects of all three pony tribes, so she now also has wings and greater physical strength than she had as a unicorn, and stronger magic connecting her to the sky and the earth. It’s a fairly recent change, just a few years now… the poor dear’s still getting used to it, some days.” Rarity had a fond smile as she thought endearingly on her friend.

Grumman hummed thoughtfully. “So if I recall… that would make her similar to Celestia… and Luna?”

Rarity inhaled sharply. “You know about the princesses, too?!”

“They became royalty, then? According to the history I have they were both quite instrumental in both Equus’ defense and in securing the world’s safety from reprisal after the primary conflict ended. They weren’t called princesses, but they both had great power. Very few of the enemy survived our combined forces. The Oni-korus’ masters… we may as well call them Demons, were completely routed.”

Aiden ‘hmphed’ thoughtfully. “So the Onis were just agents as well?”

“Indeed so. The Angel and Demon races were ancient and highly advanced, but quite small in number. As such, both worked through the younger races in their conflict. It all ended at Equus. That world had, at the time and perhaps to this day, incredible reserves of Aetheryte crystals. Properly tapped, they can be used to power massive vessels and weapons. The Demons threw everything they had left into possessing the world… and despite causing horrific damage to the system, were decisively beaten in the end.”

Rarity clapped her forehooves together. “Thanks to both our worlds’ combined efforts! Ahh, Rainbow would love this story! Oh, she’s a pegasus friend of mine.”

“Pegasus...es… pegasi?” Aiden ventured, and Rarity nodded. “Got it. Oh, that’s what you meant about other tribes. And the third is… like a super strength pony race?”

“Earth ponies… and yes, they are often known for great physical strength and stamina, compared to the other tribes. That said, Earth ponies are quite diverse; one can never really be sure how an Earth Pony’s magic will manifest. Pinkie Pie being a fine example…” Rarity trailed off and the translator lost track of her mutterings for a moment. “Ah! That reminds me. Why does Aiden feel like a unicorn to me? His magic I mean, when I feel it, I think of unicorns I know back home. Our driver as well, he reminds me, now that I’m closer, of the feeling of a pegasus. And I felt something different from either of those back in the…” her eyes widened. “Oh my goodness, I completely forgot!” She hopped from her seat and went over and practically tackled hugged Valerie, who’d been so quiet Aiden had nearly forgotten she was there. “Thank you! Thank you so much for helping me in that awful laboratory! I don’t know what I would have done without you! Thank you!” Rarity didn’t seem to realize Valerie’s face had gone from red to crimson to closing on purple…

“You’re… welcome…. Air… help…”

Rarity tittered nervously and released her death grip, backing away from her benefactor. “Sorry, darling. I was quite overcome! I should have thanked you immediately but there’s so much going on and,” she took a deep breath, and then exhaled slowly. “Thank you.”

Valerie returned a genuine smile. “You’re quite welcome. It’s lucky I was already there to keep an eye on Colonel Owens. He’s up to some rather shady stuff. I’m not sure what he’ll do now that you’ve escaped. We’ll need a different way to keep an eye on him now, but getting you out safely was worth burning that bridge. Ah, what you felt from his guards, as I think you were about to ask, was crafted, or artificial Aetheric control. Or magical manipulation, if you prefer. They’re colloquially called the 3rd Generation of Espers, because they do have the potential for Aether usage. That said, most aren’t on par with natural Espers. Cybernetic enhancements just aren’t properly capable of amplification of their willpower or the fine control shown by the previous generations… one of each of which we have here with us. Aiden, Donovan? One of you want to explain? I’m... not really a big talker.” Valerie smiled sheepishly.

“Don?” Aiden asked.

“All you, man; I’m driving up here. By the way, no pursuit on the scanners. Either Owens lost us or he’s playing the long game.”

“Likely a little of both,” Grumman muttered. “Under the circumstances he’ll devote the lion’s share of his resources to securing the assets his lab still possesses. He knows we’ve been watching, and he has a number of things he shouldn’t. A problem to deal with a bit later. For now… Aiden? We have about an hour to our destination. If you would explain about Espers for the lady?”

“Oh, right. Well… err… Espers are… well we’re humans who awoke to magic during the Oni-koru invasion. Oni-koru technology uses heavy Aetheric manipulation, and for whatever reason there are a few humans-”

“Specifically humans descended from the Equus volunteers, though not nearly all such awoke as Espers. I didn't, for example.” Grumman supplied.

Aiden’s head jerked towards the General. “You’re kidding… oh hell why am I even suprised?”

Rarity smiled brightly. “So you’re both descendants of those who helped save my world! If you find a way to come visit, I’m sure Princess Celestia would throw a party in your honor.”

“Uh… thanks... but I didn’t do anything.” Aiden replied with a embarrassed grin.

“It’s just an excuse to have a party, darling.”

Aiden chuckled, feeling a little silly. “Right, I knew that. So… where was… right. Okay so the First Generation awoke during the first six months or so of the invasion. What separates us from the Second Generation is that timing and the level of tech that woke us to magic. The Second awoke mostly to armaments and personnel level tech after much more interaction between our two races. Donovan up there is basically a walking, variable yield grenade launcher.” Their driver chuckled and gave a jaunty wave of acknowledgment over his shoulder. For us Firsts, it was bigger, usually stronger stuff. Not to say we’re universally stronger than Second Gens; that’s not always the case. Though… the one called the First Esper awoke to a Creation Engine, a ship’s main drive, as it passed nearby to drop troops near Baltimore. So he’s basically...”

Rarity blinked. “Did… did you say Baltimare, darling?”

Aiden caught the slight difference in pronunciation through the translator. “Uh… no.. Balti-more. It’s a city just a few hours east of here, actually.”

“We have a similarly named city in Equestria.”

“Huh. Actually I get the feeling there’s a fair bit of cultural overlap. Not just cultural, actually. You said I ‘feel’ like a unicorn to your magical senses?”

“Yes, and that’s all the more remarkable because before coming here I’d never really noticed or thought about the differences in how magic felt. It’s like I’d been aware of it my whole life but needed to see it from the outside to put it all together.”

“Hmm. Well, I know what you’re saying, actually. Before I awoke, I had the strongest feelings about some things but I couldn’t understand what I was sensing. I’d get little premonitions and deja vus, as well as times where I could make things happen by wanting them to bad enough. Just little probability stuff, like drawing the right card or rolling a six on a die or something, nothing provable, and I was just a kid so I didn’t think much about it, but…” He shook his head, smiling at Rarity. “When I saw you, it was that strong feeling all over again. ‘Friend’... and I knew. It wasn’t just an Esper thing, either. My coworkers, especially Mark and Luke, saw something about you. Given humanity’s recent experience with aliens, it’s saying something.”

“Friend,” Rarity echoed, smiling. “Yes… I’d say that’s what I felt as well.” She giggled, a surprisingly human, and not surprisingly cute, sound. “Well, after I got over my brief disappointment that you weren’t actually a unicorn, that is.”

Aiden chuckled. “Yeah, I seem to remember a brief look of consternation on your face. Eh, you’re hardly the first alien to be unhappy to see me. Glad we got past it amicably, though.”

“I as well, darling. And since we are getting along so wonderfully, I both hate to and yet must ask… what is it you all plan to do with me?” Rarity’s smile seemed to become a bit forced as she asked a question that had been on her mind through every other bit of information she’d take in during their ride.

The temperature in the vehicle seemed to drop a bit. Aiden stammered, “T-thats… actually a very good… err… General?”

Grumman’s eyes seemed to glint behind his glasses as a toothy grin gave him a slightly feral look. “Heh. So trepidatious, young lady.” His grin widened, and he began chuckling darkly. Rarity’s face seemed to be getting paler, which was impressive given her already alabaster coat. Grumman leaned forward with a loud ‘HAH!’ “Just who the Hell do you think we are? This is a rescue mission. We don’t intend to stop until you’re safely home.”

Rarity let out an explosive breath as Grumman continued chuckling. “You!” she yelled, pointing one hoof at him as he continued to chortle at his own prank. “You had me quite worried there, you know! Ah, But… thank you. I know I need every bit of help to even begin to understand the problem, let alone design a solution.”

“Well, we’re a bit ahead of you there, young lady.” Grumman replied with a nod. “You surely recall the gem whose magic brought you here?” Rarity nodded, and Grumman gestured to Valerie. “Corporal?”

With a grin and a flourish, Valerie removed a fist-sized, forest green gem from a thick pocket of her lab coat.

Rarity gasped, staring at the gem as though it were a live snake.

“No cause for alarm, the gem’s stored aether was nearly completely used getting you here. You also drained both batteries on the ship this particular escape device is linked to.”

After a confused blink, Rarity took her gaze from the trauma inducing gemstone back to General Grumman. “I… what?”

“Valerie, you’re up.”

“Ahh… yes, sir. This gem, erm, Rarity,” Valerie looked away, blushing slightly at having all eyes on her, “Is essentially an escape pod. It allows for the pilot to escape a damaged command vessel. The gem itself is quite rare according to Oni-koru records that we’ve recovered. Only a few remained in their hands during their war with us, and were only possessed by their top generals. The gem can not only store an incredible amount of aether and channel it safely, but it can also hold a massive database for the purposes of navigation via instant teleportation. With the proper interface into its star maps, one could go almost anywhere within our galactic supercluster… once anyway. Charging the crystal with enough aether to go such distances is no small matter.”

“So how’d it bring Rarity here?”

“When she arrived in Veritech labs, she was holding it in her telekinesis. I’m assuming you’d found it recently?”

Rarity nodded. “I dug it up along with several other gems that were not magically infused. I’ve found infused gems before, though they are rare, but nothing like that one. Ahh, I hunt gems for use in my work, in dress designs and the like. I’m a fashion designer, you see.”

Aiden blinked. “You’re naked but you design clothes?”

“Formal occasions call for formal attire, darling. No matter how fabulous a pony’s coat, there are times when greater elegance and beauty are called for. Such times are the driving force of my inspiration, my very will to be!” There was no denying the determined look on her face as she delivered the words like an actress giving a dramatic denouement. Aiden couldn’t keep from grinning at her antics. She almost deflated into a deadpan expression as she looked back at the gem that had hi-jacked her life. “And then that gem decided to drive me here… by force.”

For her part, Valerie looked a bit dazed. Aiden felt a bit of sympathy for her, she was clearly a behind the scenes type who preferred to work quietly. “Ah… yes. So, your erm… your… ah, your magic, yes. When you found the gem and lifted it with telekinesis, you managed to set off its return function. Given how long it's been dormant it's bound to have some instabilities; it's a miracle it worked at all. But clearly it did, and returned you, as its pilot, to the ship it was still linked to after being lost to the Oni-koru on Equus during their war there. The ship was, and still is, in Veritech labs after we captured it during the war here years ago.”

“Damn.” Aiden muttered. “We knew some of their tech had been around awhile but that’s crazy. They really were low on materiel when they found us if they were still using 1500 year old ships.”

Grumman nodded. “Indeed so, and 1500 year old ships missing key components, such as this escape gem. And while the gem is drained now, its database is intact, and that database should include one thing we didn’t have: a precise location for the Planet Equus. Alongside that ship or one like it… we may just be able to put together a ride home for you, Miss Rarity.”

“J-just like that?” Rarity could hardly believe her ears. She’d held firm to her intent to get home no matter what, but she hadn’t believed it would happen so quickly. These humans… she no longer cared a single bit that they didn’t match what Twilight had said. She’d take these new friends any time. “I… don’t know what to say. Thank you!”

Grumman chuckled. “Don’t thank us just yet. The theory is sound but there’s a lot of work to be done. Getting a vessel that can make that trip is no small matter, and none of our recovered war materiel from the Onis has enough power to displace more than a few light years even if we can get them working stably. I doubt Equus happens to be that close. We have several ideas, but there’s still a long road ahead of us…” He nodded to himself, smiling with determination. “Still, the signs along it are clear, and we know which way to go. Don’t thank us yet… but I think that time will come sooner rather than later. Particularly… with the help of one of the last remaining First Generation Espers?” Grumman looked innocently over at Aiden.

...Who snorted derisively. “Riiight, like I can back out after all that?” He shook his head at being trapped by the circumstances… and a pair of enormous, pleading blue eyes too large and luminous to be human… or fair. With a sigh and a smile, he accepted, “Welp, you wanted me back in the game, General. I believe I told you two years ago it would take the right mission… This one feels pretty damn right to me.”

4. Back in the Saddle

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Conversation continued on surprisingly light topics after that, to Aiden’s mind. They were just… casually making small talk with an alien about her life while she asked about theirs. Donovan and Grumman did most of the talking for the humans, though Valerie chimed in a few times. Aiden let it wash over him as the reality of the situation set in. They’d all had a stake in this longer than he had, but it was more than that. I’m… really going to help an alien get home. No, I don’t mind that, she’s nothing like the Onis. But what the Hell am I supposed to do? How did this fall in my lap? What…

“Aiden?” He heard his name twice, once from Rarity, once through her translator. He wondered a moment how the translator recognized names enough to repeat them, but not somehow translate them. Maybe it was that Rarity had learned his name directly from him so she was saying it…

“Aiden!” like that.

“Gah! Sorry, sorry! I’m here, what is it?”

“You were lost in thought, darling. General Grumman mentioned that you left the military years ago. I wondered what led you to what you’re doing now?”

Aiden blinked, then chuckled. “Stocking shelves in a grocery store? Eh, it’s quiet, honest work. My aunt, the only living relation I have left, moved here after the war, and she had offered to take me in after… Seattle, a decade before that.” He smiled wanly. “I didn’t live with her much during wartime; before she’d ever made the offer the military had taken me in, as various militaries all over the world had done with Espers in their respective countries. I mostly worked with the Marines, usually under General Grumman here. Espers had a different ranking system put into place for us so I can’t actually call myself a Marine, but I’m damned proud to have fought beside them. Even so… when the war ended most Espers retired. Those of us who were mentally stable just quietly disappeared… mostly. Anyway when I did retire I looked up my aunt, found out she’d move here, and that her offer was still open.” Aiden frowned… something was nagging in the back of his mind about this. “Truth is, I didn’t stay with her long. I had a sizable pension that bought a house and still pays my bills. The job is more just to keep busy and have a little extra pocket change. My old therapist said without some kind of responsibility to force myself out of the house I could easily become a hermit. She was probably right about that.” Aiden’s eyes narrowed; he’d remembered. “Now that I think about it… living with my aunt was your idea, General.”

Grumman coughed nervously. “Heh, I didn’t want you to lose connection with your last remaining family.”

“Yeah… but how is it you knew where she’d moved to? She lost her house to an Oni attack and for awhile was staying with a friend near Lexington. Suddenly she moved almost three hours and bought a house outright, based on an insurance loophole, so she said. Aunt Lynn’s a lousy liar though, you know.”

“Yes, I certainly do know that. It speaks well of her that she is uncomfortable with being dishonest.”

“Yeah… so your own facility with dishonesty… and manipulation…”

“Are useful tactical traits, young man, as you well know. Defeating an enemy by trickery is vastly preferable to force and violence. I prefer to keep things bloodless even if I know it’s often impossible. To that same end… yes, I wanted to keep you nearby in case you were ever a resource I needed, for the sake of keeping the peace we worked so hard for.” Grumman gave Aiden a hard look. “I knew that, if you were truly needed, you would return for that purpose. I won’t apologize for knowing that, or for keeping you where I deemed you most valuable.”

With a sigh and a nod, Aiden accepted that. “Fair enough then. ...You think Colonel Owens is that big of a risk? I can’t think of another reason for you to be in this area…”

Grumman nodded. “To be honest, I was becoming less worried about him until Rarity showed up. My initial estimate of him included a real possibility that he was trying to create a personal army by crafting artificial Espers, the 3rd Generation, while indoctrinating them to be loyal to him.” He snorted, grimacing slightly. “Though it sounds outlandish, you have to understand he was a bit unhinged by the time the war ended. Obsessed with building up an unbeatable force to turn back any future attacks.”

“That’s not that bad a thing.” Aiden muttered, thinking of the devastation he’d witnessed over the years.

“Perhaps… but we already ask great sacrifices of our soldiers during wartime. Owens seems to want their humanity in full. And again, to put himself at the head of everything as the leader of this army. Even if I felt confident following him, and I don’t since I consider him barely competent as an officer, humanity would give up too much to obtain safety in such a manner. So, I stationed myself nearby to more easily keep an eye on him.”

“Must be nice having that much autonomy.”

“Indeed it is,” Grumman replied shortly, as if to say ‘and I won’t explain how I got it’. “And, even had Ms. Rarity here not shown up, my decision was justified by what Owens has in his possession. Not just the Oni vessel, either. But… we’re here, so we’ll get into that another time.”

Aiden blinked and looked out the darkly tinted window behind his seat. They had indeed slowed down, and were headed through a gate that had opened before their arrival. The home ahead of them was large, and seemed to be built into a hillside behind it. The pulled into a garage, which was much larger than it had appeared from the outside. Closer to a hangar, it had several tunnels leading out in various directions and a number of vehicles, military and civilian, parked within.

Aiden whistled. “Impressive digs, general. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised at this point though.”

Grumman chuckled. “Gaze upon life and the toys you could have had, Windborne.”

Rarity giggled as Aiden snorted derisively. “Yeah, yeah. I remember just fine. I needed to get some peace and quiet for awhile. When the war ended my head was spinning. I needed out, at least for a while.”

Despite his clear amusement, Grumman nodded thoughtfully. Rarity was already levitating her translator and Valerie had grabbed the ‘English to Equish’ as they all piled out into the hangar and headed towards an elevator, he continued, “I do understand that, believe me. We asked a great deal of you all, especially at the beginning and the end. I hope that what I ask of you now will be substantially less. That said, I expect your best.” They all stepped onto the elevator, which opened before they reached the doors. Grumman hit a button for the third floor. “And that includes an honest personal assessment.”

Aiden cocked an eyebrow at the General. “You’re asking me to assess myself?”

“I am. How close to mission ready would you say you are? Be honest.”

“I… honestly… one hundred percent.”

Grumman was silent a moment. The elevator dinged and the doors started to open before he hit a button and stopped them at barely cracked. “You’re certain of that?”

“Yes, sir, I am. I’ve stayed in fighting trim, which as you know is easy for Espers anyway. Further, I’ve consistently used my magic both at work and home… occasionally to get to work faster when there was no one else nearby. My control is better now than it was five years ago. ...Like I said, I needed some peace and quiet, and I think it's helped my growth.”

Grinning, Grumman hit the button again, and the doors opened. “That is very good to hear, Knight Lieutenant Windborne. Very good, indeed.”

Before Aiden could ponder his tone, several hushed whispers reached his ears. As they stepped off the elevator into what looked to be some manner of control room, they were confronted by several wide eyed stares.

More accurately Rarity was, and frankly while he couldn’t be surprised, Aiden imagined it was a bit disconcerting. She certainly looked to be so, and almost without thinking he put a comforting hand on her withers. She flinched just slightly, but then looked to him with a slight smile and stepped closer to him, nudging his hip with her shoulder.

Meanwhile, Grumman was already taking action. “Alright, folks, you may be the night shift but you still have work, so get back to it. Gawk on your own time, or better yet not at all.” Four distinct ‘Yes, sir!’s came from the room’s occupants as Grumman turned apologetically to Rarity. “You’ll have to forgive them for staring, Ms. Rarity. They haven’t exactly seen a unicorn before.”

Rarity chuckled lightly. “To think I didn’t used to mind being the center of attention. Lately it’s gotten to be a bit much. Honestly I think the moment I get home I’m going to lock myself in my room for a month.” She blinked. “I also think I understand Aiden’s point about peace and quiet.”

“Right?” Aiden chimed in, giving her a reassuring squeeze. Her fur was ridiculously soft… he didn’t want to move his hand, and she didn’t seem to mind, so...

“Indeed.” Grumman muttered. “Knight Trellis, show them to their rooms, if you would. Valerie and I have several matters to discuss. The two of you, get some rest. In the morning we’ll start planning our next move.”

“Yes, sir.” Donovan acknowledged the order, took the translator from Valerie, and stepped towards a side passage just left of the elevator doors. He led Aiden and Rarity through into a slightly curving hallway with doors along the outer curve. “We’re along the hillside here, and the outside of the building blends in with the hill itself. The base, from a distance, just looks like the mansion you saw us drive up to. The whole emplacement itself is quite a bit larger. We actually didn’t have to go through that room to get here, but I’m guessing Grumman wanted to give the operators in there a look at you. Don’t hold it against them though, they were helpful in getting you out of the lab as well, by assisting Valerie while she was in there.”

Rarity nodded her understanding. “I hadn’t realized that. I should thank them.”

“It’ll keep until tomorrow afternoon. I’m sure they’ll all want to chat with you a bit. For now… your rooms.” He gestured to and then opened a single door, the fourth in the hallway’s stretch.

Aiden raised an eyebrow. “This is what you meant by rooms?” Not that the interior was small. In fact it was rather nice. There was a fireplace on the far end with a fire already going and a sofa strategically placed for sitting and enjoying the warmth. The window (which Aiden assumed was camouflaged on the outside based on the tinting) next to it was richly curtained and large enough to give a fine view of the night sky along with the hills in the distance. The furniture included a couple of comfortable looking chairs and another sofa alongside a coffee table. Along the other wall was a walkthrough kitchen with a bar, which included Aiden’s favorite addition to the room so far: a coffee maker. Two closed doors completed the room, which Aiden assumed led to sleeping quarters and a bathroom. “As in, we’re both in these rooms?”

“Correct. Don’t worry, this isn’t some social experiment; you have separate beds.”

Aiden burst out laughing. “I’m concerned you even felt the need to mention that!”

Donovan grinned. “We’re short on space, actually, with all the personnel here. Plus the General likes to give his people nice rooms, as you see, so we don’t actually have that many. And anyway… we didn’t think you’d mind, I mean...” He grinned. “Hey, man, you’re the one still holding her.”

“Geh.” Aiden moved his hand as those he’d burned it.

Rarity giggled. “I had no problem with it, really. His hand felt quite nice.” Her face seemed to light up. “Actually… it’s been awhile since I’ve had a spa visit. I could use a massage. Would you mind, darling?” She looked up at him with wide, hopeful…

...Mirthful eyes. Aiden facepalmed. “I’m actually getting teased by an alien unicorn. My life is awesome.”

Donovan laughed and patted his shoulder with one hand while handing him the translator with the other. “No argument there. I think we’re both in the right place at the right time to do some major good for the world, starting with helping her. So settle in for a couple days while we get our bearings. After that… the real fun begins.”

“Right then. I assume there’s clothes and such in the bedroom I can use.”

“Naturally. For both of you, should Ms. Rarity decide she needs them.”

She blinked in surprise. “I hadn’t given it much thought but… you all wear them all the time so… erm… does it bother you that I’m not currently wearing anything?”

Donovan shrugged. “Well, I’m from California originally, so mostly naked women aren’t anything new for me. And you’re not exactly close to human looking anyway, at least not your body. I actually hadn’t thought much about it. So I guess not?” he finished with a rather sheepish chuckle.

“Same.” Aiden said. “If you’re fine with it, I am. I mean… I’m not sure what the social norm is where you come from, but you seemed fine about it.”

She nodded. “I am, yes... usually, but now that you mention it… Donovan? You’ve all done so much for me already, and I know you’re doing more, but… could I perhaps request some sewing supplies? I haven’t been able to make any outfits since I got here, obviously… and I miss doing so. Further, since being clothed is the norm here, I don’t mind following local trends, as it were. Besides, unless I’m mistaken humans don’t have magic to cover their more salient, err…” her muzzle reddened slightly, right through the fur, “private features, yes?”

Aiden snickered and felt silly doing so. “Correct, hence clothing.”

“Everypony out of diapers has learned how to cover such things with a bit of magic in our coat hairs. It’s practically second nature by the time we’re out of foalhood, even when we’re clothed. Though I admit I’ve made that error once or twice, for various reasons. But my point right now is most humans don’t know all that, and so seeing me walking around in just my coat could make some of them uncomfortable.”

Donovan nodded thoughtfully. “That’s rather insightful of you, Ms. Rarity. I’ll see what we can do, but it shouldn’t be a problem. Basic stuff like needles, thread, and the like I can actually scrounge up immediately. You’d be surprised what’s laying around in this place. And the clothes provided with this room are roughly your size but they’re obviously made for a human. If you can tide yourself over modifying those, we’ll see about expanding your supplies with some cloth to work in.”

She smiled brightly at him, getting a light blush from the ‘hardened soldier,’ “Thank you, Donovan!”

“No problem. Get settled in; I’ll be back shortly.” With that he headed back the way they’d come.

The two entered the room, almost immediately gravitating towards the sofa near the fire. The logs were ceramic; the fire itself was fed by natural gas and there was a control dial on the wall for the strength of the flames. Aiden might have preferred the comforting smell of burning logs, but on the other hand this fire wouldn’t require more wood, or cleaning up ashes. And despite the fact that he’d been sitting for the last hour plus on the ride over, sitting in front of the fire felt right for the moment. Rarity hopped up easily and made herself comfortable as well. She sighed softly as she stretched out on a little over her half of the sofa, leaning her head on one forehoof. Aiden was struck again by the flexibility of her forelegs, though he remembered they could also be called arms. Her posture was more human than he would have expected, prompting that thought since she used them like arms as much as legs. He wondered how often that was inconvenient. He was considering a way to ask that didn’t sound completely dumb when she spoke first.

“I’m sorry about all this.”

Aiden blinked. “What?”

“I know I dragged you into this by finding you the way I did. I hadn’t intended anything like that. I thought you were another unicorn, and maybe in trouble like I’d been. But obviously that wasn’t the case at all. And now, you’re involved in all this when all you wanted was a quiet life. Hopefully you can get back to that soon.”

Aiden smiled and shook his head. “I’d accept your apology, but it’s not needed. Like I told Grumman, ‘the right mission’ would bring me back to this life. I meant what I told him, too, about staying in shape and practicing my special abilities for the future. I knew I wasn’t going to stay hidden forever. I didn’t want to. I was just… waiting for the right reason to end my little vacation. If anything I should thank you. If you hadn’t come and found me, and I’d found out later that all this had happened close to me and I didn’t even notice… heh, well I doubt that’d be a good feeling. Besides, I was getting into a bit of a rut.”

“Oh?”

“Yeah… when Luke mentioned-”

“Which one was that? Was he the taller one with the blond mane?”

“Mane? Yeah I guess that works. Anyway yes he was. When he told me they all knew about me having magic I was scared for a minute. Not really scared of being attacked, although that’s happened, because normal humans can be scared of Espers sometimes. But no, more like scared of losing the life I’d made for myself. Thinking about it now, it wasn’t even that. That life… I have no real attachment to it other than the guys I work with, a couple of them anyway. And I know they wanted to see you helped, too. Mark specifically asked me not to hurt you before I opened the door to the room he had you locked in.”

Rarity moued rather adorably. “And yet he locked me in there…”

Aiden laughed softly. “Yep, he sure did. You’re a scary alien invader, after all. We can’t be too careful.”

Rarity snorted. “Oh indeed, darling. Beware my viciousness. Any moment now I shall attack you with my mighty horn and terrifying hooves. ...Though I do have a rather effective right cross if I say so myself.”

“Sounds pretty serious.”

“Very, darling, be afraid. Only a shoulder massage can subdue me. And since you’re far too shy to give one, you have no hope of victory.”

Aiden’s turn to snort. “You’re hung up on that, aren’t you? Are your shoulders really bothering you? I mean, I can see what I can do if you really want…”

“They are rather stiff… my sleeping conditions have been far from ideal lately. But it’s more that I’ve always wanted a massage from a human, ever since Twilight described hands to me.”

“...What?”

“Oh that’s right, I hadn’t mentioned… Well, I did mention Twilight before, didn’t I?”

“Your… alicorn friend?”

“That’s her. She’s been to Earth before, or a world very much like it, only as a human. The more I’ve seen here the more I think it was merely a similar world. I feel like she would have mentioned a war with space aliens.”

“Yeah, it was a pretty big deal.” He didn't know what else to say. If this Twilight had been to Earth as a human, what was there to say? He tucked it away for later, to check with Grumman.

Meanwhile she chuckled at the deadpan comment. “Yes, and if nothing else it’d be a story Rainbow would love to hear. There are other differences as well, enough that I fully intend to question her closely about them when I get home. But in any case she described hands quite well since they were one of the biggest differences.”

“They are rather useful.”

“Quite. And while manipulating pressure through hooves is quite effective, especially for an experienced Earth Pony using a bit of vitality affecting magic, with the way Twilight described hands…” Rarity giggled. “Well, I honestly wonder what sort of experience she had that gave her such details, but she was quite flattering in her summation of them.”

“I see. Well… like I said I don’t mind. To be honest your fur is pretty nice to the touch as well. Very soft.”

“What a nice thing to say, and I haven’t even had a proper bath since leaving Equestria. Oh, they’d let me shower at the lab, but none of my proper bathing supplies are here, of course.” Her eyes widened. “Would you care to join me for a hot bath as well?”

Aiden coughed as his face went red. “Uhh…. let’s just set that idea aside for now.” Sure, she didn’t look anything like a human woman, but her mannerisms, the sound of her voice (which the translator seemed to be mimicking even better as time went on), and those eyes… it was enough to make that suggestion seem inappropriate. ...And slightly tempting if only to mess with Grumman, now that he thought about it. Stick them in the same room, eh? Your oh so subtle manipulation could just backfire on you, General. ...Unless that’s exactly what he wants… dammit.

Rarity simply giggled. “Oh my, I’m sorry, I forgot your nudity taboo. Well, you can leave whatever undergarments on if it’ll make you more comfortable. I really could use a hot bath if possible, and I’m sure you wouldn’t mind one? Hmm...” she smiled, shutting her eyes as she pictured the idea. “Those hands could certainly work soap into my coat, right? That might be better than a massage. I’d return the favor, of course. I may not have hands, but I take good care of my frogs, and-”

“Your what? I think the translator failed.”

“My frogs, darling, this,” she showed him the bottom of her forehoof. Aiden wasn’t sure what he’d expected it to look like, but he wasn’t expecting what he saw. That was to say, it was soft and seemed to extend past the hardened part of her hoof as she held it out to him. That explained how she could lean comfortably on it. Aiden, not thinking about it, took the hoof gently in his hands, running a thumb along the ‘frog’. It still seemed an odd term to him, and possibly a translator fail, but he saw what she meant. Even the hoof was softer than he'd expected, like hardened rubber rather than… actually he’d never felt a terrestrial hoof now that he thought about it. Meanwhile, Rarity was sighing contentedly.

Aiden cocked his head to the side slightly, a slight grin twisting his lips. “You okay there, Rarity?”

“Hmmm? Oh yes, darling, quite.”

“...Seriously, I don’t want to offend but is this like… a unicorn thing? The massage, you want a bath with me, and just rubbing your hoof or shoulder gets a pretty strong response.” Despite saying that he kept her hoof in his hand, gently. She didn’t pull away. He took that as a good sign. He didn’t want to come across as judgmental over something that might be completely normal for her people, but all the more reason to talk openly and find out where the boundaries were. ...Was this why Grumman stuck them together? Aiden swore that if the room was bugged there’d be Hell to pay.

Rarity hummed thoughtfully. “I think… well I’m no psychologist but I think I’m feeling a bit needy right now. I’ve noticed humans don’t touch as much as ponies do, or at least the humans I’ve been around don’t.”

Well that made sense. She’d been in Veritech labs, not the most touchy feely place. At least, not any sort of touches you’d want to experience. It was all the stranger that she’d want any human touching her… except that Aiden remembered his magic made him feel like a unicorn to her. That was both more and less reassuring. He didn’t want her to get the wrong idea.

She continued. “And I miss… I suppose affectionate contact. My sister, my friends, Spikey-wikey,” the translator hadn’t bothered with that one other than to repeat it verbatim, so Aiden assumed it was another name. “I haven’t had a proper hug in awhile now, and the way I nearly strangled poor Valerie. Definitely more something Pinkie would normally do, but… I’m sorry if I’ve made you uncomfortable.” She slowly pulled her hoof away.

Truthfully, Aiden wasn’t so much uncomfortable for his own sake as he was worried about offending Rarity. Deciding in that moment that the suddenly forlorn unicorn next to him would be better off, at worst, smacking the overly forward male next to her than in her current funk, he scooted towards her, nearly poking himself on her horn. He leaned down and put one arm around her. “You didn’t.”

After a sharp breath, she exhaled slowly and sat up, also scooting closer to snuggle up against him. He adjusted his posture so they could lean against each other and put his arm around her. For his part, Aiden couldn’t remember the last time he’d just sat closely, comfortably like this, with anyone. His last ex, maybe? That was… three years ago? He snorted in amusement.

“Something amusing, darling?” she asked quietly.

Just thinking how silly I am for only equating something like this with romantic intimacy when all you want is simple comfort. No big deal. “Nah, just remembering someone from a while back.”

“A lover, perhaps? Your heartbeat increased.” She giggled. “Or perhaps you have a bit of a thing for alien ladies, hmm? Is that why you’re afraid of bathing with me? Worried you’ll lose control and attack me right there?”

Aiden couldn’t help noticing that the translator had hiccuped slightly on ‘attack’ as if it couldn’t quite pick the right word. Did the program have a sense of humor somehow? “Hmph, what about you? Would this ‘Spikey-wikey’ be jealous that you’re wanting to share a bath with some strange male from another world?”

It was clearly the right thing to say, as she burst out laughing. Her laugh was a delight to hear. “Oh my goodness, you surprised me there! No no, Spikey-wikey is a very dear friend, but… hmm, well actually he might be quite envious of you for that now that I say it. But he and I are not, and will not, be involved in such a manner. At least not any time soon.”

“We will get you home, Rarity.” Aiden said, squeezing her shoulder.

“Hmm? Oh, yes I believe that, too, darling. I simply mean that he’s too young, for the moment. In another few years the number separating us will matter less, perhaps, but right now… no. He needs time to better understand himself and what he wants out of life. I’m just his first crush. He may think that it’s love, but it isn’t, at least not that kind. I love him as well, but… not in that way, you see.” She grins again, looking directly at Aiden, and from rather close to him given their embraced postures. “So I’m quite available, you see.”

He fought down the urge to shove her off the couch. Let her have her fun. She’s had no control over her situation for a while now, messing with me can help her feel better. Her fake flirting is pretty cute anyway. “You should be careful saying that sort of thing, Rarity. I may decide I don’t want to help you get home… other than my home.” He grinned at her, attempting to look rakish and knowing he probably couldn’t pull it off.

She snerked, but then leaned in and nuzzled his cheek, rubbing gently down to his jaw as she giggled softly. “I may just remember that as a plan B, darling,” she whispered in his ear.

Between the nuzzle, which had felt surprisingly nice, that cute giggle, and the warm breathed whisper (musical, otherworldly language translated by the phone-like device on the cushion between them notwithstanding), Aiden felt himself blushing again. And, right on cue…

“Hey guys, I found needles, and thread, and… hey, I’ll just come back later, you two have fun!” Almost as quickly as it had opened, the door slammed shut.

Rarity, without missing a beat, yelled out “Knock next time, I don’t have a sock for the door! Also, thank you!”

Aiden briefly considering dying, but dismissed the idea. Too much effort.

Rarity was grinning at him. “Well now, won’t that be some fun gossip tomorrow? Might as well have that bath with me now…”

Aiden snorted, trying to hold it in, and failing as he burst out laughing. Rarity joined him as they held each other, friends enjoying the kind of ridiculous joke that only friends could fully appreciate.

5. Training, Tales, and Travel Plans

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Rarity lasted maybe another hour before nodding off, leaning lightly against Aiden as she did so. It occurred to him that he had been dozing a bit himself; he couldn’t remember what they’d been last talking about. It didn’t much matter and it had been a long night. He lifted her gently, levitating both translators while he was at it, and carried her to the other room. Telekinesis was quite useful for the task at hand: tucking her into bed without jostling her was a simple task. He pulled the blanket up over her, noting that she had adopted a human posture quite naturally while sleeping. It was one more similarity, the most recent of which being her laugh. He smiled softly; he looked forward to hearing it again. They’d give her every reason to be happy, including getting her home.

He nodded to himself, sighing quietly through his nose. It’d been awhile since he’d had a clear cause to work towards. The war’s end had gotten… muddled, in terms of direction and purpose. Things had shifted from ‘save humanity from the alien threat’ to ‘various factions wanting to rebuild their way’ fast enough that Aiden had been far from the only one to walk away. And yet, he couldn’t help wondering if that was the right choice now. How many like Rarity could he have helped between then and now if he hadn’t walked away? Well… not quite like Rarity, obviously. Point was… ehh, some Spiderman thing about power and responsibility that he’d never fully appreciated. He snorted, laughing at himself internally. He suddenly wasn’t tired at all.

-----------------------

Rarity awoke several hours later to a quiet room. It was easy enough to figure out how she’d gotten to bed, though less easy to figure out why the other bed, across the room, didn’t seem to have been used. One thing at a time though… the bath was calling to her.

After a bit of thought on the matter, she opted for a simple shower. The room had a few more amenities in terms of soaps and lotions than she would have expected from a military compound, but then again that had been true of the other room as well. She supposed they had been planning to free her from the lab for some time. She smiled as she brushed out her mane, getting it into proper condition for the first time in weeks, at least not counting the ‘cheating’ she’d been doing during that time. Far be it from any unicorn to consider magic cheating, but Rarity would always prefer the mundane approach to a beauty regimen. As such she felt much more like her old self when she finally exited the bathroom. That just left determining what had become of her new roommate. As she trotted quietly out into the main room she noticed a covered tray on the coffee table. Her stomach chose that moment to remind her, in a rather unladylike fashion, that she hadn’t eaten anything beyond an apple in the last fifteen hours or so. As such… breakfast, and then she’d figure out where Aiden had gone off to.

Breakfast had been completely worth it. Pancakes, fried eggs, hash browns, and orange juice had rounded out the contents of the tray, which had been insulated to keep the first three items warm and delicious. She suspected, based on the scent in the room, that they’d been dropped off shortly before she’d finished in the bathroom. She’d be asking about that timing later. After considering and dismissing the coffee maker (she didn’t quite understand how it worked), she headed out to find some answers. ...And then headed back for her translator. It took a moment to figure out why it was attached to a wire attached to the wall, but she’d seen enough similar devices in the lab to be confident about disconnecting it. Activating it would have been another matter, except that it seemed to come on on its own when unplugged. After testing it with a simple “Hello, humans! I… am Rarity!” she grabbed the other translator so she’d understand responses. She idly hoped there were more of these things sitting around, though she supposed as long as she had both she could converse with anypony… err... anyone, easily enough. That was good, since she had all manner of questions to ask, and it was now time to attend to the first.

She trotted lightly into what she’d dubbed the control room to find a different group of humans there. The three of them turned, wide-eyed, to stare at her before one smiled a bit nervously and muttered ‘good morning’, faithfully translated by the device Rarity floated alongside her. She responded with a smile and reciprocated, “Good morning. We haven’t met, I think, but I am Rarity. Err… I’m looking for Aiden, he wasn’t in the room when I…” She trailed off, seeing one of the screens the humans had been watching.

Aiden was on that screen, viewed from perhaps twenty feet away and above… where he seemed to be fighting several metal golems. Rarity was across the room in an instant, and leaning up against the screen. “What is this?!”

“Uhh… practice, ma’am. He’s been in there for hours now, but there’s no real danger. We monitor so he can stop any time by signalling us.”

She stared, less worried but still on edge about what she was seeing. He was moving around the room rapidly, and there was a sort of distortion as he did so. It was similar to watching a unicorn teleport. Despite that, the golems were able to keep up with him as often as not. As such he was blocking their attacks, which Rarity now saw consisted of melee attacks with blunt objects that appeared to be padded, and balls fired from mounted cannons. Although… judging by the one that had just been lodged in the wall, they weren’t tennis balls. Aiden was always in motion, even between the teleport hops, and countered with a pair of clubs of his own, one of which floated in his telekinetic grip. That one maintained a defense, knocking away attacks as Aiden closed gaps to knock golems around. It was almost like a dance… or a rave, Rarity thought, stifling a chuckle. Yes, he’d definitely get along with Rainbow. Although… “Why hours? Doesn’t he sleep?”

“Yes, ma’am, I’m sure he does, but… well he does work nights, or has, to my understanding, so maybe he sleeps later in the day? Either way, he came down a while ago and said he wanted some combat practice just in case he was rusty and didn’t realize it. But, he’s done fine. Those drones are set at maximum capacity right now. It’s like he’s fighting a platoon of Oni-koru. Err.. their mid-level soldiers, anyway. We can’t simulate their elite combatants. Just a moment,” the tech pressed a button near the display. “Knight Lieutenant Windborne, Miss Rarity is up here with us. Perhaps you’d care to take a break?”

All at once, the golems disappeared, surrounded briefly by the same dark distortion that heralded Aiden’s teleport hops. They reappeared across the room, in a heap, and Aiden looked up to the camera, “Alright, shut them down. Thanks for the patience, guys.”

The tech tapped a different set of buttons on the keyboard, and the golems stopped moving. At nearly the same time, Aiden disappeared.

And reappeared in the control room. Rarity’s eyes widened a bit, but not from him arriving. The surprise had been that she’d felt it happening an eyeblink before he’d appeared. His weapons, such as they’d been, had been left behind in the training room, regrettably he’d brought something else with him. Rarity wrinkled her nose as she looked over, hopping away from the computer displays and trotting to him with a smirk. “Setting aside your need for a bath, for only a moment… if you could teleport them like that, why fight them with bats?”

“It’s not quite teleportation, but either way that’s cheating,” he chuckled, looking sheepish after the ‘bath’ comment. “Robots like those can’t use magic, so they can’t disrupt the aetheric field to defend themselves, sooo I can freely win any time. Which… peachy if I was down there to ‘win’, but pretty useless as a training exercise. So I just use that ability on myself, for mobility, while focusing on physical enhancement magic and telekinesis.” He looked over at the technicians, “How’d I score?”

“You’re forty-two percent above acceptable baseline for red level missions, and that’s by Grumman’s high standards. Pretty impressive, more so given how long you were at it. 1st Gens really don’t get tired, do they?”

Aiden snorted. “Says you, I’m pretty wiped out. Another hour, tops, all I had in me. And as Rarity has pointed out… I really need a shower, now.”

Rarity nodded emphatically, still scrunching her muzzle. “No offense intended, darling, but you are a bit offensive just now.”

He nodded, and headed towards their room. “Sorry. I should have slept earlier. I’m going to have to switch my sleep schedule back to a normal person’s here. For now though, I’m going to shower and then pass out for a few hours, at least.”

She followed him, mostly for lack of anything better to do since she didn’t feel comfortable roaming the base alone. It wasn’t fear, interestingly enough. Rarity didn’t really do fear, at least in that regard. Still, she wasn’t ready to roam around unescorted. It would be an abuse of hospitality, completely unacceptable. She wasn’t sure what she’d do in the room while Aiden showered and slept, but she doubted Grumman would leave them sitting around for long. She found out how right she was almost as soon as she got through the door. Grumman was inside, sitting at the coffee table, reading on a tablet. On the table itself… Rarity gasped as she saw it.

It was a book, and she knew exactly what book it was. From the magic she could feel surrounding it to the inscription on its ancient cover, she knew it was Equestrian in origin. “Oh, sweet Celestia… Twilight would swoon if she saw that.”

Grumman looked up from his tablet, “That reminds me, Aiden, I’ve looked into it and no one by that name has appeared mysteriously anywhere on record. If she came here, she was under our radar.”

“Thanks for checking, sir.”

“Not a problem. Frankly it would have been interesting to confirm that we’d had more visitors. As to the book, Miss Rarity, I thought you might be interested in perusing its contents. In addition to the language primers, and magic sigils designed to facilitate translations, it contains a history of your world, and our interactions there. I’d love to get your insight on the contents, if you wouldn’t mind. In addition to that, make a list of any supplies you need for your tailoring. I can send people out to get whatever you need. In the meantime, I wanted to let you know that analyzing the data from the escape crystal shouldn’t take more than a week, according to current estimates. While that’s happening, we are looking into procuring a method of long range travel… namely one of the captured Oni vessels that’s somewhere near working order.”

Aiden hummed thoughtfully. “I’ve actually wondered about that. I haven’t heard anything about using those ships at all, outside of the one mission to Mars and back. I mean, that’s something we were practically capable of before the war, so… can we really get further with an Oni vessel? And if so, why haven’t we yet?”

“You haven’t heard about it because you’d left the military and using those ships is strictly classified. We aren’t NASA, though they do have a few of them and are pursuing reverse engineering for all they’re worth. They don’t use the Oni ships themselves because they aren’t safe. Even the newest are in terrible shape. As to our ‘out of the public eye’ flights… Proxima Centauri and back. Once.”

Aiden’s eyes went wide. “You’re kidding.”

“I am most certainly not. The trip took eight hours, mostly because of repairs that needed to be made upon arrival. It used a form of spacial folding not unlike your own mode of transit, and used very little of the ship’s energy reserves. Unfortunately both pilots were permanently disabled by aetheric fluctuations in the shields. As near as we can tell, it’s completely unsafe to be used by anyone without natural aether reserves of their own. It’s either a design flaw or natural wear and tear the Onis didn’t bother to address.”

“Well, they wouldn’t need to. Hell, they’d consider it a sign of weakness to repair something like that.” Aiden said with a grimace.

“I… I’m sorry, I’m not following this. Why wouldn’t they fix their own ships?” Rarity asked.

Grumman hummed thoughtfully, swiping through something on his tablet before responding. “What you have to understand is that the Oni-koru did not build their vessels, or design most of the technology their society uses. Much like the Angel race gave humans technology when they took us to Equus to help your people, the Oni-koru received their technology from the Demon race. While the Angels went out of their way to protect both our peoples after the war, the Demons didn’t do the same for their agents. So the Onis kept their tech, but that doesn’t mean they were intellectually or culturally suited to having it. As we discovered about them over the course of the war here, they’re almost best described as a warrior race that thrives on theatricality. After their initial attacks here they dialed back their aggression considerably in favor of drawing us into battles when realistically they should have been able to just bombard us from orbit. Or they could have, if they’d ever kept their ships in working order. But that approach would never have suited them on a psychological level. If not for their king keeping them in line, we’ve estimated they would have fallen apart to infighting centuries ago. Losing the war here was likely the last straw for them as a unified force.”

“That’s… almost sad. If they didn’t sound simply dreadful I might feel sorry for them.”

“You wouldn’t be the first. What we defeated was a once proud race on its last legs. Even the Demons’ superior technology was long past its prime and the Onis hadn’t advanced themselves in fifteen hundred years, be it culturally or technologically. I’m not sorry that we did it; we defended our way of life from those that would take it. But it was a shame that we, and they, couldn’t find a better method to resolve things. In a real way, we were both pawns in a war between two forces far greater than ourselves. It’s a common ground, but unfortunately not one we could build on. They came here to fight, and did so nearly to the last.”

“Nearly?”

“Their king and a handful of their elites and generals escaped on three of their last, larger vessels. At this point we have enough in terms of defenses that they can’t even come near Earth safely. We lost track of them for now, though finding them has been one of the goals of some who have their salvaged tech. Colonel Owens has one of their ships with that in mind. I think he plans to hunt every last one of them down once he has his 3rd generation perfected.”

Rarity nodded thoughtfully. She suspected she knew the answer to her next question, but she wanted to hear the answer anway. “You disagree with him on that?”

“I do,” Grumman confirmed, to her edification. “Defending your home is one thing. Hunting down every last soldier involved in attacking said home is beyond what I would call warfare, and in this case it’s genocide.”

“So… wouldn’t it be a win-win if we stole Owens’ ship?” Aiden asked.

Grumman grinned. “Indeed so. I’m planning that operation as we speak. Can I count on you?”

“So when you said ‘procuring a ride’...”

“Well, I am pursuing several avenues, but as you’ve pointed out, that one has multiple advantages. If for whatever reason we don’t succeed I will have contingencies.” His tablet beeped and he scrolled through a couple things before nodding decisively and standing up. “I have matters to attend to directly, so I’ll leave you two for now. Valerie is setting up a tablet for you two which will be able to contact the rest of us so you don’t have to go hunting for me or the others. She should be by shortly. Aiden, get yourself cleaned up and consider yourself on mission standby for the foreseeable future. Unless something unexpected happens, you’ll be moving on this in less than 24 hours.”

“Yes, sir.” Aiden responded with a grin.

“Miss Rarity, any insights you can offer about what you find in that book would be much appreciated. I’ve left writing materials. Remember that, in time, the eventual goal here is peaceful contact between our two worlds. Any data you can provide us to supplement and, for that matter, update what we already know could be invaluable.”

“You may rely on me, General,” Rarity replied, saluting whimsically. “Though I must say the odds seem to be in our favor. I think our two worlds will get along wonderfully once we can travel between them. For that matter, you said Princesses Celestia and Luna were there for the war? They’ll surely remember their allies.”

“I imagine so… though I have trouble wrapping my head around the idea of actually talking to anyone who’d been alive that long. It’s one thing to hear about it, but…”

“I can assure you that the princesses are a joy to converse with, General. I’m sure they’ll both take a liking to you.”

Grumman smiled wanly. “Heh. I appreciate you saying so, but it won’t be me going. Solving that shielding problem is no small matter, so only an Esper can safely accompany you. Even if that weren’t true, I’m no diplomat. In any case I need to go. Enjoy the day, you two. I’ll be back around later this evening. We can all have dinner together so that the rest of the personnel here can meet Rarity. Better to get that out of the way sooner than later.” With nothing further he headed out, moving briskly despite leaning on his cane.

Rarity turned to Aiden. “Well then, it seems we both have a job to do.”

Aiden raised an eyebrow. “You have that book, but I’m sort of at leisure until mission briefing.”

“No, darling. Your job is to bathe, thoroughly. Please.” She stated as her magic gently opened the book while grabbing the pen and notebook to begin taking notes and adding her thoughts on its contents.

With a laugh, he tossed her a salute. “Ma’am, yes ma’am!” He went into the bedroom to grab clothes, and was headed back through to the bathroom when he jumped at the sound of a squeeing unicorn. “Oh my Celestia! Little filly Celestia! These pictures are the BEST! POSSIBLE! THING!”

Aiden laughed, and then the bathroom door shut. Rarity giddily continued, parsing through an ancient tome that held the key to diplomatic relations between two worlds. But more importantly, it held adorable filly pictures of the diarchy. Rarity had been right; Twilight was going to swoon.

6. Straight to the Horse's Ear

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As promised, Valerie dropped off a tablet before Aiden had even finished in the shower. While Rarity had seen humans using them enough to discern what they were, more or less, getting a tutorial on one so as to use it herself was another matter entirely. Still, it was very ‘user friendly’ to quote Valerie and before long Rarity was looking around at its features using a stylus held in her telekinetic grip.

“This truly is remarkable… it’s like a book containing an infinite number of other books. I don’t suppose I could manage to get one of these to take back to Equestria with me?”

Valerie chuckled. “We might be able to work something out, especially since we’re hoping you’ll put in a good word for us with your leaders. I know that’s asking a lot after what you’ve been through, but…”

“Oh, pish posh, darling. My arrival was a bit unlucky, but could have gone much worse if the doctors working for that Owens person were actually bad people. And you were there to arrange my rescue from captivity, and now a whole group of you are helping me. You’ve done so much… even if Princesses Celestia and Luna were made of stone I would beg at their hooves to hear you out when the time comes. And since they’re not, at all, I’m still going to owe you a tremendous debt.”

“Hmph, nonsense,” Aiden said as he exited the bathroom, a towel slung loosely around his neck and a pair of loose sweatpants his only other covering. “We’re talking about a chance to make history here, and change the course of the human race for the better. If it all goes well we can definitely call it even.”

Rarity raised an eyebrow at him. “And if it doesn’t go well?”

“We’ll negotiate over a commiserative pitcher of beer.”

Rarity scrunched her muzzle. “First point of negotiation: wine over beer.”

“Provisionally accepted. But only a red; I don’t care for most whites.”

“Done then.”

“See? Easy. We got this.”

Valerie had simply looked between them as they’d conversed, barely seeming to wait for the translations in their back and forth. “Well then… good to see you two have gotten comfortable with one another.” She smirked at Aiden, deliberately gazing at his bare torso. “Shirtless comfort, even.”

“Indeed, darling; I was going to comment on that as well. This is the least dressed I’ve seen a human yet. Muscle definition is all well and good, but are you sure you’re eating enough?”

Aiden flushed red. “The shirt I grabbed was too small, so clearly I’m eating fine, thank you!” He said as he retreated to the bedroom to grab a different shirt.

Rarity giggled at his embarrassment before turning conspiratorially to Valerie. “I… actually don’t know what’s considered attractive for humans. Not that it matters much to me anyway, you could tell me he’s hideous and I think moments like that would still make him adorable.”

Valerie chuckled in response. “He’s certainly not hideous, though I prefer them a bit taller, personally. My husband is half a foot taller, and that’s about average.” She grimaced and shrugged slightly. “A lot of Espers are on the short side. Extreme physical activity before puberty, alongside tendencies towards severe injuries and the poor health care available during those years… honestly they’re fortunate they heal as well as they do. Magic has its advantages.”

Rarity nodded, but pursed her lips thoughtfully. “He went through a lot from what I’ve heard. Should I not be teasing him so much?”

“Oh no, tease away. It’s long past him, most of them in fact. And that goes for most soldiers. There are-”

“Hey, should I stay in the bedroom so you ladies can talk about me freely?” Aiden stood in the doorway, fully if casually dressed.

Valerie grinned. “Did you get the impression we would hold back with you here? Come in already. I was just saying that most soldiers came through the war okay, despite the Hell they went through. That includes myself, though unlike Aiden and General Grumman I wasn’t involved at the beginning.”

“Yeah, you’re just a kid.”

“Pfft, I’ve four years older than you!”

Aiden laughed, sitting down on the couch across the coffee table from them. “It’s true though, about the war. There are a large number of good men and women that didn’t make it, and another large number that may never recover from what they went through. Their sacrifices can never be forgotten. But even added together, they aren’t the majority. Most of us managed to keep walking forward through it all. Part of that’s willpower… most of it is not having to do it alone.” He nodded to Rarity. “And that’s why you’re going to get home. Because you’re not alone in the attempt.”

“Goddammit Windborne, that’s really corny.”

“I thought it was lovely. And that cinches it, darling; you’re adorable.”

Aiden snorted, though he flushed a bit at the comment. “Says the little white unicorn with blue eyes that are unfairly big and bright…” he blinked and tilted his head slightly as he peered at her, “and did you put on makeup?”

“Of course, darling. One must look presentable,” she replied, waving a hoof at him in an ‘oh, you’ sort of gesture.

“Riiiight. Well, I honestly didn’t have much to add other than the joke about staying in the bedroom. Because honestly I’m wiped out. I’m going to get some sack time. Wake me if we’re storming the castle.”

“Wouldn’t go without you,” Valerie assured him with a grin. “Sleep well.”

“Sweet dreams, darling.”

Aiden headed to the bedroom and shut the door quietly behind him.

“Right then, Valerie… let’s continue with this… you were mentioning ‘videos’ from the ‘internet’ earlier,” Rarity continued, more or less correctly pronouncing the words that didn’t seem to have direct Equestrian equivalents. “I’d also like to learn how that coffee maker works.”

-------------------------

“Our interview today is with a very special guest. They’ve been called our guardian angels, the saviors of humanity. Without them, the war may have ended before it began. Instead, thanks to their brave efforts, we have a glimmer of hope that grows brighter every day. Our guest is Knight Aiden Alexander Windborne, Esper and hero of the Siege of Seattle. Knight Windborne, thank you for joining us.”

“You can just call me Aiden.”

Rarity bit her bottom lip. According to the website’s information, the video was thirteen years old. She was looking at a twelve year old Aiden, already a soldier. She couldn’t imagine Sweetie Belle being forced into such a role, and here was a human, her friend, who had been through such a horror at such an age. His face was clearly younger, though recognizable, but the true difference was his eyes. There was a haunted, lost look in them as he stared at the camera as though he expected it to attack him. Those eyes bore dark circles that had no business on such a young face. She wasn’t quite sure she should be watching this, but after two hours of making notes on the tome and another hour of browsing around various websites Valerie had suggested, she’d ended up on listings of Esper related videos. This one in particular had caught her eye, and despite her misgivings she wanted to know more about her allies. She was sure she’d owe him an apology later.

The video continued. “Will do, Aiden, and thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us today. The world is rooting for you and those like you. It’s important to know your side of things, for everyone out there.”

“Mr. Grumman said the same thing. I can’t answer everything though; some of it might be classified.”

“I understand. And for our viewers, that’s Marine Lieutenant General Albert Grumman, commander in chief of the Esper forces here in the U.S., as well as liaison to commanders of similar forces worldwide. To our first question… Can you tell us what life is like with the Marines for someone your age?”

“It’s… okay. I have classes like I did before… and um… training, between missions and attacks. Some for physical conditioning, and some for using magic.”

“Are you with other children your own age? Other Espers?”

“A few. Some have parents stationed where I am, so they have classes with us. None of the Espers have parents though, not anymore.” The young Aiden looked away from the camera, as though guilty about admitting that for some reason. Rarity decided he was getting a big hug when he woke up.

“I apologize for leading into that, Aiden, I can only imagine-”

“No, it’s fine. A lot of people have lost family everywhere. We have to talk about them. We can’t ever forget.”

“That’s very brave of you,” and Rarity couldn’t help feeling that the woman performing the interview sounded a bit condescending. Then again, she was interviewing an adolescent. “Since you say that… I’m sorry, I have to ask about the Seattle crater. Our sources tell us it wasn’t the Oni-koru that caused it. Can you tell us what happened? The real story?”

Aiden grimaced slightly, and swallowed before nodding slowly. “It wasn’t their weapon. It wasn’t a weapon; it was a space folding device used to deliver weapons or soldiers. They used it to send a bunch of troops to the surface as their ship flew by towards the middle of the city. It set off a shockwave through the aether-”

“For our viewers, that’s the official term for an energy field that was heretofore unknown to modern science. Many are calling it magic, but it’s in fact an entirely new branch of scientific discovery that is adding new rules and exceptions to our understanding of the universe. I’m sorry to interrupt, please continue.”

“Magic is science…” Aiden replied, sounding a bit annoyed, “like physics and chemistry. I like the labs for them. But the shockwave… it killed everyone there before the soldiers could have even done anything. Aether disruptions are like severe radiation bursts… fatal to anyone without proper shielding. For Espers though… it’s what first woke us up, disruptions to the aether from Oni-koru doing things with their technology; it’s all aether based. The shockwave woke me up, but it didn’t cause the crater. It was supposed to use the aether disruption to merge the local space with its pocket dimension, basically teleporting everything inside it into the surrounding area. So it didn’t make the crater. I did.”

“How so?”

Aiden shook his head; his eyes were shining with unshed tears, but his expression was steady. “I didn’t mean to. When it hit our car, mom and dad were in front watching the ship fly overhead. All the first attacks happened at the same time so we didn’t know what we were seeing. Then it flashed when it flew by, and… they died. Moira hugged me right before it happened, like she knew something bad was coming. She was my big sister.” He took a deep breath, and slowly exhaled through his nose. It reminded Rarity of Twilight’s calming exercise. “But when the shockwave hit me, and I woke up to my powers… I reversed the gravity drive’s activation. It was instinct; and I can’t do something on that scale anymore, because I’d have nowhere to put it.”

“I’m… not sure what you mean by that.”

“In that instant, I created my own pocket dimension. It’s the same size as the gravity drive’s capacity, which would be classified but anyone can measure that crater. It’s almost 324 meters across, centered on where I was. It’s not much of a crater though, as you know. I didn’t take in much of the ground so it’s not nearly as deep as it is wide, or high. It’s like a dome. But I sucked in everything around me, and then the drive activated and deployed the soldiers to the area. From what they told me it all happened in less than a second. I was delirious and don’t remember. I killed all the soldiers by distorting space around them, basically pulling parts of them into the pocket dimension I had made. But I don’t remember doing that, either.”

“I… see.” The interviewer looked decidedly nonplussed. “While I and many of our viewers were already aware of some of these details, the specifics are certainly a lot to take in. I thank you again for sharing this with us. If I may… what did you do with this ‘pocket dimension’ you created that day?”

“Nothing. It’s still a part of me. I can’t get rid of it any more than you could pull out your own bones.” Aiden sounded a bit angry now, not that Rarity could blame him. “I can use the space, but I can’t go into specifics because they’re classified.”

The interviewer took a sharp breath. “I… understand. But, Aiden, if it’s still a part of you, what became of your family?”

Aiden’s jaw clenched as he pursed his lips firmly together. “I’m not a computer. It’s not… that clean. I can’t just reach in and grab whatever I want. Even if I think I know where it is, it’s not that simple. They’re… all still in there. Dead. Every single person who died where the crater formed is inside my head right now. And they always will be.”

Rarity gasped, covering her muzzle with both hooves as she stared in horror at the screen.

“I’m… I’m sorry. Information of this sort has been very difficult to obtain and verify. We had no idea. ...I… no, that’s more than enough for now. Turn off the camera, please.” The video ended there, and Rarity let out a shuddering breath.

And then shrieked when a hand landed gently on her withers. She twisted away from the touch, landing sideways on the couch and looking up…

At a wryly smiling Aiden. “Sorry about that,” who was apologizing for some ridiculous reason.

“What? Oh no no no, I’m the one who’s-”

“Shh, nah. That’s Youtube. Believe me, anything on there’s public knowledge, for better or worse.” Aiden waved off her sputtering apology attempts. “That interview, and others like it, were highly publicized even before Youtube was a thing. Wouldn’t be fair to keep it a secret from you when basically the whole world’s seen it. It was a long time ago anyway; people really didn’t know much about Espers back then. The stories like that one helped generate sympathy and bridge gaps. I uhh… didn’t exactly enjoy it at the time, but looking back it was a good thing that they were made.”

“Did… did you find a way to… get rid of… ahh, I’m sorry.”

Aiden’s smile became distant, but didn’t vanish. “That space is still there. 323 meters across, 162 high, roughly. I didn’t dig up much of the ground to suck in, but it’s a few meters worth, anyway. Going in there is how I do those teleport hops. I can go in and come out anywhere within that 162 meter radius. Actually, 161.8, but yeah. Anyone within that radius in the real world is within my ability’s range; I can force them into that world by opening a portal and distorting aetheric forces to suck them through. But that’s assuming they can’t correct the distortion themselves, as most mid-tier and higher Oni soldiers could. I can pull them back out the same way… but everything I took in on that first day is stationary. I can’t find a way to… sort of grab it, I guess. The aetheric forces inside aren’t safe to non-Espers, and I’m not asking an Esper to go in there and grab bodies to pull out. It hits too close to home for us. I haven’t done it myself for the same reason. Well that and I can’t stay inside too long. Setting aside the joys of traumatic flashbacks,” he grimaced as though remembering experiencing a few, “it’s an odd sort of strain, like a resonance, the longer I stay in there. I guess it makes some kind of sense; I’m literally pulling my physical existence into a plane of space that exists inside my own soul, or something.”

“When I get home, I’ll ask Twilight about it. If anypony could explain something like that…”

“Wouldn’t hurt to compare notes, that’s for sure.”

“Agreed. Also…” and Rarity hopped up and hugged him tightly.

He chuckled. “I told you it was fine.”

“It’s not a pity hug, Aiden. It’s an ‘I’m sorry I peeked into your life without permission even though I learned something that gave me a newfound respect and admiration for you along with a powerful desire to hug you’ hug. As Pinkie Pie calls it, a number 47.”

Aiden blinked, snerked, and returned the hug. “That’s quite specific.”

“Yes, she’s a surprisingly detail oriented mare. I hope you can meet her as well… assuming I can pull you away from Twilight long enough for additional introductions.” She pulled away from the hug with a thoughtful expression, tapping her chin with a hoof. “Although… thinking about it… if you did come to Equestria, Pinkie would probably greet you first somehow. She’d find a way.”

“I’ll keep an eye out for her, then. In the meantime, anything on the agenda? I assume they’d contact us through the tablet, so...”

“Ahh, yes. I received a message about joining the others in the compound for an early dinner in about an hour. I was going to wake you soon, actually. General Grumman said to expect about twenty people, and asked about my dietary preferences.”

“Yeah… probably doesn’t want anything that might offend you at the table, especially since it’s going to be your turn to give interviews.”

“I assumed as much. I told him not to worry; like most ponies I don’t care for meat, but I’m not so squeamish as to be taken aback by others eating it. I do associate with the occasional griffin and dragon, after all.” She paused briefly. “Well… not that Spike eats meat, but my point remains. Ah, and my father is an avid angler, unusual for a unicorn but not unheard of. As such I long ago acquired a taste for various fish, which Grumman assures me will be made available. Given the quality of breakfast, I’m truly looking forward to it. I don’t believe I’ve had halibut before.”

“It’s a good choice. Definitely try it if he’s offering. Heck, I’ll probably get that myself.”

“I shall trust your recommendation then. Now then, go get cleaned up, so I can do the same. Don’t take too long; I may need a bit of time, just in case.”

Aiden raised an eyebrow. “You look fine. You’ve just been out here sitting this whole time. And I just woke up. Teeth need brushed, but that’s about…” he trailed off at Rarity’s deadpan expression. “Right! I’ll just, go get cleaned up.”

Rarity beamed at him, “Thank you, darling! I’ll be right behind you.”

7. Dinner and a Show and Tell

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They went to the dining room together. Much like the rest of the base it was more posh than Rarity would have expected. The long table was of a rich mahogany, solidly constructed and covered with a deep red cloth. The floor and walls matched with the darker theme and gave the room a decidedly un-military feel. Several people were already seated, all wearing casual dress clothing. For her part, Rarity had worn a simple but elegant black dress that she’d found amongst her wide ranging options. The basic supplies Donovan had dropped off the previous night had been more than enough to alter the dress for a proper fit. All in all she was glad she’d let Aiden talk her out of the black gloves (not socks, those were for the hind legs, thank you); she might have been overdressed at that point.

Speaking of Aiden, she’d managed to get him into something decent looking, or so she felt, with a bit of cajoling. She’d had enough internet time to know a casual suit versus the sweats he probably would have worn. Not that it was difficult to home in on since clothing styles were surprisingly similar here to back in Equestria, and so a dark grey suit that favored his eyes came together in short order. He pulled it off rather well if she did say so herself.

Grumman greeted them both with a smile. “Miss Rarity, Aiden. Thank you for joining us. To those assembled, we’ll make introductions when everyone’s here, but for now you all know our guest of honor, and her honor guard.” He grinned at Aiden at the last part.

Who chuckled wryly. “Hey, I’m just here for the food.”

“Well, I hope our chef won’t disappoint. The two of you can take your seats at that end of the table there,” as said as he pointed towards the head of the table and the seat directly right of it. “Miss Rarity, if the seat doesn’t work for your stature, we’ll find something else.”

“Oh, I’m sure it’s fine,” she gave Grumman a bright smile and nod by way of thanks. “Oh, and thank you very much, such a gentlecolt!” she grinned up at Aiden, who’d pulled the chair out for her. She hopped nimbly onto it and turned to face the table, all eyes on her as he situated her chair. “Yes, this is lovely, thank you.”

He sat down as well, raising an eyebrow. “Gentle… colt? I’m not sure about the translators sometimes.”

“The software is highly adaptive, and partially based on technology we’ve stolen from the Onis. We supplemented the language data from my family’s heirloom with their linguistic database as well. It’s bound to have a few quirks, but frankly it’s worked better than we could have hoped.” Grumman grinned at Aiden. “It certainly helps that you have chatted up the fair lady so consistently since your first meeting.”

“Oh, yes,” Rarity chimed in with a similar smile. “Not that I’ve minded. Even setting aside my previous accommodations, he’s a fine roommate. He carried me to bed yesterday after we dozed off together on the couch.”

Aiden snerked. “What can I say? Just channeling my inner Kirk.”

Rarity blinked. “Kirk?”

Another person at the table laughed. “Tell her to google Kirk and alien babes. She’ll get the idea.”

Rarity tilted her head at the new speaker. “I… can hear you, you know. So tell me, who is this Kirk?”

Suddenly on the spot, the man’s eyes widened as he looked around for support. Despite a few more people making their way into the room, he found none. “Uh… I thought the translator only picked up the General and Aiden, since… umm… okay yeah I don’t know why I thought that. Wait, it picks up everything? Isn’t that going to be tough when everyone’s here?”

“The software detects when she’s being addressed based on several factors. As I said, adaptive and partially based on advanced alien software,” Grumman replied. “Now then, Private, answer the lady.”

“Uh… yes, sir,” he replied with a sheepish grin. “I’m Private Aaron Cooper, by the way. Uhh… you really can just google it, but Kirk is a fictional character, a ship captain known for… exploring outer space and… getting along with alien ladies.”

Rarity giggled. “‘Getting along with’ he says. I’m a full grown mare, darling; you don’t need foal language. That said…” she looked over at Aiden with a predatory grin, “Getting along with me in that context will require the massage.”

“Only if I get another nuzzle out of it.”

“More than fair.”

Private Cooper looked between them and snorted. “Get a room, damn.”

“We have one.”

“We have one.”

Several people laughed, including Rarity and Aiden, at the simultaneous reply.

----------------

“And then in comes Princess Luna, fresh as a daisy, with ‘Did I miss anything?’”

Most of the assembled soldiers and technicians laughed, the rest at least had smiles for Rarity’s (probably slightly exaggerated) tale of The Canterlot Siege/Royal wedding.

“You really took on giant bugs by punching them in the face?” This from one of the techs she’d seen that morning, monitoring Aiden’s training. He was grinning, and his tone seemed only mildly disbelieving, more amused.

She fluffed her mane with one hoof. “Certainly, darling. I didn’t have my fabric shears on me.” That got a few more chuckles. “Though I’d hardly call them giant, they were about the same size as us.”

“Yeah well, I’m sorry but if we’re talking bugs that’s way too big. A spider the size of a quarter is too big, thank you.”

Rarity chuckled. “Honestly they look as much like ponies as bugs. I didn’t really mind their appearance… not that it stayed consistent, now that I say that. Anyway my friends were far more impressive. I don’t even want to guess at the internal mechanics of a party cannon, but it was effective even just shooting confetti!”

“I vote we solve all conflicts with fist fights and confetti cannons from now on,” a soldier Rarity hadn’t seen before the dinner added, getting another round of laughs.

It’d been a lovely dinner, Rarity decided. The halibut had indeed been exquisite, as had the salad that preceded it. She’d never had apple cider vinaigrette before, mostly because cider was too highly demanded to make it into anything but a mug back in Ponyville. Still, maybe she could get Applejack to make some for her as a special request.

“Okay so we’ve been watching you eat with telekinesis this whole time. Why use a fork at all?” Aaron asked.

“Well, it’s not quite equivalent of course, but using my magic to lift food directly would be like… eating that cauliflower with your hands.”

“Hey, I’ve done worse.”

“I have no response to that, darling.”

“Didn’t merit one.”

“Miss Rarity, if I could ask… what do you plan to do about your treatment at Veritech labs?”

Rarity blinked in surprise. The woman who’d spoken hadn’t said a word through dinner since introducing herself as Sergeant Lily Vualez. Rarity had gotten an odd vibe off of her, but hadn’t thought much of it at the time. A few of the humans were a little uncomfortable about her at first. It was understandable; she was an alien and their experience there had been less than kind. Most of that seemed to have eroded as the meal progressed, but…

“I’m… sorry. ‘Do about it?’ What would I?” Rarity asked, peering with confusion at Lily as the table went deathly silent.

She was a dark complected woman with long, black hair, but most notable in that moment were her piercing brown eyes. They seemed to almost glow with a golden light in the intensity of her gaze. “If General Grumman is correct, and we’re able to get you home, I’d like to know what retaliation you’ll seek against your captors. What retribution you’ll want for the humiliations you suffered at the hands of humans.”

Rarity inhaled sharply as she realized what she was feeling. That gaze wasn’t just intense… Lily had magic. She hadn’t mentioned being an Esper… but that didn’t matter just then. “Miss Vualez, I have no interest in retribution. No lasting harm was done. And I work in the fashion industry back home. Believe me, I’ve suffered far worse, far more public, humiliations than anything that happened at Veritech. I can assure you that anything I have to say about humanity when I return home will be positive, and focused on the friends who helped me when I was lost and alone.”

Lily’s eyes narrowed, as though she were trying to find something wrong with that. “You just seem too good to be true. Sounds to me like you’re being too generous about what happened. I think you’re covering your real feelings so we’ll help you, and then you’ll turn on us.”

Aiden snorted. “Sounds to me like you’re projecting.”

“No, you’re too trusting! Look at the two of you! You get along like you’ve known each other for years. Windborne, how do you know you’re not being manipulated by her magic?”

Flinching in surprise, Aiden tilted his head to glare at Lily. “That’s a serious accusation.”

Rarity shook her head. “Also preposterous. Even if I had that sort of magic, and I don’t, it’s outside my area of expertise-”

“So you say.”

“You’d be able to see it!”

Lily stopped whatever she’d been about to continue saying. “...What?”

“If there were magic flowing between us, you’d be able to see it. I couldn’t back home, but magic flows very differently here; it’s easy to see.”

“I… I don’t…”

“Uhh, Rarity, Espers can see magic like you’re describing, but normal humans can’t, so she-”

“But, Aiden, she is an Esper. I can see her magic swirling about. It’s like a cloak wrapped tightly around her.”

Aiden jerked back towards Lily as though he’d been slapped. The rest of the table had inched away from her. Grumman had his hand on his cane, and was staring her down.

The General spoke first. “Sergeant Vualez?”

“She’s lying, sir. Like she’s lying to everyone here.” Lily snarled, eyes burning into Rarity. Despite that, she’d gone quite pale.

“No.” Donovan spoke up.

Grumman raised an eyebrow. “Knight Trellis?”

Donovan was glaring at Lily. “I wouldn’t have noticed either, if Rarity hadn’t said something. But you know how it is with illusions. Once you know they’re there… she’s an Esper, sir; I can see it now, too. Windborne wouldn’t notice it, he’s got too much background noise in his head.”

“So many voices, and they all tell me to burn things.” Aiden joked, but his face was deadly serious as he stared at Lily.

Rarity swallowed against a suddenly dry throat. “Ahh… why’s everyone so serious all of a sudden? She hid that she was an Esper and she’s being a bit rude to me, but…”

“She’s a spy, Miss Rarity,” Grumman said, rising slowly from his seat. “There are no Espers that hold normal military ranks. And Lily Vualez is no Esper; I’ve known her for eight years. As such, this isn’t Sergeant Lily Vualez. And so… I would very much like to know where Lily Vualez is, and who you are, young lady. I don’t know what you thought you’d accomplish here, but-”

She started to throw a hand towards him, crackling with energy, before vanishing into a distortion that Rarity had recently become familiar with.

Grumman blinked in surprise. “Excellent reflexes, Knight Lt. Windborne.”

“Thank you, sir, but I’m just batting clean up here. If Rarity and Donovan hadn’t noticed her…” Aiden looked shaken. Rarity gently touched his arm, getting a weak smile from him. His magic was channeling constantly now for some reason, and his focus seemed distant.

“I do appreciate team efforts. Speaking of… Valerie, I want Lily’s room searched. Any clue as to when the impostor took her place. Cooper, Henson, Ferguson, Trellis, search the compound, top to bottom. If Sergeant Vualez is tied up somewhere I want her found and released. If her body is found… either way, notify me at once. The rest of you, dismissed to your stations, high alert. She may have back up out there and I want no one in or out of the compound until further notice!"

A chorus of ‘yes, sir!’s signalled the abrupt end of dinner. Rarity sighed in dismay. “What just happened?”

Grumman looked fearsome as she glanced over at him for answers, and she instinctively scooted over in her chair, closer to Aiden. “Mr. Windborne and I are about to get some answers to that. I assume your guest is enjoying herself?”

Aiden snorted. “I think she threw up. I’ve been tossing her around in there to keep her off balance, a new gate in a new direction every second. I may or may not have bounced her off a few things… just a little.”

“That’s a bit excessive, darling…”

“Oh, not too hard. And beyond insulting you she may have killed one our people here, and I assume she had plans to do more.”

“But why would a spy confront me and draw attention to herself?”

Aiden frowned. It was a good question. “Well… she didn’t know you’d be able to sense her magic. She was hiding it well enough that Donovan didn’t notice her; she clearly has training in doing that. Hiding from me doesn’t mean much. I uhh… don’t actually hear voices, mind you. But my pocket dimension sort of… creates an echo of background noise. It’s not an exact metaphor, but basically it’s like I can’t sense others working with magic because I have an entire factory made of the stuff thrumming away in my head. I have to be very close to sense anything. And speaking of close… I’ve had enough of bouncing her around. Let’s get better acquainted. General, where to for this?”

“Frankly, Mr. Windborne, right here is fine. I don’t know how much of the compound she’s seen already; I have no intention of showing her even one more room. Drop her in the corner there, and hold her. Miss Rarity, you may want to go back to your room. This will likely be unpleasant.”

Rarity shook her head, eyes steely. “I’ll stay, unless you’re insisting. She put herself at risk to verbally attack me. I want to know why.”

Grumman stared at her a moment before nodding. “Very well then. Mr. Windborne?”

“Right.” Rarity felt the distortion again as ‘Lily’ fell from a sudden shadow near the ceiling and stopped just short of the floor, held in the burnt orange glow of Aiden’s telekinesis. She looked much paler now, with blue eyes rather than brown, and a different facial structure. She also looked rather green. Rarity suspected, and the smell from her clothing confirmed, that that was the result of recent and sudden illness rather than normal skin tone.

She turned her head, with difficulty, to look at her captors. “I see you haven’t lost a step, Windborne. I didn’t even have time to change my magic from veil to shield. You owe me a new blouse.”

Aiden was frowning as he looked at her. “...Vera?”

“I’m surprised you can remember, with that thing controlling your head.”

Rarity grimaced. “Perhaps I should leave, after all, if it’ll help her speak more freely.”

Aiden shook his head. “Hell with that. She’s going to talk. Because the Vera Elleway I knew went into a mental institution a year before the war ended, on her own volition. She’s a second generation who can generate electricity. During our attack on the Cardinal Spires she was instrumental in destroying several key defensive points but exposed her mind to some really nasty stuff in the process.” He looked at Vera, who was looking away guiltily. “Which might explain why you’d worry about mind control from an alien. But other than that… what the hell, Vera? We’re not enemies here, talk to us.”

“That remains to be seen, Mr. Windborne. I need to know Lily Vualez’s status before I make that call.” Grumman added in a no-nonsense tone.

“Sergeant Vualez is fine. She’s drugged and sleeping in her room.” Vera muttered, still not looking at them.

“Thank you, Miss Elleway.”

“...You’re welcome, General. I’m not here to hurt any humans.”

“So keep talking,” Aiden said. “Come on, it’s me here. We both served under Paladin Williams during the war, we both went through all kinds of Hell. This subterfuge… what were you trying to accomplish?”

Vera sighed heavily through her nose. “I was in that institution until Colonel Owens came for me there. That was almost three years ago. No one else even came to visit.” She said, glaring at Aiden.

“Um… actually I did. The doctors wouldn’t let me see you. Err… it was just after the war ended though, and just the once… but… umm…” Aiden rubbed the back of his head, looking guilty. “Sorry, it just kind of slipped away from me back then. I wanted to move on from all that, but I shouldn’t have left so many comrades out of my life. I’m sorry, Vera.”

Vera grimaced. “You’re the same sap you always were. Look, I don’t really care about that, I just wanted to guilt you about it because… well you made me puke on myself. I went into that place to get help, and to get away from the war and everything about it. I didn’t want to see anyone. But Colonel Owens convinced me otherwise. If he can really create Espers, a third generation… the rest of us can really, finally, be accepted and just live normal lives. Anyone who wants magic can get it; we won’t have to be ostracized by what we can do. We won’t have to be called on… when the next aliens come here.” She stared at Rarity as she spoke those words.

“...Forgive me, darling, but do I really look like some scary invasion force?”

Vera continued staring, her jaw clenched as though trying to contain her anger. “.......UGH! This is such bullshit! Owens gets the perfect solution dropped into his lap, but no… she’s too cute, so we’re not allowed to use her!”

Grumman snorted. “You’re not allowed to ‘use’ her because she’s a sapient being and we’re better than that. That’s exactly why I oppose Owens to begin with. ‘Anyone can get magic if they want it’... do you honestly think it’ll be that simple? Owens wants a private army; he’s not going to hand out power like that; he’ll use those he gives it to as pawns for said army.”

“That army could protect this world.”

“So can the one we have.”

Aiden cut in. “What I want to know is just how Rarity is the ‘perfect solution’ for him.” Vera just looked at the floor. She was still floating a few inches above it. “Come on, Vera.”

She sighed. “Well, she has natural magic, more a part of her than ours. The Onis were a dead end; they aren’t compatible with us in any helpful way. But her… if we could find a way to remove her magic completely, study it, replicate it… If we removed her horn, drained her blood, maybe-”

Rarity gagged.

“Vera!” Aiden barked, sounding coldly, grimly furious. “You’re talking about basically dissecting a sapient being! What the Hell!?” He was looking at their captive like he didn’t know her.

“I’m talking about an alien, and a deceitful one at that! Our scientists refused to perform the more invasive tests, and their results kept getting botched or disappearing. In three weeks they learned almost nothing we could use! She was affecting their minds! It’s the only explanation!”

“Actually, a lot of that was my own spy.” Grumman added.

Vera blinked as the casual statement took the wind from her sails. “What?”

“You didn’t know? Well, if you weren’t directly involved in the labs you may not have noticed her.” He sighed. “You weren’t, were you? I imagine Owens had better uses for you than lab security. And my aide is well trained. Her public rank is a lie, part of her desire to not draw attention, after all. Her behavior as well, is almost all stagecraft. In fact, she and I are far more manipulative and less honest than Rarity here. As to the rest… I think they realized, with a bit of help from Valerie perhaps, that what they were doing wasn’t right. We cannot allow the war with the Oni-koru to make us less than we are. Fate gave us a gift in bringing a potential ally to us, moreso one that we once knew, long ago. After learning that we aren’t alone in the universe what more could we ask for?”

Vera squeezed her eyes shut. “I…”

Aiden shook his head. “You wanted an easy answer. Just this one sacrifice. It’s not even human, so it’s fine. Doesn’t work that way. You don’t escape demons by becoming one.”

“That’s how we fought them!” Vera choked, looking balefully at him through reddened eyes.

Aiden sighed. “For a time, yes. War is Hell, but we kept walking, even covered in the bloody mud. You know that. As we walked, we learned what we couldn’t be.” He smiled slightly. “The road to Hell is paved with good intentions…”

Vera sniffed. “Without them we wouldn’t need the road. Aiden, my intentions-”

“Were good.” he replied, sadly. “But you let yourself be alone. When Owens came to you, he talked you into merging yours with his. And his aren’t… no matter how he sold them to you.”

She nodded quickly, biting her lips as her jaw quivered. “General Grumman. I surrender myself to your custody. Please do with me as you will. Aiden… I’m sorry. ...Miss Rarity… I...”

Rarity smiled gently as Aiden released Vera, setting her gently on the floor. “That horn comment is going to give me nightmares. If you meet any other unicorns, please don’t threaten them with that.”

Vera winced slightly. “That! How… how are you so… I came here to take you back to Veritech. I had planned to grab you after everyone was winding down from dinner. But you were so… so… human! I couldn’t stand it, everything Owens said about you… I thought you had to be deceiving us. Controlling Aiden, something! You couldn’t be…. This… this…” She let out a long, shuddering breath. “I’m sorry, Rarity.”

“I forgive you, Vera,” she replied with a small smile. Aiden put a comforting hand on her withers.

Grumman nodded as he looked at his phone, which had quietly buzzed a couple times during the exchange. “Sergeant Vualez has indeed been found, exactly where you said she would be. Pending a medical examination to confirm she’s not been harmed, I believe most of this incident can be overlooked. ...Eventually. For now, you will be confined to the punitive quarters in the basement.” He snorted. “And here I thought we’d never have to use them.”

Vera chuckled weakly. “I understand. You and Owens are both running your own little games. I’m going to disappear, aren’t I?”

“I rather doubt it. For now you’ll be enjoying the low end of my hospitality simply because I don’t want Owens snatching you back up. We’ll be accelerating our operations in that regard. When it’s over you’ll be brought up on proper charges and we’ll go from there. I imagine, given your cooperation and circumstances, that things can go fairly painlessly for you. But that’s assuming you behave yourself for awhile. Cool your heels, think about what got you here and how you want to defend your actions to a tribunal. ...I suggest you leave out the part about wanting to carve up a sapient being for parts and spare aether.”

Rarity grimaced. “We could stop mentioning it all together; that would be just lovely.”

Vera nodded, sniffing slightly. “I have a request, General.”

“I’m listening.”

“May I have a copy of the book about her world? I’m going to have a lot of time on my hands and I want to understand how there’s an alien race you feel we can trust. I can see I got lost there… what I was thinking… I just wanted a way to fix it all, but… It was easy to see ‘alien’ and think it was okay to do whatever we needed to do. I… want to understand.”

Grumman smiled. “I think I can arrange that.” His phone buzzed again, and he glanced at it. “Valerie and I have some planning to do. Originally I thought we’d have more time. For Owens to move his Oni ship he’ll need to procure a very large vehicle to haul it. There’s no way he’d be stupid enough or desperate enough to move it under its own power. Or so I’d thought, but after this…”

“No, he won’t just move it. He’ll move it against you.”

Grumman raised an eyebrow. “You can’t be serious.”

“I’m completely serious. He sent me to get Rarity back and planned to attack you with the refurbished Oni vessel. He was going to blame the attack on the new alien threat that arrived onboard via teleportation and took over the ship. He’d regain command by wresting it from the alien’s control, killing her in the process. So the story would go.”

“Hmph. Get public opinion on your side, minimize any backlash, and kill off the new alien without anyone asking for too many details, at least not until you’d accomplished all your goals. Not bad, Colonel… I didn’t give you enough credit.”

“Can we please stop killing me off in this conversation?” Rarity asked plaintively.

The door opened and Aaron Cooper and another whose name escaped Rarity stepped in. Grumman turned to them. “Escort Vera Elleway to the holding cell. Amicably, please. This has been a misunderstanding that we intend to clear up in time. For now, she’s to be detained, not mistreated.”

“I dunno, sir, thanks to her outburst I had a very good Irish coffee go cold on me.”

Grumman snorted. “Follow your orders, private.”

Cooper grinned, and saluted. “Sir, yes, sir! Come along, ma’am. And no magical funny business please… if Aiden has to save our asses and catch you for us, it’ll look bad on my next review.”

Vera actually smiled slightly. “We wouldn’t want that. First though… Miss Rarity?”

Rarity shook her head. “You already apologized, darling.”

“I know, but… I didn’t know what you were. Not really, until dinner tonight. I didn’t want to believe. I told myself whatever I could to…” she sighed, lowering her eyes. Tears hit the floor at her feet. “As a kid… I had a little unicorn doll. My mom bought it for me. It was… I took it everywhere. When I saw you tonight… I thought…” she shook her head. “Grumman says you’re a gift from fate. I thought it was some cosmic joke. The universe having a laugh at me, reminding me what I’d lost. I was wrong. I’m sorry… I’m… I’m sorry.”

Rarity crossed the distance between them, reared up, and put her forelegs around the shocked woman. “It’s all right now. We’re going to make sure of it. All of us. For both our worlds. I know it. Stop hurting yourself, Vera. It’s going to be okay.”

Vera wept openly, throwing her arms around the unicorn.

8. Risks Worth Taking

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes, sir.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What was it?”

“...Albus.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rarity snickered.

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

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

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

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

“Yes, sir.”

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

“One hull breach, ready and waiting.”

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

Talia Henson nodded. “Yes, sir.”

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

Aaron Cooper nodded, as had Samuel Ferguson seconds prior.

“Um…”

“Yes, Miss Rarity?”

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

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

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

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

“I see. You mentioned casualties, General?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Don’t say it!” Rarity snapped.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Draw it, Miss Rarity.”

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

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

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

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

9. Storming the Castle

View Online

They’d be gathering just outside Grumman’s base (Rarity felt it needed some sort of name… Fort Friendship? Eh, working title) in one hour, after getting kitted up.

For her part, this had meant a few minutes staring cockeyed at barding that had been set out for her. It had lightweight armor plates built into a tough fabric Rarity didn’t quite recognize, other than that it was synthetic. Another minute to put it on, surprisingly. It was sized quite well for being so form fitting… suspiciously well… dammit, Valerie. Some of those measurements were not to be taken without permission! On the other hoof, the barding was surprisingly comfortable after just a couple minor adjustments, so Rarity decided not to make issue of it. Instead, a touch of magic pulled the dark grey hood up over her mane (the sacrifices one must make in the service of good…) and attached the earbud that was wired into the suit’s communication system. In Rarity’s case this of course included two way translation. The order of the day in that regard was ‘short and simple’. The extra time waiting for long translations could be deadly, but short messages were very nearly no delay.

The rest of her time was spent communing with Joyeuse. Though she had no direct experience with wearing the Alicorn Amulet, and no plans to ever change that, she could only (safely) assume this was entirely different, and quite soothing. The crystal would do little to strengthen her the way the Amulet would, since it had no dark magic to draw from her very soul, but it also wouldn’t corrupt her for the same reason. That said, a little could go a long way, and it wasn’t just the enhancement that made the gem worthwhile.

Harmony. She could feel it thrumming in her veins, like a song of battle wiping away her lingering uncertainties. She felt courage and resolve flowing through her. Yet there was a peace about it. Was this the serenity her old self defense instructor had spoken of? If so, she should have stayed with the class longer. Flying Kick had definitely been onto something. Joyeuse was happy to be with her; together they could do this. It wouldn’t just be Aiden protecting her; they could all look out for each other. She knew it wasn’t overconfidence talking, rather a lack of doubt. But speaking of Aiden…

He’d emerged from his own preparations in similar shape. His outfit was form fitting and armored much like her own. He carried two long, thin clubs on his back, which the translator had called canes. They didn’t look like canes… they looked like bats, if somepony wanted a thinner bat they could swing faster. They were definitely larger and heavier than Joyeuse, which was after all a cane sword that resembled a rapier. Frankly, she hoped neither of them would have to use the weapons, but doubted her luck would hold up that well.

He glanced down at her, and gave her a small smile. She’d come to recognize it as his ‘that’s cute but I’m trying to be cool about it’. He fooled nopony. “The hoodie looks surprisingly good on you.”

Rarity snorted in amusement. “Lies. Covering this fabulous mane so completely is a crime against fashion. One more thing Colonel Owens must answer for.”

“Heh. Just remember this isn’t a punitive mission. We’re there to steal your ride home and get out. Leave Owens to our backup. Once we start taking the shields down on the ship, it’ll be at least a minute for me to get to finish the job. During that time they will be coming for us, assuming we even avoid detection that long. If not… eyes on the prize. We make our way to the ship, defend Valerie as long as she needs to disable the shields, and then defend me as I open a portal large enough to encompass the ship. Once I drop us off in my pocket ‘verse, I can use a normal sized portal back out for us and leave it in there.”

“I thought the things you left in there couldn’t be moved any more?”

He shook his head. “Nah, that’s just the stuff I absorbed on that first time. Anything else, if I can find it, I can grab it. The ship will be easy to find in there; even without the shields up it has a noticeable aether pulse from its reactor.”

“I see.” She more or less did, but she felt she’d understand better when she saw the thing.

“You’re sure you want to go through with this? It’s not just about you getting hurt. We’re going to try not to kill anyone but I absolutely cannot promise anything. And if I noticed one thing missing from your stories at dinner…”

“I’ve never killed anypony,” he smirked at hearing that, for whatever reason. “I know. If it comes down to them or me, I know my choice is already made. As is theirs, for siding with him. It’d be lovely to give them all the chance to change sides, the way Vera did, but we had no chance to offer that to the changelings in Canterlot. I accept that there’s no such chance here. You can count on me, Knight Lieutenant!” She saluted sharply.

He flushed slightly and turned away, muttering something her translator picked up as ‘mutter mutter cute mutter mutter felony.’

-------------------------

“Alright, folks, fall in!” Donovan exclaimed in a parade voice. “First things first… hand or hoof in the air if you’ve traveled with Aiden Airways before?” His own hand went up, as did Aiden’s with a sardonic grin that made Rarity a little nervous. “No one, eh? Well….” he began chuckling darkly… as did Aiden.

The four humans of their group, Valerie Martinovich, Talia Henson, Samuel Ferguson, and Aaron Cooper, all exchanged uncomfortable glances. Rarity was tensing up, and not just from looking at their individual arsenals. Teleportation wasn’t bad, but Aiden’s pocket dimension was a graveyard filled with aetheric instabilities. Did it make you sick? Would you get all stretched in various directions? Did it shatter your mind with hallucinations? Did it give you horrible wind mane? DID IT GIVE YOU HORRIBLE WIND MANE?!

Donovan wound down a bit. “Heh… hah… naaaah. It’s actually nothing at all.”

Rarity nearly fell over.

“Seriously, despite moving at… Aiden?”

“Eh… effectively about three hundred meters per second.”

“Right, almost the speed of sound, you aren’t actually moving so much as being picked up and put back down about 160 meters away.”

“161.8.”

“Yep, that. You’ll barely feel it. Now, if you’re watching, you’re going to get sick. You won’t feel the motion since you’re basically teleport hopping, but you’ll see the real world and Aiden’s ‘verse swapping as he pulls us through portals at about two per second. It’s like a strobe light, only more annoying. So I strongly suggest closing your eyes until we get there, which will be about ten minutes. Feel free to get a power nap in and be ready to go. Questions?”

No one had any. Rarity had already ‘asked’ Joyeuse to help her with any motion sickness. Despite being sheathed, she could still feel the gem pressed against her shoulder. It was strapped along her side horizontally, allowing her to draw it with her teeth if needed. Obviously magic was better, but for the first part of the mission they wanted to minimize magic use. Even using her perception to search for traps could be risky, despite Valerie’s belief otherwise. Every precaution…

“Brute Squad, do you read? This is Command Actual.” Grumman’s voice came through her headset. Whyever did they pick that name?

“Brute Squad here, Command. Ready to storm the castle.”

“Sally forth, Brute Squad. We have eyes in the sky and will inform you of any issues en route. Maintain radio silence unless you hear from us or need evac. Godspeed.”

“Acknowledged, Command. Once more on that muddy path…” Aiden chuckled. Rarity felt his aether surge around them, and then…

She gasped and her eyes went wide. Were it not for Joyeuse’s soothing touch, she certainly would have been nauseated immediately. Instead… feeling the aether surround her and carry her forward, everything slowed down.

Aiden was in front. He was staring straight forward and his eyes glowed with a gentle orange light, like candles in the darkness that surrounded them. Donovan’s pink (‘lightish red!’) aura encompassed them all, ostensibly shielding them from a dose of aether distortion that would be harmless anyway. Redundancy was better than recklessness, she supposed. The human soldiers had all closed their eyes, though Rarity noticed Valerie peeking out through one open eye from time to time.

I want to see Aiden’s world here. ...Heh, glad I didn’t say that out loud, what with the phrasing… But it seemed Joyeuse heard her. As she watched, the slower time seemed to exist in only half the jumps, speeding her perception while all but closing out the real world half of the transit. It was like watching a movie reel with old film, clear enough but for a slight skip that was so frequent it faded into the background. She knew she couldn’t move too far from the group, but within Donovan’s shield, she began walking around to see out from various sides of their party. Aiden turned to look at her, but didn’t cease his channeling.

“Rarity, you okay there?”

“I’m fine, darling, don’t worry about me. I simply wanted a look around.”

Donovan whistled quietly. “Eyes open, eh? You’re quite the ironmare, aren’t you?” He chuckled as though the word were amusing somehow.

Rarity wasn’t sure why, or that it applied to her. “I’ve gotten a lot of help to reach this point, Donovan. I think the last time I felt like this was days after getting my Cutie Mark. The giddiness had subsided, and I simply felt… purpose. Inspiration. Aiden… this little world of yours… I want to help with it. I think we can do something about how it is in here, and how you feel about it. It doesn’t have to be a graveyard.”

“It’s really not as symbolic as it sounds. And for now we should focus on the mission.”

Rarity nodded. “I understand. I am focused. If I think too much about it it isn’t going to help, though.”

“Fair enough. But don’t wander off. You’re in no danger in here, but if anything disrupts me right now I want us all in one place.”

“Understood.”

“Thank you, Knight Rarity.”

She giggled. “...Knight?”

“...Dame?”

“Not what I meant.”

“Well, you’ve pretty much volunteered your way into the Esper Corps. Congrats on being the first non-human. Knight is our basic rank.”

Rarity cocked an eyebrow at Donovan. “After all your years in service, not one promotion?”

Donovan laughed. “We’re not really the same as other military branches. Knight is fine, anything else is a leadership role, and I’m not big on stepping onto that stage. Grumman doesn’t really have a normal chain of command anyway. He collects merit, not ranks. Technically Valerie is a Corporal… so far as we know,” She stuck her tongue out at him but didn’t speak or open her eyes, “but only Grumman wouldn’t take an order from her. Actually even he might.”

Now she spoke. “It’d depend on the order. I tried to order him to take time off once. His response was… impolite.”

They all chuckled, and Aiden spoke up. “Nearly there, let’s cut the chatter on that happy note.”

And then, just seconds later, it was suddenly over. Aiden’s ‘verse disappeared, replaced by the real world sight of a place Rarity might have preferred never to see again. It was a short, squat compound that might have passed for a pair of office buildings if not for the barbed wire fencing, the numerous roaming guards, and general aura of foreboding. Donovan’s shield had vanished in the same instant Aiden’s last jump completed, and they all looked out across the brush to Veritech’s well-lit exterior. Well-lit, patrolled, and…

“Aiden, there are aetheric distortions at certain spots in the grass leading to the main entrance. They’re moving.”

Aiden grimaced. “You can really see that from here?”

Rarity nodded.

“Okay, to be fair I didn’t know Grumman would be giving you some kind of pony superweapon. Still, feel free to say ‘I told you so’ right about now.”

“Don’t be silly; no one would say such a thing. You were looking out for me and it was gallant.”

“Heh,” he gave that small smile again. “Alright then. Back entrance it is. Guards and mana bombs are a definite nope. Eyes shut, folks.”

Two jumps later they were staring at the compound’s back side, which didn’t differ much except one of the buildings had what seemed like a loading dock for large vehicles with a guarded door next to it, and the other had no apparent entrance.

Aiden nodded towards the guard. “Better to my eyes. Rarity?”

“There are distortions here, too. Four of them, moving along… ah. It’s a basic pattern. Step where I step and we can avoid them.” She didn’t ask why they didn’t portal closer. She could feel the sense of watchfulness around the building. Using magic that close would be a bad idea. It seemed clear the others understood the same thing.

“Valerie, any ideas?”

“That leads into the main hangar where the ship should be. There’s an antechamber leading to a tunnel into the hangar, to be exact. The hangar opens from the ceiling, which is below ground. We’ll need to open it to disrupt the compound’s shielding so Aiden can port us all out. That won’t be a problem though. The ship’s controls can remote access the hangar, and with the Command Crystal’s codes that ship is mine as soon as we step aboard. Even better, most of the research labs and offices are in the other building. If we take out the guard and get in quickly using his keycard, we should be to the ship before they can get a response to us. The hangar is probably guarded, but if we hit them hard and fast I can start on the ship shields right away. Take up overwatch positions around the ship to watch the entrances while I work. When I call for you all, get inside immediately so Aiden can start charging the portal. Donovan, you’ll be covering the ship’s hatch at that point. Don’t close it, we want them to try to get in rather than just blow the vessel. With the shields down that’s a risk, so tempt them with the prospect of capturing us instead. Anyone have anything to add?”

Rarity spoke up. “So we just… run across those… mana bombs, you said they were?”

Aiden nodded. “Specifically, you take point and we follow you, two by two. Step where the person in front of you steps. Aaron and I follow Rarity, Val and Talia after us, Don and Sam bring up the rear. Rarity, time your path so that we all have a safe zone to get through by following where you go. A close call for you is an explosion for us. And to be clear: even a small mana bomb means a missing leg for anyone without their own aether field. Even if Don or I step on it, it’s still very bad, and us spotted.”

Rarity nodded. “Understood. I do enjoy a precise pattern.”

“Good. Everyone ready? Aaron, hit the guard the moment we’re into the clearing. Stun shot if you can hit him with it.”

“Easy.”

“Kill shot if not- okay, good. Talia, close cover on Val while she gets the keycard and the door open. We’ll reassess inside, but we’re doing so on the run.”

“Can I hit the head first?”

“...No, Cooper, no you can’t.”

“Aww, I was ‘Aaron’ before.”

“You’ve been demoted. Rarity, when you’re ready.” The rest were already adjusting their formation.

Rarity nodded, not taking her eyes from the roaming mana bombs. They were almost like tumbleweeds in Appleloosa, only more predictable. She exhaled slowly, Joyeuse singing silently in her mind. It was a simple pattern; she was ready. With a burst of speed she surged forward. The guard ahead yelped and then made a gurgling noise as he slumped against the wall, but she scarcely spared him a glance. Hopping to the side in her dead sprint she avoided the first bomb with plenty of room to spare. No boom behind her as the second wasn’t even close thanks to simple timing. The third required a stutter step, but only she was at risk as it rolled past while she watched. She heard a curse behind her as Talia stumbled but kept her feet. The fourth and final bomb rolled past as she slid around it to the right, reaching the wall of the facility, puffing lightly through the adrenaline. The team… her team... was safe for now.

She spared a glance at the guard as Valerie took a keycard badge from him, as well as his weapon. He was alive; she could feel the artificial magic in him. She frowned slightly. Why could she only now feel it? She couldn’t tunnel vision; they were counting on her to see everything.

The door beeped, and opened. Rarity’s eyes went wide as her senses screamed in horror. She screamed as well. “TRAP!!!”

To their credit, they responded instantly. Talia pulled Valerie away from the door and to the dirt along the wall, Aiden and Donovan leapt forward to cover the door with overlapping shields. Donovan’s was an explosive aether, vaporizing the hail of bullets coming from the other end of the door. Aiden’s was simple force.

The two combined saved all their lives as the wall itself exploded outwards. Even Talia and Valerie, practically leaning against it, were spared by the precision of the shield, though the force transferred through it, even a trickle, had been enough to send them sprawling. No one could return fire or even see inside, but Rarity knew it had only begun. Whatever was in there, whatever the walls had somehow hidden, was making her blood run cold. She drew Joyeuse in her magic, feeling the increase in her strength and calm as its essence suffused her own. They could still…

“Hrk…” Aiden stumbled backwards, a massive, smoking spear impaled through his stomach. It had cut through the shield like it wasn’t there.

Rarity screamed, both in fear and rage, and jumped in front of him as another spear came through the smoking rubble, deflected as Joyeuse flew, nearly of its own accord, into the thrown weapon’s path. It would have pierced his skull. Donovan snarled, and his shield darkened at a single point. That point returned fire with extreme prejudice. Most of the building exploded away from them, pieces would later be found miles away by confused local residents. If Aiden’s shield hadn’t somehow still been up, they’d have all been at least deaf, if not flattened by even the weak side of Donovan’s counterattack.

“Shit, shit, shit! Man down!”

“Aiden!!”

“Back up, give me some room!”

Rarity gasped a shuddering breath. “Don’t touch the spear! It’s infused with dark magic!”

“How can that…?”

“Just back away, keep us covered!” Valerie exclaimed weakly from her spot on the ground.

Rarity was at Aiden’s side. His eyes were wide but somehow lucid. His magic was unstable, but not weakening. He… wasn’t dying? She took a calming breath. It didn’t help much. “Can you focus? I have to remove the spear.”

“He’ll bleed out,” Cooper warned.

“Espers... don’t bleed out, ...Private,” Aiden said, weakly, demoting Cooper again despite the dire circumstances. “Not from a puncture... like this. Hurts like... goddamn anything. But we heal, and we survive… worse than this. It’s an Oni weapon… goddammit… stupid… we knew he had them, but… ugh, I can’t move it.”

“Shh, it’s all right. This will hurt. Brace yourself.” Rarity’s magic wrapped around the hateful spear. Joyeuse bled off the corruption, without even darkening. The pure gem seemed eager to cleanse the wound. No more so than Rarity. “On three,” he nodded, taking several quick breaths, “… one, two, THREE!” Her telekinesis pulled the spear from the wound, prompting a brief spurt of blood and a scream from Aiden. The blood splashed her as the spear snapped in half in her grip, and then into fourths. The pieces, drained of their magic and nothing more than simple iron, were flung away.

Aiden curled towards Rarity, snarling in an attempt to cut off sobs. She put a hoof to his shoulder, cradling him gently as he rocked back and forth with the pain echoing through him. She could feel his magic swirling around the wound, beginning to heal, but it would take hours from what she was feeling. And then, the cold feeling returned from within the smoking rubble. Her head shot up, “There’s still someone in there!” Aiden’s shield flickered, allowing sound again so they could hear an approach.

Donovan snorted. “Not for…”

He was interrupted by clapping.

In a burst of wind, the dust and smoke were cleared from the leveled building. Within, inside a shield of their own, were half a dozen… beings. Rarity couldn’t call them human, not all of them. The one making her blood run cold could not be called such.

The four on the outside seemed like standard Veritech soldiers. She’d seen them patrolling the buildings inside and out during her stay and on this mission tonight. They looked and felt no different than the guard they’d dropped outside. The man clapping was none other than Colonel Jeffrey Owens. Rarity remembered well the disdainful but avaricious way he’d regarded her during their few brief meetings. His gray, leonine mane framed a sharp, hawkish face, punctuated by piercing blue eyes yet marred by touches of self indulgence around the jowls and chin. His physique, as well, had gone a bit soft, giving him the appearance of a once hardened athlete aging with middling grace. He reminded Rarity of a Griffon gone to seed. He was perhaps ten years younger than General Grumman, but it was hard to be sure.

His lack of physical intimidation was more than compensated for by the sixth being. Over two meters tall, blue skinned, and naked from the waist up exposing a mish mash of tubes, machinery, and festering wounds, the being positively reeked of corrupted aether. Its eyes, yellow sclera with red pupils, were even more disturbing, reminiscent of… Rarity didn’t want to think about it. His head was topped by six horns, swirling upwards like a curved crown, and his hands featured seven fingers each, all capped by massive, black claws. He grinned at Rarity slowly, showing off shiny black fangs even in the now poorly lit battlefield. Her senses sharpened as she knew she was staring down an Oni-koru in the broken flesh.

Aiden spoke up. “Brute Squad actual. Condition black. Owens confirmed for high treason. Requesting immediate evac.”

Static.

“Oh come now, Windborne. It should be obvious we were prepared for this.” Owens said as he came forward, staying within his own shield. “I am impressed though. I didn’t expect you to bring my alien back. And look, you gave her a little sword! That’s adorable! Can she hold it in her mouth so I can take a picture for my niece?”

“Valerie, darling, what’s English for ‘I’ll shove this sword so far up your tailhole you’ll taste your last meal twice?’”

Valerie, despite the situation, snerked. She was a professional and a veteran of the Oni war; it would take more than this to kill her humor.

The Oni laughed as well. “Shall I translate for you, little one?” As one would suspect, his voice was a deep baritone. It was gravelly, as though he were sick, and he looked it.

No, Rarity corrected herself. He looked dead on his feet. It didn’t make him less a threat, to her mind. She snorted at him, “You hurt a very dear friend of mine. I don’t suppose you’d like to apologize before this gets ugly?”

There was a click behind her head, her eyes widened.

The Oni grinned. “I’m sorry you’re going to die so soon. I’ve only seen your kind in the old archives. A shame I can’t kill you myself.”

She didn’t turn around, didn’t budge. She knew just enough about guns to know what was behind her ears right then. From the corner of her eye, she could see Aiden looking balefully behind her.

“Ferguson… I’m going to hang you from your own guts while you’re still breathing.” Aiden muttered.

“Hmph,” Samuel Ferguson replied, holding his backup pistol at the back of Rarity’s head. “You do jack or shit and I’ll pull the trigger before you get me. This little monster is too full of surprises, so we’re stopping here. You’re all surrendering, or you get to see what color her brains are. Colonel, why didn’t you warn me about the mana bombs?! You put my life in the… hands of this little freak?! I’m going to want a raise in-”

He cut off his own words as Aaron sprang forward and grabbed his gun, jamming the barrel upward and flicking a switch along its side with an almost casual hand motion. Ferguson fought him, but only briefly.

The knife in his kidney ended that.

Rarity gasped and spun around. Aaron was still holding Ferguson’s gun straight up, but only in one hand. The other was around the traitor’s throat. The dagger, Talia’s, was being twisted in his torso by the infuriated woman.

Aaron pulled the dying man close. “Grumman made me responsible for her, you know? I’m a damn joker, right? The screw up, the team jackass. Hell with that. You betray us and point a gun at the woman I’M GODDAMN GUARDING?! You don’t get to give your reasons.” He spun, and flung Ferguson into their side of the shield, holding the pistol that could have ended Rarity’s life in one clenched fist. The traitor bounced off the shield as Aaron pointed the gun at his head. “Knight Rarity. You may want to look away.”

She didn’t. He fired. Joyeuse lilted a soothing, silent song as her eyes teared up. Why? How did everything go so wrong? She wanted to scream, she wanted to throw up.

She wanted to hurt something.

And Owens was laughing. “Well, one less paycheck to send out. I didn’t really need him anymore, so thank you. But he was right. You’ll be surrendering now. Donovan Trellis. You might be a match for an Oni-koru of Pravus’ caliber on your own. But while holding up that shield you’ve already proven you can’t channel enough power to be a threat. Windborne’s down for the count, though as always I’m impressed by the resiliency of the First Gens. He’ll make a wonderful specimen. I’ve never had a First Gen to cut into. As to the rest… well my little horned friend might be a concern… so Pravus will kill her first. The humans can be done in at leisure… unless you surrender. If you do, I’ll let them go. I have no interest in harming true humans. Or, we can stand here and trade insults until Aiden’s aether runs out. With the corruption in that wound it won’t take long. With his portion of your shield down, yours won’t be enough to stop Pravus from beginning the slaughter.”

Rarity snorted, but didn’t respond. He couldn’t understand her and she didn’t care for this Pravus serving as intermediary.

She needn’t have worried. “Riiiight. You revived an Oni-koru like some bad Frankenstein fanfic because you have humanity’s best interests at heart.” Valerie snarked, standing up shakily. There was blood in her hair and smeared on her forehead.

Pravus chuckled darkly.

Owens shrugged dramatically. “What can I say, Assistant Research Head Victoria Marren? Or wait, was that right? You have so many false names, so many trusts betrayed… The world I envision won’t need backstabbers and spies. It will be pure, built of strength and loyalty!”

Rarity made a loud ‘PAGH!’ noise at that. This monster even using such a word was repulsive. Joyeuse sang quietly of retribution… of cleansing the stain of… Rarity’s eyes went wide. Cleansing…

“Aiden…” she whispered as Valerie continued to distract Owens, “I have a terrible idea and it’s going to really hurt.” Aaron surreptitiously moved in front of the two of them while glaring daggers at Owens.

Aiden smiled up at her. “I was trying to work up the courage to ask. You cleansed the spear, so…”

She nodded. “Joyeuse did, I just directed the energy. Grumman really saved our asses with this.”

Aiden cocked an eyebrow at her choice of words. “Yeah… early records to the contrary, he’s good at that. Humanity would never have made it through the war without him.”

She nodded. “Sorry about this." She leaned down and nuzzled him, and lightly kissed him on the way back up. “Just in case this is a worse idea than I’m thinking.”

Aiden was grinning like an idiot. “I kissed an alien,” he sing-songed quietly.

“Yes, yes, somewhere Cadance is giggling. On three…”

“Wait, who?”

“One, two, three!”

And she stabbed Joyeuse into his wound. Light blue and dark orange mixed as magic swirled around them, filling their shield with a twilight blue aura.

Owens swore, jumping back from the bright light as his human guards shielded their eyes but held their positions. Pravus laughed as he looked on. “I see! How marvelous! This is what the archives spoke of!” He continued laughing madly as the light finally faded.

Rarity was panting heavily. She felt drained, as though she’d channeled her Element of Harmony. She was recovering quickly, and Joyeuse was subdued, but jubilant. And Aiden was on his feet.

“Holy Celestia… that was weird! I have the oddest urge for Earl Grey tea and a bubble bath.”

Rarity blinked in surprise. “The Hell you say?”

His head tilted before turning back to her. “The Hell you say?” His eyes went wide, showing off a new feature. He pointed at her. “Rarity! One of your eyes is grey!”

She pointed at him. “One of yours is blue!”

Aaron looked back and forth between them. “Magic’s weird.”

Owens snarled. “Enough. Pravus! Destroy their shields and kill them all. Leave the alien corpse intact. You can eat the rest, I don’t care!”

Pravus chuckled and began channelling dark energy.

“Donny boy?”

Donovan grinned. “The pipes are calling…”

Their shields both exploded outward simultaneously. Pravus ducked towards Owens, shielding him from the blast of incinerating aether on the crest of a wave of twilight blue force. He was staggered, and burned, but held his ground. Owens seemed unharmed as he turned and ran into the tunnel leading to the hangar.

Pravus was laughing. Rarity had to give it to him, he seemed a rather jolly monster. “I have waited a decade for my vengeance, little heroes! You, the Thousand Blade Butcher! And you, the Light of Death! I know you both!”

“The younger ones are so dramatic.” Donovan muttered.

“Hey, I think Thousand Blade Butcher sounds kind of cool.”

“Quiet, Aaron.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Knight Rarity, Sergeant Henson?”

“Yes, Valerie?”

“Ma’am?”

“Shall we fetch ourselves a Colonel?”

“Oh my, yes, let’s do that. The boys can handle this.” They ran around Pravus, who tried to turn on them, only to be knocked away in the other direction as a blast of aether flew through a portal that opened in his face.

Aiden chuckled. “Dunno how that Equestrian magic works, but hot damn. You can’t hold the field stable enough to stop my portals… you might as well be a foot soldier, Elite Warbrave Pravus.”

“Ahh… so you remember me, as well? How wonderful, little hero. Do you remember the screams of the weak as I-” his taunt was cut off, as a bullet bounced off his head, rocking it back and stunning him briefly.

“We gotta finish this guy. I want the Colonel’s secret recipe!”

“Wrong Colonel, Aaron.” Aiden facepalmed as Donovan’s aether blasts herded Pravus further away from the hangar.

“They could know each other.” Aaron insisted.

“He’s gotta be trolling us.” Donovan offered.

“I can’t be sure.” Aiden said with resignation. “This weird aether boost won’t last, and I’m still torn up in the guts. We need to end this.”

“Feel free, he’s deflecting me. I can wear him down but it’s going to take awhile. He’s a shadow of what he used to be, though.”

“I noticed that. Kinda sad, really, seems like the story of their lives.”

“Probably not a great idea to devote yourself to just war.”

“Such a touching moral…” Pravus’ voice came from behind them, directly behind Donovan, who swore as he tried to get distance from the suddenly twenty feet closer enemy.

Aiden was faster. His pair of carbon fiber bastons had caught the Oni’s outreaching arm like scissors. “Thanks for closing in.” He tilted his head slightly, and channeled.

Twenty baseball sized portals opened along Pravus’ torso, cutting through his weakened magic defenses with ease. Viscous blood the color of oil splattered about from the wounds as he dropped to his knees.

“You know, the closer I am, the better I can sense things, and the better I can affect aether flow. My maximum range is not optimal for fighting. Why do you think I’ve never carried a gun?”

“You’re a shit shot?” Aaron asked.

“Literally the worst.” Donovan confirmed.

“...Shaddup.”

Pravus was chuckling, though it quickly became wheezing. “I could not win anyway. Not with this broken form. Ten years infusing hatred into those spears, sitting in a pool of my own life fluids, stitched together by…” he sighed deeply, before coughing. “I could have killed you had they both struck true. A pity…”

Aiden smiled wanly. “Yeah… real shame. Any last words? Because you’re fading fast enough even I can tell.”

“Hmph. Your Colonel Owens is a soulless devil. No true warrior would treat an honored enemy this way.” He gestured to himself, and the cruel machines and dark energies that kept up his mockery of life. “Our kind killed yours, yes, and delighted in the war. They died, and went to the hereafter. The universe wastes nothing. They will be reborn. Perhaps they will be stronger. The survivors are stronger. What he’s made of me… it is a mockery of strength, a desperate grasp at false power. End me, Butcher, that I may be reborn one day.”

Aiden sighed, and nodded. “Farewell, you monster.” Another portal opened, and Pravus’ decapitated corpse crumpled to the ground.

---------------------------------

Talia, Valerie, and Rarity made their way quickly down the tunnel, following the echoing bootsteps of Colonel Owens’ escape. As they turned the corner and entered the hangar, Rarity gasped. “Sweet Celestia… that’s the ship?”

Valerie fired several shots at Owens as he ducked around the vessel for cover, rewarded with a shout of pain from clipping his shoulder. “Dammit. Yeah… doesn’t even rate Millenium Falcon status, huh?”

“...I… don’t…”

Valerie snorted, fighting the urge to facepalm in combat. “Remind me to have a movie night with you before we send you on your way home.” She was talking loudly, but at the same time gesturing behind her back to Talia. She nodded, and slipped into the shadows in the other direction. At the same time, Rarity jumped to the side as a wall mounted turret opened up on her position. “Traps!”

“Shit, no kidding!” Valerie leapt behind a crate, then snarled a more acrid curse as bullets shredded her cover, nearly ending her before she could roll away behind something sturdier.

The floor was smeared with blood where she’d done so.

The turret refocused on Rarity as it continued firing. “Wait, I’m remembering something,” she commented as Joyeuse deflected the incoming fire almost casually. “What’s Star Wars?”

“A memory clogged in that grey eye of yours, if I had to guess! Get behind-”

The turret exploded as Talia’s rifle spoke up for the first time that night. Valerie gave a shuddering sigh. “Never mind.”

Rarity stiffened as she felt aether flowing again. “The ship is powering up! I’m going for him!”

“I’ve got you covered!” Talia called out.

“S-same,” Valerie’s weakened voice chimed in.

A second turret in the hangar wall came online as Rarity came into its line of sight, but was destroyed by a single shot from Talia. Rarity made it around the side of the ship and through the open hatch. And Joyeuse deflected another shot, this time from Owens’ pistol.

“Damn you… you little freak! How dare you threaten humans!”

“Oh please, you parasprite turd, I just kissed a human.” She licked her lips with a little smirk. “Not bad, actually, little salty, but not in a bad way. We have been exerting ourselves, after all. …..Oh right, you can’t understand me!” She giggled, and then chortled as Joyeuse deflected the last of his bullets. She was feeling the strain and horror of the night catching up. The part of her that was laughing began to tremble. All this bastard’s fault… HIS DAMN FAULT!!! It would be easy… Joyeuse wasn’t that dull. With her magic flowing through it, it could have cut silk dropped upon it. She knew she could kill him. Part of her wanted to. Joyeuse sang mournfully, and inside, so did she. She smiled sadly. “Even if we spoke the same language, that would still be true. I’m so sorry.”

Joyeuse’s pommel cracked into his skull at fastball speed, knocking him unconscious to the deck.

--------------------------------

“V14 to V7, do you read? Pravus is down and the Colonel has retreated to the Oni vessel, please advise. I have the First Gen in my sights, but my weapon won’t kill him. I need backup! V7!”

“V7 is on break. Or broken, take your pick.”

V14 looked up from his scope at the sound of a familiar voice. “...Knight Elleway?! Colonel said you were captured!”

Vera grinned. “I was. Turned, too.”

V14’s eyes widened behind his helmet. “Oh shit…”

Vera’s grin widened. “For pony…” A massive electrical shock put a twitching V14 helplessly into the turf.

----------------------------

After gathering up a seriously wounded Valerie and helping aboard a flagging Aiden, Brute Squad sat aboard their prize while waiting for the ceiling doors to open. They had jammed, and telekinetic efforts from Donovan and Rarity were now forcing them open.

“Got it,” Valerie said, panting at the effort and moving slowly to avoid exacerbating bullet wounds and what may have been a minor concussion. “The shields are powering down. They’ll be inactive in twenty seconds. “Aiden, can you still handle a portal this size? Even with this debacle turning in our favor… mostly… we can’t exactly haul this thing out of here another way. We can launch, but with long range comms still down I don’t like that idea.”

Aiden nodded. “Me either, but I should be fine. I can start as soon as-”

Beep. Beep. Beep.

“Shields are down.” Aaron said.

“That’s not-” Valerie cried.

“Trap!” Rarity shouted.

Less than a second later, the Oni ship exploded.

10. Calm Between the Storm

View Online

Aiden fell on his face inside his pocket dimension. Rarity winced as he called out “Report,” in a muffled tone.

“Private Cooper, no blood no report.”

“Not that kind of report, Private.”

“Sergeant Henson, no injuries.”

“Knight Trellis, tired, hungry, and shields weakening, but no major injuries.”

“Corporal Martinovich… I need medical attention soon.”

“Knight Rarity, no injuries, but my horn hurts and I want to spend a week in bed. Owens is here, too, unconscious.”

“Good,” Aiden muttered, not bothering to rise. “I got everyone I wanted. If I hadn’t already been working towards a larger portal we might’ve gotten a bit crispy there.”

“Are we okay to stay in here and recover?” Talia asked as she began rooting through her pack for painkillers and first aid supplies for Valerie.

“No,” Donovan replied flatly. “Aiden and I are both wiped, and he can’t stay in here on a good day. My shield will start fading in another minute or so, normal shields like this don’t play into my talent so I can’t hold it any longer; we need to go before then.”

“Right,” Aiden said, still lying on his face. “I just didn’t want to port us out too soon. If we jumped back into real space too fast and the blast wave hit us I’d feel pretty stupid. For a moment, anyway.” With that they reappeared in the real world, away from the compound amongst the trees. Despite the roaring blaze coming from the destroyed hangar, the blast seemed to have been mostly contained. Aiden sat up; the rest hadn’t moved much beyond Talia examining Valerie’s injuries. “Oh right,” he muttered, “The shielding around the hangar was pretty heavy. Good to know.”

“Agreed, since I really wasn’t ready for that,” a new, familiar voice added.

“Vera?!” Rarity called out in surprise.

Vera Elleway grinned sheepishly. “Hi.”

Donovan’s eyes narrowed as he stared her down. “How’d you escape, and why are you here?”

“I felt Windborne’s portal from where I took cover when fire shot out of the hangar door. It was a pretty big tremor, too.” She shook her head. “And I didn’t escape. Grumman let me out a couple minutes after you all left. The moment Aiden first portaled you guys, our comms went LOS. He suspects sabotage. I was the only one who could get here fast enough to matter with things going pear shaped. Other reinforcements are at least another five minutes out.”

“Pear shaped sums it up,” Talia confirmed as she applied a medicated patch to what could only be a bullet would in Valerie’s left arm. “Samuel Ferguson was working for Owens, and nearly got us all killed. You wouldn’t know anything about that, would you?”

Vera grimaced and shook her head, though Talia wasn’t looking at her. “Sorry, but I don’t. Owens sent me with a single mission, which I’m happy to have failed. I don’t know any of his other plans regarding anything beyond the ship attacking Grumman’s forces. And now I’m thinking that was a smokescreen.”

Valerie shook her head, gritting her teeth against the pain of her wounds. “I’m not so sure. I think he rigged the ship to blow regardless, with a trigger if anyone deactivated the shields. He could still use it as a weapon, but if we tried to take it… boom.”

“So what have you been up to that we didn’t see you until now?” Aiden asked.

“I can’t move as fast as you, ‘riding the lightning’ isn’t literal, ya know. When I got here I took down the other guards who were moving to pincer you. That said… it wasn’t all of them. The main building’s been all but abandoned.”

“We expected that, actually,” Valerie confirmed. “No matter how Owen’s assault on us went, he would have to move a lot of his assets, especially the legally questionable ones, to a more secretive location. We assume that started after Rarity escaped him, we just hadn’t been ready to do anything about it then. It’s worse now. There’s going to be a lot of eyes on this area. I’m just surprised Owens left himself as the distraction.”

“We can ask him about that later. What now?” Aiden asked.

“I can’t carry anyone out of here safely. I’d suggest we wait for Grumman’s air support, which is inbound and nearly here. They’re monitoring my channel. We can figure things out back at base.” She smiled wanly. “Well, you all can. I go back to my cell.”

“Surely you’ve earned your forgiveness now?” Rarity asked.

Vera tilted her head in confusion, and Rarity facehoofed. Her translator was set to only transmit to their headsets. Aiden repeated the question in English.

Vera’s smiled widened a bit. “One mission to come play clean up crew after what I did isn’t going to wipe the slate. Thanks though, I mean that. And anyway I don’t really mind. I’ve got a good book to read. For the first time in a long time I’m feeling a bit peaceful.”

“Other than all the explosions.” Donovan noted, looking at the smoking hangar and destroyed building in the distance.

“Meh, I grew up in the war, too, remember? This is different. This is walking forward.” Her smile became positively beautific as a distant hum of approaching aircraft intruded pleasantly on the conversation.

Rarity sighed deeply, feeling a bit of the tension breathe out of her. She sheathed Joyeuse at last, and the sword seemed content to rest. The world was sideways now, and she tried to wonder about that as she heard voices calling out to her in concern.

How silly. Don’t worry about me; I’m fine here and the ground is cool and soft. But Aiden… help Aiden. He looks to be laying on the grass with a blank…

Blackness took her, as it did him.

---------------------------------

While getting the injured into the Stormcrow (the Osprey's Oni tech inspired offspring) was easy enough, Donovan Trellis had never considered himself a leader. He preferred working from the background, behind the scenes. Center stage was not his preference, no matter how flashy his special talent was. Unfortunately, with Aiden and Rarity unconscious, Talia her usual taciturn self, Valerie on heavy painkillers, he was all that remained. Vera was obviously right out, and then there was Aaron.

Donovan did not even consider that option, no matter how many more reports it meant he'd have to write himself, as he borrowed Vera’s headset. “Knight Trellis, confirming what Knight Elleway reported. We have three needing immediate medical care. The rest of us are relatively unharmed. Corporal Martinovich has a head injury and two bullet wounds, one serious but not life-threatening, the other minor… as bullet wounds go. Knight Lieutenant Windborne and Knight Rarity-” he paused as a confused response came back, and chuckled. “No, because we don’t have a Squire rank. Who’d want to be that anyway? She’s an Esper Knight now, field commissioned by our commander. Deal with it. Tell Grumman to set her up with a salary.”

The response to that was downright snarky.

“Hey, you face down an Oni and help capture a renegade Colonel, you get paid for it. It’ll be in my full report. Point is, as Knight Elleway told you, they’ve collapsed. Windborne was severely wounded but I think the worst is past. Their reserves are just very weakened, we believe mostly from a phenomenon involving the General’s sword. I don’t think either of them are in danger; Rarity’s aether seems to already be recovering,” he glanced at Vera, gesturing to Aiden. She nodded; her senses for pulses of internal aether exceeded his own. Aiden was recovering also. “Correction, they both are. Fluids, examinations, and patching up won’t go amiss though, so be ready. We’ll be home shortly.”

-------------------------------

An hour later found him sitting in Grumman’s office while the General looked up from his hastily typed account of the mission.

“Certainly an interesting report, Knight Trellis.”

“Yes, sir, though it's just preliminary,” he replied. “...Permission to speak freely?”

Grumman snorted. “You don’t need to ask, Donovan.”

“According to what I saw, and even more what Talia saw, that sword turned Rarity-”

“Knight Rarity, apparently.” Grumman said with a small smile.

“...Even better, sir, because she was acting like a Jedi Knight out there.”

“You’re sure this isn’t a response to Valerie referencing Star Wars?”

Donovan chuckled. “That was actually her observation on the ride home. That being after Rarity deflected several shots from a turret in the hangar without even paying attention to it. If you knew it would help that much why not tell us beforehand? For that matter, why not give it to an Esper… years ago? You’ve had that cane as long as I’ve known you.”

“I didn’t tell you because I didn’t know the effects it would have in the possession of an Equestrian. I also note that Miss Rarity, per the notes she’s already given me, has a special gift for working with gems. It’s how she ended up here. I could not know for certain that that would mean a greater symbiosis with Joyeuse. I did not want to create false hopes and we didn’t have time for testing. I could only trust my instincts on the matter.” He grimaced. “And it did once belong to an Esper, Knight Captain Franz Schumer.”

Donovan sighed through his teeth. “Since I never met him… I’m guessing a very young Knight Captain?”

“The first, and the youngest to die while holding that rank.” Grumman shook his head. “At my age, I often see what I consider ‘children leading children’... the early days of the war were a time when that was all too real. Franz Schumer died at twelve, after two heroic years of leading his fellow Espers against the Oni-Koru.”

“A full year before any Second Gen Espers awoke.” Donovan noted. “I take it… after that…”

“His talent came from an Oni-Koru ship’s repulsor,” Grumman continued, seemingly lost in thought. “It allowed him extreme speed and maneuverability as well as flight. The sword improved his abilities nearly to Paladin Williams’ level, and for a time I thought the two of them might win the war by themselves.”

“So what happened? I never heard about this early stuff.”

“He had the misfortune of leading the first squad that met Oni-Koru Grand Marshal Garken Caedum in combat. We learned a great deal at a horrible price that day.”

Donovan winced. That name he’d heard of. “As I recall, only two people survived that encounter, but I didn’t know the casualties.”

Grumman nodded. “Knight Aiden Windborne, promoted afterwards, and First Lieutenant Mary Rossin, who was honorably discharged for incapacitating wounds received that day.” He smiled faintly. “I remember her telling me she’d sign back on as soon as we perfected military grade prosthetics.”

“Did she?”

He shook his head. “...What we’ve developed didn’t sufficiently replace what she’d lost. I kept tabs on her over the years, as I did with as many as I could. She can walk again, and see, but not at levels that would be acceptable for military duty.” He sighed. “In any case, Aiden recovered the sword from that rout and returned it to me. He didn’t know its significance at the time, and it looked a bit different back then. So don’t rib him for not remembering it. I don’t think he likes recalling those days much and I don’t blame him.

“But the moment I took it back I felt something I hadn’t since my father handed it down to me, on the day I joined the Marines. It was waiting. That was the sense I got. When my father handed it to me, I passed it off as a feeling of premonition. He’d passed it to me, this ancient family heirloom, and I would pass it on in the future as well. Decades later, Franz felt like the right person to give it to: a knight’s sword for a Knight Captain. Since then… it was waiting again. I had the feeling giving it to the wrong person would hurt rather than help.”

“Didn’t you say you worked with it some, even got magic to work through it?”

“I did. After getting it back, it felt… nearly alive. Unlike the first time I’d been given the blade, I was aware that the feeling of biding its time was more than just my own projections. I worked with it, had it examined and re-examined, even chipped away at, to the point of removing bits of metal and reforging it to its current appearance, after we discovered that the gem was all but impervious to any of our efforts. Oddly, it seemed to… appreciate the gesture. I have no other word for it. Doing so made my connection to the gem clearer. I was able to shield myself and those around me from harm a few times. ...Each preceded a day of bed rest.”

“That sounds familiar. They’ll both be down at least that long. Better than if we hadn’t had it, though.”

“Agreed. To be fair if not for Rarity showing up things wouldn’t have escalated so quickly. Valerie would still have been in place as a spy, and would have had more time to understand and even sabotage Owens’ efforts. In that case, we would have had fewer surprises going in.”

“Are you speaking of the Oni, or…. Ferguson?”

Grumman tsked, sounding self-deprecating. “I’d known Samuel Ferguson for four years. He was no plant, like Knight Elleway. Owens bribed him, considerably, starting over a year ago. It was shortly after I’d planted Valerie at Veritech, in fact. I didn't find that out until looking into it while you were being retrieved. I don't normally monitor my people's finances.”

Donovan waved that aside. “Good thing he wasn’t in on her being there.”

“I may seem lax, but telling my entire base about my espionage operations is a bit much even for me. By the same token, Valerie had no way of knowing about him. ...And I have other projects I’m monitoring as we speak that don’t require full base disclosure. Just yet.”

Donovan grinned. “Anything you want to say to me?”

“Yes. Your penchant for watching stage magician performances is baffling. You’re a living, breathing wizard.”

That got a laugh. “Sure, but I can’t work illusions and such so they’re really fun to watch. I wanted to go into special effects when I was a kid.”

“Michael Bay’s loss is our gain, I suppose.”

“Please, he’s way too flashy.”

Grumman snorted in amusement. “Speaking of flashy, and as to the Oni…”

“Yeah… that was just messed up. Look, back during the war, when we were better equipped that encounter would have been a joke. Stronger armor and weapons, and for that matter a full platoon, and he would have been trivial. As it was… Aiden nearly paid for our surprise.”

Grumman shook his head. “Such a thing has never been seen. You can’t blame yourselves for being unprepared. Blame me, if anything, for not discovering how far Owens had gone. I’ll have his reasons soon.”

“You think he’ll talk?”

“I believe so. He’s been out of the spotlight for too long, gambling on a glorious return at the head of a new era. Now his chance to reach that is gone. He’ll throw all the opportunities we’ve destroyed at me for the chance to play the maligned, misunderstood patriot.” Grumman snorted derisively. “After that I’ll just need to separate fact from fiction.”

“Some days that’s easier than others. So… what now? For the rest of us, I mean.”

“Steady on with our new primary objective. We still need a unicorn friendly spaceship. Assuming our two newest members make a full and speedy recovery, we start more seriously looking into other options along that line. Owens was an obvious choice, but not the only one. This just makes things a little more complicated.”

Donovan nodded. “Is our location secure?”

“It’ll have to be. With Veritech literally up in smoke I have to be here to put out the media fires. I doubt any of his people will come forward to gainsay my side of things now, but I still have to present that side. I don’t like keeping the public in the dark any more than necessary. If you mean personnel I’m conducting full background sweeps now. Anyone who dislikes it knows how to find the door.”

“I can understand that, but-”

Grumman’s tablet beeped and he immediately tapped it. “Yes?”

“Sir, this is Doctor Hamada. You’d better come down here. Our patients are showing some odd readings. I don’t think it’s bad but… you may want to see this.”

Grumman and Donovan shared a look before quickly rising. “We’re on our way.”

-------------------

Aiden was pacing quietly in his Boutique. ...No, that wasn’t right, was it? He tried to shake his head, clear it, but it wasn’t his head. He was there, those hooves were his, but they weren’t. They were hers. The carpet was odd beneath them; it was surprising how well he could feel it.

It was dark, only a couple of candles lit the workroom. He tried to look around, but he was only a passenger to the eyes he saw through. They walked quietly up to a small, rather cute looking purple and green… lizard person? Spike. This was Spike, the dragonling. Whelp? Baby? By dragon standards maybe. Still, adorably asleep on a large cushion. Aiden/Rarity smiled, and their horn lit. Aiden couldn’t express the surprise he felt at the way the aether moved. It was effortless, like a friend that was happy to help. He didn’t feel stronger from it… just more… he wasn’t sure how to describe it. There was a peace to it. Harmony. That was the best word he could find. His eyes might have welled up at the beauty of it, but his own eyes were elsewhere, and (he assumed) quite closed. A blanket levitated over Spike before the merged pair trotted off to the door, telekinetically grabbing a shovel and saddlebag that leaned against the wall on their way.

They sighed, though Aiden wasn’t sure why, as they put the bag on across their back. Deadlines? Gems? Her thoughts weren’t quite being shared. They left her home, for it was clearly that as much as a place of business, and trotted lightly out of town towards foothills in the distance. She was tireless, and moved at a quick trot while scarcely breathing heavy. Aether flowed gently through her, so naturally it was almost unnoticeable.

before coming here I’d never really noticed or thought about the differences in how magic felt

He understood those words far better now. If this was how things were here… she’d been saturated by magic from birth. Earth’s aether field, in its natural state, was no weaker than this… but it wasn’t nearly this cooperative. Aiden would’ve snorted at the thought of Earth being a stubborn planet, but he wasn’t using his own nose at that moment. And then again, maybe her people simply channeled better. It felt easier, but not stronger, so maybe...

That idle thought disappeared as their horn began channeling again. He was back to ‘their’ because this was much more mutual as he felt the aether flowing through his own consciousness with intent. The design for that intent… was quite another matter. The glow from their horn was deceptive in its simplicity. The way the aether responded was math and poetry at their most beautifully complex. He was trying to find the words...

And then the soil nearby started glowing. With businesslike efficiency, the shovel went to work, and within minutes they’d unearthed a couple small gems. Aiden was no geologist, but that just didn’t seem right. Yet he couldn’t argue the results as Rarity moved on, repeating the process with varying but always somewhat successful results.

They had perhaps two dozen before a glow in the dirt ahead marked their next digging spot. The novelty had began to wane for Aiden, but somehow this spot seemed… brighter? Rarity felt a sense of excitement that Aiden didn’t share as they dug into the soil. This hole went considerably deeper, but the glow led them on until Aiden felt a touch of cold at what he saw.

Grasped in their levitation, a forest green gem the size of a fist floated up into sight. They examined it carefully, or rather Rarity did. Aiden knew what he was seeing. He could even feel the strange aether seething around inside it. As he felt it, his consciousness began fading deeper into the memories. His thoughts quieted.

Rarity spun the gem around, searching it for flaws or odd facets. Then she felt the odd aether for herself. He felt her gasp and the eyes they shared went wide. She knew this gem was dangerous. It had a curse of some sort, she thought. She had to get rid of it. Somewhere far away, or no! Twilight! She could take it to Twilight and they could cleanse the curse so nopony was at risk. If only she knew how to teleport, she wouldn’t have to carry this-

In a blinding flash, Rarity vanished from the face of Equestria.

Interlude: For Science, and Magic.

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When the light faded, everything felt different. Rarity gasped as she looked around, taking in the odd surroundings. Several chairs were arranged around the small room, all facing glass panels and arrangements of what looked to be buttons and symbols. Rarity recognized none of it. The air was different. There was a faint smell of burnt metal, alongside various oils and cleaners she might have associated with the train station, but that wasn’t quite right.

Her magic still held the gem, but the magic within it had faded. It no longer felt dangerous, just a gem. ...A gem that had brought her somewhere completely unfamiliar. She floated it into her saddlebag with a grimace; she was not looking forward to figuring this out. And her morning deadline was now very much in jeopardy. She groaned in frustration. Already tired and running down to the wire, she did not have time for… magical shenanigans! Speaking of… even magic felt strange here. There was a… texture to it? She frowned slightly, lighting her horn to draw in more aether. She didn’t have anything like Twilight’s capacity, but she prided herself on being a competent magic user. The boarding school she’d attended hadn’t been up to CSGU standards, but…

She blinked in surprise. The aether she was drawing in was completely different. It wasn’t bad… along the lines of expecting tea and getting coffee. There was a feel to it that she couldn’t place. ...How long had it been since she’d considered the feel of aether flowing through her? Aether, or mana if you wanted the older term, was just… there. But this… this was…

A shout of confusion and alarm interrupted her. She looked up, wide-eyed, at an alien being.

It spoke again, but Rarity couldn’t understand it. She simply stared (as she noted, so did it, while holding something in its hand pointed at her). It was bipedal and half again as tall as her, clothed completely from the neck down. The clothing was serviceable and rather plain, clearly some sort of uniform, complete with a little badge on the side of the chest that had a picture of the alien’s face. Humans… that’s what Twilight had called them. Rarity could remember the description well enough to know what she was seeing… or so she assumed. So then, the gem was similar to the mirror. Well, it could be worse… and yet she felt uneasy. Something wasn't right. Why couldn't she understand what it said? And she was still a Unicorn, and it looked angry and afraid. She felt a chill of premonition.

“Ah, hello! Please don’t panic, though I’m sure this is quite strange. It’s strange for me as well, you see," she chuckled nervously. "I am Rarity, and while I can’t quite understand you I’m sure-”

She broke off, with a scream of pain, as the object being pointed at her discharged a strange blast of energy. Rarity felt, heard, and worst of all smelled, her fur burning as a pain like electric shock but so much worse coursed through her. W-why… was her last thought before collapsing into unconsciousness.

---------------------------------------------

She awoke in a cell, and her saddlebags and shovel were gone. She whimpered as she tried to rise; everything hurt, but nothing quite so much as the burn on her chest. The flesh was reddened and blistered under blackened fur that had mostly flaked away around the wound. Getting to her hooves slowly, she let her eyes wander the room instead of fretting over the sickening injury. For the moment she could do nothing for it. So she looked around, but saw little of interest. Her cell had a rough cot of an odd material, and there was, she grimaced, a water dish on the floor nearby. She remembered Twilight’s words about the human world. They were the only sapient race they knew on their world, everything else was an animal incapable of higher thought. That doesn’t mean you shoot them with lightning and put them in jail, does it?! She let out a long, shuddering sigh, and a whine at the pain of a deep breath stretching the marred skin. The room outside her cell contained a desk, and a door, and little else. Were those… cameras hanging from the corners of the ceiling? They resembled such, but… how would one… ah. Clearly they were meant to be magically activated, so as to give a particular angle. And given the thick glass… or no… some other material, she was to be examined or the like? She didn’t care for the idea. And given how that first meeting had gone... She shuddered. She really didn’t care for the idea.

She reached for one of the cameras, channeling magic through her horn to grab it and get a better look; she needed a distraction. But said distraction came in the form of an annoying feeling around her horn as she attempted to gather aether. It was still channeling well enough, but… She crossed her eyes as she looked up at… a ring on her horn.

“Oh what in Tartarus is this?!” She reached up and pulled it off with no difficulty. “A horn inhibitor ring? Honestly? What sort of fiction have they been reading here? These things don’t work!” The horn had to be completely covered, and the material had to be perfectly smithed, or magic could go right through it. She didn’t know the specifics, but it was a form of stone that wasn’t easy to work with or find. Chrysalis’ throne was made of a particular variety of it that allowed Changeling magic, but like any example had only worked when it was in one proper piece. Being surrounded by chunks of the stuff had done nothing to inhibit anypony. ...And neither did this horn ring. They were strictly nonsense from bad fiction, dreamed up as a way to stop magic while leaving the horn exposed... often for perverse reasons. Rarity rolled her eyes and put it on the floor. Even if it stopped magic, she could just remove the stupid thing with her hooves!

“So clearly we’re both working on misconceptions here.” She muttered, trying to keep her hopes up. Did they think she was dangerous? She had shown up out of nowhere in what was clearly some kind of laboratory, or perhaps a military base? Armed security had shown up quickly. But maybe she could reason with them. ...Except she couldn’t understand what the guard had said. Why not? It… no, he had looked like the humans Twilight described. What was going on? Shouldn’t she be human here also? Where were their friends? That school Twilight mentioned? Why…?

The door opened, scattering her thoughts. Two humans came in, both in white lab coats and each carrying some manner of tablet, presumably for note taking though they weren’t carrying writing utensils Rarity could see. They were both female, based on the visible (though of course cloth covered) mammary glands and softer facial features. The first seemed… angry. She had a dark yellow mane, nearly brown, with white accents around the temples. Rarity thought it looked distinguished. Her eyes had wrinkles at the sides, as did her thin, severe lips. She reminded Rarity of a middle aged Canterlotian unicorn, complete with sour, waspish expression. It was worth noting that her expression was pony-like enough to recognize. Twilight had noted the same thing of them, which gave Rarity some hope. If these were the humans she thought she knew of, there was a chance that this could end up alright. There was further confirmation in that the aether in the air flowed around and through the woman, but it didn’t seem to interact with her. Cranky is the same way back home. ...Wait, what made me think that?

The woman was gesturing at her angrily, and speaking that unknown language again. The first woman, that was. The second… Rarity made eye contact with her and they both froze for a moment. This woman was younger. Thin, black rimmed glasses covered light blue eyes, all framed by loose, dark bangs. Her skin was a slightly darker shade of… peach, perhaps, than the older woman’s much lighter tone. Rarity couldn’t be sure in this lighting what the exact color was.

More importantly, this younger woman looked… astounded. That was reasonable, under the circumstances. But unlike the other two humans Rarity had seen, this one didn’t look angry or fearful. She shook her head as though clearing it, and glanced sidelong at the older, who was still ranting as she poked the tablet she was holding. What was the point of that? But then the second woman looked back to Rarity, gave a small smile, and winked. She looked sidelong again, and put her finger to her lips.

In a flash of inspiration, Rarity ran a hooftip across her lips in a zipping motion. The woman gasped quietly, and she hid a grin behind her hand… and then sneezed. Or perhaps she was faking it because the older woman, who was now called Grouchy in Rarity’s mind, was staring at her. She then pointed at the horn ring lying on the floor of Rarity’s cell.

Blue Eyes shrugged (Rarity didn’t want to call her Sneezy, that would be ridiculous). She responded, sounding much more calm while gesturing vaguely at the ring. Grouchy tapped her tablet again, forcefully, and the door opened again. A guard stepped in, and Rarity gasped. It wasn’t the same guard who’d shot her, and Rarity didn’t just know that from his appearance. Unlike the two women, he had his own aether. It was odd, like nothing she’d felt before. Comparing it to her own… it was like seeing a sculpture of a tree, next to a real tree. And both were beautiful. Rarity’s lips curved into a smile, it truly was remarkable. Why had she never noticed such things? What did other ponies feel like? If Twilight were here… well a crystal tree the size of a palace, Rarity had little doubt. She felt better just thinking about it. If they could use magic here, and this guard surely could, they could find a way to understand each other.

Grouchy tapped her tablet again, and the not-glass of her cell rose into the ceiling. They were letting her out! They-

Rarity screamed as the guard drew his weapon in a blur and fired. The first blast hit the base of her horn and flung her backwards, the second hit her barrel not far from the first wound she’d suffered. Blissful unconsciousness did not come this time. Everything was fire, and she sobbed and tried to curl up to protect herself. She could hear shouting, but it didn’t matter. She wanted to die. And she would. In that moment she believed it: she would die here. As she writhed, she felt ropes lashing across her, aggravating the burns and drawing a fresh scream from her. She wasn’t sure how much time had passed. The guard had strapped her to the floor using something like a heavy net of tethers. They jabbed her with needles, and she felt… less. There was still burning. And she heard crying. She couldn’t be sure it was her own. Nothing felt real except that everything hurt. What had she done wrong? Why would this happen? She was sorry! Whatever she’d done… She was a horrible pony. A fraud. Generosity… she was greedy! Avaricious! She deserved this… she was sorry! She was shouting to them, begging. They didn’t respond. Blue Eyes was crying, but she did nothing. The hand holding her tablet was white, and shaking. But she did nothing. Rarity sobbed quietly, not noticing herself fall fitfully asleep.

------------------------

The cell was dark. They’d left her strapped to the floor, but the lights had dimmed and the not-glass had returned to its place, dividing her from the rest of the room. It was excessive; she didn’t even want to move. She sniffed. Her head was throbbing, as was her barrel, and simple breathing filled her with agony as the burned, tormented flesh stretched with each gasp of air. She didn’t know what to do. Was there anything? She could feel aether swirling around her. If anything, the burn around her horn had made everything feel more raw… the magic was like a slow cyclone, gathering within her. She could feel it combating whatever that horrid weapon had done. She was healing, and her magic was unharmed. It was scant comfort.

“Ar yu awayk?”

Rarity gasped. She’d been unaware of anyone else in the room. She couldn’t see the whole room from her position on the floor. She hadn’t understood the words, but she recognized the voice. Blue Eyes.

“Ai wil naut hert yu. Can yu undurstand?” Rarity heard the not-glass raise into the ceiling again. She whimpered and tried to shy away, but then cried out in pain as one of the tethers holding her down scraped across the burn on her chest. “Shhh, it is oh-kae,” Rarity felt a hand gently press against her shoulder. She trembled, but opened her eyes to look up.

Blue Eyes was crying as well, and her face was twisted with sympathetic pain. She reached down with her other hand… another needle! Rarity whimpered as the pinpoint touched her flesh…

And then the pain lessened. Rarity sighed slowly, shudderingly, as her body felt lighter. Everything was hazy, but different than whatever they'd stuck her with before.

Ai won’t let them hert yu agyen,” Blues Eyes said, reaching into her lab coat to stash the syringe. Her hand came back with a cloth. And now that it was exposed Rarity thought it smelled odd. She couldn’t place what it smelled like, but it was comforting, somehow. Blue Eyes placed it against her chest, and she felt aether swirl around it, gently cleansing away the destroyed flesh, encouraging healing. After a few moments she moved on to the second wound, and then lastly to Rarity’s horn.

“Ai cant beeleev Gruhmen was rite,” she muttered as she worked. “All get yu aut of here. Ai praumis.”

Rarity, in far less pain, a bit muddled, and less frightened, tried to make sense of the words, to no avail. “I can’t understand you, darling. But whatever’s on that cloth, I’ll take ten.”

Blue Eyes blinked, and then smiled at her. “Yu ar veri braev. Doo naut weri. Yu wil heal.” She put her hand to her chest. “Va-la-ri.”

Rarity blinked, but understand. She nodded towards Blue Eyes. “Va-la-ri?”

Blue Eyes… Valari… nodded. “Yes.” She gestured to Rarity. “Yu?”

Rarity smiled slightly. The drugs helped a bit with that. Maybe she wouldn’t die here after all. “Ra-ra-ti,” she replied slowly.

“Ra-ra-ti.”

“Yes.”

“Yes.”

Valari stayed with her awhile longer, though Rarity had no real sense of time at that point. Between the (clearly magnificent) painkillers and the aether focusing balm, she was pleasantly groggy. She eventually fell asleep, and was unaware of the lab coat laid over her for warmth.

---------------------------

When she awoke the next morning, the tether net was gone, as was much of the damage of her wounds. They still pained her, but they weren’t nearly as frightening (or sickening) to look at. They were serious burns, but clearly healing. Thank you, Valari. Her first friend here. Hopefully not her only. When the outer door opened, she felt a sense of trepidation that only increased as a man in a clearly military uniform stepped in. He had a face like a griffon, she thought, almost. His nose was long, and seemed to lead from his face almost like a beak. His hair went out thickly in all directions like a lion’s mane, and his eyes…

They weren’t a griffon’s eyes. She’d known griffons. And she’d known evil. She’d been looked at in vile ways before. Disdain, contempt, even loathing she had experienced. She’d faced her share of enemies and rivals in both business and adventure. But this… she’d never felt before the idea that a look was evaluating how to cut her apart and sell the pieces. She felt dirty even suffering that look. This was a being who sought degradation and possession. Aether flowed through him without touching him; he had none of his own. Rarity didn’t blame it one bit.

He spoke a sharp command, and Grouchy came in. Rarity felt a shiver of fear, and didn’t bother hiding it. It dissipated somewhat when Valari followed her through the door. She looked worried, and tired, but she met Rarity’s eyes for a brief moment. Rarity could all but feel Valari’s determination bolstering her own.

Grouchy was speaking to Demon… Rarity could think of no other word for the human who stood before her. The aether practically asked her to strike at him. If her chance arose…

They were arguing now. Valari had shown Demon something on her tablet. Rarity craned her neck subtly to look. The tablet had glass, and pictures and words on its other side! As Valari tapped at it, it changed to show other pictures and words. Rarity could understand none of it, but it was amazing. No aether flowed from within it, only through it. It… didn’t use magic? How remarkable. She wished Twilight could see…

She shuddered as a wave of sadness threatened to crush her. She’d never see Twilight… any of them again. Sweetie Belle would grow up never knowing what became of her. She’d never see Spike again, never tell him how much he’d meant to her, no matter what the future held. Maybe that was for the best. He could move on from his crush, at least. Find some mare, or dragoness, and they’d make each other happy. Sweetie would grow up to be wonderful, even more than she already was, Rarity was sure of it. Twilight would look after them. Applejack, too. Honorary big sister would be there. And Rarity would never see it. Tears fell. She had no way home. The gem was gone, and its aether had drained away. She couldn’t…

No.

...No!

No, she would not give up. Valari was here… and now Demon and Grouchy were arguing. He was accusing her of something, and she was denying it, poorly if their interactions were any indication. This was the beginning. It was scary, and maybe she’d be hurt again. She didn’t care. She would find a way out of this. It didn’t matter if it was impossible. Impossible was what she and her friends did all the time! Pinkie probably laughed at the word several times an hour. So Rarity would do the impossible at least one more time. She would get home!

And as Demon angrily dismissed Grouchy, and followed her out while barking orders to Valari and shaking his finger, Rarity knew that she’d already been led into the first step. She was not alone.

---------------------------------

Over the next few days, Rarity discovered a far less frightening aspect of being locked up. She was bored out of her mind. Occasional moments of terror accompanied the entrance of any guard, but none of them used their weapons. Oddly, they all had that feeling of sculpted aether that Rarity was becoming more familiar with. Repeated exposure to it was increasing how far she felt it from. Feeling the guards moving around the hallway outside her door had occupied her second day. Valari had been in several times, accompanied by a guard. She'd always made soothing noises, and gave crisp orders to said guard each time. His hands never touched the weapon strapped to his flank. At various points, Valari took blood and hair from Rarity, and even a scraping from her horn (as far from the base as possible, completely painless). She always did so gently, and with an apologetic look facing away from the guard. It was clear to Rarity that, for the moment, Valari and only Valari could be trusted. She did her best to act suitably fearful and submissive for the guard’s sake, though she managed to give Valari a wink when he wasn’t looking. Valari had grinned with clear delight, and returned a very slight nod and wink of her own.

On the fourth day, Valari showed up with a large cage on wheels, and a guilty look. The guard gestured to Rarity to move away from the not-glass, and she did so. He was gesturing with his weapon and she had the slightly sick feeling that he’d fire it with no real provocation. The not-glass rose and he gestured to the cage. Well that was clear enough. She had no choice but felt an odd thrill about it. Not being caged, that was repugnant and humiliating, but seeing more of the place she was being held in. The more she knew, the better she could start looking for ways out. She deeply lamented never learning to teleport. Oh, darling, whatever would a fashionista like myself need with such a spell? I do enjoy a flashy entrance, but not that sort of flashy. It had been a smokescreen, of course. She honestly hadn’t believed she could learn it, truth be told. Now… well she wished she’d at least tried. The oddness of the aether field here made her feel stronger somehow, closer to the flow of mana itself. She could feel it flowing through her, spiraling into her and out of her in a balance with the world. If the field at home was a warm ocean welcoming her to swim, this was an all-encompassing river, all but begging her to ride along its current. Both had ebbs and flows, but here she felt them in ways she never had…

The guard banged his weapon against the cage, snapping her to attention. Oh, right. She hopped in quickly and he shut the door behind her.

A brief trip through quiet, enclosed halls led to what appeared to be an odd combination of a lab and a gym. Rarity’s eyes went wide as she realized one piece of equipment was what appeared to be a giant hamster wheel. She looked at Valari, who had the decency to look embarrassed. The guard banged again, and Rarity backed her way out of the cage (it was too narrow to turn around in).

Valari led her through several stations, tapping her tablet repeatedly as she did so. After an hour of various physical activities, including running at least three miles on that damn wheel, Rarity was finally allowed to rest. Truth be told, she wasn’t as tired as she might have expected. Valari had kept her well-fed and brought plenty of water (in bottles rather than that Celestia damned dog dish).

The testing continued on into the next several days, with various telekinetic trials for Rarity to run through. For these, Valari’s tablet would show a short movie of what the object/s was meant to do, and then Rarity would copy that. Some of the examples were quite intricate in movement and demanding in terms of multi-tasking for several objects, often varying greatly in size, weight, and shape. But Rarity was quite confident in her telekinesis. The horn ring had not come back, nor had any variant on it. Still, Rarity didn’t actively use her magic outside of the lab. She could feel the guards’ aether, though they didn’t seem to use it for anything, so she assumed they could feel hers. She really didn’t want to get shot again.

As such, her captors had quickly discovered how dextrous, and oddly flexible, pony forelegs and hooves were. Rarity might have explained that hoof grip was a basic magic, similar to telekinesis but very short range, and ubiquitous for all ponies. It was as basic as charging one’s coat, mane, or tail with a bit of magic for covering oneself, grabbing objects, and so forth. ...Or in Pinkie’s case hiding impossibly large items in her mane, or drilling through the ground impossibly quickly. ...Again, that mare giggled at ‘impossible’ as surely as at ghosties. Rarity wasn’t on that level, but her abilities were more than enough to fascinate Valari. She was routinely handed things just so Valari could marvel at how she could possibly hold them. It was a bit silly at times, but frankly silly was something Rarity needed. For that matter…

She’d noticed it after she’d been there a week. All the time using her hooves, channeling aether to simply lift heavier items Valari brought, was having an effect. She could feel aether in the ground, that wasn’t new. But it felt… more welcoming somehow. Sitting calmly, focusing on it… she felt stronger. The earth beneath her hooves would hold her up if she asked. And she did. The air would flow for her if she asked, cooling or warming her. And she did. In that moment she had a whole new understanding of Earth Ponies. She knew, without knowing how she knew, that this was how Applejack felt every day, only at least ten times moreso. It was amazing, and she felt a whole new respect for her hardworking friend. Pinkie could use this to walk on walls, to defy the normal laws that governed even magic as most understood it. Rarity would be doing none of that, but maybe… maybe a little vegetable garden when she got back home… Certainly a few rose bushes would be lovely. The aether of the earth wanted to help her make such beauty. Who was she to say no?

Rarity sat, eyes shut as she calmly contemplated, and felt the hope she held for the future growing stronger.

Interlude: Childhood's End

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It was odd to walk constantly on two legs. Rarity could certainly appreciate Twilight’s description of her initial difficulties. ...Why was she walking on two legs? Further, she was surrounded by humans in some sort of hallway, in a school, based on the lockers, and no one gave her a second glance. She couldn’t feel any aether, which should have concerned her, but… ah. She was dreaming. She wanted to smile, but couldn’t. She understood. They were exactly her lips, after all.

“Windburn!”

She… no, they, turned, and rolled their eyes. What a silly nickname. “What’s up, Chad?”

Chad was a slighter taller boy with sandy hair and a smarmy grin. “Nothin’... you pitched pretty good yesterday. I’m still better, though. You gotta throw a no-hitter next game or I win the bet.”

A much younger Aiden grinned at the other young boy. “Heh, you wait. It’ll be a perfect game, and I’ll hit two home runs, too. You’re gonna be-”

“Aiden! Come on, mom and dad are outside, we gotta go!”

“Comin’ Moira! ...See ya,” Aiden said, sidestepping Chad.

“Later, Windburn! ...You're gonna lose!” he taunted, but was ignored.

Aiden was grinning as he ran over to his big sis, and Rarity grinned with him. She didn’t really have a choice in the matter, being along for the ride, but she didn’t mind. She did feel like she was forgetting something, but it could wait. She’d wanted to meet this girl, his whole family, really. ...Why hadn’t she, again? Everything seemed a bit cloudy in her mind, for whatever reason.

Aiden looked up at Moira Windborne, who stood waiting with her hands on her hips. Rarity was no expert on human age, but she guessed the girl was in her mid teens. She was a head taller than Aiden, and had light blue eyes… between them and her bright smile Rarity couldn’t help thinking of Pinkie a bit. Her mane… hair… was a reddish brown mass of curls that might not have been natural, but it looked nice. “Ready to go, brat? Spider-Man and then pizza… and then maybe you can try Morrowind.”

Aiden’s grin could have definitely matched one of Pinkie’s as he hopped slightly in excitement. “Best family day ever! Let’s go!”

“Hmph,” she replied as they both turned and headed for the door, though the lopsided grin on her face wasn’t fooling Rarity. Maybe not Pinkie… but this could be Rainbow and Scootaloo…

Outside the weather was lovely. The sun shone bright in the west and a few puffy clouds accentuated the deep blue of the sky. The air was warm, and the light breeze felt perfect. Rarity made a note to herself to get some fresh air at the next opportunity. The pair, or three of them, made their way to a midsized, dark blue car. Rarity didn’t know enough about cars to tell much about it, but it was sleek and spotlessly clean. And in the front two seats…

Aiden’s mother flashed a smile to her children as they got into the back of the vehicle. “Found him, eh?” She was a lovely looking woman, Rarity decided with absolutely no bias. Her children both seemed to favor her, at least in facial features, and Aiden had her eyes. Her hair was a more natural looking red, and freckles accentuated an almost autumnal, earthy look.

“Duh, I always know where the brat is,” Moira replied, ruffling Aiden’s hair. “Big sister sense.”

“Pfft,” was Aiden’s brilliant response to that, and then “Quit it!” as he went about shooing her away and fixing his hair.

“Kat, Spider-Man awaits,” said the man in the passenger seat. Aiden’s father. He looked tired, but content. Light blue eyes with a hint of circles beneath them were framed by short cropped, dark brown hair, accented by a few touches of barely there silvery strands.

Katherine Windborne snorted, almost exactly the way Rarity had heard Aiden do many times. “You mean your pre-dinner nap awaits.”

“...Maybe. Ey, it looks like a good movie, but it was a long day. And a longer night, but no complaints there…” he smirked at Katherine, who blushed as she looked straight ahead, maneuvering their car out of the school parking lot.

“Ew,” Moira noted dryly, looking at her phone. Rarity had seen more than a few in just her short time on Earth, and this one looked quite dated compared to her own experience.

“Why was it long, dad?” Aiden asked innocently. Rarity would have giggled, but she was just along for the ride. She was looking forward to ribbing him about this; his family was adorable…

Rarity went cold. His family was… Wait… oh no…. No no no…

The conversation faded into the background as she realized what she was seeing… what she was about to see.

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They hopped onto I-5 for just a couple miles on their way to the theater, and while it was technically faster, it surprised no one in that car to see traffic backed up. Complaining about traffic around Seattle made less sense than complaining about rain. Frankly, Aiden thought the rain was nice, and there was a lot less in summer. And see? Today it wasn’t raining. He looked up at the sky through the car window…

“What is that…?”

It wasn’t an airplane. Aiden could tell that much. It was too big, and it moved strangely, but that wasn’t all. It felt odd… he hadn’t seen it before and yet... recognition… like remembering something he didn’t want to.

Moira leaned over him, looking up at it. “No way…” she gasped. “Aiden, close your eyes!” She threw her arms around him, pulling him away from the window.

He didn’t listen. Something was…

There was a flash from the ship, and then a loud clang as a spherical, metal object smashed into the median. Aiden felt a pull from it, like he wanted to fall towards it, and then…

Another flash, this one lacked any color. That didn’t matter, because Aiden’s brain was attempting to wrap itself around a new sense. His young mind had no way to describe it. There was a feeling of depth, of ebb and flow, that he’d never really known. He remembered little moments. Sometimes when he really needed a die to roll a four, or if stretching just a little farther in a jump would make the catch. The perfect memory of jumping off the roof and landing too slowly to be physically possible came into his mind; he didn’t remember when he’d done that. But this was all those little feelings a thousand fold. He looked around, and in the distance he could see a wave of energy receding, the same wave that had passed through their car just a moment ago…

He heard a noise like someone choking, if only briefly. Moira was leaning against him really hard…

“Moira, move…” he trailed off as he looked up at her. Her face was burned, and her eyes looked… wrong. There was no life in them. Aiden felt his blood go cold. “...M...Moira?” He pushed her away, and she moved limply. “Moira?!” His vision blurred as even his young mind fully understood what it was seeing. “Mom!”

Looking to the front of the car offered him no comfort. His mother was leaning forward against her seatbelt, eyes wide and blank. “...Dad?” His father was leaning lifelessly against the window.

He shook his head, trying to expel the images that had just burned themselves into his mind. Dead. He grit his teeth as tears streamed down his face. They were…

Aiden screamed… and the world changed. The pulse of energy seemed to flinch, and the spherical object exploded. The strange beings that had appeared amongst the cars all looked to Aiden’s in surprise. Many of them were quickly surrounded by energy shields.

The ones who weren’t disappeared as Aiden drew them off of Earth and into a newly forming dimension.

When the light of the second surge had faded, the remaining alien beings stood in a shallow crater, alongside a single human boy. They were varied in appearance. Though consistently humanoid, their features ran the gamut in terms of skin color (including shades of red, purple, green, grey, and blue), and that was only the beginning. Some had visible fangs and claws, others assortments of horns. There were males and females, and plenty where gender wasn’t clear. Some had too many eyes, a few had none at all. Most were taller than an average human, but some were shorter than Aiden. As to him… the boy was sitting on the ground, sobbing inconsolably. He held his head in his hands, and wide, terrified eyes stared at the ground in front of him. Yet he could see them all. A noise he’d never knew roared in his mind, yet somehow that same noise showed him everything around him. They were faint lights, sickening and diseased like glowing mushrooms growing in rotting corpses. Aiden hated them.

One of the aliens, a tall, red, winged male, slowly approached him. “The archives were wrong about them. This one has aether in him. He reversed the gravity drive.” One of the aliens walked over to Aiden while speaking to the others. “Do you understand me, boy? We speak your language so you can deliver our message. You have already shown your strength…” he chuckled as several of the missing aliens began popping out of nowhere, escaping the pocket dimension. “Though it is young, and clearly flawed. We are the Oni-koru, former servants of the Great Conquerors. Your kind will be our next conquest. You will all die at our hands. Fight well, and be remembered. Cower, and die in obscurity. Fear not death… rebirth awaits you. Do you understand, boy?”

“...Why?”

“...Why? Why must you understand? You must deliver-”

“WHY DID YOU KILL MY FAMILY?!” A pulse of energy shot out from Aiden, shattering shields and pushing soldiers away. “I HATE YOU!!!!!”

The aether shuddered around him, filling the entirety of the territory he’d unknowingly claimed. Aiden wouldn’t have known what a magic surge was; he barely knew what he was controlling. He only knew he wanted to hurt the ones that had taken his family away.

In that moment, a thousand portals opened. Each was a response to the pain, and hate, of a child who’d lost everything. There was no mercy, no empathy, no thought of holding back. Only a desire to lash out in every direction.

There were three hundred Oni-koru foot soldiers, weakest of their kind but still three hundred strong.

They didn’t stand a chance. These portals weren’t opened with the idea of trapping, or transporting. Each opened with the idea of ripping apart where they opened. Each Oni received at least three that tore into them, inflicting fatal wounds. The speaker got twelve.

Aiden was shaking at he stood up. He’d bitten through his lip, and blood ran from his eyes and nose. “I understand your message. We’ll fight.” He sniffed, and then spat onto the corpse of the Oni that had spoken to him. “I’ll kill all of you.”

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Aiden was walking back towards his school. Now and again he’d jump forward through a portal. It felt natural to do so, easy as jumping over cracks while running down the sidewalk. Moira used to… Aiden grit his teeth. He didn’t want to look around inside the portals’ other side. What was in there was everything he’d lost… everything everyone there had lost. It wasn’t just his family. They’d killed everyone. He’d stop them. The ship had been flying in this direction… He could feel that it was gone now, but it had gone this way.

Another portal hop, and he found another sphere. With a snarl, he absorbed it in pieces, shattering it through several portals. He felt his nose running again. He wiped away blood. It didn’t matter.

A blast of energy knocked him off his feet and sent him tumbling. He cried out in pain as his shoulder gave way under the impact with the concrete.

“So… here’s the little child that wiped out an entire battalion. You saved a great number of your kind, little hero! Take pride!” It was a female Oni-koru, carrying a massive sword in one hand. Smoke rose lazily from the tip of the blade. Her face was oddly beautiful, in a cruel sort of way. Red and yellow eyes looked down at Aiden while full, dark lips curled into a grin. Her form was tall and lithe, and she moved with a sinuous grace while closing the distance between them. Her ears, long and elfin, flicked forward towards him, as though listening for the slightest peep of a response. “It’s a pleasure to see such strength; I was worried this wouldn’t be any fun at all!”

Aiden got slowly to his feet. He reached out to open portals around her, to tear her apart. The air seemed to thicken, and he couldn’t move it properly. In an instant she’d blurred and was directly in front of him. The flat of her blade struck him across the face, sending him once again sprawling. She was too fast. He stared up balefully at her, trying to gather energy to kill her again.

She blurred once more, ending crouched down next to him, a foot from his face. She was smiling. “Enough, little hero. You won’t win today. The Grand Marshal wanted us to preserve any targets of interest. I’ve decided you qualify. So you’ll be coming along with-”

Her head jerked violently to the side, before the sharp report of a high powered rifle could properly be registered. Her eyes were wide, and dark blood streamed down the side of her head, but the wound looked superficial. “Well now,” she muttered shakily as the dozen or so Oni with her began firing various weapons at the source of the shot. Aiden couldn’t tell if they were accomplishing anything. “That was something. Your kind… yes, I think we will definitely remember your people, boy.” She shook her head as though to clear it. “I am Elite Warbrave Keia Luxuria. I am your enemy; and I bear you no grudge. But I will see your world burn. Would you do me the honor of your name?”

“...Aiden Windborne. I hate you. We’ll kill you all.”

“You will try,” she smiled, and patted his head. “Sleep now, little hero. You lose today, but I’d be a coward not to allow you another chance. Mercy… is for the strong.”

With that, she grabbed his forehead, and he felt a surge like a splash of water falling over him. It was… surprisingly refreshing. And he really was so very tired…

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He didn’t know where he was, or how long he'd been asleep. The ceiling was white, as were the walls, and the bed covers. A hospital? He grabbed a cup of water by the bed and drank deeply, coughing a bit at first. He called out, “Hello? I’m not staying here, I have to go.”

“A moment first, Aiden Alexander Windborne.” The voice was deep, and calm. There was a confidence in it that Aiden could feel. Literally. The feeling in the air seemed to slow, telling him to listen. Looking in the voice’s direction, Aiden saw a man with dark, thinning hair, a well-tanned face, and a grim expression standing unobtrusively in the corner of the room. He was wearing a military uniform and holding an old book in one hand. Passing the time by reading? Aiden couldn’t see the cover. “There’s nowhere for you to go just now, I’m afraid. But we intend to change that.”

Aiden swallowed, not sure what to make of that. "...Who are you?”

“Brigadier General Albert Grumman, United States Marine Corps. I’m one of many fighting back the alien invasion that began two days ago.”

Images flashed in Aiden's head... things he didn't want to remember. He focused on the words. “Two days?”

“You’ve been recovering. The doctor here is one of mine, and expected you to wake up soon, so I came to wait. I know what you’re capable of. There are others like you as well. I believe, with the help of all of you, we can stop these monsters for good.”

“Others like me? ...What am I?” Aiden knew something had changed; it was more than just using the alien’s device against them. He could still feel it, all around him. It was like the air was speaking to him, but it wasn’t the air. He couldn’t tell what he was feeling.

“We haven’t settled on a name yet… but you can use what is being called magic.”

“I thought magic wasn’t real.”

Grumman smiled, seeming sad. “So did I, young man, for a long time. Someone important to me spent a lot of that time trying to convince me otherwise. I can’t help wondering if it might have mattered if I’d listened. The invaders, called the Oni-koru, use machines that use magic for their power sources. It’s dangerous for most of us. Magic through their devices is unstable and hazardous to people.” He sighed deeply. “You already know that; I’m sorry to say. But with your help, and the help of those like you… we can beat them.”

“...Do you know who shot Keia Luxuria?”

Grumman frowned slightly. “I don’t know who that is…”

“The Oni woman who put me to sleep.”

“Ah. Yes, we’re rather lucky they seem overconfident. Once word of Baltimore spreads… But you had a severely separated shoulder and a broken cheekbone from your encounter with her. Over the course of thirty six hours, you have healed completely. But we haven’t seen her since a local SWAT team chased her and her soldiers away from you. ...Or so I’d like to say, but standard firearms don’t seem very effective. The important thing is they left you after being engaged there. I’ll introduce you to the sniper who first got her attention. And then there are more introductions to make. As I said, I intend to bring together as many like you as I can. Because we’re going to save the world from them. I promise you that. Can I count on your help?”

Aiden took a breath, and sighed slowly. It was magic he was feeling, then. It was calming, and not just because of Grumman’s confidence.

In his mind, within the gentle roll of power, he imagined he heard waves hitting the shore. And he could hear Moira laughing, cheering him on just like at his baseball games. He could see his mother’s kind smile as she waited for him at the door, every day after school. And his father: stoic, dependable, and honest, who never held back encouragement and always steered his young son in the right direction. Tears ran down his cheek as he shut his eyes, focusing on the magic around him. They weren’t gone… and he would make sure they were proud of him. He nodded, sniffling. “I want to help....”

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Doctor Moriko Hamada was a slight woman in her mid thirties, and everything from her simple ponytail and glasses to her oversized lab coat would have screamed ‘doctor’, if Moriko didn’t strongly disapprove of screaming. She was probably the quietest, most unassuming person in Grumman’s compound. To his knowledge, she had never directly contacted him before. But a cursory glance at the examination room and its two occupants made it clear why she had.

“Dr. Hamada,” Grumman greeted her with a brief nod, which she returned. “What am I seeing?”

The aether in the room was thick enough to be visible to the naked eye, and resembled a dark blue cloud of glowing fog. It was centralized around Rarity and Aiden, each of whom slept peacefully in a hospital style bed. Vital signs were stable on both of them, but more to the point…

“Setting aside the magic… is it me or do they have pretty much all the same readings?” Donovan asked.

“It isn’t you, Knight Trellis, though there are a few differences,” Hamada replied. “I believe they are sharing a dream, or each other’s dreams. The visible aether in the room belongs to both of them, strengthening this connection and speeding both their recoveries. I believe they're both be awake soon." She held up a tablet for Donovan and Grumman to see. "Most notable is this wave pattern. As you see, the two of them are almost exactly in sync. I’ve noticed hints of a third pattern as well, but it’s intermittent. ”

“Thoughts on a cause, doctor? And what this means going forward?” Grumman asked.

“Based on the preliminary report from the field, their aetherpools merged briefly when Rarity used Joyeuse to cleanse the wound Aiden received from the Oni spear. It won’t last, but for now they’re resonating with each other, connecting them both, particularly so while sleeping. As to why they collapsed… simple aether exhaustion combined with physical overexertion. Both of them pushed themselves too hard. A repeat of something like this is very ill-advised, and could cause permanent impairment. Even if their energies are compatible, they aren't perfectly so. It's not as bad as mixing blood types, but that's the simplest analogy.”

“Be sure to pass that along; I’m positive they’ll listen to you.” Donovan said with a grin.

“As do all my patients, of course. How’s your back lately?”

“Aches a bit towards the end of the long days.”

“Have you been doing the exercises I recommended?”

“...”

Hamada sniffed dismissively. “Espers are not invincible, you know. Take care of your-” her tablet beeped, interrupting her. “Ah. This is what I called you about; the third signal is back. General, do you recognize this pattern? It’s an aetheric fluctuation within their minds, too subtle to be dangerous to them, or us, but I’ve never seen the like.”

Grumman shook his head, looking at the readings with a confused frown. “I have no idea. Neither of them could make that pattern without altering their own, if I remember correctly.”

“You do… so far as we know, at least.”

“I’m afraid I’m stumped.”

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It was a unique experience, to be pulled so far to a nightmare. In fact, it seemed clear she hadn’t arrived in time. Still, perhaps she could provide some scant comfort before this piece of her consciousness returned to the whole. It was a duty she took most seriously, after all...

11. Back to the Waking World

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Aiden stared into the fire. He wasn’t sure how long he’d been doing so. Further, he wasn’t sure how he’d come to be sitting on a log in front of a campfire. The last thing he remembered… Rarity was in Veritech, and… no. He’d been talking to Grumman… no. He facepalmed. He was still asleep. Confirming that was the fact that it didn’t hurt. Though he was rather amused by the ‘thock’ noise that came from beside him. He peeked sidelong while keeping his hand on his forehead.

Rarity was sitting next to him on the log, face meeting hoof.

“Sounded like it hurt.”

“Well it didn’t. I’m clearly still asleep.”

“Same.”

“...”

“...”

“How do I know I’m not dreaming you?”

“How do I know I’m not dreaming you?”

“I can understand your words.”

“Well so can I!”

Aiden chewed on the side of his lip. “Tell me something I wouldn’t know.”

“...My father played professional hoofball, the Equestrian equivalent of American Football. The two sports are remarkably similar.”

Aiden blinked in low-key surprise. “Okay… I could not have have guessed that answer. I provisionally accept that you’re really you, and we’re sharing this dream somehow.”

Rarity cocked an eyebrow at him.

He grinned innocently. “Oh right, my turn. Uh… my first kiss was a woman named Keia Luxuria. And I wasn’t-”

“WHAT?!”

“...happy about it. Right, so, we’re both us, and…”

“WAIT TILL I GET MY HOOVES ON HER!!!”

“...Woah. Uhh… I think she’s dead, but… you alright there, Rarity?”

“Ugggghhhhh!” She took a breath and let it out slowly. “I’m fine… I’m fine.” She took a few more deep breaths, looking highly agitated.

Aiden was grinning again, though it was less innocent this time. “Why Rarity, my dear friend… are you jealous?”

“Well!… No, not as such.” The sudden change in tone got a laugh from him. “Angry that that… woman, would be…” she grimaced. “You deserved better than… wait… wait… what I saw…”

Aiden’s eyes narrowed. “Yeah, now that you mention it… what I saw…”

The two stared at each other before pointing accusingly.

“It was way worse than you let on!”

“It was way worse than you let on!”

They stared at each other, eyes narrowed, before both snorted and looked away. Rarity spoke first. “It was… it was really frightening, the first couple of days. I couldn’t be sure if things were going to get better, or if they’d just decide to start shooting me again. At first I only trusted Valerie because I had no other choice.” She smiled, lightly touching his shoulder with a hoof. He looked back to her, smiling sadly. “But… it did get better. And I learned a great deal about myself, aspects of myself I’d never had to reach to before. For a brief time, I despaired… truly despaired, not just… indulging myself. I know I can come back from that now.” She nudged him gently. “And I know what you had to come from, as well. I’m sorry, Aiden. They were a wonderful family. The man you are is the best proof of that. I’m glad I got to meet them, if only in a sense.”

Aiden sighed, nodding. “Yeah. Despite all the other help I’ve gotten since, they gave me a great childhood to look back on, and I know that’s been a source of strength. Didn’t last as long as it should have, but longer than some folks got. That’s why I don’t dwell on how it ended. So many died that day. We can’t let that be what we remember. How they lived, what they did with their lives… that’s what matters.” He grasped her hoof, giving it a squeeze in thanks. “They got me this far, all of them.”

“We can both say that.” Rarity scooted closer to him so they could lean on each other, and watch the fire. “...Now about that kiss…”

He chuckled. “There’s not much to tell. She went out of her way to develop this sort of rivalry between us. Once I had training and was on the front lines regularly I had about a 50/50 chance of seeing her on any given op. Keep in mind how much the Oni enjoy drama. When you get a chance, look up Vikings, fictional rather than historical. The Oni are like that, turned up to eleven. They treat war like a performance piece, with themselves as the villains. So she was playing the role of femme fatale to the innocent, young hero.”

Rarity grimaced. “Innocent is right, darling. You were a child!”

“Well… she was a mass-murdering invader for fun, so taking shots at her morality is pretty pointless. And I was fourteen by the time it happened.”

“Still, though.”

“But the kiss was… well a taunt, really. She’d won that particular engagement, though it cost her quite a bit. I wanted to bring her down but I was exhausted. She couldn’t have killed me, for the same reason. But she had enough magic left to escape before our reinforcements could surround the area. It was a sort of ‘better luck next time’ kind of thing. Honestly she might’ve pulled it off, being alluring enough to bait me into doing something stupid I mean, if not for all the random killing.”

“That would be a turn off for me as well.”

“...Yeah let’s not talk about my war numbers, then.”

“That’s different.”

He sighed. “I tell myself that… but if I had it to do over again…”

“Let’s not make wishes like that one, darling.”

“...Fair.” He cleared his throat. “But speaking of unexplained kisses…”

Rarity giggled lightly. “Yes?” She replied innocently.

“...”

“...Oh fine. Well don’t take this the wrong way but it was for luck. It felt like the right thing to do before putting you at such risk… and after doing so. You were there because of me.”

“Eyynt,” Aiden replied, sounding like a ‘Wrong!’ buzzer. “I was there because I chose to be, for you, no guilt or debt will be spoken of again.”

Rarity raised an eyebrow again, but her cheeks warmed a bit, framing a smile. “Well then, yes sir.”

“And I’ve wished a lot of folks luck over the years,” he continued with a smirk, though he was looking to the campfire and didn’t see her answering grin. “It didn’t involve kissing. Err, except the one time.”

“Please tell me it was Donovan…” Rarity prodded with a wide smile.

Aiden burst out laughing. “Oh god, that would’ve been great. I can think of a few people we could’ve trolled so hard with something like that. I gotta remember that one. Nah, an old ex, years ago. But… not an ex at the time, which is sorta my point. On the lips and all… maybe I’m old-fashioned, but...”

“Well…” Rarity replied in a sing-song sort of voice, “I didn’t say it was only for luck, now did I?”

They both chuckled. “So the daughter of a hoofball player, huh? What’s that like? How’d a pro jock raise such a classy lady?”

She sniffed quietly, smiling. “By design, as it were. I love my mother and father dearly, but I never sought to emulate their mannerisms. My father, knowing that I had more elegant aspirations, put me through a boarding school that focused on teaching Canterlot etiquette. Thanks to that, I was able to separate myself, on the surface, from my middle class roots through something other than simply using my father’s money. ...Though he did pay for the schooling.”

“Well you expect parents to help with that sort of thing.” Aiden smiled sadly. “I actually inherited a decent sum when I turned eighteen. It was my parent’s college fund savings account for us. Grumman sort of made it public that several Espers had such inheritances. ...People donated to them. I ended up paying it forward to help war orphans.”

Rarity smiled. She leaned over and nuzzled his cheek, giggling lightly. “Darling… you are a war orphan.”

His face reddened slightly, and a goofy grin went well with the coloring. “Well yeah, but by then I was doing fine. So then what? With you I mean.”

“Hmm? Oh, right. Well, along the way I got my Cutie Mark, and-”

“And that’s the diamonds on your…”

“Flank, darling. Right there.” She leaned away, pointing a hoof down toward said diamonds.

He chuckled. “Yeah, those. I didn’t know whether looking was okay.”

“It’d be an odd place for a Mark if it wasn’t.”

“Fair point.”

“So, my mark stands for my desire to bring out beauty in everyone. With that, and the education I’d received, I was ready to step into the fashion world by opening my own boutique! I’ve done quite well, if I do say so myself. In fact, I’ve tried paying father back for the schooling several times, but he keeps refusing. To be fair, he doesn’t need the money. They’re practically always traveling to this or that exotic location...”

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They weren’t alone. And their observer was not pleased to be eavesdropping. It wasn’t that she minded seeing private moments in dreams, such was the risk this duty entailed. She would take such secrets to her grave, and never look down upon any of her subjects over such things. Their dreams were theirs; no shame was to be had. In any case this wouldn’t even crack the top one thousand most embarrassing.

Not that Luna was keeping track. ...And not that she could even be sure. For all she knew, the amorphous blob sitting with Rarity was spouting lewd anecdotes with every breath. She couldn’t understand a word he was saying, or see him clearly. Rarity was more distinct, though only just. Her own words were similarly garbled, frustratingly on the edge of the Night Princess’ understanding.

Wherever Rarity was, it was simply too far for Luna to properly reach, even through dreamwalking. Magic knew no distances, but Luna knew better than most that even alicorn princesses had their limits. With Rarity clearly well beyond Sidera’s Veil, Luna was happy, almost deliriously so, that she had been able to discover this much. It was only because the two of them, Rarity and the stranger, were sharing a dream somehow, that Luna had been able to find even the smallest of echoes that led her this far. Even the dream state was amplified by some other magic, something familiar that Luna couldn’t quite place.

And they could not see or hear her. Her connection to the dream was simply too weak to make herself noticed. Even the Royal Canterlot Voice hadn’t evoked so much as an ear flick from the unicorn. Still, it was enough. Rarity’s friends and family would hear of this, every word Luna could give to describe what little she was seeing. It was enough. The indistinct one said something else, and Rarity laughed. It did Luna’s heart good to hear it, and not for the first time in this dream.

She walked across the campfire, feeling only slight warmth from it, and gave him a nod. “Thank you, friend I’ve yet to meet. Thank you for being her friend as well. I’ll trust you to take care of one another until we can find a way to bridge the distance between us.” Luna smiled brightly, though she knew they couldn’t see it. Turning to Rarity, she continued, “We will find a way. If not sister and myself, Twilight Sparkle and her student, assuredly. And if they don’t… I have a hunch you will.”

She chuckled as the two continued talking. “In fact… yes. Tis but a hunch… but I believe you’ve found help that will see to it you find us before we find you. Until that day… farewell, friend Rarity.” With that, she let go of the tenuous hold on Rarity’s dreamscape, and felt herself rejoining the waking world back home.

It wasn’t long before the dreamscape faded as well, and the two enjoying the fire followed her example.

----------------------------------------------

Aiden sighed deeply as, with a bit of regret, he rejoined the waking world. The lights of the infirmary were dimmed a bit, and a glance at the wall clock told Aiden it was early evening. They’d slept over half a day.

“Good morning, Mr. Windborne.”

“...Figuratively speaking? Dr…?”

“Hamada,” replied the lab coat clad, coffee carrying woman. “And no, not figurative. You’ve both been asleep for over a day. It’s 7am.”

“Huh… well I was looking to reset my sleep schedule, and that would explain my rather desperate need for the facilities…”

Hamada smirked behind her cup, and pointed a dainty finger to a side door. “There’s a toothbrush and basic toiletries for the shower as well.”

“You’re a beautiful human being, doctor,” Aiden said with a grin.

She blushed, hiding behind her cup as best she could. “Yes, well… I would say take it easy, but you being… you, you should be fully recovered, but even so let your legs wake up a bit before you just jump out of bed. Also, there’s a gown hanging there. Your clothing needed to be removed for sanitary reasons.”

“Yeah I was probably pretty ripe.”

“I was referring to the various blood stains, including those of a revived and necrotizing Oni.”

“...Right. Hey, Rarity, up and at ‘em.”

“...”

Aiden chuckled, looking across at the other bed. “Nice try, darling,” he grin lopsidedly at borrowing her favorite form of address, “but even I can tell you’re awake.”

“Hmm…. I’m not moving from under this blanket until I can go directly to the little filly’s room, and the shower. You can go first though.” Her eyes opened slowly, both their normal, deep blue. She smiled over at him. “I’m glad you’re okay.”

Hamada’s eyes had gone wide, but she stayed silent.

“Same… you burned through a lot of aether back there, going all Jedi hero.”

“Joyeuse did most of the work. And speaking of burning aether, who saved us from two giant explosions and took down that Oni monster?”

“Heh… yeah well… it was a team effort.”

“Indeed so. Now hit the showers so we can be ready for the next game… as it were.”

“You’re sure you don’t want first crack at it?”

“I’m fine, darling. I think I don’t want to think about why I’m fine. I’m going to hope that Joyeuse has been slowing my biology rather than something less ladylike.”

Aiden laughed softly. “Everyone here has seen worse; I’m sure your reputation is safe either way.” He pulled the blanket down to his torso, grabbing for the gown. He slipped it on over his shoulders, getting up slowly and removing the blanket after having the robe on over it.

Rarity giggled. “You really adhere to that nudity taboo, don’t you?”

He looked at her over his shoulder, and stuck his tongue out. “I lack your luxurious coat of fur, so I feel inadequate.”

“Oh please! Let me see your stomach though, turn around. The wound…”

“Ah.” He turned, pulling the robe apart a bit around where the spear and then Joyeuse had pierced him. It wasn’t much to look at by that point.

Rarity’s eyes went wide. “It’s practically gone!”

Aiden nodded. “I heal about a hundred times faster than a normal human. I can’t recall if I’ve mentioned that. But a day’s bed rest is like almost fifteen weeks worth of healing. No scars either, aether reinforced genetics, or some such. Dr. Hamada could explain it better. Given the corrupted aether in that spear though… it could have been very bad if you hadn’t acted quickly.” He made a face. “I’m going to go shower now, among other things.”

“Don’t be long; I really need one as well.”

“Yes, ma’am.” He made his way into the small bathroom and shut the door. He sighed deeply in relief as he got the water going, and tended to biology.

In his defense, it should be noted that he was still a bit groggy. The accelerated healing was a fine thing, but it ate through aether like nothing else. While he was well rested in a sense, he was certainly not fully awake. As such, he could be forgiven for not noticing an obvious point…

----------------------------------

Rarity stretched, grumbling a bit as the movement reminded her that she really did need to use the filly’s room. She could wait a few minutes, but she hoped Aiden would hurry. She looked over at Doctor Hamada. “I don’t think we’ve been introduced. I’m Rarity, and thank you for looking after us. Could I have your full name?

The petite woman tilted her head slightly, raising an eyebrow in confusion… and hiding behind her coffee cup.

“Hmm… human Fluttershy, then? I can accept that. We can talk when you’re ready.”

...In her defense, Rarity was also rather groggy. Further, from an emotional stress standpoint, she’d been through more than anyone could reasonably be expected to cope with in the last few weeks. As such, she could be forgiven for missing the occasional observation. ...Even one that might be considered obvious from an outside perspective.

Doctor Hamada set her coffee cup down, smiled nervously at Rarity, and grabbed her tablet. She pressed a couple icons on the front, looked back at Rarity with that same sheepish look, and then pressed a few more.

Rarity’s eyes narrowed slightly as she watched Hamada’s nervous behavior. She felt like she was forgetting something...

-------------------------------------------

“She didn’t say what the issue was?” Valerie asked around a yawn.

“She did not, although this is twice in as many days that she’s summoned me to the infirmary, and I’ll remind you it never happened before that.” Grumman replied. He looked to have been awake for hours. Valerie had never known him to sleep more than a few hours at a time.

“To be fair, for the last few weeks she’s been busy analyzing all the data on Rarity I’d be sending along from Veritech. Before that, data on dead end Third Gen modifications. We haven’t had any major emergencies since she came on, until this one.”

“True. And she’s handled it with aplomb.”

“You choose your people well.”

“...Other than Ferguson.”

“No. He was well chosen, and made some bad decisions later than made him vulnerable to being turned against us.”

“Perhaps.” They entered the infirmary to find Aiden sitting on a bed, wearing a hospital gown, freshly shaved and showered. He was sipping coffee with a look of utter contentment. The sound of the shower coming from the restroom told Valerie where Rarity was.

“Good Morning, General, Corporal.”

“Status, Mr. Windborne?”

“I think I’m mission ready, or will be after some food and maybe a run to stretch the muscles a bit.”

“And Rarity?”

“I think she’s fine? You can ask her yourself shortly.”

“Yes, I apologize for that."

"Uh, for what?"

"I brought the translators along," he said, removing them from his pocket. "We were checking the software and updating other devices from it, since the language program has adapted considerably. It's even helped with decrypting the Command Crystal. We may have a location for Equus soon. But we're done with them now, so Rarity can talk to us again.”

Aiden blinked, then stared at the translators, as if remembering their existence. ...Which was accurate. “...Oh shi-”

12. Coffee and Contingency Plans

View Online

Doctor Hamada, General Grumman, Valerie, and Aiden all went quiet as Rarity exited the bathroom. She felt much better after freshening up, even if she hadn’t put in the full time necessary for a proper beauty regimen. “Hello everyone.” She said with a smile.

“Miss Rarity, can you understand me?” Grumman asked.

It was easy to forget he was fluent in her language. His accent was a bit thick… stilted? Still, that it was comprehensible at all was impressive. “Yes, General Grumman, I understand you. Is something wrong?”

“And, can you understand me now?”

Rarity tilted her head. “I’m sorry, without the translators I don’t know what you just said.”

Aiden smiled at her. “Oh really?”

“Yes, really.”

He chuckled, shaking his head. “Welp, that’s something, isn’t it?”

“What is? What’s… wait…” Rarity’s eyes widened. “I can understand what you’re saying! But you’re speaking English. ...But I can’t understand Grumman’s English…”

“Yeah, nor I his Equish. Just yours. Whatever Joyeuse did to our magic left behind a gift beyond the shared dreams. If I really pay attention I know the words you’re saying aren’t familiar at all… but I still know what you’re saying.”

“Yes… now that I’m listening for it, it’s the same. I don’t understand the words, and yet I do. I think thinking about it is going to give me a headache. Twilight could explain it, but all I can guess at is a form of Harmony between us through the pure aetheryte in Joyeuse. The crystal has empathic properties, which is why it can be dangerous when corrupted.”

“That explanation suits me,” Aiden said as Grumman switched on the translators for the rest of the room. Though… now that Rarity thought about it, really just for Doctor Hamada right then. Valerie understood Equish, she just didn’t seem comfortable speaking it. She floated the translators over as Grumman held them towards her along with a light, padded holster for them. She put it on, noting the fit was nearly perfect. And yet… she still felt a desire to adjust it… maybe add a few sequins? She’d have to look into that.

“Now then, if you two are amenable, shall we move this to the dining room? Breakfast can be served shortly, and I’m guessing you’re both hungry. We can discuss what you’ve slept through as well as our next move.”

Two stomachs growled right on cue. Rarity blushed, Aiden chuckled and said, “I think it’s safe to say we’re both quite amenable.”

“Agreed,” Rarity said, grinning sheepishly. “...Could Talia, Vera, Donovan, and Aaron join us?”

Grumman nodded as Valerie began tapping her tablet. “I think that can be arranged.”

-------------------------------------

Resituated with pancakes, OJ, more coffee, and various side dishes, Rarity was already eager to start moving forward again. The question was one of direction. As such, she was quite content to listen as Grumman laid out current events. Everyone she’d requested had gathered, though Aaron Cooper seemed quite groggy. He returned her smile in welcome though, before attacking his plate of food as though expecting it to be taken away at any moment.

Addressing the table, Grumman began with what most of them surely already knew. “Obviously there was no covering up the explosion at Veritech. For now, official story is an industrial accident brought on by illegal experiments and poor safety measures. A warrant has been issued for Dr. Christina Stolhann, head researcher for Veritech, along with several others from her support staff who are still unaccounted for. Most of the so-called Third Generation Espers serving as guards there have been rounded up, with help from my own staff, over the last 24 hours. Thanks to Vera Elleway blowing the whistle on Veritech’s dangerous and illegal shortcuts, we were able to intervene and arrest Colonel Jeffrey Owens on several charges. Again, not all of those have been made public. His… tampering... with Oni-koru corpses is classified information.”

Aiden spoke up at that. “Yeah, speaking of Owens…”

“He is currently occupying Vera’s old room. Under the possibility that he has more information that I am uniquely equipped to deal with, he’ll enjoy my hospitality for the foreseeable future. Alas, I had to assign Knight Elleway a standard suite.”

“It’s okay though, I promised to behave and remain confined to quarters. ...Other than for pancakes. And maybe the occasional op.” Vera grinned, taking a rather large bite of the former.

“Well, I did request your presence. I keep forgetting you’re a ‘criminal’. ...Why haven’t we forgiven her yet?” Rarity asked, raising an eyebrow at Grumman.

“I’d say we have. Even Sergeant Vualez has spoken with and forgiven her. However, criminal proceedings are about more than the emotions involved. Even believable contrition isn’t necessarily enough.” Grumman replied.

“That seems… vindictive.”

“Unfortunately it can be. But the idea is to be punitive, to discourage such actions being repeated and in others. There are criminals who are superb actors. If we allowed them to simply be forgiven upon expressing believable contrition…” Grumman shrugged lightly.

Rarity grimaced. “I see your point. I still don’t think I like it. Or that that applies in this case.”

Grumman smiled at her. “I agree; in a perfect world we’d have a better system. Well, I suppose in a perfect world we wouldn’t need one. If it helps… there’s a reason I haven’t turned her in or even reported her actions yet.”

Aiden nodded. “By the time anyone outside of this group hears about Vera’s little boo boo, she’ll likely have exonerated herself.”

“Truthfully, I can’t rule out the possibility that reporting it will slip my mind altogether. I’m not a young man anymore.” Grumman said with a grin.

Valerie chuckled. “We call that spiting the letter of the law to uphold the spirit. Supposedly, law should be rational and not let emotions sway decisions. The upside is discouraging rulings based on vengeance. The downside is that compassion can also fall by the wayside. So… we fudge a little, when it seems called for.”

“Sounds rather complicated,” Rarity noted.

“Very. Though I prefer ‘intricate’,” Grumman chimed back in. “Again, not a perfect system, but perfection leaves nothing to improve on. It’s actually one aspect of Oni-koru philosophy I agree with. They believe in rebirth and don’t buy into any sort of Afterlife. A perfect plane of existence representing bliss or torment is anathema to them, and I agree. Heaven or Hell, I’d be bored with either. Give me the good but imperfect Earth every time.”

“I think boredom would be your Hell.” Valerie noted.

“Plus he’d be on fire, because Hell,” Aaron added. “I could see you, sir, being on fire and bored by it.”

“We’ll hope I can stave that off for awhile longer. And speaking of staving off… our involvement in bringing down Veritech couldn’t be kept secret. Fortunately, the details,” and Grumman nodded to Rarity, “have remained hidden. For the moment we want that to continue, and so I’ve arranged for Aiden and Rarity to be offsite for a couple days while the press are visiting.”

Donovan groaned. “You didn’t mention we’d be getting interviewed.”

“I didn’t want to give you time to plan an escape. Especially you, Knight Trellis. With Knight Lieutenant Windborne staying out of the public eye, you’re the hero of the encounter.”

“Oh come on! Valerie did more than I did. Hell, so did Henson, for that matter.”

Talia raised an eyebrow behind her tea cup, but didn’t reply. Valerie put a hand up in a ‘keep it coming’ sort of gesture, grinning. “Even if we agreed, that’s why you get credit with the press. Our reward is getting to mostly avoid them.”

“Besides, you know they’re going to want to talk to an Esper for something like this. They love twisting everything we say into something they can get more scare mileage out of,” Vera said with a grimace.

“Thanks, Vera, so no pressure then.”

Her grimace morphed into a weak smile of apology.

“I know that you’ll handle the situation well, Knight Trellis. I’ll be speaking to them first and will make it abundantly clear that you have my utmost confidence. The world needs to work its way past this fear of Espers nonsense that the media has built up. I don’t expect you to spearhead that completely, but I believe this can be a start. I can’t think of a better candidate.”

“Yeah,” Aaron added offhandedly, “plus, the press’ll love you. You’re so pretty!”

Rarity snorted her coffee rather noticeably and went into a cycle of coughing and laughing, ducking under the side of the table. Aaron grinned. “Got ‘er!”

“Goddammit, Private…” Aiden muttered, patting Rarity’s back while fistbumping Aaron out of her line of sight. Or so he thought.

Rarity looked up at him with a mock glare, still clearing her throat. “...Traitor.”

He grinned nervously.

Donovan was chuckling. “So other than running from the now angry girl with the built in spear, what will you be doing while I represent Esper kind?”

“I don’t actually know. ...Sir?”

Grumman smiled. “You and Rarity will be spending a couple days out of sight. Keep an eye on the news broadcasts to see how we’re doing if you’d like, but either way I’ll contact you when they’ve cleared out. As to where out of sight… your aunt will be here to get you both around noon.”

“Oh how lovely; I look forward to meeting her!” Rarity said.

“Huh…” Aiden muttered. “So… did you tell her the… nature of one of her guests?”

“I used a series of nondescript euphemisms. She has a First Generation Esper in her family, and very few people can say that these days. I’m sure she’ll handle the surprise with no problems. And I’m sure you’ll explain things flawlessly, being family and all.”

“You magnificent bastard.”

“Why thank you, young man. Obviously she can also take you around to your work to pick up your car and update your coworkers of the situation.”

Aiden nodded. “I was already thinking about that. They deserve an update. I’m honestly surprised Craig hasn’t gone to the police or whatnot. I’m pretty sure he has pictures.”

“Actually, the security detail I sent to guard them from any Veritech incursions bought the pictures at my authorization. Under the circumstances, it was the best option for all concerned. The world isn’t ready for more aliens, even amicable ones. And given Miss Rarity’s appearance, he would just as likely be accused of fakery.”

“I choose to take that as a compliment, darling.”

“As it was intended, Miss Rarity. You are too fabulous to be believed," he replied with a completely straight face.

Rarity beamed at him, giggling as if to say 'I know you're half-joking but I like it anyway'.

“Alright then,” Aiden nodded thoughtfully. “So that covers the next couple days. Longer term though, what’s next?”

“We’re looking for another ship. Or even spaceship parts. Or maybe a giant robot buried in a junkyard for some reason that can fly in space… for some reason.” Valerie replied with a smirk. The bandage around her head was so unobtrusive Rarity had scarcely noticed it. It was reassuring; she seemed to be recovering and none the worse for wear.

“Hey, I remember that cartoon!” Aaron added. “A couple kids from Jersey used a robot from the future to beat up Oni-koru invaders. It was awesome!”

Aiden chuckled. “Yeah… ‘laughing at the scary’ was a pretty popular theme back then. I think folks were really starting to feel some hope. Stuff like that helped, even silly… especially silly.”

Smiling, Rarity leaned over and nuzzled him.

He blinked, coloring slightly. “...What?”

She shook her head, still smiling. “I’ll tell you later.”

Returning the smile, he nodded. “Kay.” Turning back to the table, he saw several knowing grins, and his flush intensified. He cleared his throat, and his eyes narrowed a little as he heard what sounded suspiciously like a fist contacting a hoof behind his back. He glanced sidelong at Rarity, who looked so innocent she could only be guilty. Looking the other way revealed an Aaron with no attempt at a poker face.

“Got ‘im,” he said, looking Aiden in the eyes with a shit-eating grin.

“...Goddammit, Private. ...ANYway… do we have any leads that don’t rely on a cartoon full of unlikely, albeit hilarious, plot contrivances?”

“Other than NASA, and I do plan to talk with the director in person next week,” Grumman replied. “There are several possibilities. The top three on the list involve a fair bit of travel, so we’ll need to deal with the press situation first. Suffice to say things don’t look much worse than before we lost Owens’ ship, even if it may take a bit longer. Hopefully we can procure something with the blessing of its current owner.”

“Why go in person though?” Aiden asked.

“While I could contact leads on this matter through official or unofficial channels, there’s always a risk of information leaking, and higher odds of being misled. I prefer a show of force and commitment, so we’re likely to do some traveling. Besides, with you there we can claim any ship we obtain immediately and easily get it where we need to go with it, for whatever repairs or modifications it may require.”

“Fair point. Though you’d think anyone with an Oni ship lying around would be happy to have it be part of an historic diplomatic effort to the stars.”

“That will be my hope, yes. If not, we have other options.”

“Blow them up and take it?” Aaron asked, sounding hopeful.

“...Goddammit, Private.” Grumman muttered. “We aren’t pirates. Purchase will be our first route, likely in trade rather than liquid assets, but we’ll see.”

“I understand, General, really I do, but… isn’t just having one of these things and not being government sanctioned already illegal?” Aaron asked, looking thoughtful. Rarity thought the look suited him. He was clearly comfortable playing the clown, but at least some of that was an act.

Grumman hummed thoughtfully. “The truth is a bit more murky than that. Frankly, it isn’t worth going into. The short answer is ‘yes’, but there are a lot of loopholes. Those help us though; we can use various avenues to procure a vessel without having to outright hand it over to the joint chiefs… or NATO, for that matter.”

Breakfast had more or less wrapped up. As they began excusing themselves to get the day started, Rarity trotted in front of Aaron. Aiden stepped back, clearly not sure what she was doing but content to wait unless dismissed. And quite the contrary, Rarity wanted him, and everyone, there.

“Uhh, hi?” Aaron said a bit nervously, looking over to Aiden as if to say ‘what’s she want?’.

She reared up easily and put her forelegs around his neck, hugging him tightly.

“Guu…?”

She nuzzled him, and then kissed him on the cheek. “Thank you. Thank you so much. I’m sorry you had to kill to protect me, but you saved my life. Thank you!” She kissed his cheek again.

Aaron, by this point, was imitating a radish, and doing a fine job. Not only was he the proper color (both even, having gone from a pale white of ‘nervous’ to a bright red of ‘embarrassed’), but he was also absolutely still. For a moment. He then smiled, laughed quietly, and returned the hug. “You’re welcome, Miss Rarity. ...This is kinda embarrassing though, in front of everybody.”

“Oh?” She said archly, not letting him go. “You’re saying you’d prefer a private hug, and perhaps a kiss or two? I mean, I do owe you, but you should probably buy a lady dinner first, don't you think?”

Aaron coughed, pushing her away gently as his flush returned in full force. Around the room several chuckles made themselves known.

Rarity regained her four hooves, looking up at Aaron with a smug grin. “...Got ‘im.”

He blinked, and then laughed. “Goddamn right.” They fist/hoofbumped.

Everyone filed out, grinning and laughing. Clearly, despite the close calls at Veritech, morale hadn’t suffered.

“Oh, Talia?” Rarity called out, almost singing the name.

The taciturn woman turned, grinning and holding her hands in front of her in a warding gesture. Honey blonde hair framed a cutely chubby face, though it didn’t match her slim figure, seeming more the result of prominent cheekbones. The grin was genuine, and really suited her, but also apologetic. “Sorry, Rarity, I don’t do pdas.”

“Hmm… oh fine, I suppose I can’t embarrass everyone in one day, though I must say you look lovely when you smile, if you decide to do it more often I think it would suit you well.” Rarity replied, smiling up at her. “And thank you. For saving me.”

Talia nodded. “It was a team effort; we all worked to keep each other safe, and that’s how it should be. We’ll see you in a couple days, and do it all again. ...Hopefully, with a lot less violence and a lot more ‘talking folks into helping us make history’.”

“Agreed, darling.”

Obvious April 1st Chapter is Obvious

View Online

Aiden and Rarity were busy packing for their stay off base. Really, it wasn’t much to pack since neither had much in the way of belongings. Rarity had still managed to fill two suitcases somehow.

His own weekend duffel (standard issue) was mostly full, and he began going over what to expect. “Okay, so, my aunt is pretty laid back, and overall I think this will be fine, but we’re going to want to ease her into the idea before she sees you, and-”

Beep.

“Phone message, one sec.” His eyes went wide as he read the text. “No fracking way…”

-------------------------------------

They both ran out to the front of the compound to see what Valerie had brought for them. “Valerie, what the everloving…”

“No no, wait, look, shut up! So remember we were talking about that old robot found at the dump show, right?”

Aiden’s face went deadpan. “...Yes.”

“Well, okay so I went to the dump…”

“That was a cartoon!”

“Cartoons are awesome!”

“...You’ve got me there, but this is… it’s just a trash can, Val!”

“Who are you, Wernher von Braun? Also, we’re going to fit bottle rockets to the bottom of it.”

“Aren’t those illegal in Virginia?”

“...Rarity is literally an illegal alien.”

Rarity nodded. “It’s true; I am.”

Aiden looked down at her. “Whose side are you on?”

She grinned apologetically at him.

“Look,” Valerie continued. “We can do this. Donovan can give it a boost from the ground and you two can launch and have Rarity back to Equestria by suppertime!”

“There’s so many things wrong with this… I can’t even…”

“Darling, how do we find Equestria when we get up there? I’m no expert on space, but it seems rather large.”

Valerie nodded, sagely. “Yeah, it’s pretty big. Use Joyeuse. It’s from there, it can probably find its way back. Like a dog or something, you know?”

“Ooh… that could work. Gems always fix everything. Except the gem that brought me here. Buck that gem in particular.”

“Exactly. We can’t lose! Also, if you don’t launch, the terrorists win.”

Aiden blinked out of his stupor. “What terrorists?!”

“All of them. And Owens. He said you’d be too chicken…”

“...WHAT?!”

“Yep. And that you look like a dork.”

“HE LOOKS LIKE A DORK!”

“So we doing this?”

“Hell yeah we’re doing this! Screw that guy, Rarity’s going home! ...Wait, why am I going, too?”

“You expect her to steer a trashcan rocket with hooves while holding her traveling tea?”

“Yes, Aiden, do tell. How would I do that again?”

“Okay, good point. That’s laughably impossible. ...Right, let’s do this!”

------------------------------------

“Five… four… three… two… one… IGNITION!”

Valerie lit the twisted up fuse to the dozen or so bottle rockets tied to the garbage can. Per Rarity’s insistence, they’d duct taped a pillow to the top for comfort. Aiden admitted it was the right move. The fuse burned down, and the rockets ignited. At the same time, Donovan detonated a burst of aether underneath the can, sending it and its passengers screaming into the sky. In moments, they were a glimmer in the distance.

Grumman looked up, shading his eyes. “I can’t believe that worked. No wonder bottle rockets are illegal.”

-------------------------------------

CRASH LANDING NOISES!!!!

“...I can’t believe that worked.”

“Yes, darling, it’s a good thing you remembered space is a vacuum and put up that shield. That would have been embarrassing.”

Aiden looked around. They seemed to have landed in the middle of a rather pleasant looking village. “So this is really…?”

Rarity smiled. “Ponyville. I’m home. We did it!”

“HAH! I KNEW IT! FIFTY BITS, BONNIE, PAY UP!”

“...Luna bucking dammit…”

Rarity spun, waving to the two ponies who were apparently first on the scene. She ambled away from the crash site, R.I.P. the USS Dumpster Fire. “Lyra, Bon Bon, how lovely to see you!”

Lyra grinned. “Welcome back, Rarity. Who’s tall, dark, and handsome over there?”

Rarity giggled. “‘Tall’, she says.”

Aiden stuck his tongue out at her. “Bite me, Gem Butt.”

Rarity waggled her hips at him, swishing her tail. “Bite that, shorty. Anyway, this is Aiden. It means Little Fire according to the translator, emphasis on ‘little’-”

“Not what your mom said!”

“...He’s from Earth.”

Bon Bon looked up at Aiden. “I know what Lyra thinks you are… but seriously, what are you supposed to be?”

“Apparently humanity’s first interstellar Uber driver.”

“I don’t know what that is.”

“It’s okay, probably won’t come up again.”

“Welcome home, Rarity.”

Rarity spun, her eyes wide. “Princess Celestia?!”

Aiden took a step back. “Tall horse… such horn. Very magic… wow.”

Celestia smiled warmly at him. “Thank you so much for bringing Rarity home to us, young human. It’s a true pleasure to see a genuine member of your race again. Starswirl’s mirror trolled us into finding an alternate universe when he was trying to find your world. Who would’ve imagined we simply had to wait for an Element Bearer to do the work for us?”

As usual,” Rarity muttered.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t catch that.”

“Nothing, Princess, nothing at all.”

“Ah, very good then. Now, there is one little problem we need to take care of.”

Aiden nodded. “Is it the USS Dumpster Fire? 'Cause it should burn itself out here in a few minutes. Honestly I don’t know how it even caught fire; the rockets burned their fuel in seconds.”

“No… we must maintain the Masquerade.”

“...What.”

“You see… when your kind helped us during the wars long ago, not all humans left to return to Earth.”

“...What.”

“But we don’t want to disrupt Equestrian Harmony with alien cultural influences, the Angels were very clear on that point…”

“...What?!”

Celestia smiled, bearing down on Aiden as her horn lit. “Why do you think we call them Earth Ponies…?”

“HAH! FIFTY MORE BITS, BONNIE!”

“DAMMIT!”

“Uh... what if I don’t want to be a pony?”

“Oh nonsense, dear, you won’t remember being otherwise.”

Rarity nodded. “I can always use another worker in my textile factory in Detrot. I’ll get you a fair wage, as thanks for getting me home.”

“What the buck, Rarity?!”

She giggled. “Oh I’m teasing, of course. You can stay with me until you get settled. We’ll say you had an accident but we’re dear friends who were about to start dating. We can start over, fall in love, have foals together. It’ll be lovely.”

Aiden tilted his head, considering this, as Celestia zapped him. Suddenly a confused Earth Pony stallion, he looked around blankly. “...That trashcan is burning for some reason.”

Rarity grimaced. “He seems a bit… dull now.”

Bon Bon scoffed. “You saying Earth Ponies are dull?”

Rarity snorted. “Oh please, darling, I’m friends with Pinkie Pie.”

“Oh right… withdrawn.”

“I just means he’s… well I guess I don’t have to keep my word…” She gasped. “What am I saying, that’s absolutely horrid! What is wrong with me… with all of this…? Celestia, how could you just… Wait… this doesn’t… how can… bwa…?”

From off in the distance, Twilight leaned out of the window of her castle. “SEE, RARITY? THIS IS WHY I HATE AND FEAR QUESADILLAS!”

Rarity blinked. “Oh son of a-”

“Gah!”

“Dammit!”

They both sat up, in their separate beds in their room at the compound (Fort Friendship, working title)...

FACEPALM!

FACEHOOF!

“FU-BUCKING QUESADILLAS!”

Happy April First, and Happy Easter, to Everyone! ...Proper chapter in a couple days.

13. Family

View Online

Rarity and Aiden stood just outside the compound… waiting the final minutes for their ride. Rarity had activated her ‘limited visibility’ spell, which bent light around her form, as well as the simple sundress she wore. She found it much easier to channel the energy needed when she wasn’t running on low sleep, low food, and excess adrenaline. Joyeuse had helped too, not so much with a power boost but more as a centering point. It was as if she'd been learning a new dance, and the crystal embedded in that blade had gently led her through the first steps. Not everypony had Starlight Glimmer’s emotionally boosted magic: Rarity much preferred calm and balance to be at her best. She could almost feel that calm, radiating from the crystal even as the sword sat back in their rooms. Bringing it along didn't seem appropriate for meeting Aiden's aunt, though Rarity was a bit tempted just the same.

Aiden was watching her sidelong, wearing an appreciative smirk at her magic in progress. “You do know doing that might just give my Aunt Lynn a heart attack when you appear out of nowhere?”

“I assume you’re going to warn her before I do so. Grumman suggested that she shouldn’t see me while driving up to the building from the gate, so as not to worry her while behind the wheel.”

“Fair enough. She should be along any time; she’s not the sort to get lost...”

As if on cue, the gate began opening remotely to admit a mid-sized, white sedan. It was a newer model, clean and sleek. Rarity approved. She’d seen various vehicles while perusing the internet, from the ostentatious to the downright shoddy, and she deemed this one tasteful.

Said sedan pulled up next to Aiden and stopped. The driver’s side door shot open, and a woman popped out, looking somewhere between ‘angry’ and ‘I keel you!’

Lynneth Marcusson (née Windborne) was a woman in perhaps her mid forties, though she could easily have been younger. Hints of crow’s feet accentuated blue eyes that were clearly better suited to smiles and laughter than the sort of fury they seemed to currently content themselves with. Her face bore a smattering of freckles across a pert nose which was crinkled due to a near snarl that curled her lips. Her dark hair was tied back in a simple… ponytail. Rarity had chuckled at that particular phrase for that hairstyle. If there was a joke in there about a human head resembling a pony rump in any way, Rarity was far too classy to utter it.

She was a bit taller than Aiden (who wasn’t?), and it was all the more apparent as she bore down on him. He actually seemed to shrink back. This veteran of a war against violent aliens, this man who’d faced death and took time out to joke with his squadmates while doing so… seemed ready to bolt like a frightened rabbit.

Too late: she caught him in a rough embrace.

“You idiot! No calls, no texts, no emails… just sitting alone in that house of yours doing what?! And now you re-up without even mentioning it to me?!” She swung him back and forth in the fierce hug, his arms dangled at his sides. His eyes were wide, and his face was red as his aunt hugged and berated him.

“S-sorry, Aunt Lynn....”

“Oh you will be. We’re the only family we have left. I’m not one of these ex war buddies of yours gone to ground to escape those idiots on the news! You don’t get to cut me out! Just wait till I can embarrass you in front of this girl you’re protecting! I have baby pictures, you brat!”

Rarity grinned evilly.

Aiden let out a breath explosively, and then started laughing. “Oh bring it on… I was goddamn adorable.” He returned the hug. “Really, though. I’m sorry, Aunt Lynn. I got into a rut, you know? I don’t think I even realized it until… well we can talk all about it. First though…”

“Mm-hmm,” Lynn replied, releasing him. “So, where’s this VIP friend of yours?”

“What did Grumman tell you?” he asked cautiously.

Lynn cocked an eyebrow. “I know that tone… he clearly didn’t tell me enough. ...Foreign diplomat, here through some transportation accident. She’s related to the war so it’s a tricky situation and we want the press in the dark about it. ...What am I missing?”

Aiden chuckled. “That’s one way to put it. He did leave out the most important detail. ...Now, she’s actually right here… and her appearance is going to shock you. I would elaborate on that… but I think at this point I’d rather surprise you.”

Lynn looked around. “Magic, I take it? Who’s hiding her? If Donovan could do that he’d start a stage act.”

“Yeah, he was asking for smoke bombs earlier, to escape the media shitstorm-”

“Language.”

“...Sorry. Anyway she’s hiding herself. ...Rarity, if you would?”

“You’re certain you don’t want to give her some sort of warning?” Rarity asked. Her translator spoke quietly, broadcasting her into English whereas it had been translating Lynn’s English to Equish only through her earbud.

Lynn stepped back from the source of the voice. “What language was that?”

Aiden grinned. “Equish.”

“...I’ve not heard of that.”

“Yeah, it’s not a common one around here. And yes, Rarity, I think she has enough warning. Aunt Lynn, meet Rarity.”

“Very well, darling, but if she faints or the like you’re responsible for it.” She dropped the spell, and the light that had artfully bent around her went back to its proper manner.

“Holy shit, that’s a goddess damn unicorn!”

“Language, Aunt Lynn. Don’t curse in front of the Celestia-darned unicorn.”

Rarity snerked.

“I… well I… Albert Grumman you jerk! I’ll…!”

Rarity stepped forward, slowly, taking pity on the poor woman. She held out a hoof. “It’s very nice to meet you, Mrs. Marcusson. I am Rarity, and while Aiden hasn’t told me too much about you, I’m sure we’ll get along fine. ...And I’m eager to see those baby pictures.”

Lynn blinked as her brain reloaded various necessary tasks. “Ah… goddess, you’re adorable… I, uh…”

“She has excellent ears, too, Aunt Lynn.”

“Oh shut up,” she cleared her throat and smiled. She looked much younger doing so. She leaned down and grasped the hoof lightly, and her smile deepened as she felt the reality of that hoof. “It’s a wondrous thing to meet you… Rarity. I feel truly blessed… and more than a little blind-sided. So I apologize for my reaction.” They shook briefly before Lynn get go. “...So I’m assuming, when Grumman said ‘foreign diplomat’...”

Rarity giggled. “Oh quite foreign, darling, though I’m not a diplomat. Actually I’m a fashionista and business owner… and currently stranded here while we figure out a ride home.”

“A friendly alien… who’d have thought? And you look like a unicorn right out of legend… if legends went out of their way to be…” she stopped herself, clearing her throat awkwardly. “Right then. Well I can’t offer you a ride to your home, but I’d be more than happy to take you to mine, if you’ll step in? You can have the front seat, and we’ll put Aiden in back…”

“Uh, no, Aunt Lynn, we probably want her in back, low on the seats or some passing car might see her.” Rarity nodded in agreement.

“Fair point.”

------------------------------------------

The ride was pleasant enough. Rarity fully understood the importance of not being seen, and frankly stretching out a bit in the back seat seemed more comfortable than the front would have been. Lynn’s car was a good deal smaller than Grumman’s had been; Rarity felt like her horn would be scraping the ceiling if she tried to sit up straight.

They’d already covered her accidental arrival and, as was her preference, Rarity glossed over her time at Veritech. She knew the value of not bottling up traumatic experiences, but she didn’t want any more pity than she had to accept for just being so far from home. There was enough to dwell on without remembering being shot.

Even as she made light of it, a warm hand gently squeezed her shoulder. Aiden smiled back from the front of the car, encouraging her.

Thank you, my friend. As such, forgive me for what I’m about to do…

“After that, I was set up with a rendezvous with Valerie and her superior, General Grumman as you know. But instead… I felt pulled in another direction. As I’d later discover, Espers feel much like my own people back home did. Specifically, Aiden feels like another unicorn, from a magical point of view at least.”

He chuckled. “Yep, she broke into the store-”

“Oh please, that ‘lock’ is so pointless it doesn’t qualify as 'breaking in'-”

“And then got herself locked in the produce prep room by Mark Millen. You remember him?”

“He’s a cutie; of course I do.”

“...”

Rarity and Lynn both snickered, and Aiden seemed to suddenly realize he was outnumbered.

“Indeed I did though. I was rather out of sorts, given the circumstances. Fortunately for me they decided to let their resident Esper handle the ‘scary alien’.”

“Mm-hmm… and Aiden, dear… just how did they know you were an Esper? I thought you were keeping that quiet?”

“Well… I was… sorta…”

Lynn made a circling, ‘keep going’ gesture with one hand, steering easily down the quiet country road with the other.

He grimaced. “I developed some bad habits. ...It all started…” he trailed off into a mutter that even Rarity couldn’t make out.

“What was that?”

“...It started when I couldn’t reach the top shelf, okay?!”

Rarity snerked, and began giggling. She could just see it: Aiden on his tiptoes, stretching to reach the top shelf in the grocery store to place items for purchase. He couldn’t do it. He strained, stretching to his utmost… and just wasn’t tall enough. He’d then have looked around, delightfully furtive, and finally levitated the items perfectly onto the shelf.

“And after that… it slowly became a habit.” He shook his head, looking abashed. “Thinking back, Mark must’ve known. He started putting me on aisles by myself, giving me more to do, giving me reasons to use my abilities.”

“Probably wanted to expose your coworkers in an innocent way so they didn’t find out from something that would turn them against you.”

“That’s occurred to me, yeah. I owe him a thank you, at the least.”

“You do. Don’t forget about it.”

“No, ma’am.”

Lynn smiled. “So that’s how you two met, then?”

Rarity nodded, though Lynn was watching the road rather than her passengers. “As I recall, Aiden’s response was similar to your own. I didn’t understand English at the time, or now for that matter, but the words were similar, certainly, and so was the expression. But after that, even though we couldn't understand each other yet, it was clear we were both trying to say the same things. He was rather gallant, I choose to believe. ...Presumably. For all I know he was making silly jokes the whole time.”

Aiden shrugged, waving a hand back and forth. "Little of column A, little of column B. Luckily comprehension is no longer an issue."

“Yes, the translator you have is quite remarkable," Lynn said. "I’ve had pretty iffy luck with google translate.”

Rarity and Aiden knew that wasn't quite what he'd been referring to, but it was true, just the same. “It’s a good deal more advanced in both hardware and software than that, Aunt Lynn,” Aiden supplied.

“...A few good things came from the Oni War, I suppose. Nowhere near worth the cost.”

“Yeah…” Aiden said slowly, the mood turning a bit somber. “We walk forward.”

“That we do,” Lynn replied, grasping his hand and giving it a squeeze.

---------------------------------------

“And here we are! If you can activate that magic again so my neighbors don’t see you…”

Lynn’s home was a modest, but well landscaped house in a middle class neighborhood. Much like her car, the property seemed to speak of sensible good taste.

“Yes, of course,” Rarity replied, vanishing from sight a moment later.

Lynn opened the door, ostentatiously looking in the back seat while standing far enough from it to allow Rarity to exit. The soft clop of hooves on driveway accompanied a quiet ‘Clear.’ from Rarity, and Lynn closed the car door before opening the trunk, as if remembering the suitcases were there all along. Aiden grabbed them while Lynn went to open the front door.

Inside, Rarity was treated to pleasant hardwood floors, rustic decorations reminiscent of Sweet Apple Acres, and a scent of pine and lemons. Clearly Lynn had gone deep into cleaning for her expected company.

“I’m happy you’re not quite what I was expecting. I’m sure my humble home wouldn’t suit a foreign dignitary, despite Grumman’s assurances, but welcome.”

“Oh nonsense, it’s a lovely home, darling. I’m quite taken with it. I’m reminded of a dear friend back home.”

“That’s actually something I wanted to ask about. From the hints I’m getting, your culture and ours have a lot of similarities…”

Rarity chuckled. “Apparently there’s quite the story behind that…”

-------------------------------------

“Well, the truth is, General Grumman has long been concerned about Colonel Owens’ approach to the future of Espers. ‘Creating’ more Espers through technological means has always been a hotly debated issue…”

“And where you do side on that issue, Knight Trellis?”

He grinned nervously. “...No opinion? Even if Owens was going about it wrong, you won’t meet many Espers who think we have some God-given right to hoard magic for ourselves. I hope we can reach a point where anyone who wants to use magic can do it, but we’re not there yet. Shortcuts like that man was employing are bad news for everyone.”

“So it seems, unfortunately. Thank you very much for your time, Knight Trellis, and your contributions during and after the war. Mankind will always owe you a debt,” the interviewer said.

Donovan shook his head, smiling easily. “I like to think I’m part of mankind, so we’re square.”

The reporter chuckled politely. “Yes, of course. With that let’s take it back to the studio, after this short break…”

Lynn switched off the television. Rarity smiled. “I think Donovan did quite well.”

“Yeah,” Aiden agreed. “For all his claims about stage fright or whatnot, once you get him up there, he can play the crowd no problem. Even that little bit of earnest shyness works for him.”

“And he’s awfully pretty.” Lynn added with a predatory grin.

“...Aunt Lynn, I think you need a guy friend.”

“Look who’s talking.”

“I’m not into guys.”

“You know what I mean, Aiden.”

“Yeah yeah. I’ll keep it in mind.” He rolled his eyes, but there was a smile on his face. Rarity was grinning too, but declined to comment.

It had been a good day. They’d ordered pizzas for an early dinner; Rarity’s half had been a lovely blend of onions, tomatoes, and red peppers, alongside of course ample cheese and sauce. It wasn’t the most sophisticated dish, but quite delicious just the same. Lynn’s claim of ‘best pizza in town’ was easy to believe; Rarity wasn’t sure how it could be done better. Aiden’s half had contained a few meats Rarity was just as happy not thinking about, but she didn’t begrudge him. She idly thought of Opalescence back home, no doubt feasting on tuna or the like even in her absence. Sweetie Belle would see to her. She wished she had a way to let her dear sister know she was okay. Her thoughts turned a bit melancholy from there… or would have, if Lynn hadn’t returned from the kitchen with a bottle of wine and a photo album.

On the off chance that wasn’t enough to distract Rarity from sad thoughts, Aiden’s apprehensive look sealed the deal.

Lynn was smiling innocently. “You did say ‘bring it on, dear nephew…”

-----------------------------------------------

Rarity laughed loudly, easily holding a half full wine glass in her magic. “Oh my goodness! How can you even have that much mud on you? You look like a golem, darling! A cute little golem made of mud and adorable!”

“...Adorable isn’t a noun.”

“It is now!” She grinned at him and polished off her glass of wine. Their hostess refilled it. “Thank you, Lynn! This is a lovely bouquet, by the by.”

“I’m glad you like. I’d been waiting for the right company to open these with,” Lynn smiled, drawing attention to her slightly dimpled, alcohol reddened cheeks.

“Very much. Perfect accompaniment to this sort of reminiscing. I wish I had my own pictures to add to it. Sweetie Belle has had many similar moments.”

“Your little sister?”

She nodded to Aiden… and sidled closer to him on the couch as they all examined the photo album. She gestured to Lynn to skootch in on her other side. She’d missed this sort of physical closeness. Apparently alcohol helped humans be more comfortable with it, since they were all practically snuggled together on the couch after less than an hour of wine, stories, and photos. She’d have to remember to use that information carefully. As much fun as it was to embarrass Aiden in small ways, she had no intention of truly humiliating her friend with any action he’d regret later. She felt a surge of affection, and even protective instinct, towards the alien stallion next to her. She blinked. ...Perhaps she should slow down on the wine as well. But only slow down, not stop. Another small sip, and she flipped the page of the book, her magic still quite steady after only three glasses.

“Ahh,” Lynn chuckled, leaning pleasantly on Rarity as she examined the pictures. “Now here we have some Little League pictures. Aiden was a pretty good pitcher… though I guess you wouldn’t know baseball.”

“Quite the contrary, darling. Well… no, not quite the contrary,” Rarity giggled for no apparent reason. “But we have baseball in my world as well. I don’t follow the sport… but the uniforms are certainly cute. And look! He’s as tall as his teammates! Pity he stopped growing after that.”

Aiden snorted. “Sure sure, keep it coming. Short jokes never get old. Though you’re shorter than me, Rara-tiny.”

Rarity blew a raspberry at him. Part of her noted she wouldn’t do that sober, but that was okay. “Not on my hind legs, darling.”

“Hah! Let’s see, then!”

Now, sober, he’d have managed to know how this would go. Three glasses of wine in, he now wanted to test it, even if doomed to lose. And he was. The two stood, and Rarity, despite wavering slightly on her hind hooves, easily stood over him by several inches. She was about even with Lynn, who’d also stood for measuring purposes. It hadn’t been close enough to be necessary.

Rarity giggled, and fell forward into a hug around Aiden’s neck. “Sorry, darling, you lose!” She nuzzled his cheek, and then kissed his jaw, just below the ear, drawing a sharp breath from him. He returned the hug though, and lightly pushed her away to set her on her forehooves.

“Hmph,” he said, trying to control the blush on his face that was half alcohol, half unicorn kiss.

She grinned up at him. “Don’t take it too hard, darling. You definitely make it work." She examined him, half-seriously. "Yes, I think I disagree with Valerie. Shorter men suit me just fine.”

Lynn chortled, sitting back on the couch a bit roughly. “Oh, this is just too good. Thank you both for the most fun I’ve had in a good, long while!”

Aiden wanted to be annoyed at all the jokes at his expense, but couldn’t quite manage it. Instead he rejoined them both on the couch, after Rarity had climbed back onto it, that was, and they went back to the photo album. Of course, it wouldn’t be more than another page or two before they’d need something else to share without ruining the mood. The pictures after that got a bit depressing. But that was okay. For that moment in time, everything was perfect.

14. Friends

View Online

It was a couple hours later, still fairly early by most standards, that they all headed to bed. The family photo album hadn’t lasted much longer, but stories about families could be shared far past what mere pictures had recorded. Luckily the wine hadn’t lasted much longer either; Rarity could be confident none of them would be the worse for wear in the morning. Nopony liked hangovers.

“And… guest room!” Lynn said, opening a door in the home’s upstairs hallway, just past the bathroom. The room was simply if tastefully appointed, and at that point Rarity’s chief concern was the bed. It was no match for her canopied luxury back home, but it was quite large, and topped with the essentials: several soft looking pillows and a thick comforter. Next to the bed sat a much smaller, utilitarian cot with a single pillow and a folded blanket and sheet.

“Grumman suggested I put you both in the same room, for security reasons, though he wouldn’t elaborate. If that doesn’t work though, Aiden can take the couch downstairs.”

“No no, this is lovely, darling, thank you,” Rarity said as Aiden nodded in agreement.

“We’re fine like this; we’ve been sharing a room at Grumman’s compound as well,” he added.

“Alright then. Bathroom we passed on the way. We’ll be up at 5 to head over to the store to meet your coworkers and so you can get your car out of their parking lot before they tow it. I’m heading to bed. If you need anything, Aiden knows where it all is. It hasn’t been quite that long since his last visit…”

“And the guilt card, making its final appearance of the night…” Aiden muttered with a sheepish grin.

Lynn chuckled, and hugged him. “Good night, both of you.” She clasped Rarity’s hoof and gave it a friendly squeeze. “See you in the morning.”

She left back down the hall to her own room, and Aiden shut the door behind the two of them before setting his bag on the cot to dig through for bathroom supplies. “It’ll be an early morning, but we’ve got about eight hours until then. I’m going to go get cleaned up for bed.”

“I’ll be right behind you,” she replied, turning off the translators and plugging them into the wall to charge. An entire day’s use burned less than a quarter of the batteries, but there was no sense in not charging them overnight. “I’m also going to suggest we share the larger bed, for comfort. And you’re going to turn me down.” She said it with a hint of amusement, but not quite her usual teasing tone.

“...You’re correct. The cot is fine. I’ve slept on far worse.”

“Which is no excuse not to want better. And though I understand why you would say no… we need to talk.” She hopped up on the bed, looking at him with nervous determination.

“Ominous…” he said, sitting down in the chair at the room’s writing desk, putting the cot between them. “What’s up, Rarity? You can talk to me about anything.”

She nodded. “I know, and I want to know whether I’ve been taking advantage of that a bit too much.”

“Not sure what you mean," he replied, frowning slightly.

She sighed through her nose. “You’re going to make this difficult, aren’t you?”

“Not intentionally… so let’s see… you brought this up after I turned down an offer to sleep with you…”

“Phrasing! ‘Share the bed’, darling… it’s plenty big enough. But I understand why the offer might seem… provocative, particularly in light of my behavior towards you.”

He nodded. “I didn’t misunderstand,” he grinned. “I’m just trying to avoid some romcom nonsense where we wake up spooned together and everything’s awkward.”

She nodded, chuckling. “Hugging me is awkward, I see how it is..”

“Pfft, hardly. I’ll hug the crap outa you.”

She snickered.

“But you wake up with a male who’s had a… bit of a dry spell, let’s say… pressed against you… and you’ll reconsider whether the situation counts as awkward.”

“...Ahh,” she said, her cheeks coloring slightly. “Yes… that’s what I wanted to discuss.”

“My dry spell? Okay I take it back we’re not talking about that. I'm not saying I'd ever deliberately do anything like that. But sleeping, and you know-”

She shook her head. “No no, though I am curious why you would let yourself even have a 'dry spell'. I can’t imagine you having difficulties if you put yourself out there, as it were. No, I mean… does the way I act towards you bother you? I don’t mean to lead you on, or take advantage of your attentiveness. Frankly I’m not leading you on; that would imply that I’m not acting honestly. But don’t think I haven’t noticed that you go out of your way to worry about me.”

He shrugged, looking slightly abashed. “You’re a good person… in a sort of situation I can’t even imagine. I think we can get you home, but until then? Or worse, if we can’t? Of course I want to do whatever I can to help, to make you as happy as possible. So no, the way you act doesn’t bother me at all. Frankly, it’s been rather fun. But now I want to know if there’s more there than just you being you?”

“As do I, of you… you can’t just be helping because I’m a good person. You were hiding away from the world, working a normal job when you could have been doing anything. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not criticizing that. But you chose a quiet, solitary life until…”

“Until I had a reason not to…” he said, looking thoughtful. “You’re saying… I was waiting for you, in some sense? That there’s something like fate at work here?”

“I’ve had worse notions when it came to what my destiny might be… at least where it concerns stallions… err… partners,” she shook her head, grinning wryly. “Not that I’m suggesting anything about us, necessarily. But…” her expression turned a bit wistful. “You were the first real choice I made since arriving here. Not giving up, trusting Valerie, escaping Veritech… those were all more necessities than choices. Seeking you out… not that I knew what I was seeking, exactly… it was the first decision I made for myself. Not to brag, but I daresay it’s gone over well.”

“No argument there.”

“And maybe it’s been my confidence from the results of that decision, as well as what I’ve gotten from your support, that has… oh I don’t know, made me act more… familiar towards you than I might. I think the time when I looked at you and thought ‘alien’ lasted less than a minute when we first met.”

He laughed. “I feel the same way, honestly. Even before I opened that door… it felt like I was greeting a friend I hadn’t seen in awhile. So no, nothing you’ve done has made me genuinely uncomfortable. ...I’m not taking a bath with you, though, or sharing that bed. Those don’t feel like levels of intimacy that we’ve reached.”

She nodded. “They were teases, although honestly I’d go through with either of them. I get the feeling from what I’ve seen that ponies are more open to that sort of thing than humans. It wasn’t an invitation to intimacy per se; I’d happily take you to the spa back home. But that’s exactly why it occurred to me tonight that you might have been going along just for my sake, and hiding feelings of… distaste, or resentment. I’m an alien… and even beyond any differences in physical openness, humans haven’t had the best experiences with aliens.”

He snorted. “You’re not wrong about that last part, but I’m not hiding anything like that. Actually I’ve been mostly worried about unwittingly committing some sort of cultural faux pas. Touching somewhere I shouldn’t, or whatnot. As to going along with whatever feelings…” he shrugged, smiling easily. “Let’s say that, if I were just going along, it’d be damn easy because we’re going the same way. Less going along and more pacing each other. There’s other things to worry about for now. I wouldn’t feel right about going further, given the emotional strains of the situation you’re in. I’m not so needy as to want more out of what this is.”

She smiled. “...Yet?”

He nodded, getting up and crossing over to her. “Yet,” he affirmed. He put his arms around her, and she returned the gesture. He kissed her on the side of her head, near the base of her horn. “Miss Rarity. I promise to do everything I can to get you home to Equestria. Until then, or if I can’t, I promise to stand by you no matter what. No… I promise to stand by you, period. Anything else… we’ll see where the road takes us.”

She sighed happily, and nuzzled his cheek. “We walk forward.”

“That we do,” he released her, and she sat back on the bed as he grabbed a small black bag from his duffel, containing toothpaste and the like. “Gonna go hit the head, brush, so forth. See you in a few.”

“Mmm. Ah, Knight Lieutenant,” she said, inspired by him calling her ‘Miss Rarity’, “...Two things.”

“Yes, ma’am?” he turned from the door, facing her with his hand on the knob, grinning rakishly.

“Nothing between the hind legs… and no touching my horn while I’m channeling. Until we reach that place in the road, at least,” she grinned flirtatiously, lowering her eyelids.

He blinked, and then laughed. “Understood, my lady,” he said, tossing off a mock salute and leaving the room.

------------------------------------------------------------------

“Surprise!!!”

Lynn had called it out, along with Mark, Robert, and Luke. Craig had abstained, though his presence at the breakroom table was impressive enough on its own. Rarity had jumped, and then broke into a delighted laugh at the suddenly illuminated table, complete with a coffee cake, pots of tea and coffee, and warmers of scrambled eggs, pancakes, and biscuits. A banner hanging from the ceiling read ‘Welcome to Earth!’, which Aiden translated for Rarity after they’d settled in at the table.

“We’d have gone for more traditional party fare, but now that you’re back on a sun worshipper’s schedule, we figured breakfast was the way to go,” Mark said, grinning as he fixed plates for his crew and guests.

“Please. I shall ever prefer the soft light of the moon and stars to God’s overbearing flashlight,” Aiden said with faux solemnity.

Rarity giggled. “We’ll just neglect to tell Princess Celestia you said that, when you meet her.”

“Appreciated,” he replied with a grin.

Once everyone had a plate with their preferences, Mark continued. “General Grumman’s kept us appraised, obviously. A certain history book from a certain other world may have found its way onto my laptop… which has become popular break time reading. Even Craig has looked it over.”

“...Fairy tale bullshit,” Craig muttered before shovelling a large bite of eggs in his mouth as if to keep himself from saying more.

“He says while I’m sitting right here,” Rarity addressed him with a smirk. The translator matched the amusement in her voice almost perfectly.

His eyes narrowed as he stared at her, but he didn’t respond. She winked at him, and he snorted and broke eye contact.

Luke laughed nervously. “Yeah, Craig has an easier time believing conspiracies that are completely unprovable. Once there’s evidence, he gets bored. Don’t let him get to you.”

Craig turned as if pretending to ignore the table, while still eating at it. “Was right about Veritech…” he muttered.

Rarity nodded. “It’s true, you were. Thank you very much for your help with that, Craig.”

His jaw clenched and his cheeks colored, but he didn’t look at her.

“Have you had any trouble keeping a lid on things here?” Aiden asked Mark.

“Nah. I have access to our security cameras, not that they get checked unless there’s an incident reported anyway. I told Mr. Barlow that you were taking an extended vacation per the request of the U.S. Esper Corps.”

“That’s basically the truth.”

“Exactly. When the mess with Veritech hit the news a couple days ago… well it wasn’t hard to figure out what you were doing. No need to mention any unicorns.”

“What happened to Owens? Is there any danger of reprisal that might affect the area?” This from Robert, who looked tired as was apparently his norm.

“Owens is accounted for. Grumman is holding him for questioning before handing him over for prosecution. ...The news reports didn’t mention that?”

“They said he’d been apprehended, but that didn’t mean you could trust it," Robert stated solemnly. "We’re safe though?” To Rarity’s mind, he didn’t sound concerned for himself. Then again, from what Aiden had told her about him on the way here, he would be worried for his family, whom he worked quite hard to support and didn’t get to spend enough time with. She wished there was something she could do about that, but nothing came to mind.

Aiden smiled comfortingly. “You have nothing to worry about from Veritech. Most of the authority figures there were caught; the rest are fugitives. They won’t be anywhere near Grumman, or this area, anytime soon.”

“That’s good to know.”

“Can I just stop and say… we’re having breakfast with an alien? I mean… we’re having breakfast with an alien. Who’s a unicorn… a friendly unicorn from another world. Also, she’s wearing a dress. It’s a nice dress, Miss Rarity. ...You’re… umm…” Luke stammered a bit, seeming to lose his train of thought. Understandable, given that the situation was rather surreal.

Rarity smiled, trying to encourage him to relax. She recalled he’d been the one to bring them apples, but he’d also averted his eyes from her for the most part. “Thank you, darling. It’s rather last minute, but I did what I could to give it a bit of charm,” she said, referring to the simple dress she’d worn. It had been more a courtesy towards local taboos than anything she felt the need to do for a casual get together. Indeed she hadn’t even expected a party, sedate though this understandably was. “I confess it’s all rather novel for me, as well. It’s so bizarre that it’s easier to just go with it rather than stopping to question ‘what?’ ‘why?’ or ‘how?’. ....Rather like dealing with Pinkie Pie, some days, a friend of mine back home. But I have to ask, do I make you uncomfortable, Luke?”

Next to her, she felt Aiden lean forward a bit as Luke replied. “It’s…” he sighed, grimaced, and shook his head. He looked her in the eyes as though he’d accepted a dare. She held her smile, waiting patiently. “We work with horses, at my family’s farm. Now, we don’t mistreat ‘em, not ever, so don’t think anything like that. They’re well cared for, and happy. But… well, it’s not that you look all that much like one of them but… and last time you were naked and I was like ‘that’s a person, not a mare back in the stables’ and… I don’t know. It’s all weird for me and it shouldn’t be. I tried to play it off before but the more I thought about it…”

Aiden was frowning slightly. “Not sure I understand the problem exactly.”

“I don’t even know that there is one, Aiden. But I mean… we ride horses, you know? General Grumman talks about our peoples maybe meeting some day… and we ride beings that look like they do, a little bit. And we eat meat, and we have wars, and … I mean look what happened when you showed up? Right into a lab so they could experiment on you!”

“Ahh, so that’s it. ...Rarity, you want to take this one?” Aiden asked.

“I will, yes.” She reached a forehoof across the table to Luke. “Take it,” she said, holding his gaze with a soft smile. It took a moment, but he did. She nodded in acknowledgment and shook his hand lightly. “I find it helps to feel the reality in front of you as much as see it. Do you feel all the flaws in my hoof?”

He released it as though it were hot. “They weren’t any,” he said, looking away.

She giggled. “What a sweet young man you are. Lousy liar though. I haven’t cared for them properly in days; they’re scuffed and even chipped in a couple places. If you focus on being amazed by something, it’s far too easy to miss the flaws. It was an important lesson to learn for me when I was first getting started in design. No matter how beautiful, no matter how perfect a dress may seem… there’s always something imperfect, some flaw. Even if that flaw is simply that it can’t change with the times. Fashion’s fickle, after all. And that's good! It means we get to keep working, keep creating. We'll never reach a point where we can't do better.

“At the same time, focusing just the flaws is no better. If you worry endlessly at the ways a design isn’t working, you can easily miss the parts that are, and deny yourself the chance to create something truly wonderful. If our two peoples… no… when our two peoples meet, I hope to see both sides embracing the beautiful facets and the flaws. I can assure you, even from my limited experience, that both our kinds have plenty of each. All the more reason we can be even better together. Harmony comes from different notes playing together. None of the notes have to be perfect, and the Harmony they create can still be beautiful.”

Aiden placed a hand on her withers, grinning lopsidedly. “Rarity… that was… okay I’m just saying we need to let you sew at some point. You’re having withdrawals or something.” he said.

“Oh hush,” she replied, coloring slightly. “Although yes, I would very much like to make a dress or two, and perhaps a suit for you, before much longer. My talent is languishing.” She looked back at Luke. “I may not have said that very well, but-”

“No, no that was really something. I uhh… wasn’t expecting it. Mark’s been telling me I was worried too much about it. But I kept thinking about all the bad things humans do.”

“There’s plenty of good, too, Luke," Aiden noted. "You said yourself, you take good care of your horses, yes?”

He nodded.

Rarity returned the nod, smiling. “I have a dear friend back home that would appreciate hearing that. She keeps a great many animals, and takes care of even more that come and go. Plenty of them eat meat… for that matter many ponies, myself included, enjoy fish. ...Most of them are pegasi, but regardless, my point is that we’re far more alike than we seem at first glance.”

“Yeah… I get what you’re saying, Miss Rarity. I’ll remember it; I promise.”

“I’m glad to hear that, darling.”

Luke went red. “...Darling?”

Mark chuckled. “You remind me of an old actress I like, Miss Rarity, if you don’t mind my saying.”

“Hopefully not too old, darling.”

The conversation continued on small topics from there, and Rarity couldn’t help but understand a bit of where Luke was coming from. She could close her eyes and almost imagine she was at a table of ponies, just discussing whatever sort of thing popped up at a little get together. But only almost, since everything came through the translator’s earbud before she understood it, except Aiden of course. She dearly hoped that was a permanent change. Aside from being convenient, she felt far less isolated for it.

They lingered until nearly seven o’clock just swapping stories and discussing what could happen next, before they had to say their goodbyes. The store would be opening for business and it wouldn’t do to be around at that point. No matter how much confidence she’d gained in her light bending spell, it was still a far cry from true invisibility.

“So yeah…” Aiden said to Mark as they headed for the doors. The rest had returned to work to finish their shift after the very extended break. “I don’t mind just quitting. Doesn’t seem right the store paying me vacation time for this. It wasn’t exactly planned and anyway I’m pulling down my old military salary now, or so I assume. Grumman doesn’t let his people go hungry.”

“You say that but, you earned that vacation time based on time put in, not time you will put in. Even if you quit, the company pays that out, per our contract. So either way we can hold off for now.”

Aiden smiled, holding out a hand that Mark grasped firmly. “You say that but… I think we both know I won’t be back here. This place was what I needed for awhile, but I have a different place to be now.”

“Yeah, I guess you do. Eh, you’re too damn young to retire anyway. The rest of these guys like the quiet life, and I’m not too young. You… you need to get back on the-”

“Don’t say it!”

Mark laughed. He shook Lynn’s hand as well. “Ma’am.”

“Sergeant,” Lynn replied, smiling.

“And Miss Rarity,” he said, leaning down to gently grasp and shake her hoof. “I know Grumman will keep me apprised, but I hope they can find a way to get you home soon.”

“Thank you, Sergeant Millen,” she replied, bowing slightly. “And thank you for being here for Aiden when he truly needed a place to gather himself. From what I’ve seen, it’s as he says: the peace and simple, honest work he found here gave him a balance after the war ended. If not for you, he and I would never have met.”

Mark blinked in surprise, and smiled. “Well now, I’m glad to have helped with that. You keep an eye on him for me from here on out then, got that?”

“Yes, sir,” she replied seriously.

Aiden chuckled. “Isn’t that supposed to be the other way around?”

“It’s like she said earlier, kid; it’s both sides helping each other.”

“Yeah…" Aiden nodded. "You’re right about that. See ya 'round, Sarge!” With that, they left the store, Rarity’s spell obscuring her from sight.

Lynn headed to her own car, waving goodbye to them both. “This isn’t goodbye though. I want you both to stay in touch; you both have my number. Especially you, nephew! Rarity will know it if you neglect your aunt again!”

“Yeah, yeah, I’m sorry, again, okay?” he shot back while laughing. “We’ll keep you updated, promise!”

Aiden’s car was a bit smaller than Lynn’s, but the backseat was still comfortable enough. Rarity noted with amusement that the car smelled a bit like him. The amusement faded some when she realized it meant he rarely had passengers.

“Right, just a few minutes to my place. We’ll drop the car off and head back to-”

Beep. Beep. Both Aiden’s phone and Rarity’s translator (which doubled as a communicator linked to Grumman’s compound’s private network) chirped simultaneously.

“Huh, pretty early for… woah.”

“Oh my…”

Each device had the same message:
Hurry back to the compound ASAP. We have a lead on an intact ship, and we can move on it today!~Valerie

15. Forward Steps

View Online

Aiden’s home was a bit more modest than Lynn’s, in that he hadn’t done much with landscaping, or decorating. Rarity was nonetheless eager to see the place, and didn’t mind going there first. It wasn’t far from the store, and ostensibly they needed to drop Aiden’s car off. In truth, they both had their reasons for making a stop there.

“We won’t stay long,” Aiden said, looking down the hall. “I need to grab something from my closet, can you wait here a minute? After that, we can head out. I’d give you the tour but there’s not much to see. It’s just this, the kitchen, my room, computer room, and a bathroom,” he grinned sheepishly. “None of which is really ready for guests.”

“Mmm, that’s fine, darling, you needn’t worry on my account.” Rarity replied absently, looking about the living room. He nodded and went on his way.

It was certainly a man’s home, she thought with a fond smirk. It smelled like him, which wasn’t bad, but just noticeable in that it only smelled like him. Rarity wondered idly when she’d started paying attention to such things. Her magical senses had certainly heightened on Earth, acclimating to the differences in the Aetheric Field. If her other senses had done similarly, it’d snuck up on her. Speaking of her other senses…

Once she set aside the clutter, which consisted mostly of unopened mail that she couldn’t read, the room wasn’t so much dirty as carelessly cluttered. The furniture, a small couch and a chair both positioned facing a large television, was clean and new looking. The television, to Rarity’s limited experience, looked like a newer model, though it had a light coat of dust on the screen.

The room was dimly lit, clearly by design as both lamps were on, but gave low illumination. Reaching out with her magic, Rarity opened the curtains to let the sun in. Much better, in her opinion. It would give her more than enough light for what she really wanted to see.

The back wall was lined with shelves, each bulging with pictures.

As she trotted over to get a better look, she already recognized several pictures of a much younger Aiden with his family, particularly his big sister, Moira. His father was rarest in the pictures, she made a note to ask about that. In fact… she’d not learned his name in their shared dream. Aiden hadn’t thought of him as closely as his mother or sister. There was no sense of negativity, but…

She shoved the thought aside as her eyes wandered over the other shelves. She smiled, recognizing a few faces in a group photo. Standing to the side was a slightly younger looking Grumman, and centered… many faces she didn’t recognize, and a couple she did.

Aiden and Donovan looked to be in their mid to late teens, based on Rarity’s admittedly limited research time. The rest of the faces were similarly aged, and just in case that didn’t drive it home, the commonality in uniforms made it clear this was some sort of Esper team.

“The 7th Unit, Esper Platoon Outrage, lead squad of the Second Company. ...Knight Captain Aiden Windborne, commanding,” Aiden said with a crooked grin and a sense of fond nostalgia.

“Knight Captain? What happened to that rank?”

“I stepped down after I had to order several platoons to their deaths.”

Rarity winced. “I’m sorry.”

“That’s war, to be honest. But after the way it shook me, I didn’t feel suited to command. They pinned a medal on me the day after that particular battle. I can understand why; we killed four Oni generals, and I, alongside Paladin Williams and half a dozen of our best, personally fought Grand Marshal Caedum to a standstill, forcing his retreat along with the tattered remains of his forces. It was a major turning point in the war, some would say the pivotal battle that started us on the road to victory.” He shook his head. “But I couldn’t get their faces out of my head. I kept my rank for awhile, but in the next major mission I froze up, for just a moment. I couldn’t help thinking of the next group I’d have to send to die. ...You don’t win a chess game without giving up pieces. My hesitation, even a second of it, cost us that mission. I realized I’d rather be a knight than a king, so I asked Grumman for a rank reduction. Turned out I had a better flare for small unit tactics anyway. I had a much better operational record, to my own mind, after that. Far fewer casualties, at least until the Spire Assault. ...Don’t ask me about that right now.”

She nodded. “Fair enough.” She continued looking across the pictures. Finding a particular candidate for a subject change, she grinned. “And who’s this then? She’s lovely.” She pointed up with her muzzle, gazing mischievously at a pair, grinning like fools at the camera with what was clearly a victory celebration in the background. Aiden was familiar enough, but the girl…

He chuckled. “My ex-fiance.”

Rarity’s eyes went wide. I’m an idiot… “Oh… yes, I’m sorry, I’m not sure why’d I think-”

“No no, if it was a bad memory it wouldn’t be up there,” he waved her off, smiling easily. “We were together for a couple years, but honestly it was as much ‘friends leaning on each other’ as anything. When I proposed, the war was still on and we felt we were seizing the moment. It’s just as well we never found free time to hunt down a justice of the peace. Within a couple months of the war ending, we realized we wanted different things. I wanted to get away from it all, she wanted to go back home and help rebuild. Honestly I think we both realized we weren’t ready to get married. We were only twenty, and that’s old enough for some but… it’s pretty young. She made the better of the two choices, but even if I’d gone with her I don’t think we would have lasted. We’re still in touch from time to time. She has a girlfriend who treats her well, so I’m happy about that.”

“It’s still unfortunate that you ended up alone.”

“Yeah… ehh, it didn’t last though. And here we are.”

She grinned up at him. “Here we are.”

He returned the smile, then blinked, remembering. “Right, reason I went to my room there. I have a gift, if you’d like.” He held out a small, silver star with a sword atop it, tip facing up. “This is the insignia for a Knight in the Esper Corps. Specifically it’s my old one. We sort of field promoted you back on the way to Veritech, but I’d like you to have this, just the same. Err… unless you’d prefer your own, or not want it at all, or-”

It glowed in a delicate blue aura as Rarity took it reverently from him. That same aura suffused his hand for a moment, tightening and warming before fading away. She looked him in the eyes as the pin attached itself to the holster she wore for the translators. Still not breaking eye contact, she saluted. “It’s my honor, sir,” she said with complete seriousness.

He snorted, reddening. “Mine as well, Knight Rarity,” he said, returning the salute. “Of course, if we’re making it official you’ll need to be sworn in and so forth. Don’t worry, the Esper Corps is much less formal than other military branches. It sort of had to be, under the circumstances.”

“I think I’d like that, actually. I never sought out this sort of thing back home, though I managed to find conflict often enough. I’m not sure what’s changed, but it feels like the right decision here. I’m beginning to wonder if it isn’t something in the air.”

“Hmm… you might just be joking, but that’s been studied, actually. It’s believed that the Aetheric Field affects us to an extent, beyond just empowering us to use magic. A little gut feeling here, a touch of courage there… it’s like The Force… if The Force was actually cheering on Jedi instead of making them feel bad every time they had fun.”

Rarity giggled. “You do know my knowledge of Star Wars is limited to what I got from you during our little magical mind meld-”

“That’s Star Trek.”

“My point exactly. Highly fuzzy.”

“You are, by human standards. I like it though; your coat is lovely.”

“Why thank you, darling, although that’s not what I meant,” she replied with an eye roll, playfully sticking her tongue out at him. They were alone; it was okay to be a little unladylike.

“Yeah… but it was worth saying. Anyway we’ll get around to a proper Star Wars marathon before you leave. There’s a few movies you need to see, honestly, in order to have a proper appreciation for Earth culture. Diplomatic necessity,” he concluded gravely.

“I see,” she said with equal gravity, playing along. “Speaking of necessities… I’m still making you a suit, and myself a proper dress, before much longer or I’m simply going to lose my mind.” She grinned up at him. “Something appropriately slinky and easy to dance in… for the victory party when we have my way home secured.”

He returned the grin. Rarity noted he did an admirable job of hiding the touch of pain in his eyes. “Damn right. We’ll give you a helluva sendoff.”

She shook her head, smiling up at him. “Hmm, to be honest, I’m hoping I won’t be alone on that trip, and that it will be them giving us a sendoff. Grumman did mention wanting to formally open relations between our worlds. Who better than an Esper, since you already bridge the gap a bit between human and pony?”

He started, tilting his head slightly. Had he forgotten about that? “Huh…”

“You did say you’d stand by me no matter what…”

“Yeah… yeah I sure did,” he smiled. “Sorry, I’m used to saying goodbye to people. Old habit.”

“Hmph. Get over it,” she said with a feigned haughty tone, shutting her eyes and lifting her muzzle skyward. “You’ll need more than a spaceship to get rid of me at this point.”

Chuckling, he nodded. “I’m glad to hear it. But speaking of… you ready to go get that spaceship?”

“Willing and able, darling. Did you do everything you needed to do here?”

“Yep, just wanted to shut a few things off and send a message to my gaming guild. Uh, computer thing. Just letting them know I wasn’t dead or whatnot.”

“Well, at least you were interacting with somepony out there, even if not in person.”

“Heh, yeah. Becoming a complete shut in wouldn’t have suited me, tempting though it occasionally was. Let’s go.”

With that, Rarity felt the aether around her coalesce, and then split as Aiden’s portal pulled them in. Without Joyeuse (and she suddenly felt rather humorously naked without it, as if she’d left home without fixing her mane) to steady her, she had to shut her eyes as the flickering between worlds began as Aiden took them towards Fort Friendship… and she’d decided it was no longer a working title. They were her friends, and that was their fortress, their bastion against the Owenses of the world.

“You okay?”

“Mmm, yes, darling, I’m fine. Without Joyeuse to help center me, the rapid aether currents and constant world changes are a bit nauseating.”

“Yeah, it’s like extreme car-sickness, I’m told. Since I’m driving, so to speak, I’m not affected.”

“It’s fine if I keep my eyes shut and just focus on the aether. Actually, it’s fascinating. How did you learn to do this?”

“It’s basically just continuously opening portals at my maximum range and pulling us through them. It’s an extension of the way I moved around in combat, since it was usually much easier to portal myself than my opponents, if they were strong at all. Portals for objects were the same. We experimented with using them to drop explosives or whatnot near the enemy, but there’s nasty potential for backfire if they have enough aetheric control to stop or reverse the portals in progress. From there, it was just a matter of refining my technique to be as rapid as possible, and building my stamina to go for long periods.”

Rarity snickered, surprising herself a bit as she did so.

“...You’ve got a surprisingly dirty mind, mare.”

“Yes well, I’ve spent too much of my free time buried in romance novels. Some of them get quite saucy.”

“I’ll bet. ...So hey, the other day you mentioned not getting why I’d had a dry spell in terms of romance. If it’s not too personal, it sounds like you’re in the same boat… and I really don’t get why.”

She chuckled, shaking her head. “If I’m being honest… it’s a combination of my own standards and priorities. I’ve always been driven by my dreams, to bring out beauty in everyone. To that end, I’ve stayed focused towards building my business, pursuing my art, to the exclusion of other aspects of life. The couple times I’ve deviated from that haven’t gone too well, for that matter.”

“You hinted at that, yeah.”

“Mmm. The first major incident there was a Prince named Blueblood. ...As it turns out, the Canterlot nobility have a penchant for acquiring a number of less than desirable traits. Prince Blueblood, as the highest ranking of them, has done a fine job of representing that.”

“I thought the princesses were the highest ranking?”

“Oh they are, but I don’t really consider them nobility in the same way. They’re above that.”

“I could see that. Given their age, if nothing else, they’d be deserving of more respect, I’d think.”

“More than just that, but you’re not wrong. In any case, I approached Blueblood at the biggest social event in Equestria… and made a complete fool of myself. Don’t mistake me, he acted like a absolute shithead-”

Aiden snerked. “We’ve been a bad influence on you. That was English… darling.”

She chuckled at his passable Equish and shrugged. “It was the right word for the situation. And he did! But that doesn’t mean I was blameless. I could have recognized what he was far sooner, but I kept trying to win him over. I wanted the fairy tale: the beautiful, hard working mare from nowhere meets her prince and they live happily ever after. It’s a stupid dream. I’d rather build my own happiness with an equal than lean on a chance meeting with a prince who’d never had to build anything. ...Which leads me to my second failed foray into love… an artistically inclined stallion named Trenderhoof… where I again made a fool of myself trying to just get his attention. Looking back, I made the same mistakes Spike had been making with me over the years.”

“How do you mean?”

“Well, at first at least there was nothing wrong with my approach, per se. I wanted to impress him, show him the best sides of myself and my artistic talent, to attract him to my positive sides, as it were?”

“Sure, that’s normal enough.”

“Mmm. But when that wasn’t getting anything beyond polite recognition, I became more desperate, rather than simply being direct with him. My showing off in order to catch his eye reached… frankly comical levels that I’d prefer not to go into. Applejack can tell you that story more properly, though you’d get a more entertaining, exaggerated version out of Rainbow Dash.”

“I’ll keep that in mind someday. How’s that like Spike, though? I remember you mentioning him, and his crush on you I believe, but…”

“Well, it’s along the same lines. Setting aside the age difference, a lot of what he does for me, though especially early on in our friendship, was an attempt to win me over, impress me. The thing is, it worked. I was impressed; I just wasn’t romantically interested. Of course, part of that was his age, but another part was the notion that he somehow wanted to sweep me off my hooves, get me to fall for him so completely that he wouldn’t actually have to talk to me about it. He would ‘win’ my affections, like a prize rather than something I decided on.”

“It’s not an unusual approach, especially the younger you are.”

“Certainly true, and I didn’t hold it against him at all, even if it didn’t work out the way he may have wanted. He’s a very sweet, noble, wonderful friend, and I won't hear a word against him. But I was, and am, a mare who prides herself on being forward and not avoiding confrontations. Had he confessed his feelings and asked me directly… at some point other than when he thought we were about to die… I can’t say for certain I would have turned him down, because I would have respected that approach enough to give it a chance.

“...Or so I tell myself… because again when it came to Trenderhoof I did the same sort of thing he’d been doing, only I was much worse at it. Spike is endearing, sincere, and earnest in his efforts. I’ve no doubt his behavior towards me would be little different without any romantic aspirations.” She sighed. “I, on the other hoof, made a complete fool of myself, rivaling anypony for disingenuous, humiliating actions.”

Aiden chuckled, and she heard him walking over to sit by her. She leaned against him, feeling a bit better as his hand rubbed her shoulders gently. “Love’s hard. Give me a good fight and I know what to do, even if I don’t always enjoy it. I have three ex-girlfriends that would tell you I’m better with Oni than women.”

Rarity giggled lightly, and nuzzled his cheek. “I’m sorry they felt that way. I must say I'd rather design an entirely new fashion trend than try to navigate a first date. The ideal is one thing, but the practice is..." She trailed off, frowning slightly, and opened her eyes to look towards the center of Aiden’s pocket world. “Aiden, stop a moment, inside your dimension, please.”

He cocked an eyebrow, but did as asked.

She’d felt something… it was as if… she snorted with quiet amusement. It was as if she could feel Pinkie Pie sneaking up on her. Of course, that was ridiculous, though I cannot use the word ‘impossible’ with her. Nonetheless… there was something there. She noted, as she had before, that they were on the outskirts of this enclosed space. Away from the road and a few buildings here and there across the one third kilometer diameter, they inhabited an empty field of grass with a couple trees nearby. The same light level as the real world permeated here, as she noted that today it was bright, though she could make out no sun in the sky. During the Veritech raid it had been dark, and starless.

She didn’t need to ask why Aiden put them off to the side when in here. The cars on that road… though she thankfully couldn’t see into them from where she sat, were the graves of everyone who’d died here in that horrible instant. She hated to think it, but a morbid part of her mind wondered why this relatively small, seemingly enclosed space didn’t smell like a tomb. For that matter, why did the grass seem to be alive? On a whim, she reached out with her magic and plucked a small flower nearby, drawing a quiet gasp from Aiden. Aether permeated everything like a blanket, reminding Rarity of how it was dangerous for those without magic to be in here. Yet the flower, despite its infusion of magic, seemed normal enough. Absently, she tucked it behind her ear.

None of that, disconcerting and confusing though it was, contributed to what she was feeling. After a few seconds, a hand squeezed her withers. “Rarity?” he asked, sounding quietly shaken.

“I… don’t know, darling. I feel… a presence, perhaps? Something… someone… happy. It’s as though someone is laughing in the distance.”

He snorted softly. “I can’t imagine much in here being happy, but I’d love to take your word on that. Can you be more specific though? ...Sorry but, the longer I stay in here…”

“Ah, yes of course, I’m sorry, darling. I can’t narrow it down… just a feeling. Goodness knows I can never locate Pinkie before she jumps out at me even when I have a sense that she’s about to. Let’s continue.” She wrapped her tail around him, as well as a forehoof, keeping him there as she shut her eyes before the world began shifting again.

------------------------------------------------------

By the time they’d gotten back to the compound, the two had sat quietly, drawing strength from each other’s proximity, for longer than they’d talked. Apparently, he could have traveled through portals lying down, half asleep; it wasn’t much different from walking for him. Rarity decided it was a pleasant way to travel. Naturally, it had nothing to do with the hand gently massaging her withers again after she’d claimed, only half dishonestly, that the trip was causing her some discomfort. She could only hope traveling by plane would prove similarly enjoyable. Grumman, Valerie, Talia, and Aaron had met them in the motorpool outside Grumman’s limo. Talia and Aaron, notably, each carried a spare backpack: one for each of them. Talia also held out Joyeuse to Rarity, who took it in her magic to place near her seat in the vehicle. She smiled and nodded her thanks, getting a small smile in return from Talia.

“Knight Trellis will drive us to a private airstrip nearby,” Grumman said as they all piled into the still spacious vehicle. “From there we’ll have a rather long flight to Sacramento.”

“Isn’t that your hometown, Don?” Aiden asked.

Donovan nodded as they pulled past the main gates. “That it is, though I haven’t been back in years. Interesting coincidence, but the corporate building you’ll be visiting isn’t in a part of the city I know well. So me going along wouldn’t be much help.”

“You’re not coming with us?” Rarity piped in.

“Nah, I’ll be watching the homefront here, along with Vualez, Vera, and a few others, of course. We’re still holding Owens, and we can’t rule out the possibility that some of those unaccounted for from the Veritech raid may try to spring him. We have no intention of letting that happen.”

“I see. It’s a shame we have to worry about such things.”

“I don’t disagree, but if a little boredom is the price I pay to keep that man locked up, I’m fine with it.”

“I have every confidence he’s in safe hands, Knight Trellis,” Grumman proclaimed. “For our part, we will be visiting the corporate headquarters of Adstrum Technologies. They were, and are, a major R&D resource for the U.S. military as well as many private companies, locally and abroad. They were responsible for a number of key advancements made during the war, in large part from recovered Oni-koru technology. Several of the programming innovations of your translator are theirs to take credit for, Miss Rarity.”

“It seems I owe them a thank you, then. Hopefully I’ll owe them another soon.”

“Agreed. Although it seems this will, at best, be only a partial success, assuming all goes well. They have a mostly intact Oni vessel, albeit a small one. But notably, its Creation Engine is not salvageable. It has four backup batteries, but they’re all drained. The search continues for ways to replace that energy; we have no compatible technology to do so.”

“I remember,” Aiden said. “Don’t batteries like that store concentrated Aether as a power source for the engines, the same way Creation Engines actually draw it from the Field?”

“Exactly,” Grumman replied, seeming to focus towards Rarity as he spoke. “Despite their name, they don’t actually create energy. Any living being with the proper ability can draw aether; we have three in this vehicle that do it instinctively, and can draw more by focusing on the act. A Creation Engine does what you can do, only on a much greater scale. Unfortunately, they are very delicate pieces of equipment and humanity has only captured a handful intact. The storage batteries are much simpler, but can’t charge themselves.”

“Can’t an Esper charge them?” Donovan asked. “I’d swear I’ve heard of that being done.”

“It can, and has been done successfully,” Grumman said. “But it’s extremely inefficient, time-consuming, and potentially dangerous. Too little channeled into the battery and it will take months to charge. The more slowly the Esper channels, the more aether is lost, absorbed into the Field rather than by the battery. The Esper drains his or her aether for very little gain in battery charge; they are made to interface with the Creation Engines. Too fast is worse… once aether is channeling rapidly into a battery, the balance can shift from energy being pushed to the battery pulling energy in. The Esper doing the channeling can find themselves instead being forcibly drained of aether in seconds. As you know, that can cause cellular degradation similar to aether poisoning in a normal person.”

“Ouch,” Donovan muttered. Aiden nodded grimly.

“In an emergency, it’s an acceptable risk, especially with medical personnel on hand to cover any mishaps. There have been no fatal accidents recorded, which is why this is still very much worth pursuing. For now, even if we are charging the batteries slowly to be safe, it’s a start.”

Everyone was nodding their agreement, and Rarity couldn’t help smiling. My friends, doing so much to help me get home. I have to remember moments like this. She’d hardly noticed, and even less minded, that she’d practically cuddled into Aiden in their seats next to each other. He had no obvious complaints as well. The way she was leaning, they were about the same height, and she fought the urge to simply spread out across his lap. That would be a bit much, tempting though it was. It had been an early morning. Assuming the plane wasn’t overly exciting, it might be time for a nap.

“So how are we getting the ship? Also, how’d we find out about it? I thought it’d take longer.” Aaron pondered aloud.

“We’ve actually been pursuing several options even before the Veritech raid,” Valerie answered, “But this came as a bit of a surprise. Adstrum is pretty aboveboard, so when they replied to our inquiries, after hearing of them through secondary sources, we weren’t expecting more than a show of support, or maybe a battery or two. The Esper Corps has a few people working for them, both in security and in their labs, and it’s no secret they have Oni-koru tech they’re still working with that they haven’t cracked yet. But a whole ship? It’s unexpected. As such, how we get it, borrow or otherwise, is a good question. Then again, they did contact us, knowing what we’re after.”

“So we play it by ear?” Talia muttered from her seat next to Valerie, getting a nod of confirmation.

“Exactly,” Valerie said. “It’s the reason we’re all going. We want to show we’re serious about this, and we have an in that will respect that. Adstrum has two CEOs that work together; one is an Esper.”

Aiden blinked. “You could have led with that. Who is it? I probably know the name.”

“Knight Captain Johnathan Ferreles.”

“Oh, I know that name,” Donovan said as Aiden smiled and nodded. “2nd Gen, good guy; one of the oldest of us, if I remember right. Didn’t know he made captain.”

“It was sort of an honorary promotion, basically padding his retirement pension… as well as honoring his service, since it was after the Spire Assault that basically ended the war. He left the Corps shortly after, like a lot of us,” Aiden said. “You’re right though, I already feel better about this. I didn’t know he’d done so well for himself.”

“What was his talent?” Rarity asked.

“Like most 2nd Gens, he awoke from contact with Oni-koru personal equipment,” Aiden replied. “For most, it was weaponry, like our bomberman up there.”

Donovan waved jauntily from the driver’s seat.

“But Johnathan awoke from being scanned by an Aetheric Field sensor. He can use telekinesis like any of us, but his real talent is in his perception. His senses are heightened, and adjustable, to computer-like levels of precision. He’s also a math genius, though for all I know that was true before his awakening.”

Grumman nodded. “We don’t know for sure on that, though his grades to that point put it in doubt. Either way, I believe he will be an ally in our cause here. He’s still a businessman, and answerable to the rest of the company, but I have considerable assets of my own if it comes to that. I’m hoping they will have the vision to see the advantages of this situation without needing an appeal to monetary gain. Again, that’s why we’re all going. I intend to present a united front that can make a case for the advantages of providing assistance to Miss Rarity, in the hopes of our first peaceful, interplanetary contact.”

“...And, we’re bringing weapons in case it’s a trap?” Rarity asked.

“Unfortunately, yes,” Valerie confirmed. “There’s no guarantee that the information we’ve received is legitimate, though it checks out from what we can tell. No harm in being prepared and we’ve communicated such. Adstrum has agreed to that provision; we’ll show up armed for the meeting. They have security of their own, and General Grumman’s name carries plenty of weight, so we both trust each other not to do anything other than show force in case of a double-cross.”

Rarity nodded, understanding the necessity if not caring for it. She had to admit, she did feel a bit more comfortable with Joyeuse leaning against the seat next to her. And she had a good feeling about this trip. We’re going to succeed here. I’m not jinxing anything, events could go wrong... but we’ll bring them back in line, together.

16. On Two Fronts

View Online

The private airstrip reminded Rarity a bit of Wonderbolts training camp. There were two relatively short runways, a few squat buildings, and various equipment the uses of which Rarity could only guess at.

Most important was their plane, which resembled nothing so much as a large, white, metal bird… if said bird were more of a snake with wings. She grinned to herself, thinking of how Twilight would feel about that observation.

Meanwhile, Donovan was wishing them all luck. “See you in a few days… though I expect to be kept updated in the meantime.”

“Naturally, Knight Trellis, as do I. Sergeant Vualez and Lieutenant Jones can handle operations, but any issues with Knight Elleway, not that I anticipate that, or a media return-”

“Those are both terrible options to contemplate.”

“All the more reason I leave them to you, Knight.”

“Yes, sir,” Donovan replied with a grin and then a straight faced salute. “We’ll keep the fire burning, sir.”

“Good man.”

Donovan turned to Rarity then, kneeling down to her eye level. “Keep an eye on our boy there. Ferreles is a good guy, but I still have a weird feeling about this. It’s a little too convenient to have happen so quickly. Hopefully I’m just being pessimistic.”

Rarity nodded. “Windfalls are often suspect. We’ll make it work out, if we have to.”

“Good to hear. ...Nice Knight insignia pin, by the way. His old one?”

She smiled, and nodded again. “I think it looks rather dashing, don’t you?”

“It suits you,” he agreed. “Just in case it wasn’t clear before, welcome to the team. No matter where you go, no matter how far, we’re with you in spirit. Never forget that.”

“I shan’t,” she held up a hoof, which he shook. “See you again soon, Donovan.”

Aiden had loaded up everyone’s bags, telekinesis and portals expediting the matter considerably. He turned to Donovan, clasping arms with him. “Don’t blow everything up while we’re gone,” he said with a grin.

“No promises,” Donovan replied with a poker face. “But I’ll record it for you.”

“Deal.”

Rarity chuckled. Stallions…

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Donovan watched as their plane took off, smooth as silk, and quickly left sight. An upgraded private jet, it wasn’t quite a military transport, but closer than its appearance would suggest. They’d land in Sacramento in less than three hours.

He was in no particular hurry to get back, and the limo’s stereo was blasting Fighting Gravity as he relaxed and enjoyed the pleasant weather, leaning against the grill of the still warm vehicle and quietly watching the clouds. If this all worked out… how long before you might look up and see a pegasus flying around up there? Would that be possible in his lifetime. He hoped so. If Rarity was anything to go by, and for that matter the accounts in Grumman’s old Equus text, it’d be a positive for the world. For that matter, visiting a friendly world someday didn’t sound bad… if they could get him there without a ship, he thought with a chuckle. He’d never cared much for flying, part of the reason he’d been happy to stay behind, even if it was liable to be a few days of nothing.

...A slight twitch in the aether was his only warning before the stereo, and all electronics nearby, gave out completely, accompanying a quiet ‘ping’ against the side of the limo.

A sharper spike through the Field accompanied Donovan’s “Ah, shit…” before the vehicle erupted into a massive fireball, the shockwave of same throwing flaming hunks of metal in all directions.

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“Oooh, so listen to this! Did you know that General Celestia, I guess she’s a princess now, is the one that discovered that the Windigos were in fact the Demon race that conscripted the Oni to conquer Equus after they’d failed?” Vera Elleway related with only partially feigned enthusiasm.

Colonel Jeffrey Owens, on the other side of the brig’s clear, polymer barrier, sighed deeply. “Fascinating,” he muttered in a deadpan. He stood in the center of the room, as though too good to sit on the cot, watching her through the evenly spaced holes in the barrier.

“Isn’t it?! Apparently, they discovered that the Demon race… their proper name is here but I’m not even trying that pronunciation, were very few in number and couldn’t reproduce. Because of their nature they couldn’t properly interact with the world of Equus directly. It’s the same with the Angel race, it looks like. Anyway, they wanted to kill all life on Equus, so they could use the lifeforces, all strong in aether, alongside their resentment and suffering, to corrupt the natural aetheryte deposits, making the whole planet into one big, nasty magic amp. With that they could create a weapon to-”

“Elleway, is this why you betrayed me?! A goddamn storybook?!”

Vera blinked, and then grinned at Owens. “Why no, Colonel. I ‘betrayed’ you because you were using me to help you hurt a good person… a lot of good people, actually. Hmph, I called Aiden a sap, but I’m the gullible one. I thought you wanted to help people.”

“That thing is not a person.”

“Then neither… hey… ‘neighther?’ Heheh… horse jokes… then neither am I!” She held up a hand, and electrical energy crackled between her fingers like a Jacob’s ladder. “Magic, you unmitigated ass. Jeez, I have more in common with the Oni than you! And I sure as Hell have more in common with her. ...Or I wish I-”

The base shook as several blasts of energy, which Vera felt as much through the aether as through the floor. “What the…”

Owens chuckled. “I believe my ride is here.”

Vera cocked an eyebrow. “I believe you’re jumping the gun.” She tapped her earpiece. “Elleway, report.”

“Vualez in comms. Lieutenant Jones is activating base defenses and trying to get a signal out. We have incoming, at least twenty of them. There’s a breaching pod on the wall of the north quarter, and an Oni Mech that just tore through the gates.”

“Shit… I thought those were all destroyed.”

“Guess you missed one, Knight. Want to go deal with it?”

“Nothing I’d love more… can you handle the breaching pod?”

“There’s a team on the way there now; wish I were with them, but Jones had to organize the robots so I'm stuck up here. I can’t get through to Grumman with that Mech jamming us, and I don't think he will, either. Your orders are to take it out, and anything else at our gates. We’ll handle the home front.”

“Acknowledged.”

“...And punch Owens in the head before you go.”

Vera blinked, and then grinned. “...Are you seeing anyone, Sergeant?”

A snort, and then laughter. “You do owe me a dinner, now that I think about it,” the amused reply came through as the base shook again. “I’ll answer based on how you take down that damn thing.”

Vera laughed. “Acknowledged, out.”

Owens was smiling. “You seem too confident. Let me assure you, this will be-”

A line of electrical energy like a lightning bolt slammed into him, sending him ragdolling into the far wall. He crumpled to the ground, unconscious but breathing.

Vera stared down at him, smoke rising gently from her outstretched hand. She considered finishing him off then and there… and it wasn’t a simple decision for her. After a few seconds, she sighed. “More like the Oni… but I’d rather be more like her.” She turned, and ran down the hall, becoming a blur as she slammed through the doors in a rush towards the front gates and what she hoped was the enemy’s main force.

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The breaching pod finally carved its way through the wall, securing a path inward for its inhabitants. They were greeted by gunfire, and returned said greeting in kind. Little did the defenders know, not all of the breaching pod’s soldiers were firing. In fact, two had already snuck out under the cover of stealth devices. While such things were far from foolproof, with the smoke, fire, and exploding debris, the two were able to slip down the hall past the pitched firefight that was little more than a distraction.

They made their way to the medical ward; their first destination before going deeper into the compound to free Colonel Owens. To their surprise, the doors into the ward opened freely. These amateurs had been caught completely off guard! Their head researcher was just sitting there, facing away from them.

They were elites, two of Stolhann’s most successful 3rd Gen experiments. Their bionic implants allowed limited aetheric control that strengthened their physical forms, improved healing and durability, and heightened their senses. In short, they were, in those regards, nearly equal to the weakest of the 2nd Generation, and the bionic advantages themselves closed the gap to nearly nothing. And, of course, they were well trained and heavily armed.

They both raised their weapons, and fired.

The stun blasts were intentional; this was a priority target for interrogation and potential brainwashing by Stolhann. Doctor Moriko Hamada had had a unique opportunity to examine both the alien and a 1st Gen Esper at the same time. Any conclusions she’d drawn would be invaluable to Owens’ cause.

None of that mattered to the forcefield that the stun blasts splattered harmlessly against. The elite soldiers switched to full auto lethal fire, to overwhelm the shield’s generator, as Doctor Hamada swivelled around in her chair. She sipped a cup of coffee as though nothing interesting were happening. She winked, with no changing expression, as their shots continued ineffectively. Then the wall next to her opened, folding to the sides to reveal a double barreled plasma turret that could best be described as ‘overkill’.

To their credit, they immediately sought cover by ducking behind the door, away from the medical ward. Regrettably, the wall they chose to hide behind was not rated for heavy plasma fire. They were gone from the world before they could consciously register the heat of the blast that reduced them both to mostly cinders. The inner wall of the hallway took the remaining energy stoically, as it was heavily reinforced.

Competing with it in stoicism, and possibly winning, Doctor Hamada turned back to her desk and continued her paper on her findings concerning Equestrian biology.

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Elsewhere, the battle was less one-sided. The mech seemed content to sit outside, firing blasts of energy and guided missiles to shoot down drones and batter away at the base’s defensive fortifications. It was twelve feet tall, bipedal, and resembled something between an armored knight and a futuristic tank that someone had strapped extra guns to. But that wasn’t the biggest problem. The garage was secured, Lieutenant Jones and a security team had it well covered. The mech was too big to enter and the troops that had tried had fallen there. As such, Sergeant Vualez was taken by surprise when the door to the main control room exploded inward.

“What the-” she started before cutting herself off and diving out of her seat, just before a blade went through its back. She drew her sidearm and fired, but the knife wielder vanished. As before, she felt a tiny gust of air. She was a veteran of the war, she remembered this odd feeling, and every little sign. And she was still stinging from the last time a magic user got the drop on her… hopefully said magic user was taking out that damn mech, but for now...

“Teleporter! Enemy Esper in play!” she shouted before rolling again, again narrowly avoiding being run through.

“Excellent reflexes, human!” The Esper standing over her was unfamiliar to her, but the slasher grin on his face was chilling. He looked young even for an Esper, almost boyish, and only slightly taller than Aiden. His eyes were brown, but so bloodshot they verged on maroon. “But I don’t know who you’re talking to...”

Lily Vualez looked around the control room and sighed. Her subordinates were down, possibly dead, and four of Owens’ troopers were pointing rifles at her. Dammit. She raised her hands in surrender.

“She was talking to me, James.”

Lightning filled the room, curving around as it smashed into each of the four troopers, overloading weaponry while a crude, telekinetic shield bubble formed over Lily. Each trooper went down, twitching and shuddering as their bionic implants fried. Two screamed as parts of them burned from the inside out, the other two seemed mercifully unconscious.

Vera winced. “That’s gotta really hurt. No wonder Owens wanted me as his ally. I’m a natural enemy to these guys. He should probably work on shielding. I mean… if a taser is more effective than usual you probably want to revisit the drawing board. Not that he’ll get the-”

The enemy Esper, James apparently, disappeared in a flicker and a gust of wind. He appeared behind Vera, only to be thrown as she spun and grabbed his knife wielding wrist. He hit the wall, and vanished again before hitting the ground.

Vera shook her head. “James Leland, former Knight. 1st Generation… Esper Corps deserter, you left your people to die in-”

“Oh shut up!” A grenade flew through the air from behind a console. Vera surrounded it with a force field shaped like a cup, funneling the blast down, relatively harmlessly, into the floor.

“You always were undisciplined. Relying on nothing but your talent, never developing your magic. Small wonder you fell in with Owens; you’re almost as dumb as I am!”

“SHUT UP!” He appeared behind her again.

And took a telekinetically enhanced fist in the face.

“No you. My power speeds up my reaction time. I may not beat Windborne in a distance race, but in close like this, I might be the fastest Esper. Teleporting behind me isn’t enough.” Vera sighed, kneeling next to her downed former comrade. “What did Owens promise you?”

“Hmph,” he replied, looking balefully up at her. She swore she could practically see his nose already mending from where she’d broken it. 1st Gen healing… “If you’re so fast, how come you failed? You were caught, and now turned against us.”

Vera smiled. “I was beaten the same way you were. On that day, my convictions were too half assed. Small wonder since I was working for the wrong side. What did he promise you?”

He snarled. “With more Espers, we’ll be safe! Humans can become like us, and they won’t fear us! We’ll be able to live without fear, even if the Oni return!”

Vera shook her head. “You really are almost as dumb as me. I let him trick me like that, too, but... There’s no such thing as ‘living without fear’... you and I know that better than most. Sergeant Vualez there knows it, too. Can you believe she forgave me so easily? I attacked her, took her place here, could have killed her. She has every reason to fear me, and hate me. And we have every reason to fear what’s out there. Nothing will change that.”

“We can change it! Owens can-”

“No. That’s not how it works. I get that now... goddamn I really do. We can’t erase fear by building bigger armies, walls, more guns. We can't be rid of those things, maybe not ever, but they aren't what really matter. We keep fear, we respect its warnings, but we don’t ever let it take the reins… heh, reins… We keep it where it belongs in our hearts, a quiet voice that keeps us sane. We do that by filling our hearts with much more important things.”

Lily snickered. “Holy shit…”

Vera waved a hand. “Yeah yeah, corny I know, too much pony reading lately.”

“No no, I kind of liked it.”

“Sane… you call putting faith in aliens sane!?” James seemed increasingly agitated, but his aether was quiet. He wasn’t looking to teleport; she had his attention.

She smiled, shaking her head. “Who said I was just putting faith in them? My faith is in all of us… all of us who know how to walk forward.” She held a hand out to him. “Care to come along?”

For a moment, he looked as though he’d bolt. Then his eyes narrowed slightly, and he sighed. He reached up, taking her hand.

As he pulled her forward, he brought his knife up with the other, aiming for her face. She spun away from the strike, sending a massive spike of electricity through the hand she held. He screamed as his grip on the knife became involuntary while all his muscles convulsed. The hand she held charred, burning partially away as his eyes sizzled in their sockets. Vera winced. She’d gone overboard when he’d surprised her.

“Dammit…” she said sadly, letting go of what was left of his hand. “Fastest Esper, I said… I’ve got a long way to go…”

His other hand had practically melded itself to the knife. His eyes, if they remained, were blessedly shut, and his body twitched gently. Amazingly, he was still breathing. 1st Gen resilience… but he was definitely out of the fight. No unicorns or magic swords were there to help him.

“Sorry you had to do that, Vera.” Lily said from behind her. “Are the others…?”

“I don’t know, hopefully just wounded. Doctor Hamada, wounded in the control room, friend and foe.”

“Acknowledged. Medical drones are scrambling now. I’ll join them when the halls are a bit safer.”

“Confirmed,” Lily said. “Oh shit, Elleway, you were supposed to be dealing with that mech!” The shaking had become almost constant now as the combat drones had been used up to minimal effect.

“Sorry about that… I felt the Field moving funny up here and changed course. James Leland… I’d only met him once, a year before he went AWOL. He seemed-”

“Reminisce later!”

“...Over dinner?”

Lily’s eyes narrowed. “You know I’m not usually into women.”

“That ‘usually’ works for me, love a challenge.” Vera replied, grinning beatifically.

“Kill… the… damn... mech!”

“I’m going, I’m going! But… the Field is moving around out there again…”

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Doctor Christina Stolhann was not, in times prior, this hands on. She’d ceded examination of the alien to her assistant… that damned spy… over a trivial issue more because she preferred not to handle such grunt work directly. Most of the work rebuilding this magnificent device had been handled by her engineering team, while she’d concerned herself with theoretical applications of Oni technology. A corruption of their ideology alongside creative retooling of their medical science had resulted in Pravus’ reborn form.

And now she’d succeeded in redesigning this clearly successful masterpiece. The Oni-koru weren’t much for engineering such weapons, for the most part. But they had their exceptions, and many considered piloting every bit as noble a pursuit as direct combat. Their mechs were a combination of the two, and it’d been a simple matter to envision one rebuilt as a siege weapon. Seeing said vision to fruition had been a labor of love, but a labor nonetheless. And now she was seeing the payoff in person, from the pilot’s couch. Grumman had insulted her intelligence, spit on her work, stolen her research material… and now he would pay. He would come home to find everything in ruins. And then she would take everything else from him, while he looked on. Nothing would stop her…

The mech listed forward, stumbling on its reinforced legs, as a massive, unstable aether blast exploded against its heavily armored back. Stolhann’s eyes went wide as damage readouts appeared before her. Shields were down thirty percent, and rear armor plating was down to eighty percent integrity!

“Impossible…” she said as she turned to face the new threat.

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Donovan Trellis was having a bad day. Some might consider driving a limo around a bit degrading for a war hero, but he’d always enjoyed doing so. He’d liked that car. He’d liked the stereo. He’d really liked the collected music on the phone that had been connected to said stereo. That same phone had contained a number of pictures, as well. ...They were backed up in cloud storage… but that wasn’t the point!

Also, getting blown up was annoying, so there was that. ...Although, if there was any Esper likely to survive such a thing without a scratch, it was the one whose special talent was explosions.

Donovan Trellis had awoken as a 2nd Generation Esper three years into the war, at the age of fourteen. Like most of the 2nd Gen, he was actually slightly older than the 1st Gen, and several years older at awakening. Like many 2nd Gens, he bore a single scar, inflicted before his improved healing had come along with his awakening magic, that was a reminder of that day. His was a circular burn scar in the middle of his chest. A plasma burst, designed to explode on impact, had struck him. In the milliseconds that it burned his flesh before exploding him to vapor, it had awakened his latent gift for magic. His body had absorbed the rest of the force of the discharge, and he’d redirected it, turning the tide of the battle for his hometown.

He couldn’t always hold onto the energy he absorbed; often it just dissipated harmlessly into the Field, particularly with larger blasts he took. It wasn't that he had some kind of dangerous upper limit; magic didn't work that way... usually. It was more like trying to hold onto too much sand. Today though… he had a specific reason to hold onto all the energy he’d absorbed. He needed every little bit.

He wasn’t Aiden, or Vera. He didn’t really have a convenient way to cover distance quickly, and certainly not discretely. Discrete wasn’t his talent. He worked with explosions: sometimes you needed to go big and unignorable.

So it was that a massive, comet like object smashed violently into the largest, most obvious target in front of what Donovan had come to view as home. That object gave off a huge explosion upon impact, rocking the mech forward, damaging it less than he’d have liked, and sending him flying in the other direction to land easily on his feet.

“You broke my ride… my turn.”

17. On Two Fronts, Part Two

View Online

The mech spun, speeding up surprisingly, and opened fire. Donovan swore as he dodged to the right, a blast of energy from his aether shield speeding him. The mech’s explosive weaponry was no problem, but he wasn’t sure his shields could handle the heavy plasma fire. For that matter, those were rather large shells it was using for its material cannons...

What part of ‘my turn’ confused you… He flung a burst of energy into the shoulder mounted heavy plasma cannon, only to watch the thing rock backwards as its shielding absorbed the blast. Despite the apparent lack of damage, he grinned. It was spinning again to target him, but…

He jumped, and a backwards explosion from his shield threw him forward, towards the mech. It hadn’t swivelled around fully yet, but in less than a second this was going to look really stupid if he was too slow.

He wasn’t.

A massive explosion cratered the ground, costing the mech its footing and throwing him away from it and, more to the point, out of its tumbling line of sight.

He flung several more blasts into the crater as the thing tried, and failed, to regain its feet. At this rate, he could smash its shields at leisure while keeping it down. Guided missiles fired, but their explosions of heat and force meant nothing to his talent. This was too easy… and he nearly facepalmed for thinking that before several pieces of the mech launched into the air.

“Aerods?!” was all he could exclaim before all of the floating weapons, little more than hovering drone cannons utilizing concentrated aether beams, opened fire.

His shield crumpled until he peppered the ground with numerous explosions, throwing up dust and debris to cover an escape, while another blast threw him away from their kill zone. They tracked him, continuing to fire. He returned the favor, blasting one from the sky in an incinerating burst of magic, but the others got through. He snarled as a beam of energy burned into his lower torso, and another his leg, a third his shoulder. He threw a punch at the ground as he fell, channeling a concussive blast that threw him behind a bit of cover in the form of a massive chunk of granite, leftover from the repurposing of the mountain into their current base.

There was no respite coming, as the Aerods circled his cover, charging for their next shots. He refocused his shield, reinforcing to the utmost at the blasts hit. He could stave off this assault, maybe the next… if he could return fire while they charged…

His cover exploded, throwing him forward in a heap, as the mech finally regained its considerably lighter footing.

It had discarded its shoulder cannons, and its arms and torso were lighter with the launch of the Aerods. Both forearm mounted guns aimed at Donovan, and fired alongside the Aerods.

After the salvo ended, Donovan was on his knees. He knew his shields wouldn’t hold through another volley. He grinned, spitting blood. “I’ll hand it to you… good fight. Too bad it’s over.”

“Hah!” a cruel, feminine voice came through the mech’s speaker system. “Will you beg now? 2nd Gen trash, I have no need of more specimens of your ilk.”

Donovan chuckled. “That’s a real shame, then. Cause there’s another inbound…”

Before the pilot could react, lightning arced between the Aerods, destroying two and sending the third spinning away to bounce off a tree. At almost the same time, Vera seemed to just appear atop the mech. She screamed, slamming both hands down onto its armored frame, channeling electrified aether arcing down through the mech’s form. Its shields held for a moment before their generators overloaded, along with other systems.

And then its fist came up, smashing violently into Vera, sending her flying, and then rolling to a stop, unmoving.

Donovan went cold. He felt Vera’s aether pulse through the Field… felt her lifeforce gutter like a candle inside her broken body. She was clinging to life, but...

He wasn’t conscious of moving, but in less than an eyeblink he stood before the mech, reaching up to touch the leg, above the knee joints. He’d dropped his shield, channeling everything into a final attack.

Its shields were gone as well… he interspersed destructive aether throughout its molecular structure. The resulting detonation, which he sculpted in his talent and aimed away from the compound, was excessive.

The pillar of light in which the mech burned would later be reported visible by satellite.

It made the survival of any part of the damn thing all the more impressive, even if it was just the last Aerod. It opened fire, piercing Donovan’s hastily raised defense to burn again into his torso, before a blast of lightning destroyed it. As he fell to his knees, and caught himself from faceplanting, he looked over to Vera. She smiled at him, laying on her side, and raised a smoking hand in a ‘thumbs up’.

He chuckled. “Knights take bishop…” he muttered, before lying down on the cement for a much needed break. With all the weapons fire and the like, it was quite warm and inviting. He shut his eyes, and drifted off to sleep.

---------------------------------

Lieutenant Zachary Jones would have loved to have helped out with the mech, but his own forces were limited to smaller targets once his drones had been destroyed. Casualties within the compound were over seventy five percent, so reinforcements to help with the pincer that had his remaining two people pinned weren’t likely. The incoming soldiers from the breaching pod were half unaccounted for, but the enemy Esper and mech were down. There were six of them in the garage, but Jones couldn’t do more than keep them from the doors to the compound proper. He would hold, but what he was holding for he wasn’t sure. How long for reinforcements? He had no idea, and it didn’t matter. He’d hold this position, protect the base, as long as it took. He didn’t too much care about the future Grumman wanted. He didn’t not care, it just wasn’t his job. He’d follow orders he trusted. And right now, he’d defend his home base until Grumman told him otherwise. He grinned grimly, firing off a shot at an overeager invader. Five to go.

---------------------------------------

Sergeant Lily Vualez made her way quietly through the hallways. She didn’t much care for having no one to watch her back, but desperate times, desperate measures. The two ‘helpers’ from the medical ward were needed elsewhere. She sighed. They could only save three of her people in the control room. The other two were gone before they’d arrived. And now… they were checking on the priority target. Owens had to be secured. They couldn’t let that madman escape. And yet… she couldn’t abandon her lieutenant, either. At least she’d had time to pick up her preferred weapon…

The doors opened into the compound’s massive garage, and Lily took a brief moment to survey the carnage before opening fire. Most of the vehicles had been damaged or destroyed, and Jones’ men had overturned one of the more well armored ones somehow to act as an effective cover. The enemy was in multiple locations around their positions, but three of them were clustered together, clear to the targeting system of Lily’s rifle.

The bullets bounced off the garage ceiling, before each of the three activated its tiny propellent to perfect their aim to their individual targets. Each nanomachine projectile struck true, burrowing through armor and flesh to inject a paralyzing neurotoxin before their microscopic power sources gave out. Lily didn’t think about how much each such bullet cost… she’d had enough of this. Switching options on her weapon, she opened fire on a fourth enemy, and a drilling blast of projected, destructive aether pinned the soldier to the wall after penetrating his cover like it was wet paper. He slid weakly to the floor, leaving a smear of blood behind him. The weapon read twenty percent remaining charge, but she had more options for the final enemy. ...Then said enemy threw his weapon away, putting his hands up and shaking them desperately. “I surrender!”

She flipped another switch, and launched a small, slow moving projectile over his cover. The projectile sailed over his head and let loose an electrical shock that dropped him twitching to the floor.

“I accept.” She muttered darkly, shouldering her weapon.

“Hostiles clear!” Jones shouted over the din of burning vehicles, though his men were within a few feet of him. He stared up at Lily with wide eyes. “...Is that..?”

“Gungnir, Lieutenant," she replied, referring to the weapon. "I call her Gunny.”

Jones gulped visibly, and saluted. To rate being given that weapon… “At the academy, ma’am… my instructor made it clear to me: a lieutenant is there to learn from his sergeants. ...Lesson received.”

Lily chuckled, but shook her head. “The lesson being… even if you just got your ass kicked, win the fight anyway and look badass doing it?”

“Damn right, Sergeant.”

“Damn right, Lieutenant.” Lily grinned, but inside she felt a bit sick. They’d won the day, but they’d definitely taken an ass kicking. Three quarters of their people were at least injured, probably a third of those KIA… and the base was in shambles. For that matter… her eyes went wide.

“Tom, Crow, report!”

-----------------------------------------------

The two of them could be seen as an exercise in how difficult nailing down the line between artificial intelligence and extremely complex interfaces was. Medical drones at one point, their programming had been expanded on, added to, updated, modified, and ultimately left to grow on its own over the years since Hamada and the original developers had worked on them. In addition to programming upgrades that put them right up against that line of ‘are they actually sapient or just too good at faking it?’, their chassis had been heavily modified for increased utility… as well as weaponry. Physically, the two resembled Star Wars astromech droids, though considerably slimmer and with a pair of compact arms each. They’d been given the names Tom, and Crow. And speaking of…

“Tom, Crow, report!”

“Report what? It’s a beautiful day outside…” Tom said.

“Birds are singing…” Crow continued.

“Flowers are blooming…”

“On days like these, kids like you…”

“Stop that!” Lily cut in. “Status report! Is Owens secure?”

“Securely resting in his own urine, ma’am! He may have… the diabetes…” Tom replied.

“He should call Liberty, ma’am.” Crow added.

“He… what? There’s no liberty for him…” Lily said, sounding confused.

“I think she missed the reference, Crow.”

“Damn shame, Tom.”

“Ugh, look, are the last of the enemy troops from the pod accounted for?”

“Oh, yes, ma’am! Transferring my onboard visual scanner recordings to Gungnir’s targeting camera’s display!” Tom said in his campy, slightly hammy voice.

“You’re what? … Oh… oh dear god. You two are cleaning that up.”

“We certainly are, ma’am! And it’s Crow’s turn!”

“Aww, dammit.”

-------------------------------------------------

Vera crawled, or more like dragged herself, across the pavement, which hurt like Hell on her broken ribs. Even a 1st Gen would take a few days off for this… she’d need a week or two, easy. For now… she needed to check on Donovan. His aether was steady, but weak. She wouldn’t know for sure he was okay until she got closer. Just twenty more feet…

A pink aura surrounded her, lifting her gently from the broken, debris strewn concrete. Donovan’s fingers were glowing a similar hue. “Idiot… you have broken… everything, so stop moving around.”

“Shut up, you’re no better off.” she returned, though she was grinning now. She floated over in his telekinetic grip and was placed gently next to him, where he put an arm around her in a comradely hug. “And now you’re bleeding on me.” Despite saying that, she gingerly returned the embrace.

“Yeah well, thanks to you I’m alive to keep bleeding, so it’s your fault. ...Thanks.”

She chuckled, wincing slightly as her ribs protested the blatantly stupid notion of laughing in that moment. She’d never felt better. “I asked Lily out.”

“Nice. What’d she say?”

“Pretty sure it was yes, depending on my performance against the mech.”

“Welp, ya got my blessing.”

“Awesome. And Aiden can date Rarity...”

Donovan snickered. “I can’t even tell whether that’s a joke or not anymore.”

“It definitely isn’t. I’m going to make sure it happens. But my point is we need to set you up now. Espers don’t do well alone...”

“Pfft, I’m not alone, not at all. If anything, you’re the one we’re welcoming back.”

“Yeah…” her smile became distant for a moment. “I’m sorry, Don. I should have been here the whole time.”

“Eh, water under the bridge.”

“No. James Leland was here, I don’t know if you were inside our effective comm range to hear about it. I may have killed him…” she grimaced.

Donovan sighed. “So that’s what you meant by lone Espers… He was always trouble. I remember feeling relieved when he deserted. Shame he didn’t just find a quiet life somewhere.”

“Owens had a way of finding those of us that tried that. If Grumman hadn’t been keeping an eye on Aiden all this time…”

“Speaking of Grumman…” Donovan looked up at the smoking remains of the compound. Fort Friendship, as Rarity had dubbed it, had seen better days. It looked worse than it was, and they could certainly rebuild… but… “Not it!”

Vera blinked, and chuckled. “Yeah… I’m not calling him about this, either.” Her eyes widened. “No, we have to! They could be in danger, too. This was most of what Veritech had left, but maybe not everything… Lily!”

“I hear you, Vera. I’ll contact them immediately.”

--------------------------------------------------------

“Sergeant, you’ve all performed admirably under the circumstances. See to the fallen, first and foremost. I’ll handle the media from here, redirect all inquiries to me and just concern yourself with injuries and rebuilding what you can. ...No, Sergeant, don’t worry about that. We're a separate branch but still affiliated; they'll be sending assistance soon. Have Hamada submit me a full report as soon as she can. I’ll contact families… it’s time more people knew just what we were fighting for here.” Grumman said, talking into his headset.

Across the plane, Rarity was wide eyed in astonishment, and Aiden couldn’t blame her. Even he’d felt the massive spike of energy that Donovan had apparently used to destroy a rebuilt Oni Mech. Those things had been few and far between in the war, and had often accounted for many fatalities before their defenses could be worn down. He squeezed the unicorn’s slightly trembling withers, offering a comforting smile. “You okay?”

She took a deep breath and let it out slowly. Her shaking lessened as she did. She returned a wan smile. “I will be, darling. I was more startled than anything. It was as if someone blew an airhorn in my ear. And since Pinkie Pie isn’t around, I was completely surprised.”

Valerie offered her a bottle of water. She took it in her magic, and drank slowly. “Thank you,” she said, smiling more strongly as the last of her jitters settled. “How bad was it?”

Valerie had a bleak look, but she shook her head. “Could’ve been much worse. Ultimately it’s a win: we still have Owens in custody, along with every attacker that survived. About half of them didn’t. We lost five: Hallen, Rivers, Rodriguez, Singh, and Thomassen.

Rarity bit her lip as her eyes fell, clouding over as she looked down, all trace of recovering from her shock gone. “...Because of me…”

“No,” Valerie said, lifting her chin gently. “Look at me, Rarity. This is on Owens, every damn bit of it. Even if you’d never come here, this conflict was building. You think Grumman had our base built there in the last few weeks? You knew I was already a plant at Veritech before you showed up. There was always going to be a reckoning for Owens. It’s been a long time coming. And it hurts, losing friends, but every one of them knew what they were fighting for, what they were standing up against. Would be tyrants like him can’t be allowed to do as they please.”

“She’s right, Rarity,” Aiden agreed. “None of this is on you. When we get back there, we’ll do everything we can to help rebuild, and honor those that have gone on ahead.”

At the last words he’d spoken, her lips trembled, and she threw herself at him, sobbing quietly as he held her in a tight embrace. He looked over her shoulder to Valerie, who looked about to cry as well. He wasn’t far behind. He gestured vaguely to her, and she reached out to rub Rarity’s back, providing what comfort she could. Aiden sighed, shuddering slightly.

“Does… does this get easier? I… don’t… I…” Rarity sniffled, “I’m sorry…”

“No, don’t be,” Aiden replied. “It’s nothing to be sorry about. It doesn’t get easier. You delay dealing with it, when you have to… but I hope it never gets easier.”

“I remember those names!” she cried out. “They… they were all, they were there! At the party we had, at dinner, when we met Vera, and… she was… so angry and confused… but it was good, and we were all happy, and things were… oh…” she shook, burying her muzzle in his neck as her voice failed her.

“I know,” he said, tearing up also. “For their sakes, we will be again. For now… no, it’s okay to hurt. Let it out… it’s okay. We’re here for each other. It’s all we can do, now.” Valerie scooted closer, putting her arms around them both as well. Across the cabin, Aaron and Talia looked on through damp eyes. Their hands had clasped one another, though neither seemed conscious of it.

Rarity nodded against Aiden’s shoulder, tightening her embrace around him as she dwelt on faces she’d never see again, smiles that would never come back. She did what she could to etch them in her memory, so they’d stay as long as they could.

The plane continued west. Their destination was close at hand yet all but forgotten, at least for a time.

18. Allies

View Online

“Thank you, doctor, your diligence is ever appreciated.” Grumman tapped his phone to end the call and addressed the cabin. “Doctor Hamada successfully protected the Command Crystal as well as the data we’ve thus far extracted from it by transferring it all to her lab during the incursion. Further, she’s stabilized all the injured; barring extreme setbacks in recovery, there will be no more fatalities.” He nodded to Valerie. “She also successfully field tested Gypsy.”

“What’s that?” Aaron asked.

Valerie wore an expression that could have been a grin or a grimace. “A heavy plasma turret with highly advanced targeting circuitry, scavenged from an Oni-koru vessel during the war, alongside the computer cores that became Tom and Crow. It was never used by them against us; apparently none of it had worked in centuries. We rebuilt it…” she sighed. “Moriko, Bradley, and I.”

“Bradley?”

“...Hallen.”

Aaron winced, remembering the names Valerie had listed.

“We walk forward, everyone. The costs were greater than any of us wanted to pay, but this was a win.” Grumman said. “Veritech’s fugitives could have gone anywhere with their weaponry. They could have fled the country and wreacked havoc, or gone to ground and rebuilt, or even gone their separate ways, each pursuing their own criminal ends. Owens wanted a spotlight to one day step into. His people could have left him, slunk into the shadows, and continued creating horrors. His ego, and his obsession with control, prevented them from doing that. It hadn’t been my intention to use him as bait to draw them out, but I’m happy to know that we’ve dealt with them, without any civilian casualties.”

Despite his words, he didn’t look happy. Rarity’s heart went out to him, and Joyeuse, now cradled against her shoulder, sang sadly. He looked tired.

“If you will excuse me… I have letters to write… to families I can never repay. Corporal Martinovich, let me know when we’re landing.”

She nodded. “Yes, sir.”

Rarity leaned against Aiden, who returned the gesture.

--------------------------------------------------------

“Sorry, sir, this area is closed to the public. Renovations.”

“You can’t be serious!” the agitated reporter exclaimed. “That was a nuclear explosion, you can’t just-”

“If it was a nuclear explosion we’d all be dead. It was a controlled, aetheric detonation channeled through a column of controlling energy to funnel it skyward and dissipate it back into the Aether Field. Munitions test, and a successful one at that.” Lily Vualez grinned innocently behind her sunglasses. Jones would pay for this… typical officer ‘delegating’ this sort of work.

She was standing, alongside two statue-like privates, guarding what was left of the gate (which wasn’t much). Naturally it’d taken less than an hour for anyone to arrive, and while military backup had called off local police, fire, and medical assistance, it was just as natural that a journalist had snuck through. Lily could respect that; when it came to stuff like this the public would sort of want to know what the hell was going on. Though… that didn’t mean they had a ‘right’ to classified military information. So… this fellow would be going home more or less empty handed.

He’d say his piece first though. “...Munitions test?” he replied, deadpan as he looked past her at the smoking wreckage both of and around the compound. “You seriously expect anyone to believe that?”

“Nope. I expect you to respect the fact that that’s all I’m authorized to tell you. Have your people contact General Grumman for official disclosure, but don’t expect an immediate reply. As you might have guessed, it’s a busy day around here.”

“...Right. And no comment on the rumor already circulating online that this was a retributive attack by the fugitives from your raid on Veritech?”

“You want me to argue with the internet? How much time do you think I have?”

The reporter cocked an eyebrow. “Well, you are guarding a broken gate…”

“Which is far less futile than your suggestion. Be on your way, civilian. Keep in mind that this is military property. Trespassers may be shot on site. Good day!” She smiled brightly, and assumed her own statue impersonation.

The reporter was sharp, she’d give him that. He immediately realized he’d get no more out of her. “I see… thank you for your time, Sergeant Vualez.”

“Thank you for your hard work, citizen. I look forward to reading your piece on the day’s events,” she replied.

He blinked, having not expected her to say more. He chuckled wryly and shook his head before turning to get back into his car.

-------------------------------------------------

By the time the plane landed at another private airfield, Rarity had composed herself. She still felt a deep sadness that anyone had died because of her. She knew what Aiden had told her, and logically she knew he was right that she wasn’t at fault, but she couldn’t help how she felt about it. It was all the more reason to keep moving. She owed it to them to see this through. She’d known, in a way ever since Grumman had told them all of humanity and ponykind’s shared history, that this was about more than just getting her home. For perhaps the first time, she truly felt that to be real with every fiber of her being.

“Deep thoughts?” Aiden asked, looking at her with a small smile.

“Hmm. Shoring up my resolve, darling. I’m not used to this sort of thing,” she returned his smile wanly. “I believe I’m due an ‘I told you so…’”

He snorted, gently cradling her head to press against his. “Not even. You’ve weathered all of this with more strength than I ever expected. I’d still rather see you designing than soldiering someday soon…”

She nuzzled against him, sighing softly. “That makes two of us. But I was more referring to your suggestion that this is the part I wouldn’t be able to handle. I think you were right.”

“No, I wasn’t… and we both know it. Right now you feel guilty that you can keep moving, even though you don’t want to. I know that feeling well. We can talk more about it later. We have to catch our next ride.”

It was true. Everyone else had deplaned. She blinked. “Was no one going to say anything?”

He chuckled lightly. “I just did. Hold on a moment.”

For a moment, the world disappeared, replaced by an increasingly familiar stretch of road, distant buildings, and nearby flowers. When it vanished again, they were outside the plane, near the others, along with their bags. Rarity snorted derisively. “Really, darling?”

“Hey, we’re in a hurry, the chopper is waiting on us.”

“The… oh my…” Rarity’s eyes went wide and her ears pinned back as she looked at the vehicle they were transferring to.

Someone had combined a wagon with the big sister of Pinkie’s flying machine. And it was getting loud… Aiden was already holding a telekinetic shield in place against the wind being kicked up… and Rarity was already searching her admittedly limited spell repertoire for something that would lower the noise. She sighed and climbed aboard with the others.

The pilot stared at her, apparently (and reasonably) stunned for a moment, before Grumman tapped the side of his helmet. The pilot turned, only to receive the full force of the General’s glare. He flinched noticeably, and turned back to his controls.

Overall, Rarity hadn’t minded the plane. The pressure change was odd. Since it flew much higher than Cloudsdale that was a new experience for her. It was also loud, and the constant vibration had taken getting used to. But in all it wasn’t bad, especially given how fast it’d taken them thousands of miles. Further, the view from the windows, at least before she’d been drawn away by news of the attack on their base, had been amazing. It was all quite impressive.

She was of a very different mind about this ‘helicopter’ business. Even the noise canceling function of her headset (which apparently Grumman had had Hamada install for this trip without mentioning it to Rarity) did little to ease her discomfort. Aiden sat next to her, massaging the back of one of her ears as it sought shelter against the side of her head. Their eyes met briefly, and the understanding of ‘yeah, I’m not a fan either’ was easy to read on his face. She smiled to let him know she appreciated the gesture, and then went back to hating the helicopter.

Fortunately, it was a short trip to a landing pad atop the building that was their destination. Grumman spoke up before any of them could exit, though Rarity really wanted to. “Now then. Our exposure to employees here should be minimal, but be on guard nonetheless. Valerie, Talia, keep an eye out for anything suspicious. Even if they don’t make a move against us doesn’t mean everything here is aboveboard. Anything likely to bite us, now or later, is something I want to know about. Miss Rarity, eyes and ears open. If you notice any unusual eddies or currents within the Field, anything that gives you a bad feeling, let us know immediately. I expect all of you ready to act on any warnings instantly. Any questions?”

There were none, and so finally they moved out onto the roof. Four men were waiting for them.

The two on the outside of the group were clearly security. They reminded Rarity of high class bouncers. They wore dark suits, dark sunglasses, earpieces, and no nonsense expressions. They didn’t even react to her presence. Neither had any particular concentration in the Field: non-magic users.

The two in the middle were more distinct, and the one coming forward with a welcoming smile was definitely an Esper. He was taller, and perhaps a few years older than Aiden. Short brown hair went well against a tan complexion and brown eyes alight with curiosity. He felt like an Earth Pony… more so than she’d felt any distinction in Donovan or Vera. In fact, a brief image of Doctor Whooves flashed through her mind. She saw a similarity here in this man’s eyes. There was a friendly, civilized intelligence about him, as though he’d have liked nothing more than to regale them with his latest invention. Rarity’s lips curved into a smile. Much like when she’d first met Aiden, she felt an urge towards trust. Speaking of Aiden, he was the first to step forward.

Grinning, he clasped arms with the other man. “Johnathan. It’s been awhile. You look good.”

Johnathan chuckled. “You too, Captain. I have to say, I didn’t expect to see you again under such auspicious circumstances. I thought you wanted the quiet life?”

“It’s Lieutenant now, remember? And I got a few years of it. That was enough. More importantly… introductions. May I present Private Aaron Cooper, Corporal Valerie Martinovich, and Sergeant Talia Henson. Oh, also General Albert Grumman, but I think you knew him already.”

Johnathan grinned, nodding to each in turn. “Yes, we'd met. Good to see you again, sir.” he turned back to Aiden, his grin becoming a smirk as his eyes flicked towards Rarity. “That all?”

“Yep.” Aiden replied with a straight face.

Rarity snorted, stepping forward and bumping him with her flank. “Just because I’m the only one shorter than you doesn’t mean you forgot I’m here… For that matter, I’m not shorter. Don’t make me stand on my hind legs again to remind you…”

Aiden blinked, feigning surprise. “Oh right, the unicorn,” he chuckled, looking at her fondly. “Jokes aside… Johnathan Ferreles. It’s my honor and my pleasure to introduce Earth’s first amicable visitor in fifteen hundred years… well, that I know of. This is Rarity.”

Their host laughed, dropping to a crouch to be eye level with her as he held out a hand. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, ma’am.”

She placed a hoof in his hand and shook it lightly. “Likewise. Aiden has had good things to say about you. I’m hoping you’ll be able to help me. I need a ride home,” she smiled at him, fluttering her eyelashes just a little.

Johnathan’s eyes went wide, and his face flushed slightly. “Jeez, that’s not even fair. I mean, her language is like singing, and then she throws that at you... Windborne you could’ve warned me.”

“Nah… we really want that ship you’re offering. Unicorn eyelashes are merely the opening salvo. You will comply.”

“They’re just… so blue…”

Aiden snapped his fingers in front of Johnathan’s face. “Focus…”

“Right,” he chuckled sheepishly. “She has a lot of aether, too, Windborne. It’s remarkable. She’s almost on par with you, other than…” he tilted his head a bit, and one of his pupils contracted. Rarity could feel his aether channeling, but there was no feeling of danger about it. “Actually…” he continued, “that flower in her hair feels like your aether, how’s that?”

Aiden looked away, and Rarity frowned up at him slightly. Was something wrong with it?

“Yeah that’s… she plucked that from my inner space, actually.”

“...Huh. I didn’t realize the scenery in there could move.”

“...”

Grumman coughed, clearly deliberately. “Perhaps you’d like to move this off your roof, Knight Captain Ferreles? Further, who is your associate here?”

Johnathan nodded. “Of course, General, you’ll forgive my distraction there. As to my associate, this is Adstrum’s other CEO, Cade Kneargum.”

He gestured to his counterpart in their group. The man in question was tall, taller than Grumman, and had long blond hair tied back at his neck. Rarity thought she saw strands of grey in it but couldn’t tell in the sunlight. His dark blue eyes were calm, even as he matched her gaze. He smiled and, while not as bubbly as Johnathan seemed, there was warmth in his eyes to go with that smile. “Just Cade is fine. It’s a pleasure to meet such auspicious company, as my colleague here has stated. I prefer to let him do the talking… war heroes make good public faces.”

Johnathan chuckled, slapping his co-CEO on the back. “He’s not lying. Genius, and a better administrator than I am, even if he prefers staying out of the spotlight. But right now we’ve got something else to spotlight anyway; let’s show you what we have to offer.”

As they stepped into the building, and then a large elevator headed down, Rarity felt a sense of anticipation. As the elevator doors quickly reopened, that sense increased.

Aiden blinked. “That’s a fast elevator. We’re underground, aren’t we?”

“That we are, Windborne. Wouldn’t do to have something like this where it could be easily spotted…”

As he said that, double doors down the hallway opened, revealing a massive chamber beyond. Within that chamber, surrounded by heavy equipment, was the Oni-koru vessel that Rarity hoped would take her home.

“Ooh…” Aaron said, looking up appreciatively.

Rarity fully agreed. Whereas Veritech’s ship had looked positively decrepit, this vessel was pristine to the point of being shiny. It wasn’t much larger than the helicopter they’d arrived in, but it was definitely sleeker. Rarity’s pupils dilated as she took it in. Even the mottled, smoke grey color of the hull was working for her. Further, the understated, forward-swept wings gave it an appearance like it wanted to leap into the air.

Grumman snorted, stifling a chuckle.

Johnathan stifled nothing, laughing openly. “I thought you might notice…”

Rarity raised a delicate eyebrow. “Notice what? Is something wrong with it?”

“Not at all, Miss Rarity. It’s just that it strongly resembles an oversized version of an old Earth jet. Specifically, a Grumman X-29.” He smiled. “Though I’ve never been directly involved with them, the founder of the developing company is a distant relation of mine.”

Johnathan was nodding, and Cade had a small grin. “We felt it was destiny, once we heard Albert Grumman was looking for a working Oni vessel. Of course, I’d have been happy to help my old CO, but it did help convince Cade… and our other execs.”

Aiden’s eyes narrowed. “So what you’re saying…?”

Johnathan turned to Aiden, and Rarity, with a happy smile. “In exchange for any information you can share about her home world, as well as introductions concerning future commerce with same, should an opportunity arise, we at Adstrum Technologies are pleased to offer this vessel as a gesture of good faith, with hope for a brighter tomorrow.”

Rarity was speechless, but Grumman wasn’t. “Well, Ferreles… you drive a hard bargain. I’ll get you a copy of our text on her world… you’ll find a few surprises. I’ll even include her notes.”

Johnathan frowned. “Wait, there’s a text and her notes?”

Aiden chuckled. “Welcome to the rabbit hole, buddy. Watch your first step.”

Rarity regained her voice. “You’re… you’re giving this to us?!”

Johnathan laughed softly. “That we are. Though, if I’m being honest, I wouldn’t mind you considering it a loan. You can return it once we have travel between our worlds worked out to a more practical level. No rush on that though. Frankly, without power it’s been a useful curiosity but nothing we can’t do without at this point, and so-”

“Thank you so much!” Rarity reared, and hugged him tightly.

“Geh… ahh, you’re welcome, ma’am.” Johnathan replied, going red again.

She dropped back to her hooves, and crossed over to Cade, who held up his hands in a warding gesture while taking a step back. “You’re welcome, Miss Rarity, but I’ll pass on a hug, no offense.”

She gave him a fake pout, “Oh very well,” she said, then smiled, and gave a quick bow. “Thank you, just the same. I’ll never forget this!”

“Nor will we, Rarity. This is an historic moment, and we’re proud to be part of it.”

Johnathan nodded his agreement, fixing his suit jacket and regaining his composure. “Exactly. I was surprised I even needed to argue it to a couple of my more stubborn executives. To call this a unique opportunity would be an understatement.”

-------------------------------------

After a bit of discussion about the vessel, they’d adjourned to an adjacent meeting room. It was rather plain, but included comfortable chairs, coffee makers (which Rarity was officially checked out on now), and a sturdy table complete with charging ports and notetaking necessities. At the head of the table, Cade continued where they’d left off in explaining their generosity.

“We were in complete agreement on the matter, John and I. In the long run, the war with the Oni will have a positive effect on humanity. I firmly believe that, as much because believing the alternative belittles those who died. That said, a chance like this is a gift the universe has given us. We can’t pass it up. Adstrum has always been about furthering the human race in the best way possible. During the war, that meant weapons and materiel to defend against the alien threat. Now, it means doing our part to build a bridge between our world and that of a future friend.” He shrugged lightly. “Of course, this is as far as we go, for now.”

Grumman nodded, “You’re referring to the vessel’s lack of power?”

“Just so, General. The batteries are intact and ready to charge, but we have no way to do so. Johnathan is the only Esper associated with us, and putting out a call for others to experiment with Oni technology doesn’t really go over well with any of us.” Cade shrugged. “We have no interest in Veritech’s dishonest approach. Further, Johnathan can’t charge the batteries fast enough to stay ahead of their natural decay rate… and that’d be even assuming he had nothing better to do with his time than charge batteries and lie in bed recovering.”

Johnathan shrugged apologetically. “Never was the most robust magic user.”

“I wasn’t blaming you; it is what it is… a problem to solve. And I may have a solution.”

“I’ll assume this didn’t just come to you?” Johnathan asked him, looking surprised.

Cade shook his head. “It didn’t, but I needed to see who we were meeting before I put it forth as a possibility. With Aiden Windborne here, as well as General Grumman, it may be possible. You had almost no contact with Paladin Lero Williams, but the same can’t be said of these two men.”

Aiden’s eyes went wide. Rarity turned, ears twitching towards him at his reaction. She remembered hearing that name a couple of times, and was about to ask when Grumman interjected.

“We have no way to find him. He cut ties more completely than any Esper, and I can’t blame him. At the end of the war, he took more flak than anyone for being a potential danger to humanity.”

Johnathan nodded, grimacing. “The First Esper, and the strongest… yeah I remember some of the stories on him after the Spires were destroyed. No one was surprised he went to ground. I never did interact with him directly, other than a couple of ‘yes, sir!’s over the years, but…” he shook his head. “He’s three years younger than me, same as Aiden, but I never felt like anything but a kid next to 1st Gens.” He grinned wryly at Aiden. “You’ll always be ‘Captain’ to me, Windborne.”

“I don’t quite understand though,” Rarity chimed in. “What makes him worth contacting in this case? Couldn’t Aiden and I work together with Donovan and Vera to charge the batteries?”

Cade shrugged lightly. “It’s possible, but problematic. No matter how synchronized your efforts, your aether flows are different. One battery charged by multiple sources becomes unstable. It’s a serious risk, not just to you but to the battery and everything it’s connected to. Aiden may have the second largest aether pool in the world, but-”

“Wat?” Aiden snapped, looking something between surprised and annoyed. “No, I don’t. First off, that’s not really easy to measure since there’s a lot of factors involved. Second off, even averaging out all those, I’m more like tenth. So unless a lot of Espers died and I wasn’t informed…”

Cade blinked. “...My apologies. I must have incorrect information.”

Johnathan shook his head. “No, you don’t. Windborne’s pool is huge; he just can’t use a lot of it. It’s tied up in his pocket dimension.” He looked over to Aiden. “You actually have almost as much aether as Williams at any given point, it’s just that it’s frozen in there. It’s the reason you can’t ‘hear’ as well as the rest of us. All that unusable magic sort of acts like a wind chime for your normal aether flow.”

“Ooh, I like that description,” Rarity said. She grinned at Aiden. “You have wind chimes in your head!”

Aiden rolled his eyes.

Cade cleared his throat. “As I was saying… even if Aiden has a lot of magic, he doesn’t compare to Williams in this case simply because Williams got his power from a Creation Engine. Every cell in his body is imbued with the ability to draw and store aether directly from the Field, extremely rapidly. During the war, that meant he could channel enough to fight even Oni Generals with his bare hands and pure telekinetic force.”

“He tended to punch them really hard… sometimes they exploded,” Aiden added with a nod.

Rarity shuddered lightly, fighting a touch of nausea at that image.

“Just so. He even fought their Grand Marshal to a draw in single combat. Obviously we’ve no need of that, but it also means he’s uniquely suited to charging aether batteries. We never would have sought him out for our own purposes… but this is much bigger than simple experiments now.”

“I can see the merit of the idea, but it still leaves us with the problem of finding him. We can put the word out through various means, but there’s absolutely no way of knowing if he’ll acknowledge or even notice any of them.” Grumman added thoughtfully. “Certainly we’ll do it, but from there-”

“I can ask him.” Aiden muttered, looking at the table, slightly red-faced.

All eyes turned to him immediately. Rarity wondered if Grumman hurt his neck turning that fast.

“Knight Lieutenant?”

“Heh…” Aiden replied, rubbing the back of his neck and grinning sheepishly. “He’s… sort of in my gaming guild.”

19. The Last Day of the War

View Online

The room was silent for a moment, until Grumman cleared his throat. “...If you would repeat that… Knight Lieutenant?”

“He’s in my gaming guild. Online I mean, I don’t know where he physically is, but I can contact him.”

“It didn’t occur to you that he might have been able, and wanted, to help us in our current endeavor?”

Aiden’s eyes narrowed, and he looked up at Grumman, all traces of embarrassment gone. “Which one would that be? I feel bad that I didn’t think of him for the batteries right away, sure. For the rest, helping Rarity in general, you mean? I haven’t noticed you calling in anyone else. You’re saying we haven’t been enough?”

“No, Aiden, that isn’t-”

“Because he wouldn’t have made a difference… General.”

“Aiden, that’s-”

“The Spire Assault crippled him!”

Most of the faces at the table contorted into winces. Grumman simply looked stunned. “...What?”

"Just what I said. You surely noticed he was different after that? He held himself together through excessive use of his talent and sheer force of will." Aiden snorted lightly. "There's a reason he preferred being called that. Not that I blame him... who names their kid 'Lero'? Point is, when he left, he told me that he didn't think he'd live much longer. His body was falling apart and he couldn't keep hiding it. He pulled through, obviously, but he can't fight anymore. I honestly don't know his physical condition but that much he's told me. There's a strong 'let's not discuss it' vibe, and I respect that. He's earned his privacy."

Aiden sighed deeply. Rarity gently put a hoof to his shoulder. He turned to her, smiling wanly. “As to how it happened... You won’t find many Espers willing to discuss the Spire Assault, but almost everyone knows the generalities. Rarity, I’m sorry I’ve avoided talking about it.”

She shook her head. “You don’t owe me explanations, darling.”

“No, I meant what I said the other day. Most of this stuff is common knowledge.”

“You say that, but it’s not…” Aaron spoke up. “I don’t know much about it.”

“I’ve never heard a firsthand account, actually.” Valerie added, and Talia nodded encouragingly.

He turned to Johnathan, his already weak smile becoming anemic. “You want to tell the tale?”

He held up his hands in a warding gesture. “We both know you could do it better justice. I got knocked out early on; I’m lucky I survived.”

“We all were. In any case, the basics for starters.” He took a deep breath, and let it out slowly. “The Spires were the last major battle of the war in terms of casualties, and the Oni trump card. Here in the States many called them Cardinal Spires because four were launched at us, at key points in the four cardinal directions. South was near Houston, intended to destroy the Johnson Space Center, among other things.” He sighed, looking away. “They succeeded; the South team was wiped out completely, along with thousands of people who hadn’t evacuated far enough to escape the eventual blast. North was in North Dakota, at a spot I knew nothing about… but as it turned out we had a major weapons and materiel development lab there, of key importance to the war effort for us.”

Grumman coughed delicately. “We thought it was well hidden.”

Aiden continued, giving Grumman a sympathetic nod. “West was close to here: their target was Adstrum. Donovan and Johnathan were both here, along with Knight Captain Suen, who had to retire afterwards.”

“Again, I wasn’t there for most of it. I was nearly killed at the gate, just getting us through their first line of defense.”

“To hear Donovan tell it later, without you that’s all the further any of them would have gotten.”

Johnathan twitched in surprise, staring at Aiden a moment. He then smiled, but didn’t reply.

“Lastly was East, between Baltimore and Washington DC. I ended up there, along with the rest of Outrage.”

Rarity interrupted. “I thought Donovan was in that squad with you.”

Aiden blinked. “Good memory. He was, but he’d taken a trip home to visit family when the attack hit.” He smiled wryly. “Guess his replacement.”

“...Vera?”

“Got it in one. They’re both heavy hitters in terms of energy attacks, and if anything Vera’s better in close combat; she’s the faster of the two. ...I’m getting sidetracked here. Williams and his squad hit the North Spire. Basically, each Spire was a massive tower designed to gather in magic, resonate with the other towers, and destabilize the Aetheric Field across the connecting area.”

Rarity’s eyes widened. “So if left unchecked…”

“The ‘area’ would have been the entire continental United States, and further amplified outward to most of North America, in this case. They had incredible range, but the ones on other continents didn’t connect with any of the ones here. Four were also launched at Europe, Africa, and South America. Asia got six, Australia two. Understand, destabilizing Earth’s Aether Field would inconvenience Espers a bit, particularly the weaker ones.”

“Present.” Johnathan said, holding a hand up with a self deprecating grin.

“But it would kill every normal human that didn’t awaken to magic from it. It was a genocidal attack… and they held off using it until they were sure they were losing otherwise.”

“That’s horrible.”

“And confusing. They had a win button the whole time, and they didn’t use it until we had a chance to counter it. By then, the surviving Espers had the training and experience to win our fights more often than not. Hell even most non-Esper militaries could hold their own, to a point. The tide had long turned.”

Cade spoke up. “In truth it confirmed what people had long suspected by that point. The Oni-koru did not come here to wipe out humanity; rather to fight humanity. As soon as they learned that normal humans couldn’t survive unstable aether fields, they stopped causing them in heavily populated areas. Over half the civilian casualties of the war happened during two time frames: the first week, and the Spire Assault, when they apparently decided they would try wiping out humanity after all. Even then, it was as much that as ‘now that you’re ready, here’s everything we have’.”

Aiden nodded grimly. “It really was…”

------------------------------------------Six Years Ago------------------------------------------

“Report!” Paladin Williams’ voice came through the communicator.

“Trellis here in the West. Captain Suen is a bit busy! Oni General Laurus engaged. We have five remaining Espers, Marine support had to bug out when the local Field began to destabilize. But we’ve got this.”

The connection to the Southern Spire was silent; and they all already knew why.

“This is Windborne in the East! Our Captain is dead, we’ve left wounded behind to evacuate. Elleway is… twitchy.”

“I’m fine! Shut up! There’s voices behind us, keep moving!”

“The last defenders leading up to the control room hit her with some kind of psionic device, but we’re the last two left here.”

“I am five by five, sir! Let’s end this.”

“Understood. Both of you, be careful. You’ll have at least a General waiting for you.”

“How are things on your end?”

“My team is gone; I sent them away after getting this far… I’m staring Caedum down, Aiden.”

“...Shit. Will… be careful.”

He chuckled. “You do the same. Remember, no matter what happens, we have to deactivate at least two of them to prevent a huge field from forming. Millions of lives, Windborne. Do what you have to, no matter what.”

“You talk like you’ve already lost, man.”

“...See you further down the road, my friend.” the connection cut out.

“Dammit. Vera! We are taking down whoever’s behind that door!”

“Yes, sir!” She fired a blast of aether, frying the supports before Aiden hit it with a telekinetic burst like a giant battering ram. The reinforced, aether shielded door crumpled inward before tumbling across the inner chamber. It was then knocked aside by the room’s sole inhabitant.

She wore a wide, fanged grin, light armor that flattered her form more than it would protect it, and carried a large, familiar greatsword in one hand. White hair was tied back into a tight bun over coppery skin. Haughty, cruel red eyes stared down her opponents, belying the long, elfin ears that seemed to twitch in happy anticipation as she chuckled.

“Sorry to disappoint you, little hero. You get the newest General. Please treat me well?”

Aiden snorted, drawing both bastons. “...Keia Luxuria. Congratulations on the promotion.”

“Why thank you! You really have grown up well; I still remember that little boy screaming ‘I hate you!’. Your manners are much better now.” She tilted her head, and her gaze shifted to Vera. “...Not perfect, of course… showing up with another woman.”

Vera laughed darkly. “No need for jealousy… frankly you’re more my type than he is.”

Keia’s eyebrow shot up, and her grin got even more smug. “...Truly, now?”

“Mhmm. I just want to nibble on those ears of yours… give me a hug…”

Vera vanished in a blur, appearing behind Keia with both hands crackling with energy. The Oni spun immediately, her blade impacting those hands as the attack became a block. Vera’s eyes went wide as she was pushed away by the force of it. A follow up blast from the sword’s tip hit the wall where she’d been thrown, but she’d already rolled to the side.

Aiden came through a portal just to Keia’s right. Before she could recover her stance, both bastons, wrapped heavily in telekinetic force, stuck her side. She was flung away, and off balance, too much so to stop herself from flying through a portal. Vera blinked. “That was…”

Keia reappeared next to Aiden, smoke streaming off her form from fighting her way out of his pocket verse through raw power. It had taken a bit out of her, and her counterswing was knocked away before a weak blast of energy from her free hand let her get distance.

It wouldn’t last as Vera landed an enhanced kick to the side of her head, sending her sprawling. But several blasts from her sword tip forced Aiden and Vera back, while filling the room with smoke. A pair of portals siphoned it off while another pair pulled air back into the room in exchange. Vera swore. “Where did she…?!”

She spun as Keia’s blade nearly impaled her from behind, instead cutting deep into her side. Keia screamed as the area around Vera exploded in electrified aether as the smaller woman countered what should have been a killing blow. Aiden flung a baston at the distracted, wounded Oni, and as she lifted her blade to block it, a portal opened.

The baston went through, and as Keia’s eyes widened it came out at another angle, smashing into the back of her head with enough force to crack her skull and send her tumbling to the floor. She bounced up and to the side by slamming her hand down and spinning away. Vera tried to follow, but snarled and grit her teeth as she listed to the side and collapsed, blood spurting from beneath the hand that was holding her side. Keia regained her feet, stumbling a little but able to block Aiden’s follow up strike. His second baston came at her in a telekinetic grip; she caught it with her free hand and tried to yank it away, only to succeed too easily as he let it go. The moment of surprise allowed him to channel the telekinetic force surrounding it into displacing energy; the baston became a portal blade.

Keia screamed as her hand was torn apart by laser-like energy carving through her palm, pulling inward to Aiden’s pocket verse with a force like heavy gravity. She cut her arm off at the elbow and leapt away from the effect.

Right into another attack as Aiden came through a portal on her now crippled side. His fist impacted her ribs, transferring telekinetic force, alongside the mundane sort, through her torso, cracking bones and sending her flying into the wall. The baston he still held followed her, smashing into and through her good shoulder, pinning her before she could rise. She grabbed it awkwardly, but still had more than enough aether to prevent Aiden from repeating the portal blade trick. He needed distractions to divide her attention, and he was out of them. It was fine; the fight was over. She pulled the weapon out while her discarded sword fell into a portal.

“It’s over, Keia. You still have plenty of magic left, but you can’t move properly like that. We’ll just pummel you to death at this rate.”

“‘We’, you say? My date seems to be too busy bleeding out to help you.”

“Not likely. Vera’s tougher than that. If I can feel it, you damn sure can.”

Keia grinned up at him while slowly rising to her feet. Standing, she was a bit over six feet tall. He fought back a little envious surge. “I suppose so,” she admitted. “It was a good fight, little hero. Thank you. It’s a pity you won’t have a complete victory today. General Maegren won his battle in the South. When you deactivate this Spire, there’ll be no one to deactivate that one. Without all four shutting down at once, they’ll all detonate.”

“Better than everyone on this continent dying.”

“Not everyone… you would live, as would other Espers. Even some few of the humans out there would be awakened by the effect rather than die from it, we believe. The rest can be reborn one day.”

“Gosh, Keia, you should go into sales. I’m practically ready to just walk out and let it all happen.” He rolled his eyes and went to check on Vera. As much as he hated to admit it, he knew Keia well enough to know that she wouldn’t try anything desperate. He turned Vera over gently, and his eyes went wide at what he saw.

Vera’s face was pale, and her eyes were staring at nothing. Her head shook back and forth as though denying whatever she thought she saw. “Windborne… there’s… there’s so many voices… I hear them. They weren’t behind us! They were all around… a perfect circle. Golden...”

“Vera! Focus! We’re not out of this yet! I need you to get away from here. This place is going up, and I have to do everything I can to minimize the blast.”

“...Golden rat… what?” She blinked, her eyes focusing. “Shit… ugh… Aiden! I’ve lost too much blood; the room’s spinning. I… let me do it.”

“No. We’ve got a few minutes before activation. I’ll get you out and come back; the shielded tanks are still at the outer perimeter. You’ll be safe in one of them.”

“There’s too much shielding for your portals, dummy, remember? If there wasn’t, we would’ve gotten in a lot faster! It’ll take too long to get out through that labyrinth and come back again. Let me hit the switch. I can’t get away, but you can. Get distance, and shield yourself inside your verse. Hell, just hop in right now and you’ll be fine, right?”

“Doesn’t quite work that way, and if I do, everything within ten miles dies in aetheric fire. Not happening. If I stay, I can minimize the-”

“And die trying!”

“Maybe not!”

“Excuse me, little hero. I have an alternative.”

Vera glared balefully at the defeated Oni General. “What… you gonna press it for us?”

Keia laughed. “Don’t be silly. I lost but I’m no traitor. No, I’ll carry you away to safety. You wouldn’t escape without help, and the little hero here won’t leave this place to explode when the signal comes through from the Western Spire.” She smiled easily. “Your friends won there.”

Aiden sighed in relief. “Donovan?”

“He lives, as does his Captain, though barely. Laurus fought poorly, falling back on cowardly tactics in an effort to win. He won’t be missed.”

Aiden nodded. “I can trust you to get her to safety?”

“Aiden!”

“Quiet, Knight Elleway. This is an officer’s decision.”

“The Hell with that, you can’t-”

She fell through a portal, and could be heard yelling from down the hall they’d earlier entered through. Keia chuckled. “Why not just keep her in there?”

“She still has enough magic to force her way out. It’s not a holding cell. ...If she doesn’t make it…”

“Oh don’t threaten me, little hero. She flattered me, and she fought well. You would not have won alone. Killing her now would be unsightly.”

“Hmph. Mercy is for the strong, right?”

“So the Grand Marshal has always said, and so too do I believe.” She grinned, holding out her remaining hand. “A pity we met as foes. And yet, what a wonderful honor. You won’t survive this, but I will remember your name, Aiden Alexander Windborne.”

“Heh,” he grasped her hand firmly. “Don’t count me out just yet.”

“I look forward to seeing your efforts. ...I don’t suppose I could get my sword back?”

“Nope. You need to carry Vera.”

“But my armor has a clasp on the back for it…”

“Noooope.”

She sighed dramatically. “Fine… I’ll forge another, for what it’s worth. The war is all but over, now. Every continent has stopped the potential for absolute destruction, although your losses will be great. I’m sure our king will flail a bit longer, but Caedum will eventually make him see reason.”

“For a given value…”

“Naturally. Sanity, however you pretend you define it, does not entice us. Farewell, little hero.”

“See ya around, General Keia Luxuria.”

She turned and walked out the door, towards Vera’s distant, angry shouting. Aiden sighed, and turned to the enormous spell matrix in the middle of the room.

Inscribed on a spherical crystal the size of a van, innumerable glowing runes spelled out two forms of death in a language Aiden couldn’t read. He didn’t need to. He tore open the shielding on the control panel, and hit a button to retract the heavily aether resistant, clear polymer case that enclosed the crystal. His eyes widened as, with a second button press, the roof above the crystal opened like a skylight, revealing a beautiful, sunny day. He swore. Could they have escaped that way? It looked to be an ejection system for the crystal, but he couldn’t eject it and deactivate it. He shook his head; he had to be here either way. He could feel the menace of the thing now. With a single button press, he could end most of that menace by trading it for another, lesser form.

“This is Knight Lieutenant Aiden Windborne reporting in,” he said, tapping his headset with a brush of magic to activate it again. “The Eastern Spire is secure. Knight Elleway is evacuating the area. Report in please; I’ll wait as long as I can to deactivate.”

“Ready when you are, buddy.”

He smiled softly. “Donny boy?”

“Yes, sir. We’re good to go, here. I think I can channel the blast up so there’s no damage.”

“Heh. They’re lucky to have you. Give us a good light show. Hey, bonus points if you can aim it at one of the Oni ships in orbit.”

“Ooh, I love a challenge.”

Aiden grimaced, feeling cold despite the camaraderie. Another voice hadn’t-

“This is Williams! Detonate immediately!”

Aiden’s eyes went wide. He didn’t sound good… “...Lero…”

“Pfft. You must be worried if you’re using my first name. I’m fine! I can hold Garken a bit longer, and catch us both in the blast. There’s no reason to delay! Do it; that’s an order!”

There was a reason. If Will could win, and get even a minute to recover and strengthen himself…

“Aiden! I cannot beat him! He’s stronger than he’s ever let on; stronger than any of their Generals by far. We have to- Hkk-”

“You have to stay focused, young one…” Bones could be heard popping, followed by a detonation of energy and Williams coughing.

Aiden grit his teeth at hearing that voice. He could practically feel Caedum’s hand around his own throat. “Dammit! Donovan, brace! Will… don’t die! Garken… to go Hell!” His fist slammed down on the button that shut down the sequence. The glow of the runes changed, pulsing for a moment as feedback built.

It was more than enough time. Aiden opened a portal, dropping the crystal, and himself, in. The Spire’s shielding was specifically designed to in no way impede the blast, so this was all Aiden could do to protect everyone who hadn’t gotten away. A small part of his mind screamed for those he’d condemned with this choice, but there was no other path open. Less than ten seconds… at least two kilometers… He strained, reaching for portal after portal, pulling himself as far into the air as possible.

2.8 kilometers later, the sky lit as the crystal, encrusted with destructive runes and storing incredible amounts of aether, exploded. A hastily erected bubble shield and even the boundaries of Aiden’s pocket verse hadn’t fully contained it. But they’d done enough. The shockwave that reached the ground was comparable to a burst of hurricane gale force winds, but it was fleeting and caused no lasting harm. Aiden was falling, barely conscious and unable to gather any power. He’d been thrown upward and out of his verse by the blast, and his own shielding and natural durability had kept him in one piece. But he had nothing left. He’d fall, and he’d probably die in the landing. Even a First Gen wasn’t going to survive something like this in his exhausted state. And yet… he was okay. As the wind blew past him and the ground came up to meet him, he felt content. The cost had been terrible, but they’d saved millions. He could accept this. ...It was really taking a long time, though.

“Wake up, little hero.” An open palm slapped the side of his face, rather gently given whose palm it was.

His eyes shot open, staring up at Keia Luxuria. Turning, he saw Vera Elleway lying in the grass nearby. She seemed to be asleep.

“She needs time to recover. My strike wasn’t as effective as I’d have liked, but I still nearly killed her. She’ll sleep for a day or two while her magic recuperates. After that, a week or more. ...You’ll recover far faster.”

“...You saved me?”

“I thought it wouldn’t have been such a bad end. If the blast had killed you I’d have been content. But falling to your death after surviving that? Unacceptable. You defeated me… I won’t see your body broken by a lowly fall.”

“Pretty sure this does make you a traitor, now.”

“...Perhaps, but only to my king, not to the beliefs of our way. I’ll make my escape now, and my excuses to his majesty. As to you… your strength earned you this mercy once again. Use it to become stronger, and defend your world. My king… no longer deserves to overcome your kind.”

“...Yeah, definitely a traitor.”

She laughed lightly. “Be well, little hero.” She turned, and walked away.

He tried to tap his earpiece, to hear the results of the other Spires, but it was gone, lost to the blast. He sighed, and shut his eyes. The world could keep walking without him for just a bit.

20. Tea Minus One Week?

View Online

“Huh…” Aaron said, seeming to speak for everyone.

“...Yeah, you definitely told it better than I could have,” Johnathan noted.

Aiden shrugged slightly, tilting his head as he stared blankly forward, lost in thought.

Rarity cleared her throat quietly. “I… thought you said Keia had… passed on?”

He glanced over at her, sighing through his teeth. “I think so, yeah. We heard later that the Generals who failed to defend their Spires were executed by their King. It was their Grand Marshal who told us, so there wasn’t much reason to doubt him.”

Rarity’s eyes widened, her initial anger towards Keia all but forgotten. “That’s horrible. Why would he do such a thing?” She frowned, thinking on it a bit. “Honestly… why would he do such a thing? It doesn’t seem to match their… well… carefree mindset. It’s horrid that they came to your world and caused so much devastation, and yet… they don’t seem the sort to take failure so seriously.”

Grumman nodded. “You’re not wrong, Miss Rarity. Their King was a different sort than the rest of them. I wish I could say more about him, but he never showed himself planet-side that we know of. Yet every indication we had of him suggested he was more driven, and cruel, than any of his subjects.” He grimaced. “It’s been speculated, and I agree, that peace could have been achieved if not for him.”

Cade chuckled. “Soldiers are often more willing to make peace than politicians… they have a better understanding of costs. But if we could set that aside, fascinating though it is. It’s history; the Oni are gone. One of the few Oni ships left needs its batteries charged, and Paladin Williams, crippled or not, may be able to accomplish the task, yes?”

Aiden nodded. “Right… yeah, yeah I can’t see any harm in asking,” he said as he took out his phone.

Grumman cocked an eyebrow. “You’re just going to call him… right now? You’ve had a phone number this whole time?”

“General, are you jealous?” Aiden grinned at him while hovering one finger dramatically over the touchscreen.

“No, Aiden. I’m envious… the word would be envious.” He smiled wryly and shook his head. “In truth I’ve never believed I had any special connection to any particular Esper. I couldn’t allow myself to feel that way and still perform my duties as a leader in wartime. Even so… Bellerophon Williams and I worked together as long as any two in the war. I raised that boy as much as I did you, and several other First Generations who fell under my charge by simple virtue of being from this country.”

Aiden nodded, pressing the screen a few times. “And that’s one reason I stayed where I could be reached easily. ...Or so I’d say, if you hadn’t arranged it with Aunt Lynn’s house and all. Will wanted to get away from the world even more completely than I did. Only natural, since he was more famous…” he grinned. “And I can duck away from reporters easier than pretty much anyone, if it comes to it.”

“I don’t quite understand, darling. Why does Paladin Williams have so many names?”

Aiden chuckled. “Sent him a message. Shouldn’t take him long. And he doesn’t. Lero is short for Bellerophon, his first name. He kinda hates it because it’s odd, as were clearly his parents, so he got teased a lot in school… before the war started, of course. So he prefers Will, which would be short for his last name, in case that wasn’t obvious. ...Now that I think about it… there’s pegasus ponies on your world, right?”

“Yes…?”

“Heh. Maybe he’d be okay with using it there then.”

Rarity tilted her head, wordlessly asking for an explanation, when Aiden’s phone beeped.

“Ahh, good. Like I said, he keeps up with Discord.”

“With who?!” Rarity exclaimed.

“Who… what?”

“You said… oh nevermind for now. What does he say?”

He stared at her with a raised eyebrow a moment, then shrugged. “Given what’s been happening he’s not surprised to hear from me. I’m putting it on speaker.” He tapped the screen a couple more times. “Can you hear me?”

“Yeah, Aiden, I hear you,” a soft baritone answered. “This is more than just getting an Oni ship into space, isn’t it? NASA’s already accomplished that much.”

“It’s good to hear your voice, Paladin.” Grumman said, smiling. Rarity remembered that smile from when she’d first met the General. He didn’t wear it often enough.

“...General? I’ll say the same. It’s been awhile. My fault, of course, but I’m glad to hear from you, just the same. So what’s this really about?”

“We do need a ship into space… and further to another world. We’ll have our exact destination worked out soon. We can’t just go to NASA though, not given our passenger, who needs the ride home. We’re not ready to disclose her presence to the world. It would introduce too many variables. Once we have safe passage secured between our worlds, I’ll revisit that matter.”

There was a moment of silence. “I’m guessing not an Oni?”

Grumman snorted. “If the Oni still have a home world, they’ve erased it from any records we’ve ever recovered. Our guest is a unicorn. Say hello, Rarity.”

“Hello, Rarity,” she intoned.

Aiden blinked. “Huh… you guys have that joke, too?”

“Some things seem quite universal, darling.”

Will chuckled on the other end of the line. “That’s a surprise. ...This wouldn’t be related to that old book I’ve seen you carry around, would it?”

“It would indeed, young man. I’d be happy to relate the full story to you, though I’d prefer to do so in person.”

“Reasonable. Where are you now?”

“Sacramento, at Adstrum Technologies. As Aiden may have mentioned, they’ve offered a ship but we need the aether batteries charged fully. Equus, her home world, isn’t across the street.”

“Unfortunately, neither am I. I moved back to Baltimore… near there anyway.”

“Perfectly acceptable, that’s not too far from General Grumman’s current base of operations,” Johnathan said. “Can you meet us there? That way you don’t have to give away where you’re living now.”

“We’ve taken to calling it Fort Friendship.” Aiden interjected. Rarity rolled her eyes, but smiled.

Will chuckled. “...Fort Friendship it is then. I’ll go there after meeting all of you elsewhere, for tea.”

"I will only accept coffee," Aiden replied.

"Monstrous... but in the spirit of friendship I accept, for now," Will countered.

Grumman had tilted his head slightly, frowning. “Distrust, young man?”

“Prudence, General," Will corrected amiably. "Aiden can take me to anywhere, from anywhere, with no one really able to notice or follow. He can take you to a location of my choosing in the same fashion. At this point, I don’t need to tell you that your Fort Friendship is a hotbed of media activity. That mess with Veritech was a ticking time bomb. Now that it’s gone off, I don’t want to increase the speculation by showing up there in plain sight. They see ‘The First Esper’ rolling up after everything that’s already happened, when I’ve been MIA for over five years…”

“I understand. Though you should know that the reason we’ve had open hostility with Veritech after all these years is because Rarity appeared there. She found a Command Crystal, fully charged and waiting, on her world. She activated it by mistake, via her people’s natural aetheric abilities, and was returned along with it to its ship of origin.”

“That’s… remarkable. It stuns me that one of those crystals could store that much energy. I’m guessing her world can’t be too close to us, or we’d have noticed in the records we’ve stolen from the Oni.”

“Quite true. We don’t believe she’s from our galaxy, at this point. We’re decrypting the Crystal and will know for certain within days. That said, magic doesn’t follow the usual rules, as you know better than most. My point in bringing it up is that… one way or another that media hotbed is only going to get hotter. Either we establish peaceful contact with an alien civilization by helping one of its citizens get home, or we fail spectacularly, possibly expose our goals, and keep going by continuing to get ships from other sources. Again, the primary reason I haven’t already brought NASA in on this is because I’m not ready to expose Rarity to any of the possible xenophobes out there… particular any among the Esper population. ...Prudence, as you’ve said.”

“As usual, we’re on the same page, General. I do appreciate the occasional nostalgia. I’ll let Aiden know where to meet, in five days. Between then and now, I’ll focus on shoring up my energy. As I’m sure he told you before this conversation, I’m not what I used to be. Still, I think I can help you.”

“Either way, it’ll be good to see you again, young man.”

“You too, General. Aiden, talk to you soon. ...You get to explain this ‘unicorn’ to me, since you hinted about meeting an amazing girl the other day, and now I just have to know if-”

“Oh, hey!" Aiden exclaimed suddenly, "Look at that, wouldn’t you know, the call just got cut off! How surprising and unfortunate!”

“Darling, your fingers are glowing orange… as is your phone.”

“Whaaaat? No… that’s silly. You’re a silly pony, Rarity.” Aiden said loudly as his phone vanished through a portal.

She stared at him with one raised eyebrow, though the grin tugging at her lips killed the deadpan expression she was trying for. “Amazing, eh?”

“...Silly, silly pony.”

“Hey, I’m curious, too. When did you have time to meet an amazing girl? You’ve spent like every waking moment with Rarity. Plus you two sleep together, so-”

Rarity snerked and started giggling while Aiden choked on air and turned to glare at Aaron. “God… dammit… Private…”

“...What?”

Talia patted Aaron’s shoulder. “We’ll explain when you’re older.”

Cade cleared his throat. “We’d be more than happy to provide transport back to Virginia for all of you. I’m assuming Mr. Windborne can carry the vessel through his talent indefinitely?”

“Correct,” Aiden replied, attempting to force down a blush with no real success.

“Then let us go retrieve it, along with any pertinent equipment, and make ready to travel. Johnathan and I will be accompanying you.”

Grumman raised an eyebrow. “Will you, now?”

Cade didn’t budge. “Yes sir, we will. Johnathan is the most discerning aether reader in the world, possibly excepting Miss Rarity here based on what you’ve told us. But she doesn’t know the vessel's components and expected readings as he does. And I’ll be going because, while I agree with this venture, I don’t fully trust Johnathan alone with you. Giving away the ship is one thing, and again I do approve. However… his loyalty to you, and his… enthusiasm for succeeding at even absurd projects requires a cooler head to be present.” He smiled faintly. “Besides… I’d like to be there to see this work.”

Grumman stayed quiet a moment, and then nodded. “Very well then, Mr. Kneargum. I seldom entertain civilian guests, and given recent happenings the accommodations may be a bit Spartan, but we welcome your continued assistance with this.”

“I appreciate that, General. I’m in no position to force the issue, but I really believe that we’ll have the best chance at success working together.”

------------------------------------------

Once again Rarity gazed up at the ship that she was, more than ever, convinced would take her home. She could feel Aiden’s aether building and in just seconds the ship vanished. Her ear flicked as the air in the room resituated itself. The flower tucked there felt warm for a moment; it seemed to still have some connection to Aiden’s pocket verse. She made a mental note to ask him about that when they were alone. It was one thing to worry about disturbing any of the… bodies that may still have been there. Were they preserved by the same aether that kept the rest of the place pristine? But how could flowers grow? It did seem to be light or dark based on day or night, but rain? And why did Aiden seem so odd about the fact that she’d taken it? So many questions.

“So many questions, Mr. Windborne,” Cade said, echoing her thoughts.

“Eh?” he asked distantly, as more portals absorbed the other pieces of equipment that might be useful, as Johnathan went about the room pointing them out.

“With a talent like this you could do practically anything… perhaps more so than Mr. Williams, even had he maintained his strength. Yet you chose to fade away, and pursue a simple life of manual labor.”

“What, you mean like bankrobbing or something?”

“...Or something.”

Aiden chuckled. “One of my first memories is watching my sister Moira play video games. One of her favorites ends with the hero seeming to sacrifice himself to let his friends escape a castle that’s collapsing into the sea. They all thought he died. But the epilogue shows him getting out… and going to work in a village, tending the fields. I remember the line ‘that sounds like just what I need right now.’ ...I didn’t get it back then. Why wouldn’t the hero go back out adventuring again? He’d won! He could go be a hero and get a parade or whatever. But whoever wrote that line understood. And I did, too, after the war ended. Doing something simple, but honest, and quiet… yeah, that was exactly what I needed after the war ended.”

“I see…” he smiled. “I can understand that… better than I can say, in fact. Still, there are exciting times ahead, and you can no longer avoid them. Are you ready?”

Aiden blinked, then chuckled. “I can see why Johnathan needs you around. I think… I’m ready to be ready. If that makes sense. I feel like saying ‘I’m ready’ will jinx it somehow and I’ll get hit with something completely unexpectable. I believe we’re walking the right path.”

“Then I eagerly await the destination.”

------------------------------------------

Aboard another plane, after a limo ride whose tinted windows had made Rarity’s presence a non-issue, the emotional roller coaster of the day had caught up with them. Aiden and Rarity sat together, strapped in and leaning against each other, sound asleep.

Valerie was grinning as she watched them. She discreetly snapped a picture, to be sent to one Lynn Marcusson. Grumman was busy with some correspondence on his tablet, Aaron was listening to a podcast through a headset, and Talia and Johnathan were both looking over something on the latter’s laptop. But Cade watched Valerie from a seat away. “Is it so easy to accept this level of… familiarity with an alien being?”

“Should it not be?” she asked in return. “It might be another matter if Grumman didn’t have the information he has.”

“Knowing her language, and the state of her world 1500 years ago… that isn’t nothing… but is it enough?”

“No… having met her, and knowing that… actually just having met her, it’s enough. You spoke to Aiden yourself. You know the life he chose?”

Cade nodded.

“He gave that all up, in just minutes, after meeting her. And while we all joke about it, and you see there,” she gestured to the sleeping pair, smiling fondly, “they’ve formed quite the bond… it’s not easy to put into words.”

“Species aside… love at first sight?”

Valerie covered her mouth to stifle an outburst of laughter. “No, no, and that’s exactly what I mean. They way they were pulled towards each other, and the way we’ve all gravitated around her, pulled together to help… the way it’s all felt like the right thing to do… there’s a connection between us. Our two peoples. It’s something that, now that we have the chance, we’re seeking to rekindle. I think… more than anything else we gained from the Oni, in the face of all we lost to them… this we owe them thanks for.”

“I see. Perhaps I’ll understand better in time.”

Valerie frowned slightly. “You’ve seemed rather cool to the whole situation. I thought you approved?”

He smiled faintly. “I do, Corporal. I simply don’t do so as fervently as the rest of you, it would seem. This is a unique opportunity and I’d be a fool not to seize it. But I needn’t do so in blind enthusiasm. Whatever magical friendship power is hovering in the air around us, it seems to be avoiding me and I’m quite content with that.”

Valerie chuckled. “Fair enough then. But I reserve the right to say ‘I told you so’ the moment I see you join our little herd here.”

He laughed lightly. “So noted.”

21. Side by Side

View Online

Between Johnathan and Rarity they were able to shield everyone well enough to traverse a short distance via Aiden’s portals. Rarity was a bit surprised how easy it was to channel magic for such a shield, despite not having done it before. Between seeing it, more importantly feeling it, and a brief bit of advice on fine-tuning from both Aiden and Johnathan; it wasn’t difficult. She probably could’ve handled it herself, but she got the sense Johnathan wanted to feel useful. It was a bit odd coordinating the shield with him; she wasn’t used to being the one having to hold back so others could keep up. If anything though, it was more useful practice than simply outputting at a convenient level and holding it. This took more control, and that would be… what, exactly? She wasn’t sure, but she couldn’t help feeling that this would be somehow helpful. All too soon, the group found themselves safely within the cluttered remains of the Fort Friendship’s garage. Most of the vehicles had been destroyed, and none had escaped the carnage unscathed. At the elevator, two golems made of metal seemed to be guarding the door.

“Well well well… if it isn’t the A Team,” the gold one said.

“It isn’t,” the red one answered before any of them could.

“Oh right. So… it’s… you! ...How bout that…?”

Grumman sighed. “Tom… Crow… what are you two doing out here?”

“Guarding the elevator, sir!” the gold one replied.

“Awaiting further orders, your lord high Generality, sir!” the red one chimed in.

“Tom… I’ve asked you not to call me that.”

“Yes you did, and it was a request, not an order!”

“Consider it an order.”

“Consider me not in the military!”

“...”

“Tom, not now,” Valerie said tiredly.

“Understood, ma’am. I’m sorry, ma’am.”

“It’s fine, Tom. You and Crow are relieved here. Go down to heavy weapons storage and clear out sufficient space to park the ship we’ve brought. Given our losses during the recent attack, it shouldn’t take much, and we can’t do anything with it while it’s in Aiden’s pocket dimension.”

“On our way, ma’am!” With that, the two of them summoned and boarded the elevator.

Grumman eyed Valerie sidelong. “I wish you’d programmed them to be a bit less snide.”

Valerie grimaced. “It was… mostly Bradley’s ideas there.”

Grumman winced. “I take it back; they’re fine as they are. Speaking of which though… I have two more letters to write, after we visit the infirmary to pay our respects. Rarity, Aiden, I’m afraid I have to insist you both come along. You won’t be able to attend any funerals for them.” As he said that, the elevator dinged back to their level, and they all boarded for the upper floor.

Aiden nodded grimly. “No one knows we’re involved, if we were seen… especially Rarity…”

“Exactly.”

Rarity sighed deeply, and while it was mostly sadness for those that had died, there was a hint of frustration in it. “I understand the reasoning, but I’ve never been fond of avoiding attention. This isn’t just my ego talking either… the world should know what they fought and died for. They deserve that much.”

“I agree wholeheartedly, Miss Rarity. But for now, honoring what they fought for means keeping you as safe as we can. And that means-”

“Yes, General, I know,” Rarity grit her teeth. “I just don’t have to like it.” Aiden’s hand found her withers, squeezing gently in support. She leaned against him, focusing on the contact rather than her anger.

“I understand, Miss Rarity. Believe me, I do. For now, let’s say our goodbyes in private, as befits a family. Their own families will each get the chance to do the same. And sometime soon, they’ll know the good cause that we’ve all fought for.”

------------------------------------------

Hamada was waiting for them in the infirmary, alongside five covered, occupied beds. Each covering sheet had a name, but the faces were covered. With a slight grimace, Rarity realized they didn’t have the sorts of deaths that went with open caskets.

It was… easier than she had thought it would be. Perhaps it was that she’d already steeled herself, or simply the honest fact that she had really only met any of them once. That their faces were covered might have been intentional as well. She felt a deep sadness at their loss, and still a twinge of guilt, but she didn’t break down. This situation, these brave men and women… they deserved her strength, not histrionics. Grumman said a few words, and Rarity somehow knew she’d always remember them.

“We won’t ever forget. We walk forward because you gave us the chance to keep doing so. The world is better for your time in it, and poorer for your loss. We’ll do everything we can to build a better one, to honor all that you made possible. Rest well, we’ll take up your burdens from here.”

Valerie smiled softly. “See ya around, Bradley. I’ll try to keep Tom and Crow in line.”

Aaron saluted. “Save us a seat at the table, guys. We don’t plan to join you soon, but we’ll get there.”

------------------------------------------

Meditation had once been a curiosity for Rarity, and little more. It was useful for unicorns with stronger magic, or who studied to increase their ability. It was particularly important for those who had a special talent for magic, as their emotions could amplify their power to a dangerous degree. She still remembered Twilight bursting into (thankfully harmless) flames in her frustration at Pinkie. It seemed Starlight had similar power, and Rarity wouldn’t be surprised to hear Sunset did as well. That wasn’t even going into what the alicorns could do…

But Rarity? She’d never considered herself strong enough to need that sort of concentration. Oh, she’d put a great deal of effort into improving her telekinetic control, and the few spells she knew she knew well enough to cast practically in her sleep. But improving her magic for its own sake, like Twilight had? That had never really occurred to her, until recently.

She slowly exhaled through her nose. Joyeuse, floating in front of her, sung quietly in the recesses of her mind. Aether flowed around and through her; it too sang of life, serenity, and beauty. The earth beneath her was austere, strong and reliable. She could share it with every step, even above the ground as she was in their room. The air around her brought life and warmth, urging her forward with calm patience. Through the open window, nature sang its song to her, vibrant life begetting more magic. Aether flowed gently around the spirals of her horn, lifting another object in the room. That made forty-two, perfectly positioned in the air around her. Their pattern changed, reflecting her thoughts.

She remembered the pain of her time in the lab. Her ear flicked, but her concentration didn’t waver. The warmth of the flower tucked by that ear offset the unpleasant memory. Understanding what she could overcome made the memory a source of strength.

She remembered watching Samuel die. Her jaw clenched; still the magic flowed without wavering. Betrayal was another pain she could draw strength from, but it was different. She remembered too that it wasn’t watching Samuel die for his betrayal… it was watching Aaron, her friend, protect her. It was seeing Aiden, Donovan, Valerie, and Talia all doing the same. The bonds they had forged… those were her strength as well. Another object lifted… until it coughed.

Rarity opened her eyes, and giggled. “Sorry, darling.”

Aiden, floating in the air in a sitting position, pretended not to notice, hiding his face behind a translated copy of Grumman’s Equestrian tome. “Just sitting here, reading about ponies and such. Not floating in the air because my roommate keeps levitating me because she’s bored or anything…”

She grinned, shutting her eyes again and setting him gently back down. His aether… and the aether in the air that flowed through and around him… they were comforting as well as bolstering. She hoped it was the same for him. “I am not bored, darling. I am waiting for the opportunity to start working again, which will be tomorrow. In the meantime, I am practicing channeling more aether while feeling the various flows in forms I had never noticed back in Equestria.”

“It’s impressive work. I’m good with a dozen or so objects at once, but past that I start losing track of what I’m doing.”

“I honestly think it’s the windchimes in your head,” she continued grinning at him, but kept her eyes shut as her levitated army of clutter shifted patterns, forming the rough shapes of a pony and human dress form. “Besides, I get the feeling you’ve focused on force rather than precision and multitude. I once watched Twilight lift over one hundred tons, and on another occasion throw To- a boulder through her own house.”

Aiden cocked an eyebrow. “Twilight sounds a bit high strung.”

Rarity giggled. “Far be it from me to call anypony such, but… perhaps a bit. She’s also a wonderful, amazing friend who has saved Equestria on multiple occasions. She’s Princess Celestia’s pride and joy, with good reason.”

“As I recall, you played a bit of a roll in a few of those ‘save the world’ missions yourself. ...Despite being a, what was it? ‘Simple businessmare’?”

Rarity pawed the air at him. “Oh, I may have helped a bit where I could, but I’d say my friends deserve more credit. Alas, you’ve been unfortunate enough to meet the least remarkable of us.”

Aiden snorted. “I don’t think false modesty suits you. ...Speaking of suits though… that’s an interesting pattern you’ve weaving there.”

“I did tell you I intended to design something for you. After seeing that you took almost nothing in terms of clothing from your home I can only assume your need for something formal to wear is pressing.” She opened one eye to glare playfully at him. “You do intend to wear something nice to our victory party before taking me home, don’t you?”

He blinked, then smiled. “I imagine so. Wouldn’t do to offer a lady such as yourself a dance while dressed like a hobo.”

“It most certainly wouldn’t,” she agreed, smiling at the ‘dance’ part. “I’m not sure how well either of us will pull off dancing together-”

“Oh, it’ll probably be terrible. I can dance, but not that well. But that’s with humans, with you I’ve no idea how to go about it.”

“Similar issues here, I must assume. Although I can manage on two legs if I’ve you to lean on.”

“You already know the answer to that. And hey, at least I can’t step on your feet!”

She snorted a laugh. “True enough. In any case, I’ll see to it we at least look fabulous while stumbling around each other.” With that, the laptop that had been part of her levitated menagerie opened as it floated over to her. The rest of the objects found their original positions. Her magic began typing a search as she went back to considering which fashions and styles she liked best from what Earth had to offer.

“All done with the magic practice?”

“In a sense, though as you’ll see dress design isn’t dissimilar to what I’ve been doing, at least for me.”

“We’re still waiting on-”

A knock at their door interrupted him. “Got the supplies Rarity wanted! Donovan had them in his room,” Aaron’s voice came through.

Rarity smiled at Aiden, and her magic opened the door for Aaron. “Waiting on him, yes.”

Aiden chuckled, and turned to Aaron. “Just set them anywhere, she can grab whatever she needs as she needs it. Speaking of Donovan though, how are they all doing?”

Aaron put three large bags containing fabrics, threads, and various tools on the coffee table. “He and Vera will be up and about in a few days, but full recovery will take more like two weeks. They’ll both be conscious tomorrow though, if you want to stop by and see them.”

“There’s not even a question of that, darling,” Rarity said absently, looking over her computer.

Aiden nodded his agreement. “Thanks for bringing these by, Aaron.”

“No problem. It was a nice break from clean up and repair duties. I’m not really trained for any of the technical stuff, so I’m mostly carrying heavy things.”

“Huh… surprised Grumman didn’t ask us to help with that.”

“He said you two needed some alone time,” Aaron grinned.

Aiden rolled his eyes.

“Jokes aside, he did say you didn’t need to be helping rebuild the base. The damage is mostly to the outer structure and the parking garage. The robots are doing the real heavy lifting, and you VIPs are staying out of sight just in case some photographer manages to get inside the perimeter. There’s still several snooping around out there, and some have those drone cameras, you know?”

Rarity blinked, and looked over at the open window. Aiden followed her gaze. “Someone… might have mentioned that to us sooner. Third floor or not we aren’t invisible up here.”

“Huh,” Aaron said, looking over at the window. “Eh, I’m sure it’s fine. I mean, what are the odds some photographer would get a clear shot through this particular window?”

Aiden facepalmed, Rarity facehoofed.

------------------------------------------

“You know, it’s really impressive that you were able to design a dress and suit in a single day, much less complete the work putting them together from scratch.”

“It’s what I do, darling.” The two sat together on the couch, watching the News after a relatively calm day of Rarity working on her designs and Aiden reading through Equestrian early history.

“What surprises me most is your focus. Given all the distractions and noise around here, what with the rebuild… and that.” He gestured to the television.

“More to come on this staggering new development! What exactly are we seeing in this photograph? A new design of robot? A toy line based on the mythical unicorn? Or a new type of alien designed to fool us with its cute appearance? Speculation continues as our reporters on the scene search for answers. Our live coverage will continue after these messages!”

“Yes, that has certainly been a distraction at various points. Aiden dear, would you care to make us another pot of coffee? Ironically I think it would be relaxing right now.”

“Most certainly, Rarity. I’ll go do that…”

22. Observer Effect

View Online

Rarity raised an eyebrow at him. “And if it doesn’t go well?”

“We’ll negotiate over a commiserative pitcher of beer.”

Rarity scrunched her muzzle. “First point of negotiation: wine over beer.”

“Provisionally accepted. But only a red; I don’t care for most whites.”

“Done then.”

“See? Easy. We got this.”

Grumman’s door banged open as Aiden stormed in. The General acknowledged him with a glance. “Come right in, Knight Lieutenant,” he waved before looking back to his tablet, and the footage playing on it.

“...’Come right in’?! Are you bucking kidding me?”

“I happen to know the various connotations for that word, Mr. Windborne.”

“Good! Then I’ve already gotten my point across. Explain… that!” Aiden gestured at Grumman’s tablet.

On the screen, the ‘exclusive, insider information’ played on the Morning News program. Specifically, footage taken from a high resolution camera from just a couple days ago… in the room Aiden and Rarity had been sharing. After a long, tense night of worrying over what would come of this new development, they’d awoken to this.

“It would seem your room was bugged,” he said with blatantly false innocence. “Fortunately you’ve been on excellent behavior.”

Aiden shut his eyes and took a deep breath, letting it out slowly. “General…”

“You’re angry with me and you have every right to be,” he replied, cutting Aiden off. “It also seems clear you’re not going to simply explode, so I will explain. Yes, I filmed everything in that room, as a precaution against this very eventuality. If Rarity’s presence on Earth was discovered before we were ready, it could lead to public outcry. I imagine it still will. But… thanks to this ‘exclusive, candid footage’ obtained by the brilliant investigative reporter that infiltrated our ranks-”

Aiden snorted.

“The public now has a clear picture of a harmless, friendly alien among us, including hours of the two of you interacting available on the channel’s webpage. They also have knowledge that said alien is being looked after by a First Gen war hero. All of this thanks to Channel Six’s intrepid journalistic efforts. ...And do note, none of this would be necessary if you’d kept your damned window shut. It’s camouflaged when it’s closed.”

Aiden pinched the bridge of his nose. “So you sold them this footage, which you’d taken without my or Rarity’s permission, along with a bullshit line about them rigging the camera themselves, so that all this would seem like we got caught hiding a friendly alien?”

“Which is entirely true… the ‘caught hiding her’ part at the least. If the public knew I sold this footage they’d be suspicious.”

“Gosh, wonder why.”

“And of course Channel Six agreed because this makes them look better. It’s a white lie, Aiden, one that serves the purpose of diffusing as much suspicion and public panic as possible. People won’t believe information if they think it was handed to them too easily.”

“And I understand that much… and you know I do. We played that sort of game for years during the war. But…”

Grumman sighed. “But I’ve betrayed your trust and yes, young man, I’m very much aware of that fact.”

“It’d be a different matter if this was some reactive thing, but you were recording from the beginning. You set this all up. Even the jokes about us dating… I bet you encouraged them!”

Grumman cocked an eyebrow. “You can blame yourselves for that… or perhaps Private Cooper. I have no interest in playing matchmaker, even in jest. Nor was it necessary. The two of you have gotten along splendidly, and your behavior, as I said, has been excellent. There is little to nothing in that footage that could turn public opinion against either of you without significant twisting. And of course Channel Six won’t do that, or I’ll expose the true source of the footage they claim to have obtained on their own. I even sold them copies of Mr. Callahan’s photos as further evidence of their journalistic skill, but I’ve kept the originals.

“...Who?”

“Your coworker? ...Craig?”

“Oh… that jackass.”

“Indeed. My point is that this is bigger than your privacy, or even hers. ...For that matter I wouldn’t have handed them anything truly compromising. Had the two of you had any… inappropriate moments…”

Aiden rolled his eyes.

“I would not have allowed those images to leave this compound.”

“Gee, thanks.”

“You’re welcome. ...You’re free to be angry over this. It’d be odd if you weren’t. But I also expect you to understand why I did it. Odds were I’d never need any of the footage recorded and could simply delete it. But if anything happened, to either of you, or if she was exposed before we were ready… having it...”

“Yeah, yeah... I get it. I’ll explain it to her, but don’t expect me to sugarcoat this.”

“I’d be disappointed if you did. If hating me brings the two of you closer, all the better. You two matter… I don’t. Going forward, it will be the two of you who protect each other from the worst our two worlds can throw at you. Because as much as I’d like to say the worst is behind us, that isn’t what I believe.”

Aiden sighed, the anger draining out of him. “...You’re too damned good at this, you know that?”

Grumman chuckled, but there was little humor in it. “I’ve a lifetime of manipulating good people into making the right decisions, which doesn’t take that much talent. You’re a better person than I ever could have been, Aiden. Your exposure may be embarrassing, but you’ve nothing to be ashamed of. Either of you, because the same goes for her. If I have to burn your regard for me to make sure everyone sees that before they can jump to foolish conclusions, I’ll do so a thousand times over. My road to Hell-”

“Won’t be walked alone… Albert,” Aiden shook his head, turning around. “But you’re not forgiven just yet. ...And I’m not saluting,” he turned, flicking a wave with two fingers from his temple as he did so. “...Jerk,” he said over his shoulder, a grudging smile clear in his tone.

Grumman swallowed as his lips twitched, keeping his silence until the door shut behind Aiden. He then laughed quietly, trying to ignore the stinging in his eyes. “Far… far better than I ever could have been.”

He unpaused the Channel Six program, letting it drone in the background as he brought up the file he’d been examining before Aiden’s entirely expected interruption. He had a suspicion, or more like several layered upon one another. “I know you’re out there… I won’t let you stop us,” he muttered into the empty room.

------------------------------------------

Aiden plodded back in, looking rueful, and plopped down on the couch next to Rarity. Despite her dark mood, the sight of him in such a state brought a small grin to her lips. “Let me guess, darling. He managed to explain why this dreadful invasion of our privacy has been ‘for our own good’. I’ll go further and guess that he’s even suggested we can hate him for it but it was necessary.”

Aiden glanced sidelong at her, while still hanging his head. “I thought those diamonds on your ass were about inner beauty, not being psychic.”

Rarity rolled her eyes. “So crass. I don’t need to be psychic to understand what I’m seeing in you.”

He snorted a quiet laugh. “But the whole world sees us seeing things in each other, now. Whatever they care to make of it. I wish he’d told us what he was doing…”

She shook her head. “Even if we’d accepted it, we would have acted differently. I’d say it’s rather clear in the video that we’re unaware we were being watched.”

“Makes sense, since we were unaware. ...You’re not wrong though.”

“When you left, I was suddenly more worried about you and Grumman fighting than anything the television was saying,” she said with a grimace. “I’m not happy with him either, but… I’ve had similar experiences, one even at the hooves of my own sister.”

He cocked an eyebrow. “Sweetie Belle filmed you without you knowing?”

“Well, not quite. She invaded my privacy and wrote a newspaper article about it. It was… well one of their many misguided attempts at a Cutie Mark, she and her closest friends. They learned a lesson from it, and all was forgiven. If I could forgive her for that...”

“Grumman doing it as a way of protecting us... I’m not thrilled with it, but… yeah; I’m with you on that.”

She smiled. “I never doubted.”

“So what now?”

“Let the News stew with what it has. We have more important things to do.”

He smiled. “Visiting Donovan and Vera?”

“Precisely, darling. ...After breakfast.”

“Agreed.”

------------------------------------------

The infirmary beds were empty save for the two they’d come to see, and one other. Doctor Hamada had transferred all other patients to a local hospital once they’d been stabilized, but Donovan and Vera were still there, along with James Leland.

Aiden sighed as he looked at his former comrade. His face was covered by bandages as was his right hand. “Will he survive?”

Doctor Hamada, coffee cup ever present, shook her head but not in the negative. “I can’t say. If not for his gift he’d be dead already, but he’s not recovering beyond just lingering in a coma. His injuries may be too severe.”

“I hate to ask, but have you taken any precautions against him teleporting out the moment he starts recovering?”

“This room is equipped with energy shields that can activate faster than his reaction time, sufficient to block his teleportation ability. I doubt it will be necessary, but I hope he’ll prove me wrong.”

“You do?”

Hamada raised an eyebrow. “He’s my patient. I want him to live. After that he can answer for what he’s done.”

Aiden nodded. “You’re right, sorry for implying otherwise.”

“It’s fine… as to the two you came to see…” With that she led them to the other pair of beds. “Knight Trellis has mostly healed. His injuries were from energy weapons, which are easier for you to recover from, as you’re aware.”

“Yeah… give me a laser over a slug… or a spear,” Aiden muttered, shuddering lightly. Rarity brushed her shoulder against his hand; he smiled down at her.

“Yes… as to Knight Elleway, her injuries are more serious: various skeletal fractures, torn muscles, ligaments, and tendons. Despite what she may think, she will be bedridden for another week, at least.”

“Lies… I will rise like a phoenix from my own ashes…” Vera muttered, eyes still shut.

Aiden blinked. “I didn’t know they were awake.”

Hamada took it in stride. “They shouldn’t be. Knight Elleway is burning away her painkillers because she’s an idiot.”

“I resemble that,” Vera grinned lightly, opening one eye. “But I can also alter my nerve impulses enough to not scream every time I move wrong. By the way… right now all moves are wrong.”

“Morphine would help with that.”

“Nah, need to be clear. I had a weird dream. Aiden and Rarity need to know about it. Plus it’s good to see you both.”

“You too, Vera. I’m so sorry you got hurt,” Rarity said, holding herself on the bed’s edge with her forehooves.

“Mm-mm, it’s fine. I got to zap Owens and help blow up the giant enemy robot. It was a good day, so this is like the hangover afterwards. But I’m serious about that dream, so listen up.”

Aiden tilted his head with a raised eyebrow. “Vera… is this like the voices again?”

“Yes, and by the way those are real. I still haven’t sorted it out but-”

“It was a weapon, Vera, it left a psionic scar.”

“No… Aiden, listen. The voices I heard… they aren’t angry or scary or anything. They’re just… there. Waiting for something, in the wind. I hadn’t heard them for a long time, but recently they’re there again. And anyway this is different. It was a woman… or, no… I’m not sure, but I think I was seeing a pony.”

“A pony?” Rarity asked. She gasped. “Was she taller than me, dark with a mane like the night sky, an elegant horn, and gorgeous wings?!”

Aiden blinked, and then grinned. “Sounds like quite the looker… some lover you neglected to mention?”

Rarity snerked, and began laughing. “No no, darling, not at all. That’s Princess Luna… although yes she is quite beautiful. More importantly she’s the guardian of dreams, the Princess of the Night! If anypony could reach into dreams here…”

Vera shook her head, very slowly. “Sorry, but even with everything and I mean… There was a shadow… and stars behind her, and there was wind blowing all around, but… she looked nothing like that. She was distorted, all shadowy but… I think her mane was white, or silver, and her coat was coppery. And she was small, smaller than you. I think there were wings, but definitely no horn on her head. I couldn’t see her eyes at all, just darkness over her face.”

“That’s… quite odd. A pegasus filly is what you’re describing, I think, but that’s impossible.”

Aiden shrugged. “It’s a dream. I’m not saying ‘just a dream’ but it doesn’t have to make perfect sense.”

“There’s more. She spoke. It was really high pitched, like a child’s voice, but also really loud. ...Like a kid with a megaphone. She had me repeat it but it doesn’t make sense to me: “Recon adven; star’s light cannot pierce sideras veil. Riots blade divides the wind. Draw it to open the path, clearing the way to death.”

“...Anyone else hate dream messages?” Aiden muttered.

“I have no idea what any of that means, darling. Twilight has said that Princess Celestia has prophetic dreams that guide her decisions at times, but I have no idea about interpreting them.”

“Whatever she was trying to tell me, I get the feeling she knew I wouldn’t get it. She… honestly? Kind of sounded like a brat. I felt like she was messing with me,” Vera said.

“Hidden alien.”

They all turned to Doctor Hamada. Aiden spoke first. “What’s that?”

“Recon adven… notice it’s different than the rest of the message? It’s also close to Latin for hidden alien or outsider. I think this is a warning. ‘Clearing the way to death?’ A bit ominous.”

“Riot’s blade wouldn’t mean Joyeuse, would it?” Rarity asked.

“I doubt it. You’ve already drawn it several times, and it’s hardly what I’d associate with a riot. If anything it feels calming to me.”

Rarity nodded thoughtfully; she couldn’t argue that. “What about ‘star’s light and sideras veil? The term ‘sideras veil’ seems familiar but I can’t recall where I’ve heard it before…”

Aiden shook his head. “I got nothin’. Star’s light doesn’t pierce much. Despite what poems and such might say about it, it’s pretty dim. ...So! We come across any riotous blades we leave them alone, use something brighter on whatever that veil is… I guess? And beware hidden aliens. Oh hey, you’re not hidden anymore, so we’re good!”

Rarity raised an eyebrow at him, but couldn’t keep a grin from forming. “Bit flippant, darling.”

“Sorry… I really hate dream prophecies. It’ll all make sense too late.”

“Sorry I couldn’t be more help,” Vera mock pouted.

“On the contrary…” Hamada muttered.

They all looked to her as she looked down at her tablet and continued. “This energy fluctuation… a variance in the wave pattern that is normally seen during an Esper’s REM cycle… I’ve seen it before, when Aiden and Rarity were sharing dreams. But do note that it was not from either of them. It is from an outside source that I cannot trace. ...And you saw an Equestrian.”

“I definitely did,” Vera nodded. "And it wasn’t just ponies on the brain from over-reading that book. It was very clear, almost lucent dreaming.”

“Lucid. And how does one ‘almost’ lucid dream?”

“Yeah, that. Because I knew I was dreaming, but I couldn’t act. It was more like ‘You know I’m here and you’re going to listen. She was quite insistent.”

“I’m not sure how or why that could happen,” Rarity said, looking baffled. “If this same source was trying to reach us I don’t recall it.”

“Me, either.”

“But… but you realize what this means?” Rarity’s eyes went wide as she asked the question.

Aiden blinked, “It could mean… Equestria knows where you are and are trying to reach you? But it could also-”

“No no no, that first option is fine with me, darling!”

“But it-”

“Nope.”

“Well I mean-”

“Nooooope!”

Noooope,” Vera mimicked in Equish. “Hah, that sounds adorable. Why is your ‘nope’ adorable?!”

“Observer bias, darling.”

“...Maybe.”

“Hmm…” Aiden hummed in distraction.

“What?” Rarity said, turning back to him, her ears tucking back in irritation. “I’ll hear none of your negativity about someone playing a trick on us with magical dreams.”

“No no, I’m done with that. We don’t know what the warning means but we can keep it in mind. And if your people know you’re here and maybe even that you’re safe that’s great news and I’m happy to hear it. But I was thinking about news, and then observer bias… which Grumman is trying to swing in our favor…” he grinned, offering a hand to the unicorn. “Miss Rarity… would you care to accompany me on a little outing?”

Just like that her ears popped back up. “Ooh… I think I like that look. Where are we going?” She placed her hoof in his hand, returning his grin.

“Time to give the observers something worth observing; I’ll explain on the way.” With that they both vanished.

Vera blinked and then her eyes went wide. “How far from here is Channel Six’s News studio? The one they’re currently broadcasting from about Rarity?”

Hamada cocked an eyebrow. “You’ve been awake all day, haven’t you?”

“Dammit woman, there’s no time! Where is it?”

Hamada sipped her coffee while staring down Vera without changing expression.

Vera twitched. “I’m sorry. Please, Doctor Hamada-”

“Roanoke.” She tapped a few things on her tablet. “132 miles.”

“Hmph, they’ll be there in like 10 minutes…”

“Closer to 12, unless Aiden is really pushing himself, assuming you’re right.”

Vera grinned, and it greatly resembled Aiden’s grin. “Oh, I’m right alright. I worked with him for five years on and off. I know that grin. He didn’t get it often enough, but when he did… it was a good day. Besides… I still hear the chuckling in my head, fading away.”

------------------------------------------

“It’s astonishing to think that this could be-”

Everypony FREEZE!” Aiden yelled as he and Rarity appeared in the studio, right in front of the newscasters’ desk. For a fraction of a second, everyone did, including the woman that had been speaking.

Then there were several screams and shouts of alarm until orange auras surrounded several who attempted to flee or even move. A blue aura may have grabbed a few as well. Silence fell quickly.

“Okay… now… everyone relax-”

Rarity snerked. “Darling, you said everypony.”

“What? No I didn’t, I said everyone.”

“When we first arrived, you said it in Equish.”

“Nonsense. OKAY! We’re going to give an interview!”

“...”

“...You can say stuff now.”

The head anchor recovered first. “You’re really here to-”

“Declare our love to the world!” Rarity said brightly, with the translator only a fraction of a second behind her delivery, and with all the exuberance.

Aiden nodded. “Indeed so! Ever since we met-”

“When he DARINGLY rescued me from the HORRIFIC clutches of Colonel Owens, that MONSTER-”

“It’s been love at first sight!”

“For us both!”

“And so!”

“And so!”

“You’ll all cordially invited to the first Earth interspecies wedding! ...Invitations pending.”

“It’s actually not uncommon on my world, you know.”

“Until then though…”

“SSTTAAYY TTHHEE BBUUCCKK OOUUTT OOFF OOUURR BBUUSSIINNEEESSSS!” They both said in unison. And with that, they vanished again.

The head anchor blinked, tilted her head, and pouted. “But I didn’t get to ask any questions…”

23. The Strongest

View Online

“Under the circumstances, let’s move this along. I wouldn’t want to infringe on your wedding plans. Would a set of horseshoes and a saddle be inappropriate wedding gifts?”

Aiden snerked as he read the words on his phone. “Probably, Will… but I’ll ask her.”

A different message dinged. “About time you made an honest mare out of her!”

Aiden rolled his eyes, chuckling. “Thanks, Aunt Lynn.”

Will’s message dinged again. “Jokes aside, Aiden. Meet me at Slocum’s Joe, on Baker Street in Baltimore, tomorrow at 10am. I know the owner and he’ll close the place for us. From there we can head back to your Fort Friendship.”

“Hah!” Aiden said aloud, before typing, “Isn’t that a coffee place, Mr. Tea?”

“I mostly come for the donuts… and they serve tea, thank you.”

“Heh…” he was considering another text response before a knock at the door distracted him from the phone. “Come!”

General Grumman entered, looking an interesting combination of annoyed and amused. It wasn’t an uncommon look for him, though Aiden hadn’t seen it in awhile. It was the look he wore when a subordinate had done something stupid enough to be funny, but also stupid enough to be just stupid, and thus required the General to deal with. Aiden grinned innocently. “Oh hi, sir! Fancy seeing you here!”

Grumman rolled his eyes and then pinched the bridge of his nose. “I suppose, young man, I had this coming.”

“Maybe just a little.”

“Where is Miss Rarity? Dare I say dress fitting?”

“Hah! Bath, actually. I think, despite going along with my prank idea, she’s a bit more stressed about this whole thing than she was letting on. I’ll check in on her in a bit, unless you needed to talk to her now?”

“Not necessary. Actually I’ll let you give her the news: we’ve found Equus.”

Aiden blinked. “Huh. I mean I was assuming we’d successfully decode the crystal… but that’s still great to hear. I’m kind of stunned. We’re really going to pull this off.”

“Indeed so, young man, which is why I’m here. I need to know if you’re serious about this. And by this I mean traveling to another world with her. I don’t want to send her alone, and I’ve clearly been grooming you for this, but-”

Aiden chuckled, holding up a hand to stop Grumman from continuing. “You know… before the war, I had a dream for the future…”

Grumman chuckled. “In fact I do. ‘I want to explore space, and be like Yuri Gagarin, John Glenn, and Neil Armstrong. I’m going to be an astronaut when I grow up!’” he quoted in a slightly higher pitch than usual.

“Pfft, okay I knew you had my school records, but you memorized it?!”

“No, I re-read it before coming up here to ask you about this.”

“Ah… okay that makes more sense. For the record, I had a list of twelve astronauts I wanted to use. Something about multiples of six appealed to me. Moira argued me down to three for the sake of keeping it concise.”

Grumman smiled. “From everything you’ve told me over the years, she sounded like an amazing older sister.”

“Yeah, she was that. And she’s all the more reason I’m definitely going. Hell, if you found that crystal and a ship and asked for volunteers to see what’s out there, I’d be first in line. As it is… yeah there’s no question. Rarity is going home. She’s going home to Sweetie Belle. And Twilight Sparkle, Rainbow Dash, Applejack, Pinkie Pie, and Fluttershy… and a bunch of others she’s told me about. If I have to carry her on my back the whole way, we’re getting her back to Equestria. It’s not just for her. Her family needs her back.”

“Heh… and they say you don’t hear anything good about yourself while eavesdropping.” Rarity said as she sauntered into the room, her mane wrapped in a towel.

“Actually you got here too soon. I hadn’t really started extolling your virtues.”

“Just as well I cut that short then, darling. I already know I’m fabulous; we can move onto more pressing, recent developments. ...Like why I have so many followers.”

“...Wat?”

“Excuse me, Miss Rarity?”

“This… Twitter thing. I made an account using the email I created on Google.” She floated her tablet in from the other room and showed it to them. Their eyes went wide. “Many people are ‘tweeting’ at me. It’s a bit overwhelming.”

“Well no shit… Rarity why would you do this?” Aiden said, stuck between horror and hilarity.

She grinned at him. “Honestly? After seeing many of the reactions to our little stunt I decided to sign up for it and see what happened, and look around at what others have been saying. People started finding me very quickly, as you see.”

“Never underestimate the internet, for better or worse.” Aiden noted, while looking over the screen.

“I… can’t say this hurts,” Grumman said slowly. “The more we reach out, the more people can find acceptance in understanding. Or be stymied by their surprise…”

Aiden nodded. “Confusion to our enemies!”

“The human race is not our enemy, Aiden,” Grumman said.

“Eh, some of ‘em are. The rest will figure it out. Oh, speaking of figuring things out, Will bumped up our timetable, in light of current events. We’re meeting tomorrow, in Baltimore, 10am. That work for you?”

Grumman chuckled. “Would it matter if it didn’t? You’re bringing him back here anyway. But yes, that should be fine. I’ll come along for this, as will Valerie. Knight Captain Ferreles and Mr. Kneargum will also join us, I’m sure. With that in mind, I’ll need to finish up a few things today that I had planned for tomorrow. If you’ll both excuse me. Also, Rarity, Aiden has news for you.”

She blinked, looking over to Aiden. “What is it?”

He smiled softly. “We found Equus,” he said. Her eyes, those luminous, amazing blue eyes, went wide as she stared up at him. “We found Equus and we’re picking up Will tomorrow. You could be home within the week.”

Her rump hit the floor as her lips trembled slightly before curving up. She gasped a breath, which became a happy little laugh as she tackled him in a hug. The tablet dropped to the floor, forgotten.

------------------------------------------

Minor Twitter explosion aside, the rest of the day was quiet. They’d just come back from dinner with everyone, and Rarity was finishing her notes on Grumman’s book, including a considerable update to the listings concerning Celestia and Luna. It seemed more urgent to add finishing touches and personal reflections now. But of even more immediate importance, she’d found something.

“Aiden… Sidera’s Veil!”

“Eh? Oh, that thing Vera mentioned?”

“Yes, it’s in the book here? It’s mistranslated in the English version… hmm, that’s rare. But I think it’s because it’s a name. Sidera. She was one of the angel race that brought humans to Equestria.”

“Huh. So she had a veil I take it?”

“Of a sort… she veiled all of Equus, to hide us from another attack by the demon race, after they’d been expelled from our world. Star’s light can’t pierce Sidera’s Veil. ...Hmm, but we certainly do see stars in Equestria. Princess Luna can even move them around…”

Aiden blinked. “She moves… whole stars around?”

“As far as we can see, yes… but now I’m wondering if it’s not something to do with this Veil…” she smiled. “Something to ask her about when I’m home!”

He nodded to that. “Damn right. I’m looking forward to meeting her, all of them, really.”

“And I’m sure they’re going to want to meet you as well. And not just for bringing me home. Is anyone else coming?”

He shook his head. “Not at this point. Vera probably would but she’s just not stable enough yet. She needs counseling, and a quiet environment. She’s been a great help but she’s still too on the brink for something like this.”

“But… you have forgiven her, haven’t you, darling?”

“Yeah,” he said easily, smiling at Rarity for the question. “No question there. She found her way back to us after being lost. But all the more reason she needs to stay here awhile. Even she’d admit that much. Being on a completely alien world is more than she’s ready for. Besides… she’s going to start dating Lily Vualez.”

“Ah, that’s right. ...And non-Espers can’t use the ship, if I recall correctly.”

“You do. The main drive creates a aetheric distortion that’s hazardous to anyone without a natural aether reserve, and we aren’t getting to Equus with nav thrusters. I know we’ll overcome that in time, NASA is already making strides, as is Adstrum, but we aren’t there yet.”

“And Donovan?”

Aiden chuckled. “He’s the least likely. Astrophobic.”

Rarity blinked. “A… fear of... space? That’s a thing?”

“Yep. To hear him tell it: ‘when your special talent is explosions having nothing between you and cold, unforgiving vacuum except a tin can is a big ole nope.’”

She giggled.

“Yeah… they may have to sedate him to get him there one day. But if necessary, Grumman won’t hesitate. For now though, Donovan and Vera need to stay here. In addition to their personal reasons Grumman still needs Espers here he can trust, and who can be a public face for us all. That’s especially true of Donovan.”

“He does play well to the camera, doesn’t he?”

“Yeah, he’s a performer whether he admits it or not.”

“Well, good for him though. Frankly I’ve felt a bit too exposed in the last twenty four hours.”

“Put some clothes on?”

She snickered. “What? A mare cannot be comfortably au naturale with her intended?”

He snorted and rolled his eyes. “I had that coming. Is this the Twitter thing though? Because you brought that on yourself.”

“Oh no, I already closed that off. They can discuss me just fine without my input, as I quickly discovered. Still, I think it’s good. You know, looking through fictional alien invasions, the aliens always seem to reach out so dramatically. Blow up a city here, attack an airplane there. Why not something more subtle?

“I dunno that Twitter qualifies as more subtle, or you as less dramatic,” she stuck her tongue out at him, “but it’s a fair question. There were a few times during the war when the fighting felt… really stupid. I mean, war is usually stupid in a lot of ways but… yeah. Like… they would have been just as happy with a giant barroom brawl, and were only killing because it was expected of them. They were playing a role, and not quite one they’d have chosen for themselves.”

She nodded. “I get that impression from Keia, when you spoke of the spires. Her people would be different, if not for their king.”

“Yeah, definitely punching that guy in the face if I ever meet him.”

“I’d just as soon not, darling.”

“Fair enough. ...So, it’s pretty early. Any ideas for passing the time?”

She grinned. “Weeell… somebody offered to show me one of the pinnacles of human cinematic entertainment. And I think a relaxing night of movies would be just lovely… particularly since Valerie was nice enough to get us a couple bottles of wine today.”

He returned the grin. “Hmm… that’s the sort of date with my fiancée that I can definitely handle.”

------------------------------------------

“Yes! Yes yes yes! I knew it! He wasn’t just a mercenary!” Rarity cried in triumphant vindication. “Oh… but… weren’t there a lot of people on the Death Star? ...Ugh, such a horrid name. And isn’t it much smaller than a star?”

Aiden chuckled. “I actually asked the same question as a kid. About the star thing anyway. I thought ‘Death Moon’ would’ve made more sense, but maybe star sounded better to them?

“Hmm… I think Death Moon would fit better.” She glanced askance at him. “All those people dying didn’t bother you?”

Aiden grinned sheepishly. “Honestly I didn’t think much about it back then. I mean… they were bad guys working on a station designed to blow up planets. If anything, I felt bad for Alderaan.”

“Hmm… yes that was rather dreadful. To think, an entire, peaceful planet. That’s… what the demon race wanted to do to Equus, isn’t it? Or even worse, really.”

“Scary to think about it in terms of really happening. Kind of hard to wrap my head around it… and I was front and center for some pretty serious stuff.”

“I know the feeling, a bit at least.”

“Nightmare Moon, Discord, Tirek… to name a few that I remember. You’ve seen more than your share of potential apocalypses…” he blinked, tilting his head slightly. “I don’t think that word needs a plural form.”

She snorted in amusement. “Definitely not. Now glasses of wine… certainly plural is good. Another?” she asked, floating the bottle up and tilting it back and forth.

“Why not? Next movie?”

“Yes, please.”

------------------------------------------

“HE’S HIS WHAT?!” she screamed as her magic mashed the remote’s pause button.

“...Father.” Aiden replied simply, grinning at her reaction. He couldn’t help feeling a bit privileged to witness this; it was a rare thing for anyone to be seeing Empire for the first time, even more so to be unaware of that particular twist.

“No…. no no no no… that’s impossible!”

Aiden snickered. “Search your feelings…”

“Stop that, I heard the lines just fine, thank you! But.. but Obi-wan said he’d been murdered… by Darth Vader! So how…”

“Well, we’ll have to keep watching to find out… unless you want me to just spoil-”

“NO SPOILERS!”

------------------------------------------

“What’d you think of that one?”

“I’m not sure… I don’t know how I feel about the Rebels getting so thoroughly trounced. And… ugh, Lando doing that to a friend.”

“He didn’t have a choice.”

“There’s always a choice to not betray your friends, no matter what,” she said, though with a sigh. “But… it’s not an easy choice, sometimes. And… well he had a whole city at risk, didn’t he, if he didn’t do as they asked… Urgh, the Empire are monsters.”

“I won’t argue that one. ...Our bottle seems to be empty.”

“Hmm… it does indeed, darling. Fortunately, I spy another… and a third movie to go with it.”

“Clearly Harmony at work.”

“Mm hmm, I’ll pour, you prep?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

------------------------------------------

“Wait, so is that considered attractive for human women?” she asked, pausing at the rather infamous gold bikini.

“Eh… honestly it never did much for me. Then again I was a kid when I watched this the first time. I don’t think less is more though, in this case. She’s beautiful, but that particular outfit is… gaudy. She doesn’t need much help, and that’s just… well I guess she is supposed to be his trophy, so in that sense it does what he’s after.”

“Blech… I need not speculate on the giant slug’s motivations, thank you. I try not to judge on appearances and always see beauty in everyone… but he’s hideous inside and out.”

“To be fair, I think that’s what they were going for.”

------------------------------------------

“Oh now this is ridiculous. Even I know you don’t put your soldiers in bright white armor in a forest! Where’s their camouflage? For that matter, does that armor even do anything? Even rocks are taking them out! This! This is how little bears defeat your ‘best troops’! Why not sequins while you’re at it, at least they’d look fabulous!”

Aiden laughed until he couldn’t breathe properly.

------------------------------------------

Rarity sniffled. “That was… so beautiful. He found his way out of the darkness in the end. I.. oh…” she hugged Aiden. “They got to reconcile, even after all the horrible things he’d done, he finally…” she sniffled. “I’m going to hug Starlight when we get back. And Sunset… I’ll go through the mirror if I have to. Discord, too, and Shadow… hmm. We’ve helped a lot of misguided sorts reform.”

Aiden smiled, rubbing her shoulder as she mused her way through the end of the trilogy. Her fair share of two bottles of wine were likely playing their part. “That’s a great thing, though… you were pretty damn good with Vera, too.”

“Ah, she wasn’t anywhere near those others. She was just… guided down a poor path.” She blinked. “Speaking of… what did happen to Colonel Owens?”

“Hmm… we have top men working on it right now.”

“...Who?”

“Top… men…”

“Aiden, what are talking about?!”

“Sorry, another movie series… though the same actor who played Han Solo.”

“Ooh, I liked him.”

“Didn’t we all? Anyway as to Owens… he’s in a medical coma. He’ll recover, but Vera did a number on him, for some reason.”

“Can’t imagine, darling. But enough about him… tell me more about these other Harrison Ford movies…”

“It’s… 3am, Rarity. We have to be up in six hours.”

Her eyes widened slightly. “Oh my, so it is, isn’t it? Hmm, change of plans.” She held her forehooves out to him. “Carry me to bed.”

“Uhh…”

“Dar~ling… I’m far too drunk to walk. I could stumble and fall right over! Surely you wouldn’t want that…”

Aiden rolled his eyes, though a grin tugged at his lips. “I suppose not. What if I’m too drunk and we both fall over?”

“Nonsense, darling; I trust you completely. And neither of us are drunk. Two bottles over six-ish hours? Even Fluttershy could handle that. ...Probably.”

“But you said you were too drunk to walk to bed.”

“I said ‘what if?’ ...can you take that chance when you could just carry me instead?”

“...I cannot.”

“You cannot,” she grinned as he lifted her easily.

His heart melted, just a little, as she cuddled against his chest, and his arms caught her hind legs, not too differently than carrying a human. She nuzzled his shoulder and hummed contentedly.

“Well someone’s being adorable…”

“Hmm… it’s been a nice night, and I’m feeling quite nice just now.”

He carried her into their bedroom, and her horn lit as she pulled back the covers for her bed. He found himself again taken with the music he could faintly hear whenever she used her magic near him. It was lamentable that he could only hear it when they were this close.

He set her on the bed, and pulled up the covers over her as she giggled at the excessive treatment. He grinned, and kissed her forehead. She nuzzled his cheek. “Night, Rarity.”

“Goodnight, Aiden.”

------------------------------------------

Upon hearing a very telltale snap-hiss, Aiden came immediately awake. The room was awash in a blue glow… coming from what was, by all appearances, a floating lightsaber.

Rarity sat near it. Her eyes were shut and her face serene. Her horn glowed gently, overshadowed by the bright blue of the glowing blade. ...Now that he looked at it…

“Rarity.”

“Yes, darling?” she replied calmly, not opening her eyes.

“...Did you turn Joyeuse into a lightsaber?”

“Yes… yes I did.”

“...I think I’m in love with you.”

She grinned, but didn’t open her eyes.

“But uh… how?”

“Well, I was wondering how they worked while watching the movies, of course.”

“As have we all, sure.”

“And I assumed they must use some manner of force field to trap the energy the way they do. It reminded me of the way Joyeuse wraps itself in telekinetic force while being held in my magic. Pure Aetheryte is a simply exquisite crystal.”

“Clearly.”

“So. From there I realized I could remake that particular force field by combining it with the light bending magic I use for my pseudo invisibility, except I channel in reverse. Mm… sort of. Instead of moving the light around, I gather and condense it, with the crystal as a focal point and the blade as a sort of guiding rod. Though at this point it’s as much concentrated concussive aether as it is light… like an attacking beam, but in sword form. And sharp by mimicking the blade’s form, so it should cut through most materials quite easily.”

“Yep… I love you.”

She giggled. “Jedi Knight Rarity, reporting for duty, sir!” Saying this, she struck a vaguely military pose, while performing a saber style salute with the blade held in front of her muzzle.

“Geh… and now I’m dead. Killed by cute. Well played.”

“Alas… I shall mourn your death, good sir. You were a true friend and inspiration… and you showed me Star Wars.”

They both laughed as she released her hold on the magic, and the light faded from Joyeuse’s pristine blade. “Bonus points for the accurate sound effects,” Aiden added.

Rarity took a bow.

“Okay so we have a couple hours before we actually need to be up, but I’m not going back to sleep after that,” Aiden said. “Showers then a light breakfast?”

“Sounds lovely, darling.”

------------------------------------------

“Alright. Everyone have everything? Because I’m not stopping for forgotten phones. And if you need to use the bathroom, go now.”

“I think we’re good, Aiden. It’s only about thirty minutes, right?” Johnathan asked. They’d even brought lawn chairs to sit on this time, which Rarity for some reason found hilarious, until it occurred to her that she could get Aiden to store a fainting couch in there for her…

“I’m ready when you are, Mr. Windborne,” Cade confirmed.

“Let’s be off, young man,” Grumman added.

Valerie nodded.

“Ready to shield everyone here,” Rarity finished the group check.

“Right then,” Aiden said. She felt him channel very briefly before the portal cycles began. The flower in her hair felt warm again, as though it were basking in sunshine despite the grey texture of the sky that day.

It was different this time. In the past she’d noticed a sense of laughter, shared happiness that she couldn’t explain. This time… was it anger? Preparation? She wasn’t sure. She didn’t like it, but she was quite glad Aiden had insisted she bring Joyeuse along. Not only did it help her center herself while in this pocket verse, it just in general made her feel safer. Not quite sure how to feel about that… but as long as I don’t misuse it it should be fine. I’ll have Twilight look at it when I get home. She giggled internally, but kept herself focused on the outside. When she got home…

It wasn’t long, less than thirty minutes, before they reached their destination: the back entrance to Slocum’s Joe. As they’d arranged, Aiden quickly grabbed the door and Rarity went in first, getting out of any public view. She’d delayed just long enough to let her senses get a feel for the building, and was a bit dismayed at what she felt. Dismayed, but not afraid. The concentration of aether within was no threat. As they all crowded in and made their way into the building, they were met with surprised gasps.

“I don’t believe it…”

Rarity didn’t either. If Donut Joe were a human, this would be him. He had a small grin on his face, as if to say ‘well now I’ve seen everything’ and was looking at her without fear. “Tommy Slocum, it’s a pleasure to have you in my establishment… alongside your esteemed fiance, of course!” and he gave Aiden a quick wink.

Rarity giggled. “Why thank you, kind sir,” she replied, speaking a bit slowly to let the translator keep up, though anymore that was scarcely necessary. “I am Rarity. It seems you know Aiden already.”

“By reputation, including before your little stunt,” he laughed quietly before turning and offering a hand to Aiden. “The world thanks you for your service, son. Don’t ever forget that. Plenty of us know what you did for us all.”

“I’d say you’re one of the ones we were most eager to fight for, sir.” Aiden replied with a sheepish grin while accepting the handshake.

“Best donuts and coffee in Baltimore!” Mr. Slocum proclaimed proudly. “Our tea isn’t bad either, but I won’t claim it’s the best.”

“Wouldn’t matter to me anyway, I’d love a coffee. But first… this is General Albert Grumman and his aide, Corporal Valerie Martinovich.”

Slocum gave each a nod and a briefer handshake.

“And Knight Captain Johnathan Ferreles, and Mr. Cade Kneargum, of Adstrum Technologies.”

“Heh, well, the rich and the famous eh? Will didn’t mention who all would be in the entourage. ‘Everyone with the unicorn will be important’ is all I got from him. Good kid though, like the lot of you Espers, I’d say, even if some went a little off their rockers. Can’t say I blame em, really. Speaking of Will, let’s get you settled in. I don’t usually take orders at the tables, but obviously this isn’t usual.”

“Speaking of that, the tab is on me, sir.” Grumman said.

“Oh, I don’t think so,” Johnathan rejoindered.

Rarity giggled as that little debate began, but was again focused forward as they crossed the baking area and into the customer portion of the building. Like many such places, they mostly pandered to carry out orders, but there were perhaps half a dozen tables in addition to high seats at a diner style bar.

And at one of those tables… sat a man about Aiden’s age. He stood, with clear difficulty, at their arrival. He had long, red hair tied back at the neck, and a well groomed goatee of the same hue. Hazel eyes swept over them all, and a smile transformed his face from a mask of pain into something lovely. A sort of happiness that existed in spite of a true understanding of evil and horror. One light in the darkness. She’d seen that look in Aiden before, but here it came through even more strongly. She tried not to tear up. He was broken. There was no doubt in her mind that his body, and his aether, were in pieces held together by strength of willpower and little else. She wanted to hug him, and was afraid to, that he might crack. Their gazes met, and he walked slowly from the table, and kneeled down to her eye level. She kept herself from wincing as his joints creaked worse than Granny Smith’s.

He spoke, in a kindly, slightly rasping baritone. “I’m Paladin Bellerophon ‘Will’ Williams. As you probably guessed, just call me Will. Though it’s a bit late to welcome you to Earth, I’m honored to have the chance to do so.”

“The honor is mine, Paladin… Will.” She raised her forehoof to his hand, and they shook politely.

He frowned in surprise. “I wasn’t expecting a grip…”

She chuckled. “I’m not a horse, sir.”

“Short range telekinesis, combined with precision muscle control in the frog… fascinating…”

She blinked. “You’re perceptive.”

“I’m little else, these days, but I think I can help you, just the same.” He got slowly back to a standing position while Rarity resisted the urge to help him.

He stepped past her to clasp forearms with Aiden. “Good to see you, Aiden.”

“You too… or so I’d like to say. You look like hammered shit. We didn’t have to rush this, if you needed time to center or whatever.”

Rarity winced. Earth’s first diplomat to Equestria, everypony!

But Will just chuckled. “To be honest, I got impatient. I tried to play it cool but this is just too exciting not to get involved in.”

And then he turned, and threw his arms around Grumman, embracing the old officer tightly. “Good to see you, sir. It’s been way too damn long.”

Grumman had blinked in shock, before awkwardly returning the hug. “Ah… you as well, Paladin.”

Will laughed. “Let it go, man. We all did our part. Time to walk forward, remember? Even covered in mud.”

“I have a lot of mud… Will.”

“Hah, me too. Plus my knees are shot. Let’s walk anyway… after donuts.” He turned greeting Valerie politely before…

“Ahh! Uhh.. Knight… erm.. Knight Captain..”

Will blinked, and rolled his eyes. “Esper… atten-SHUN! Give your name like you're not embarrassed of it, or I'm buying and you're getting nothing but plain donuts and decaf coffee!”

Aiden winced. "You monster..."

Johnathan snapped immediately to attention, eyes straight forward. “Knight Captain Johnathan Ferreles, sir. It’s an honor to properly meet you, sir!”

Will snorted, turning to Rarity. “Adorkable, isn’t he?”

She giggled.

“John, we’re retired and you’re almost a billionaire. Also, we met three times before. Relax man, war’s over.”

“Indeed it is,” Cade said, offering a hand to Will. “Cade Kneargum, Adstrum Co-CEO alongside Ferreles here.”

“A pleasure to meet you as well, then. Your company is doing amazing things for the world.”

“Yes. The war has left so much to rebuild but given us so much to work with in doing so.”

“I couldn’t agree more.” Will nodded, grinning appreciatively.

Cade returned the nod. “It’s regrettable then… that I must do something drastic to protect two worlds…”

It all happened in an instant. His hand shot out, directly towards Rarity. She felt a massive surge of aether, bigger than anything she’d felt before, as a blade seemed to come from nowhere between his pointing fingers. Time seemed to slow as the massive sword arrowed towards her. And then she was moving to the side. She felt the impact of a body against her, and heard herself scream.

The massive blade that had materialized had buried itself in Johnathan’s chest as he’d shoved her out of the way. Will’s fist smashed into Cade, sending him flying partly through the wall. His aether… monstrous and dark, was still building. Yet the fractured maelstrom of Will’s had hardened, drawn together into a semblance of strength in the face of a deadly threat. Despite that, he collapsed to his knees after that one punch.

Rarity didn’t give a damn about any of it.

“No no no…” she cradled Johnathan, who was looking up at her with a sad smile.

“Run…” he gasped.

“No…” she said, tears spilling down. This wasn’t like with Aiden. His magic was leaking out faster than his blood. He was dying.

Aiden vanished, appearing before Cade and tackling him before being thrown across the room. Valerie had already pulled Mr. Slocum out of sight. Grumman was nowhere to be seen.

And Cade… was changing. It was quick, as he regained his feet. He had been tall before, but now he easily topped two meters and towered over everyone in the room. His eyes were an all too familiar red within yellow sclera. A pair of white horns curved up from his forehead to closely hug his scalp, ending at the back of his head behind pointed ears. His teeth showed large canines as he bared them in a snarl. “Fool,” he said in a deep, urbane voice that sounded far too much like Cade’s had. “Why would you protect her like that… you were to lead your people into a new age. ...Her life isn’t worth yours...”

Johnathan coughed blood… and laughed weakly. “You learned… nothing… fighting us. Garken. Every life… is worth mine.”

Garken Caedum, Grand Marshal of the Oni-koru, looked taken aback. “You knew…?”

“Suspected… anagram… arrogant…”

Hmph. And yet you did nothing?”

“Reparations for the war. Espionage isn’t you. But ...why her?”

He walked over to them. Rarity cradled Johnathan and put up a shield. Garken smiled down at her. “Peace, little one. I won’t try to kill you again… just yet. I’d like to say goodbye to my friend. You cannot save him.”

“You killed him!”

“Yes, I did. Because he protected you. And for now, I’ll honor that. Because he’s right. I’ve had years to sabotage Adstrum, but I would never do that. I’m no longer the Grand Marshal; my king abandoned me. Adstrum is my reparation to this world. We lost the war, long before it officially ended. I would make amends by helping rebuild, by offering strength to surpass all we took. It is our way. Our kings often forget that. They serve our prosperity.

“Johnathan. It was fun. I enjoyed working with you. You were brilliant, and you challenged me to be stronger. Even hiding from your perception was a magnificent challenge, one that even allowed me close to this child of Equus, unseen. Be reborn, strong and proud. I’ll carry on through Adstrum, and fulfill my promise to your people. Humanity will be stronger than ever.”

Johnathan snorted, the last of his aether fading away. His eyes looked dim, but there was a grim smile on his face. “You’ll be… broken here… my friend…”

Rarity felt his heart stop. She screamed in anguish… and that scream was echoed across the room. A portal opened near her, dropping Joyeuse almost into her lap. Before Garken could react she’d already grabbed it in her magic, and ignited her newest spell. He caught her swipe in one hand, though the enhanced blade cut deeply into his flesh. His eyes widened at that. He laughed.

“I never expected you would able to-”

And then a car smashed into him, taking him and it out through the front window. Joyeuse had slipped from his grasp, taking a finger with it.

Rarity looked over to Aiden, her eyes wide. “What…”

“Grabbed a car from the parking lot…” his voice sounded like broken glass being ground up. He knew what he was ignoring. And she knew he knew. There was no time. “I dropped it a few times inside my verse for momentum while he was talking. It won’t finish him, so let’s go.”

She nodded, and stood up. A blue aura gently, reverently, closed Johnathan Ferreles’ eyes as she stepped into the street to face the strongest of the Oni-koru.

24. Defend Your Path

View Online

The street outside had gone surprisingly quiet. Rarity could feel why though; the aura of the monster they faced was oppressive. He’d apparently thrown the car Aiden had smashed into him: it was imbedded in a building across from them. Garken stood, none the worse for wear, staring them down with a grim smile.

Aiden held one baston almost negligently in his right hand. His left glowed with energy as the second weapon circled defensively. Rarity felt him as well, stretching out his influence, probing at the diamond hard defenses of the former Oni-koru leader.

Garken sighed, though it didn’t touch his smile. “This isn’t how this was supposed to go, you know. She should be dead, and I should be fighting three of the most impressive Espers Earth has to offer. Instead, one dead Esper, one cripple, and you. ...And a living unicorn as my consolation prize. ...The two of you won’t be enough, even if the Paladin manages to stand up and throw another punch or two.”

“How about three?”

Will came out of a portal, and his fist met Garken’s open hand, forcing him back but not sending him flying. He disappeared again.

Aiden was through on the other side of the Oni, baston met blade as Garken pulled another from nowhere, though it felt different from Aiden’s portals. Rarity sent Joyeuse in, wisely not wanting to get too close. She could feel Aiden’s magic almost as though it were her own; there was no chance she’d hit him. The other target was just as distinct.

Garken’s strength was monstrous. She hated to think it… but was this what an alicorn felt like? Her instincts were telling her… she was facing Nightmare Moon. And there were no Elements of Harmony here to help them.

Garken was laughing. He switched his own sword to deflecting Joyeuse’s attacks while his open hand blocked Aiden’s. Said hand was looking quite pummeled, and also missing the finger he’d lost to Joyeuse earlier. But he was holding his ground. “It’s not enough!” he shouted, and a pulse of aether shoved Aiden away. A portal opened, and he came out behind Garken, landing a dropkick to his back that shoved him forward, causing him to mistime a parry. Joyeuse slipped past his defense to slice into his arm. He spun, attempting to smash Aiden out of midair, but hit nothing as the Esper disappeared again. He came out above Garken, but this time the Oni reacted in time. He spun, leveling a surprisingly acrobatic kick that met Aiden’s own attack, sending him flying to land roughly, rolling in the street. He knocked aside Joyeuse’s follow up and Rarity felt the shock of that strike through her telekinetic hold. Garken’s eyes met hers, and despite the terror that tried to grip her, she held his gaze and snarled.

And then he was inches from her.

She’d felt a pulse of aether, just before what was apparently movement, and then his sword was descending toward her. She had just enough time to put up a shield… that shattered when the blade hit it. She felt Aiden’s aether as she fell into his verse, inches before the blade would’ve…

She landed in a familiar field of flowers, and screamed. The feedback of her shield being destroyed was painful enough, but… He was too strong. She could feel it. He’d been right; they wouldn’t be enough. She looked over at Will, who was sprawled in the grass, breathing heavily. She ran over to him. “Are you alright?”

“Nope. Pissed at Ferreles, too. And now he’s dead and I can’t even yell at him. I guess I get it, though. Not many would’ve given Garken Caedum a chance to be anything other than an enemy. ...Ferreles had a good heart. But if I’d known… I would’ve taken the time to gather more power before this meeting. Aiden’s got a ton in here… more than I can hold at once, these days. But I can’t get at most of it. I can’t absorb it; it’s spoken for. And he can’t use it…”

“I know. Everything in here… it’s all locked in place, all part of a single piece,” she stirred the flowers around her with one hoof. They moved, but didn’t break, unless… she reached with her magic, surprised to realize she could still hear and feel Joyeuse, and plucked another flower. As she did, she felt a pulse through the entire dimension.

Will’s eyes were wide. “How did you do that?”

“I don’t know! I didn’t know there was anything to it! That didn’t happen last time!”

“I wasn’t ready for it last time.”

Will and Rarity spun to look at the source of the new voice.

------------------------------------------

Aiden sighed in relief; he’d managed to open the portal in time to save Rarity. Joyeuse still floated in place where it had last been. Aiden blinked. It was still floating? Meanwhile, Garken’s blade had stopped mid air when she’d vanished. The former Grand Marshal wouldn’t overswing. He chuckled. “You’ve improved, little hero. It saddens me that you and I didn’t know each other as well as we might have. You were always Keia’s pet adversary. We missed an opportunity, I think. Your fighting style is interesting. As I understood it, you used your portals mostly like you did when this started, throwing objects at your enemies. Or dropping-”

As he said that, a pickup truck landed on him.

“Yeah, pretty much. You know the most important rule of-”

“Timing!” Garken said, flinging the truck at Aiden. It flew through a portal before getting to him, and smashed into a telekinetically enhanced fist as Garken swatted it away when it re-entered their world just a few feet from him. “Honestly I’m impressed. There was a time you couldn’t open a portal within 100 feet of me. Your control has improved immensely.”

“This the part where you say ‘but it’s still not enough’?”

He grinned. “I thought that was implied,” he lunged, covering the distance in less than an eye blink. The floating baston parried as Aiden spun to the side, landing a punch that Garken partially blocked with a forearm, and a weapon strike that landed cleanly to his shoulder but did no apparent harm. A sidekick nearly cost him his leg as Garken repositioned too quickly and countered.

A telekinetic shove pushed them away from each other, and Aiden hissed quietly as blood spattered around his wounded leg. It wasn’t deep enough to hinder him, but it was a distraction. He threw himself backward and down as the tip of Garken’s sword thrust past where his eye had just been. He hit the ground and rolled, but not before a kick to the ribs sent him up and flying into a building. It was too fast, he couldn’t open a portal in time. He fell towards the ground, but not before a fist smashed into his chest. It was preferable to the sword that had also been incoming, deflected by the floating baston that stayed in defensive. The blow sent him through the wall of the building, and completed the breaking of his ribs that the kick had begun. He hit the floor inside hard, and slid to a stop near the far wall.

Garken stepped in through the hole he’d made. “You aren’t going to call them back out? You can’t face me alone. Even your Paladin couldn’t. Did you know? I used him as a shield when our Spire exploded? It’s the reason he’s in his current state. I honestly thought he’d recover, but… well it was a great deal of concentrated aether. Perhaps his talent overloaded and poisoned him, trying to absorb it all. What do you think?” As he said this, he stepped down hard on Aiden’s broken ribs, drawing a pained growl. “Shall we call him out and ask him? Or perhaps… well I’ve always wondered what would happen to your little pocket dimension if you died. A normal gravity drive has parameters for releasing its contents safely when it activates, but I don’t see how you could do that. You absorbed far more than they were ever intended for. Shall we find out?” He held his sword over Aiden’s heart, looking him in the eyes.

Steely grey eyes looked back, narrowed. “You’re right.”

“Am I-”

An explosion of aetheric force flung Garken away, and Aiden dropped through a portal to land next to a heavily armed Grumman. “Are you alright, young man?”

“Not particularly. Is Valerie okay?”

“She got Mr. Slocum and a few others out of the area to safety and is signaling reinforcements. Local police have been called off; they’d just be casualties. Marines will be inbound, but I don’t know how effective they’ll be against him.”

“Not at all, General,” Garken said, standing up from the blast as though nothing had happened. Despite his nonchalance, His torso and head were burned heavily on one side. They were healing as Aiden watched, but not as quickly as he’d have expected. “Though that weapon is interesting.” He nodded towards Grumman’s massive gun. “I recall the rifle Gungnir, but that’s quite different.

“Gungnir wasn’t effective against you during the war. This is our newest design. Repurposed from Veritech’s models, actually. Learning from your enemies is a key to war.”

“Indeed so. Adstrum hasn’t focused on weaponry. Helping you rebuild and advance was one thing, but as Cade I refused to sign off on anything you could use to kill my people. You understand.”

“Certainly.” Grumman replied, and with no changing expression fired again. Garken deflected the blast with an open palm, heavily reinforced with aether. He charged forward, his blade seeking Grumman’s throat. Aiden deflected it as the General backed off. The Esper and Oni attacked one another fiercely, with Aiden clearly getting the worse of it. Splatters of blood hit the walls and floor as again and again Garken made it past his defenses enough to inflict wounds but not finish the fight. Now and again, he took a damaging counter strike as the aether infused bastons danced as best Aiden could make them. Garken was bleeding far less. A savage kick, placed squarely into the broken ribs, sent the smaller fighter flying again, and in that opening another blast from Grumman’s weapon hit the Oni.

But this time he only staggered before throwing his sword at Grumman. With no choice, Grumman blocked with his rifle, destroying it in the process. He limped away from the impact, dazed by the weapon’s feedback.

A hand grabbed his throat, lifting him into the air effortlessly.

Garken held him there, and stared into his wide eyes. There was no fear in those eyes. “Determination. Yes, General Albert Grumman. It’s a shame you didn’t inherit the powers of an Esper.” He flung him away to the concrete, drawing a snarl of pain as the older man bounced among the debri. “Nonetheless, you too were a fine opponent, across the chessboard. But this isn’t a war room. On this battlefield, you’re nothing more than a distraction. And that has now ended. I can feel Aiden, trying to focus his aether. His ribs have punctured his lung; he cannot properly fight me any further. As soon as he releases Will and Rarity, I will kill them all and end this. If he doesn’t… well then I’ll find out what happens to them if he dies while they’re still inside his inner space.”

Buy time. Grumman thought. “I don’t understand.”

“Do you not?”

“No. You’ve been helping Adstrum. You said yourself the war was over. Why her? Why try to stop our two people’s uniting? It’s pointless. Even if you kill her, and everyone here-”

“And everyone at your base? And destroy all the data concerning her? You’ve played it all close to the chest, General. A wise decision, but it does place all your eggs in that one basket. Without the location for Equus, which only you have… this will all just be a fading dream.”

“You said… to ‘protect two worlds…’”

Garken smiled faintly. “I did indeed. What do you know about the Command Crystal in your possession? For example, did you know they are all accounted for in our records?”

Grumman’s eyes widened. “But then…”

“Ah no, not their locations. If deactivated, we cannot simply track them down. If we could, Equus would not be hidden to us, and you would have garnered its location from the records you’ve stolen from us. However… Rarity reactivated the one in your possession. We cannot trace its origin remotely… that I know of. It would not transmit where it was, only that it was returning to its partnered ship. It’s not unlike a black box in a sense, but now that it has transmitted its return to its vessel, whose location we did know, we can continue to track its progress.”

“That won’t matter; it’s not leaving Earth. We don’t need it to get to Equus, just the location we garnered from its records.”

“The ship you’re taking… do you think my king won’t be watching for it?”

“Not from nearby. Thanks to…” Grumman blinked. “Adstrum’s sensors… their satellites… you…?”

Garken smiled, and for the first time it seemed genuine. “I’m no spy, or saboteur. Those satellites are working as well as you think, better even. There is no Oni presence within fifty light years of this world. My people have fled, and if they return it will be the technology Johnathan and I built that shoots them down before they’re even in range of this world. I won't build weapons for you, but I will build them for me. The Oni do not fight wars of revenge before at least a century of that world’s time passes. My king can go rot; he’s lost his way. If he tries to return here, I will remind him of that.”

“From that distance, based on what I know, they won’t know if we launch anything, unless…”

“Indeed. Rewrite the ship’s main computer, from the ground up. Gut it and you’ll find the programs allowing it to be monitored, connecting it to our mothership. It shouldn’t take your people more than a week.”

“But… why tell me this? I thought you were going to kill us all?” Grumman asked, wearing a lopsided grin.

“Oh I intend to. But if I can’t… you deserve a true victory. If I can’t stop you… my king doesn’t deserve to follow you to that world.”

“...Why not just tell us this? Why-”

Garken was suddenly crouching next to Grumman, covering the distance instantly. “Because… I may not hold grudges, but I am not your ally. My reparations do not include protecting your diplomatic endeavors from my king. Equus too, does not have my protection, not without a price. You want to pay it? It costs blood: yours or mine. Mercy-”

“-Is for the strong. Yes, I do remember your fondness for that phrase.” He snorted. “And of course, if you kill me now, the knowledge you just gave away dies with me. Rather pointless, wasn’t it?”

“You wanted to buy time. Aiden has repaired his lung. That boy’s growth is astonishing to me. An Oni twenty years his senior could not have come so far. Your race… it’s a shame we met as we did.”

“You started it.”

Garken chuckled. “That he did. As to killing you… I’ll do that last. You can watch everyone else die first. You’re a tactician, not a soldier, not on this battlefield. It’s your job to watch all your troops die before the enemy comes for you. You know this.”

Grumman’s eyes narrowed. “I will find a way to end you.”

“I believe you could, given time. But that time will now be bought by the blood of others.” He stood, and turned, just as Aiden came through a portal to his side. Garken’s eyes widened slightly at the ruse: two portals had opened nearly at the same time, dividing his attention as a charged baston stabbed into his torso. It sank in less than an inch before Garken had moved away, but blood dripped down as he did so. The first portal then ejected a parking brick at terminal velocity, smashing violently into Garken’s face. He staggered back, spitting blood that ran down from a broken nose and crushed teeth. All were regenerating quickly, but Aiden pressed the attack. A shoulder tackle added to Garken’s backpedal, and a follow up strike from the side swept his legs. A double slash downward took him to the pavement, hard, followed by telekinetic blasts that cracked his previously struck shoulder, and widened the minor stab wound Aiden had inflicted.

Garken’s counter ran along Aiden’s side, the thrust parried wide by the floating defensive weapon still circling the Esper with deceptive timing. Another portal opened, dropping a car that had been falling since Garken had refocused his attentions to Grumman. Aiden stepped back as said car smashed into Garken with thunderous force. With a flash of aether, he ignited the gas tank. A bit more aether enhanced and focused the blast, and for the first time he felt a flicker in his opponent’s own magical reserves.

Not stopping to pat himself on the back, he parted the blastwave with an energy shield and went back in. Garken was burned, and his eyes were glazed over as Aiden struck again, stabbing both bastons into his torso to pin him to the concrete. He channeled to change the auras surrounding them to portals, to tear his enemy apart once and for all.

A telekinetic blast threw him away from the weapons, sent them flying, and snuffed the fires around them.

He caught himself, rolling to his feet as Garken regained his. The Oni was grinning like a true demon. The holes in his chest had already closed. His aether had definitely dropped, but so had Aiden’s. Neither could do this forever. “Marvelous. If you can last another minute, I’ll spare the unicorn. Last five, and I’ll spare Grumman’s compound.”

“Well gosh, and here I was thinking I had no reason to keep going.” He charged forward again, vanished as he did so to come out on Garken’s plasma burned side, but feinted a second time to Garken’s good side as the Oni had begun to turn. The attack was blocked off balance, but blocked all the same, as the two continued exchanging blows.

------------------------------------------

100 meters, give or take, isn’t that great a distance even with obstacles in the way. As such it didn’t take long to work their way around to the road, and its load of vehicles, unmoving for over fifteen years now. The voice had come from this direction, and Rarity had felt its familiarity in her bones. She wasn’t eager to see inside those cars… and Will was even less enthusiastic. But there was little choice in the matter. She could feel a way out; as Aiden had once mentioned, his verse was no prison. The right concentration of aether and will would expel her back into reality at any time. And yet… the second flower she’d plucked floated before her, and not by her magic. It both was and wasn’t the source of the voice, and when it began to fly towards the road she felt compelled to follow.

“Rarity… I’d suggest not looking in any cars. Upshot is you’re too short to really do so, but… wait… the Hell?”

As they hopped over the short, concrete walls, she stopped atop one of them, and saw what had surprised him. She’d already decided she wouldn’t avoid looking. Aiden had to live with what had happened here; she wouldn’t shy away.

But there was nothing to see. Every vehicle was empty, as if they always had been. There was no trace of any-

“Over here! Geez, hurry up before I doze off… again.”

Looking at each other briefly, Will and Rarity shrugged and moved towards the voice, the flower still leading them. She still couldn’t feel anyone else’s magic moving it. Indeed, it felt as though it were still bathed in the aether that had held it in place. Rarity looked past it, and gasped.

She had known she’d see that car. She’d seen it once before, riding along in Aiden’s old memory. But the rest of what she saw…

The roof of the vehicle was dented downward a bit. The reason for that was the massive greatsword impaled through it, all the way through to the road beneath the vehicle. That alone would be odd enough, but sitting there next to the hilt, on the roof, and glowing just a bit to remind Rarity of the ‘ghost’ Obi-wan…

Was Moira Windborne.

She hopped down, making no sound as her sandaled feet touched the road. “Hah! Pure maiden meets unicorn, right out of a storybook!”

“You’re…”

“Oh please, you know who I am,” she said with a wide grin. Rarity bit her lip… Pinkie…

“Oho… I remind you of somepony, eh? Yeah I know a few words. Even when I was asleep I could still check in on Aiden sometimes.”

“Sleeping? So then…?”

“Eh? Oh, no, not literally… well maybe literally… err… well I’m also dead. Like… as a doornail, whatever that means. But hey, I sped up your perceptions so we’re not too rushed. Still, we don’t have a ton of time to go into it. We all died that day, no doubt about it.”

“But then… everyone who died… they’re all still…” Will looked around, eyes wide in horror. “They’re trapped here?!”

“Well yeah… for now but I mean… what’s fifteen years next to eternity, right? I don’t think they’ve even noticed. Their bodies sort of poofed into the aether, like Jedi or something, right? Heh, Star Wars, the easiest of references. Good thing you watched it. Anyway, none of them are anywhere near the surface.” She grimaced. “Just me. Mom and dad had each other, right? So they slept together,” she snickered, “...rimshot. And everyone else that died here I guess did the same. I can’t reach the others, but they’re there, snoozing away. Maybe it’s ‘cause I was closest to Aiden, physically and probably emotionally, when it happened. Dunno.”

“What’s that sword?” Rarity asked.

“Ooh, you don’t recognize it? Well, maybe you wouldn’t. It dropped in about six years ago. It’s what really woke me up. Before that… dozing, keeping an eye on Aiden, trying to talk to the others… but it’s all hazy. That thing though… that stirred me up!”

“But-”

“It belonged to Keia Luxuria. Aiden took it from her during the Spire Assault.” Will said.

Rarity nodded. “I remember now.”

“Yeah… he never did say what he did with it. Huh… I’ll be damned. Dropped it right through his family’s car? Wouldn’t have expected that.”

“Nah, wasn’t on purpose," Moira added. "It was drawn here… a nexus point. That sword has a lot of the aether of its creator in it. I think her will led it here. And now…”

Rarity gasped. “‘Riot’s blade divides the wind! Draw it to open the path…” she winced. “Clearing the way to death.”

Moira tilted her head. “Wat? I’m just saying it woke me up, there was hardly a riot since it’s just me.”

“No… Keia Luxuria… it’s something I noticed with my translator. Her name, it means ‘riot’. Her blade…”

“Huh… where’d you hear that?”

“Well I was thinking you, but now I’m not so sure since you seem lost.”

“Hey now, I don’t do prophecies. What kind of ghost girl do you take me for?”

“I don’t… so you don’t know anything about a pegasus filly?”

“Nope. I’ll hug one if you’ve got one though, sounds adorable. All I know about the blade is that it’s here… and maybe getting rid of it will do something. Especially so if you’ve heard some cryptic words about it from a mysterious source. I mean that’s just begging us to try it!”

“Leading the way to death doesn’t sound encouraging.”

“Depends on your point of view. I am dead… so maybe it leads to me? That was the trick with the flowers, after all. If I’d known you’d pluck that first one, I would have concentrated my consciousness in it and gotten out. When you plucked the second, it was jarring enough that I was able to get some stray aether and materialize. ...Doesn’t hurt that Aiden’s channeling like mad right now.” She gestured of in a seemingly random direction. Rarity looked and her eyes went wide. She watched a moving van falling through the air, only to vanish through a portal and fall through the same path again. There were a few such spectacles to see.

“So if we take another flower out of here?”

“I might be able to leave… but so what? I wouldn’t mind but I can do that any time now that you know. That’s just small potatoes. But this? It created a fault when it stabbed through here. It's not just the car, of course. The whole aetherial construct that is this world got shaken by it. It woke me up and then merged with the place, sort of healing into the flaw like gravel scabbed over after a bike wreck.”

Rarity made a face at that imagery.

“Yeah, exactly why we should fix it. This place is already a wound before that sword got here, and now we have a tool to repair it. Draw the blade… and that flaw will widen until we can all get out of here… cleanse the wound. Free every poor soul that doesn’t even know they’re trapped.”

“But… what would that do to Aiden?”

Moira grinned. “I have a theory on that…”

------------------------------------------

Aiden crashed into another wall. He noted with a touch of satisfaction that he hadn’t gone through this one. His aether had managed to cushion and spread the point of impact, lessening the damage to the structure and, more importantly, himself. Garken’s follow up did smash the wall, but in part because he missed Aiden as the smaller combatant ducked out of the way. Several pieces of debri were grabbed telekinetically to harry the Oni before a street sign bounced off of his head. A blast of aether from his open hand obliterated a moving van that had appeared in the sky. He flung another such blast at Aiden, but realized his error as that blast, re-directed through portals, smashed into him. It was his own aether, and caused minimal harm.

He chuckled. “You won’t win that way, little hero.”

“Maybe not, but I’m getting close to the five minutes.”

“Not close enough.”

Aiden tried to sidestep, as the voice came from nearly in his ear. Garken could just plain move too quickly. He didn’t use portals, or teleportation, he just brute strength pulled himself through the aether field as though grabbing the world to move it as he pleased. And worse he did it so quietly. Aiden’s admittedly low perception just couldn’t keep up. As the blade pierced his side, he tried to open a portal and failed. The feedback felt even worse than usual, but he managed to channel it into a concussive burst that pushed the two of them apart. Garken held his sword as he was shoved away, twisting the blade as it came back out from between Aiden’s ribs. He stumbled and fell.

“But… I will spare the unicorn, as agreed. She may incur some difficulties without any of you to support her now, but if she overcomes those, she will be stronger than ever. Perhaps, one day, she’ll be able to hunt me down… and avenge you.” As he said this, he took the two steps forward to reclaim the distance Aiden’s blast had pushed him, and raised his sword.

Aiden grimaced. Decapitation, was it? Yeah… that’d probably do it. No sense finding out. He lunged forward, tackling Garken, or trying to. With little momentum and low magic, he scarcely affected the considerably larger fighter… other than getting him to check his swing. That was enough. The floating baston had long fallen to the ground, but Aiden grabbed it with a touch of power and flung it at Garken, channeling force to increase its piercing point. Garken deflected it with his own blade, finally cutting through the aether hardened carbon fibers of Aiden’s weapon. The pieces hit the ground as Garken grabbed Aiden in his free hand and held him aloft.

Until Joyeuse pierced that same arm like a stick through water.

Reflexively he dropped Aiden and backstepped for distance, dropping his own weapon as he grabbed at Joyeuse’s hilt. Before he could do so, a massive pulse of aether exploded from it, throwing it clear of his arm. It spun through the air, landing embedded partway in the concrete near Aiden.

And a portal opened beside it. It was glowing white, and the aether field all around them condensed as though they’d suddenly teleported to the bottom of a deep lake. Yet to Aiden… it felt like home. For better and for worse.

Garken had fallen to his knees, crushed down beneath the massive force of the new aether. He never had a chance to dodge as an enormous, familiar greatsword flew through the air at him. He deflected it, poorly, costing himself more harm to the already damaged arm to prevent being impaled. That hand was useless now. The blade vanished through another portal, and clearly not of Aiden’s making. He was… occupied.

His eyes were glowing as the condensed aether infused him. He could feel everything. There were so many voices… just like Vera said… but they weren’t angry, or sad, or frightening. They were saying ‘goodbye’. Each of them leaving, heading on their way… each of them released from the aetheric concentration that had held them like quicksand.

Each released… from my verse… where they’d all been imprisoned…

“Oi… none of that mopey shit now, little brother. Fifteen years is nothing. Luna was imprisoned for a thousand, and she came out fine. This was a catnap!”

“...Moira…”

“Eeeyup! And now that we’re not taking up room in the place, you can air it out a bit! You already feel it, right?”

“Aiden..?”

He looked over, the glow already fading from his eyes as the rampant aether came under control. “Rarity?”

“We weren’t sure what would happen, but we had to do something! And Keia’s sword was there, and…” she lifted her chin. “I’m sorry, I know it’s a lot to take in… but all the people who died in that moment can move on, now. We cleared the path for them. But…”

“But ours is still waiting on us. Yeah… yeah I can break down and cry later.”

“I’ll be there with you the whole way, darling.”

“Yeah… gonna need you, no way around that.”

Moira chuckled, her glow brightening a bit. “Aiden and Rarity, sittin’ in a-”

“Shaddup, Moira...”

She grinned innocently. “Not a chance. I got fifteen years of backup teasing to catch up on, and not a lot of time to cram it in.”

“Wait… what do you mean-”

“She means, little hero, that her time is short. As expected of your sister, her will is strong. But she’s dead, and she won’t stay here as she is for much longer.” Garken stood, but didn’t move towards them. “Take your time, and say your goodbyes; she has-”

“More time than you!” Moira shouted as Keia’s blade flew at him from another portal. He dodged, but Joyeuse caught him, carving deep into his side before he could deflect it. He staggered away, right into a massive, aether enhanced punch as Will kept him from getting distance while crushing what was left of his damaged arm. He was thrown back towards the portals, and moved to catch Keia’s blade as it came around again, but his arm was caught. He roared in pain and fury as the greatsword impaled his chest. He turned to look to his caught arm, trying to raise the injured one without success.

Aiden held his forearm in an iron grip. His wounds had mostly healed, and the condensed aether that had filled the air moments ago now in part coursed through his veins. He looked up with a grim smile. “So this is what you meant, by ‘second strongest Esper’? I could get used to it.”

Garken chuckled. “Intoxicating, isn’t it?”

“Heh, nah. Wine is intoxicating. I fully intend to split several bottles while I cry over my family again.”

“He’ll be splitting them with his new family.” Rarity added, stepping forward with Joyeuse at the ready. The aether coursed in her, as well. The portals Keia’s sword had gone through had not been opened by Moira.

“All of us.” Will added. “Strange to see you cornered… old friend.”

“Indeed so,” Garken chuckled, seeming to ignore the huge sword sticking through him and the blood running down between his lips. It was red… as human looking as any of them had seen. “A fitting end then. All of you… I wish…” he blinked, his eyes widened. “No… that’s not… you can’t…” His form flickered. Keia’s blade fell to the ground with a clatter, and the briefly insubstantial forearm slipped from Aiden’s grasp. “No… no! I will not…” he snarled, focusing inward. The flickers lessened briefly but didn’t subside. He sighed. “Ahh well… it seems this is as far as I go here. There was more I’d wished to do…”

“Hmph, little late to lament dying. But hey don’t worry, it’s not so bad on the other side. ...I think?” Moira muttered.

“Dear girl, I would welcome death and rebirth. I’m sure your own will be wonderful. You have the strength of will to demand that of the universe. The fate awaiting me is… less pleasant. My king… is a far greater bastard than I ever realized.” He shook his head. “No matter. Grumman knows what must be done, to protect all of you. You’ve won. Lady Rarity… my compliments to your people. I had thought you weak… soft. I was a fool… Johnathan paid for that… and now… so will I.”

With another flicker, he staggered back, sinking slightly into the ground as though he were merely an image. A light exploded around him, from within his head before completely engulfing him. When it faded, he was gone.

25. First Last Steps

View Online

He landed hard on cold stone. His wounds were healing, and he could feel the foreign aether of the unicorn’s weapon searing away at some deeper infection. He snorted. “Cleansing me? It will take more than a flesh wound to dig deep enough…”

“Welcome home, Warbrave Caedum.”

“Paugh! I’ve not held that rank in fifty years… your majesty…” Garken practically oozed disrespect as he spat the address in reply.

His king stepped forward, clearly visible despite the dim illumination. Taller than Garken by a handbreadth, his presence made him seem larger yet. Red eyes stared down imperiously, almost mockingly. “You are fortunate I’m willing to reinstate you at all. And that is how you greet your king?”

“You yanked a choke chain I didn’t know I was wearing, so forgive me for growling at you. Or don’t… I’m long past caring. Why did you bring me back here?”

“Is it not enough I saved you from certain death? It has been your will, your magic, that kept me from recalling you sooner. Here, let me show you...”

Quicker that Garken could react in his weakened state, his king’s hand shot out and two claws pierced deep into his skull. Fighting a feeling of paralysis as his body shut down, his consciousness fled into his aether. He could still feel what was happening as his skull was torn at, and then the claws came back out… clutching a long, thin sliver of pulsing, black crystal.

Garken fell to his knees, his mind returning to his physical brain far too quickly. “That… is…”

“Corrupted aetheryte,” his king said, examining the blood covered bit of gemstone. “I placed it there some time ago. Did you think it coincidence that you were more than twice as strong as even your most dedicated peers?”

“But it… could summon me here?” he choked out, gasping for breath as all his strength poured into both healing and temporarily bypassing his many injuries.

“Of course… it’s not unlike a Command Crystal, when properly enchanted. I did need my Grand Marshal ready to be called at a moment’s notice. As you said… a choke chain. And yet, you resisted it so many times over the years. It was extremely annoying.”

Garken chuckled.

“You dare laugh at your king?”

“I never knew. I suspected… you’d done something to me. I felt myself fighting something inside, but I never knew what. I was carrying that extra weight… and now it’s gone. You say it made me stronger? ...Then why do I feel so much lighter without it?!”

With that he rose quickly, and threw a punch at his king’s face. Taken off-guard, he barely managed to catch the fist… and not well enough to escape harm. A blast of aether, strengthening the strike, pulsed through the arm, which seemed to shatter…

Revealing a bird-like talon where a hand had been. Red eyes narrowed in yellow sclera as Garken’s own went wide. “No…”

The taloned hand squeezed Garken’s fist, carving into his flesh. “...This wasn’t for you to see.”

“You… you can’t be… you aren’t…!?”

The king spun, pulling him forward and stabbing down with the crystal shard towards Garken’s eyes, but went wide as the warrior moved with the momentum, tackling the monarch. “Impostor!” He shouted, knowing he wouldn’t be heard. They were in the bowels of the mothership, where the harshest training was possible because the shielding was thickest. Garken could sense no one else. He threw punch after punch, each blocked by the taloned hand that belonged to no Oni. Even his king’s magic felt wrong. “Where is my king?! Is this why we kept fighting? Is this why we killed so many?! What have you done with-”

In an explosion of dark magic, Garken was thrown back. He caught himself after rolling and was ready to counter, but no attack came. Instead, his king simply stood up… and up.

Thick white hair framed a long, almost equine face complete with a narrow, fang filled muzzle. The short, gray fur of that face seemed composed of metal rather than anything organic, and yet it was clearly a living being. At nearly five meters, he now towered over Garken. His taloned hands resembled giant eagle claws, and his feet appeared like those of a massive jungle cat, covered in white fur. His body reminded Garken of a red-scaled dragon, if a dragon could easily stand on two legs and had broad, well muscled shoulders. From each of those shoulders a pair of wings spread, fanning out surprisingly prismatic feathers. The head leaned down on a sinuous neck, a grin showing off obsidian teeth.

“I have always been your king, little puppet.”

Garken held his ground. The aether of the thing before him hadn’t increased much, and his own was recovering faster than he was letting on. This wasn’t over… if anything having that crystal removed had been a major boon. He had to play it carefully though. “Always, you say?”

“For fifteen hundred years, since you were taken from your world… and brought to mine.”

“But… that would have been…”

“Yes. I am Kirin… of Equus. Of the Draconequii, perhaps the last of them. I am every king your kind has ever known. Every new face to wear the crown… me. Me. Me. Me… and now… I am so close to finally going home again, and completing what our masters once started.”

Garken felt a chill, but kept his face impassive. “I won’t help you find it.”

Kirin laughed deeply, and held up the pulsing, bloodstained crystal. “You already have.”

Before Garken could respond there was a flash of pain, followed by oblivion.

------------------------------------------

“What the Hell happened?!” Aiden demanded.

“That… that looked look the same sort of teleport that brought me here…” Rarity replied.

“A Command Crystal? He had one of those?”

“I don’t think he intended to go,” Moira added.

“Agreed," Will said. "He was never one to run… not to mention his reaction at the end. Rarity, can you feel where he went?”

She shook her head. “No idea, darling. He’s… just gone.”

Aiden grimaced. “Can’t say I’m too satisfied with that… but if he’s gone, he’s gone. So… I’m going to focus on who’s not gone…” he turned with zero subtlety to Moira.

Who laughed lightly. “Nice segue, little brother.”

“As I understand it, I don’t have time for lead ins.”

“Yeah, guess not.” She stepped over and threw her arms around him. “Good to see you again, so to speak.”

His eyes were wide as he slowly returned the hug, as though afraid she’d vanish or break. Rarity swallowed a lump in her throat at realizing those were real possibilities. The frailty of her form, the instability of her aether… they were clear. She had minutes, or less.

He let out a shuddering breath at feeling a solid form in the embrace. “I don’t want you to go… not again.”

“Aww, come on… I wanted to rib you about still being taller. You’re taking the fun out of this.”

“Moira…”

“Shhh, it’s okay. I’m already gone, and you know it. This is just… our chance to say goodbye. I’m really glad about that. I know you are, too.”

“Yeah… I love you, Moira.”

“I love you, too, Aiden. I always will… no matter where I end up. There’s always a part of us that we shared with each other. That’s a form of magic, too. Family… and the friends that become family. We got to share something that this silly little death nonsense doesn’t get to take away.” She squeezed him extra tight, before letting her arms go slack. Sensing she wanted to move back, he let go. She grinned at him… that same wide, happy smile, and kissed him on the forehead. Then she turned to Rarity, walked over and kneeled down by her.

“No matter where you two go, and how you walk together… you got my blessing. Keep an eye on him for me, will ya? He may be the big damn hero type, but he’s also completely hopeless. Needs a ‘big sis’ type girl to look after him, ya know? Think you can manage that?”

Rarity laughed a small laugh, failing to hold back tears. “I promise.”

Moira shook her head. “I’ve seen things, clotheshorse. That’s not going to be enough. You know what I’m looking for here…”

Rarity bit her lip, nodding. “Cross my heart… hope to fly, stick a cupcake in my eye…”

Aiden choked on something between a sob and a laugh. “What?”

“Nothin’ for you to worry about, little brother. Just getting the important stuff out of the way.” She reached forward and hugged Rarity tightly. “Thank you,” she whispered in the mare’s ear. “I really can go without worrying. Don’t let him wander off alone again.”

“I won’t. You didn’t need a Pinkie Promise for that… but if you know what it means you know how much I mean it.”

“A sacred bond between friends… I do know it. I wanted to hear it, just once before…” she laughed softly. “Yeah… thank you, Rarity.”

She pulled back from the hug and stood up, sighing contentedly. “It feels warm. I think… I think that’s all for me. I’ll see you both again… someday. I know it. Goodbye...”

“Goodbye, Moira.” Aiden said, smiling through the tears as she glowed more brightly, before dispersing into a brilliant display of lights. All too quickly, they were gone.

Aiden took a deep breath, and let it out slowly. He twitched, shuddered, and slowly slumped to the ground. He shook once, looking down with his eyes shrouded by his hair. Rarity had already crossed the distance to throw her forelegs around his neck, hugging him tightly. His arms encircled her and held on as he sobbed quietly. It didn’t last long; within a minute he took a last, shuddering breath and completed it with a steady sigh. “Thanks.”

“Always.”

He gently nudged her away, standing up. “We need to go. I don’t want to talk to the media, or the military. Let them sort this out; I don’t care. Let’s get Johnathan and go home. ...First ours, then yours.”

------------------------------------------

Arlington National Cemetery was crowded that day. Despite that, it was devoid of any unwelcome sounds or conflicts as Knight Captain Johnathan Ferreles was laid to rest. At the request of his remaining family, no media was permitted at the funeral. Even had they been there, it would not have stopped Rarity and Aiden from attending. There had been no question: they had already missed the funerals for the others who’d died for this cause, they wouldn’t let it happen again.

It had been two days. Aiden had, for the most part, recovered after a single night. Despite saying so in advance, said night had not involved wine. Instead, it had involved a visit from Aunt Lynn, and a great deal of commemoration of family from all present. There had been tears, but also laughter, and the strength that came from sharing both sadness and joy. They had decided, for the sake of those that had passed on, that this would be their last day of dwelling on those lost. They would not forget, not ever, but they would walk forward. They would carry the happiness and the dreams they all wanted for the future. Rarity had already spoken of plans for a memorial on Equus, to remember those who sacrificed in the name of forging new friendships between their peoples. Aiden fully intended to help build it.

With the interment complete, they left via one of Grumman’s vehicles rather than Aiden’s power. The moment there were off of the cemetery grounds, pictures began flashing. It was pointless unless the photographers wanted pictures of the car, and Valerie commented as much from the driver’s seat. Not that it was going to matter much longer, given their destination.

Upon arrival at the predetermined location, Aiden did use his power to get them where they needed to be while avoiding the crowd in between. When they appeared at the podium, exactly on time, the room fell silent.

The two stepped up to the twin microphones, set to their appropriate heights so the assembled throng had a clear view (mostly of the unicorn mare, naturally). Aiden started off.

“We’ll be giving a statement… a real one this time rather than our annoyed reaction at the invasion of our privacy. To clarify though… no actual wedding plannings. All those ‘weddings are between two humans only’ folks… while maybe progressive compared to what my parents might have recalled, can relax. ...For now.”

The room tittered a bit nervously.

“As you know, anyone interrupting at the moment will be ejected from the room, by me. You know me. Knight Lieutenant Aiden Alexander Windborne, decorated hero of the war the media has taken to calling the Demon War. But the Oni-koru were not demons… they were a lost people, and still are. I hope they find their way, out there somewhere. ...Far from here.”

Another chuckle.

“My talent as an Esper involves the use of portals into and out of my pocket dimension, an area of space trapped inside the aetheric concentration of my soul. I’d explain the physics of that, but I left my dry erase board at home. Suffice it to say, and based on your self control you already know this, I can easily take any of you from where you’re standing and place you anywhere else within about a football field and a half. I’d prefer not to, but if we let you just go crazy Rarity won’t be able to follow what you’re saying. Speaking of…”

“Yes, thank you, Aiden,” she said, dropping her usual form of address for the occasion. The translator carried it over to English fine and dandy, but without the context of knowing her it gave the wrong impression here. “I am Rarity… and I’m obviously from out of town.”

This got a laugh.

“Yes. It’s no coincidence that Earth has mythology concerning unicorns… as well as many other magical beings found on my home world. Further, it’s no coincidence that Espers greatly resemble, in their magical abilities and the sense of the aether within them, members of my own race. There is a connection between our two peoples, one which brought me here but more importantly, forges a path ahead of us that we have the chance to walk together. General Grumman will be handling an extended Q and A elaborating on the details of that. ...That will be his penance for sharing private details from interactions between Aiden and myself.”

Another laugh, though this one was distinctly nervous and in some cases slightly guilt laden. Not surprising, given many of the media representatives in the room had spent far too much time analyzing those interactions.

“For my part, however, my immediate intention is to return home. I did not intend to come here, and I have family, friends, and a life waiting for me back there. I fully intend to do everything in my power to aid in opening cordial relations between our two worlds… and I can best do that back home. I’m pleased to add that Knight Lieutenant Windborne has graciously accepted my invitation to accompany me there, and enjoy the hospitality of my world, the best I can personally offer.”

Aiden nodded. “For the time being, there is no safe form of travel between our worlds for anyone who doesn’t have their own aetheric concentration… or pool, if you prefer. The Oni ships' shields are simply not designed to protect against forms of energy that were never a threat to them. Because of the volatility of the forces involved, it isn't even safe for Espers to shield other humans at this point. The shields have to be redesigned from scratch, and we’re just not there. No magic, no intergalactic space travel. ...Yet. I’m confident our best and brightest will solve that problem before much longer, with the prospects we now see before us.”

“Now then… we’ll be turning this over to General Albert Grumman, who will be filling you in on our shared history, and then taking questions. Thank you all for your attention-”

As she said this, several started speaking up, desperately asking questions despite being told it would be fruitless.

...And it was, as the two of them disappeared through a portal.

------------------------------------------

Rarity looked up at the sky, sunny despite the clouds in the real world, from the field of flowers. Much of Aiden’s pocket verse hadn’t changed. The aether flowed normally now, and much of that flowed in Aiden directly. ...And in her. She wasn’t sure how they’d managed to split that power between them, but Aiden didn’t seem to mind. Keia’s sword stood, floating just above the ground, on the other side of the field. Its connection to the aether there remained, but after drawing it out and allowing the trapped souls to escape, there was no sense of foreboding, or even strange, distant laughter to confuse one’s senses. There was simply tranquility.

She leaned against Aiden, who’d sat down beside her to relax for a moment before they headed back home. Really, they could start doing so any time; he needed only to begin channeling their travel portals. Neither felt rushed.

“Think Grumman can handle that crowd? They were about to boil over.”

“Oh please, darling,” she giggled, “I think he’s up to the challenge of a few hundred reporters.”

“I dunno… he’s pretty much not allowed to shoot any of them.”

“Hmm… that will complicate matters.”

“All I’m saying.”

She chuckled softly, and nuzzled his cheek. “How are you doing?”

He smiled. “Better, really. I’d made my peace with her dying a long time ago. As to Johnathan… I’m coping. We weren’t close, even during the war, but still...”

She nodded. “I understand completely. He died to save me… and I can’t let myself fall into despair over it without shaming that sacrifice. But…”

“...Yeah.” He wrapped an arm around her, holding tight. “...So. There’s at least a few more days until we’re ready to launch, assuming we can keep feeding all this extra aether into the batteries the way Will’s been so far. ...Coffee? Donuts?”

She blinked. Then giggled. “Dear sir, are you inviting me to several days of binging on coffee and donuts to forget my troubles?”

“Also bad movies. You’ve seen some of the best… only fair to temper that.”

“And what of my delicate figure?”

“Hah. Delicate… not the word I’d use.”

She cocked an eyebrow at him. “Oh really? Do tell, dar~ling…”

“Hmm,” he said, seemingly oblivious to the current minefield he’d wandered into. But then Rarity’s eyes fluttered shut as his hand began kneading her shoulders. “Well… svelte, certainly. Toned… seems fair. Soft in a good way… other than a little point of tension right there…” he worked his thumb around a little knot as Rarity groaned in quiet contentment. “But firm. Delicate… is doing you a disservice.”

“Mmm… yes… I do prefer service to disservice, darling… now that you’ve pointed out the difference. Do go on…”

He laughed quietly, continuing the massage as he channeled portals, taking them back to Fort Friendship.

26. Icarus

View Online

“This is Captain Aiden Windborne, of The Starship High Horse-”

“We are not calling it that-”

“Alongside First Officer Rarity. Checking in, we have successfully achieved orbit at approximately 20,000 kilometers… approximate since the two systems currently operating don’t seem to quite agree… if my math is right.”

The comm system reply confirmed, “It is, High Horse-”

“Nooope.”

Aiden chuckled. “That you, Val?”

“It is. Paladin Williams is putting the finishing touches on the last two batteries, should be done by tonight. According to our estimates, you’ll use forty two percent of their charge getting to Equus. As such, you can make an emergency trip back without recharging, but you’re better off finding a way to recharge them there. Hamada and I are writing up details on how to build charging stations for them using materials you can find on Equus.”

“Wait, if you can just build them…”

“We can design them, based on new information… we’ll fill you in after the test flight. But either way, we can’t build them here. They’ll require trace amounts of pure aetheryte, which we’re hoping you’ll be able to find.”

“How ‘trace’?” Rarity asked.

“Point one five grams per charger, to be safe.”

“Ah. That should be fine. Larger gems, like Joyeuse, are all but unheard of, but flecks that size can be mined beneath Canterlot as well as in the mountains around Tall Tale. They’re expensive, but not exorbitant.”

“Hopefully that won’t be an issue.”

“Certainly not, darling. It’s not something I brag about, but I’m rather well off, and that’s if we don’t just go out and mine them ourselves. The aetheryte won’t be a problem.”

“Good to hear. Now then, if you’re both comfortable with the controls, we’re reading all green down here. Proceed with the next phase of the test flight.”

“Understood. Setting course for Jupiter. Nav shields at full, inertial dampers good. Course is plotted and laid in. Engaging...”

The blue planet below disappeared in an instant, replaced by a strangely alluring blur of lights. Rarity knew she wasn’t really seeing anything through the viewport in that instant. Instead, she was sensing the swirling of aether so strongly it was affecting her vision. She looked to the controls and things returned to normal, but it had been an odd feeling. That same swirling of aether would be a maelstrom tearing away at my essence, if I had no magic of my own…

“Weird…” Aiden muttered his own response.

Before she could respond, their ship came to a relative halt. Rarity took in a slow gasp at the sight before them. Aiden had a grin on his face like a foal on Hearth’s Warming morning. “Testing FTL comms. Are you receiving us, Friendship?”

“Five by five, Horse.

“Still not calling it that.” Rarity said absently, though like Aiden her attention was drawn to the magnificent sight of the planet Jupiter before them. “Amazing…”

“Yeah… never thought I’d see this directly. Friendship, you getting this?”

“That we are, and recording for posterity. The two of you are officially the first living crew to get that far from Earth without something going wrong.”

“Well just jynx it, why don’t you?”

“Nothing of the sort, it’s just very encouraging. Our readings indicate almost no battery charge lost for that trip. Confirm?”

“Confirmed. Point triple oh two percent lost from our single battery. Granted we went light minutes instead of… how far are we going to get to Equus?”

“A mere two point six million light years… give or take a few thousand. They’re just across the street in Andromeda. But don’t worry about the numbers working out. The energy needed to open the gate the ship uses to bypass physics isn’t proportional to the distance you are from your destination.”

“I mean… why would it be? That would make sense. What fun is there in that?”

Rarity snerked.

“What?”

“Nothing at all, darling,” she replied, smiling as she continued taking in the view. Equus, to her knowledge, had always had space travel as a fictional concept and little more. She’d never imagined visiting other worlds before Twilight’s trip through the mirror, and even then it was standing on those worlds that she envisioned. This… was something else entirely. And it was breathtaking. “Can… can we go to Saturn next?”

Aiden grinned, and put a hand on her withers. “Friendship, confirm that request, if you would.”

“You are go to have a look around the Solar System,” Valerie confirmed. “Just be home by five. We all have plans.”

“Copy that, Friendship. This is High Horse-”

“No, it isn’t. Recommend we change name to Falcon.”

Aiden blinked, then smiled and nodded once. “...Captain Windborne would like to confirm new ship name.”

“Friendship confirms.”

“Good to hear. Heading out for Saturn.”

After another brief blur of colors that weren’t really there, they were treated to another breathtaking view. After both looked on in appreciative silence for a moment, Rarity felt Aiden’s magic as a bottle floated out of a nearby compartment. “I’d say this is a celebration type moment, wouldn’t you?”

Rarity smiled, grabbing a pair of glasses with her own magic. They had, naturally, come prepared. Aiden popped the cork, and filled both glasses, taking one from her telekinesis. He clinked it against hers. “To successful test flights, and homeward journeys.”

Rarity smiled, returning the clink and responding, “To new friendships, and bright futures.”

They both sipped, enjoying the shared moment of triumph that they, and those back at Friendship, had earned together.

------------------------------------------

The sight of the Rings of Saturn would be with Rarity for the rest of her days, and she felt she’d be trying to find words to describe the experience of seeing them and the world they encircled for just as long. Fortunately, the words required of her currently were a bit easier; she’d had no trouble memorizing them.

“I, Rarity, Knight of the Esper Corps, do swear to defend my people and my homeland from all threats, foreign and domestic. I swear to uphold the ethical uses of the gift of magic both in myself and my peers. I hold myself to this standard now until the end of my life, a beacon of hope and a bastion against the darkness that would encroach upon our light. We walk forward on our path, no matter how it may bend and try to lead us astray. Even unto the depths of Hell without fear, for I know that I am not alone. My brothers and sisters walk with me, forward, shining brightly even covered in the shadows of the darkest of days. We are the children of magic, the defenders of our worlds. We are Knights.”

She saluted smartly, and Paladin Williams returned it, as did Aiden, Donovan, and Vera from their sides. “Welcome to the Corps, Lady Rarity.”

“Thank you, sir.”

“Here’s hoping it stays mostly ceremonial,” Will said with a wry grin.

“Agreed, darling,” she replied, breaking the serious mood as an impressive applause broke out from the gathered witnesses… those being the soldiers and technicians working at Fort Friendship (apparently now the official name) under General Grumman.

Among the loudest clapping was Private Aaron Cooper, wearing a grin that Pinkie would’ve been proud of. “And now, folks,” he yelled over the pleasant din. “...Time to party!”

A cheer went up as the assembled throng began quickly rearranging the room to clear a dance floor and arrange chairs around tables near where the kitchen staff was already wheeling out buffet carts. Another small kitchen group was clearly setting up a bar, and it occurred to Rarity that it seemed a positively lovely night to get tipsy. But first…

She turned to Aiden, grinning as the music began playing. He returned the look, stepping forward and giving her a half bow. He looked rather sharp in his dress uniform, Rarity decided. She really didn’t have a primer for human attractiveness beyond the Internet (marginally helpful if one could recognize the various misleads, she’d decided), but she’d determined that Aiden was… boyishly handsome, for whatever that meant. More importantly, she’d long since determined that she cared far less about how he looked than about how she felt around him.

“My Lady… may I have this dance?” and despite the slight upturn to his lips that indicated he knew the answer, there was an adorable little quaver of nerves in his voice. She had the sense that no one else would have even noticed it. Those grey eyes looked at her with warmth, respect, and trust. But even with everything, he didn’t take her acceptance for granted.

He could have, though. “It would be my pleasure… Sir Knight,” she replied.

Dancing on her hind hooves wasn’t nearly as difficult as she might have anticipated, though practicing a bit in advance had helped. Aiden led her through a waltz that slowly increased in tempo as the first song did the same. They were both cheating a little, using touches of magic to assist with balance. The high point for Rarity was when Aiden dipped her… since she really had almost no way to keep her hooves from sliding out from under her. It was a surprise and a thrill since they distinctly hadn’t practiced that. He didn’t let her fall though, and when they came back up she was laughing and he was grinning, before they embraced as the song ended.

Of course that was only the beginning. Her next partner was Grumman, who danced much more simply given his slight limp. “I can’t say how happy I am to see this day, and tomorrow as well. Miss Rarity, it may be presumptuous to say… but I’m very proud of you. Both of you,” he added, nodding towards Aiden, who was dancing with Vera while Lily had dragged a half heartedly protesting Donovan onto the dance floor.

Rarity smiled. “Not at all, General. Without your guidance and support, I can’t even imagine where I’d be, if I were even still alive to be anywhere. The same is true of Aiden, if to a lesser extent. Even when he left the military, you never stopped looking after him. I know he thinks of you as a father figure as much as a commanding officer.”

Grumman’s smile was the rare sort that could transform a face that had known true depths of loss. Rarity was quite happy to be able to put that smile on his face. Their dance ended with a kiss on his cheek. “To be clear, Albert Grumman, when I describe the best of humanity to my people, it will be the story of this house that you built, and the good people I met here.”

After that, Rarity managed to find herself dancing with Donovan, Valerie, Aaron (who was almost surprisingly bad, until she realized he was somehow already drunk) and Lily. She even danced a short dance with Valerie’s husband, to whom she had to give a good amount of credit. He took his first meeting with a friendly alien quite in stride. She couldn’t recall his name later, but he was the very picture of calm composure. He reminded her a bit of Big Macintosh. Finally, she danced with Vera.

Vera, who smiled sheepishly, continuously looking away as she awkwardly held Rarity during their dance. “I’ve uh… I’ve apologized for almost… uh… I…”

“Yes, Vera. You did. More than once, and it’s alright. You found your way back from a bad path, and believe me I’ve seen worse. You know you really should come to Equestria when you get the chance. I can think of several people you could speak to on the subject of redemption.” Seeing Vera’s lukewarm reaction, Rarity raised an eyebrow, grinning a bit mischievously. “You know though… acting bashful around me like this might give Lily the wrong idea.”

As expected, Vera stumbled. “What?!” she demanded, going a bit red in the face.

“Oh my, that blush won’t help in the slightest. It does suit you, and I’m not exactly exclusive in terms of gender… which doesn’t help the jealousy thing either, of course,” Rarity continued, tapping her chin with a hoof while looking lost in thought. “And your first date went so well she’s probably anxiously watching your every move. And now here you are, acting this way… I just don’t know…”

“Rarity!”

Rarity blinked innocently. “Yes, darling?”

“Why!?”

Rarity giggled. “Because, darling,” she said, tapping her hoof lightly to Vera’s nose. “You. Are. Forgiven. Everyone here knows it except you. I see you, we all do, acting guilty, feeling guilty, about mistakes you made. You’re confident for a bit and then something happens and they’re biting at you again. Stop letting them. They’re part of you, no cutting them out of the design. But they aren’t all of you. Learn from them… and walk forward. That’s the oath we’ve both taken now, isn’t it?”

Vera smiled softly. “Yeah… been awhile since I took it. I should probably remember it, and not just my latest screw up. That what you’re saying?”

Returning the smile, Rarity nodded. “You’ll do fine. Now then, jokes aside, Lily is waiting for another dance with you I think, and… oh…”

Vera turned, following Rarity’s wide-eyed stare. “Oh holy shit…”

“Sweet Celestia…”

Aiden and Donovan were dancing. It wasn’t two men dancing together that threw Rarity off… what drew her shocked silence was the same thing drawing the attention of the room.

She’d noted, while she and Aiden had practiced a bit so she could get accustomed to dancing upright, that he was a good teacher for it. He knew several pieces of advice and techniques for balance and confidence while going through the steps. But this…

The two of them spun, leapt, and improvised as they switched lead and follow roles frequently. Rarity had scarcely realized the song had changed while she was teasing Vera, going to something much more upbeat that the two were keeping pace to. It was astounding to watch.

“How can Donovan move like that?” Vera asked, rhetorically. “I’m still sore from the fighting… Hamada didn’t even want us dancing.”

“I don’t know,” Rarity said absently, mesmerized by the two of them. Most of her experience with dance was Canterlotian… regrettably Gala related and thus, rather tame. Oh there were some of Pinkie’s crazier parties where things got a bit faster paced, especially when Vinyl was involved, but this… “What is this called?”

“Uh… swing? West Coast, I think? I’m not really a dancer, but Aiden and Donovan clearly are…”

“I should say so, darling. This is…” she smiled warmly. “This is simply lovely.”

“That’s a good word for it.”

The song concluded, as did their dance, to an applause that matched Rarity’s official swearing in. Perhaps exceeded, given the addition of a pair of hooves stomping loudly in approval.

The two took grinning bows to the crowd before fist bumping. Donovan headed for the bar while Aiden walked back over to Rarity, who was still grinning enticingly. “My my… you certainly didn’t teach me any of that.”

He chuckled sheepishly. “Don’t think we had that kind of time.”

“Yet, darling. I do believe I’m interested though.”

“I think we could work something out.”

“So when did you learn that?”

“Ah, well… it actually came from group… err, group therapy, maybe ten or twelve years back when we started. Our therapist wanted to get us involved in physical activities that didn’t include violence. Dance was something a lot of us got into. It was a good bonding exercise for smaller platoons, but also a way to utilize our physical talents to create something positive, you know?”

Rarity reared up to hug him, and nuzzled his cheek. “I certainly do. It was wonderful to witness. Though now I have to insist on another dance, and perhaps a bit faster this time. I’m sure you won’t let me fall.”

“Not in a million years, my friend.”

------------------------------------------

It was some time later. Dinner had been had, desserts had followed, and now an assortment of coffees, wines, and cocktails were slowly disappearing. Most of what Rarity had come to think of as their core group had gathered at the table to share this, her last night on Earth. For now, at least.

“But seriously… don’t let him try n shoot nothin’. Or sing. Can’t carry a tune in all o’ that pocket dimension he’s got. Just horrible. Karaoke in Mexico City, 2011… I’d thought the Mayans were right.”

“Cooper… how the Hell do you even know about that? And how drunk are you?!” Aiden asked as Rarity and a few others laughed at Aiden’s expense.

“Not very! Also, cause I was there. Still with the Marines at the time, but attached to Grumman’s group that worked with the Espers there.”

Aiden blinked. “Huh, I didn’t realize you’d been in the service that long. Okay, so how the Hell are you still a Private?”

“Reasons!”

Aiden snerked. “Yeah, I bet. ...You’re probably an expert on potatoes, aren’t you?”

“...I could grow em on Mars, if you want.”

“I can’t see needing that for the moment.”

Lily chuckled, adding, “He’s lying. He turned down promotions to stay on here. Not how it’d usually work, but-”

“Hey, I like doin’ the little odd jobs, okay? I get to goof around more, don’t have to put up with idiot Privates like me.”

“Heh… an ‘idiot’ Private who saved my life. Don’t think any of us are actually falling for your act, Aaron,” Rarity said, smiling winsomely over her glass of wine.

“I dunno,” Aiden argued, sipping an Irish coffee. “I think he’s just multi-talented. Capable of mind boggling feats of heroism and facehoofing moments of-”

“You did it again, darling.”

“I did what?”

“Good pronunciation, though,” Valerie added with a grin. “I didn’t know you could conjugate facehoof that way.”

“I… what?”

Rarity giggled. “He really doesn’t notice himself doing that. And yes, you can, though it’s rather informal. I can’t imagine where he learned to speak thus. It certainly wasn’t from me.”

“Riiight,” Aiden said, rolling his eyes. “It was this other pony… Rainbow Dash? Yeah, probably her.”

“I’ll be sure to let her know, when I see her.” Rarity said dryly.

“You do that… tomorrow’s going to be a big day, so try not to forget.”

She smiled. “Yes, sir.”

------------------------------------------

Several hours later they made it to bed, and after a goodnight kiss that was perhaps a touch more than friendly and probably to be blamed on alcohol, they both slept surprisingly well. At least Rarity believed such, since they’d become rather attuned to one another and she certainly slept like a foal. She dreamed at one point that she was helping fix the Millenium Falcon alongside Han Solo, Chewbacca, Aiden, and Johnathan. The surprising thing was, seeing Johnathan hadn’t hurt. He’d been all smiles and enthusiasm about the journey they’d soon take when they got the hyperdrive fixed (finally!). And, as it had been in their short time together in the waking world, his was an infectious personality. Shortly before waking, she’d given him an extra big hug (Pinkie would’ve been proud, a fine number three ‘I really love you and thank you for everything ever!’ hug), knowing full well that this was a dream and that he was gone but not forgotten.

She’d awoken to Aiden already getting up, giving her an excited grin before hitting the shower. Rarity lingered in bed, waiting her turn. She didn’t begrudge him going first; they both knew he’d be in and out faster than she, further once done he’d start coffee and a light breakfast for the two of them. All in all, a fine arrangement… and one she idly wondered if they’d be able to continue in Equestria. The thought brought a happy grin. Not so much at whatever their future might hold. That was certainly interesting, of course, but… SHE WAS GOING HOME! She’d see Sweetie again, and all of her friends, and her parents, and the princesses, and….

Her lips trembled as her eyes welled up with happy tears. “...Home…”

“Damn right…”

“Gah! Aiden! When did you…?”

He chuckled, pinching her ear lightly and drawing a pleased gasp from her. “About thirty seconds ago… you were really lost in thought there. I felt like I was watching a monologue with no dialogue. Shower’s free, obviously. Coffee?”

“Definitely… and the next time you do that to my ear… buy me dinner first.”

He snerked. “Sorry, I was given a short list of ‘no touch’ zones and that wasn’t on it. Bad touch?”

“Oh not even vaguely, darling. Quite familiar… so don’t do that to a random pony. It was delightfully similar to being nibbled on…”

“Geh…” he flushed, taking a step back.

She giggled. “It’s fine, really. I enjoyed it. Now then, unless you’d like to continue such affectionate gestures in the shower-”

His flush went from pink to a rather lovely red.

Her grin went from understated to devilish, “-I’ll see you again in a bit. ...And yes, I’d love a cup of coffee waiting. Also toast sounds nice.”

“Yes, ma’am,” he said in a slightly strangled sounding voice, backing away. She couldn’t quite tell, and was happy for it, how much of his act was just an act versus how embarrassed he truly was. Nothing wrong with a little mystery. She gave him another, admittedly flirty, little laugh while stretching and swishing her tail a bit. She then hopped down from the bed and trotted jauntily towards the bathroom to prep for the trip home.

------------------------------------------

The sentiment was clear: ‘this isn’t goodbye, it’s just see you later.’ And Rarity was quite grateful for that. After staring down a round robin of well wishes and farewells she’d worried about tearing up, and hadn’t disappointed herself. Still, it wasn’t nearly so bad as she might have expected. No one there believed this would be their last time seeing each other. They had the ship, and more being built. The shielding problem, she knew, wouldn’t hold back these people for long. A future for both their worlds as friends was something Rarity felt entirely confident about. And it all started right here.

Shortly before boarding the Falcon, Valerie was the last to address them both. “Aiden, Rarity. I wanted you both to know something. The designs I’ve left with you for the new batteries… they were a gift from Cade.”

Rarity’s eyes widened slightly. “‘Cade’ didn’t exist, he was-”

“I know, and with respect, I disagree. I’ve taken on a number of false personas over the years, and those roles would never have been convincing if they had no life of their own. In a lot of ways, you become the character you’re playing. And I never played a single role for as long as Garken played Cade. We’ve checked his work from top to bottom, and it’s flawless for as far as it goes. Flawless, and brilliant. Moriko was able to make a few improvements to reduce the aetheryte requirements to what I told you during the test flight… but the actual designs we owe to him. We already have Tom and Crow working on computing substitutes we can use from Earth native materials. We’ve derived concepts that should help with the shielding problem, assuming tests go well.”

“I… I could leave Joyeuse here,” she offered, though it was surprisingly difficult to say. “The aetheryte within it could-”

“No,” Valerie cut her off with a smile. “No, Joyeuse is definitely yours. I absolutely refuse to carve it up for batteries, even if I could. It has a life of its own, or at least an animus of sorts. It belongs with you… and it should get to go home as well.”

Rarity smiled, nodding her agreement. “I wanted to make the offer… but I’m honestly glad you turned me down. I’ve grown a bit attached to it.” She blinked. “I may have to have Twilight make sure that isn’t a bad thing. Corrupted aetheryte has to come from somewhere…”

“Heh… not from you, though,” Aiden said. “I’m pretty damn sure the nobility and selflessness you’ve poured into that crystal are the opposite of any sort of corruption.”

“Hear hear,” General Grumman interjected, stepping forward with a familiar book in hand. “One last thing to take along. Your tablets and other supplies are already loaded, of course, but thank you for loaning this back to me one last time.”

“Of course, General, though your wording confuses me. It’s your book.”

“Not anymore. Please, as we discussed when we met…” he smiled. “Seems so long ago, has it really only been weeks…?”

“I can’t even tell,” Aiden chuckled.

“In any case… please give this to Princess Celestia, with my compliments. A similar volume, containing human history, has been included with your tablets, alongside a paper copy… though that version is, by necessity, less extensive.”

“I’m sure she’ll be deeply surprised and delighted to have them both… as will Twilight Sparkle,” Rarity said with a knowing, and anticipatory, grin.

“Your Princess of Friendship, if I recall correctly?”

“You do.”

“Fitting then, that she get a copy. I look forward to meeting them both, and Luna and… Cadenza?”

Rarity nodded.

“All of them.”

“A day to look forward to.” She reared up, hugging him tightly. “I said it yesterday, but it bears repeating. Thank you, for everything.”

He returned the hug, smiling softly. “Take care of yourself, Rarity, until we meet again. I expect it sooner rather than later.”

“I as well, so you do the same… Albert.”

They released one another, and Rarity turned and hugged Valerie, who staggered a bit as though somehow not expecting it. Rarity laughed. “The first friendly face I met here, and I’ll never forget that. You were the first ray of hope I felt. Keep shining that hope for everyone here as well. We all need you, Valerie. Don’t think I don’t notice you trying to slip out of the spotlight every chance you get.”

“It’s a spy habit...” she fake whined, but returned Rarity’s hug fiercely. “But I’ll remember. Be safe… and look after Aiden for us.”

“Hey…”

“I will, darling,” she replied, lightly ignoring Aiden’s half-hearted protest as she released the embrace. She glanced cheekily at Aiden, as if to say ‘...well?’

“Hmph,” he grumped theatrically, before offering a hand to Grumman. “A salute somehow doesn’t seem right just now.”

“It certainly doesn’t, young man,” Grumman replied, grasping his hand firmly and pulling him into a hug that clearly caught him off guard. “Take care out there. I’d tell you to mind yourself, since you’re representing humanity-”

“Yeah, no pressure.”

“But I’ve every confidence in you… And in their forgiving nature.”

“Gee, thanks.”

Grumman chuckled, and patted him on the back. “It’s presumptuous, but you’re the son I wish I’d had. I do have every confidence in you, both of you. You’re a credit to humanity, and to your fellow Espers, just as I fully believe Rarity to be a credit to Equus’ people. I know the two of you will forge a path for us all.”

“Agreed, and I’ll say the same to you: take care of Rarity,” Valerie added, catching Aiden in a hug after Grumman let go. “You two look after each other, and I know the rest will fall into place.”

“Yeah,” Aiden said, smiling brightly. “Count on it.”

------------------------------------------

“Nine… eight… seven…”

“Why do we even need a countdown? This thing launches more smoothly than a car.”

“Three… two… one… ignition!”

Aiden rolled his eyes, clear even from the internal camera’s position, but couldn’t fight a grin as he kicked in the thrusters that took them effortlessly into the upper atmosphere. Valerie watched the reading from her station; everything was in the green. Continuing the climb, he keyed in the final calculations for the Creation Engines’ main drive to open a gate to Equus. “This is Falcon, requesting final permission to head out. Co-Captains Aiden and Rarity, checking in one final time before jump.”

Falcon, this is General Grumman of Fort Friendship, speaking for all of humanity in wishing you godspeed, and the best of luck. You are clear to depart, and we hope to hear from you soon.”

“Feel free to come visit when you can.”

“We fully intend to.”

“Damn right. Captain, if you’d be so kind?”

Rarity grinned, and her magic tapped in the final confirmation sequence. “Jumping to theoretical space…”

They were the last words the Falcon transmitted before disappearing from Earth’s orbit. The cabin camera feed went to static, as expected. Valerie smiled, and Hamada nodded in affirmation at the readings. “Looks flawless from here, but they’re too far for any form of communication… now we wait and see.”

------------------------------------------

Rarity had no idea how long she’d been out of it. Had she napped? Was this real? Was the ship moving sideways in time, or had she moved forward while everything else moved backward more slowly. As her mind swirled around these concepts without really considering them, it occurred to her that there was nothing. In the distance, there were somethings. Stars? Galaxies? Quasars… wait, what were those again? Where was her tablet…? Distractions... please, Celestia... anything... But there, where they were, what they were moving through? NOTHING. She was vaguely aware of sitting in Aiden’s lap, clinging to him. There was nothing romantic about the gesture. She was shivering in vague, existential terror… and so was he. Both of them, their magic clinging desperately to one another, felt the infinite seeming void of absolute nothingness all around them. Impossible to comprehend numbers of impossible to cross distances separated them from absolutely everything. Rarity whimpered. Aiden’s arms tightened around her. Make it stop… she had no idea which of them had thought that. She knew it was his teeth she could hear grinding…

And then it ended… with a bang.

Alarms went off, the ship bucked violently and everything was light… and smoke. The light came from without, as the ship spun out of control and both of them came to their senses, gripping their chair in a telekinetic death hold.

“SHIT!!” Aiden shouted, getting ahold of himself (relatively) slightly faster than Rarity. She hopped over to her own chair, holding it with her magic to get there safely, and strapped in.

“What the buck was that?!”

“WE HIT A GODDAMN STAR! WHY IS YOUR SUN RIGHT THE BUCK THERE?!”

“WHAT?!”

“WE. HIT. YOUR. SUN!”

“WHY?!”

BUCK IF I KNOW! WHY’S IT SO SMALL?! AND RIGHT CLOSE TO THE PLANET?!”

“I DON’T KNOW! ...Is yelling helping?!” she asked as she tapped several controls to cut the alarm klaxons.

“It’s helping me! Seriously, we bounced off of a sun! It’s a small star, sure, but… it’s orbiting your world! These readings… this is…”

“But you knew that! Celestia controls the sun; it’s in Grumman’s book!”

“I thought it was metaphorical!”

“Well, it’s not!”

“Shit! Okay so we’re pretty bucked… shields are down, all batteries overloaded when the shields bounced us away from getting cooked… we also took a major power drain coming through… whatever that cloud was.”

“Sidera’s Veil, I assume?”

“I think you’re right. Anyway we’re… tumbling toward the planet on a ballistic course.”

“I just can’t fly in Equestria without crashing, it would seem.”

“You mighta mentioned that.”

Rarity grinned sheepishly at him.

“No, being cute doesn’t absolve you…”

“It can’t hurt.”

“...Fair. Okay so we don’t have much choice in the matter, but we’re coming in pretty deep into what I’m guessing is the Crystal Empire? Certainly a ways north of Canterlot.”

She nodded, examining the readings as though they weren’t plummeting to their deaths. ...After all, they weren’t. “Agreed. According to this, we’ll be perhaps two hundred miles west of the Crystal Capital, and about one hundred south of Yakyakistan.”

“If I recall, you don’t much care for the Yaks.”

“They’re… a difficult people to get along with. Not to say bad… per se… but challenging. We should definitely make for the Crystal Capital.”

“Right. Hull armor is holding against the atmospheric friction, should be no problems there. No lifeforms in our impact radius…” Several items, including their supply crate, disappeared into portals. “Ready to go?” He smiled, holding out his hand.

“Let’s,” she replied, taking the hand in a hoof.

The two vanished, soon to have excellent seats for the Falcon’s unfortunate arrival. The road ahead was just opening up, beckoning them onward. Together, they would take the first step.

The End