PonyTech: Ashes of Harmony

by CopperTop

First published

The Celestia League has fractured. Successor States fight an endless war for resources and domination. At the forefront of this war are the intrepid pilots of massive war-machines known as: BattleSteeds.

A Dark Age has befallen ponykind. Where once reigned the united Celestia League, five Successor States now battle for control of the settled region of the galaxy known as: The Harmony Sphere. Wars' destruction ravaged the once-flourishing worlds and left them in ruins. The advancement of magic and technology has not only ceased, but the spells and equipment of the past cannot be produced by present-day worlds. Now, the Succession Wars are fought over resources, ancient magitek, and spare-parts factories, for control of these elements will lead to the final victory and domination of all the known worlds.

By the 16th century After Celestia, war has raged in the Successor States for over 500 years.  The battlefields of the Succession Wars are dominated by the most awesome war-machines in equine history: BattleSteeds.  These huge, pony-shaped vehicles are faster, tougher, and wield more destructive potential than a legion of 1st century Crystal Knights.  From the twenty-ton Breezy, to the hundred-ton Big Mac, BattleSteeds are the preeminent warfighting machines of the galaxy.

In this ongoing conflict, the mercenary soldier has ample opportunity to seek their fortune under the banner of one of the Great Houses.  It is a career fraught with danger, but rich in potential rewards.  Slipshod is one such mercenary.  A BattleSteed pilot in the employ of a small freelance outfit, The Steel Coursers, he hasn’t expected much more from his life than to do a job, get paid, and likely someday die on the field of battle and be quickly forgotten by time.

That is, until The Steel Coursers happen upon the wreckage of an ancient Celestia League era DropShip.  What they find inside could change the fates of all who dwell within the Harmony Sphere forever…

Cover and TRO art provided by the talented Mix-Up. Be sure to show him some love!

Chapter 1: Target of Opportunity

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House Raptor?


House Cheval?

“It’s taboo on Maresailles, so no.”

House Satagee?

“Yes, actually. Both of them, in fact.”

Both, huh? Right. House Roan?

“Uh...no; but also yes.”

What? Okay, you’re going to have to explain that one.”

Slipshod chuckled to himself, idly pulling at the fiberglass fishing pole that was cradled loosely in his hooves. He’d never actually gone fishing before in his life, but when he’d learned the details of this particular operation, and where he’d be spending a few hours with nothing better to do, he’d decided that now was as good a time as any to give it a try. One of the mare’s working in maintenance back on the Galloway frequently spoke about how much she enjoyed sitting on the dock with her siblings and had even offered to loan him her rod for the missions.

The stallion had to admit: so far he didn’t see the appeal. It seemed that all he was doing was just sort of...sitting here. Which is what he’d have been doing anyway. Only now he was doing it while holding an eight foot long pole.

On the other hoof, the maintenance tech had also mentioned that gratuitous quantities of beer had also been present during her own outings. Slipshod was the sort of professional who didn’t drink while on the job, so he’d decided to forgo that particular aspect. He now found himself wondering if that might have been an integral part of this whole ‘fishing’ thing after all…

“Well, it turns out that House Roan doesn’t technically have a ‘daughter’,” he responded over the communications device wrapped around his ear, as the mare that he was conversing with was sequestered almost five kilometers north of his position in order to give him advance warning of any units that might come their way from the local garrison, “so, no, ‘she’ doesn’t have her teets pierced. However, there was a piercing on something else; so it’s up to you how you want to count that one.”

You’re kidding,” she chortled. Then there was a brief pause on the line as a thought seemed to occur to her, “hold on, wait, how would you know unless―you didn’t!”

The stallion couldn’t help but chuckle at her obvious surprise, “hey, I will have you know that, despite those vicious rumors Squelch spreads to the contrary, I am an honorable and respectful stallion of good breeding!” Even as the earth pony spoke the words, his lips were spread in a broad grin that could honestly likely be heard through the mic, “so when I promise a mare a good time, I see the deed through! Even if it turns out that she might not...quite...have actually been a mare.”


“Hey, it would have been pretty awkward of me to have bailed at that point. We’d been fooling around for nearly an hour by the time we got far enough for me to discover the trap,” even though the mare on the other end of his comlink wasn’t able to see it, Slip still shrugged out of habit as he continued to tease the line a little bit more. After nearly three hours without so much as a nibble, the stallion was beginning to wonder if there were actually any fish in this lake...or even on this planet for that matter. He made a mental note to ask Squelch when they got back on board the DropShip, “at that point, it was entirely my fault; so I just had to swallow my pride and carry on.”

Oh? And was that all you swallowed that night?”

“A gentlecolt doesn’t kiss and tell,” he insisted primly, though still grinning broadly, “at least not without somepony buying him a bottle of Maker’s Cutie Mark. Seventeen years old, to be specific, if you’re interested in hearing more about that encounter,” Slip pulled up the pole and looked at the bare hook. He frowned at the sight of the wormless curved metal. He’d rebaited it four times already, and he’d made extra certain this last time that the worm wasn’t somehow just wriggling off of it.

Either there was something in this lake eating his bait without so much as twitching the line, or the acidity was concerningly far on the low end of the pH scale. Though that would explain the faint odor in the air that reminded him of the breakfast meal ration packs that were on the ‘risky’ side of their expiration date. In any case, it was hardly like he had anything better to do, so the stallion brought the rod in and went through the process of putting a worm on the hook for a fifth time.

“For now, list another House whose daughters you’ve always wondered about.”

You could be making all of this up, for all I know,” the mare on the channel with him pointed out.

“I could be,” Slipshod acknowledged, “but you can check the Galloway’s travel logs and find out that we’ve been to every planet with those Houses you’ve listed; and I know you can’t account for my whereabouts during every night we were there,” he paused for a brief moment to let her digest those particular facts, and then ventured in a detached tone, “I mean...if you’re really worried about whose bed I’m sneaking off to while we’re planetside, you could always just keep me all safe and sound in yours…”

Ha! Talk about needing a bottle of booze―or six,” the mare responded in a tone that wasn’t quite derisive; but the stallion smiled nonetheless.

“What? The heaters on the ship have been known to operate below their rated BTUs; I’m just letting you know there’s an alternative to raiding the linen closet for every spare blanket when that happens. My intentions are entirely honorable!”

Uh huh. Squelch used a lot of adjectives to describe you when I came aboard. For some reason, ‘honorable’ wasn’t on the list...there was ‘bastard’, ‘gelding’, ‘letch’, and ‘misogynist’. I guess she must have just left out the H’s for some reason…”

“Lies, and slander, and slanderous lies,” Slipshod quipped, his smile waning slightly as the mare listed off words that he had little doubt were genuinely used to describe him by his ex-wife. He never contested them, as he was fully aware that he’d earned each and every one of those adjectives. Much to the dismay of a few ponies on the ship, the stallion didn’t have a similar list of his own. In fact, he knew full well that there wasn’t a pony alive who could honestly say that he’d ever uttered a disparaging word about his ex.

Because he had never done so. Slipshod was a lot of things, and not all of them complimentary; but one fault he didn’t have was that he wasn’t a liar.

And while the earth pony might not have a list of insults that he threw around regarding the mare who commanded their little mercenary outfit, he was careful to avoid any compliments either. He’d been the cause of their falling out, yes, but he was also aware that Squelch was a good enough mare to give him another chance if she thought that he was willing to make a genuine effort to change. There’d been more than one occasion where the two of them had drunk a little more than they should have after getting a particularly nice payout and things had ended up back in her quarters.

After the inevitable ‘frollicing’, the pillow talk started, and the musing about giving their marriage another go…

Eventually they both sobered up, took a cold shower, and remembered why the two of them were much better off as co-workers than spouses and everything returned to business as usual. Which was exactly how it needed to be.

The stallion shook away the creeping thoughts and the feelings that they brought along with them, “now, come on, make with the House names already, I have a list long enough to keep us going for hours―” an alarm sounded from the interface on Slipshod’s left fetlock. He glanced down at the display, though he already knew what the notification was alerting him to. After all, he’d only set the single parameter, “oop, never mind. Break’s over, Val!”

The stallion didn’t even wait for an acknowledgement as he tossed the useless fishing pole into the hatch that he’d been leaning back against and vaulted in after it. He grabbed a lever on his way down and hydraulic actuators hissed as the heavy portal was slowly lowered closed until it finally sealed shut. Slipshod landed on the piloting couch below and his hooves began to dance over the consoles in front of him, depressing buttons and flipping switches in a well-practiced sequence that he was now only barely conscious of performing.

Lights blinked on, and a low humming filled the cockpit, fading quickly into the background as an orchestra of beeps and chimes all sounded off to announce the activation of various other systems. The ever-detached cool drone of a synthetic mare’s voice began to make its usual announcements:





The golden stallion snatched his nearby helmet from where it was hanging and slipped it over his head before making himself comfortable on the piloting couch. Laying on his stomach atop the padded surface, the earth pony ensured that his harness was secured to keep him firmly in place during the imminent scuffle. Then he set his hind hooves into the steering pedals to his rear as his forehooves gripped the weapon control yokes in front of him.

He grinned, “alright, babe; time to earn our C-bits! Up and at ‘em!”

Ginger Snap stifled yet another in what was becoming a genuinely embarrassingly long line of yawns. The cinnamon mare frowned as she noticed the mildly annoyed look from the stallion next to her in the turret. It wasn’t like it was her fault that she was yawning! She was getting plenty of rest, but these long drives through the Western Caldera were just so damned boring.

“You sure you don’t want some coffee?” the tank’s commander asked of his gunner.

“That depends. Are you going to actually stop this thing when I have to use the little filly’s room in an hour?”


“Then, no. I’m fine,” she grumbled. Not that she for a moment believed that coffee would have done anything to help with the preeminent cause of her yawning. A point further demonstrated by yet another of the phenomena, on the heels of the last, “I should have brought some vids to watch.”

“What makes you think I would have let you watch 'em?” her superior inquired, casting her another cool glance.

“Oh, come on, LT! We make this run every week, and the most dangerous thing we’ve ever come across is a rock lizard―a baby rock lizard. You didn’t even notice we’d run it over until I pointed its guts out to you on the treads when we got back to base!” the mare protested, “I get that these convoys require escorts as part of ‘regulations’, but we both know there’s no practical point to them.

“Canopy doesn’t have any political insurgents, the criminal element isn’t involved in anything above unlicensed gambling and pickpocketing, and besides all that: how is anypony going to be able to offload a thousand metric tons of LRMs? Nopony’s going to try anything! So what if I pass the ride watching some vids instead of looking through the sights at, oh let’s just take a look, eh?”

The mare leaned forward and pressed her face into the tank’s gunnery sights, slowly rotating the turret and listing off everything she saw, “rocks...rocks...more rocks," she ignored the heavy sigh of her commanding officer and persisted in given her 'scouting report', "sulfur pool...ro―SWEET CELESTIA!

Just as the mare was passing her gaze over the pool of water that had gathered in the pit of the dormant volcano, she witnessed the usually placid liquid surface parting as a giant metal head in the vague shape of a pony emerged, sheets of water pouring off from its sharply angled surfaces. In the back of her mind, she identified its profile as being some variant of Wild Bronco, a versatile medium-weight BattleSteed that was a common sight in all regions of the Harmony Sphere. They could be configured to support a wide array of weapons depending on the mission requirements.

However, in this specific instance, Ginger Snap was only able to identify one of the weapons that the large behemoth mounted: a large directed magical energy beam sequestered in it’s right shoulder. Given another few seconds, the tank gunner would certainly have been able to correctly identify the rest of the weapons complement as well. Unfortunately, she was not given those few seconds. Her view was quickly obscured by blinding blue light.

Thirty megasparks of coherent energy drilled into the front of the Scorpion Light Tank's turret, and nearly instantaneously flash-boiled the forward facing armor. The occupants were vaporized by the intense heat of the weapon a fraction of a second later. Then the fuel ignited and the armored vehicle exploded. Ginger Snap and her crew were dead before the rest of the convoy even realized that they were under attack.

Slipshop didn’t pause to appreciate the armored vehicle’s demise. He had additional concerns that occupied his attention. Specifically, the three other armored tracked vehicles that also served as the escorts for the munitions convoy that he had been contracted to ambush. While his forward facing directed energy weapon cycled through its recharge phase, the stallion flipped his firing controls over to the six-pack short ranged missile system mounted in the center of the Wild Bronco’s chest, teased the controls until his ‘Steed was lined up on the next tank, and fired. A half dozen smoke trails lanced outward, striking the second tank in rapid succession. Like the first target, it too evaporated in a cloud of smoke and fire as its munitions and fuel combusted.

The crews of the surviving tanks were to be commended for reacting as quickly as they did to the ambush. Likewise, their tactics were well-thought-through. Ultimately futile, given what they were up against, but they still seemed determined to make a good showing of themselves. Autocannon shells and SRMs answered for the deaths of their comrades. The BattleSteed lurched with the impacts and Slipshod was thrown against his harness as its straps kept him firmly in place.

The golden earth pony grit his teeth and used his hind hooves to tilt both pedals as far forward as they would go. The background hum of the reactor began to rapidly increase in volume as more power was demanded of it. Fifty tons of steel and ablative armor didn’t tend to react well when put up against the inalienable laws of inertia. He watched as his ‘Steed’s measured speed slowly rose, his piloting couch jostling beneath him as the four massive legs driving him forward went into action, progressing from a walk, to a trot, through a canter, and finally into a full gallop as quickly as physics and their myomer muscles would allow. Though it was less than five seconds until he was running smoothly across the caldera at a clip of sixty kilometers an hour, it felt like a small eternity as enemy autocannon shells and missiles smashed against his accelerating frame.

Slipshod teased the steering pedals as he lined up his ‘Steed with the tank that had veered left. He had a pair of small lasers that were charged and ready to fire in his left shoulder mount, but those wouldn’t be quite up to the task of cutting through a tank’s armored hide. Those were mostly reserved for lighter targets. However, when one was piloting a twelve meter tall, fifty ton, titanium equine robot, it didn’t always take actual ‘weapons’ to defeat lesser adversaries.

One of the Wild Bronco’s forehooves slammed directly on top of the Scorpion. It’s turret’s supports protested for half a second, and then buckled beneath the weight of the ‘Steed, collapsing inward. Munitions stored within ruptured and detonated. Slipshod was already wheeling the ‘Steed around, noting the flashing indicator that informed him that his large magical energy weapon had completed charging back up for another shot. He kicked back on the throttle as he depressed the firing controls. The hind legs of his ‘Steed froze mid-stride, drifting over the hard-scrabble ground behind the rest of his Wild Bronco as the whole machine pivoted sharply. The beam of blue light struck out at the ground and proceeded to carve its way across the surface until it sliced across the back end of the convoy’s last remaining escort. The tank’s engine sputtered, smoked, and then set the vehicle aflame.

Slipshod kept his gaze fixed on the tank, his hoof ready to launch another volley of short ranged missiles in case it wasn’t completely out of action yet. However, the turret of the armored vehicle made no effort to rotate and target Slipshod. The stallion just watched as the top hatch popped open. A gout of fiery smoke erupted out of it, quickly settling into a broiling black column, which was then briefly interrupted by an equine form that was consumed by flames scrambling out. From within the cockpit of his ‘Steed, the stallion could hear nothing of the outside world, but he could feel the pain and the panicked desperation of the pony as he watched them wriggle and writhe atop the turret until finally falling to the ground. There they continued to twist in agony as the fire refused to be dashed by their mad thrashing.

Eventually, mercifully, they went still. Whether because they were truly dead, or had simply passed out from the excruciating pain, it was difficult to tell for certain. If it was the latter, they would surely be dead in short order anyway. In any case, it was pretty clear that the last of the convoy’s escorts were no longer a threat.

All that was left to address now where the dozen or so cargo transports and their highly volatile burdens. Those missiles, Slipshod knew, were being shipped to the garrison north of their position so that they could arm the newly constructed array of air-defense turrets there. Those turrets had been built because the planetary defense forces on Canopy were concerned that some malevolent entity had designs on putting an end to their nominal sovereignty, and they wanted to close up the last few gaps in their air coverage to keep a hostile entity from landing an invading force.

They were quite correct, it turned out: there was somepony out there who wanted control of this world, and its very plentiful crystal deposits. Specifically, the Kirin Confederation, who were eager to acquire more resource-rich territory after their most recent disaster of a campaign against the Hippogriff Combine. The Confederation now found themselves in desperate need of new sources of raw material and staging grounds for their inevitable attempt to reclaim their lost possessions.

Unfortunately for the inhabitants of Canopy, they had just become prime real estate, and an invasion force was less than a month out. Slipshod’s job was to make sure that force had the opening that they needed to land their troops. Ensuring that those air-defense batteries, designed to shoot down such an invasion before it could deploy, were without any missiles to fire at such a force did just that.

Of course, the earth pony wasn’t a monster. Just because the missiles had to be destroyed, he couldn’t see any reason the ponies driving the trucks had to go with them.

Slipshod engaged his communications system and navigated to the frequency used by the cargo trucks whose progress had been halted by the wreckage of the first tank that he had destroyed in his surprise assault, “Canopy convoy, this is Slipshod of the Steel Coursers, under contract with the Nirik Light Pony. We’ve been hired to intercept this convoy and destroy all the cargo it’s carrying. You have exactly sixty seconds to exit your vehicles and get to a safe distance. That is all,” the stallion cut the line and set a timer. Then he took a deep breath and watched the chaos below as dozens of ponies scrambled to get out of the cargo trucks and run for cover.

The stallion waited patiently for the drivers to get clear of the blast area before using the pair of small red-hued laser cannons mounted in the shoulder of his ‘Steed to burn down the vulnerable strapped-down missiles. In addition to being the more compassionate option, it also meant that word would be passed back that he and his ‘Steed weren’t part of some random raider faction. There was at least a certain amount of professional understanding where proper mercenary companies were concerned. They were hired to do a job, and so they did the job. It was nothing personal, and rarely did the mercenaries themselves feel any sort of malice towards their targets.

After all, yesterday’s target was just as likely as not to become tomorrow’s paying client. Not this time, however. The Confederation had been savvy enough to slip in something of a ‘non-compete’ clause into this contract. It was a shame really. The Steel Coursers knew quite a bit about the coming invasion, and could have negotiated for a lot of additional C-bits from the Canopy government for a contract to help fight off the invasion. A little bit more than the additional bonus that had been paid out by the kirin to cover the ‘inconvenience’ of that non-compete clause; but there was something to be said for passing on a higher payout with a lot of associated risk, in exchange for a smaller payout that came with no additional risk.

After all: dead pilots couldn’t spend their money.

Once every transport was a smoldering pile of twisted wreckage, he turned his Wild Bronco around and throttled back up to full speed. Somepony had doubtlessly gotten off a message of some sort to that garrison, and a response force was bound to show up within the hour. Slipshod intended to be well away from here and back on the Galloway by then.

“Gallop One to Peepers, op success. Back to the barn.”

Peepers copies,” Valkyrie replied over the comm channel, “bugging out.”

The stallion flipped over from the shortwave radio to the comms suite that would allow him to communicate with their waiting DropShip. Being much further away, the signal required considerably more power, as well as a bounce off of at least one of Canopy’s local satellites. As such, despite any encryption that they might use, it couldn’t be guaranteed that what they said wouldn’t be intercepted by parties interested in making the tail end of his and Valkyrie’s mission a little more lively, “Stable, Gallop One. Bonfire’s lit; let the guests know the party can start anytime.”

Another mare’s voice crackled over his helmet’s headset, a little rougher than Val’s had been as the result of less than perfect encryption/decryption setups on both ends. There were clear comms, and there were secure comms; but there were no clear secure comms, “roer, GallOne. Anparty crhers?

Slipshod glanced briefly at his navmap, but saw only the pair of blue blips that represented himself and Valkyrie. While the sensor array integrated into his own Wild Bronco wouldn’t have been able to alert him to much that wasn’t already just about within visual range, his partner’s Parasprite BattleSteed had enough radar and lidar arrays mounted on it that Val could likely have heard a sparrow fart from a hundred klicks away, “that’s a negative, Stable. Things still look invite-only.”

Underst...Retuto thearn. Stablet.”

He smiled and returned to his direct line with his partner, “Squelch’s waiting at the rendezvous. Race ya?”

Last one to the Galloway pays for the next bar crawl.”

“You’re on,” the golden pony grinned, redlining his ‘Steed’s engine. The twins were probably going to thwack him over the head for it, but it wasn’t their wallets on the line at the moment. Val drank like she could store booze in her flank. Her bar tab wasn’t cheap!

Slipshod finished powering down the ‘Steed and popped the egress hatch. He crawled out and unfastened his helmet with a sigh. He hadn’t―quite―managed to beat Valkyrie’s Parasprite back to the DropShip. It wasn’t entirely because her ‘Steed was faster though. While her Parasprite could fly across the ground at the better part of twice his own 'Steed's top rated speed, she’d also been about twice as far from the pick-up point. In theory, it should have been a close match. In fact, his ‘Steed would have had a slight edge, since the inertia of his greater tonnage let him crash through trees much more effortlessly, with only a minimal temporary loss of speed. Val would have had to detour to avoid more densely forested regions.

However, he suspected that she had some better terrain data at her hooves than he’d had, as she’d gone a route that should have been heavily forested and slowed her down a good bit, but didn’t. Indeed, she’d actually managed to maintain her top speed as she flew through the valley in a nearly straight line.

It seemed that the locals had installed a highway of some sort in the last few years since the maps he’d been given had been made. That was certainly a point to raise with Squelch where their client was concerned. The intel that they’d been given for this job was supposed to have been the ‘latest and greatest’. Obsolete intel wasn’t generally conducive to successful operations. Obviously, what their employer had could stand to be a good bit ‘later and greater’.

Ah, well. At least he knew it was probably a good idea to hold off on going on any spending sprees any time soon. It appeared that the bulk of his finances were spoken for the next time they made planetfall.

A walkway was being extended to meet him as he stood propped against the open hatch of his ‘Steed. A kirin mare with a rosy red coat and auburn mane sporting a broad smile was at the other end to greet him, “welcome back, Slip! I see you treated my sweet Widdle Bwonco well,” she said, noting the limited damage to several of the armor plates where the convoy’s escorts had managed to score hits. In the stallion’s experience, emerging from a mission without any sort of scratch was effectively impossible. However, as long as he kept the damage done to the armor he found that the company’s pair of chief mechanics didn’t give him any grief over it. After all, those plates were practically designed to fall off when struck by anything substantial.

What they were likely to have to say to him once they saw what his efforts to beat Valkyrie back to the ship had done to the radiators on his reactor on the other hoof...

“You should see how I treat a mare,” Slipshod replied with a broad grin as he stepped past the scaled equine, coming a little closer to her than was perhaps ‘proper’ where personal space was concerned, but Mig and her twin sister weren’t exactly strangers to him or his forward ways. Honestly, anypony who’d been on the ship for more than an hour was aware. He took a deep breath, relishing the sensation that passed through him as he stepped by her.

For her part, the mare giggled and rolled her eyes, “Oh, we have,” she winked at him, “maybe some other time. Squelch wants Tig and I to get your ‘Steed fixed up ASAP. A JumpShip is going to be heading out of system tomorrow and she wants us to be on it.”

“Your loss,” the stallion shrugged as he continued on down the walkway towards the ship’s interior. He wasn’t surprised by the tacit rejection, nor was he incredibly disappointed. He’d already gotten in a good roll with the pair of kirin shortly after their arrival on the ship once they’d been hired. Since then, he’d considered that box checked and hadn’t seriously pressed the issue. It just wasn’t quite the same with kirin as it was with ponies.

Besides, strictly speaking, he was pretty sure he’d made other plans this evening anyway. He consulted the rota that he used for keeping track of such things. More than once he’d been burned by mixing up who he was supposed to be entertaining on any given evening, and so found it necessary to use scheduling software normally reserved for small businesses that used it to track client appointments. He glanced at the date as he tried to recall which member of the crew was next up.

A quartet of hooves clapped down onto the catwalk just to his rear. The stallion glanced over his shoulder in time to catch sight of an azure pegasus mare removing her own piloting helmet, revealing her closely cropped blond mane and pink eyes, “I wish all of our contracts could be that easy,” Valkyrie lamented as she fell into step beside her comrade. A teal kirin that could have passed easily for a dyed version of the mare that had greeted Slipshod was snapping instructions at a team of ponies already starting to crawl over a slightly-built bepadel ‘Steed nestled in the stall across from his own Wild Bronco.

Val’s Parasprite was a typical chassis used as a recon platform by ‘Steed outfits, sporting a quartet of radar dishes on its rear that looked vaguely like tiny wings on either side of its bulbous central torso. The pair of medium range lasers that it mounted gave it some bite, but it’s true assets on the battlefield were its small size, hundred kilometer plus top speed, and jump jets that let it zip in and out of the engagement zone before most adversaries could hope to react to its appearance.

In this most recent outing, however, she’d been relegated exclusively to lookout duty. While the intel on the mission provided by their contractee had assured them that the convoy’s escort would be minimal and that any responding force would be too far out to give Slipshod and Valkyrie any trouble before they could be on their way back home, no mercenary who’d been doing such work for more than a week was actually stupid enough to take the client’s word at face value. It was a common practice to understate the risks involved in an operation, as that helped to validate a lowball offer.

After all, the greater the threat, the more C-bits an outfit would demand for their services.

In this instance though, it seemed that the information on responding forces that they’d been given had been more or less right on the money. That was probably because this was only the opening salvo in what was going to become a more protracted campaign by the Kirin Confederation to seize control of the world of Canopy. Now that the local government knew that a threat to their sovereignty existed, they’d be more alert to future attacks and step up the escorts on future convoys. Not that it was going to help them in this case. They’d never be able to replace those lost LRMs in time to do any good, and the Confederation wasn’t concerned about any of their other supply shipments.


None of that was going to be the Steel Coursers’ problem though. With only the pair of ‘Steeds at their disposal, their outfit wasn’t suited for serious confrontations or protracted battles. Which meant that there wasn’t much more that they’d be able to do in this campaign other than a few additional raids or harassing actions. Both of which became much riskier endeavors when the target was mobilized to fight a war and wouldn’t be able to tell what attacks were just meager little raids and which ones were genuine pushes by enemy assault forces. The last thing they needed was to be conducting a raid on a munitions depot, only to be intercepted by a lance of heavy or assault-class ‘Steeds anticipating a serious attack by heavier forces.

Which meant that their work in this system was done, and it was time for them to move elsewhere in order to seek out work that was within their means to do safely. Probably deeper in the Kirin Confederation interior, honestly. As the Nirik Light Pony started moving more of their forces to Canopy for the conquest, that meant that their ability to police the systems already under Confederation control would be reduced. A perfect time for insurrectionist elements to pop up that were the ideal targets for lower-tiered ‘Steeds like theirs to combat.

Ultimately, where they went off to next was Squelch’s decision though. After all, the Steel Coursers was her outfit and the Galloway was her ship. So she called the shots.

“You and me both,” the earth pony smirked, “speaking of ‘easy’,” he eyed the feathered mare up and down, “you’re sure I can’t convince you let me keep you warm sometime?”

“Never more so,” the pegasus responded easily, “I have higher aspirations than becoming a notch in your bedpost.”

The stallion did a deliberately poor job of feigning exaggerated mortification, “Gasp! I would never marginalize you like that, Dear Lady! Besides,” he added with a waggle of his eyebrows, “I don’t even have a bedpost. I log my paramours in a ledger that I keep under my pillow. That’s how us professional ‘letches’ do things.

“But, as you wish. I shall not trouble you on the matter further...until tomorrow, at least,” Slipshod flashed his fellow pilot another brief grin, noting her own thinly veiled amusement. He knew that she wasn’t likely to acquiesce to his overtures anytime soon. She wasn’t the kind of mare to go for casual sex; but he also knew that she was still a little flattered by his flirting. It felt good to be wanted, after all.

“Assuming you don’t freeze to death before then,” Valkyrie snorted dryly before changing the subject, “I’m heading to the mess. Care to join me?”

“Ooh, wish I could,” the stallion winced, “but it’s Thursday, so I have other plans,” he turned his head to a nearby unicorn mare that was carrying a bag of tools towards the berthed ‘Steeds, “Channel Lock,” he smiled broadly at the mechanic, twirling about to bring himself right up to her side, “you sneaky little devil, trying to pick up an extra shift when you and I already made arrangements for tonight…” he leaned in and kissed her on the cheek.

The nearby pegasus pilot watched with a mildly bemused expression as the strawberry hued mechanic returned the gesture without hesitation. She smiled at the stallion, “I’m just dropping these off for Tig. Go ahead and wait in my quarters and I’ll be there in a few minutes. You still remember the door code, right?”

“Of course I do,” Slipshod said smiling at the mare and giving her another peck. Though he did allow that he didn’t ‘remember it’ so much as have it noted in his appointment log. He visited a lot of quarters on the ship, and was hard-pressed to remember which codes went with which ponies as a result, “see you soon,” and with that the mare resumed heading for the mechanics swarming over the nearby ‘Steeds. Valkyrie noted that there seemed to be an extra spring in her step.

She looked back at the satisfied stallion with a bewildered expression, “I could have sworn that you spent the evening with that earth pony electronics tech on Thursdays…”

“You mean High Gain? That’s first and third Thursdays. Channel Lock is second and fourth Thursdays.”

The mare quirked a skeptical brow, “and what about the fifth Thursday, if there is one?”

Slipshod grinned broadly at the pegasus, “they’re bunkmates. Bunkmates who, after a few Salty Diamond Dogs, are up for doing pretty much anything together.

“It works out for all involved.”

The mare pilot’s eyes widened in surprise, wandering briefly after the unicorn mechanic who was talking with the cerulean kirin before returning to the beaming golden earth pony, “you’re unbelievable.”

“I believe the word you’re actually looking for is: irresistible,” he corrected playfully.

“Oh, I can resist you plenty.”

Slipshod cocked his head to the side, looking at the pegasus, “aren’t you the least bit curious why so many ponies on this ship don’t though? I mean, two dozen ponies can’t be wrong...right?”

“It is not ‘two dozen’,” Valkyrie corrected tersely, though she did admit―privately―that the number he had just given wasn’t far off the mark from what she’d observed.

“It could be, with your help,” he quipped in return with a sly look. Then he chuckled and trotted off, “but maybe some other time. I already have a date tonight, and a gentlecolt doesn’t keep a mare waiting!”

The blue pegasus watched the ‘Steed pilot trot off gingerly before shaking her head. His reputation as a rake had been one of the first facts about the crew of the Galloway that she’d learned upon signing on with the Steel Coursers. So she’d been properly prepared when the earth pony made an inevitable pass at her. What she hadn’t been prepared for was the fact that it seemed like most of the crew didn’t mind his antics. None of the mares who frequented his bed even seemed to mind that they weren’t the only mares he took to bed!

Well, with the exception of Squelch, anyway. Though, even on that front, the mercenary company’s owner and commander was rather cool on the subject of where and with whom Slipshod slept. It had taken the pegasus by no small amount of surprise when she eventually learned that the two of them had once been married. Less surprising was learning that the reason for their subsequent divorce had been infidelity on Slipshod’s part. Even then, while the spurned unicorn mare had a great many colorful names at the ready to call her ex, Valkyrie never recalled there being any ingrained malice behind them. It was almost like some weird little game that the two of them had going on.

Made all the odder by the fact that she couldn’t recall the earth pony ever using anything even approaching a derisive label for his former spouse and current boss. Their animosity felt almost...obligatory, in nature. To the point where Valkyrie was fairly certain that, was Slipshod not such an overtly promiscuous horndog, the pair could have long since reconciled their differences and gotten back together again.

Slipshod was a good pilot, an amiable crewmate, a handsome stallion, and―by all appearances―a thoroughly passionate lover. Which meant that, after dinner, Valkyrie resolved to douse herself with a vigorous cold shower so as to quash any of those niggling little interests in finding out what all of the appeal was that drew so many other ponies into his hooves. Sometimes, she preferred that he were a rebukeable asshole. It’d be a lot easier to brush off his flirting that way. While there was no chance that she’d let him follow her back to her quarters sober, and she was confident that she’d literally die of alcohol poisoning before she was ever drunk enough to do it, she was still just a tiny bit annoyed at that part of her that blushed when he made his passes at her.

At times like that, it wasn’t hard to see why Squelch had been delusional enough to actually marry him.

Speaking of their employer, the emerald unicorn mare was sitting at one of the galley’s tables when Valkyrie trotted in. She was sipping at a mug of coffee floating in the silvery magic aura of her telekinesis while she read over a pad in front of her. The unicorn glanced up briefly at the newly arrived pilot and nodded an acknowledgement before returning her full attention to whatever it was that she was reading.

Unlike some mercenary commanders that Valkyrie had worked with over her career, Squelch didn’t pilot a BattleSteed herself. In fact, to the best of the pegasus’ knowledge, the company’s owner didn’t even know how to. Certainly something of an oddity in this business. It was fairly typical for commanders to ride with their pilots, sharing in the risk as well as the payday.

Indeed, Valkyrie knew of quite a few pilots who would never have accepted employment with the Steel Coursers because they’d have felt that a boss like Squelch was ‘cowardly’. 'Leaders lead from the front!', and all that. Personally, the pegasus saw Squelch as more of a mercenary company administrator, while Slipshod more typically bore the mantle of ‘Steed commander. His...vigorous...flirting off the job notwithstanding, the earth pony was all business once the flak started flying, and was a genuinely good pilot in his own right. Between them, Squelch and Slipshod made for two halves of a well-rounded whole. The unicorn found the work, and the earth pony got them paid for it.

While she might not have known how to even power on a ‘Steed, one thing that Squelch was very good at was finding contracts. And not just contracts, but good contracts. Valkyrie had no trouble acknowledging that. A lot of mercenary commanders who were more focused on being an ace ‘Steed pilot than much else―not that that wasn’t a good focus to have when one’s life depended on their skill behind a control yoke―often just sort of...wandered the galaxy waiting for the right work to fall onto their haunches. Squelch, by contrast, spent hours every day pouring over as many news reports as she could get her hooves on, getting a lay of the stellar-political landscape and steering them exactly to where there were contracts that just seemed to be tailor made for their outfit.

This mission was the latest such example.

Seemingly without any sort of rhyme or reason, Squelch had the Galloway catch a ride on a Jump Ship headed for New Neighpone. Literally, the day after they’d arrived in orbit of the planet, a contract was put up by the Nirik Light Pony on behalf of the Kirin Confederation asking for a small outfit that could conduct a convoy raid on Canopy on short notice. It very well could have been a stroke of luck for the Light Pony that the Steel Coursers were there, as it seemed like the information regarding the LRMs and the newly built launchers was something that they’d only just learned about, and could have made their intended conquest of Canopy a lot more difficult. It would certainly have been a lot more costly. Not something the Confederation’s retained mercenary company was looking forward to in the wake of a string of recent defeats by the Combine’s Aris Highlanders.

Most mercenary outfits in the area would have been hard-pressed to make the time table being demanded if they were already involved in other contracts, and there wasn’t time for the word to go out on ComSpark and hope to hear back from any outfits before that narrow window to act closed for good.

Cue the Steel Coursers, who were already in the system and ready to catch the next available Jump Ship to Canopy with ‘Steeds perfectly suited to do the job being asked of them. Squelch had still played up the ‘short notice’ and ‘inconvenience’ angles during the negotiations though, in order to wring a little extra money out of the deal. It wasn’t like the Confederation had much choice though. It was either pay the rate that Squelch was asking for, or resign themselves to a more costly and protracted invasion.

This wasn’t the first time that Squelch had placed the Galloway exactly where it needed to be though, just the most recent example.

Valkyrie picked up her dinner from the serving line―oat burgers and hayfries―and made her way back to the table where her employer was sitting. While their professional relationship was one of ‘employer and employee’, they’d become fairly good friends in their own right in the six months since she’d been hired on, “heya, boss. Find any leads for us yet?”

The green unicorn lowered her coffee and regarded the pegasus for a second before sliding the pad over so that Valkyrie could glimpse its contents, “a couple. Increasing bandit activity in the Periphery along the Pony Commonwealth border. TimberWolf’s Dragoons won’t be interested in wasting their own forces’ time chasing after small-fry like that. They’ll want to subcontract out. Why assign veteran pilots to crush small-time raiders when they can offer aspiring mercs a fraction of what the Commonwealth is paying them to do it, and just pocket the rest for sitting on their flanks?”

She flipped the display to the next screen, “Meanwhile, over in the Our Worlds League, Rover Consulting Group, LLC released its quarterly financials, and it looks like they’re buying up a lot of stock in Ferrous Holdings, a large mining conglomerate in the Sirius Cluster.

“Not in and of itself all that odd. Buying and selling shares in other companies is pretty much all that Rover Consulting does, but if you look more closely at who’s on their board of directors…” another screen, and a biography of a rather dignified looking diamond dog wearing a monocle came up. Squelch pointed at a specific part of the dossier, “we find that one of them is also on the board for one of Ferrous’ chief competitors in the region: Argent Extractions.

“This reeks of hostile takeover.”

Valkyrie glanced over at her employer, “and you think it might get ‘extra’ hostile?”

“It always does,” the unicorn mare pointed out with a wry smirk, “but they rarely want to go too big on that front. Makes investors nervous if they think a company’s looking to get involved in an outright conflict. War can be profitable, sure, but only if your company is selling war materials and isn’t having their own assets blown up in the process.

“Neither side’s going to be hiring a lance of assault ‘Steeds any time soon, but one of them might splurge for a medium ‘Steed in order to make a point. Either as part of a raid, or to repel one. Either contract would be right up our alley.”

The unicorn tabbed to a fourth screen, “and then there’s the current patriarch of one of the minor Houses in the Federated Moons. His health’s taken a turn for the worse and he’s not expected to last another month. The trouble is that he has no direct heirs, and there are no fewer than six cousins who are positioning themselves to make claims.

“Now, it is a minor House―a very minor one―which means that nopony’s got the kind of C-bits to bankroll genuinely serious firepower, but one or two might be able to afford to bring on some light ‘Steed groups to help with their bids,” Squelch shrugged, “I’m not usually one to get involved in politics, but a six-way fight is likely to drag on for a while, which means opportunities for long-term contracts.

“There’s also the chance that, if we happen to pick a losing side, we could just end up being hired on by whoever beats our employer. We might be able to ride it out all the way to the end, no matter who ends up winning.”

Valkyrie regarded the unicorn for a long moment before prompting, “...but?”

The emerald mare sighed, “but...these kinds of things tend to get very personal for the clients. Whoever does eventually win is going to want to make sure there aren’t any claimants that pop up later to bother their heirs,” she frowned, “I have little doubt that we’ll be asked to assassinate an entire family at some point, foals and all. Probably multiple points, with a six-way fight going on.

“I run a mercenary company, not a familicide service,” Squelch looked over at her pilot, “you kill who you have to out there on the battlefield. That’s part of the business. But I pay you to fight other soldiers and ‘Steed pilots who knew what they were getting into and are there by choice. I don’t pay you to burn down civilians in their homes.”

The unicorn turned back to her pad and floated it back across the table, studying its contents with a frown, “...I’m probably going to opt for the corporate spat over in Sirius. The bandits will probably be bothering the Commonwealth for months. We can help sort out the hostile takeover and likely be done quick enough to still find raider-squashing work.”

Valkyrie thought for a moment and then nodded in agreement, “sounds good to me, boss,” not that the pegasus thought that she was genuinely being consulted on the matter. Like Squelch had just said: she was paid to fight. Strategizing was the unicorn’s job. She settled down to eating her meal before another thought occurred to her, “what world will we be going to exactly?”

“Canis. Why?”

The blue flier grinned, “just want to know where I needed to look up bars at. Somepony has graciously ‘offered’ to cover the tab on my next outing!”

Chapter 2: Lost Destiny

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Jump Complete,” a mare announced over the ship’s communication’s system, “all craft are cleared for undock and system travel. Enjoy your stay on Canis.

“About damn time,” Squelch muttered under her breath as she leaned forward in her piloting couch and began to flip a series of switches that would detach the Galloway from its mooring on the JumpShip. Slipshod’s ears perked at the telltale metallic clunks reverberating through the ship as the docking clamps released, followed shortly thereafter by the deck suddenly lurching forward as the main engines ignited. The mare at the helm laid her hooves on the control yokes and deftly maneuvered them away from their ride, guiding them onto a course deeper into the system.

Val similarly straightened up at her own station as she began to look over the readouts from their sensors, “traffic is pretty heavy at the moment,” she noted. Slipshod looked over and could clearly see that her displays were dotted with a healthy number of signatures.

“House Glimmer is making a push into Kirin territory now that their attention is on Canopy,” Squelch said as an afterthought, not taking her eyes off of her own screens as she steered their ship to avoid colliding with any of the other ships detaching from the jump tender that they’d rode in on, “Canis is a perfect staging system for their vanguard operations.”

“Looks like we won’t have to go far to pick up our next job,” the stallion mused.

Their pilot frowned, “we’re not exactly specked for frontline combat, Slip.”

“Any advance force needs scouts,” he pointed out, then nodded in Valkyrie’s direction, “and you’d have to look far and wide to find anypony who can pick out signatures like our little wundermare here.”

Squelch gave a noncommittal grunt as she resumed focusing on piloting. She wasn’t wrong though: their little operation was not suited for the kind of heavy-hitting action that would be featured in a genuine conquest campaign like the one Blueblood was embarking on. Mercenary companies that were equipped for such operations would doubtless have their own recon elements anyway. At best, they could hope to snag a contract later on if any of those merc companies found themselves needing to subcontract for lighter units if they lost too many of their own.

Although, if some of those outfits had need of an experienced pilot, Slipshod couldn’t say that he wouldn’t be tempted. He liked the Galloway and its crew, to be sure, but it wasn’t like he was married to the ship. Anymore…

“Uh oh…”

All eyes went to the pegasus mare at the sensors. Squelch narrowed her eyes, “what ‘uh oh’?”

“TimberWolf’s Dragoons,” she said, looking over at the others with a worried expression.

Slipshod felt his gut tense up as well, “what are the chances that Dominus Blueblood’s rescinded that ‘shoot on sight’ order he issued to them?”

Their pilot rubbed her brow as though she felt a headache coming on, “you slept...with his wife…”

“I thought it was his daughter!”

“Wouldn’t have made it better,” fair point. Squelch let out an exasperated sigh and looked over at their sensor operator, “how bad is it?”

“Just one ship,” that was good, “but it’s heading this way,” that was bad.

“They’d have to be blind not to see us on our way in,” Squelch sighed as she began tapping at her controls, “so it looks like we’re going to be taking the scenic route,” she rubbed her chin as she studied her screens for a few seconds. Then she took hold of her control yokes once more and Slipshod felt the ship lurch as their course shifted suddenly, “I’m going to head for the gas giant. Plenty of moons there to hide behind until the JumpShip has left the system.”

“Sounds good to me,” the stallion said, “I wasn’t in a hurry to get paid anyway,” he stood up from his seat and trotted for the door leading from the bridge, “I’ll be in my bunk if anypony needs me.”

That was actually something of a white lie. It was the first Monday of the month, which meant that―

“Howdy, stranger,” a mare cooed at him as he rounded the last turn on his way to the DropShip’s portside crew quarters. The thestral with jade eyes and a dusk-purple mane tied back in a long braid was waiting for him, propped up against the open doorway leading into her shared quarters, “you’re late,” the tone was accusatory, but her expression was not.

Slipshod merely grinned, “sorry, Rigs. Past caught up with me on the bridge. Squelch’ll be breaking the bad news about our delay in making orbit in the next hour or two, I bet. Silver lining: looks like I’ll be free next week after all!”

The mare’s eyes narrowed at him. The singular talon on the joint of her leathery wing reached out and caught the earth pony roughly by the collar of his jumpsuit, dragging his head closer to hers, “we’re going to be stuck on this ship for an extra week, and it’s your fault?” this time there was a―slight―genuine edge in her tone.

The golden stallion forced the best apologetic smile that he could, “...I’ll make it up to you?”

“You’d better. Now get in here and get out of those clothes,” she tugged him none-to-gently through the hatch and followed him inside.

“Yes, ma’am!”


Squelch stifled a yawn as she glanced back in the direction of the bridge door that had just opened, “you’re timing’s impeccable,” she murmured with a wry smile as she saw Slipshod stepping in with a tray and a couple of steaming mugs of coffee balanced on his back. She reached out with her magic, wrapping her telekinesis around one of the cups to bring it to her lips, giving it a small test sip before taking a more generous gulp of the bitter fluid. It was no surprise that he’d made it to her exacting specifications.

The stallion shuffled the tray off onto a nearby console that wasn’t being used for anything and took up his own mug in his hooves, “hour fourteen is usually when you need a pick-me-up,” he remarked simply before taking a sip of his own drink, “truffle rolls are in the warmer if you ever decide to make it down to the galley.”

“Thanks,” Squelch swallowed another generous mouthful of her coffee and set the mug down on the armrest of her piloting couch, letting her gaze drift over to Slipshod as he made himself comfortable at the sensor station and looked over the readouts. He wasn’t anywhere near the wizard that Valkyrie was, but he could tell if there was something dangerous nearby easily enough.

With her fatigued state, it took hardly any time at all before little fragments of nostalgia began to tug at her. She quickly turned away and focused her attention ahead of her out of the main viewport before the stallion noticed. The last thing she wanted to do was give him any indication that she was interested in anything. Not again.

It wasn’t that he was a bad pony. On the contrary, he’d been the consummate coltfriend, and a model husband: attentive, thoughtful, considerate; he was everything that a mare could want from a stallion. That hadn’t been the problem. She’d even been able to tolerate his impulsive flirting. He was a rake. It was just the kind of pony that Slipshod was. For months, it hadn’t ever gone beyond flirting either. Then she’d come back to their quarters to find him in their bed with another mare.

He’d been apologetic. He’d placed the blame squarely on his own shoulders, citing his personal weakness. He’d even been the one to offer to give her a divorce. She’d actually balked at first, ready―Celestia knows why―to give him a second chance if he promised never to let it happen again. However, much to her surprise, he’d admitted that wasn’t a promise he could guarantee that he’d be able to keep.

So...they’d parted matrimonial ways, while still remaining coworkers. It wasn’t something that she’d have thought that they’d be able to make work, longterm, and she’d been ready to see him jump ship and take on a contract with another outfit in short order. He hadn’t though. He’d stayed onboard. It was anypony’s guess why. Any other stallion would surely have bolted the moment they could. Though, Squelch had long known that Slipshod wasn’t like ‘other stallions’.

He had this...uncanny ability to get along with ponies. To a degree that should have been impossible. Ponies that, the unicorn had to admit with some chagrin, included herself, despite everything.

She’d hated him for his betrayal, but that was as far as her animosity went. He’d remained kind to her, and bore her well-deserved scorn without complaint or retaliation. Eventually, most of her ire abated and they were able to get back to being ‘just shipmates’, but the unicorn would be lying if she said that she still didn’t see the same qualities in the stallion that had attracted her to him in the first place. They’d relapsed a time or two since then, waking up together after an evening of too much ‘celebrating’ at the end of a lucrative contract.

Then she’d find him walking out of another pony’s quarters the next evening and any thoughts of ‘trying again’ would wither and die on the vine.

Again, she wanted to hate him for that, but she just couldn’t seem to bring herself to. While Slipshod certainly didn’t try and hide his promiscuity, he didn’t go out of his way to rub it in her face either. Spending an evening in the cabin of one of the Galloway’s crew was just...how he spent his evenings.

Honestly, the part that baffled her the most was that those other members of the crew seemed to be perfectly fine with the arrangement too! Squelch had even seen the stallion and his most recent nighttime companion coming out of their quarters and strike up a conversation with a pony that the unicorn knew he’d been with just the previous night, all three of them chatting amicably as though there was nothing the least bit awkward about it.

Had Slipshod been a unicorn, Squelch would have sworn that there was magic in play. The idea certainly made her feel better about how little she despised him despite his adultery―

“If you’re out of Autumn Twilight, Val has some, just so you know,” the stallion said, not looking up from his console.

Squelch jerked in her seat, her head whipping in the stallion’s direction, “what?”

“You haven’t used any in a week. Figured you were out. Val has a bottle, and I’m sure she’d lend you some. Heck, I bet she’d just give it to you. She’s a Rainbow Falls No. 9 kind of mare anyway.”

The helmsmare looked over at the stallion with a critical expression, “you do realize it’s none of your business what perfume I wear or when I decide to wear it, right?” she said in a dour tone, all the while trying hard not to let her surprise show at how he’d accurately deduced one of her own private qualms about their delay in making Canis orbit. She hadn’t said a word to a soul on the ship about it, so how he could possibly have known...

“Never said it was my business,” he replied without a shift in his detached tone, nor meeting her gaze, “but you always put a dab under your chin every couple of days, and you haven’t for a while. You love that scent because it was your mother’s, so I know you didn’t stop wearing it because you changed your tastes. Ergo: you’re out.

“You’re also not the kind of pony to bring it up, so there’s no reason why you’d have asked Valkyrie about it, and―like I said―she happens to have some she’ll probably just give to you because she doesn’t wear it at all,” he finally looked towards her, and she could clearly see the sincerity in his expression, “I mean, it’ll be another three days before the Jump Ship leaves with that Dragoon courier, so we won’t be going shopping any time soon.”

Squelch relaxed slightly, “...thanks,” she looked forward once more, “yeah, I’m out,” she was quiet for nearly a minute before her curiosity got the better of her, “how did you know? I use, like, literally a drop, and the two of us spend approximately no time together off the bridge.”

“True,” the stallion nodded with a small smile, “but that’s because you spend approximately no time off the bridge at all,” he wasn’t wrong. On more than one occasion, Squelch had considered setting up a cot off to the corner and just abandoning the pretense that she required private quarters at all, “which is how I knew. This whole place usually has a hint of Autumn Twilight to it. Now it doesn’t.”

“Oh,” she was silent for a moment before another thought struck her, “and how exactly do you know that Val has a bottle if she doesn’t wear it?”

“Because I bought it for her,” he looked over and saw Squelch’s surprised expression, giving her a little shrug, “what can I say? The scent grew on me. I figured if things ever went anywhere with her, I wouldn’t mind sleeping in another bed that smelled like it,” he saw the mare’s eyes narrow critically and waved a dismissive hoof at her, “relax, she shot me down. And has done so repeatedly,” he chuckled, “you trained her well. She should still have the bottle though. I can’t imagine she’d just throw it away.”

“...I’ll keep that in mind,” the unicorn mare finally said, letting herself relax a little, grateful to have the reminder of why ending their romantic relationship had been a good idea. She took another sip of her coffee, then a shrill beep from Slipshod’s station caught her ear. The stallion seemed to have been just as surprised by the sound as she was, “what’s going on?”

“Power reading,” the earth pony said in stark surprise as he began to tap at the console.

“Approaching ship?” Squelch mentally frowned at the worried note in her voice. It was unlikely that the Dragoon courier vessel had spotted them before they’d reached the moons of the gas giant, but it wasn’t impossible. Still, a ship like that wasn’t exactly capable of doing anything to the Galloway even if they found them, were they? How heavily did the Dragoons arm their couriers?

“It’s not coming from a ship,” Slipshod announced, “at least, not one in space...it’s coming from the surface.”

The green unicorn mare’s frown deepened into a sneer, “pirates,” just their luck to slip into orbit around a moon that was hiding some sort of raider stronghold. It’d have to be something along those lines, as a legitimate operation would have been squawking all sorts of transponders and beacons and the like in order to help transport ships find their way to landing pads. Only an organization that didn’t want to be found would be running as quietly as possible, and those organizations tended to be up to little that was legal.

“I don’t think that’s it either. The reading’s really small. I don’t think it would have been detectable by most ships in an orbit like ours, except that Val’s done quite a bit of tinkering with our sensor systems. This power signature is, like, EVA suit small.”

If the stallion sounded impressed that such a tiny source of energy had been picked up by the Galloway’s sensor suite, he was right to be. A transport like theirs had no business detecting something so small from hundreds of kilometers away, “is it pulsing a rescue beacon? We should have picked it up on comms long before the suit’s power core pinged our sensors,” and that should have been true no matter how much Valkyrie modified their systems.

“No beacon,” Slipshod said with a shake of his head, “and I’m not convinced that it really is a suit. It’s just about the size of one,” he squinted down at the screen for a few seconds before straightening back up in surprise, “we should get Val up here to double-check, but I think there’s a crashed ship down there.”

“So, a crashed ship, something that might be an EVA suit, and no beacon?” Squelch quirked a brow at the stallion, who could only shrug helplessly. She sighed and rubbed her hoof against her temple. The simple solution here was to either completely ignore it or just find another moon to orbit in case anypony came looking for whoever was down there.

Admittedly, that thought didn’t sit well with Squelch. She’d known ponies who were in situations like that. Not all of them survived. Sometimes they didn’t survive because a passing ship had the attitude of: ‘not my problem’ and just flew on by. The Galloway wasn’t going to be one of those ships. Not while she helmed it.

“Val, to the bridge; we found something,” the unicorn said, punching up the ship’s internal comm, “Mig, Tig, prep the Bronco and an APC. We’re going to investigate a ship crash. ETA: thirty minutes,” she glanced back at the stallion and jabbed a hoof towards the door, “go get suited up.”

Slipshod’s lips spread in a smile and he nodded before trotting off the bridge.

“Gallop One to Ops: cresting the final rise now. Two thousand meters out from the Nav Point. Should have eyes on the crash site in the next few seconds,” Slipshod announced over his headset. He glanced at a few of his displays, making sure that he wasn’t getting too far ahead of the APC trailing him. His towering BattleSteed let him effortlessly trot up the side of the mountain, while the wheeled vehicle behind him was forced to take a significantly more circumspect path along more even terrain.

Roger that, Gallop One. Keep us advised of what you find,” Squelch’s voice came back over the comm. The stallion nodded wordlessly and directed his gaze back out the armored glass panes of his cockpit. His hind hooves eased back on the steering pedals, slowing his ‘Steed down so that he came to a stop just short of the rise, allowing him to peek over the crest without exposing any more of his ‘Steed than was absolutely necessary. Not that he was expecting any sort of trouble, but he still wanted to get an idea of what he was getting himself into with this wreck.

The mountain ridge dropped away beneath him and Slipshod finally found himself peering down into the valley below, and the gnarled husk of a large transport ship. Right away the stallion could tell that it was far larger than the Galloway. Maybe not Friendship-class DropShip big, but still a pretty hardy size, “woah.”

What do you see, Gallop One?”

“I see the ship,” Slipshod replied, “it’s not going to be getting off the ground ever again,” that much was fairly obvious even to somepony not mechanically inclined like himself, not with damage like that. Not all of it looked like it was due exclusively to a crash, either, “they were shot down,” he frowned, “I’m having trouble pinning down the class. It’s nothing I recognize. Patching in a feed for you. See if you have any ideas,” he reached over and manipulated some controls to begin streaming a video feed to the Galloway’s bridge.

Receiving…” there was silence for several long seconds, then, “...I think...I think that’s a Strongheart!”

“The fuck’s a ‘strongheart’?”

A Celestia League Era DropShip,” the pilot replied, still sounding in awe, “five hundred years ago they were the mainstay of transport ships. Today they basically only exist in scrapyards.”

“So this is an old wreck then?”

Probably a very old one,” Squelch agreed, “it’s been centuries since these things were flying around.”

“No chance of survivors then,” Slipshod reasoned, “still, might be worth seeing if there’s anything salvageable. If it’s a DropShip, might mean some ‘Steed parts. Centuries old or not, Mig and Tig will be able to make something of them.”

Sounds good,” the unicorn mare replied, “head on inside.”

“Roger,” Slipshod put his hooves back onto the control yokes and throttled forward once again. As he got closer though, something about the wreck stood out to him, “Ops, you seeing this? That’s some pretty serious scoring on the hull there. Way bigger than a PPC or larger laser array could cause.”

I see it...yeah, that’s pretty big alright...it looks like it runs all the way across the width of the ship,” there were several seconds of silence, “I think that was all just caused by one shot.”

“That can’t be right,” the stallion said with a deep frown as he surveyed the extent of the damage. It was like some great talon had torn a ragged gash through the top of the ship, opening it up like a tin can. He saw little evidence of the sort of scoring that would have indicated a laser or particle weapon had done the deed. It wouldn’t have been the result of a missile either. It had to have been a kinetic impact of some sort, but no shell he knew of was that big, “it must have been hit by a meteor or something,” he insisted. No ship had weapons big enough to have sliced so cleanly through a DropShip like this. They just didn’t exist.

If we’re talking about a centuries-old crash, then it’s not impossible that this ship was shot down by a WarShip,” Squelch insisted, “they fired rounds about the size of a medium ‘Steed, give or take.

Slipshod looked at the tear, “yeah...that looks about right,” he admitted, then suppressed a shudder at the thought of having something the size of his own Wild Bronco hurtling towards him at supersonic speeds.

He deftly maneuvered his ‘Steed closer to the rupture and peered through the opening, using his floodlights to illuminate the interior, “mostly clear inside,” he announced, frowning a little, “don’t think they were hauling all that much when they went down―hold on.”

What? What do you see?

“This was a Disciple ship,” Slipshod announced grimly.

Disciple? Are you sure?

“Oh yeah,” the stallion said, his eyes focused on the painted symbol on the far wall of the ship’s interior. A crossed deer antler and goat horn, the easily recognized symbol of the Disciples of Discord, a notorious terrorist organization reviled throughout the Harmony Sphere. They were honestly rarely seen these days in civilized space. Occasionally they’d pop up for a bit of mischief on some backwater world close to the Periphery, but they never stuck around long. They were more of a nuisance than a legitimate threat these days, though ComSpark had a standing bounty posted that paid out for any confirmed kills on Disciple units. It was pretty easy money if you could find them, because they never had much hardware that posed a risk to a BattleSteed. The hardest part was finding them, honestly. They struck suddenly, out of nowhere, and were gone within the week. There was rarely enough time for an out-of-system force to respond to the attack before they vanished.

He’d certainly never heard of them having anything like this though! A full sized DropShip capable of hauling, what? A full company of ‘Steeds? That took resources that the Disciples just didn’t have. At least, not anymore. If this ship really was as old as Squelch suggested, then maybe things had been different for the Disciples a few centuries ago.

Slipshod looked around the opening and frowned again. He could have muscled his way through with his ‘Steed pretty easily. A centuries old ship husk wouldn’t do much to impede a Wild Bronco. However, there was no telling how much of the ship might collapse in on itself if he did. This was still primarily a salvage operation, so leaving as much of it intact for Mig and Tig to haul away was the priority. If he was going to do any further investigating, it wasn’t going to be in his ‘Steed.

“I’m heading in on hoof.”

Understood. Stay safe.

“I always do,” he said before he cut the channel and sealed his suit. This moon hadn’t seen any terraforming. Outside was little more than a frozen vacuum. His suit’s systems would keep him warm and alive for a few hours, long enough to poke around for a bit to get a lay of things while the APC caught up. The stallion glanced briefly at the displayed map and noted that the rest of the team would be there in a little under fifteen minutes. The twins would appreciate knowing what they were getting into; or if there was even anything worthwhile inside.

Slipshod checked his suit’s seals a second time before finally cycling out the cockpit’s atmosphere and popping the hatch. He grabbed his rifle on his way out, just in case. The moon’s gravity was about a third standard, and put a bit of a spring in his step. The stallion performed a few experimental hops on the head of his ‘Steed in order to get a grasp for how gingerly he’d have to step. Then, with a final look through the opening in the side of the ship, he leaped down from the top of his metal behemoth.

A few judicious firings of his suit’s thrusters ensured that the ‘Steed pilot saw a safe landing within the ship’s interior. He clicked on his helmet’s exterior lights and looked around. As he’d suspected, the DropShip’s hold was depressingly bare. Though it was not completely empty, he was delighted to find. There was a single ‘Steed in one of the bays. It was hard to get a clear look at what model it was, as it had been shaken loose from it’s carriage in the crash and was currently laying in a heap on its side. Still, a ‘Steed was a ‘Steed. Broken or not, as long as most of its pieces were present, the Galloway’s twin mechanics would be able to get it in working order again.

“Mig, Tig, there’s a ‘Steed in here for you two to play with,” he announced over his suit’s personal comm unit, “looks to be at least a heavy, too.”

Awesome! We’ll call up a salvage rig from the Galloway so we can haul it back.”

Slipshod nodded and closed the channel again, resuming his sweep of the interior. The ship’s bow was a lost cause, that much was obvious. The area around the crash site made it clear that its command crew had fought valiantly to save as much of it in the crash as possible, but in the end they’d smashed right into the side of a mountain, crumpling the forward decks. The mid section had been opened up like a ration tin by whatever stupendously powerful weapon had shot them out of the sky. The rear sections, however, actually looked fairly decent. With luck, they’d manage to recover some usable parts for the Galloway itself, which he was sure Squelch would appreciate.

He began making his way in that direction, as it also happened to be where that power reading that brought this place to their attention was coming from. He was very curious to learn what sort of power system could endure for several centuries like that. The stallion pranced across the bay’s low-gravity interior to the far side, slipping through an open hatch into the crew area beyond.

That was where he found the bodies.

The discovery honestly didn’t shock him all that much. If anything, he was surprised that he hadn’t seen any thus far. Though, if this ship really had been shot up while still in space, it was likely that any personnel who might have been in the main bay area had been blown out into space then and there. The bodies here were suited up just like he was. A few had cracked visors or torn suits, probably from the crash. As he passed a few crew cabins, he noticed suggestions that some of the ponies had met more...desperate ends. Suited ponies slumped over tables or cots with partially destroyed helmets on their heads and guns near their hooves. Frozen blood splattered against a wall.

Faced with the prospect of dying by suffocation...Slipshod wasn’t so certain that he’d have made a different choice himself. By all accounts, it was not a quick or pleasant process.

Ten minutes later, the stallion finally located the source of the power signature: the infirmary. Unlike most of the other rooms, this one’s door was closed. It was even locked, curiously enough. A pair of shots from Slipshod’s rifle proved sufficient to open it. There were bodies in here too. Unsuited ones. Several were laying on beds. Others were on the floor.

They were deep enough in the ship’s interior that Slipshod suspected this area could have retained an atmosphere. At least, prior to the crash itself. He could see some tears in a few of the bulkheads that were clearly the result of the craft’s hard landing. That had probably killed everypony in here who hadn’t been wearing a suit. The wounded.

The stallion could almost imagine what it had been like. Getting shot up in space. Losing a lot of the crew to the blow-out in the hangar. Anypony who had survived had been brought here to be treated. Taken out of their suits. The crash event might have been hours later. Maybe days, depending on where in the system the fight itself had actually happened. Obviously not everypony died when they hit the moon, but these poor sorry sods sure had. Would have been a hard day for whatever ship’s physician had been onboard, to lose all of their patients like that after working so hard to save them.

Terrorists or not, this was a shit way to go.

Then Slipshod’s eyes finally landed on the source of the energy reading, and they instantly widened.

Perhaps he had spoken too soon. Slowly, he reached up and keyed in his suit’s comm device, “Ops...Tell Dee...we have a survivor.”

Gallop One, say again,” came Squelch’s consternated response, “did you say: survivor?!”

“Yup,” was all the stunned reply that the stallion could give. He didn’t begrudge his boss her skepticism. He wouldn’t have believed it either. Not if he hadn’t seen it with his own eyes. But he was seeing it: a single bed nestled within a glowing energy field that was occupied, not with a vacuum-desiccated husk of a corpse, but a vibrantly-colored―living―purple mare. A purple mare with wings...and a horn. “And it’s an alicorn.”

“So how is she, Doc?” Squelch asked as the bone-white unicorn physician stepped into the conference room that was rarely utilized. Today though, it was being used by the crew’s command staff to bring everypony up to speed on what had decidedly become a much more interesting salvage operation than any of them could have ever predicted. For a number of reasons. Firstly though, was the topic of their inexplicable survivor.

“It’s a miracle that she’s alive at all.”

“That bad, eh?” The unicorn said with a frown. She’d hoped that they’d be able to get some answers from the mare about what had happened to the ship, and how exactly it was that an alicorn had come to be on it.

“Hmm, what? Oh! Oh, no, nothing like that,” the ship’s doctor assured them, “I mean, yes, her injuries were life-threatening, but it’s nothing that can’t be easily rectified with a few hours of surgery. She’ll be back up and on her hooves in a few weeks, don’t worry about that. No, I was referring to the fact that she’s actually endured so long in stasis.

“Anypony else would have died centuries ago.”

Squelch scratched her chin with her hoof, “yeah, I’ve been wanting to ask about that,” she glanced over at the twin kirin mares who were also sitting in on the meeting, “what the fuck was powering that thing that managed to keep the lights on for...how long?” now she glanced at Valkyrie, who’d been charged with combing the computers that could be salvaged to recover what records were still intact.

“Five hundred and forty-ish years,” the pegasus supplied.

The green unicorn looked back at the mechanics, “alright, so what kind of battery lasts over five hundred years on a charge?”

The pair of cyan and rose scaled equines exchanged glances and then shrugged in unison, “you got us, boss,” the blue Tig admitted.

The rosey Mig nodded her head, “we put that battery through every test we know.”

“It’s just a standard arcane power cell.”

“This ship uses hundreds just like it.”

“The design hasn’t even changed much.”

“We could plug that one into this ship no problem.”

“Especially since the one Slip recovered even still has a full charge!”

Everypony exchanged glances before looking back at the twins, “so it has been running for over five centuries and wasn’t even drained a little? How?” the pair of kirin could only shrug helplessly, looking almost mortified that they couldn’t provide an explanation for the seemingly impossible violation of the laws of thermodynamics.

The doctor cleared his throat, “actually, I might have an answer to that,” the gathered ponies all looked to the physician, Mig and Tig with rapt attention, curious to learn how the ship’s chief medical pony had the answer to a technical anomaly that had completely stumped the pair of them, “arcane cells use a form of energy that is almost identical to unicorn magic. Hypothetically, enough unicorns could recharge a cell all on their own.”

“Hypothetically, yeah,” Mig agreed somewhat reluctantly.

“But it’s highly impractical,” her sister added.

“Even a powerful unicorn would only be able to charge a cell a quarter of the way.”

“Before they suffered burnout and were useless for the rest of the week.”

“That’s why they’re charged using mana crystals.”

The doctor nodded in agreement, “indeed. However, my point was that arcane cells and unicorn magic are essentially interchangeable...to include alicorn magic.”

Another round of dubious looks for the gathered ponies, “look, I know that alicorns are supposed to be powerful,” Squelch said, “but there’s no way they’re ‘five hundred years of charging a battery’ powerful. Especially not when they’re unconscious!”

“Under normal circumstances, you’d be correct,” Doctor Dee conceded, “however, there was nothing normal about these circumstances,” again the physician found himself the focus of the crew’s full attention. He cleared his throat, “yes, the patient was unconscious; and yes, she was in stasis. However, I’m fairly certain that was what allowed this feat to be pulled off in the first place.

“You see, contrary to common belief: stasis fields don’t really ‘stop time’. That’s actually impossible. Time cannot be ‘stopped’. However, it can be looped back around on itself in a stable manner. That is what a stasis spell does: it loops the patients through time. The loop is very small―a fraction of a second―but it is a loop nonetheless.

“What it looks like happened was that the patient was placed into stasis to keep her from succumbing to her injuries, and then somepony else used their magic to connect the patient’s arcane leylines into the stasis spell’s power source.”

“For five hundred years?” Squelch asked dubiously.

“Not from the patient’s point of view,” the doctor said, “remember: time loop. For her, only a small burst of power was taken, and then she was flung through time. Her magic never drained, because she never sustained the spell for more than a second.”

Slipshod’s brow furrowed and he raised a cautious hoof, “wait...I don’t think that makes any sense. If she’s constantly getting sent back in time...then shouldn’t that mean that she’d keep getting older? Because time is still passing for her as she goes back through every loop?” his head started to hurt.

“Stasis fields don’t loop a patient back in time,” the doctor corrected, “they send the patient forward in time to a point that simply hasn’t been determined yet. It’s a loop that starts at the future’s end.”

“Oh...wait, no, hold on,” the stallion began to rub his temples, “that...how does that even―? I mean, when―wait…” if there was any comfort to be had, it was that Slipshod wasn’t the only pony apparently having trouble trying to wrap their head around what was happening.

The doctor sighed and rubbed his chin, “it’s easiest to just think of the stasis field as a time portal. What we are seeing through it is the patient as they were when they were put inside. When we turn it off, they arrive in the present from the past, and were never really ‘in’ the stasis field for any of the time in between.

“That kind of answer on a test on stasis spells would get you kicked out of medical school, but it’s as much as any of you need to understand about it.

“From the patient’s perspective, she has been in there only a moment, and so her magic has been powering it for only a moment. For us, it’s been five hundred and forty years, and so her magic has been powering the field for five hundred and forty years,” he grinned, “and thus concludes today’s lesson on subjective time!”

“My head hurts,” Squelch whined, then noticed a shaking sound near her head. She looked up to see Slipshod holding out a bottle of aspirin to her, already appearing to be chewing on a few tablets himself. She took the bottle and tapped out a couple of tablets for herself. The bottle then got passed on the Valkyrie.

All the while, Doctor Dee frowned at them, “if you really want to fry your brains, ask me to explain how that kind of time manipulation is affected by ships traveling at near-luminal velocities. Special relativity is the real kicker.”

“But she will live though?” Squelch asked.

“Yes, she’ll be fine,” the white unicorn nodded, “I can’t guess when she’ll regain consciousness, but physically she is already on the mend. Fortunately it turns out that alicorns aren’t so different from us mortal ponies in that way.”

“So she is an alicorn? It wasn’t just some mare who got a bunch of cosmetic alterations?”

“I honestly can’t be certain either way,” the physician shrugged, “I’ve never encountered an alicorn before. No doctor that I know ever has. Except for the Court Physician on Equus, of course,” he added matter-of-factly.

“It has to be cosmetics though, right?” Valkyrie asked, “I mean, there’s only the one alicorn: Queen Twilight Sparkle. There aren’t any others. We’d have heard about them if there were others, right?”

“I assume,” Slipshod said, frowning. He’s had some time to study their new patient while he’d waited in the infirmary for the APC to arrive and cart her back to the Galloway. The notion of cosmetic alterations had crossed his mind more than once then too. However, he hadn’t been able to identify which addition must have been the fake: the horn or the wings. He’d seen prosthetics before―even really good ones―and nothing on that mare looked fake. Still, the fact remained that there was only the one alicorn, and she was a good couple hundred lightyears away in the capital on Equus.

Exactly where she’d always been.

“All I can say for certain about our guest,” Doctor Dee said, “is that she is a mare...who has wings and a horn. They’re both natural. I could find no signs of surgical scarring or magical transmutation that suggests this was done unnaturally. At least, not through any means that I’ve ever encountered before.”

“Maybe just a genetic freak?” Valkyrie offered, “pegasus and unicorn genes fought for dominance and it ended in a tie?”

“It’d be the first case I ever heard about,” the doctor said, sounding mostly unconvinced, “but it’s a big galaxy, so maybe this could be one of those one in a billion things that is technically possible, but is so unlikely that nopony ever really thinks about it. Like a JumpShip landing inside a rogue planet.”

Their commander grunted, but she too seemed unconvinced, “fine. Until we find some way to figure it out for sure, she’s not actually an alicorn. She’s going to live, so we’ll see what she says when she wakes up,” Squelch now directed her attention towards the kirin mechanics, “now, onto the ‘Steed we pulled from the wreckage: what have we got?”

The cyan and rose equines exchanged giddy grins with one another before looking back at the pegasus mare, “it’s a Rainbow Dash!” they both announced in unison.

This produced raised eyebrows from Squelch, Slipshod, and Valkyrie, and a confused frown from Doctor Dee, “a what?”

“You’re sure?” Slipshod asked of the pair, who both nodded vigorously, still grinning like foals who’d gotten exactly what they’d always wanted for Hearth’s Warming. The stallion looked over at the medical chief, “a Rainbow Dash is an old Celestia League heavy BattleSteed. It’s honestly pretty awesome. Basically the Crystal Heart of ‘Steed design: tough as horseshoes, fast enough to keep up with some light ‘Steeds, and packs enough firepower to go hoof-to-hoof with a Big Mac and make a good show of itself, despite being outmassed by about thirty tons. As you can imagine, engineering like that was difficult to mass produce, so only a few were ever built, and I don’t know of a single outfit that actually operates with one. You’ll find pieces of them on the market from time to time, but never enough to actually put one back together again,” he looked at the twin mechanics, “this one’s in one piece?”

“It’s shot to shit,” Mig said with a grimace.

“It was fighting something pretty nasty,” Tig agreed.

“Probably a lot of somethings, honestly.”

“A lot of firing angles, yeah. They were surrounded.”

“But the internals are intact.”



“So you can fix it?” Slipshod asked.

The faces of both kirin lit up, “we get to fix it?!” both exclaimed in excitement.

The stallion looked over at Squelch. The unicorn mare was looking pensive at the prospect. Getting the parts and materials to fix up a heavy ‘Steed, especially one that was as rare as a Rainbow Dash, would carve pretty deep into their cash reserves. Fiscally, it really made more sense for them to just sell it off for the payday. A novelty like that would net them enough C-bits to buy a few medium ‘Steeds if they wanted. A rare ‘Steed like this would be quite a feather in their manes, yeah, but they really weren’t a ‘heavy ‘Steed’ sort of outfit. Not yet, anyway. Maybe someday. Though, who was to say that that ‘someday’ couldn’t start with this ‘Steed ‘today’?

“Get me a list of parts,” Squelch finally said with a reluctant sigh, “I’ll have them picked up when we finally touch down on Canis.”

“Yay!” both kirin cheered as they leaped at each other and embraced one another in a fierce, excited, hug. They eventually parted and Mig dug out a stack of papers from a pouch on her tool harness and held it out to Squelch with her magic, “here’s the list! We put it together already.”

Tig held out another―smaller―stack of papers, “and here’s the list of the usual stuff we need to keep the other two ‘Steeds running.”

“Great,” the pegasus mare took both stacks in her magic and folded them into the other papers on her clipboard, “so that just leaves the ship,” she glanced at Valkyrie, “do we know how The Disciples of Discord got their hooves on a Strongheart transport five hundred years ago?”

“The ship’s logs were lost in the crash,” the pegasus said, “that kind of stuff would have been with the bridge computers, and those met that mountain pretty hard. All I had to look through were a bunch of personal records, which were exposed to vacuum on that dusty moon for half a millenia,” she continued by way of caveat to explain her lack of detailed information, “and not much of that survived.

“What I have found is really...confusing.”

“In what way?” the pegasus pilot pressed.

“They mentioned stuff like family back on Equus, some big fight that was happening against ‘The Enemy’, and how things weren’t going so well,” Val frowned as she relayed the information, reading from some notes that she’d taken from her record perusing.

“Could we be seeing the remnants of the first Disciples?” Slipshod offered, “maybe they started out on Equus and were forced to flee towards the outer rim worlds. ‘The Enemy’ could be the Celestia League, and, yeah, that fight didn’t go well for them.”

“Maybe,” Val conceded somewhat reluctantly, “though I saw the kind of equipment they had...that didn’t look like the kind of stuff that a bunch of terrorists should be able to get their hooves on,” she jabbed a hoof at the kirin mechanics, “heck, what about that ‘Steed? If a Rainbow Dash was so awesome and rare, how’d the Celestia League let one slip through their hooves?”

That was actually a pretty good question, Slipshod was forced to concede. The fact that the DropShip had actually been branded with their emblem suggested that this wasn’t just a transport that they managed to hijack at a port. This had been their ship for a long time. A ship designed to transport and refit ‘Steeds; a piece of equipment that Disciples didn’t have at their disposal that he’d ever heard. At least, that was how the Disciples were today.

“Do we have any idea where they were trying to get to?”

“Clan territory, it sounded like,” the unicorn informed them, earning another round of surprised looks.

“I’ve never heard of the Disciples having Clan connections,” Squelch mused, “but that would explain why we never seem to find many of their bases, but they keep popping up every once in a while. Maybe they’re staged deep in Dragon Clan territory.”

“That’d be pretty surprising,” Slipshod said, “considering that the Dragons basically don’t interact with the Harmony Sphere at all. I know they don’t have any love for ponies, but they’ve never gone out of their way to antagonize us.

“You’d think that they’d be concerned that harboring terrorists might provoke us into performing a serious invasion.”

“Maybe that’s why the Disciples never really seem to hit anything particularly big?” Squelch offered, “they do just enough to be annoying, but never anything worth organizing a force to hunt them down over. They get to ‘stick it to the mare’ while not wearing out their welcome with the dragons.”

Slipshod grunted. It was possible, but he wasn’t sure that that kind of passive-aggressive stance really fit with the mentality needed to sustain a terrorist cult for half a millennium.

“So does that cover it? Pilot, ‘Steed, and ship; anypony have anything else we need to go over?”

“The JumpShip leaves with the Dragoon courier tomorrow. We can break orbit and head for Canis whenever you want; it’s too late for them to do anything about us without missing their ride,” Valkyrie said before casting a glance at the stallion sitting next to her, “and I doubt you pissed them off badly enough for that.”

“If you ask me, he’s overreacting as is,” Slipshod mumbled, crossing his hooves stubbornly over his chest.

“Alright,” their unicorn pilot said, standing up from the table, “in that case, everypony get back to work. I’ll go and plot us a course for Canis and get us there as soon as possible. We could all use some shore time,” she picked up her recently thickened clipboard with her magic, “and we appear to have quite a bit of shopping to do.”

“We get to fix a Rainbow Dash! We get to fix a Rainbow Dash!” the pair of mechanic twins sing-songed as they pranced out the door towards the ‘Steed Bay.

“You two owe me big for this!” Squelch snapped at them as they left, “my quarters; tonight!” the door sealed automatically behind them and the mare grunted as she lifted the clipboard and flipped through the sheafs of paper on it, browsing the list of needed parts, performing a cursory mental tally, “hope nopony wanted to get paid this month,” she groused.

She cast an accusing glare in Slipshod’s direction, “this whole thing was supposed to gain us C-bits, you know?”

The stallion threw up his hooves in surrender, “hey, nopony said you had to agree to fix it. You could have sold it for enough to buy a new DropShip.”

“Yeah, but then I know all I’d have heard from you for the next three months was,” the mare dropped her register into what the stallion assumed was meant to intentionally sound like an exaggerated parody of himself, “‘you know? It would have been nice to pilot that Rainbow Dash just once; just to see what it felt like’, and I am not in the mood to listen to you whine about ‘Steeds.”

“You mean like how we shared a JumpShip with that Manticore DropShip that one time and you spent the next week complaining that it would take us four years at our current profit margins to be able to afford one and would it kill me to try for a few extra bounties on our contracts?” the stallion admonished in a playful tone, smiling at the mare, “for the record: it very nearly did.”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah…” the mare sighed, shaking her head, “fine, whatever,” then she jabbed her hoof at the stallion, “but when she wakes up, you get to explain to our guest that we’re keeping her ‘Steed.”

“You think it was hers?”

“Those ponies did everything in their power to make sure she survived. She either owned the ‘Steed, or the ship, or maybe was even one of their leaders. Either way, I bet she’ll have a lot to say about what happens to it.”

“Speaking of,” the stallion said thoughtfully, “what’s going to happen to her when she wakes up?”

“She’s a Disciple,” the unicorn replied simply, “the laws are pretty clear about what we’re supposed to do with Disciples.”

“Right,” the requirements put out by ComSpark were crystal clear on the matter of what was supposed to be done with Disciple captives: they were interrogated and executed at the earliest opportunity. It was a standing order from the Queen herself, “and how does Dee feel about having all his hard work being undone the moment we land?”

Squelch was silent for a brief moment, “she’s only his patient until she leaves the med bay. After that…” she shrugged, “it’s not like you and Val don’t make every effort to undo all his hard work every time he’s done patching you two up,” she reminded the stallion with a wry smirk. It melted away rather quickly though, “Dee knows the score. If she’s going to be tortured to death, at least he can help her to be in as little pain as possible going into it.”

“Yeah. I guess there’s that, at least,” the golden earth pony nodded. He sighed, “a real shame that. Never got to meet an alicorn before.”

He headed for the door and left.

“Most of my patients would be lucky to have family members that are half as attentive as you’ve been,” the white unicorn physician noted as he strode into the main ward of the infirmary from his connected office. It wasn’t particularly large, since they didn’t have a large crew of personnel, and it mostly only saw a few patients a day with minor illnesses. At the moment, it held only the one patient. Doctor Dee stepped up to the side of the bed opposite the pensive Slipshod and began to chart the readings on the various displays, “I haven’t seen you by a bed for this long since Squelch’s appendix burst.”

“Yeah, well, you know me: can’t stay away from a pretty mare,” the stallion said, flashing the physician a broad smile. He was only half-joking though. The truth was that the slumbering mare was genuinely quite attractive. He’d already thought of quite a few lines to feed her when she finally woke up, and may or may not have fantasized about a few fun things he could think of to try out in bed with a mare who had both wings and magic.

That sort of thing was for later though. Right now he had other thoughts on his mind, “her injuries; what were they?”

Dee glanced down at the other stallion briefly before flipping back through his notes, “contusions on the shoulders and hips, fractured skull, broken ribs, a broken femur, and burns to the face and back. All of which have been addressed, as you can see,” and Slipshod could. The mare was covered almost entirely in dressings and rigid casts.

“That bruising was consistent with a ‘Steed’s piloting harness, wasn’t it?”

“It was,” the medical pony acknowledged, “and all of her other injuries are also quite typical for somepony who’s BattleSteed was put through the ringer in a fight.”

The earth pony was nodding, “Mig found burned purple feathers in the cockpit. She was the pilot,” he gestured to the unconscious mare, “a damn good one too,” the kirin twins didn’t yet have the parts that they needed to fix the Rainbow Dash, but that hadn’t stopped them from getting it strung up in the stall so that they could start removing the damaged components that would need to be replaced. They and their team were crawling over it like a swarm of excited locusts at this very moment.

Slipshod had been present when they finally got the ‘Steed standing and had done his own appraisal. He agreed fully with Mig and Tig’s assessment that the Rainbow Dash had been in a fight with multiple opponents. Shots had struck it from both low and high angles, and the weapon types were far too varied for all the damage to have been done by just one ‘Steed. Yet, all the same, the damage had been spread out. Very spread out. It was almost like either the enemy had gone out of their way to shoot every single square inch of the ‘Steed’s armor, or...the pilot had worked tirelessly to make sure that a numerically superior enemy couldn’t focus their fire on any one specific area and cripple her.

That was hard, especially if a pilot was surrounded by smaller and more maneuverable enemies. Indeed, it was a preferred tactic of a lance fighting a single mech to circle the target and hold their fire until presented with a particular vulnerable location―usually the left or right barrel of a ‘Steed’s torso. It was nearly impossible for a single opponent to keep a given facing out of the line of fire like that. That this mare had managed it spoke volumes about her skill.

More than that, she’d clearly managed to get away from that fight as well. Either by defeating all of them or escaping to her DropShip. Slipshod wasn’t sure which was the more impressive feat, honestly. Beauty and brains, and a Steed pilot. He might be in love!

His eyes wandered over her wings and horn, “any luck on figuring out her alicorn-ness?”

Dee finished updating his notes and floated the chart back over to his office, “nothing more than I said before: no signs that any of this was done surgically, and I don’t see any of the usual signs of magical transmutation. She’s either the genuine article or the unlikely natural combination of pegasus and unicorn genetics. Though, given the kind of magical resilience that she’d have needed for somepony to link her leylines to the stasis spell…” the doctor shook his head, “something like that would have pretty much caused my horn to explode on the spot. So she’s obviously a very powerful magic-caster.”

“Do you have any theories?” Slipshod asked, “we’d have heard about another alicorn, right? That kind of thing should have been broadcasted all over the Harmony Sphere. Everypony in the galaxy would have known that there were two alicorns.”

“I’d have thought so,” the physician shrugged, then thought for a moment, “I wasn’t as attentive in my history classes as I could have been―honestly, who pays attention in their elective courses anyway? But I could swear that I remember one of my professors mentioning that pre-Sphere Equestria was ruled by two alicorns? Something about a war between them and one of them being cast out too.

“Maybe that’s how the Disciples started,” the doctor offered, “the two of them fought, one founded the Disciples, and was defeated and banished,” he scratched at his brow, frowning, “I think that’s how it went anyway.”

Slipshod looked at the ivory unicorn, “so does that make her ‘Discord’ then?”

“Makes sense. Discord was the name of a villain that got banished by the ruler of Equestria. I remember that much pretty clearly. ‘Discord’ being banished and the alicorn sisters fighting was covered in the same lesson, so I think they’re the same event.”

“Should we be concerned then that we’re transporting an ancient enemy of Equestria and Queen Twilight?”

The doctor paused for a moment, considering, “I doubt that this could be the real Discord,” he finally stated, “All of that was supposed to predate the Celestia League. This mare is probably a look-alike or something. She’s way too young to have been around in the days before the Harmony Sphere.”

“Unless she really is an alicorn,” Slipshod pointed out, causing Dee to look pensive for another moment before continuing, “but like you said: the other alicorn was cast out. She wouldn’t have been on some transport in a backwater system like Canis was five hundred years ago. I don’t even think this was a settled system back then.”

The ‘Steed pilot regarded the unconscious mare for a few more seconds and then glanced back at the doctor, who looked like he was still trying―unsuccessfully―to remember his history electives from over a decade ago, “what does Queen Twilight Sparkle look like?”

“Hmm? Oh, um...I think she’s blue...maybe? Green? I honestly don’t know,” the unicorn said with a dismissive shrug, “I don’t know that I’ve ever actually seen a picture of her. Not much really comes out of Equus that’s worth paying attention to these days. Every news outlet tends to focus on the infighting between the various Houses and coalitions,” the doctor looked at the unconscious mare for a few moments, “maybe pink? My mind wants to think that ‘pink’ was in there somewhere for some reason…

“You attended Sandhoof Royal Military Academy, didn’t you? Back on Equus? Didn’t you get to see the Queen while you were there?”

Slipshod balked for a brief moment before managing to recompose himself, “yeah, that’s right. No, I, uh, didn’t see the Queen while I was there.”

“Really? I thought she attended all of the graduations there.”

The golden stallion winced, having managed to forget that little fact, “she does,” he confirmed, “and I’m sure that she was at mine too. I just don’t remember seeing her though. I had...other things on my mind that day. I’d gotten a message from an old friend that my family had been executed the night before the graduation ceremony.”

“Oh! I’m...sorry to hear that. I didn’t realize,” the doctor said, looking a little abashed, “I mean, I knew your family had been killed, I just didn’t know you’d heard about it right before you were supposed to head back home.

“That had to have been rough for you.”

The earth pony’s lips were set in a grim line, “it wasn’t how I’d envisioned leaving Equus, no,” silence rang through the clinic for several long seconds. Then the ‘Steed pilot finally turned towards the door and started heading out, “pink sounds right though,” he paused in the doorway, “call if she wakes up, alright?”

“Of course. I’ll let everypony know the moment she so much as twitches.”

“Right. Thanks,” and with that, the earth pony stallion left the room. He had some groundwork to lay.

Chapter 3: Assumption of Risk

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“Torque wrench set to ninety Clover-meters.”

The golden stallion withdrew the prescribed tool from the box, twisting the bar a few times until the dial was lined up with the proper setting, before holding it out in the direction of the rose-tuffed tail attached to a brown-scaled posterior. He only wished that his heart was truly in admiring the finely-toned flank being dangled before him. Unfortunately, his mind was elsewhere.

“So how do you and your sister manage to do it?” he asked as the kirin mare’s magic gripped the torque wrench and drew it up inside the chest wall of the Rainbow Dash that she was currently working on. They’d be landing on Canis in less than twelve hours. It’d take a day or two for the parts that they needed to get the Rainbow Dash functional to arrive after that, but that didn’t mean that the pair of mechanics and their teams couldn’t get a head start by first stripping off everything that would need to be replaced and fixing what they could in order to expedite future installations. As a result, the two had spent nearly every minute since getting the go-ahead from Squelch buried in the internals of the ancient BattleSteed.

If there was one dark cloud hanging over their heads, it was that the budget didn’t quite allow for the kind of weapons systems that a ‘Steed like this truly deserved. They would have to make do, in the interim, with spares that they’d had in storage for his and Valkyrie’s ‘Steeds.

Until they came up with the finances for some heavier firepower, this ‘Steed’s bark was going to be a lot worse than its bite.

“Do what?” came the mechanic’s muffled response.

“Unless you were just blowing smoke that night, the two of you are, like, the heiresses to House Kiso or something aren’t you? They’re supposed to be pretty big players in the Kirin Confederation, last I checked. You can’t tell me that your family is okay with you guys tagging along as wrench wenches in a small-time merc outfit.”

“Oh, Mom’s in an absolute snit about it,” Tig called out from where she and another tech were currently tearing out what was left of a particle projectile cannon from the mount in the ‘Steed’s oversized right canard. The gauss rifle in it’s left canard was theoretically repairable, but it would still need to be removed and effectively rebuilt from the ground up over the next few weeks. Not that the kirin didn’t absolutely relish the opportunity to do so.

“She’d have Squelch hunted to the end of the Sphere if she knew what company we were with,” Mig agreed.

“And she’d have you drawn and quartered for ‘tarnishing her precious flowers’,” the cyan kirin mare said with an annoyed expression as she made what was obviously a crude imitation of their mother’s voice.

The stallion perked up in surprise, “wait, what.”

“Which is why we don’t tell her anything beyond that we’re both still alive...and especially that we’re happy,” Mig carried on, seeming to ignore Slipshod’s comment.

“The former to reassure her, and the latter to piss her off,” Tig added with a snigger before returning her full attention to her work.

“Incidentally, the latter is also why we let you take us to bed that one time, and why we made sure to send Mom the vid of it,” the rosie kirin floated the torque wrench back out and passed it to the earth pony, “eight gauge blade connectors and crimpers.”

Slipshod passed the electrical tools to the mare’s waiting telekinetic field as he processed what she’d just told him, “wait, you only slept with me to piss off your mother?” the stallion wasn’t sure how he felt about that revelation. It felt so...tawdry...somehow. Also, “...can I get a copy of that vid?”

“Oh?” Tig peaked back from over the canard, “and what will you give us?”

The stallion frowned, and waved his hoof at the ‘Steed, “I literally found this for you. You’re telling me that wasn’t worth anything?”

“He’s got us there,” Mig’s muffled voice called out from inside the torso. Followed shortly by an electrical crackle and a sharp, “ow!” a moment later, “I’m okay!” Slipshod reached out and delicately smoothed out the now frizzy tuft at the end of her tail, “...thank you, Slip.”

“Fine, we’ll send you a copy,” the cyan mare sighed, going back to work for only a second before she peeked back down at him, “why are you suddenly so interested in our pedigree anyway?”

“It’s not that, so much,” the stallion said, “I was just curious how a pair of ponies that were sort of ‘famous’, in a way, managed to get about without being noticed by somepony that would be interested in finding you. I mean, I’m sure your mother has ponies―or kirin, rather―on retainer with orders to report back to her the moment they spot you somewhere, right?”

“Oh, without a doubt,” Mig agreed.

“Why do you think we never leave the ‘Steed Bay?”

“I assumed it was because you really liked working on ‘Steeds,” Slipshod offered sheepishly.

“While true,” Tig admitted from her perch, “it also means that nopony sees us who we don’t want to.”

“We aren’t exactly ‘night on the town’ mares anyway,” Mig reminded him, “give us a ‘Steed that needs a little TLC and we’re happy as a New Nipone harpy with a fugu in its talons!”

The stallion quirked a brow and glanced up at the cyan sister. She nodded her head, “they are quite happy.”

“Right. So, the takeaway here is that: if you don’t want to be found, then just keep yourself out of sight,” he sighed, “not quite the revelation I was hoping for, but I guess I shouldn’t be surprised.”

Mig pulled herself out from the Rainbow Dash’s torso, floating the crimpers back to Slipshod before reaching up and smoothing out her still-frazzled mane. The rosie kirin glanced at the earth pony with a quizzical expression, “what’s going on? Did you just remember that you overstayed your welcome on Canis and have enemies looking out for you there too?”

“Cuckolds, more likely,” Tig snorted, “whose relative did you bork this time that you shouldn’t have? The planetary governor?”

“It’s occurred to you that you could just...not bring home a mare every night, right?”

“This isn’t about me,” the stallion snapped a little more irritably than he’d meant to, earning a pair of sniggers from the kirin, “and who I ‘bork’ is none of your business,” he paused, thinking for a brief moment, “unless you feel like making a sequel vid to antagonize your mother. I picked up a book on Ambrosia that has all sorts of ideas for things that’ll send her into outright apoplexy!” the scaled sisters exchanged glances and rolled their eyes, “but anyway,” he hurried on, “this is about...somepony else.”

“The alicorn?” both asked in unison.

He frowned. Perhaps he’d been a little too optimistic about his ability to obfuscate on a ship this small. If not himself, who else on board might not want to be recognized, after all?

“Look, it’s hardly going to matter any time soon. She won’t be awake for weeks yet. I’m just..trying to think ahead here.”

“She’s a Disciple, isn’t she?” Mig asked. Slipshod nooded, “so then what’s the point? I thought Squelch was going to hoof her over to the authorities the moment we landed?”

“Hard to go under the radar when you’re downrange of a firing squad,” Tig chimed in.

“Yeah...I’m going to talk with Squelch about that.”

The pair of kirin exchanged shocked expressions. When they looked back at Slipshod, Mig gawked, “you’re going to try to talk Squelch out of turning over a Disciple?”

“Screw the sex tape, I want to see a vid of that!” Tig said.

“It’ll never happen,” Mig agreed matter-of-factly.

“Because Squelch isn’t stupid enough to cross ComSpark.”

“Granted, I’d’ve assumed that you weren’t that stupid either,” Mig frowned at the stallion, joined by her twin, “so maybe we’re wrong and both of you are certifiable.”

The earth pony rubbed at the back of his head. He knew full well that this was just a preamble to the conversation that he’d be having with the emerald unicorn later. Her reaction wasn’t likely to be much different. It wasn’t like what they were saying weren’t legitimate concerns. ComSpark had very clear directives on the books about what anypony, anywhere, was supposed to do with captured Disciples of Discord. The last thing that any merc outfit wanted was to be branded as Disciple sympathizers by the Mercenary Review Board. None of them would ever work in the Harmony Sphere ever again, either as mercenaries or anything else for that matter.

Regardless, “that mare hasn’t been an active Disciple for over five hundred years,” he pointed out, “that’s got to put her outside the statute of limitations or something.”

The pair of mechanics exchanged glances, still very obviously unconvinced.

“Look, I’m just saying that she might not even have done anything wrong, okay? Can either of you tell me exactly what year that whole ‘kill all Disciples’ order was put out by Queen Twilight?” both mares frowned again, but then reluctantly shook their heads, “so, for all we know, she went into stasis before anything she did was technically illegal!”

“Slip, we’re not the one you need to sell this to,” Mig pointed out.

“Which is lucky for you, because I don’t think I’d be buying,” Tig added.

“I know, I know,” the earth pony sighed heavily. It was going to be an uphill fight getting Squelch to see things his way, he knew that much.

“Just please tell us that you’re not trying to keep her alive just so you can bork her,” Mig glared at him.

“That’s not it at all,” he scowled.

“Uh huh.”

Slipshod took a deep breath and shook his head. He could hardly fault the pair for adhering to the reputation that he’d spent so long building for himself, “look, she’s...she’s a good ‘Steed pilot, right?” he pointed out, gesturing to the mostly dismantled Rainbow Dash, “you’ve seen what this thing’s been through, but it’s somehow still salvagble. Even I couldn’t have pulled off something like that.

“Probably,” he added as an afterthought in an attempt to not downplay his own abilities so harshly.

“A good pilot with experience fighting in a heavy ‘Steed,” he amended, “that could be worth a lot to this outfit.”

“...As long as nopony finds out she’s a Disciple,” Mig finished for him, much to the stallion’s chagrin.

“As long as nopony finds out about that, yeah,” he frowned again.

“I’m sorry, Slip, but there’s no big secret to laying low,” Tig offered with a little shrug, “just think of whatever you would do when landing on a new world―”

“―and have her do the opposite,” Mig finished with a grin.

“Right. Thanks for your help,” he turned away from the pair and their team, “have fun with your new toy.”

“A good luck trying to talk Squelch into holding on to that Disciple mare,” Mig called after him as he headed for the ‘Steed Bay’s exit.

“Seriously though: vid it for us!” Tig added.

Slipshod must have stood outside Squelch’s room for a good two minutes, rehearsing his pitch. The twins hadn’t been wrong: it was going to be a tough sell, and that was still putting it really mildly somehow. This would actually be the second time he psyched himself up for this. The first time had been at the entrance to the bridge, only for him to learn from a rather amused-looking Valkyrie, that the unicorn had retired to her quarters early for the evening.

At least he’d had extra time to practice what he was going to say. Not that it had done all that much to calm his nerves. Somepony’s life was riding on his ability to persuade a mare to do what he wanted. Normally, that wouldn’t be a big deal. He did that sort of thing all the time.

However, this time, the mare in question knew all of his tricks, and was completely inoculated against his bullshit. So, that didn’t help matters much.

The earth pony took a final, deep, preparatory breath, and touched the button to ring the door chime. The pause that followed felt like it drug on for the better part of an eternity. Then a mare’s voice finally responded through the speaker above the chime, “yes?”

“It’s me. Can we talk?”

Another neverending silence, eventually answered by the door sliding into the wall.

Slipshod’s eyes, out of habit, immediately locked onto the bed. That was where Squelch had usually been whenever he came back to their quarters during their time as a married couple. She very much enjoyed laying there, reading a book before finally going to sleep. The mattress was empty this time though. In fact, it didn’t even look like it had seen much use at all in some time.

The desk on the other hoof…

Squelch looked like she was surrounded by a tiny fortress built out of disposable paper coffee cups which the emerald unicorn seemed unwilling to dispose of for some reason. It might have been related to the fact that the waste bin beside the desk was already overflowing with the same cups. The stallion frowned. He’d lived with the mare for nearly a year. She wasn’t usually the messy type. That had always been his vice.

“Is everything alright?” In the back of his mind, he was slightly irritated that his whole train of thought had managed to be immediately derailed. He’d come down here to talk to Squelch about the unconscious mare in their clinic, but now that was the furthest thing from his mind. Three seconds in their old quarters, and he was already falling back into ‘married Slipshod’ mode. The stallion frowned internally at the realization. He was supposed to be better at that than this.

The unicorn mare sighed and waved vaguely around her cluttered desk, “just my insomnia catching up with me again. I should be fine in a couple weeks.”

“You never had trouble sleeping whe―” the stallion slammed his mouth shut immediately as he realized what he was about to say. He was normally very good about not bringing up their past. It was something of an unspoken rule that the two of them tried very hard to enforce, “er...I guess I forgot about your insomnia,” his eyes lingered on the legion of coffee cups, “...do you take anything for it?”

Squelch frowned at the earth pony for several long seconds, presumably deciding whether or not she was going to overlook his near-faux pas. Ultimately, she seemed to let it slide. This time, “sleep aides make me hazy. It only happens when I’m stressed anyway. Like I said, it’ll pass in a week.

“What do you want, Slip?”

He wanted to find out what was making her so stressed out these days, truth be told; but he had a fairly good idea how that conversation would all play out. Not that the conversation he’d come here to have with her was likely to ameliorate things either. As though he hadn’t been nervous enough already.

“I…” he took a deep breath to brace himself, “...want you to not turn over the Disciple mare,” he cringed slightly in anticipation of her predicted response.

The green unicorn stared at him with a flat, unblinking gaze for several long seconds, not saying a word. Her horn began to glow. One of the drawers on her desk took on a matching aura and slid open. A brown bottle floated out. The cap slowly unscrewed itself and the bottle was tipped into the paper cup closest to the mare. From the sound the liquid made, it hadn’t been entirely empty. The bottle was then set down on the desk, it’s opening left uncapped, as Squelch shifted her telekinesis to the cup instead.

All of this was done without saying a word, or shifting her gaze away from the stallion. Which did quite a bit to heighten his unease, if he was being honest.

Squelch spun her chair around so that she was facing the earth pony ‘Steed pilot and reclined back, folding her hind legs over each other as she made herself comfortable. She took a long sip of her coffee―which was honestly now mostly bourbon, Slipshod guessed, “well, go on. Get to the punchline…”

The golden pony winced, “look, I kn―”

“Because I assume there’s a punchline coming,” the mare interrupted in an icy tone that was matched by her cold eyes, “there had better be one coming, because I know this is a joke.

“For your sake, there’d better be one tartarus of a twist in it too, because it’s not sounding particularly funny right now.”

Slipshod swallowed, “I know th―”

“No,” she cut him off again with her curt denial, “no, I don’t think you do ‘know’. Which is weird, because you used to help me run this operation. What, did you leave your sense running down the inside of some mare’s thigh along with your jizz? Did you fuck your own brains out?” she let out a derisive scoff, taking another sip of her bourbon-coffee, “wouldn’t surprise me, honestly.”

The stallion closed his eyes, deflating visibly beneath Squelch’s cutting remarks, “this has nothing to do with us. It’s―”

“Oh, it has everything to do with ‘us’!” the unicorn snapped abruptly. Up to this point, her tone could have been generously described as: ‘cutting’. Now she sounded properly outraged, “as in: the kind of future that awaits ‘us’ if ComSpark ever finds out that we gave aid and comfort to a Disciple!”

“We’ve already treated her injuries,” Slipshod pointed out, trying to take back control of the conversation, but his employer wasn’t having it.

“What happens in that clinic is Doc Dee’s business. I have an actual contract to that effect, in fact. Legally, I can’t actually stop him from tending to anypony that makes it through those doors. Not without paying some hefty fines. I’m insulated on that front. Dee’s the one who’ll have to answer to ComSpark for that on his own.

“Though he can just say that he wanted to make sure she survived long enough to be interrogated and they’ll probably pay him a fucking bonus for it,” she added with a wan smirk that lasted for only a second before melting away the instant she shifted her attention back to the stallion.

“What I can’t explain is why I failed to inform the local system government about having a Disciple in my custody. Part of the agreement between myself and ComSpark is that all Disciple activity is reported to the nearest local authority as soon as possible,” she paused for a moment as she took a third sip. When she was done, the bottle floated back over and refilled the cup, “actually, the letter of the agreement is: ‘as soon as practical’.

“Pretty sure that’s some sort of legalese to keep assholes from skirting the letter of the law in order to look the other way on Disciple activities. After all, it’s ‘possible’ to report terrorist activity by making a radio transmission right then and there at the point of contact. But, depending on which system you’re in, it could take decades to actually reach anypony who’s responsible for doing anything with the information,” she shrugged, “regardless: I am bound by honor and the law to let the authorities on Canis know we found a Disciple at the earliest ‘practical’ opportunity.”

Her cold eyes locked on Slipshod once more, “if I don’t,” she said through gritted teeth, “then the Steel Coursers get blacklisted by the MRB and ComSpark puts out a bounty on us.”

The stallion felt himself deflate, “so you’ve already commed about her?”

The unicorn was silent for several seconds, her magic swirling her cup, “...I have not,” Slipshod raised a surprised brow, “the techs have the comm array down for maintenance. I want to be sure that it’s in perfect working order when we need to speak with the Canis Landing Authority. Getting stuck in orbit because of a bad comm system wouldn’t help anypony.

“In fact, it would even delay our ability to turn over our prisoner.”

Slipshod narrowed his gaze at the mare, not entirely convinced by her explanation, “...are you...having second thoughts? About turning her in?”

“No,” came her easy reply, “I fully intend to turn the mare over to ComSpark. However,” she added with a deep inhalation, “I first want some idea of how exactly she fits into their organization―or, rather, how she used to fit into their organization.

“Whether she’s a real alicorn or not, she was important to them,” Squelch pointed out, “and being important to the Disciples means that she could be valuable to ComSpark. Valuable enough that she might be worth more than the standing bounty being offered.”

The earth pony’s eyes were wide now, “you’re planning on negotiating a higher bounty from CimSpark?”

“Don’t be an idiot,” the mare sneered, “there’s no ‘negotiating’ with ComSpark. However,” she amended, “there is such a thing as taking what could be a one-time bounty and turning it into a many-times bounty,” she saw the stallion’s confused expression and allowed herself the first expression approaching a smile that she’d worn since he stepped into her room, “if she really was some sort of big-shot with the Disciples way back when, there’s a chance that she knows things: cache locations, bases they might still be using today, the exit coordinates for whatever JumpShips that the Disciples must be using in order to conduct their raids.

“All of the information that ComSpark will want to wring out of her, I’m hoping that we can get her to give up, and then sell that to ComSpark piecemeal, finding ways to explain away how we got so ‘lucky’ as to learn about it.

“She tells us about a cache, I find us a contract on that world to do some random job, and then we just happen to stumble across the Disciple cache and turn it into ComSpark for the bounty,” her smile broadened slightly into a predatory smirk, “that mare could become our golden cockatrice.”

Comprehension spread across the earth pony’s face now, though there was one possible hangup that he saw, “and you think she’s just going to give up that kind of intel because we ask her to?”

“If she doesn’t, oh well,” the unicorn shrugged, “we’ll just turn her in like we were supposed to. That’s her decision to make.

“She can tell us voluntarily, or she can tell the ComSpark interrogators while they’re teasing her intestines out through her belly button an inch at a time. It’s no fur off my fetlocks.”

Slipshod shuddered briefly at the image that was conjured in his mind. It honestly probably wasn’t all that far off from what the Queen’s Royal Inquisitors would do with the mare they had in Dee’s clinic. One way or another, the Queen’s captives told her exactly what she wanted to know. That much he knew for a fact, at least.

“So,” Squelch began again, finally setting down her cup of bourbon, “as for your ‘request’ that I not turn our mystery mare over to the Canis authorities...it’s not necessary,” her tone had softened somewhat from what it had been earlier, but her demeanor remained considerably on the ‘cool’ side, “lucky for her, our financial situation is such that I am encouraged to seek...creative C-bit-earning opportunities,” she waved a hoof at her desk, and the pile of pads which all displayed various accounting spreadsheets. The stallion couldn’t make out any specificas, but he did note the abundance of red numbers they contained.

“I didn’t realize that things were that bad,” he admitted.

The unicorn sighed, her posture deflating more noticeably, “it’s not ‘bad’ so much as...tenuous,” she corrected, “we’re not spec’d to maintain a heavy ‘Steed. Not on short notice like this. Repairs, weapons, servicing...that Rainbow Dash is going to need a lot of expensive care and parts compared to your’s and Val’s ‘Steeds. Most commander’s in my position would have just sold it.

However, I take a longer view of things, and I’m wagering that ‘Steed will be able to recoup its costs, and then some, given enough time,” she paused for another moment, considering, “and assuming that we find a pilot for it.”

Slipshod hesitated a moment, then, “aside from the one in the Med Bay?” Squelch didn’t respond immediately, which was honestly a pretty good sign, all things considered. It wasn’t an outright denial, at least. She was frowning though, “nopony in the galaxy knows that she’s a Disciple, aside from us,” still no response, “she’s a damn good pilot, Squelch. For her ‘Steed to take the kind of hits it did, and still make it out of the fight in one piece?

“You’re not going to find a pilot like that who’s willing to work for whatever you could afford to pay them.”

The mare’s frown deepened briefly into an outright scowl that made the earth pony wince, but it faded quickly as she was forced to acknowledge the accuracy of his statement. Though she certainly didn’t do so out loud, “...if anypony ever found out…”

“Who’d tell ‘em? She’s certainly not likely to go around advertising it!”

Squelch began to shake her head slowly, “if one of the crew―”

“The crew that you hired, and that you pay?” he emphasized, “these ponies respect you a lot more than they respect ComSpark. I promise you that,” he smiled at the mare, “nopony knows the mares and stallions on this ship better than I do, and I know that not a one of them would go against you.”

There was the briefest of glares at his mention of knowing the mares, but it waned quickly in the face of her appreciation of the compliment. Another small smile tugged at the emerald unicorn’s lips, “thanks for that. I’ll...think about it.”

Slipshod smiled, “thanks a lo―”

“Ah ah ah!” she waggled a hoof at him, “that wasn’t one of my old ‘I’ll think about it’ yeses,” she insisted with a hard look at the stallion, “that was a real ‘I’ll think about it’! I might still say ‘no’. I mean it!”

The earth pony quashed his smile and made himself look properly cowed, though it certainly took quite a bit of effort to do so. She could obfuscate all she wanted, but he knew that she’d already decided to go along with his suggestion. He still played along though, “I understand. Whatever you choose to do though, I know it’ll be the right decision.”

Knowing that his work was done here, the stallion turned to leave, but paused as he caught sight of the unused bed. He looked back at the unicorn mare, “I’ve got some chamomile tea in my quarters. The real stuff. I can have Cookie bring you a cup?”

Squelch started to shake her head, but paused as she regarded the earth pony. With a resigned sigh, she silently nodded her head in the affirmative. Slipshod left without a word, saving his smile for when he was out of sight.

After dropping off a couple bags of tea at the galley with instructions for them to be steeped for two minutes and served with a slice of lemon on the side―Squelch didn’t actually add the lemon to the drink, she preferred to suck on it after finishing the cup―Slipshod returned to his quarters. The next thing he did was review his rota to figure out who he was supposed to meet that evening and send them a message on the ship’s internal system that he was going to have to cancel. He cited a meeting with Squelch―which was technically true―and promised to make it up to them next time.

The truth was though that his mind was simply too occupied with the mare that they’d found for him to be properly relaxed with anypony right now. He’d arguably crossed one of the bigger hurdles in his path―keeping her out of ComSpark’s reach for the time being―but that was hardly the end of his troubles.

After all, getting Squelch to keep the alicorn aboard only served to beg the question: now what? He was making this all up as he went, and improvising wasn’t his strong suit. That was a revelation that would probably have shocked most who knew him to their core. After all, he was Slipshod; the stallion with the magic tongue who somehow seemed to know exactly what to say in order to make any stranger he’d just met into that evening’s adoring lover.

However, that was essentially the limitation of his ability: he was able to almost immediately work out how to succeed with strangers. What he was about to walk into now was a very unfamiliar realm. Honestly, what was brewing in him now wasn’t something that he’d have thought he was even capable of: revenge.

Perhaps that notion wouldn’t have surprised too many ponies, honestly; that he was interested in righting a personal injustice. That was a thing that most ponies would do, after all. His past even made for the picture perfect motivation for such a thing: his immediate family had been killed while he’d been away at the ‘Steed academy on Equus. Murdered on the orders of Archon Dominus Blueblood of the Pony Commonwealth. He was sure that the expected cliche would have been for him to go out, rally together a band of similarly antagonized allies that would relish the chance to have a hoof in putting a gun to Dominus’ temple, and overthrow the Archon.

However, the reality was that Slipshod could actually care less about his former family members. It had been their own faults that they’d been arrested and executed. What exactly did they expect was going to happen when they were caught conspiring with the Federated Moons to install a distant relative of First Princess Victoria Belle as the new Archon? Death was the usual outcome when a pony was caught committing treason. As far as the earth pony was concerned, those family members of his were justly punished for breaking the law. He didn’t hold a grudge against Dominus in the slightest.

Besides, if he could have gotten his hooves on the money, soldiers, and BattleSteeds that it would take to unseat the Archon, he’d be better off just setting himself up as the ruler of his own little star cluster out on the Periphery and not have to worry about all of the Harmony Sphere’s petty politics.

So, no, it wasn’t Blueblood he wanted to antagonize.

Though, some grudges did need to be kept up for appearance’s sake. Hence his little trist with Regina Blueblood, who he’d known full well was the Archon’s wife, despite his claims otherwise. An absolute ghoul of a mare, if he was being honest. Part of him actually pitied Dominus for marrying that viper. No wonder they didn’t have any foals. Whatever political advantages that union had earned the Archon, Slipshod sure hoped they’d been worth it. That was about as far as he was going to take things where ‘revenge’ went in that regard though.

He’d long since written off being able to do anything that would stick in the craw of the true target of his animosity. He’d considered that possibility right out from day one. There were few creatures in the Harmony Sphere’s political landscape that could be described as being genuinely ‘untouchable’, but she was certainly one of them. So it was that the golden earth pony had resigned himself to always possessing a particular itch that would remain forever unscratched.

And yet...here was a chance to actually do something about that irritation! He wasn’t sure exactly what that something was, but that mare in the clinic had to be useful somehow!

Until he managed to figure that out though, he had to do what he could to keep her safe, as well as a secret from the rest of the galaxy. If he could do that long enough, and manage to come up with a plan…

A smile began to worm its way across his lips as he lay back in his bed.

Never in his wildest dreams would he have thought that he, of all the creatures in the galaxy, would be fortunate to stumble across Princess Twilight Sparkle! It was nothing short of a gift, honestly; beautifully wrapped and topped with a glistening bow.

Slipshod flashed a vicious grin into the darkness of his quarters.

And he knew just who to give it to...

Chapter 4: Decision at Lupine Pass

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Slipshod stepped back into his quarters, dabbing at the last bits of dampness in his dark brown mane with the towel. He stepped lightly across the private quarters that were one of the many perks of being a ‘Steed pilot on the Galloway, and made his way to the locker on the far side. A freshly laundered uniform was waiting for him, deposited there by a member of the crew yesterday afternoon.

This wasn’t a jumpsuit that was intended to be worn while fighting in a ‘Steed. Those offered a lot more protection and didn’t have so many shiny buttons and colorful patches. No, this was not a garment designed for utility, but rather to make a statement. Well-to-do clients appreciated seeing their contractors looking as professional as they made themselves out to be on paper. That meant showing up as these sorts of meet-and-greets all dolled up.

Not that the stallion had anything against dressing up. He rather enjoyed the attention it got him.

“Hmm,” somepony groaned appreciatively from the direction of his bed, “why weren’t you wearing that last night?” the owner of the tenor voice lifted themselves out of bed and stepped around behind him, running a burgundy wing down the taught wool of the gray jacket.

Slipshod cracked a smile as he fished out the tie that went with the ensemble and turned around to face his most recent bedmate, “as I recall, you were having enough trouble as it was with just my vest,” he chided lightly, looping the tie around his neck and lifting his chin, inviting the other stallion to finish affixing the accessory.

The pegasus snorted as he brought his pinions around to begin manipulating the length of fabric, “it’s hardly my fault you got me so drunk last night that I forgot how buttons work.”

“I told you to say ‘when’, but the ‘when’ never came,” he grinned.

“It was hard to get a word in edgewise with your tongue down my throat for just about every second of the evening,” the pegasus finished up the last loop and straightened the knot snugly against the collar of Slipshod’s shirt.

“Well, somepony had their wings wrapped around me so tight I didn’t have much choice in the matter, now did I?” the earth pony turned and briefly inspected himself in the mirror, noting the rather sharp job that the other stallion had done on his tie. He turned back around and gave them a quick peck on the lips, “thanks for the tie,” a second, longer kiss, “and for last night.”

The pegasus sighed and tilted his head slightly, smirking at the ‘Steed pilot, “I’m never going to see you again, am I?”

“I told you that much over dinner,” Slipshod pointed out with an apologetic smile of his own.

“Yeah, I know. I guess I’m just a romantic at heart,” he shrugged, “though, if you ever find yourself back on Canis…”

“You’re sweet,” he said with another brief peck, “I’ll think about it.”

“Dang. That’s a never-gonna-happen ‘think about it’, isn’t it?” the stallion’s expression suggested that he was neither hurt nor particularly surprised by the anticipated revelation.

“And smart too!” the earth pony sniggered, “do you want me to get a ride for you?”

“Nah, I’ll call my chauffeur,” he sighed, reaching for his comm on the nightstand, “the last thing I need is for my wife to see me pulling up in a strange car. Bonnet is a discrete mare. She doesn’t say anything about where she picks me up from. Celestia knows she’s dragged me out of a few gutters...”

“Alright then,” Slipshod closed up the locker and headed for the corridor, “it was a pleasure meeting you, and good luck with your shareholder meeting next week.”

“And good luck with your next job,” the pegasus called back, “stay safe out there!”

The door closed behind him as Slipshod stepped out of his quarters and he turned towards the garage. Valkyrie was waiting for him at the top of the stairs leading to the DropShip’s lower level, dressed in a uniform identical to his own. She frowned at the stallion briefly, giving him a pair of rather overt sniffs, “hmm. Good on you for remembering to shower before our client meeting so that you’re not reeking of sweat, shame, and another pony’s cologne.”

“Good morning to you too, Val.”

“That makes. What? Six ponies in five days?”

“Seven,” the stallion corrected as the pair of them descended towards the garage, “I spent yesterday afternoon with a mare at her place before going out and meeting Sebastian.”

“Unbelievable. Where do you find the energy?”

“I’d offer to show you, but you keep refusing,” he quipped with a little smile at the pegasus. He paused for a moment, then, “are you...jealous?”

“No. I’m tired. My quarters are right next to yours and the bulkheads aren’t nearly as thick as you seem to think they are,” she groused.

“Oh, wow!” Slipshod very nearly choked in surprise, his eyes wide as he reflexively glanced over his shoulder in the direction of his cabin, “I am genuinely sorry about that. Admittedly, in the moment, I’m not thinking about stuff like that. I’ll try and keep a lid on it in the future,” he offered a sheepish shrug.

“Oh, it’s rarely you that’s the problem,” Valkyrie deadpanned.

“Ah. Right. I’ll, uh, come up with something for that.”

“Thank you.”

The pair emerged from the stairwell to find a slightly irritated Squelch waiting for them by the car, impatiently tapping her forehoof. Unlike himself and his feathered comrade, the unicorn mare wasn’t wearing a military-style uniform, but rather a formal business suit, as she herself was not any sort of ‘Steed pilot. However, the steel gray color and the rigid cut of her suit complimented the attire of her pilots quite well, leaving little doubt that the three of them were part of the same outfit.

“About time,” she remarked sternly, locking her gaze on Slipshod, “how about a little less cuddling on mornings when you have actual work to do?”

“Yeah, yeah,” the earth pony said under his breath, offering Squelch no retaliatory quip the way that he had for Valkyrie’s comment earlier. He simply nodded and stepped into the door of the waiting limo that was going to be taking them to their client’s office.

The two mares filed in after him, after which the door closed and the jet black luxury vehicle drove out of the Galloway’s garage and towards the city which surrounded the spaceport.

“A little background on our client,” their employer began, pulling out a thin binder and opening it up to the relevant pages, “Ferrous Holdings Incorporated owns several raw metal extraction and refining facilities across the Sirius Cluster. One of their competitors, Argent Extractions Limited, has been contracting out to freelance operations in the cluster to strike Ferrous facilities in a bid to hurt their profit margins and thus reduce their share price in preparation for a hostile takeover.”

“Argent’s hiring mercs to hurt their competition, so now we’re being hired on to fight the mercs,” Slipshod concluded.

“Pretty much,” Squelch nodded, “it’s likely to be as straightforward as it sounds: we’ll be sent to one of the sites they think is likely to be hit and it’ll be our job to repel the attack. I don’t know yet how many outfits Ferrous is approaching, or how long this contract’s likely to be good for. Could be a one-and-done, but I’m feeling like they’ll want us to guard multiple sites throughout the cluster while they upgrade their static defenses.

“Assuming you two don’t completely fuck up the first round, of course.”

The pilots exchanged eye rolls. They actually failed surprisingly few contracts, given how little resources they had between them with only their two relatively lighter ‘Steeds, “do you know what kind of stuff we’re likely to be going up against?” Valkyrie asked.

“The client hasn’t said, officially,” the unicorn informed them as she flipped to another page of her dossier, “but I pulled a few recent news reports on the raids and it looks like Argent hasn’t been springing for ‘Steed-equipped companies yet. Honestly, I get the impression that this represents an escalation on Ferrous’ part.”

“They want to see how committed Argent is,” the earth pony nodded his agreement, earning a mildly baffled look from his feathered compatriot at his apparent insight, “Argent’s shelling out a relative pittance for merc units that probably don’t field anything heavier than a Hydra Heavy Tank, if that. More than enough to overwhelm a mining camp’s static defenses, sure, but not much of a threat against even your Parasprite, unless they happen to get in a lucky hit.

“Argent would need to keep as much cash on hoof as possible if they want to buy out a majority stake of Ferrous’ outstanding shares. If Ferrous puts a couple of ‘Steeds in the field, then Argent’ll have to shell out the big C-bits for ‘Steed companies too, if they want to actually keep hurting Ferrous’ bottom line.

“But if they do that, they risk using up all the petty cash they’ve been saving for the buyout. Which means that all they did was spend a lot of money to get them nothing. Money that, at the end of the day, would have been a lot better spent developing their own extraction and production infrastructure in the hopes of beating Ferrous the old fashioned way: by offering a better product at a cheaper price. If this all falls apart for them, whatever exec hatched this mercenary plan of theirs is going to be out on their flank in a bad way.

“Which’ll likely cause a lot of internal instability in Argent’s upper echelons, making their own investors really nervous, and tanking their own stock prices. It’s hard to say what’ll upset their shareholders more: being left in the dark about a management shake-up, or being outright told that Argent did the next best thing to lighting millions of C-bits on fire. Either way, their stock price isn’t going to have good things happen to it in the near future,” Slipshod snorted, “if this goes bad for them hard enough, Ferrous could ultimately be the one buying out Argent when the dust settles.”

It was at about this time that the earth pony noticed that both mares were looking at him with slightly agape jaws. He glanced between the pair nervously, “...what?”

Squelch narrowed her gaze at her lead pilot, “how’d you know all that? I mean, you’re exactly right; but how’d you know all that?”

“Sebastian's the Chief of Operations at Argent Extractions. This whole ‘hit Ferrous facilities with mercs’ thing was his idea.

“We discussed it at length last night.”

“Who the fuck is Sebast―” Valkyrie started to ask before she stopped suddenly and her eyes went wide, “wait, you mean ‘fly me, daddy!’?! He’s the stallion you brought home last night?!”

“Hold on,” Squelch was using both hooves to massage her temples, “let me get this straight―” she balked for just a moment, her lips mouthing ‘fly me daddy?’ before she shook herself and refocused, “you not only slept with, but talked with, our client’s competitor about the job last night? How could you be that stupid?” she said the last through gritted teeth.

“First of all,” Slipshod defended, noting how bemused he felt that Squelch seemed the least concerned with the fact that he spent the night in bed with their client’s adversary, “he talked. A lot. About a lot of things. I didn’t say shit about who we were working for.

“And it wasn’t ‘stupid’. It’s called reconnaissance,” he glared at the mares, “I will have you know that I am more than just a pretty face with a perfectly sculpted flank that just won’t quit,” both mares glared and Slipshod made a mental note that his usual deflective brand of humor was not being well received at the moment. He’d save it for later. The stallion cleared his throat, “so, yeah, when you mentioned who we’d be meeting with today, I went ahead and looked them up to see what kind of jobs we were likely to get.

“That’s when I saw the news reports you just showed us,” he gestured at Squelch’s dossier, “I didn’t know immediately that it was Argent who was behind them, but I figured it had to be one of their big competitors, of which there are only two in the Sirius Cluster. So I tracked down a couple of execs in town that were as high up as I could find and tried to learn what I could from them.

“First I met up with Stannum Resource Consortium’s Regional VP of Finance, but she didn’t know anything about any contracts with merc outfits; and besides, they’re actually thinking about selling off their Sirius holdings to focus on their Sagitarius operations. So it probably wasn’t them.

“Then I met Sebastian, and he was more than happy to talk with somepony about how nervous this whole thing was making him. It’s a huge risk that Argent’s board is taking on his say-so, and he is absolutely terrified that Ferrous might do exactly what it is they’re about to do: hire ‘Steed companies to protect their facilities. Argent doesn’t have the money to hire their own ‘Steed mercs―because of the reasons I mentioned before―and so the plan’ll pretty much be shot to shit the moment we show up. Throwing good C-bits after bad would just sink the whole company.

“Somepony’ll need to answer for all the money they’ve spent so far on ultimately useless merc raids though, so he’s pretty much guaranteed to be fired when this blows up in their faces. At which point he has no doubt that his wife’ll file for a divorce and take the kids, leaving him alone and penniless. He hasn’t had a decent night’s sleep all month worrying about this,” he thought for a moment, “until last night anyway,” judging by Valkyrie’s narrowed eyes, the last addition hadn’t been wholly appreciated.

“And he has no idea that we were hired by Ferrous? You’re sure?” Squelch demanded.

“Positive. I told him we were being brought on by TimberWolf’s Dragoons for their skirmishes with the Gray Lines Legion along the Our Worlds League border.”

The unicorn mare breathed a deep sigh of relief and leaned back into her seat, “well...I guess now we at least know that this isn’t likely to be a protracted contract. If Argent really is ready to fold the first time we show up,” she thought for a moment, “though, I can’t see why Ferrous would know that,” she glared at Slipshod, “you don’t breathe a word of any of what you learned last night in that meeting, got it? If Argent actually folds like a wet blanket after the first fight and calls the whole thing off, then we can probably get away with a couple months of sitting on our flanks watching sunsets and still getting paid before Ferrous figures it out too. It’ll be the easiest money we’ve ever made.

“Money that’ll let us arm that Rainbow Dash properly,” the green mare rubbed her chin, “I bet I can get another massage from the twins when I drop thirty tons of guns on the threshold of the ‘Steed Bay…”

It was then that Slipshod noticed that Valkyrie was staring at him, as though she were studying some sort of university textbook, “what?”

“Reconnaissance. That was pretty smart, what you did. It never occurred to me that you went out last night to do actual work. I apologize.”

“Eh, don’t feel too bad,” the stallion shrugged, “I mean, I learned about everything I needed to know way before I slept with either of them. So it was more of a...working...leisure...combination.”

Valkyrie was glaring at him again now.

I’m just saying,” Val’s voice crackled over his headset, “it wouldn’t kill Cookie to mix things up every now and then. Not every Tuesday has to be tacos for lunch.”

“You don’t honestly expect him to serve tacos on Wednesday, do you?!” Slipshod remarked, pumping all of the dramatic mock-incredulity he could into his tone, “if he does that, then when exactly is he supposed to serve his Lunch-time Waffle Wednesday Breakfast Stacks? Fridays?! That’s for his Friday Frijoles Night Lunch Special!” the stallion thought for a moment, “though, dropping that would certainly make Saturday’s a lot more tolerable on the ship…” he acknowledged with a grin.

That jack is a master in the kitchen, but damn does he suck at naming things…

“No argument here,” the earth pony pilot chuckled, “but let’s face it, you’re not going to get him to change his menu line-up. I think it would actually kill him. That donkey’s stubborn as a mul―erm…”

I’mma tell him you said that. I’ve even got the radio logs recording. I can play the tape for him. Over and over again.

Slipshod’s eyes widened in equal parts feigned and genuine horror, “please don’t,” there were certain realities about living on the Galloway that ponies learned to abide by quickly if they wanted their lives to remain tolerable: you never borrowed one of Mig’s tools, or she’d literally light you on fire―Tig was compassionate enough to put you out...after a minute or two. Using Squelch’s blue coffee pot to brew decaf was a capital offense. Jokes about Doc Dee and ‘white doctors’ coats’ earned you a complimentary colonoscopy. And referring to Cookie Dough as a ‘mule’ got you put on the ‘special menu’ for a month. Which consisted of actual gruel… Exclusively. Served cold.

Even asking for anything else earned you an additional month on his ‘special menu’.

“I will literally do anything you ask if you delete those three seconds of the log!”

Ooh...this rush of power and control,” the mare cooed, “this must be what having a dick feels like...I’m kinda liking it,” the self-satisfaction in Valkyrie’s voice was palpable, even over the headset. She was very much obviously enjoying this. Enough so that even Slipshod couldn’t help but crack a little smirk himself, despite his very real dread at Cookie getting wind of his faux pas.

He was fairly confident that he and the azure Parasprite pilot could come to an arrangement though, “I’ll polish your hooves for a month,” he offered.

Ha! What makes you think I’d let you anywhere near my hooves? I’m the one suffering with that deal. No way.

“Okay,” he thought for a moment. It had been worth a shot, “I’ll get Emery to polish your hooves for a month.”


Slipshod was grinning again upon hearing the piqued interest in his partner’s voice. Emery File was an aspiring hooficurist onboard the ship who was well known among the crew for the outstanding work she could do with a pony’s hooves. She had full-time duties to attend to, like most everypony else, of course, so her availability for those services was quite limited. There was actually something of a wait-list.

However, the stallion had a ‘fast pass’ of sorts where that particular mare was concerned, “easy, you can have my slot. I have appointments on alternating Tuesdays and Fridays,” his smile broadened even further, “sometimes those appointments even involve doing my hooves.”

There was a burst of static that sounded a lot like a disgusted snort, “un-fucking-believeable. I swear that Squelch and I are the only ponies you’re not banging on that damn ship.”

“Emery and I do not ‘bang’,” the earth pony didn’t even need to affect an indignant tone at the unappreciated implication.

‘Passionately embrace’ then. Or ‘vigorously cuddle’. However you choose to describe it, I honestly don’t want to hear it.

Slipshod rolled his eyes, “look, do you want the hooficures or not?”


“And the audio log?”

There was a pause, “deleted.”

“Thank you,” the stallion let out a relieved sigh and visibly relaxed on his piloting couch, “I’ll talk with Emery once we’re back on the ship,” he thought for a moment, “and if you could be so kind as to not imply that the two of us are ‘vigorously cuddling’, I’d very much appreciate it.”

Like I said: I don’t want to hear about it anyway,” the mare was silent for a few seconds, then, “why do you even care? It’s not exactly a secret that you’re sleeping with half the crew.

“Wait, wha―?”

Unfortunately for Slipshod, getting clarification on her comment was going to have to wait, as Valkyrie’s voice burst back over the comm channel that the two of them were using with what the stallion referred to as her ‘on-the-clock’ tone. As far as she was concerned, the time for casual conversation was over and all of her focus was now directed at her ‘Steed’s telemitry readouts, “contact!” she snapped, “multiple contacts. Five kay meters. Bearing two-eight-seven. Unknown IFF.

It looked like their bantering was done for the moment. The earth pony keyed in the frequency that connected the pair of them to their patron company’s communications net, “Ferrous Control, Gallop One.”

Gallop One, this is Ferrous Control. Go ahead,” came a young stallion’s response.

“Ferrous Control, we have contacts at your…” Slipshod glanced down at his nav map and recalculated the direction of the contacts relative to the refinery, “...two-seven-two, five kilometers out. Expecting any deliveries today?”

Uh...wait one, Gallop. Let me check,” and the channel went silent. The earth pony frowned, silently berating the Ferrous Control operator in his head. The Steel Coursers were here specifically because Ferrous installations were getting hit by raiders. You’d think that whoever was in charge of the response on their client’s side of things would have already put out that facility operators should know exactly when expected deliveries were going to arrive, so that literally anything else could be properly categorized as a ‘possible raider’.

Not that every unscheduled contact was a raider, mind you. Two days ago it had turned out to be a lost planetary militia patrol. Boy did they ever get a fright when his Wild Bronco popped out from behind a mountain and blocked their path! According to Valkyrie, militia transponders in the region didn’t seem to be getting turned off even while they were parked back at their base.

Once bitten; twice shy, and all that.

However, these signals were very clearly not militia. Valkyrie’s Parasprite was already on the move, he saw, maneuvering around the edge of what a vehicle’s sensor range should be, and using the terrain to mask the profile of her ‘Steed. From the signal profiles that she was building, Slipshod was just about positive that, whoever they were, they weren’t here to restock the kitchens either. The pegasus had already pegged one of the contacts as having a high probability of being a Bulldog Medium Tank.

That wasn’t an escort vehicle that Ferrous used. Nor the planetary militia, for that matter.

Finally, a rather nervous-sounding stallion came back over the comm channel, “Gallop One, that is not one of ours! Say again: Not a friendly contact!

“Understood, Ferrous Control,” Slipshod was already in motion, throttling his Wild Bronco to a trot as he turned onto an intercept vector. Valkyrie had been kind enough to lay down some nav points that would let him approach without getting spotted too early, “spool up your turrets in case one gets by us,” he cut the frequency and swapped back to their own private channel, “open season, Val. What’ve we got?”

I’ve got high confidence on...two Bulldogs and four Harassers. There’s...something hanging back that I can’t get a profile on. Could be a C&C vehicle. Maybe a lookout watching their rear. Hard to say. It’s just on the other side of the saddle. I’ll be spotted if I get much closer.

There was a questioning element to the pegasus mare’s last statement. She was letting him know that the option still existed for her to get a definitive profile on the last contact if the two of them were willing to reveal to the enemy that BattleSteeds were present, “negative. Those Harassers are fast enough to catch you, and that’s a lot of SRMs for a Parasprite to handle on its own. Hang back, keep an eye on it, but let’s stay in cover until they reach…” the earth pony reviewed his tactical map, “...Point Echo. We’ll catch the Bulldogs in a crossfire. The Harassers might bug out when they see their heavy units buy it.”

Understood. Laying low.”

“I’m almost at Delta now. Comm the Galloway and let Squelch know we’re engaging,” there wasn’t much that the unicorn was going to be able to do from orbit at the moment, but she could still put the DropShip on an alert status in case things went unexpectedly south and he and Val needed an extraction. He was fairly confident that these seven contacts represented the entirety of the raiding force, but it was better to be safe than dead.

The stallion took a deep breath, reviewing the tactical situation in his head. The Bulldogs were concerning, as they basically brought the same firepower to the fight that his Wild Bronco did. They were considerably less well-protected though. His ‘Steed could stand up to a few hits from their large magical energy weapons, and his ablative armor would shrug off the first few SRM volleys. The same could not be said for any of the vehicles that he and Val were facing.

Especially the Harassers. Those flimsy hovercraft would get torn in half by Valkyrie’s medium energy cannons. As long as she managed to land a hit, anyway. This region was fairly arboreal, so they wouldn’t have the open space that would let them get up to their one hundred and sixty kilometer an hour top speed, but they would still be quite agile nonetheless.

As he’d suggested: the ideal outcome was that this fight ended after just one volley. This raiding force was spec'd specifically to devastate a minimally defended mining complex. The Bulldogs’ heavy energy weapons would have had no issue at all outranging Ferrous’ static defenses and melting them down into slag. After that, the hovercraft would zip in, ravage the facility with a hailstorm of almost continuous SRM fire, and then bug out once the place had been reduced to rubble. The whole thing would have been over in less than five minutes.

With the Bulldogs out of commission though, their operation would almost certainly be a wash. The Harassers would have to close inside the range of the camp’s defensive fire range in order to engage, and four of the admittedly swift-moving combat vehicles wouldn’t be enough to overwhelm even the token turrets that were present. Without any way to reasonably destroy the mining camp, the surviving raiders basically had no reason not to sound the retreat about three seconds after Slipshod and Valkyrie slagged the tanks.

That was the plan, anyway.

Of course, if there was one thing that every ‘Steed academy in the Sphere taught their aspiring pilots, it was that the first casualty in any confrontation with the enemy was: the plan.

Today would not be the exception that proves the rule.

Slipshod slowed to a stop almost right on top of the nav point that Valkyrie had plotted for him. He was located just on the other side of a rise that blocked his ‘Steed from view of any vehicles that would be traveling down the service road leading to the Ferrous facility. So far, the red blips on his tactical overlay that Val’s Parasprite was feeding him looked like they were taking advantage of the road’s existence in order to expedite their arrival. There was hardly any reason for them not to use it, after all.

At the moment, the tanks were at the rear of the formation. They’d eventually be stopping and taking up positions that would let them neutralize the camp’s defenses while the hovercraft continued further ahead, until they were just at the edge of the effective firing range of those turrets. That would allow them minimal time to get into the camp once the turrets were dealt with and do as much damage as they could as quickly as they could.

The earth pony pilot studied the map of the surrounding area. Unlike their clients on Canopy, Ferrous possessed exceptionally detailed and up-to-date topographical maps of the local terrain. Being a mining company, they had been quite motivated to survey as much of the surrounding area as they could in order to capitalize on the richest and most easily accessible metal deposits. Such detailed maps were not only invaluable to material extraction corporations, but to tactically-minded BattleSteed pilots as well.

Given that these raiders were ostensibly being employed by a competing mining company, Argent Extractions, it was possible that they possessed similarly detailed maps as well. Keeping that in mind, Slipshod eyed a few locations that would allow for direct-fire weapons, like a Bulldog’s heavy energy cannon, for example, to capitalize on their long range without much obstruction.

He marked the positions on his map and shared their locations with his partner, “the Bulldogs will be heading to one of these locations,” he informed her, “we’ll wait for them to get in place. Their attention will be on the camp, and they won’t have their Harasser escorts. We roll in from behind, take them out, and then herd the hovercraft into the camp’s turrets. Got it?”

Copy. Moving into position.”

Slipshod’s gaze was locked onto his tactical display as he watched the half-dozen crimson dots slowly meander along the road. He flicked to the seventh, detached, blip a time or two, just to ensure that it was remaining where it had stopped earlier. Valkyrie was probably right: it was acting like a rear guard of sorts. He admitted that he was a little nervous not knowing what it was for sure, but it was a long way off. Too far to engage either him or Val any time soon, even if it turned out to be a fifth speedy hovercraft. Not that an additional Harasser would turn the tide in this fight once those tanks were gone.

The earth pony smiled as he watched the two rear blips in the column divert off of the road and begin to move towards one of the locations that he’d just marked. The other four did indeed continue along the road towards the mining camp.

“And this, gentlecolts, is why you bring pickets,” the stallion murmured around a grin as he throttled up with his rear hooves. The Wild Bronco lurched and began ascending to the top of the mound. Once he crested its peak, he’d be a scant five hundred meters from his target, well within the effective range for his heavy laser. Over the comm, he said, “move in. I’ve got left, you take right.”

Copy,” the blue marker of Valkyrie’s recon ‘Steed started to move now as well.

In just a few seconds, Slipshod’s Bronco reached the top of his cover, and he was now looking down over the pair of medium tracked vehicles. His forhooves teased the angle of the heavy magical energy weapon in his ‘Steed’s right shoulder mount. A quick tap of a button on the control yoke brought up a video feed on the inside of his helmet’s visor, allowing him a magnified view of his target as well as a reticle for the weapon he had selected.

The crews of the Bulldogs had yet to react to his and Valkyrie’s presence. Even their limited sensor suites should have allowed them to see the towering ‘Steeds at their rear by now. However, their attention was laser-focused on the mining facility. The ponies who were presumably the two tank commanders were actually even turned-out at the moment. One of them was looking down at the Ferrous complex through a rangefinder while the other was saying something to him. Both were smiling broadly.

Somepony in the tank must have been looking at their sensor displays though. One of the ponies poking out of the tank’s turret hatch suddenly jerked and looked down inside. A second later he shot straight up again, his head whipping around in Slipshod’s direction.

He was lost in a stream of blue destructive magic, along with the rest of the tank’s turret. The second Bulldog commander had just enough time to duck back down inside and close the hatch behind him as the bipedal Parasprite Light BattleSteed burst through the treeline less than fifty yards to their rear. Twin lances of jade fire crossed the distance in an instant and burned their way into the thinner armor of the tank’s engine housing. The fuel that was also contained there detonated in spectacular fashion.

In less than three seconds, both of the biggest threats on the field were wiped away. All that was left to be dealt with now were the quartet of hovercraft. They were another three hundred meters further out, beyond the range of every weapon that he and Valkyrie had except for his larger laser, which needed a little bit more time to charge before it was ready to fire again.

Slipshod keyed in his mic once again, “alright, let’s run down the rest of ‘em. Try not to get too far ahead of me. We’ll stay close to cover each other an―”

The stallion’s train of thought was cut off as a klaxon began blaring in concert with a flashing scarlet warning message being branded across his heads-up-display: MISSILE LOCK!

Just as his brain began to process the implications of the alert, but before he had time to fully recover from the shock of seeing such an unexpected warning, Val’s voice began screaming across his helmet’s headset, “LRMs! LRM Carrier at our six! Two thousand meters!

The seventh signal. It had not been a command vehicle or a rear guard. Not as such. It hadn’t hung back because it wasn’t going to be participating in the raid. It had done so because it was an artillery vehicle that would be bombarding the Ferrous mining camp from beyond the horizon. It didn’t need to be anywhere near the facility to do its work. Not so long as there was an ally nearby feeding its firing control telemetry on the target so that it’s missiles could acquire and maintain their lock.

And the raiders had four such forward fire directors, in the form of the Harasser hovercrafts that were already scattering. As long as any one of them kept his and Val’s ‘Steeds on their scopes, the LRM Carrier could rain destruction down on them with impunity.

They’d fucked up.

They needed a new plan; and picking the wrong one would get them killed. Of course, so would hesitating while they determined which of their available options was the best one.

There are two kinds of ‘Steed pilots: the quick and the dead. Right or wrong, make a decision and see it through. It’s the only shot any pilot has at survival.

“Get on my six! We’re making a run for the carrier!” Slipshod wrenched at the control yokes and manipulated the throttle pedals of his Wild Bronco as he heaved the fitty-ton behemoth around and vaulted for the distant missile platform.

There were two ways they had of getting out of harm’s way: removing the source of the missiles, or removing the means by which the platform was acquiring its target lock. Only Valkyrie’s Parasprite was swift enough to keep up with the Harassers, and her ‘Steed lacked both the armor and the firepower to go hoof-to-hoof with four of them at once while also dodging missiles. If one of the Harassers managed to maneuver behind her and land a solid hit with all twelve of its SRMs, they’d crack her reactor for sure.

His Bronco could take some hits at least, but he’d be hard-pressed to take any of them out if they remained content to dance at the edge of the effective range of his laser while the carrier’s LRMs tore him apart bit by bit.

No, they couldn’t hope to destroy all four of the hovercraft in time. Nor would they be able to outrun them if they tried to retreat.

That meant charging the carrier itself. Two thousand meters would take his ‘Steed almost a full two minutes to cross. The carrier could reload its launchers every ten seconds, give or take. Which meant that there was more than enough time for that platform to launch all four hundred and eighty of its missiles at the two of them. If even half of those found their mark…

Even sending Val’s much speedier Parasprite on ahead wouldn’t help, as there was still more than enough time for nearly half a dozen volleys of sixty missiles apiece to cut her down before she reached the target.

They had to stick together, and they had to keep moving.

A little bit of praying probably wouldn’t hurt either, in all honesty…

Slipshod’s gut tied itself in a knot as he saw the veritable wall of white missile exhaust rising over the horizon. Though they weren’t visible yet, he knew that the nearly solid column of smoke was being trailed by three score of missiles that were heading right for them, “incoming!”

Not that he thought the warning was truly necessary. Valkyrie was hardly blind. He just needed to yell something to help him cope with the stress.

The earth pony heaved his galloping ‘Steed hard to the left at the last moment. Metal screamed as myomer muscles threatened to snap the alloyed ‘bones’ of his Wild Bronco in half. A wall of warheads fell down around him like a sledgehammer pounding at a tac, saturating the immediate area. The ‘Steed shuddered as armor plates were shattered by over a dozen separate detonations. Previously green armor integrity indicators along his ‘Steed’s right shoulder, barrel, and flank went amber.

He grit his teeth and snarled at the distant dip between the westward mountains where the LRM Carrier was hiding. Still another eighteen hundred meters away.

His ‘Steed lurched again, unexpectedly. An alert flashed on the integrity indicator of his barrel’s left side. One of the Harassers had moved in close to harry the stalled medium BattleSteed. If its crew thought that was something that they were going to get to do uncontested, then they had another think coming.

Slipshod threw his Wild Bronco into reverse, pushing down hard on the left throttle pedal. The result was a near-perfect leftward pivot of the ‘Steed as he brought the center of his chest in line with the fleeing hovercraft. The golden stallion snap-fired the six-pack SRM nestled there. Earth erupted and trees shattered into splinters. Somewhere in the sudden chaos, one of the missiles struck the vehicle’s skirt. It dipped low on the affected side, caught the ground while going the better part of eighty kilometer an hour, and was promptly sent cartwheeling into a massive old growth oak, which didn’t seem at all impressed with the flimsy construction of the hovercraft that shattered itself upon its trunk.

One down, at least. Though it was likely that the remaining three would learn from the folly of their over-eager compatriot and keep their distance from now on.

His eyes were drawn back to the “MISSILE LOCK!” still blazed across his HUD. Another volley of missiles would be heading his way any second. He needed to get moving again.

The Wild Bronco’s direction of travel was shifted back to “forward” and Slipshod was soon back at a full run. Val’s lighter bipedal ‘Steed was keeping pace with ease. Briefly, the stallion once again weighed the merits of sending her on ahead of him. Again, he dismissed them. They needed to stick together as long as they could.

A second plume rose up from the horizon. A second time missile hammered him. A second time his cockpit became illuminated by warning lights and caution indicators. One of his light lasers was inoperable. His right flank’s armor was already in the red.

They pressed on.

“LRMs,” the stallion grumbled as he weathered the third salvo with his ‘Steed’s left side this time, “if we survive this, I’m having the twins install LRMs on this thing…” If he’d had even a five-pack of LRMs of his own, he could have been returning fire by now, using Valkyrie’s more robust sensor suite to acquire a firing solution for him.

As it was…

His ‘Steed trembled beneath the fifth barrage as it collided with the left side of his barrel. Then, suddenly, his piloting couch dropped out from under him. The earth pony clutched desperately at his controls for stability as he felt himself thrown against his restraints. His ‘Steed was tilted precariously to the left. A flashing light alerted him to the fact that his ‘Steed’s left foreleg was inoperable. One of the missile impacts had managed to sever the power couplings to the myomer musculature.

Slipshod sputtered a slew of curses as he fought to get the Bronco back on its hooves. He was able to bring the left hind leg forward and move the right foreleg to a more centered location, giving the ‘Steed enough support to stand erect at least. However, he wasn’t going to be running any further.

So much for his latest plan.

His lips pulled back in a grim line as he eyed their tactical situation. The Harassers were circling them, like wolves around a wounded elk and her calf. They didn’t even have to move in to deal the killing blow themselves. The distant LRM Carrier would do that with another few barrages. First they’d put him down, and then they’d tear Valkyrie apart.

And, with one lucky missile hit, a course of action that would have meant Val’s death now became their only hope, “Val, take out those LRMs. I’ve got the Harassers,” he could barely move fast enough to track the speedy targets, and there was no way that, even at her ‘Steed’s unfettered top speed, the pegasus was going to be able to cross the remaining distance in time.

However, by the time they’d finished with him, his partner would be too far away for them to catch in time. This way, at least she’d have a chance.

The Harassers could choose to abandon his crippled ‘Steed in favor of the more lightly armored target, yes, but Valkyrie’s Parasprite could move faster through the forests and up the mountains than they could. It’d take all three of them to try to keep her signature on their sensor net. Which would mean leaving him free to continue making his way towards the missile platform. It might take him a while to get there, but Val’s ‘Steed should be able to skirmish with them long enough.

Either way, the LRM Carrier would go down. These mercs just had to decide which ‘Steed kill would be a better feather in their cap. Slipshod knew which way he’d lean in their situation.

“...copy,” there was clear reluctance in the mare’s voice. Thankfully, Valkyrie was too much of a professional to sit around and argue with the commander in the field. She didn’t have to like, or even agree with his orders; the pegasus just had to follow them.

Slipshod watched the blue dot of his comrade begin to move westward, away from him. He allowed a brief smirk to touch his lips before focusing his full attention on the trio of crimson dots that were lazily circling him. He highlighted one of them and looked out through his cockpit window. His HUD layered a red rectangle over the hovercraft's position, though the vehicle itself was blocked from view by several hundred meters of forest. Still, no reason that he couldn’t keep them honest.

The earth pony fired his charged heavy energy cannon. The sapphire column of destructive light sliced through the trees like they were little more than blades of grass. Limbs and trunks smoldered and fell to the ground, creating a cone-shaped clearing in the old growth forest. For a fraction of a second, the golden stallion caught sight of the Harasser’s rear end as it managed to dance just ahead of the beam. Then, just as suddenly, it was swallowed up by the terrain and returned to being little more than his sensor’s vague guess as to its location through the trees.

He noted that the selected blip had increased its range from him slightly.

The alert blared again.

It was getting difficult to show the LRMs a facing that still had most of its armor plating. There was no part of his ‘Steed that was undamaged. If he survived this, the twins were going to rake him over the coals for the state of his Wild Bronco.

Slipshod threw a foreleg between his helmet and the panelling to his right as the console sputtered and sparked. His HUD delivered some rather grim news on the state of his heavy laser: it was no longer operational. One of the weapon’s capacitors being ruptured by a missile strike would certainly have explained the surge in power that had to be the cause of the panel in his cockpit shorting out.

Well, that certainly wasn’t good. Now he was down to just his SRMs and a single light laser. A fact that even the meager detectors of the circling Harassers were bound to pick up on soon.

The stallion eyed his tactical display grimly. His ‘Steed wasn’t long for this world no matter what he did now. The least he could do was buy Valkyrie as much time as possible. Slipshod threw his ‘Steed into reverse and began to open up the distance between him and the LRM Carrier. The hovercraft could either stick with him, pulling them further away from the Parasprite heading for their vulnerable missile launcher, or let him get to the safety of the mining camp’s defense envelope.

The raiders would have to choose quickly though. Even at a limp, the earth pony was only a minute or so from the mining facility.

The Harassers decided to take a third option, it seemed, much to Slipshod’s annoyance. The blips darted inwards towards him. Apparently they had decided that, if they finished him off quickly enough, they’d have sufficient time to catch up with Valkyrie and take her down too. The stallion doubted that very much, but his opinions weren’t something that the crews of those hovercraft were keen to take into consideration at the moment.

He was thrown against the straps of his piloting couch as a dozen short-ranged, but hard-hitting, rockets slammed into his ‘Steed’s left flank. Readouts in his cockpit dutifully reported that the last of his ablative armor in that region had been obliterated. Nothing had ceased to function in that limb, yet, but another solid strike was likely to shear it off completely. The stallion strained as he tried to turn his limping Wild Bronco, firing off the light laser. It was more of a display of indignation than anything. They were far outside even the ineffective range of the weapon. He might as well have been tagging them with a laser pointer for all the good it did.

Another sextet of SRMs belched from his ‘Steed’s chest, carving a divot into the highway and diverting one of the hovercraft, but little else that would save him. His harness kept him rooted at his controls as his barrel’s right side was raked now. He’d only started to turn that direction when he caught a flicker of movement through the viewport of his cockpit. His eyes widened in recognition even as his hooves pulled hard on the control yokes.

Something gave way this time. Slipshod was thrown from his seat, his helmet indenting a panel on the left side of his cockpit as the straps meant to keep him secured lost an anchor point or two. He was weightless for half a second, and then the floor jumped up and smacked him in the chin. He could taste blood in his mouth―likely related to the sharp pain in his tongue―and the acrid smell filling his nostrils told him something was burning. The latter was all the more concerning since his helmet was supposed to be sealed.

His eyes opened finally, though they teared almost instantly from the blue-hued smoke that was wisping from several dark consoles. That certainly wasn’t ideal. Nor was the fact that all he could see through the cockpit’s viewport was dirt and debris. His ‘Steed was down. Even if he could get it to stand back up, he’d only be on his hooves for another second before a few dozen missiles breached his reactor and leveled a square kilometer of forest.

The fight was over. For him at least. Hopefully Valkyrie could still give a good accounting of herself.

Slipshod crawled back to his piloting couch and flipped up one of the panels nearby, revealing a yellow and red hashed lever. He hooked his fetlock around it and gave the lever a firm yank.


...That wasn’t good. The stallion reset the lever and pulled it again.



Slipshod hadn’t really expected rapidly pulling on the lever to magically change anything. It had helped to alleviate a little of his frustration though. He toggled his comm, “Val? I’m down. Ejection system’s a no-go. What’s your situation?”


He looked at the display on his suit’s left sleeve and growled. It seemed that more than the seal on his helmet had broken when he’d been thrown. He was trapped and without a way to get word out. Not an ideal situation for a ‘Steed pilot that was still surrounded by the enemy.

Speaking of which...the stallion spied a hovercraft drifting around through the corner of his cockpit as it took its time to line up a shot that would finish him off. The earth pony glanced at the nearby hatch, briefly considering using that to make an escape. He’d never get it open and clear in time though.

His eyes then darted to one of the few working displays. Much to his surprise, the readouts insisted that his remaining small magical energy cannon was charged and operational. It wasn’t going to be enough to pierce even the thin armor of a Harasser, but it would make him feel better about dying, knowing that he’d at least scratched their paint before he went.

The stallion climbed back onto the couch and gripped the yoke. He was forced to eyeball the shot this time. His hoof curled around the trigger and fired the weapon. A ruby beam struck the Harasser, leaving a deep blackened groove just to the side of the craft’s crew cabin. Slipshod grinned in satisfaction despite himself, “ha! I hope you have to spend a whole week buffing that out, fuckers!”

The hovercraft vanished behind a pillar of blue light. Then it exploded.

“Umm…” the earth pony gaped at the location where his would-be killer had just been a moment ago, and which was now a smoldering wreck in the middle of a glassed circle. What was perhaps more surprising than the appearance of the heavy energy strike―which was still pretty damn surprising!―was the fact that it had seemed to come from directly above.

High-pitched whines of several additional blasts of energy weapons being fired could be heard through the cracked cockpit viewport, but these were out of Slipshod’s line of sight. A crescendoing roar of a DropShip’s massive thrusters drew the earth pony’s attention skyward, and to the source of the mysterious beams of destructive energy. He felt himself relax as he caught sight of the Galloway’s familiar blue and silver livery. Her dorsal energy turrets panned from side to side as they searched for any additional threats.

A rope dropped down in front of his cockpit, and quickly began to wriggle and flutter until a unicorn mare wearing combat barding and holding an assault rifle in her telekinesis descended into view. Once at the bottom, she dashed outward and took up a defensive position. More ponies followed down after her, all similarly armed. He heard suited hooves clomping on top of his cockpit. A few seconds later, the seal of the hatch above him popped as the egress port was manually ratcheted open by the Steel Coursers Recovery Team. A stallion popped his head in and looked hastily around before his helmeted gaze locked onto Slipshod.

The new arrival put a hoof to the side of his head, “target alive and located. Alert medical. We’re on our way back up,” he extended the hoof towards Slipshod, “sir, can you walk?”

The golden earth pony grinned up at the crimson pegasus stallion, “I can; but I have always wondered what it’d be like to be carried off by a strapping young stallion…” he folded his fetlocks under his chin and fluttered his eyes at the other pony, “will you please be my hero?”

The other pony rolled his eyes with an annoyed snort and turned his head back over his shoulder to address the others with him, “he’s fine,” he then withdrew from the hatch entirely, “let’s just work on getting the hoists hooked up for Mig…”

Slipshod frowned and blew a raspberry, “you know, Blood Chit,” he called out loudly as he rose back onto his hooves and headed for the now open hatch, “you’re somehow a lot more fun when we’re playing euchre. Which is a sentence that I don’t think anypony has ever said in the history of the Harmony Sphere!” He emerged to find that upwards of a dozen ponies were busily attaching thick cabling to a dozen different load-bearing points on the top of the ‘Steed.

Another dozen ponies surrounded the slumped over Wild Bronco, keeping a vigilant watch for any uninvited guests. He noted that there was a second column of smoke rising up from somewhere in the forest, but he saw no sign of what might have become of the third remaining Harasser. For that matter…

He looked westward, but he couldn’t get a clear view over the trees of what might have become of Val or the LRM Carrier. His assumption was that it had been dealt with, as it would have been far too dangerous to bring the Galloway here with a vehicle like that still lingering around. Sixty LRMs would have done more to the DropShip than scratch the paint.

“Thanks for the rescue, by the way,” Slipshod said to the crimson pegasus stallion who was overseeing the recovery effort.

“Thank Valkyrie,” the armored pony responded, “she put in the call that you’d gone down, and plotted an approach to put us right on top of you,” he paused as a thought seemed to occur to him, “she also had a message for you,” the pegasus raised a curious brow, “something about: ‘it’s two months now’. Whatever that means?”

Slipshod blanked for a few seconds. Then burst out laughing.

Chapter 5: Twilight Rising

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“―and then when we factor in the cost of replacing the large laser array...oh, look! We’ve crossed the half million C-bit mark, and we haven’t even touched the bill for ten tons of ablative plating…”

The resigned Slipshod merely lay on the clinic’s patient bed like a deflated equine-shaped balloon. Squelch’s persistent brow-beating notwithstanding, the earth pony ‘Steed pilot was receiving a very poignant education on the pathology of ‘whiplash’. He was forced to admit that he’d never before suffered from the condition, and had only really seen it portrayed on entertainment dramas.

Those portrayals had led him to the―apparently erroneous―conclusion that the condition was a largely fictional one that was concocted by ambulance-chasing lawyers for the purposes of obtaining more House Bits during a lawsuit. After all, the characters who were claiming to be suffering from the condition would always appear to be perfectly fine and mobile in the scenes immediately following the purported catastrophic accident, only to show up in court in a wheelchair and moaning like the living dead.

Now he realized that the portrayal had been surprisingly accurate. Slipshod had had little issue climbing out of his crippled and fallen ‘Steed not six hours ago. He’d not hesitated at being winched up the belay lines lowered from the hovering DropShip and had merrilly trotted to his quarters for a change into a fresh uniform while the ship’s crew worked to salvage the Wild Bronco.

The pain hadn’t kicked in until about four hours later, when the earth pony discovered that so much as twitching a hoof elicited a groan and a desire to not move that part of his body ever again. He’d very carefully―and very slowly―limped to the Med Bay and informed Doc Dee of his impending death. However, in lieu of last rites, the ivory unicorn had instead administered some pain killers and an order for two weeks of bed rest.

Slipshod had hardly been devastated by the physician’s order. Not that he did a whole lot on the ship when he wasn’t at the controls of his ‘Steed―which was going to be out for at least a month anyway―but now he could claim that it was “doctor’s orders” and not just his general reluctance to exert himself beyond the bounds of his employment contract. He was paid to pilot ‘Steeds, nothing else. If anypony on the ship expected him to perform other duties, then they first needed to approach Squelch so that she could renegotiate his contract...and his pay.

However, it seemed that his “bed rest” order didn’t stop his boss from descending upon him to give him a verbal lashing thorough enough that it left his pride hurting as much as the rest of his body, “Mig’s going to be rewiring consoles for the next two days, and has informed me that we are now officially out of myomer sinew. Restocking that adds in another two hundred thou…” the unicorn glared down at her bedridden pilot, “I don’t suppose you want to take a guess at what our profit off this contract is going to be...before I factor in all those fun little ‘luxuries’ like, oh, I don’t know, everypony’s pay!”

The emerald mare took a deep breath and let it out slowly through her nostrils, “I swear the only favor you did me was not dying...so that I don’t have to pay out your death benefits to your next of kin,” a thought struck the mare and she glared breifly at the stallion before tabbing over to another screen on her tablet, “which, I just remembered, had better not still be m―” she jerked, scowling at the screen. With a growl, she slammed the pad down on the mattress beside Slipshod and stormed for the door.

“Update that! I don’t care who you put down, but it’d better be changed before I come back for it!”

The earth pony winced as the Med Bay door slid shut. He let out a defeated sigh and reached out for the tablet. Displayed upon it was his company personnel file, which contained all sorts of fun little tidbits of information like his employment history, job performance reports―which he made a note to review while he had the opportunity―and...his beneficiary information.

For which Squelch was still listed as the primary recipient of all his assets in the event that he was killed in action.

In the stallion’s defense, this form was usually updated only once a year, and it hadn’t―quite―been a full year since the two of them divorced. Not that there was exactly a long list of other ponies that he could think of to put in her place. The rest of his family members were already dead. As far as he was concerned, there really wasn’t anypony else in the Sphere he could replace Squelch with, despite their...problematic past together.

Still, he knew that she had been serious about wanting it changed. No reason to antagonize her any further than the damage he’d allowed to happen to his ‘Steed already had.

He knew that she was being a little over dramatic on that front. Yes, the repair bill for the materials was going to be pretty high, but he’d been there for the contract negotiation. He knew what they were being paid for this job. They certainly weren’t going to be seeing quite as much of a windfall as they would have if his Bronco hadn’t been thrashed like it was, but they were going to fly away from this system with more money in their account than when they’d arrived with, and that was better than a lot of merc companies could say, even three years into their operations.

At worst, properly arming the Rainbow Dash was going to need to wait another contract or two.

Slipshod finished altering the information on his record and pushed the pad aside. He’d look over Squelch’s official opinions of his performance as a pilot later.

“Hmm,” a stallion said from beside him, “I’m not sure that’s a good idea,” the new arrival remarked. The earth pony glanced up to see Doc Dee looking down at the pad, “I don’t think I’d trust a wingpony to cover my flank if they knew there was a payday waiting for them if I bought it out there,” the unicorn physician floated out a bottle of pills towards him, “but, it’s your flank on the line, so…” he shrugged, “take two of these three times a day, with meals. Come back here and see me if the pain gets worse.”

Slipshod took the bottle and looked over the contents, “thanks, Doc,” he then looked back at the pad, which now listed Valkyrie as his beneficiary, “I could put your name down if you want. Or will that be too tempting the next time I get wheeled in here?”

“Heh,” the unicorn chuckled, tapping his chin with his pen, “I have been wanting to purchase a second yacht…”

The earth pony stallion smirked, then his eyes drifted to the only other pony in the room besides the pair of them, “so how’s our marathon napper doing these days?”

“Still hasn’t so much as twitched,” the unicorn responded, his tone shifting from amusement to something more professional and concerned as he stepped closer to his other patient, “her injuries are all treated, save for what appears to be a lingering case of mana burn.”


“It’s not true mana burn,” the medical pony replied simply, “but it is quite similar in its presentation. I suspect that it’s a result of another unicorn looping her ley lines into the stasis chamber’s spell matrix. Whoever did it did a good job, obviously―she survived―but ‘good’ doesn’t mean ‘perfect’. My guess is that it’s left her in something of a comatose state.”

“How much longer before she wakes up?”

The pony shrugged, “anywhere between the next five minutes or the next fifty years,” Doc Dee thought for a moment, “or maybe the next five hundred years in her case,” he amended, “if she really is an alicorn.”

The earth pony’s ears perked, “you think she might be a real alicorn?”

“I have performed every test and scan that I can,” the unicorn said, “and I have discovered no signs that those wings of hers were grafted on. And I specify the wings because I ran a sequence on her DNA, and it came back ‘unicorn’. Very pure unicorn, too. Her parents, grandparents, and most of her great grandparents were all unicorns, it looks like,” Doc Dee flashed a wry smirk in the prone pilot’s direction, “if that kind of insular heritage doesn’t scream ‘nobility’, I don’t know what does…”

“Would an alicorn have unicorn DNA?” The earth pony asked.

The white stallion shrugged, “no idea. But, like I said, the wings aren’t fake, as far as any test I know about can tell.”

“...So who do you think she is?”

Before the physician could render his answer, the door to the Med Bay slid open, and a pale yellow earth pony mare with pink eyes and a cyan mane came trotting in, a look of concern on her face, “hey, Slip, sorry I wasn’t by sooner. I just got off my shift,” her eyes scanned over the stallion laying on the examination bed before her head turned to the ship’s doctor, “is he going to be okay?”

Slipshod spoke up before the medical pony could, “hey, High Gain. I’m fine,” he assured her, grinning up at the mare and folding his legs in front of him. He did his best to suppress the wince of pain the movement caused him, “...just a little whiplash.”

“Ooh...sorry to hear that,” the mare cringed sympathetically, “my mother had that after her car accident. She could barely put her saddlebags on for a week!” she flashed the stallion a wan smile, “so...I take it that tonight’s not happening then?”

The earth pony shook his head, smiling, “‘fraid not. Even without the whiplash, I bit my tongue pretty good,” he opened his mouth and stuck out the indicated muscle, giving her a clear view of the glistening red marks that his teeth had made when he’d been thrown from his harness in the battle, “hee?” he withdrew his tongue and offered the sunflower mare an apologetic shrug, “I wouldn’t be much use. Sorry, but it looks like you’ll be a solo act tonight,” he thought for a moment and grinned, “unless you can convince Channel Lock to join in!”

“Pfft,” High Gain waved her hoof, dismissively, “only when she’s drunk; and you’re the only pony on this ship that can mix a Salty Diamond Dog that she’ll actually drink! She won’t touch the ones Cookie makes and she curls her nose up completely at anything else! Seriously,” she mumbled under her breath, “what kind of pony only drinks gin?!”

Slipshod laughed, “that’s because Cookie refuses to deviate from the published recipe he has, and I add a ‘special ingredient’ to my grapefruit mix,” he winked at the other earth pony.

Please tell me what it is so I can make them for her,” she pleaded.

“And render myself obsolete?!” the stallion protested in mock indignation, “why would you ever need me to come by again if I gave you the secret to putting Channel Lock ‘in the mood’ whenever you wanted?”

The yellow mare smirked at the prone stallion and poked him playfully in the nose, “I’d never do that to you, silly! You know that sometimes I need a stallion, and you’re the only one I know on this ship that fits the bill,” she chided him, grinning broadly at the pony, “you’re the only one who puts in the effort!” she beamed.

The ‘Steed pilot laughed again, “ha! How can I not, the way you hit those high notes!” but he continued to shake his head, “but my answer on the secret ingredient is still a hard ‘no’, High-Gee,” the mare pouted, but there was still a playful glint in her eyes, and he knew that she wasn’t genuinely disappointed in his response. Well...maybe just a little, below the surface, “honestly I’m just terrified of giving you that kind of power over your bunkmate. The things you’d have her doing with you…” he made an effort to shake his head in a somber fashion, but a smirk snuck through his feigned seriousness.

“Eh, you’re probably right,” the mare acknowledged with a shrug, “but you can’t blame a mare for trying,” she glanced over at the physician, who had been very pointedly reviewing some patient files in a part of the Med Bay that didn’t give him a vantage point from which he could overhear their conversation. No, not at all. Not that either had been speaking in a particularly discreet tone anyway, “how long’s he going to be out for, Doc?”

The medical stallion opened his mouth to speak, hesitated, looked over at Slipshod, as though waiting for something, and then turned back to the mare to answer her question.


“I’ll be by next week,” the earth pony pilot answered her, “I might still be a little achy, but my tongue should be perfectly fine by then. I won’t be busting out the moves like I usually do,” he warned her, smirking, “but I’m sure you won’t be disappointed,” he waggled his eyebrows at her.

“Oh, gag me!”

Both earth ponies turned their heads towards the open Med Bay door to see an azure pegasus fluttering in. Doc Dee frowned, looking around his clinic which was the most crowded that it’d been in months, “if I’d known that I was hosting an ‘open house’ today, I’d have laid out cheese and crackers…”

“Don’t mind me, Doc,” Valkyrie waved her hoof at the white unicorn as she touched down beside the other mare, “I won’t be long. I just heard that Slip was here and wanted to see if I should call dibs on any of his things,” she eyed the prone stallion briefly, frowning, “he doesn’t look like he’s dying.

“Damn. Guess I won’t be piloting the Bronco on our next op after all, huh?”

“Thank you for your concern, Val,” Slipshod replied with a sardonic smile. His hooves very slowly and subtly reached out and darkened the screen on the pad displaying his updated beneficiary information, “it means a lot to me. Really,” he looked back at High Gain, who was frowning slightly in the direction of the other ‘Steed pilot, “I’ll be by next week. Promise.”

The yellow earth pony tech sighed and wrapped her hooves around him in a brief hug. He tensed up immediately, but only the tiniest whimper escaped his lips, “feel better soon,” she gave him an extra squeeze before letting him go that had the stallion wondering if he’d actually managed to make her angry in some way and she’d been out to punish him. Though, knowing the earth pony tech like he did, she probably needed the hug more than she believed he did. So be it.

Slipshod waved after the departing mare before returning his attention to the scowling pegasus. Now he frowned too, “what?”

The mare shook her head, “nothing,” she sighed. The pegasus ‘Steed pilot took a deep breath and looked over at the doctor, “he’s good, right?”

Doc Dee cast his gaze to the prone earth pony, not saying a word. Slipshod met his stare stoically. The two held their locked gaze in silence. The golden earth pony began to shift uncomfortably, his eyes wandering away beneath the withering glare of the physician. Finally, after what felt like nearly a minute, prompting Valkyrie to glance in confusion between the pair of stallions, the unicorn pursed his lips.

“I’m good―”

“Luna’s black ass!”

Both ‘Steed pilots whipped their heads around to stare after the DropShip’s doctor, who was storming away from them towards his office. Somehow, despite the fact that the door was attached to servos which were most assuredly moving at the exact same speed as they did for every single automated door on the ship, this time it felt like the door closed ‘harder’ behind him.

“―just some...whiplash…” he looked back at Valkyrie, “what was that about?”

“Beats me, but I bet it was your fault,” the blue flier remarked. She rolled her eyes and looked back at her companion pilot. Her expression was―a little―softer than it had been a moment ago, “you’re really fine though, right?”

“Yeah, yeah, I’m good, Val. Just got rattled around the cockpit a little. How about you?”

The mare snorted, shaking her head, “unbelievable,” the stallion quirked his brow, “you almost die, I don’t get a scratch because you took the beating for me, and you ask how I’m doing? You’re an ass.”

“I...apologise?” the stallion said, not even trying to hide his thorough confusion. Was she genuinely angry at him because she didn’t get hurt? “Next time you can get shot to shit...in your paper mache ‘Steed…

“What exactly am I supposed to say here? What am I supposed to have done wrong? Live?”

“Well, for starters,” the mare sneered, “you’re not supposed to ask how I’m doing, when you’re the one laid up in Med Bay!”

“I’m not ‘laid up’,” he protested, “I’m just here for some pain pills for my whiplash,” he held up the bottle and read over the label, “I don’t even think these things are the good stuff...yeah, they’re just straight Ibuprofen,” he frowned, “wait, really? Not even codeine?” he looked back towards the doctor’s office, “that’s harsh, Doc!

“I mean, a Vicodin wouldn’t go amiss here―”

Valkyrie slammed her hoof down, startling the earth pony stallion, “could you be serious for once in your fucking life!” she had his rapt, wide eyed, attention now. The mare jabbed a wingtip in his face, glaring at him, “you do not get to play ‘hero’ and get yourself killed for me; do you understand?! That noble, ‘crystal knight’ bullshit? That doesn’t happen between you and me.

“I am not your fucking damsel to rescue, you shit-stain!”

She was mad. Honestly, it didn’t take some sort of expert in psychology or anything to see that. Everything from the ire in her tone, to the piercing fire in her eyes, to her puffed out plumage broadcast ‘pissed off pegasus mare’ to anypony who would have seen this scene playing out. There was more to it though. There usually was, in Slipshod’s experience. Most ponies were a lot more complicated than they wanted to let on.

Yes, Valkyrie was mad. That much was true. However, he could sense that she was masking the reason for that rage...and its target. She wasn’t angry at him.

She hated herself.

The mare hated herself for following his orders, and leaving him to die. It didn’t matter that it was the right call. It didn’t matter that it had all worked out. For over a minute down on that planet, from the moment she’d throttled her Parasprite away from him and towards the LRM Carrier, she’d been convinced that she’d just left her lance-mate to die, and that she’d never see him again.

Valkyrie was a mercenary. She was supposed to care about the pursuit of the C-bit above all else. Leaving a comrade to die shouldn’t have bothered her. But it did.

And she hated herself for that. It was like a sign that she was failing at becoming the kind of pony that she was supposed to be. Verteran mercs didn’t bond with the other pilots in their outfits. That sort of thing led to stupid, selfless sacrifices. That was a desirable quality in a ‘Steed pilot employed by genuine militaries, sure. Star nation before self and all that. Giving your life for House and ‘The Cause’, whatever it happened to be.

But they weren’t soldiers. They were mercenaries―soldiers of fortune. They risked their lives for C-bits and glory, not each other. They certainly didn’t throw their lives away in selfless acts of heroism.

Valkyrie knew this. He knew this. Then she’d seen their situation, heard his orders, and now...she was feeling remorseful about actually following them. Because what she saw as him making a selfless sacrifice was making her feel like a piece of shit, since she wasn’t sure that she’d ever have given the same order in his situation.

He couldn’t have her thinking that way. He couldn’t have her feeling that way.

“What are you, an idiot?”

The mare balked, her eyes widening in surprise now as the earth pony pilot on the bed frowned at her, issuing the pegasus a disappointed expression, “you think that’s what I was trying to do? Is your head so far up your own flank that you think I’d die for you?” the stallion let out a cackling laugh, “don’t get me wrong, you’re a fine slice of flank I would love to slam up against the headboard for five minutes,” he let his gaze wander along her spine. The other pilot immediately folded her wings to her sides again, obscuring most of her figure as she cast him a wary look.

“But let’s be real here: no flank is worth dying for,” Slipshod pointedly informed her, “least of all yours,” Valkyrie seemed oddly offended by that notion, funnily enough, but the stallion pressed on, “no; I gave that order because that’s what would save the contract,” he stressed.

“A lesson about merc work they only teach you at the good schools: Mission first.

“Hey, I get it,” he acknowledged, “you can’t spend C-bits you don’t live long enough to collect. But there’s a limit to even that. You let enough contracts go tits-up; suddenly you don’t have any contracts at all. No contracts, no C-bits to spend, alive or dead.

“If a mission can’t be salvaged, then you bug out, sure,” Slipshod shrugged, “but if there’s a chance…” he jabbed a hoof at the mare, “then you take it,” his lips broke out in a hungry grin, “you take it, and the C-bits that come with it,” he spread his hooves wide, “and the booze, mares, and good times, that come with the C-bits.

That’s why I gave you the order to press on,” his serious expression was back again as he regarded the pegasus mare, “because that was the only way to salvage the mission and get paid. If you moved your flank fast enough, there was even a good chance I’d survive to collect too!” his grin returned once more, “and I was right. Good on you for that hustle. Really appreciate it.

“But, if you need a little noble fantasy in your life,” he folded his hooves under his chin and flashed a broad smile at the mare, “then I think, that in this case...you’d be the ‘crystal knight’, and I’m the ‘damsel’ that got rescued. So how about you come a little closer and let me give my big, strong, hero a kiss,” he puckered up his lips expectantly.

The mare balked again, then her face broke out in a wry smirk, “ha! Kiss this!” she smacked her flank with one of her wings.

“Oh my, don’t mind if I do!” the stallion perked up, leaning a little further forward, “but you’ll have to back it up here for me first. My preemptive apologies if this doesn’t feel as good as it could’ve. Like I was telling High Gain: my tongue’s a little on the fritz,” he opened his mouth and waggled the injured muscle.

Valkyrie’s mouth worked in silent consternation for several seconds before she slammed it closed and took a deep breath, nodding her head in acknowledgement, “okay...that one was my fault.

“Whatever. I’m out. Drop dead for all I care,” the winged pilot said as she turned around and headed for the door, “save your tongue fuckings for High Gain or whoever,” one of her wings flipped up, all but one of her pinions curled inward.

“We don’t―” the door closed shut. The stallion sighed, finishing lamely, “―do that stuff…”

Ah well, at least he’d brought the ‘Steed pilot back around out her self-loathing despair. One less dark cloud that he was going to have to deal with on the ship. Squelch’s still existed though, and would continue to.

Unfortunately, there wasn’t much that he could do on that front. Not yet.

Slipshod’s eyes shot open.

At first, it was difficult for him to pinpoint exactly why this would have been the case. He was usually a pretty sound sleeper. Had he heard something? His ear swiveled slowly, but he wasn’t able to hear anything more than the normal humming operations of the ship as it cruised leisurely in its orbit above the planet that Ferrous had sent them to guard. It wasn’t a sound that had woken him.

It was...something else.

Odd, as usually that didn’t wake him up either...

The earth pony crept slowly out of his bed, mindful of the aches in his back that the painkillers Doc Dee had prescribed only did a minimal amount to ease. Mostly they just took off the worst of the pain’s edges. Honestly, it was no great comfort. Fortunately, he also had the physician’s bed rest order to help keep him comfortable.

Valkyrie wasn’t super appreciative, he imagined. His being confined to the ship meant that she was saddled with the sole burden of continuing their protection contract. The bright side there was that Mig and Tig had managed to get the Rainbow Dash operational enough to move around on its own, and outfitted it with a few spare weapons from their reserve. The large laser, two medium lasers, and six-pack SRM launcher meant that the heavy ‘Steed was more powerfully armed than either of the other two could be. Though it was still woefully lacking in the bite it would have, once a proper weapons compliment was purchased.

It did mean that his Wild Bronco was going to be unable to be rearmed until they made port on a more developed world than this backwater mining colony.

Still, even the sight of a heavy ‘Steed should give any mercenary outfit that was only fielding vehicles pause and make them reconsider a raid. With luck, all that Valkyrie would have to do all day was sit there, look intimidating, and twiddle her pinions!

The stallion moved stiffly down the corridor of the quiet DropShip. Technically, the ship never really ‘slept’. There was a shift on duty and awake at any given time. However, the reality was that the third shift was much more lightly staffed than either of the others, simply because the Steel Coursers didn’t have the ‘Steed pilots to run twenty-four hours ops. With just him and Val, the most they’d ever pull is a twelve or maybe a sixteen hour day. Though the latter was really pushing things.

Tired pilots often became dead pilots when the shit started to fly.

So most of the Galloway’s crew was scheduled for duty when the ‘Steeds would need work, since that was the primary purpose of the DropShip: maintaining the ‘Steeds. It was currently night time where Valkyrie was planet-side, so she was sleeping in the quarters that Ferrous had set aside for her. Which meant that the support crews on Galloway were asleep too.

The only ponies awake were the skeleton crew that kept an eye on the DropShip’s systems and the comm pony keeping their ear to the radio in case somepony called. Other than that...the ship was dead.


Slipshod kept up his stilted walk down the spine of the ship, letting his senses draw him to wherever the...sensation was.

He came to a stop outside Med Bay.

Cautiously, the earth pony reached up and depressed the panel that would open the door. Like most of the rest of the ship, the medical ward was dark, save for a few dim lights that were always on, illuminating key controls, like the light switches. Slipshod reached out for one such switch nearest the door.

The lights slowly brightened until the room was awash in a soft white glow. The stallion’s eyes went instinctively to the bed that had been consistently inhabited by the mare that they’d rescued from the derelict in the Canis system...only to find it empty!

He didn’t have to go far to find its former occupant though. A crashing sound from off to his right drew the ‘Steed pilot’s attention instantly. In the back of his mind, Slipshod knew that he shouldn’t have been entirely surprised by what he saw, but it was still a rather...unique sight.

A purple alicorn, with a long deep blue mane streaked with violet and magenta, was currently standing amongst a tray of fallen medical implements. Her amethyst eyes, a near perfect match for her coat, constricted into near pinpricks as her head snapped to look over at him. Her stance widened and her horn began to glow with purple light.

“Woah woah! Friend! I’m a friend!” the stallion sputtered hastily. He wasn’t sure what spell the alicorn was about to blast him with, but he was confident that he wouldn’t have enjoyed the results regardless, “you’re okay; you’re safe! Nopony here’s going to hurt you! Just put down the...spell…?” the earth pony finished lamely, not quite knowing how to properly phrase the request that he was making.

“Who are you?” the mare demanded in a voice that sounded equal parts angry and tired. Honestly, to Slipshod it looked like she barely had the energy to stand up straight. He wondered how potent any spell she might cast could actually be. Not that he was all that keen to find out, mind you, “where am I? What is this place?”

“My name’s Slipshod,” the stallion replied as calmly as he could, remaining in the doorway so as not to make the newly conscious mare any more anxious by being approached by a strange earth pony, “you’re aboard the DropShip Galloway; and this is...the Med Bay...of the DropShip Galloway,” the stallion frowned, “I’m sorry, you’re last two questions were really similar….

“You should probably really not be out of bed,” he went on, clearing his throat and gesturing towards the patient bed that she’d vacated, “I don’t think the doc wants you up and about quite yet. You were in a bad way when we found you―”

“What unit are you with?” the purple alicorn demanded in her wavering, yet firm tone.

“Um...the Steel Coursers,” Slipshod said.

The mare furrowed her brow, shaking her head, “I don’t recognize that unit. What regiment? Who’s your commander?”

“We don’t...have a regiment?” at least, he was pretty sure they didn’t, “and Squelch is our commander.”

“‘Squelch’?” she replied skeptically, “what rank is he? Under whose command? What General?”

“Uhh...her ‘rank’ is ‘commander’, I guess? I mean, she’s more of an administrator really,” Slipshod shrugged, wishing he’d had a little more time to prepare for this encounter. Truth be told, he wasn’t as awake for this as he probably should be. He really wished that Squelch or the doctor were here right now, but he was reluctant to start crowding this mare with more ponies until she was a little calmer, “and we don’t have...a general. We’re sort of...freelance?”

“Freelance?” the notion seemed to confuse the mare.

“Listen,” the earth pony began, deciding that he needed to take charge of the conversation and direct things. Hopefully he’d even manage to answer some of her questions along the way. Celestia knew he wasn’t doing so great at it now, “we found your DropShip in the Canis system. It was in a bad way, and so were you,” he slowly gestured at the Med Bay, “we brought you on board and patched you up.”

The mare looked down at herself, seeming to take note for the first time of her condition, “...right. We were attacked…” she closed her eyes, her hoof massaging her temple as she winced in pain, “we were...going to a meeting…

“Canis?” her questioning gaze returned to the stallion.

Right. Five hundred years. That system might not even have had the same name back then, “uh, in the Sirius Cluster?”

He saw recognition wash over the mare’s face, “yes! The Sirius Cluster,” she nodded, seeming very grateful to finally have a firm answer to a question that satisfied her, “we were on our way to meet with the Lunar Empire…”

It was Slipshod’s turn to look confused, “the who?”

However, it seemed that she wasn’t paying attention to him anymore, “...I was going to tell them about Cozy Glow...Get them to come back to The League…” her expression was drawn in grim lines as she murmured her recounting of events as best she could remember them. Her eyes closed, her head shaking in slow, sad, movements, “Tirek destroyed so much...they were afraid. It wasn’t their fault…”

Her eyes snapped open and she locked her gaze on Slipshod, “we were attacked!”

“Yeah, we kind of figured that much,” he offered, “your ship crash-landed on a moon back in Canis. It’s a miracle you survived, honestly.”

The alicorn frowned once more, “ship? I made it back to the ship?” she looked away, her eyes moving as she scoured her own memory, “...I don’t recall. I remember...going to the meeting. No…” she cocked her head, “...that’s not right. I was going to the meeting...but we never made it. We were ambushed…” her eyes slowly grew wide. Haunted. It was an expression that Slipshod recognized. He’d seen many a veteran in the bars he went to while planetside with those eyes.

She whipped her head back towards the earth pony, “did anypony else make it?” she didn’t wait for his response as she quickly peered around the otherwise empty medical ward in an attempt to find any trace of her companions.

The stallion swallowed, not relishing being the one to supply the response that she was dreading...yet that she fully expected, “no. Everypony else on the ship was dead.

“I’m sorry.”

Her eyes closed and she bowed her down. There was a brief shudder from a contained sob. Then, shortly after, a sharp inhalation of breath and her head raised back up. Her expression was set in stoic lines, but the stallion knew that they were merely a mask she was wearing for the moment, “I understand,” she replied in a husky tone, “I need to speak with your...commander. Immediately.

“I need to get back to Canterlot. Cozy Glow can wait. Chrysalis is making her play.”

Slipshod stood still in the doorway, “um...I don’t think―”

The purple mare’s expression hardened even further as she cast a baleful glare the stallion’s way, “we don’t have time for you to think! If we don’t rally every regiment of the Royal Guard now, everything could be lost!” and with that, the alicorn made an attempt to storm past him, out of the Med Bay.

Her ‘attempt’ was rather paltry. She stumbled and collapsed after only two steps.

“Shit,” the earth pony sighed before slapping at a nearby control panel, “Dee? Your patient’s awake, and she’s determined to hurt herself all over again. You better get down here ASAP,” he released the comm button and hurried over to support the struggling purple mare.

“Listen, you’ve still got a lot of recovering to do before you’re ‘rallying’ anypony, alright?” the stallion cautioned as he made an effort to get her back onto her hooves. Her legs were barely willing to support her weight, it seemed.

The mare at least allowed herself to be aided back to the bed, albeit with some reluctance, “we have to get back to Canterlot as quickly as possible,” she insisted even as she meekly climbed back onto the bed and all but collapsed upon the mattress, clearly exhausted, “there’s no telling what kind of damage Chrysalis has already managed to do. The whole Celestia League could be at risk!”

“I’m...fairly sure it isn’t,” Slipshod offered meekly. This pony was the better part of five centuries out of date on the stellar-political starscape. He was pretty sure that it was going to be impossible to not shock her with at least one or two of the inevitable revelations that she was going to be encountering soon, but the earth pony was hoping that the shock could at least be minimized in some way by breaking the news to her in the right way, in the correct order.

He just had little idea of what it was that she’d need to hear first in order to lay the foundation for future revelations.

The purple alicorn was shaking her head, “you don’t know how dangerous she is,” she insisted breathlessly, “she’s come so close to victory so many times...if we let our guard down for even a moment―”

The door slid open, and a disheveled white unicorn stallion came galloping inside. His horn burst to life, floating several diagnostic implements to him from various cupboards around the clinic, “what happened?” he demanded in a tone that wasn’t―quite―bordering on accusing Slipshod of being responsible for this somehow.

“I...was on my way to the galley for a snack,” the stallion stammered, “I heard a crashing sound and found her over there,” he gestured to where the mare had spilled the tray earlier, “I called you and got her back into the bed.

“I guess patients have always been difficult to deal with,” the physician grumbled as he began evaluating his now conscious patient. Slipshod, for his part, took the opportunity to back away and give the medical pony the room that he needed to do his work.

The listless mare continued to insist that they needed to get to Canterlot on Equus as quickly as possible. Doc Dee was responding with a slew of noncommittal statements as he continued to make certain that his patient had not managed to undo any of his previous treatments somehow. A few minutes later, he was confident that her condition wasn’t likely to worsen any time soon and so took the time to more directly address the mare’s concerns.

“Miss, if you’re feeling up to it, I’d like to ask you some questions,” the medical pony began, “it’ll help me build a medical history for you, and perhaps speed your full recovery. Will that be alright?”

The alicorn initially looked like she was going to refuse his request, but she hesitated and then sighed, “I...suppose that’s reasonable,” she relented. Her lips cracked a small smile, “my Court Physician is the same way. If you’re anything like her, you’re likely as not to sedate me unless I acquiesce, aren’t you? Very well, Doctor, ask you questions.”

Dee exchanged a brief look with Slipshod at the mention of a “Court Physician” but then shrugged and returned his attention to the prone mare and retrieved a tablet to take notes on, “okay. First: your name, miss?”

The mare chuckled, “really? Very well. My name is Twilight Sparkle,” she rolled her eyes, “I suppose that next you’ll want to know my profession?”

Again, the stallions exchange a brief look. The white unicorn affixed a professionally detached expression to his face and proceeded to begin entering the responses that he was being given, “I see. Um...sure. Your profession would be appreciated.”

“Princess,” the mare supplied patiently.

“Of course. Age?”

“One Thousand and twenty-nine.”

Somehow, the doctor managed to maintain a completely straight face as he dutifully made the notation, “many patients have a habit of lowballing me when I ask them that,” he peered down at the alicorn, “shall I assume that’s not the case this time?”

The mare shifted uncomfortably for a moment before muttering under her breath, “...one thousand and forty-seven.”

“There we go. I weighed you while you were unconscious, so we don’t have to go through that fact-finding expedition,” he murmured, earning an affronted frown from the mare before continuing, “any family medical history that I should be aware of?”

“My mother died of pancreatic cancer,” she replied, “my father technically died of heart failure, but at ninety-eight years old, I’m not sure that’s really a sign of any sort of ‘underlying medical condition’.”

“Fair enough,” the doctor nodded in agreement, “are you taking any medications or have any allergies?”

“No, and no.”

Doc Dee made the last little notations and lowered the pad, “well, that’s enough for me to at least finally get you in the system as something other than ‘Unknown Mare’,” he smiled down at the purple alicorn, “now: how are you feeling? Any pain? Discomfort? Nausea? Headache? Anything?”

“A slight headache,” the mare admitted, nodding her head, “it’s hard to walk, and I do feel pretty tired.”

The unicorn stallion nodded, “the headache is likely still the residual mana burn. The last two are classic post-stasis side-effects and usually abate after a few hours. I’ll have the galley send up a fruit bowl. Simple sugars and water will help get your metabolism back into gear.. Honestly, it’ll do your body a world of good to get nutrients through some means other than IV tubing,” he stepped away and headed for his office to place the meal request with the ship’s kitchen.

“Mana burn? Stasis?”

With the doctor otherwise occupied, Slipshod decided to answer her questions, “you were in stasis when we found you on your ship. You were in a bad way. The doc says they used your own magic to keep the stasis spell running somehow,” he’d have offered more details, but the stallion was still a little hazy on the specifics of how it had all worked.

She seemed to understand what must have happened though, as her eyes widened with comprehension, “oh! That was rather creative,” she said, nodding. Then her expression fell as she must have remembered that those same ‘creative’ ponies had all died. She sighed and looked back at the earth pony, “please. We need to get to Equus as soon as possible―”

“On the contrary,” another mare announced. Slipshod and the prone alicorn both looked towards the Med Bay door to see a green unicorn stepping through. It seemed that Squelch had received notification that their guest was awake now as well, “this ship ‘needs’ to stay in orbit until we’ve fulfilled the terms of our security contract,” she countered, “unless you’re carrying enough C-bits in that mane of yours to cover the penalty for defaulting…?”

Twilight frowned at the newcomer, casting her an incredulous glare, “I beg your pardon? Who do you think you are―?”

“I ‘think’ I’m the mare who owns this outfit and this ship,” Squelch shot back with an equally imperious stare at the purple alicorn, “thus, I think that I have unilateral control over where it goes and when.

“Who do you think you are?” the viridian unicorn countered.

The other mare’s wings arched in clear annoyance, “how dare you! I am your Princess and I will not be subjected to that kind of tone from you or any other pony, young lady! Now, as your Princess, I order you to take me to Equus immediately!”

“Princess, huh?” the outfit’s commander didn’t appear to be the least bit impressed by their patient’s claims, and with good reason, “look, I bet that carries a lot of weight in the Federated Moons, but you’re way outside their borders right now, ‘Your Highness’,” the unicorn executed a mocking bow that was not well received by the alicorn, “but I’ll be sure to have House Belle contacted as soon as I can,” she looked to Slipshod and shrugged, “maybe there’s a reward for long long ancestors?”

“I have absolutely no idea what you’re talking about,” the purple mare sputtered indignantly, “or what the ‘Federated Moons’ are. How can you not recognize me?! I’m Princess Twilight Sparkle of the Celestia League!”

The silence in the Med Bay was deafening. It also lasted long enough that the purple alicorn’s initially imperious expression started to wilt ever so slightly. Likely because Squelch continued to look just as unimpressed as she had a minute ago, and because Slipshod was idly rubbing the back of his neck while wearing an uneasy expression.

Squelch smirked, “that’s quite the demotion you’ve given yourself there, Queen Twilight,” the unicorn chided.

“Queen? I’ve never called myself a―” Twilight’s expression contorted with confusion. Then Slipshod watched it quickly morph into a look of abject terror. She all but lunged off the exam bed. The earth pony stallion managed to catch her before she fell again, but only barely, “it’s her! It’s Chrysalis! She’s not the real me!” the mare was screaming at the top of her lungs in a panicked fervor. It was all that Slipshod could do to hold the alicorn back, and his efforts were certainly not doing his already aching body any favors.

“We have to go there and stop her now, before she can do any dama―uhhh~!”

The purple alicorn went limp and collapsed in the stallion’s hooves. Slipshod experienced a brief moment of panic himself, afraid that she’d somehow died, until he spied the floating syringe slowly withdrawing from her neck. It drifted away from the mare, and back towards Doc Dee, who was wearing a very concerned expression of his own, “get her back onto the bed, please,” the physician instructed, using his magic to assist the earth pony in getting the larger equine back upon the cushioned sleeping surface.

“Well...that got exciting,” Squelch remarked as she lent some of her own magic to the task as well, “aren’t the crazy ones always fun?”

“Hmm,” the white unicorn stallion grunted as he proceeded to evaluate his patient for any indications that she’d managed to harm herself in her fervor, “I’ll likely need to keep her sedated for a while,” he looked back towards the outfit’s commander, “if she is delusional, then ultimately caring for her is beyond my scope. We’re going to need to get her to a more suitable treatment facility.”

The emerald mare frowned, “Lupine might have a hospital or two worth a damn,” she noted, gesturing broadly at the planet below the vessel, “but the nearest decent facilities are almost certainly back in Canis. Can you look after her here for a month until we finish out the contract?”

The physician was clearly not happy about the prospect, but said, “as long as she doesn’t get too combative. I’d like to suggest posting a guard in here from now on, if only to make sure she doesn’t hurt herself.”

Squelch nodded, “noted. I’ll let Flechette know to have somepony in Med Bay until further notice. Anything else?”

Slipshod ventured, “...so, neither of you think she’s actually Twilight Sparkle?” he winced upon seeing the pair of dubious frowns being shot his way.

“You mean the Twilight Sparkle that’s never left Equus...ever?” his boss remarked wryly, “Do I think she’s that Twilight Sparkle? No. Doc?” she looked over at the other unicorn.

The physician opened his mouth to make a reply, but the earth pony cut him off, “nah, you’re right. It’s stupid,” both he and Squelch paused to look in the direction of the ivory stallion as he stalked towards his office in a huff, “...I’m just tired is all,” he flexed his aching shoulder, “and sore from wrestling a crazy mare. I’m going back to bed.

“Good night, Squelch,” he said as he walked stiffly past the green unicorn and left the clinic. The mare grunted in reply, but remained behind for a while longer.

Well...she was awake. So, Slipshod supposed that accounted for ‘phase one’ of his plan going according to...plan. He really was tired. However, the issue before him now was how to proceed on to ‘phase two’? He wasn’t entirely sure what that phase was yet, exactly; but he was positive that it wasn’t ‘take a JumpShip all the way to Equus’. That was, like, phase seventeen. At the earliest!

Phase two might have to become convincing Twilight that laying low and keeping as far away from Canterlot as possible was the right thing to do. For now. Obviously, there would come a time when her identity would need to be revealed to somepony, but that was going to be a ways off. Perhaps even a long ways off.

It wasn’t enough to just have Twilight Sparkle. They need resources, material, BattleSteeds...and Slipshod had exactly zero idea of where he was supposed to get any of that, in quantities that would matter. Yet. With a little time, he should be able to come up with something.

The more immediate concern: how did he convince Squelch to let the ‘obviously crazy mare’ stay on the ship indefinitely?

He’d sleep on it and come up with something by morning.

Chapter 6: Truth and Shadows

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Slipshod shambled out of his quarters sometime around mid-afternoon the next day. In his defense, he wasn’t usually the sort of stallion who did things like that; but his middle-of-the-night escapades, combined with being woken up frequently by his whiplash, had made sleep...illusive, for the most part. He made a note to ask Doc Dee about getting something a little more potent to help him with that. However, in the interim, he needed coffee! All of it, if the galley was as lightly packed as it should be this time of day.

There were a few ponies present, chatting and snacking on their shift breaks, but the dining area was otherwise rather empty. The earth pony stallion staggered over to the percolators and retrieved one of the full pots that was simmering there. The act earned him a curiously raised eyebrow from a couple ponies who noticed the act, but was otherwise unremarked upon. He shuffled to the nearest table and slowly eased himself onto the bench, gingerly sipping from the carafe he’d taken.

The liquid felt almost immediately revitalizing, and Slipshod sighed contentedly.

A briskly moving form entering the galley like a mare on a mission caught the earth pony’s attention. He glanced up, noticing that she was heading in his direction at a rather fair clip. Slipshod smiled, “hey, Emery! What’s going on? How was your session with Va―”

The unicorn mare’s magic wrenched the coffee pot from the earth pony’s hooves. Before he could process what was going on, she returned it to him. However, it was returned with much greater fervor and gusto than it had been taken with. Which was saying something, honestly, as she’d been none-too-kind about acquiring it in the first place.

The tempered glass shattered as it slammed across the side of his head. The blow was fierce enough to send the stallion toppling off the bench and to the floor. If there was a bright side, it was that the throbbing of his head and stinging of his flesh where it had been splashed with hot coffee supplanted the general aches of the rest of his body. Not that any of that was much of a bright side from the stallion’s point of view.

He blinked up in shocked double-vision surprise as the furious mare glared down at him, “how dare you, you degenerate fuck!”


“Where the fuck do you get off telling other ponies that you and I are sleeping together?!” she screamed in his face, her own expression seeming to be torn between tears and rage. She was upset. Very upset. At him...for some reason? What’d he do?! He hadn’t seen her all week!

“Mwehh~” there seemed to be a disconnect between his brain and his mouth. Likely a result of having a coffee pot shattered across his temple. It was making it quite difficult for him to articulate his innocence. To say nothing of finding out what she was talking about. Who on the ship had he told that he and Emery File were sleeping together? Why would he have told anypony that?

A hoof connected with his gut, forcing the wind from the stallion’s lungs and causing him to reflexively curl up protectively in a ball, “don’t pretend like you don’t know what I’m talking about! Valkyrie told me that you’re always bragging to her about sleeping with half the ponies on this ship!”

Okay, things were starting to make sense now. Not that the stallion was having any luck in explaining himself, as all he could do now was gape like a fish out of water as his diaphragm refused to let him get a full breath of air. All that he managed to do was shake his head furiously as he fought desperately to get out a coherent word. However, between an oncoming concussion, his kick-induced coughing, and the tirade of a scorned mare, that wasn’t going to be happening any time soon.

“I can’t believe you’d do that to me,” she was screaming, “I thought we were friends! You complete piece of shit!”

She reared up to kick him again. Fortunately, it seemed that enough time had managed to pass for the onlookers in the galley to get over their initial shock and come to his rescue. Two ponies got hold of Emery and pulled her away from him while a third pony bent down to make sure that he was alright. Typically, Slipshod was the kind of pony to wave away such assistance, but right now he was honestly quite thankful for it. Between his general aches from his recently acquired whiplash, his throbbing head, and his inability to breathe normally, the earth pony was barely able to do anything more than groan at the moment.

Emery File wouldn’t have actually killed him―maybe―or even likely done truly serious long-term damage, but she’d certainly done a number on him already. Probably delayed his recovery by another week, honestly.

The other ponies in the dining area were doing their level best to calm the distraught unicorn mare down. He heard the sound of armored hooves clomping into the room as well. The security ponies were probably just as shocked by what was going on as everypony else in the room had been. Fights like this―if his being sent to the floor after a single hit could be generously called a ‘fight’―just didn’t happen on the Galloway. They mostly just kept the DropShip secure while they were in port, more than anything.

Slipshod fought for words now as a pair of uniformed ponies closed in around Emery File, ready to take her into custody. At best, she’d be in the ship’s brig for a few days, at worst Squelch would outright terminate the mare’s employment contract right here and now and drop her off on Lupine to make her own way to wherever she wanted to go. The earth pony wasn’t keen to let either of those things happen over something that―he strongly suspected―was Valkyrie’s fault, “no~!” he gasped, shaking his head vigorously, “let her go. Let her go!”

Everypony in the room paused, their attention falling to the injured earth pony. Even Emery looked confused. One of the security mares cast a dubious look at the stallion, “sir?”

“Misunderstanding,” he managed to get out, feeling his breathing finally getting easier, though he was still coughing a good bit. His head was still throbbing, but progress was progress, “just a misunderstanding. We’re good,” the armored ponies exchanged reluctant looks, but they knew that there really wasn’t much more that they could do if the ‘victim’ of the nominal assault was telling them that nothing untoward had taken place.

Slipshod fixed his gaze on Emery now, “Val misheard me,” he insisted in a firm tone, “that’s all. I swear,” he gestured around at the gathered ponies, looking to them, “has anypony here ever heard me talking about Emery like that? Or any other member of the Galloway crew?” he paused for a moment, then hastily added, “except for the twins last year?”

Everypony shook their heads. The golden stallion looked back at the unicorn mare, “see? I’m not telling anypony anything like that. Not even Val. She just…” he sighed, “she has an active imagination is all. I promise I’ll talk to her.”

Emery File’s expression slowly shifted away from one of vitriolic anger to confusion as she glanced around at the other ponies for confirmation. Each insisted that they’d never heard any rumors about Slipshod doing anything intimate with her, or any other ponies on the ship. Now the mare was looking almost panicked, and more than a little ashamed, “oh shit. Oh shit! Slip, I―”

The earth pony was shaking his head, despite the discomfort that it caused, “s’alright. Not your fault,” he smiled up at the mare, “you would have had every right to clock me like that if I actually was telling ponies those things. I hope that these ponies would’ve joined in if that was the case!” he chuckled, nodding to the other galley patrons before his expression softened again, “let’s just...forget this ever happened, okay? No hard feelings. Promise,” the stallion crossed his hoof over his chest and touched it to his brow, beaming warmly at the mare.

Shakily, the unicorn nodded, trying to manage her own smile, though it was clear that she was having some difficulty. Her embarrassment at having apparently overreacted to what turned out to be misinformation was palpable. It was clearly going to take more than a few words to put her completely at ease any time soon. That wasn’t ideal, but Slipshod would have time to sooth those frayed nerves in the coming weeks. As long as the worst of it was past, that was fine in the interim.

Perhaps an act of contrition would help things along, “maybe get me a fresh coffee―and buy Cookie a new pot―and we’ll call it square?” he offered.

The unicorn mare nodded, “eheh...yeah,” she swallowed. She seemed a bit more at ease now, having been given a means by which to tangibly make recompense.

“Good,” the stallion groaned as he finally peeled himself off the floor with the help of the pony who’d come to check on him. Slipshod winced and touched his hoof to the side of his head. Pulling it away revealed that he was bleeding. Not particularly badly, but a few stitches probably wouldn’t go amiss, “in the meantime, I’m going to wash up so I don’t smell like dark roast, and then I’m going to see Doc Dee.

“Thank you, everypony, for your help. You should probably go back to...doing whatever it is you all do on this ship,” he flashed all of the ponies a brief grin and waived away the offered assistance before stiffly trudging towards the exit. His expression soured the instant he caught sight of a wide-eyed blue pegasus mare standing at the edge of the room.

“Val,” he said sternly as he walked by, “a word, please?”

The feathered ‘Steed pilot cast one final look around the room at all of the other ponies who were now regarding her with expressions that bordered on accusatory. After all, it had been her rumor-mongering that had prompted the incident. She flushed and hurried after the golden stallion.

Wow,” she said, attempting to affect a light chuckle, “I didn’t know that mare had it in her to deck a pony like th―”

“Val,” the mare closed her mouth with an audible ‘click’ and went silent, “why did you tell Emery File that I was telling other ponies we were sleeping together? You know she’s married, right? And that she met her husband through Axle Rod, the motor sergeant? Axel and her husband comm all the time. They’re frat buddies that go way back.

“What would have happened to Emery’s marriage if Axel had passed on that rumor of yours to her husband?”

“Leave it to you to sleep with married mares―”

Slipshod wheeled around and glared at the pegasus, “I am not sleeping with married mares!” he screamed at the mare at a volume that very well might have been audible on every level of the ship. At a much lower―though no less intense―tone, he continued, “not that it is any of your business, but there are exactly three ponies that I have ever been with intimately on this ship.

“One is Squelch―obviously―and then there’re the twins―who came on to me the week they came onboard and haven’t so much as lifted their tails in my direction since. Though, even that―while being the next best thing to ‘public knowledge’―is, and I cannot emphasize this enough: none of your Celestia-banished business!” he at least had the marginal satisfaction of seeing the pegasus wince away, “and I don’t constantly roam around the ship talking about it because I’m not a colossal ass!”

“Hey―!” a gruff masculine voice could be heard coming from the kitchen.

“Shut up, Cookie!” Slipshod snapped, not looking away from Valkyrie, “I’m in the middle of something here!”

The earth pony opened his mouth to continue, but hesitated, his gaze darting briefly to the galley and the ponies who were most assuredly not paying any mind to the screaming stallion just down the corridor. He grunted and turned around, “my quarters; now,” at least there’d be a modicum of privacy there for them to finish this ‘conversation’. Valkyrie trudged tensely behind him in silence, appearing to find the ship’s deck immensely fascinating.

When they’d finally arrived at his cabin, the stallion had had some time to calm his own ire. There was no sense in leaping any further down the other ‘Steed pilot’s throat than he already had. At least, not before finding out why she said those things to Emery File in the first place. It wasn’t like the pegasus mare to stir up drama this way. She’d certainly never done it in the past. He’d appreciate knowing why she was doing so now.

Slipshod motioned the mare inside and closed the door. He took the bed to soothe his now much aggravated aches, and gestured for the pegasus to take the chair at the little desk he had. The earth pony took a deep breath and regarded the other pilot for several seconds before starting, “so let’s hear it: why did you tell Emery that I was telling ponies we were sleeping together?”

Valkyrie shifted uncomfortably beneath his hard stare, “...because I thought you were?”

His eyes narrowed, “why would you think that?”

“You’re always going to her quarters...” she began lamely, now only seeming to realize how flimsy the foundation for her suspicions were.

“...Because I have an appointment to get hooficures,” Slipshod reminded her bluntly. He held up one of his hooves, showing her the well-filed and polished surface that was the product of frequent treatments from the unicorn mare who’d recently assaulted him in the galley, “like I told you.”

“You said you only got hooficures sometimes!” Val protested.

“...and the other times we’re talking about her sister and nephew.”

The azure mare balked, “...what?”

Slipshod rolled his eyes, “her sister gave birth to a colt about three months ago. She’s been gushing about being an aunt ever since, showing off pictures to anypony who’ll stop and talk to her for five seconds,” he explained, “she thinks her nephew is the cutest thing ever―which, he is pretty adorable, actually” he admitted as an aside, “and can’t wait for her contract to be up so that she can go back home and start a family of her own.

“She’s been bouncing baby names off me for a month so she can get a shortlist together to send her husband.”

“...you talk about baby names?” the mare said skeptically.

“At length,” Slipshod responded with a deadpan stare off into the distance, borne of many hours spent reading over flowing lists of names from every corner of the galaxy. That they’d managed to narrow it down to two dozen―twelve colt and twelve filly names―was nothing short of a genuine miracle, in his opinion, “though none of my suggestions made the list,” he added with a slightly bitter note.

The feathered mare was taken aback, apparently mystified by the concept entirely, “but what about all of the other ponies on this ship that you’re always with?”

“What about them?”

“Why do you spend so much time in their quarters? Don’t try and tell me you’re talking about baby names with all of them!” she demanded, “and you’re always kissing that one unicorn tech!”

“You mean Channel Lock?” the mare nodded, a smug expression on her face as she sensed catching him in a lie, “she’s from Mareseilles. Little pecks on the cheek are how close friends greet each other there,” he said dryly, “you can ask anypony else on the ship,” Valkyrie was looking less sure of herself now.

“And of course I’m not talking about baby names with all of them. Don’t be absurd,” Slipshod frowned, “it depends on the pony. For example: Channel Lock likes to have somepony to ‘riff’ on bad movies with. She and her brother used to do it all the time when she was back home. She gets kind of homesick, so I come by every couple of weeks with some drinks and snacks and we put on a cheesy movie and make jokes about it.

“It really does make those films much more fun to watch,” he chuckled, “I highly recommend it.

“High Gain is a fan of karaoke,” the stallion continued, “but―unsurprisingly―not many other ponies on the ship are willing to do it with her. She’s fine just singing to herself most times, but she doesn’t like to do duets without another pony, and those songs are some of her favorites. So I drop by to sing with her,” he shrugged, “she says I have a great singing voice, but I’m not convinced. When her bunkmate gets a few drinks in her, she’ll join in too on backup vocals.

“Soft Prose likes somepony to read over her short stories before she submits them for various anthology publications,” Slipshod said, now summarizing more succinctly as he began ticking off others, “Axel Rod needs a spotter for his workouts. Faraday says I’m the best amatuer massuse on the ship. Rigger wants a model for her drawing…” he listed off the various ways that he went about spending time with the ponies on board the Galloway, and had been for a long while. With each revelation, Valkyrie’s surprise only seemed to grow. Eventually the stallion trailed off and regarded her warily, “why is any of this so surprising to you? What did you think I was doing with them?”

The pegasus shifted uncomfortably for several seconds before responding, “well...when we’re planetside you’re always bringing ponies back here,” she looked candidly at the stallion, “and it’s not ‘karaoke’ I’m hearing through the wall every night!”

Slipshod rolled his eyes, “well, yeah, I’m obviously screwing those ponies.”

The other ‘Steed pilot jerked with an incredulous wave of her hooves, “well how am I supposed to know who you are and aren’t fucking?!”

“Frankly, you’re not, because―and let’s go ahead and go over this again: it’s none of your―”

“―none of my business. Right,” the mare sighed, rubbing the bridge of her muzzle with her hoof, “my point is that it’s not exactly my fault if I assume you’re doing with crewmembers what you’re doing with random barflies, now is it?”

He blinked at her, “...it’s absolutely you’re fault, yes. That’s how ‘fault’ works. You could have, you know, talked with anypony on this ship about what we do when I come by. You know that, right?”

Valkyrie frowned and looked away, pounting. After a few seconds she glared at the stallion once more, “you flirt with me all the time,” she charged.

“Because you like it.”

The pinions of the mare’s wings prickled, “I do not―!” she sputtered in vehement protest.

However, Slipshod was not the least bit swayed by her purported incredulity, leveling an impassive expression at the mare, “you like everything about it,” he countered, “you like that a stallion you think is good looking,” the mare bristled and opened her mouth to refute his assumption but he held up a hoof to silence her and pressed on, “finds you physically desirable. You especially like knowing that you have the power to rebuke the advances of good looking stallions and they can’t do anything about it but continue to pine after you like you’re some sort of noble heiress. It gives you a feeling of control and boosts your confidence.”

The mare’s mouth opened and closed several times without uttering a word as she sought out a point which she could rebuff, but eventually gave up and folded her hooves across her chest indignantly, “even if that was true―which it isn’t,” she said coolly, “it doesn’t explain why you don’t treat me like the other ponies on this ship and just spend time with me like you do with Channel Lock and Emery File and all of them.”

It was Slipshod’s turn to look incredulous this time, “what are you talking about? We hang out and just talk all the time!” he protested, throwing his hooves in the air in exasperation, despite the pain such sharp movements caused him, “for literally hours at a time while we’re on a mission. We talk about anything and everything! I talk to you more than anypony else on this damn ship!”

Valkyrie was looking abashed again, biting her lower lip as she realized that the two of them did spend a vast quantity of their days chatting merrily away while in their ‘Steeds. Most of their jobs were about one percent action and ninety-nine percent idling in their cockpits. Nearly all of that idling was spent gabbing about just about any topic that took their fancy. Some days she even marveled at how waywardly their conversations seemed to meander. They’d start out talking about the local topography and end up musing about the color preferences of Federated Moons nobles, only to finish up pondering the question of which was invented first: shampoo or coat wash? And what was the difference anyway?

Slipshod massaged his temples with his hooves, “what more is it that you want from me, Val? We talk about whatever it is that you want. We joke with each other constantly. We give each other advice. We share meals. Just tell me: what are you unsatisfied with?” he asked in a defeated tone, “because I’m at a loss here.

Something nudged you to stir the pot on this ship,” he continued with a frown, indicating the open wound on the side of his head which was scabbing over nicely. Doc Dee would probably berate him for waiting so long to come by the Med Bay, but this situation with his partner was something that he felt needed to be resolved sooner rather than later, “and whatever it is, I want us to fix it before it gets out of hoof,” he thought for a brief moment before adding as an aside, “any more out of hoof.”

“I guess…” she squirmed uncomfortably, “I just want to understand,” she was kneading her hooves now, “I mean...there’s no way that the corny lines you feed me are enough to get ponies to actually follow you back to this ship,” Slipshod nodded in acknowledgement. While he had no doubt that he could find ponies who only needed a stiff drink and a compliment to lift their tails, those were never truly satisfying partners, “you absolutely could rut any pony on this ship you wanted,” she grudgingly admitted, adding with a note of defiance, “except me, obviously,” the stallion nodded again, a small smirk sneaking onto his lips.

“...so why don’t you?” the pegasus finally asked, “why aren’t you mounting the ponies on the Galloway left and right like you do in port?”

“Because that’s not how you build long-lasting relationships with a lot of ponies at once,” the stallion replied simply, shrugging his shoulders. At the mare’s quizzical brow-quirk, he sighed and elaborated, “there is no such thing as ‘no-strings-attached sex’. At least, not if you want there to be more than just the sex. Adding sex to a relationship adds a level of intimacy that is just...not something that you can have with dozens of ponies. At least not with ponies who aren’t also okay with that sort of thing.

“Yeah, I could probably take things up a notch with one of the ponies I hang out with regularly―other than you, of course,” he added with a smirk, earning a frown from the feathered mare, “but doing that at this point would mean having to scale back on the time I spend with the others.

“It’s natural to get...possessive of the ponies we care about. Any pony on this crew I might get with would inevitably wonder if they were really the only pony that I was with like that. Some of what I do with these ponies―Faraday’s massages, Rigger's model drawing―they’re pretty...intimate activities already.

“Would you be okay with your coltfriend dropping by a mare’s quarters every week to give her a rub-down?” he asked pointedly. Valkyrie shrunk down and shook her head slowly, “you’d want him to stop, right? Even if you never actually told him to stop, you’d prefer that he did, right?” a small nod, “and until he did, there’d be this little cloud of animosity between you and that other mare, as you would always wonder―in the back of your mind―was it really just massaging that was going on?” another reluctant nod.

“Now picture that, but going on between dozens of ponies on this crew. It’d be like walking on eggshells―for everypony. I don’t want that happening on the Galloway,” Slipshod insisted, “I want everypony to be friendly and happy. There’s not a lot of space onboard, and ships can become a powder keg of drama very easily; making life very uncomfortable very quickly.

“So I’m doing everything I can to keep that from happening. Which includes abstaining from taking any of these relationships I’ve cultivated with the crew to the ‘next level’,” he offered a wry smile, “if I need that particular ‘itch’ scratched...well, that’s why I bring my, uh, ‘guests’ onboard while we’re at a port. There it’s just two ponies looking for a good time, not a long time,” he winked at the mare.

Valkyrie was rubbing her foreleg now, feeling like a filly who’d just been given a dressing down by her father. She swallowed, “...so you’re really not sleeping around with anypony on the ship? Every time you’re going to somepony’s quarters...it’s just to...hang out?”

“Pretty much,” he said with a shrug.

Silence reigned in the small cabin for several seconds, “I owe Emery an apology, don’t I?”

“I’m sure she would appreciate it,” Slipshod said.

Valkyrie’s eyes darted briefly to the open wound on the stallion’s head, “and you too. Sorry. I didn’t know.”

“I can forgive you for not knowing,” he said with a nod, “but, for not asking? We’ve spent over six months gabbing, and you never thought to ask about what I’m doing every evening?”

The pegasus gave a helpless shrug, “I thought I knew,” she protested, “I mean, you cheated on Squelch with another mare...I just sort of figured you were a…” Valkyrie let the sentence trail off as she seemed to try to come up with a polite way to phrase things before finally giving up, “...y’know?”

“Letch? Horndog? Slut?” he offered helpfully, wearing a wry smile. The mare nodded. Slipshod maintained his wry smile for several more seconds, nodding his head as well, “I can see that. I mean, looking objectively at it, I must seem like an absolute sex-fiend...to have not thought that I’d be caught cheating...by my wife...in the quarters that we shared...knowing full well that said wife was on the ship at the time.

“It could be argued, in fact, that a pony like me was just begging to be caught in the act,” he looked now at the pegasus, sharing a knowing look with her, “yup. A real strong argument to be made there.”

Valkyrie cocked her head to the side in confusion, “are you saying―?”

“I’m saying that anypony who did what I did deserved to be caught,” he interrupted, shrugging off her question, “there was no way that I was going to get away with it. That’s all that I’m saying, and all that I ever will say on the matter. Now,” the stallion stood up abruptly―perhaps a little too abruptly, given how much his head started to spin. Just perfect, he inwardly groused. He walked away from having his ‘Steed thoroughly shredded with hardly a scratch on him, but got a concussion eating breakfast, “I think that covers everything, and I need to get to medical,” he reached out a retrieved a towel and a bag of shower sundries, “after I wash the coffee out of my mane.

“If you still have any burning questions, I ask that you save them for later. Perhaps as a topic for discussion during our next mission together?” He turned and left the room, heading for the showers.

“She got you pretty good,” Doc Dee mused as his magic maneuvered the curved suturing needle deftly around the forceps gripping the tail of the thread. He was currently finishing up the last of the four stitches that Slipshod’s injury had required. There had been the obligatory ridicule about waiting over an hour to finally report for treatment, but the earth pony had anticipated as much and brushed it off.

“I’ve never been more glad that Cookie doesn’t have metal carafes,” Slipshod said with a sardonic smile.

“Hmm,” the physician responded. A pair of scissors floated over and snipped away the excess. The white unicorn leaned in and gave the site of the injury a final inspection before nodding in satisfaction and pulling away, “I’m still going to be keeping you here overnight for observation,” he said, “I’d rather have you vomiting here than in your quarters if a concussion does set in.”

“You and me both,” Slipshod eased himself back onto the patient bed and made himself more comfortable. His eyes darted briefly to the third pony in the room. Well, third and fourth, counting the security mare that had been assigned to watch over their guest, “so what’s the plan for her? You’re not just going to keep her drugged forever, are you?”

Doc Dee glanced over his shoulder at the purple alicorn as he began to put away his tools, “I honestly don’t know,” he admitted, “she was quite delusional and agitated when she woke up the last time. Physical trauma I can treat, but I’m not very familiar with mental trauma. She’ll need a specialist. I’m concerned that anything I might try would only make her delusions worse.”

The earth pony was quiet for a moment, then, “so you think she’s crazy?”

“You don’t?” the doctor flashed the other stallion a skeptical look, “calling herself Twilight Sparkle and screaming about a chrysalis? She had a pretty convincing ‘crazy rant’ going, in my professional opinion,” he snorted.

“She woke up five centruies out of time,” the earth pony pointed out, “with a case of severe mana burn, and after being put through the wringer in some pretty gnarly ‘Steed combat―for what was probably for her―just yesterday.

“You heard her: she could barely remember what she was doing before being put in stasis. Something like that? Even I’d need more than two minutes to sort out what was what,” he shrugged, “for all we know, she was just having a really bad nightmare and was too disoriented to know what was real and what wasn’t yet. Maybe she thought she was still dreaming!

“We should give her some time to process what happened to her,” Slipshod suggested to the ship’s doctor, “maybe she’ll make a little more sense when she’s not freaking out after waking up in a strange room surrounded by strange ponies.”

“Hmm,” the unicorn rubbed his chin, “I’ll...talk it over with the commander.”

“Talk what over with me?” both stallions turned to face the doorway as Squelch walked in. Her eyes darted briefly towards the sedated alicorn and her guard, but quickly found their focus on Slipshod, “should I assume it has something to do with whatever went on in the galley?”

“That’s all been dealt with,” the golden earth pony assured her quickly.

“I’ll be the judge of that, thank you,” the emerald mare shot back tersely, narrowing her gaze at the ‘Steed pilot, “now what happened?”

“Just a misunderstanding,” Slipshod insisted, “Val and Emery thought I said some things. I didn’t say the things. Other ponies verified I didn’t say the things. Everypony’s apologized and we’re all moving on with our lives.”

The company’s owner held her critical gaze on the stallion for several long seconds, and he was worried that she would press him for more details. She was well within her right to, of course; and he’d give them to her if she insisted. However, he didn’t need anypony else making a bigger deal about this than already had been. Emery didn’t deserve to be punished for an honest mistake.

Finally the unicorn made a noise that suggested she wasn’t entirely satisfied by his response but was willing to let the matter drop―for now―and instead turned her attention to the doctor, “so then what is it that needs to be discussed with me?”

“Her,” Doc Dee indicated the purple mare on the nearby bed, “and seeing if we can get something more coherent if we ease her into adjusting to the situation. Admittedly, yesterday wasn’t what I would have called ‘ideal’ as far as introductions were concerned.”

Squelch raised an eyebrow, “are we thinking the mare claiming to be the Queen―who’s still on Equus last I checked, by the way―isn’t actually crazy?”

“Her delusions might simply be temporary,” the physician pointed out, glancing briefly at the other stallion, “Slipshod pointed out that we don’t know what long-term stasis exposure might do to a pony. If we give her a chance, she might level out.”

The mare frowned skeptically, “and the fact that she’s clearly altered herself to look like an alicorn doesn’t suggest that she was delusionally before going into stasis?”

“Maybe she’s not the Queen, but still an alicorn,” Slipshod interjected calmly, earning looks from both unicorns, “you said it yourself, Doc: you learned in history about how there used to be two alicorns and one got banished,” the earth pony waved a hoof at the purple mare, “what if we found that one? What if this is Discord?”

“Wouldn’t that be all the more reason not to wake them up?” Squelch reminded him, “the greatest threat that the Harmony Sphere’s ever known?”

“Not too much of a threat that the Doc couldn’t dart her from behind,” Slipshod pointed out, smirking at the physician, who merely rolled his eyes. He looked back at the green mare, “besides, doesn’t this make your plan ever more workable? Who better to tell you about Disciple caches than the pony that founded them!

“But she can’t tell you about any of it if you never let her wake up.”

The mare still seemed unconvinced, “their leader seems like the last pony who’d help us dismantle what’s left of them.”

“Maybe,” he conceded with a shrug, “but we don’t lose anything by trying, do we? Worst case scenario: we knock her out again and drop her off on Canis when we get back and collect the standard bounty.”

This time their commander remained silent for a long while as she stared pensively at the alicorn mare, weighing the merits of Slipshod’s suggestion. Finally, she said, “alright,” she looked to the physician, “get her lucid, get her up to speed on what happened to her, and get her ready to answer some questions in the morning,” Slipshod opened his mouth to suggest more time be given to the effort, but Squelch cut him off “I just got commed from the surface an hour ago. Argent put out a press release to their shareholders announcing that they’ll be undergoing some ‘executive restructuring’ over the next month or so. Ferrous is confident that means they’ve caved and won’t be sending any more raiders to attack their sites. They’re terminating our protection contract.

“A jump ship leaves the system in twelve hours, and we’re going to be on it,” she continued, “tomorrow morning we’ll be heading for Canis orbit to collect the rest of our agreed upon fee and buy what we need to fix up the Wild Bronco,” she briefly glared at Slipshod, who cringed away slightly, “she has until we enter orbit to convince me not to give her over to the authorities there.

“So either get her talking sense, or get her packaged for a transfer.”

Doc Dee shrugged and sighed, “I’ll work out a plan. I can probably bring her around while keeping her calm.”

“Fine by me,” Squelch said. She hesitated, glancing back at Slipshod, her eyes darting to the recently sutured cut on his head as her expression softened for a brief moment, “you’re positive this won’t be an issue in the future?”

The earth pony gave her a wan smile and nodded, “it’s been resolved. Promise.”

A beat, then, “alright. Call me when she’s ready to talk, Doc,” and with that, the unicorn mare turned and left the clinic.

“If you’ll excuse me,” the ship’s doctor said, turning from Slipshod towards the clinic’s exit as well, “I’ll need to collect some notes from my quarters if I’m going to do this right,” he was frowning, “I’m a little rusty on my pharmacology where anti-anxiety meds are concerned. I haven’t had to deal with psych patients since my Fellowship…” the unicorn grumbled as he left the room.

Slipshod cracked a wry smile and chuckled. As a general rule, the kinds of ponies who pursued the life of a mercenary were rather mentally resilient. He glanced over at the other bed for a moment. Then he looked to the guardsmare standing watch, “hey, Puttee?” The mare glanced over at him. The stallion grinned at her, and pointed at his head, “I, uh, didn’t really get to have much of a breakfast this morning before I got brained.

“Could you run down real quick and pick me up a to-go plate, please?”

The mare frowned at him, glancing between the earth pony and the alicorn, “I’m not supposed to leave the prisoner unattended―”

“She won’t be ‘unattended’,” Slipshod insisted with a dismissive wave of his hoof, maintaining his smile at the mare, “I’ll be here! Come on,” he pleaded, affecting a properly pitiful, if blatantly exaggerated, expression, “I’m starving, and it could be hours before Doc orders up anything from the galley,” the mare looked furtively, biting her lip as she looked between the stallion and her charge. But he sensed her hesitation, “when’s the last time I ever asked you to do anything for me?”

They both knew the answer. He almost never made requests of the security mare. Conversely, it went without saying between them that he’d done a great deal for her over the last several months. After another few seconds of agonizing over the dilemma, the mare finally let out a defeated sigh and looked over at the stallion, “what do you want?”

“Just some oatmeal and orange juice would be perfect,” the earth pony was beaming again, “thanks, babe!” The security pony turned to leave, but Slipshod stopped her just as the door opened, “oh―!” he hesitated, thought for moment, then shook his head and waved her off, “no, nevermind. Oatmeal and juice is fine, I guess.”

“What? What is it?” the mare asked.

Again, Slipshod thought for a short bit, then, “I just remembered that Cookie makes omelettes to order today. But that’d take a while. I don’t want you out there any longer than you have to be. So forget about it. Oatmeal and juice,” he reaffirmed with a definitive nod of his head.

The security mare sighed and turned around, “...what do you take on your omelette?”

“You’re sure? It’ll probably be like a ten minute wait or something…”

“Just tell me what you want, Slip,” she said with a―not quite―exasperated sigh, paired with a lopsided smile.

“Three cheese with tomato and peppers?” the earth pony stallion said with a grin. The mare turned around and headed out, “but still with the orange juice!” she waved an acknowledging hoof as the door closed behind her.

The stallion’s grin melted away. He didn’t have long.

Slipshod slipped off the exam bed, wincing slightly at his protesting body and swimming head. Not exactly the most ideal of circumstances, but there was no helping that. Ferrous’ early termination of their contract and the subsequent premature return to Canis had greatly accelerated the timetable he thought he’d have to work with. He needed to get this mare on the right page, and fast. Otherwise, he’d lose his chance.

And she’d lose her life.

He stepped into the doctor’s office and sat down at the terminal there. He’d learned the physician’s passcode a long time ago, back when he and Squelch were married. The systems on this ship had been set up by her, and she’d had a way to override everypony’s otherwise ‘secured’ systems. She never used it, of course, but it was sometimes necessary to have a backdoor into the personal files of the crew. Such as when one of them died and the files needed to be passed on to their next of kin along with the rest of their personal effects.

Since he’d been her right-hoof-pony, Slipshod had had the access as well. Squelch had changed the access codes that would allow him to use that backdoor since―probably the night she’d found him in their bed with that other mare―but Doc Dee had not changed his. Why should he, when he didn’t know that anypony had a way to just look it up?

The earth pony logged on to the system and accessed the medical records for the alicorn. Specifically he looked over her medications. He noted the last time the sedatives had been administered and at what time. The earth pony then logged back out and walked―stiffly―to the medical cabinet. He drew out a dose of the counter-agent, along with a smaller dosage of the indicated sedative. He now had everything he needed.

Slipshod approached the slumbering alicorn and inserted the counter-agent into the IV line feeding into her foreleg, “rise and shine, Princess,” he murmured, “we need to have a chat.”

It only took seconds for the drug to take effect and clear out the effects of the sedative. The purple alicorn began to stir on the bed, her eyes fluttering open, “huh?” She was still obviously groggy, and would continue to be. Slipshod had made sure not to give her enough to eliminate all of the sedative in her system, but she should at least be able to be cogent with her thoughts, “where…?”

“We don’t have a lot of time,” the earth pony informed her candidly, “so I’m going to need you to do a lot of listening and zero talking, understand?” even if she didn’t, neither of them had the luxury of making her, “you have been in stasis for five hundred years. Everypony in the Harmony Sphere ‘knows’ that Queen Twilight Sparkle is―and has always been―on Equus.”

The alicorn stirred at this, blinking her blurry eyes and looking over at the stallion, shaking her head as fervently as her lethargic body would allow, “she’s not…”

“So you say,” Slipshod interrupted, an ear swiveling towards the door to listen for approaching hooves, “but you’re not going to convince anypony on this ship about that any time soon. They think you’re a Disciple, and they’re ready to give you over to the Canis authorities―to Queen Twilight―unless you can give them a reason not to.”

The mare’s tired face scrunched up in confusion as she looked both at―and passed―the earth pony stallion’s face, “wassa D’scible?”

“The crest on the ship you were in,” he hastily explained, “the crossed horn and antler? Whatever that meant five hundred years ago, it’s the mark or a terrorist cult today. You were on that ship, ergo you’re part of that cult.”

“S’notta cult…” she insisted weakly.

“Maybe not when you went into stasis,” Slipshod conceded, “but it’s been five hundred years, Princess,” he reminded her, “a lot has changed. Today, the Queen...considers them terrorists,” he stressed, staring hard at the alicorn, “...understand?”

The pair held each others’ gaze for several long seconds. Then the purple mare finally nodded, slowly; saying nothing.

“Good. When Squelch talks to you tomorrow, you’re going to want to give her something that shows you’re worth keeping around. Losmagitek, old ‘Steed barn locations, Disciple caches, something.

“Or the Queen gets you.”

She was still for a long moment, then nodded slowly, “...why are you helping me?”

“Because I need you to help me,” he replied simply.

“Help you what?”

The earth pony stallion jerked up and looked towards the door. Hoofsteps approaching. He drew out the syringe with the dose of sedative, “we’ll discuss that later,” he depressed the plunger into the IV administration line. The mare looked like she was about to protest, but whatever she was going to say came out as little more than a distressed moan. A few seconds later, she was unconscious again.

The clinic’s door opened to admit the security mare bearing a tray containing a freshly made omelet and a large glass of orange liquid. Slipshod rolled over on his bed where he’d been laying and grinned at the returning mare, “you’re too good to me, Puttee. Thanks a lot,” he sat up as she deposited the tray on the nearby table, flashing the stallion her own wry smile.

“Yeah, yeah,” she said, rolling her eyes as she trotted back over to the alicorn’s side and resumed her post, “did she give you any trouble?”

“I think we hit things off, actually,” he said, grinning broadly, “she’s an amazing listener!” he began to eat his―very―late breakfast.

Chapter 7: I Am Twilight Sparkle

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It was unusually tense in the DropShip’s small briefing room. Honestly, it didn’t typically see a whole lot of traditional use. The Galloway had four ‘Steed stalls and a forward hangar with two berths for aerofighters. A full-scale op, with all concerned pilots and their support staff, would have required the sizable conference room in order to get everypony on the same page before launching an operation. As it was, with just Valkyrie and Slipshod to brief―the two ponies who, more often than not, attended the initial briefing from the client with Squelch in the first place―their immediate employer rarely had a need to do much more than talk over a few additional points with the two of them either in her cabin or in the ‘Steed Bay just before they launched.

It was pretty well packed now though! Squelch, both ‘Steed pilots, Doc Dee, Mig and Tig, and two security ponies to watch over the purple alicorn that had been woken up a few hours ago, all filled out the chairs gathered around the holoprojection table. Its surface was dark at the moment. As were the plethora of screens surrounding the room. There was no mission briefing today.

This was an interrogation.

At least, that’s what it must have felt like for the alicorn, who had the full attention of every other pony in the room. As well as a couple of rifles that were being carried in very conspicuous fashion by the armored ponies at her flanks. Slipshod noted that they were at least not crass enough to actively be pointing those weapons at the mare. Though that could be changed in a heartbeat if their prisoner/guest did anything that seemed out of place.

Nopony said anything for what felt like a rather long time, though it was probably only a few seconds after everypony was seated. Squelch began the proceedings. Only fitting, Slipshod supposed. This was her ship after all, and it was the meeting that she’d requested.

“Let’s start, with your name,” the sage unicorn mare said in an even tone, her hooves arched together, obscuring her muzzle, as she contemplated the purple alicorn sitting across from her at the far end of the table.

“Princess Twilight Sparkle,” the other mare responded in a surprisingly imperious tone, given her situation. She certainly had all of the affectations that somepony would expect of a royal, Slipshod noted. Though it was pretty clear that the outfit’s commander didn’t particularly care for that answer.

Squelch sneered at the alicorn, “this again,” she lowered her hooves in disgust. She glared at the ship’s physician, “if she’s still delusional, then this is all a waste of time―” she started to stand up from the table.

“I am Twilight Sparkle,” the violet mare repeated, flashing her own piercing gaze at the unicorn. She fluttered a wing in Doc Dee’s direction, “he’s had to have confirmed for you that I’m an alicorn at least, correct?”

The doctor looked over at his employer and gave her a slight nod, “I’ve run every test I could come up with,” he assured her, “every piece of equipment on this ship confirms that she is an alicorn,” the purple pony allowed herself a satisfied smirk, which soured slightly as he continued, “as for whether or not she’s the Queen―”

“That is Chrysalis!” she snapped, her features creasing in dark lines. Slipshod couldn’t remember the last time that he’d ever heard a pony utter a name with such visceral hatred. No, that was a lie. Dominus Blueblood had sounded much like that when he’d been roaring for his guards after discovering the golden earth pony in bed with his wife.

The emerald unicorn arched an eyebrow, but slowly slid back into her chair, folding her hooves in front of her, “and ‘Crystal’ is…?”

Chrysalis,” the alicorn stressed, “is a changeling―the Queen of the changelings, to be precise. She’s an ancient enemy of Equestria. One that I had thought vanquished forever,” she added bitterly. She closed her eyes and shook her head in despair, “that...was my failing. I’d forgotten that Harmony’s magic doesn’t work like that. It didn’t do so for Nightmare Moon, nor Discord.

“I should have been paying more attention, but…” a sardonic smile creased the corner of her lips as she looked back up, “time has a way of...getting away from you after the first few hundred years. When faced with the more immediate concerns of your subjects on a day-to-day basis, it becomes very easy to put off making preparations for an event a thousand years in the future until ‘tomorrow’. It also didn’t help that my day planner only allowed for scheduling events so far in the future…”

The other ponies all exchanged looks. Some confused, other’s skeptical. However, it was still only Squelch that was addressing the alicorn mare, “Discord? As in, the Disciples of Discord, correct? Is he your leader or something?”

Again the purple pony’s face contorted in annoyance, “I don’t know who or what these ‘Disciples of Discord’ are, or why you keep bringing them up,” she insisted.

“You were found in one of their old DropShips,” the company commander shot back accusingly, “it had their emblem all over it.”

Still the mare looked confused. Slipshod raised his hoof and tentatively offered some elaboration, with a permissive look in his employer’s direction, “the crossed horn and antler,” he explained to the alicorn.

Realization dawned over Twilight’s face, “ah. You mean the emblem of the Ninth Force Recon? Discord’s Rangers?”

It was Squelch’s turn to frown now, “what’s a ‘ranger’?”

The alicorn shrugged, “I have no idea,” she admitted, “when I asked him about it, he told me to ask Spike. Spike said it was an ‘Ogres and Oubliettes thing’. What Discord chose to call them was none of my concern anyway,” she said, shifting the subject slightly, “the Ninth Recon were many things, but they were never a cult, or a terrorist organization,” she insisted vehemently.

“Well they are now,” the unicorn mare quipped, earning a dour look from the alicorn, which she ignored, “and since you were on their ship, you were either one of their prisoners, or one of their members. Nopony goes through what they did to save a prisoner though,” she leveled a knowing look at the alicorn, “which suggests to me…”

Twilight sighed, rubbing her temple, “the Ninth Recon was tasked with keeping watch during my meeting with Princess Selena of the Lunar Empire,” she explained, “we weren’t expecting any treachery, but...better safe than sorry, and all that. Tirek had been dealt with, but Cozy Glow and Chrysalis were still unaccounted for.”

The gathered ponies exchanged looks with each other, clearly at a loss to place some of those names. Tirek’s was known, of course. His appearance in 998 AC, and the subsequent destruction that he’d wrought across the Harmony Sphere had been the impetus for the development of BattleSteeds, as well as the first target for their deployment. The other two, Slipshod could tell, were names that meant nothing to anypony other than Twilight.

“I know I never made it to the meeting,” the alicorn continued, “so if I was on one of their DropShips, that means that things went very badly indeed and they must have pulled me out,” the alicorn frowned, “I honestly don’t recall making it to their ship…”

“You were in a pretty bad way,” Doc Dee spoke up, looking between the alicorn and Squelch, “it’s fairly common for victims of serious trauma, like the kind you sustained, to have little memory of the events that led to their injuries. I’d honestly be shocked if you did remember everything that happened.”

“I know we were ambushed,” the purple mare insisted, her tone once more brimming with ire, “and I know it was Chrysalis. She couldn’t resist taunting me,” her amethyst eyes unfocused for a moment, “we were suddenly surrounded. BattleSteeds powered up all around us, as if on cue. They’d known exactly where we would be dropped off, and the route we would be taking.

“She must have had one of her changelings in our communications loop already. It’s the only explanation.

“It was a trap.”

“So what is a ‘changeling’, exactly?” Squelch asked.

The alicorn looked taken aback, “what do you mean? Surely you’ve heard of changelings! They were one of Equestria’s greatest enemies!”

“Well, ‘Equestria’ hasn’t existed for a very long time,” the unicorn mare pointed out, “and studying ancient history isn’t high on a lot of ponies’ lists these days.”

“But there should still be reformed changelings now,” Twilight protested. She appeared to notice the mirrored looks of confusion among the other in the room, as Slipshod saw her look from one face to the next in search of comprehension. When she didn’t find it, her features began to falter, “...aren’t there?”

“And a ‘reformed changeling’ is…?” Doc Dee prompted.

“A changeling that’s bought into the Our Worlds League’s weird Cutieless Cult?” Tig offered in an audible aside to her twin, who wasn’t able to restrain herself from sniggering. A stern look from their employer silenced the pair.

“A changeling that’s decided to share love, rather than devour it,” the alicorn explained patiently, though was clearly a little distressed at having to elaborate at all, “you’ve never met one? How is that possible?”

Nocreature had an answer to that, Slipshod noticed. Not surprising. He suppressed a deep sigh when he noticed that Squelch was looking less and less convinced of the alicorn’s sanity. Not good for his plans. The stallion had to find some way to salvage this before the unicorn just ended the meeting and had Twilight locked back up in the brig to await entering Canis orbit.

“So,” the earth pony interjected, trying his best to redirect the flow of the conversation back to topics that didn’t make the purple mare seem quite as insane. It took a lot of effort on Slipshod’s part to remain as composed as he was. He’d specifically asked Twilight to be more cooperative so the Squelch would be more easily convinced she was safe to keep around. Blathering about ‘changelings’ wasn’t accomplishing that, “you said that you were ambushed on your way to a meeting of some sort?”

Twilight started for a moment, surprised by the topic shift, as she stared at the golden pony. The pair held each others’ gazes for a long moment, then she took a deep breath and regarded the green unicorn mare, “you said I was the only survivor?”

Squelch nodded, adding, “and your Rainbow Dash was the only ‘Steed on the ship.”

The alicorn paled visibly now, looking down at the table, “...a Strongheart carries twelve ‘Steeds.” she whispered.

Slipshod recognized the implication. If the unit that the DropShip had been a part of was tasked with guarding the delegation's flank, then in the event of an ambush, it would have flown in and deployed its forces to cover the fleeing Princess and her escorts. Twelve ‘Steed pilots had disembarked from the ship as a screening force to hold back the attackers long enough for Twilight to get onboard.

Then, either because they’d already been destroyed by that time, or because the DropShip was taking too much fire to safely remain in the hot zone any longer...it had flown off without the forces it had arrived with. All twelve ‘Steed pilots had been sacrificed to save her life. Later, the ship’s entire crew had died saving her as well. To say nothing of however many of her escorts had been slain in the initial ambush, or however many other Ninth Force Recon Strongheart-class DropShips might have arrived to deploy their own forces in her defense.

Potentially hundreds of ponies had lost their lives to save hers―if not thousands.

That the weight of their sacrifice was shaking her like this spoke volumes about the mare’s character, in Slipshod’s opinion.

Squelch’s too, it seemed, as the earth pony noted the slightest softening of the stoic expression that she’d been wearing rather consistently during the whole exchange up until this point, “and your claim is that this ‘Chrysalis’ and her ‘changelings’ took your place?”

The haunted look in the alicorn’s eyes was replaced by fire once again at the mention of the name. A focus for her grief, and her vengeance, “if the ‘alicorn’ reigning from Equus is indeed styling herself a ‘Queen’, then it has to be her,” her brow furrowed now as she looked around the room, seeming to find something very amiss all of a sudden, “...but so then how are you all still here? How has she not consumed everycreature after five centuries?”

The other ponies in the room all exchanged looks. Slipshod could tell that most of them still didn’t believe a word that the alicorn was saying―about the changelings, at least. That her ‘Steed had been ambushed and beaten to Tartarus and back had been fairly evident from the physical damage. There was also the fact that Doc Dee had verified that this mare was as real an alicorn as he could determine too.

So not everything she was saying was a lie, at the very least.

Right now they were trying to decide exactly which parts they were willing to believe on just her word.

“If Chrysalis has been maintaining everything the way it was all this time,” the purple mare continued to muse aloud, starting to pace across the front of the briefing room, “then she must have something else planned...but what could possibly require centuries to put in place when she already has everypony fooled?

“She’s not doing this by half-measures either, if she’s managed to somehow purge the knowledge of the existence of changelings from the public record...” she paused for a moment and looked at Squelch, “I want access to a record of the Celestia League’s history,” she said, “I need to know what lies she’s been spreading.”

The unicorn frowned, and for a moment Slipshod thought she was going to refuse the request―though the tone involved had certainly suggested that it’d been a demand, the stallion felt. Apparently, Squelch ultimately felt that there was no harm in agreeing, “that can be arranged,” she nodded.

“Good,” again the earth pony suppressed a sigh. A ‘thank you’ wouldn’t have gone amiss, he thought. Twilight was really going to have to get used to not being the top rung of the hierarchy ladder around here. Pissing off Squelch wasn’t going to do the alicorn any favors, “I don’t suppose I could also get census records for the last five centuries so I can find out what happened to the reformed changelings?” the unicorn’s expression was much more incredulous now, but before she could issue her flat denial, the alicorn seemed to rethink the idea on her own, “nevermind. If Chrysalis has been fudging the history books, then she has to have been fudging the records too, or somepony would have noticed by now.

“So she’s ruling from Equus, but she’s still letting everycreature go about with their lives…” the alicorn rubbed at her chin, “why? What does that get her?”

Then a thought seemed to occur to her and she looked over at Slipshod, “the first time we met, you said that you were all ‘independent’. What did you mean by that?”

“We’re mercenaries,” Squelch answered for him, taking back control of the conversation from the alicorn’s ramblings, “freelance. We take contracts with just about anycreature. The kirin, hippogriffs, ponies, whoever. C-bits are C-bits.”

The princess’ brow furrowed, “mercenaries fighting...who?”

“Whoever,” the emerald mare shrugged, “right now the kirin and the hippogriffs are going at it pretty good. The Federated Moons and the Pony Commonwealth are at each others’ throats. The Our Worlds League gets on everycreature’s nerves, it seems like. So, yeah, plenty of work to go around for ponies like us,” she paused for a moment, then hastily added, “and kirin,” the twins nodded in unison.

“Who are all of these―what about the Celestia League?” the purple mare asked.

“They dissolved a long time ago,” Squelch explained, “as I remember it from history, Queen Twilight basically told every system that they could do whatever they wanted, and so they did. By that time, half the systems in the old League had left anyway, so it was kind of a foregone conclusion no matter what she said.

“Whole galaxy kind of went to shit for a while there though. A lot of very brutal wars. Lot of creatures died. Lot of records, technology, and infrastructure was lost and had to be rebuilt.

“So, a little over three hundred years ago, the Queen stepped in and set up ComSpark to try and ‘civilize’ the wars a little, along with the Mercenary Review Board to regulate groups like ours. It’s actually been going pretty smoothly since then.”

“Smoothly?” the purple alicorn remarked, sounding mildly taken aback. Squelch nodded, “but creatures have been fighting almost constantly ever since?”

The unicorn nodded, “it’s a big galaxy,” she said, “some planet somewhere is getting annexed on any given day. But most of the destruction is kept to a minimum...ish.”

“That’s not ‘smooth’, that’s horrible!” the alicorn protested indignantly, “why doesn’t everycreature just stop fighting?!”

“Because food doesn’t grow on―” the unicorn caught herself and rolled her eyes and let out a defeated sigh, “okay, so maybe food does grow on trees,” she allowed, ignoring a pair of snickers from the kirin mechanics, “but there are only so many trees in the galaxy, and a lot of creatures! Same goes for mana crystals and clean water. In order for somecreature to have any, other creatures have to go without.

“Curiously enough, a lot of creatures are willing to fight hoof and claw to not be part of the latter group,” she smirked at the alicorn.

“That’s ridiculous!” Twilight spat, “just terraform more planets to grow more food! Build more Dulmen Spheres around stars to harness the power needed to charge depleted mana crystals! There’s plenty of resources in the galaxy for everycreature!”

“That would be nice,” Squelch conceded, “except that terraforming is losmagitek that nopony’s been able to reproduce for centuries. Same goes for the ability to build Dulmen Spheres; and the ones that used to exist got destroyed in the wars before the Aris Conventions set guidelines to preserve civil infrastructure.

“So, yeah. What there is, is what there is; and there just isn’t enough for everycreature. It is what it is, and we just have to make the best of it.”

The alicorn was stunned to silence as she digested the news. It had to have been quite the sock, Slipshod reasoned to himself. She’d once known a galaxy of plentitude where all the beings on all the worlds lived in nominal peace with one-another. Now she had awoken to discover that that serene society was no more, and in its place was a galaxy at war with itself. Anypony could be forgiven for being overwhelmed by such a revelation and falling into despair―

“I’m going to fix it,” Twilight stated, her features set in determined lines, “all of it. I need you to take me to Equus,” she insisted, “help me defeat Chrysalis and take back the throne and I can―” Slipshod put his head in his hooves.

Squelch burst out laughing. There was nothing mirthful about the sound though. It was an incredulous, scathing, cackle that served as an indictment on the absurdity of the alicorn’s request, and promptly brought the violet mare to silence once more, “listen, ‘princess’,” she snorted, “I don’t ‘need’ to take you anywhere. Least of all Equus!” the alicorn opened her mouth to object, but the green unicorn held up a hoof to forestall her, “first and foremost: no creature goes to Equus without the expressed permission of the Queen Herself!

“There is exactly one JumpShip that has the jump point coordinates for the Faust System, and they don’t let just anypony dock up with them and hitch a ride,” Squelch explained. Then she leaned forward on the table, glaring at the alicorn, “but even if I could get authorization, I still wouldn’t take you. I mean, unless you have about five million C-bits tucked up your flank to pay us,” she smirked.

Twilight Sparkle scowled at the other mare, “if money is all you’re concerned with, the Royal Treasury has more than enough to cover whatever price you could care to name.”

“Not good enough,” the unicorn insisted, “we need payment up front.”

“I do not appreciate having my integrity questioned like this,” the alicorn growled, her ears folding back on her head in obvious anger, “if I tell you that you will be compensated for your aid, then you will be! I can meet any price that will satisfy your banal greed―”

“It’s not about greed,” Squelch shot back, her eyes flaring with barely contained rage, “it’s about transit fees! We’re currently the better part of three hundred lightyears from Equus. A ‘best time’ route would mean effectively renting out an entire JumpShip for the whole trip to do the minimum ten jumps required to get to Equus from our current position. They’d absolutely charge us for the cost of the potential business they’d lose catering to our intended destination, which would mean paying to cover all the available docking ports. Easily the better part of two hundred thousand C-bits, per jump, for a minimum of ten jumps. Realistically, it’d be closer to fifteen, but let’s be optimists for a moment.

“That’s over two million C-bits in just the jump fees alone. I also have a crew that needs to be fed and paid for the three months it’ll take us to get there,” Squelch pointed out, “Cookie’s good in the galley, but even he can’t whip up a hardy meal using only promises of future payment. I doubt the families of my crew can pay their rents using IOUs with your signature either.

“I didn’t spit out the number ‘five million’ because I’m a greedy bitch. That’s the number I gave because it’s just about the break even amount to get your flank to Equus and then get us back to where we are now so that we can get back to going about our lives,” the emerald mare held the gaze of the alicorn with her cool eyes, “I’m not even turning a profit on it. That’s the closest you’ll get to charity out here, princess.

“But if it’s not fucking good enough for you, then your only cheaper option is to march your happy flank out the airlock and hitchhike.”

Much to Slipshod’s surprise, his employer’s little tirade actually seemed to cow the alicorn somewhat. The feathers on her wings lost their puffed appearance and her expression waivered, shifting from ire to uncertainty and embarrassment.

Squelch hadn’t been exaggerating either. Co-opting a whole JumpShip for the journey was certainly the quickest option, at just under three months for the trip, ideally. It might even be the cheapest route too, seeing as how catching passage on whatever JumpShip just happened to be going in the vague direction of Equus could possibly end up meaning dozens of additional jumps and many more months of travel.

Normally, such transit costs were covered by a client when the Galloway set out for a job in another system, hardly making them much of an issue. This time though, traveling would be the job; and the coffers of the Steel Coursers was nowhere near deep enough to bankroll it upfront. Especially with such an uncertain payday. It wasn’t as though Chrysalis was just going to roll over and give up the throne to Twilight the moment the purple alicorn arrived in the system.

The alicorn’s ‘plan’ was barely worthy of the word.

“...I apologize,” the alicorn said, much to the surprise of the golden earth pony; and much to the satisfaction of Squelch, “I had failed to consider the logistics involved,” a wan smirk touched her lips, “I always had generals for that sort of thing.”

“What did you hope to accomplish when you got there anyway?” Slipshod asked of the purple mare, “if you think Equus is a changeling stronghold of some sort, then Chrysalis isn’t just going to let you walk up to the front door unopposed. You don’t honestly think one mare can stop the whole hive, do you?”

The alicorn looked at the stallion for a few seconds, seeming to study him before saying, “that’s all it took one time,” with a cryptic smile on her face, her eyes clouding for a brief moment before she sighed and shook her head, “but...you’re right. Having allies would be the smarter course of action. Not that I know where to find many of those now.”

Twilight’s expression fell into a deep frown. Then she abruptly sat up, her eyes wide as she looked back at Squelch, “these Disciples of Discord,” she began, “you said that they’re still around?”

The green unicorn shrugged, “they pop up from time to time on some world or other near the Periphery. They show up, cause a little mayhem, and then vanish again. Nopony knows where they’re operating from. ComSpark offers bounties on any kills on them, as well as for information on their whereabouts.

“So, if you happen to know where any of their old hideouts were a few centuries ago, we might be able to cash in on it and help you pay for this trip to Equus of yours…?”

Twilight gave the mare a flat look, “in my day, the Ninth Force Recon was based out of the Loki System. Even back then it was well developed and very populated. They never had any permanent installations anywhere else.

“However, if they truly are still active, and they do use their old regimental crest…?” she looked between Squelch and Slipshod. Both ponies nodded, “then it’s possible that they recognize that the Twilight on Equus right now isn’t the real me,” she said hopefully, “maybe that’s why they’ve been raiding: they’re resisting her rule, even after all this time!”

The other ponies at the table all exchanged unconvinced expressions, but the alicorn seemed undeterred, “I need to find them. To speak to their leadership. They might be able to help me!”

“Oh, yeah, sure,” Squelch rolled her eyes, “violent fanatic cultists are frequently known for philanthropy…” the mare said in a sarcastically drole tone that was quite evidently unappreciated by the purple alicorn.

“If they’re opposing Chrysalis, then it only makes sense to seek them out,” Twilight countered.

“Unless they’re not opposing her, but instead are after you,” the unicorn pointed out, “and by ‘you’, I mean Queen Twilight Sparkle, the alicorn who’s been ruling the Harmony Sphere for thousands of years.”

“I haven’t been―I mean, she hasn’t been ruling for―oh, never mind!” she let out an exasperated sigh, “I won’t be able to prove anything to you about that until I know how she’s changed the historical record anyway...

“But those have to be remnants of Discord’s Rangers,” the purple mare insisted, “they’re still using their old crest. The Ninth Recon knew I was ambushed and never made it to the meeting with the Empire. They have to know that the Twilight on Equus is an imposter!

“You’re right,” she continued, glancing at Slipshod, “I can’t do this on my own. I need allies. The descendants of the ponies who rescued me might be the closest thing that I have to friends left in this galaxy,” now she looked back to Squelch, “if you can’t get me to Equus, then can you at least help me make contact with these ‘Disciples’? I’m sure they’ll have the finances to cover whatever transit fees are involved,” she added with a wry smirk.

“Can I help you link up with avowed enemies of the Harmony Sphere?” the emerald unicorn mare propped her head up with a hoof, gazing levely at the alicorn, “violating somewhere around a dozen galactic laws and getting me and my whole crew blacklisted by both ComSpark and the MRB?

“Sure. For fifty million C-bits. To cover the cost of all the money we’ll never make again because we’ll have to flee to the Periphery and live out the rest of our days in hiding.

“I’m sure the mare that couldn’t manage five million can come up with ten times that amount without any issue whatsoever.”

Twilight narrowed her eyes at the unicorn, “you know, sarcasm is a sign of a weak mind.”

“Well, right now this ‘weak mind’ controls a ship, a crew, and whether or not you’ll spend the rest of your life―which, as I understand it, for alicorns is quite a long time―in a dungeon in the Queen’s palace on Equus,” there was no amusement whatsoever in the smile she was directing at the alicorn, “so what’s that say about the weakness of your mind, exactly?”

“Nopony knows how to contact the Disciples,” Slipshod interjected, drawing Twilight away from the deathly cold glare she was shooting his employer. Nothing productive was going to come from the pair of mares trading barbs with each other, “they show up without warning, raid some garrisons, and then withdraw back out of the Harmony Sphere. There’s no way for anypony to just ‘take you to meet them’.”

The violet mare seemed to deflate a little, “I see.”

“Well, this has been a profoundly ‘enlightening’ conversation; but I think that I’ve heard all that I need to,” Squelch said, standing up from her seat, “you can’t help us, and you can’t afford to hire us to help you. You’ll be secured in the brig until we reach Canis. Then you’ll be given over to the local ComSpark rep and you can be their problem,” and with that, the emerald unicorn strode from the room, Valkyrie, Doc Dee and the kirin twins following closely behind her.

Slipshod watched them all leave, looking furtively between the door and the alicorn. The ‘interrogation’ hadn’t gone quite as well as it could have, honestly. He hadn’t counted on Twilight being so inflexible. Squelch was a good mare when it came down to it. She did right by her crew at the end of the day. The alicorn had, at multiple points, insulted her integrity and suggested endangering the wellbeing of everypony onboard. Neither of those were ways to get the unicorn on your side.

The stallion had to wonder how well those ancient negotiations that Twilight had been prevented from attending would have gone with an attitude like that...

“The others seemed quite surprised by all my talk of changelings,” the alicorn said in a low, even, tone from where she was standing in the front of the room. The pair of guardsmares at her flanks were still standing rigidly at attention.

Slipshod didn’t immediately reply, taken aback by the unexpected comment. He was also a little curious why her escorts hadn’t ushered their charge to the brig yet, like Squelch had ordered them to. He gave an uneasy laugh, “I mean, you did just tell us that a bunch of shape-shifting monsters have been controlling the galaxy for the last five hundred years and nopony knows about it. That’s a bit hard to swallow.”

“You misunderstand me,” Twilight corrected him, regarding the stallion with a cool gaze, “I said: ‘the others’ seemed surprised. You...on the other hoof…”

The stallion went perfectly still. A cold knot formed in the pit of his stomach. He fought through the crawling sense of dread that her fixed gaze evoked within him and forced out a laugh that sounded a lot more nervous than he might have preferred. Why weren’t her guards saying or doing anything? “Heh...trust me, I’m just as surprised as everypony else! I’m just really cool under pressure, you know? Comes with being an experienced ‘Steed pilot. You know how it is, right?”

The purple alicorn maintained her stare, her gaze seeming to burrow right through the stallion. He felt himself swallow nervously even as he tried to maintain his uneasy smile, “...you called them a ‘hive’. If you’ve never heard of changelings before, how did you know they were a ‘hive’?”

“Umm…” before the stallion could muster a reply, her horn, which Slipshod only just now noticed had been glowing with a faint aura already, flashed and filled the room with purple light. Slipshod winced, briefly blinded by the brilliant pulse of magic, but the light quickly faded away, seeming to leave the room exactly as it had been.

Well...perhaps not exactly as it had been. The stallion didn’t know what it was at first, but something felt...off. He couldn’t put his hoof on it, but he suddenly felt...exposed. The alicorn’s expression remained as hard and impassive as it had been, but there was now an additional element of animosity in her amethyst eyes. The armored mares behind her continued to remain apparently oblivious to everything that was happening, not reacting in the slightest. The earth pony suspected that the veneer of magic surrounding them had something to do with it. Some sort of paralysis spell, perhaps?

Slipshod couldn’t stop himself from looking away beneath her glare. That was when he saw it. He caught sight of a powered down display mounted on the wall beside him. Without being lit up, the jet screen functioned almost exactly like a mirror. In it, he could see his reflection.

Only, it was not a golden earth pony stallion that was looking back at him. It was a glistening black equine form. It had a pair of wide, solid pale blue eyes, framed by a jagged maw and a curved horn emerging from its forehead. Delicate gossamer wings peaked out from behind its shoulders.

It was a changeling.


Slipshod panicked and bolted for the door. He wasn’t sure why. Being seen like this by the rest of the ship was hardly going to do him any favors. Where did he think that he was even going to go? They were in space! There was nowhere for him to run. Not that he was doing a lot of it at the moment, the stallion realized. His legs were moving, but no progress was being made, on account of his hovering a foot over the deck plating. The alicorn had him enveloped in a telekinetic field and was already pulling him back towards her.

Soon the unfortunate changeling found himself turned to face the stern gaze of his captor. Her expression was cool and detached. It was the face of a pony who was weighing what to do with a piece of trash that they had just picked up off the deck...and that tossing it in the incinerator wasn’t necessarily off the table.

Slipshod’s mouth was moving for a good three seconds before he was actually able to coax any words out of it, “I-I-I can explain! Don’t kill me!”

Twilight’s lip curled back into a sneer as she glared down at the carapassed equine, “by all means: explain to me what you’re doing here. Explain Chrysalis’ plan. Explain how to defeat her. And after you have explained everything to my satisfaction, I might―might―not kill you.”

“I’m hiding!”

“I can see that much,” the mare growled, “I want to know why?! What good does infiltrating this ship do for Chrysalis? She’s cunning, yes, but there’s no way that she could have known that this ship would stumble across me. Unless she has a spy on every ship in the Harmony Sphere?”

“No! I mean, I-I-I don’t think she does,” the stallion stammered. He could feel the magic field that was holding him slowly constricting all over his whole body, crushing him. It wasn’t painful, just uncomfortable; but there was no doubt in his mind that she could change that on a whim if she found his answers to be unsatisfactory, “I honestly don’t know! I’m not a part of the hive anymore!”

“You don’t honestly expect me to believe that?” the alicorn scoffed derisively, “your whole species is based on lies and deception.”

“It’s true! I swear―!” Slipshod winced as he felt the field constrict suddenly, squeezing the breath from his lungs. She was going to pop him like a balloon!

Lies! Do you expect me to believe that the first drone I come across just conveniently happens to be a deserter? Do you take me for a fool?!”

“I’m not a deserter!” the stallion gasped desperately, fighting for every breath in his bid to explain himself as quickly as possible before the angry alicorn finally crushed him to death, “I just...completed my mission already! The Queen has no more use for me, so I’m left to my own devices; with no way to contact the hive―!”

Another sharp squeeze. He was pretty sure he felt something crack that time, “what mission did she give you? Why not give you another assignment if your previous one was completed?”

“My mission was to leave Equus,” the changeling managed to get out in a pained breath, “changelings are only ever given one mission their entire life! Most take a lifetime to complete...I was just...unlucky,” he gasped, looking desperately at the alicorn for mercy, “please...I mean no harm…”

The mare snorted derisively, “what sort of mission is that for one of Chrysalis’ agents?”

The magical hold relaxed slightly. Slipshod gasped loudly as he managed to take in the desperately needed breath, which flowed almost immediately into a hacking fit as his lungs continued to burn from their mistreatment, “the only assignment that mattered any longer for me,” he spat out contemptuously. His disdain wasn’t directed at the alicorn though.

“Explain yourself. Now.”

The changeling swallowed and nodded. He was dead if she didn’t like his answer, and she was most certainly not going to appreciate a lie. Slipshod wasn’t convinced that she was going to accept the truth, but it was his best shot of surviving the next five minutes, “the academies on Equus,” he began, “that’s how Chrysalis gets her agents in place.

“Everypony who’s anypony ‘knows’ that the best universities and ‘Steed academies in the Sphere are on Equus. Every family with the connections, money, or means to do so, sends at least one of their foals there. Like Squelch said: access to the Faust System is tightly controlled. Only one JumpShip has the jump coordinates. When the new academy attendees arrive...they’re cocooned, replaced, and drained immediately.

“From day one, the pony studying under their identity is a changeling assigned to take their place. We go through all the classes, do all the course work, write home to our―their―families. All of it. We become them from that moment on. When we graduate, we’re sent to our new families. Those families that had the wealth and political power to procure a slot in one of those premiere schools.

“We live out our lives in those families, funneling back information to the Queen, and taking orders from her. She has her hooves in every planetary government and the leadership of every major mercenary unit in the Harmony Sphere. Nothing in the galaxy happens without her knowledge, or say-so.

“You asked why she hasn’t wiped out everypony over the last five hundred years? It’s because she doesn’t have to. She controls everything already, and the whole galaxy sends her a steady supply of creatures to feed the hive back on Equus. She has no reason to do anything more than she already has. Whether anypony knows it or not: they’re just as much one of her puppets as any drone.

“That’s why nocreature knows about changelings too, by the way: she’s had centuries of agents in place rewriting the history books. She has agents in most levels of every planetary government, so she gets to control the school curriculums. Creatures know what Chrysalis wants them to know. Why would anycreature think it had to be different?”

“...and Thorax and the reformed changelings?”

Slipshod swallowed, knowing that the alicorn wasn’t going to like the answer, “the Queen deals with traitors only one way,” he said softly.

“All of them?” the alicorn asked breathlessly.

He nodded slowly, “it took a while,” he admitted, “but nothing’s easier for a love-starved changeling agent to sense out than a love-emitting reformed changeling. However, they couldn’t tell the difference until it was too late.

“In all the fighting going on back then, nopony really noticed the genocide until after it had happened. A couple generations later, and they were just anecdotes. A few generations after that...well...creatures have had other things to focus on besides some obscure, extinct, race of bugs.”

The best word that the stallion could come up with to describe Twilight’s expression right now was: haunted. Nopony else might know, but Slipshod was aware of the connection that the alicorn had had with the reformed changelings and their leader. Chrysalis didn’t feel a need to keep the extermination of her enemies a secret from her drones. It was actually meant to be a source of pride for them, really. Though it had taken a thousand years, she had rebuilt her hive, and exterminated every last descendent of the drones that had abandoned her.

All without the average Harmony Sphere denizen noticing either, as it had all taken place behind the scenes. The discrete nature of the extermination of the reformed changelings had been essential, actually. Stoking explicit hatred and animosity and creating anti-reformed changeling propaganda that would have been required to fuel an overt campaign of genocied would have created a long-lasting cultural memory among the galaxy’s inhabitants.

By letting it all take place in the background, while everypony was too busy worrying about the wars and destruction that they brought, it meant that creatures had just sort of...woken up one day and realized that they hadn’t seen a reformed changeling in a few weeks. Then a few months. Then years, and decades, and...now nopony thought about them at all.

It was like they’d never existed at all; and all with honestly very little massaging of the history books.

This alicorn, however, didn’t need a book to know about them. She’d been present for their emergence as a species, and had spent a millennium interacting with and guiding them. Now they were all gone. Wiped out to a bug by his own race.

That was it. Twilight was either going to kill him now, or...well, honestly Slipshod didn’t see much of an ‘or’ at the moment. Knowing the truth didn’t make him any less of a changeling. He was still the same reviled creature that this alicorn despised; and thereby complicit in the atrocities committed against her by his race through association. He could beg for her mercy, but he didn’t have anything to actually use as a bargaining chip in exchange for his life.

The purple mare regarded him for a long while in silence, studying him intently. Searching for signs of deception. Finally, she said, “and what about you? Do you mean to tell me that this mercenary outfit was significant enough to warrant Chrysalis’ attention?”

“I doubt it,” the stallions snorted, “I’m here for me, not the Queen. Like I said: I completed my assignment. We only get the one.”

“What was your mission?”

“To leave Equus,” the magical field restraining him began to constrict once more. The stallion cringed, “I swear that was it! That was all I was directed to do!”

The telekinetic field did not ease as the alicorn growled at him, “what manner of ‘mission’ is that?”

“The only one left to me after my host’s family got themselves executed for treason!” he cried out desperately.

Twilight’s magic eased―slightly, “explain.”

Slipshod coughed once more, though it was still hard to draw a full breath, “while I was attending the academy, my host’s family became involved in a plot to depose the Archon of the Pony Commonwealth. They were caught, and the Archon had them executed. When that happened, there was no longer a House for me to infiltrate and report back on or influence.

“All that was left for me to do...was leave...and never go back,” he spat out, bitterly.

“Why not simply have you assume a different identity?” Twilight asked skeptically, “if there was no longer a family to infiltrate, Chrysalis could have―”

“Because ‘Slipshod’ existed,” the changeling responded with a defeated sigh.


“Slipshod existed. So he had to keep existing. If he just...vanished...it would leave a hole in the records.”

“What would that matter?” the alicorn asked with a derisive snort, “you don’t mean to say that Chrysalis cares that much about the identity of one pony that no longer had any use to her. Why keep a useless agent in the field like that?”

The stallion looked up at the princess, “hundreds of thousands of students are enrolled in the academies on Equus from around the Harmony Sphere every year,” he explained, “maybe even millions. The average course of study is five years. That’s a lot of time for the political landscape to change somewhere in the galaxy. It’s not uncommon for a family to fall out of favor, suffer an accident, or get wiped out down to the last pony because they got involved in a coup,” he said with a sardonic smile.

“You’re right, if one or two ponies vanished without a trace, it would hardly really matter. Ponies go missing all the time in the galaxy. But we’re not talking about one or two; and we’re not talking about your common plebian creature either. We’re talking about potentially hundreds of members of the highest echelons of the galaxy’s societal elite every year. Ponies with connections to massive interstellar corporations, planetary governments―ponies with high profiles. For centuries. Over time, that adds up to hundreds of thousands of creatures directly tied to galactic leadership that would be unaccounted for.

“Eventually, that would get noticed.

“Look at my case: my family plotted to snatch the throne of the Archon right out from under him! He killed my host’s father, mother, and eight siblings in retaliation. The only reason that he spared Slipshod was because it was conclusively proven that the plot didn’t start until after he’d left for Equus, and they could find no evidence that any mention of the plot had been made to me―er, him. Which is true; I didn’t know a damn thing about it until the news of their execution broke.

“The Archon publicly absolved Slipshod of any wrongdoing and granted him a full pardon. He did that to send a message to any other potential plotters: ‘turn in the members of your family that are traitors, and I won’t punish you too’.

“But what if the Archon hadn’t been feeling so ‘magnanimus’? What if he wanted to avoid a potential situation where I went on a crusade for vengeance against him?” the changeling shrugged his shoulders, “I mean, that’s not exactly a super unlikely scenario, is it?” honestly, from what the stallion knew of his host, it was very likely something that the real Slipshod would have gone through with, “sending out some assassins to tie up a loose end like Slipshod was arguably the more pragmatic thing for the Archon to do in that situation.

“So let’s say he does that. Let’s say a bunch of highly skilled and motivated assassins go out to track down and kill Slipshod. How do they find him?” he asked rhetorically, “they follow his trail obviously. A trail that leads them to Equus. With no record of Slipshod ever making port at any other system in the Harmony Sphere after leaving Equus.

“There are records of him arriving on Equus. Transcripts of the classes he took. A record of the dorm he stayed in. A record of him graduating as a top tier―” the alicorn arched a brow, “...mid tier,” the changeling grunted, “BattleSteed pilot. Maybe even a record that he left.

“But no record that he actually arrived on any other world. Their trail would end on Equus. So where are they going to go to start looking for him?

“The last thing that Chrysalis wants are teams of assassins finding a way to sneak into the Faust System, crawling through Canterlot looking for loose ends to tie up, and risk having them stumble over…something else.

“So, yeah...there had to be a record that ‘Slipshod’ left Equus and―more importantly―arrived...somewhere. It didn’t matter where I made port, or even where I went from there, as long as it wasn’t back to Equus,” the changeling growled, “the moment I got stamped in at the gate on Simeron, I’d ‘completed’ my assignment as far as the Queen was concerned. What I did after that...didn’t matter. I was no longer part of a noble House in the Commonwealth government that I could influence and control. I was useless to her.”

“What exactly did she expect you to do once making port?” the alicorn asked.

He shrugged, “die, probably,” at the mare’s skeptical expression, he elaborated, “we’re supposed to be returning to the robust social support network of our host’s family and friends. Which means we don’t have to go looking for love to feed on. We can just take whatever we need from the ponies in our host’s social circle. We’re not taught how to scavenge for ourselves, because we don’t need to. So, most changelings that don’t have that support structure...they just...wither away after a few weeks.”

“So how did you avoid dying then?” there was an edge to the alicorn’s voice that suggested she expected to not like the answer she was going to receive, and that she would be responding appropriately.

“I got lucky,” he informed her, swallowing nervously, “I walked into a merc Hiring Hall, figuring ‘battlefield comradery’ might be able to sustain me, you know? Squelch showed up the next day, saw I was willing to work for barely anything despite being highly―er...decently skilled, and brought me aboard the Galloway.

“Now I have a whole ship full of ponies that I―erk!”

“How many?” the mare demanded in a deathly growl, her magical hold tightening around the changeling’s throat, “how many have you killed on this ship?”

Nrrk―” the changeling couldn’t breathe at all beneath the crushing weight of the alicorn’s telekinetic grasp on him. Every last mote of air had been wrung out on him. Even his heart was hard-pressed to get in a full beat beneath the intense pressure surrounding it. All that he could do was thrash his head desperately from side to side in the negative.

By some miracle, the field loosened and he found breath once more, “none!” he assured her, desperately, “I’ve never killed anypony,” hastily, he amended, “on the ship anyway. I mean, I’ve killed a lot of ponies in my ‘Steed―agh!” another tight squeeze, “that’s literally my job!” he wailed. Twilight let out an annoyed grunt but relaxed her magic nonetheless.

“I’ve never husked anypony, I swear!” he specified as quickly and sincerely as he could, “I’ve never had to! There’re dozens of ponies on this ship that care about me; I don’t have to drain anypony. I can just...sort of ‘graze’ whenever I want. I even make sure I’m not taking too much from any one pony. I have a rota!” he furiously tapped at the terminal on his suit’s fetlock. This earned him a withering look from the alicorn.

“Bodies leave questions and increase stress,” he said hurriedly, “stressed ponies don’t radiate a lot of warm and fuzzy feelings, you know? I go to a lot of trouble to keep the ponies on this ship happy. Karaoke, poetry readings, riffing, spotting, art modeling―I do whatever ponies want to make them feel happier about being a hundred lightyears from home!

“I don’t husk them,” the changeling repeated emphatically, adding, “I never would.”

“Fine. I believe you,” the stallion let out a long sigh of relief. It, however, proved to be short-lived as a fresh constriction of her magic quickly reminded the shape-shifter that his fate yet remained precarious, “but I still think it’s too dangerous to let a changeling stay on this ship. The risk that you’ll report my presence to Chrysalis is too great.”

Slipshod’s blood grew cold. His mind worked frantically to think of some way to stay the princess’ hoof and remain alive. Unfortunately, his panic made it hard to think straight. He blurted out, “but they’ll want to know why you just killed me for no reason!”

The alicorn frowned, “...other than you clearly being a changeling? The exact creature I just finished warning them about? You’re the proof that I need to convince them to aid me in defeating Chrysalis and save the galaxy.”


The changeling gasped as the magic surrounding him suddenly began to press down around him on all sides with rapidly increasing force. He’d be crushed to death in seconds. Desperately he yelled out, “they’ll turn on each other! You’ll panic the ship!”

Mercifully, the pressure abated once more...barely. At the very least, the stallion was able to regain enough breath to plead his case for life, “Slipshod has―I’ve―been with these ponies for years! They never suspected a thing. If you kill me and reveal that their loyal comrade, pilot, friend, and former lover, was a ‘monster’ living among them this whole time,” the changeling panted, “exactly how long do you think it’ll be before they start wondering who else isn’t who they say they are?”

Twilight snorted, “you’re the only changeling on this ship. All I have to do is tell them that.”

“They’ve known me for years,” Slipshod reiterated, “you’ve been conscious for less than a day! You really think that you can kill their best pilot and they’ll go along with it? That you just happened to find the exact kind of ‘mythical monster’ you just told them about ten minutes ago?

“That’s damned convenient, don’t you think? About as convenient as this ship stumbling across the ‘real’ Twilight Sparkle who is ranting about the one who’s been ruling from Equus for a thousand years being a fake

Damned convenient, isn’t it?” the changeling glared at the alicorn, who he was gratified to see wasn’t looking quite so sure of her plans anymore. Though the audible gritting of her teeth suggested that she still hadn’t discounted killing him quite yet. At the very least though, she was back to merely considering killing him, and not actually actively doing it.

Slipshod felt that was a marked improvement on his situation, and so he risked pressing his luck just a little further, “mercenaries are a suspicious, pragmatic, bunch. It’s how we survive. You’d be asking them to accept a lot of things really quickly if you hoof them over a dead changeling immediately after telling them we exist. Doc’s given me a hundred physicals, patched me up a dozen times. He never found anything to cause him to suspect I wasn’t exactly what I looked like,” the stallion pointed out, “...which will make everypony start to wonder if it’s not actually you who managed to fool Doc.

“Finding the actual Chrysalis locked away on a cultist transport after being defeated by the real Queen Twilight who is very much still ruling from her throne on Equus is at least as believable as the story you’re feeding them, isn’t it?”

Doubt. The changeling could see it clear on the alicorn’s face. Just enough of it for the princess to stay her magic for the moment and consider alternate resolutions. She resented him. Slipshod didn’t need to be empathic to know that. Her eyes very clearly revealed exactly how much she wanted to transform him into the first of many corpses that she was ready to make of Chrysalis’ drones on her crusade to reclaim her throne and truly free ponykind, “...what do you want?”

“You’re not going to believe me,” he told her, a wry smile crossing his fanged muzzle.

“That’s a given,” the alicorn sneered.

“Fair. Fine: I want Chrysalis to go down.”

The mare’s eyes widened in stark surprise for a second, before the purple mare schooled her features and narrowed her gaze at the changeling, “why would a drone turn on its Queen?”

“She’s no Queen to me,” Slipshod sneered back at the alicorn, “I told you she cast me out to die, didn’t I? I devoted myself to my Queen―mind, body, and soul―and her last order to me was to leave and never return. My fate was to die alone and forgotten within a week. If Squelch hadn’t hired me...I probably would have.

“Fuck ‘er. This crew has done more for me than the hive ever has. Seeing it burned to the ground around her? Oh, I’d die one happy bug to see that,” the changeling’s grin was predatory.

“Assuming that I believe anything that you’ve told me,” Twilight said, still a note of doubt in her tone, “your commander still intends to give me over to Chrysalis. Neither of us get our revenge if that happens.”

“You let me handle that,” Slipshod insisted, “I know Squelch. I can get her to change her mind about you. She’ll keep you onboard. However,” he stressed pointedly, “you have to promise to play nice too,” the alicorn didn’t seem to like him taking that tone with her, but the changeling wasn’t going to be cowed this time. Twilight had been determined to undermine his efforts to defend her to his boss up to this point, and it was going to finally stop.

There was hardly any point in him sticking his neck out for the alicorn any further if she was going to save Squelch the trouble and just cut it off again, “hey, you already tried throwing your high-and-mighty weight around and that didn’t work out now, did it?” her glare intensified, “this is Squelch’s ship. Her crew. She calls the shots. She’s the ‘princess’ around here, got it?

“If you want her to help you, you’ve got to prove you’re willing to help her. That’s going to mean piloting that ‘Steed of yours and earning some C-bits. Maybe you don’t know any Disciple hideouts; fine. But you were the fucking Princess of the Celestia League! You have to know where some sort of ‘top secret’ R&D lab or something was. A military base that the galaxy’s forgotten about. Something that we can raid or salvage for a quick C-bit.

“You give her that, she’ll warm up to you, and then we’ll see about finding a way to contact the Disciples and see if they really are what you think they are. Alright?”

The alicorn stared at him, considering. Slipshod waited, tensely, for her response. He was asking a lot of the mare, he knew that. He was one of her avowed enemies. A―former―servant to the creature that slaughtered her protectors and usurped her throne. Chrysalis may not have wiped out the whole galaxy, but that fact was largely immaterial when compared to the billions who’d died over the centuries because of her. Potentially hundreds of millions husked on Equus alone, in that time.

Now Twilight was supposed to trust him to keep her safe. Trust that she’d encountered a changeling drone that was ready to turn on his hive. All because he’d been given a bum assignment. Drones like him were expected to lay down their lives for the hive and be grateful for the privilege if doing so, right?

Once upon a time, that would probably have been the case, Slipshod admitted to himself.

Then he’d actually been faced with the prospect of death. A day after stepping off the transport onto Simeron, the stark reality of his situation had finally hit Slipshod. For the first time in his life, love would not be delivered to him. He was feeling hunger. Weakness. Loneliness.


His devotion to Chrysalis began to waver in the face of those feelings. In the face of a slow, painful, death through starvation. Since then, that wavering had evolved into despisal. How dare his Queen cast her loyal servant into the cold like that! He’d done nothing to deserve such a fate. He’d served her―loyally―all his life. He’d pledged himself to her cause!

She’d sentenced him to die in return.

Fuck her.

He’d stewed on those feelings of betrayal for two years. Frustrated all the more by the knowledge that he’d never be able to do anything that could harm Chrysalis.

Until now.

Here was his chance to not just hurt his former queen, but to utterly destroy all that she had been building for half a millenia! The ultimate revenge. Casting her into the cold. Alone. Unsupported. With no course of action left available to her...but to die.

Slipshod would have his revenge. And so he would save Twilight from her fate as well. He needed her. All he needed to do was to convince Squelch that the purple alicorn was more valuable alive and onboard the Galloway than in the clutches of ComSpark.

All the princess had to do...was put her trust in him right now.

“...Very well,” she finally said. Her magic finally released the changeling completely.

Slipshod didn’t even try to hide his immense relief, letting out a long sigh and slumping against the wall. He briefly closed his eyes and the room glowed with a flash of green firelight. When it faded, the ebony changeling was gone, and in its place was a golden earth pony once more. He smiled up at the alicorn, “thank you,” his eyes darted briefly to the two security mares, who were still standing stoically by the door, “I’ll go talk with Squelch. She’ll probably be by in an hour or so to talk with you.

“Agree to whatever deal she offers you, okay? Please? I promise it’ll be the best you’re going to get,” he could see the reservation on the mare’s face, but there was little help for it, “we’ll get you to Equus. I don’t know when, and I don’t know how―yet,” he insisted, “but we will bring down Chrysalis.”

Twilight regarded him for a long moment, “...I once knew a drone who turned on Chrysalis,” she said, “a long time ago. He went on to do great things.

“I don’t get the impression that you’re anything like him,” the stallion wasn’t sure how he was supposed to feel about that assessment. It hadn’t sounded like a compliment though, “I guess we’ll just have to see if that makes a difference.”

The purple mare turned away from him and walked back over to her escorts. As she neared, both security ponies began to move again, appearing to be completely oblivious to anything that had transpired during the last ten minutes. Both mares dutifully ushered their charge out the door to take her to the brig as they’d been ordered.

Slipshod took a few minutes to compose himself before leaving the briefing room as well. Step two of his plan was almost complete: keeping Twilight alive and on the DropShip. He just needed to convince his ex-wife that the alicorn could be an asset to them. Just because he wasn’t one hundred percent clear on how he was going to do that was only a minor issue. He’d figure out something.

After that...well, things somehow got a little more complicated…

“I should have Dee give you another lookover. Apparently Emery File hit you over the head harder than he thought,” the emerald unicorn said flatly to the stallion standing near the door of her quarters, “because you’ve clearly lost your damn mind!”

This was going well. He could tell, “we have a Rainbow Dash, but we don’t have a pilot for it,” the earth pony began again, being sure to keep careful control of his tone and expression. He was trotting on thin ice as it was, and he was only going to get the one shot at this. If he pushed Squelch too hard on this and she shut him down, there was little chance that she’d be willing to revisit the topic of what to do with their alicorn captive prior to reaching Canis orbit.

“There are plenty of pilots looking for work on Canis,” she pointed out.

“Okay, yes, but,” he conceded, “how many of them will be willing to work for just room and board? Twilight won’t care about C-bits. Three hots and a cot is all it’d take with her.”

Squelch arched a brow, “‘Twilight’? You’re not trying to say you believe that crazy mare―”

“I don’t care what she calls herself,” he insisted, “Twilight, Discord, she could claim that she’s the First Archon of the Pony Commonwealth for all I care! For all you care, too. Be honest,” he sighed, “since when have you given a damn about anypony’s past on this ship? I know a dozen ponies on the crew who are a fugitive wanted on some planet or other.

“Shit, the Archon has a modest price on my head!”

“But none of them―or you―are wanted by ComSpark,” the unicorn shot back, flashing the stallion a knowing look, “there’s a huge difference there. The Steel Coursers won’t be blackballed by the MRB because of Axel Rod’s unpaid back taxes on Serval. But if ComSpark finds out we’re harboring a Disciple―a mare who could turn out to be a Disciple leader―”

“Exactly!” The mare balked at his outburst, her eyes widening in surprise. The stallion smiled and continued, “don’t you get it? That pony very well could be a Disciple leader; and she’s determined to make contact with them and get them to take her back to their base!”

“Which is exactly the problem,” Squelch informed him flatly.

“Is it?”


Slipshod grinned, “I think it’s an opportunity,” he stressed. He was unsurprised that the green mare still appeared unconvinced, “if we hoof her over to ComSpark right now, we’ll collect a pittance of a bounty. You know that. The price offered for Disciples is a flat rate; they don’t care about rank when paying out. They’ll interrogate her, but because she’s obviously a crazy fanatic, you and I both know she’ll never talk. Not to ComSpark.

“But to us…? She just might. She wants us to take her to meet the Disciples so that they can take her back to their base. They just might take the rest of us along too,” he pointed out, “at which point we’ll have the coordinates for a Disciple base to turn over to ComSpark for a real payday!

“All we have to do in the meantime is entertain this mare’s delusions.”

It was obvious that Squelch wasn’t completely sold on the whole idea yet, but Slipshod didn’t hear her shooting him down outright, so that was a hopeful sign, “we don’t even know how to make contact with the Disciples. Nopony does―not even her apparently!”

“That’s the easy part,” he assured her, “we just have to wait until we encounter some of their units in the field. We’ve fought them before. Someday we’re bound to run into them again,” he said with a shrug, “Twilight’ll accept that reality. Which means she won’t complain about how long it’s taking or anything like that. She’ll keep helping us―keep fighting for us for free―for months, if not years. It’s not like any of us will have any control over where and when the Disciples’ll pop up, right?

“But, someday they will, and we can have her comm them and see if she can convince them of who she is, or who they think she is, or however that works.”

“You realize that your plan relies on her having told us the truth about Queen Twilight being an imposter, right?”

Slipshod was quiet for a moment, considering the company’s commander, “...and what if she is?” he asked carefully. The unicorn’s frown deepened and she was about to chastise him again, but the stallion interrupted her rebuttal, “what would that change? Honestly? How would whoever’s actually in charge on Equus affect anything that you and I do out here in the Sphere?”

Squelch stared at the golden earth pony, “Sweet Celestia, you do believe her, don’t you?” the mare let out a dry laugh, shaking her head, “a mare bats her eyes at you and you start falling all over yourself to get under her tail. I don’t know why I’m surprised―”

“It’s not like that,” the stallion said coolly, gaining the unicorn’s attention once more, “you know it isn’t. Don’t make this about me, or ‘us’. This is about the company and what’s best for the crew. That’s it.”

“Harboring a fugitive is ‘what’s best for the crew’?”

“No, but giving them a chance at a big score is. The kind of score that we’ll get for telling ComSpark about a Disciple base. That’ll be a lot more than a bounty on a Disciple member.”

Squelch started shaking her head, “the risk involved is―”

“―is minimal,” Slipshod interrupted her, earning a skeptical frown from the unicorn, “it is! What risk is there, really? ComSpark blacklisting us? Only if they find out that Twilight was found on a Disciple wreck. How many ponies on this ship are making regular reports to ComSpark about our personnel? You’re certainly not. ComSpark doesn’t care about the hiring practices of every little merc outfit in the Sphere.

“The MRB’s going to want a Merc ID number,” Slipshod allowed, “but it takes all of five minutes for prospective pilots to register,” the stallion gestured at the terminal on Squelch’s desk, “you can even do it for her right now!”

“And how are we supposed to explain her being an alicorn?” Squelch asked sardonically.

“How do you explain it?” he shot back. To which the mare didn’t have an answer at the ready, “only a few ponies know about the results of Doc Dee’s exams. He’s got that whole ‘patient confidentiality’ thing going on, so he’s not going around telling the crew she’s the real deal. We can tell ponies whatever we want to. She’s a pegasus with delusions of grandeur. A unicorn with a feather fetish. A genetic freak. Whatever.

“The point is that ComSpark has no way of knowing who we have on board without us explicitly telling them about it.”

“Alright,” the unicorn conceded reluctantly, though it was clear that she still wasn’t entirely convinced of the efficacy of his plan, and voiced another of her concerns, “but how exactly do you expect to convince her to let us turn in her Disciple ‘allies’?”

“We don’t tell her we will,” Slipshod replied simply, “you have a unique opportunity to double-dip here. Triple dip, even! We get the help of an experienced and competent ‘Steed pilot essentially for free for an indeterminate length of time. We get to collect a reward from the Disciples for returning their ‘princess’. And we can collect a bounty from ComSpark for telling them where the Disciples are hiding,” he smiled at the mare.

It stung a little to play her like this, the earth pony thought to himself. That was the trade-off for knowing her as well as he did: he knew how to get her to do what he wanted by appealing to her motivations. Made all the more uncomfortable by the fact that he had no intention of allowing her to capitalize on that last part. In order for he and Twilight to get their revenge on Chrysalis, they very much needed for the Disciples to remain unmolested by ComSpark.

Hopefully, by the time the issue came up again, he’d have been able to convince Squelch that Twilight was the real deal, and that she’d been telling the truth about what had happened five hundred years ago. Her and the rest of the company. Most of them were genuinely decent ponies―he knew that much after years spent with some of them―and so would probably be all for helping to dislodge the changelings once and for all. Those that weren’t quite so altruistically-minded...well, they’d go along with it anyway as long as their paychecks continued to clear.

That was what happened when you didn’t concern yourself with fostering a sense of loyalty and devotion among your ‘subjects’, Chrysalis was about to learn: it didn’t take much more than enough zeros at the end of a payout for creatures to turn on you.

Squelch hadn’t been lying earlier when she’d offered to get Twilight to Equus for a few million C-bits. Had the purple alicorn had the cash on her right then and there, the Galloway would be docked at a JumpShip right now making the trip―assuming that Twilight knew the coordinates for an arrival jump into the Faust System. Queen Twilight was little more than a concept for most ponies. She was the ruler of Equus and the controlling interest behind ComSpark. But that was it. Nopony swore any sort of fealty to her, not even the leaders of the major star nations. Who ruled in Canterlot didn’t matter to anypony, not really. So why not lead a revolt to dethrone her if the money was good enough to balance out the risk involved?

The only thing that kept that from happening at any given moment was the fact that no group existed that would bankroll such an operation. ComSpark certainly wasn’t going to foot that bill. Neither were any of the other major powers in the Harmony Sphere, by virtue of the fact that they were being either passively or actively influenced by Chrysalis’ agents. Which was probably why Chrysalis felt so secure, despite no creature in the galaxy being her "loyal subject"―or even knowing she existed: there was no power in the galaxy that could rival her without her either knowing about it, or already actively controlling it to some extent through her network of changeling agents embedded directly into their hierarchy.

At least, not yet...

Squelch was massaging her chin with her hoof as she pondered the proposal, looking for the downside that would sour the whole deal. While even Slipshod would acknowledge it was hardly the greatest C-bit-earning opportunity for their outfit, it also wasn’t a bad one. ‘Steed pilots―especially the good ones―weren’t cheap. Getting potentially months, if not years, of work out of the alicorn for next to nothing was quite the fiscal incentive. And if she really did turn out to be the real deal, and the Disciples were grateful enough to pay out a reward for her return, all the better. Especially considering that making contact with the Disciples would only entail doing what they would have done anyway: taking on contracts to intercept their raiding parties.

Minimal risk. Reduced costs. High potential payout. The holy trinity of the ‘perfect’ mercenary contract.

It looked like the company’s owner came to the same conclusion in the end, “alright. We’ll try it your way,” the unicorn finally added, “get her to give up a cache, and I’ll keep her onboard as a pilot. We’re not going to go Disciple-hunting right this minute,” she added sternly, “but that kind of work is inevitable, and I’ll keep an ear out for potential incursions.

“If she plays nice, we’ll see about letting her try to make contact with them,” it was pretty clear that Squelch was dubious that any such effort would prove fruitful, but it ultimately didn’t cost them anything to let Twilight make radio contact with a Disciple raiding party if they encountered one in the future. If it didn’t work, oh well. That was the alicorn’s problem more than it was theirs.

“Thanks,” Slipshod said with a smile, “I’ll give her the good news.”

“While you’re there, get her measurements too,” the stallion blinked in surprise. His boss glared at him briefly and added, “for her uniform, you letch. I’ll have some barding picked up for her on Canis.”

Chapter 8: Highlander Gambit

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Slipshod nodded towards the armored pegasus stallion standing beside the door in the corridor, “hey, Flechette.”

“Sir,” came the curt reply. The prim and professional tone prompted an amused smirk from the golden earth pony. The feathered stallion was very ‘by the book’ while on duty, but that was in stark contrast to the sort of pony he was while out at the bar when they were planetside. Where he’d learned so many drinking games, Slipshod doubted he’d ever know.

He pressed the chime next to the door. A moment later, he heard a mare answer, “enter,” and so he did.

The purple alicorn was sitting at the room’s small desk―which was so minimal that it was honestly hardly worthy of the term―staring at the screen of the terminal mounted on it. She briefly glanced away to see who it was that had come to call on her. Slipshod didn’t miss the hardened glare that she briefly flashed at him before she looked away to resume her reading.

When the door closed behind him, she started speaking, “Chrysalis has been rather thorough,” the alicorn noted, gesturing a wingtip at the screen, “it’s rather surprising, honestly. I remember her being a lot more impulsive and short-sighted.”

Cautiously, the stallion looked to make sure that the door was really closed before responding, “yeah, well, you gave her a thousand years to come up with her plan. That’s a lot of time to consider every contingency.”

Twilight balked and turned once more to look at him, her eyes narrowed, “you know she was imprisoned?” he nodded. The mare jabbed a hoof at the screen, “this says it was only Tirek who was turned to stone.”

Again the earth pony―who only the two of them knew wasn’t really an earth pony―nodded in the affirmative, “we’re given the real history on Equus, along with the one that everycreature else is taught. Who else is the Queen supposed to boast to about ‘how she finally defeated every alicorn, once and for all!’?” his tone suggested that he was repeating an often-heard line of dialogue from his past―which he was.

Twilight snorted, “more cautious, but still as big a blowhard, I see.”

“That part’s probably only gotten worse since you last knew her,” Slipshod allowed, smiling thinly.

“...What happened to the other alicorns?” the purple mare asked cautiously, obviously dreading the possible answers that she could receive, “this says that Celestia and Luna died before I ascended. And that Cadence and Flurry Heart were killed by Tirek. I know that’s a lie, but...are they actually…?” her voice caught, unable to complete the question.

Slipshod spared her from having to, “dead?” he saw the fear in those amethyst eyes which had held little else but fire and fury nearly every other time she’d looked at him. It somehow made him feel more uncomfortable, “no,” he finally answered, watching Twilight let out a relieved breath, “they’re alive, but I don’t think that’s much consolation to any of them.

“Chrysalis delights in tormenting them. Daily. She reports the number of creatures who have died in the fighting in the Harmony Sphere to them every morning. She shows them vids of the battles. Especially any that involve a lot of collateral damage and civilian casualties.

“She won’t kill the three of them,” he assured her, “not anytime soon. The way Chrysalis sees it: she owes them at least another five hundred years of suffering, just to make things even between them.”

“Three?” Twilight latched onto the number, “who isn’t―”

“Flurry Heart,” Slipshod answered before her question finished. His mouth spread in a wry smile, “even the Queen doesn’t know what happened to her. The ‘real’ record shows that she did die,” the alicorn’s breath caught in her throat, “...but a body was never found.

“The Queen suspects that report was faked, but she never found any evidence one way or the other,” he shrugged.

“Could she be with the Disciples?” the princess asked hopefully.

Another shrug, “possible,” he admitted, “but even we don’t know that much for sure.”

She latched onto his wording, “but you do know something about the Disciples,” she prompted. The stallion nodded, “are they really the Ninth Force Recon?”

“That much I don’t know for sure,” he admitted to the mare, “I do know that some Celestia League Defense Force units went ‘missing’ shortly after the Queen replaced you. Around the same time that she started making waves with the rest of the League worlds that were petitioning for new leadership. There’s evidence that some units defected to the governments of those worlds.

“A few turned pirate, or just deserted altogether.

“The Disciples though,” he went on, “the Queen actually has a cocoon set aside, specially, for whoever’s leading them. They’ve been a particularly annoying thorn in her side.”

“How so?” Twilight asked, curious, “from everything I’ve read, they’re just raiding backwater planets. They hardly even seem to destroy much important infrastructure...”

That was true; on paper they actually appeared to look like something of a joke. The sort of group that any fresh merc pilot could cut their teeth on without being in much actual danger once they got used to the handling of their ‘Steed. That was the official impression cultivated by the media with the help of ComSpark. Of course, he knew better than most ponies how unreliable the ‘official’ anything could be in the Sphere...

Registered infrastructure,” he corrected pointedly, smiling at the alicorn, “what the news doesn’t report is that the Disciples are hitting ComSpark comm arrays.”

“I’d think that the galaxy would notice a disruption in ComSpark’s ability to get message traffic across the Sphere,” Twilight pointed out.

“Oh, they’re not hitting the comm arrays that everypony knows about,” he corrected, “they’re hitting ComSpark’s other array network. The one that the Queen’s agents in the field use to coordinate their activities. We’re having to rebuild them constantly.”

“...I see,” the alicorn massaged her chin idly, considering the new information, “which suggests that even Chrysalis doesn’t quite have total control over all the information flowing around the Harmony Sphere. Somecreature has an intel network of their own; and they know the truth.

“Why don’t they come forward with what they know though…?” she mused aloud, looking over at the stallion to see if he could supply an answer, “they could reveal her agents, expose the changeling threat―”

“The galaxy considers them crazy terrorists,” Slipshod pointed out, “a fanatic cult that can’t be reasoned with. No respectable creature in the Sphere would listen to a thing they had to say, and reaching out just exposes their operatives to capture and interrogation by ComSpark.

“Any information they do manage to get out into an open network gets scrubbed by the Queen’s agents within minutes. Or, worse, repackaged as viral marketing for a new vid or even a game,” he snorted, sitting back on his haunches and waving his hooves in the air, “shape-shifting monsters have taken over the government...now it’s one mare’s job to uncover their plot and save the Federated Moons!” he parodied, as though performing a voice over for an advertisement, “‘Body Snatchers from Beyond the Periphery’! Coming to a vid screen near you, this fall!

“All star cast. Big budget,” the stallion continued, adopting his normal voice once again, “mixed reviews. Lackluster reception. Two sequels that the studio was contractually obligated to make―and it showed. Channel Lock and I did a marathon riff of the trilogy a few months back―Celestia was that third one horrendous! ‘Body Snatchers from Beyond the Beyond’? I mean, Really? Genuinely surprised they didn’t just purge the files once they were done filming and spare the galaxy from that travesty.

“Almost too bad to make fun of, believe it not.

“Poor Seabasket Weaver,” he shook his head, frowning in sympathy, “I hope she fired whatever agent roped her into that role. Nearly ruined her career,” he brightened up again, “thankfully she landed the lead in ‘A Song of Wendigos and Dragons’. Sent her right back to the top.

“Nice mare―great stamina,” Slipshod went on, ignoring the alicorn’s baffled raised eyebrows, “laughs off the Body Snatchers Trilogy at cons any time some troll tries to bring it up. I have a couple souvenirs from the con I attended earlier this year back in my quarters,” the stallion paused for a brief moment before adding, “well, technically she signed a photo and left…something else,” he cleared his throat and continued on, “my point is―”

“Oh, so there is one?”

The stallion rolled his eyes, but otherwise ignored the alicorn, “my point is,” he pressed on, “that between the dozens of movies like those, plus the shows, and novels, and whatever, any time a Disciple does manage to sneak a report of ‘changelings’ into a network on some planet and somecreature sees it before it gets scrubbed, anycreature who actually sees that report just assumes it’s another promotional piece for a reboot, or a teaser article, or a satire entertainment piece.

“Nopony actually takes it seriously,” the stallion shrugged, “then it’s gone five minutes later, and a million other articles about anything else going on in the Sphere take its place, and it’s forgotten in an hour.”

“So if there are movies about changelings, why didn’t anypony in the briefing recognize it when I used that word?” Twilight asked, mildly annoyed.

“We’re called: ‘Dopples’ in most mainstream media,” Slipshod said, “just adds another layer of obfuscation,” he added at the mare’s questioning look, “reports of ‘changelings’ end up sounding like off-brand ‘dopples’; which everypony already knows are ‘made up’, so it’s easier to think that ‘changelings’ are made up too, and just somecreature trying to capitalize on an existing franchise for a quick c-bit.

“Anyway, yeah; the Disciples know something’s up with the ‘Twilight’ on Equus. They are likely to be the closest things to allies that we’re going to find. It’s way too risky to approach any of the star nations or larger mercenary outfits for help. They’re saturated with changelings.”

“Perfect,” the princess said with a despondent sigh, suggesting that she did not, in fact, think it was ‘perfect’. Slipshod agreed, “and our chances of running into the Disciples are…?”

“I mean, the chances of coming across a Disciple raid eventually are pretty solid. ComSpark’s ‘unofficial’ network arrays are everywhere, pretty much. Hidden behind the name of some shell company or whatever. It’s just a matter of being in the right system at the right time.”

The alicorn let out a slow breath, slowly nodding her head, “...very well,” she looked back up at the stallion, “I assume that you’ve come here for a specific reason?”

“We’re dropping in thirty―” the stallion glanced at the chronometer on his fetlock’s computer, “―now twenty minutes,” Slipshod informed her, “we need to get down to the ‘Steed Bay for our pre-deployment checks.”

Twilight sighed and nodded, reaching over and turning off the terminal’s display. She rose up out of her seat, taking Slipshod by surprise a little as he was still trying to get used to how much taller the alicorn was than just about any other pony he’d even met. Hippogriffs were about her height, but he was rarely in their company either.

When the alicorn turned, her eyes caught a glimpse of the narrow window slit showing a view of the planet below. As part of the provisional deal that had been struck between her and Squelch, Twilight had been added to the company’s official roster as a ‘Steed pilot―though under a pseudonym, for obvious reasons. In exchange, ‘Purple Rose’ had provided the Steel Coursers with the coordinates of one of the Celestia League’s forward operating bases in the region. A little browsing of the records on Canis had confirmed that nothing was listed as being at those coordinates on any official records, so it was likely that the facility had been forgotten about over the centuries, and might still have a few goodies stored within.

That was going to be for Tig and her salvage team to discover though. The rest of the Galloway would be otherwise occupied doing the job that they were officially here to accomplish: Demolishing a firebase that was being set up by elements of the Aris Highlanders Mercenary Company. Prior to this mission, assaulting a purpose-built military installation of any sort, even something as lightly defended as a firebase, wouldn’t have been Squelch’s first choice of mission. A light and medium ‘Steed duo wasn’t exactly the ideal force for such an operation, after all.

However, it was the only job that was available in this system, and now the company had a heavier ‘Steed with a little more firepower. The Rainbow Dash still wasn’t as heavily loaded as it could have been, given the plenitude and size of the chassis’ available hardpoints. Unfortunately, the weapons that the Rainbow Dash was designed to wield weren’t cheap. It was at least respectably well armed for its tonnage at the moment, though, and by far the heaviest-hitting BattleSteed of the three that they had.

If the salvage operation went well―and assuming they kept the repair bill conservative―then they should come away from this mission with the finances necessary to complete the Rainbow Dash’s rearmament, and maybe even be able to spring for a few upgrades for Slipshod and Vals’ own ‘Steeds.

This wasn’t a fact that had gone unremarked upon by anypony on the crew, unfortunately. After all, Slipshod was known to be liked by everypony; so then why was the new mare giving him the stink-eye? For the moment, it was just a fascinating little kernel of speculation for the members of the Galloway’s crew who cared about such things. As long as it didn’t venture beyond that it shouldn’t be much of an issue.

Ultimately though, Slipshod didn’t need Twilight to like him―though that would have been preferable, yes―he just needed her to not kill him. That was a low enough bar that it shouldn’t present much of an issue.

He hoped.

“I’ve been to Kenway once before,” Twilight announced, “on the anniversary of the founding of its first settlement. I made a point of doing that: visiting every new world that creatures settled. I wanted to let them know that, even though they were lightyears away from Equus, that they were still important to me. That they were still friends.

“I arrived wearing my regalia that first time.”

She looked down at the armored barding that she was wearing now. It had been something of a chore to locate a set in her size, and even then significant tailoring had been required after the fact, “now I return dressed for battle,” her words dripped with bitterness and revulsion. Another glare was cast in Slipshod’s direction, as though he alone was to blame for these circumstances.

The earth pony winced reflexively. For a brief moment, he even did feel like he bore at least some of the responsibility. After all, it was the changeling queen―his nominal master―who had been keeping the embers of war stoked these last few centuries, “‘battle’ is hopefully a strong word for what’ll happen down there. If thing’s go well, the fight should be over in about fifteen minutes. The Aris Highlander forces shouldn’t have had time to dig in and…” Slipshod’s words choked off beneath the alicorn’s withering stare. He swallowed and nodded silently.

“If your Commander Squelch thinks that I will kill hippogriffs, then I hope that she is prepared to be sorely disappointed.”

Slipshod frowned, “well, they’re going to be trying to kill you, princess.”

“They can try,” was her dismissive reply. Whether it was borne out of faith in her abilities, or the quality of her ‘Steed, the stallion didn’t know, “their choices will not affect my own.”

“Most ‘Steed pilots eject before their core breaches,” he pointed out helpfully, “as long as you don’t crack their cockpit, I doubt you’d actually kill anycreature out there by downing their ‘Steed.”

“It is ridiculous that there should even be the risk of doing so!” Twilight snapped, “why does your commander even care that the hippogriffs have set up a military outpost on this world? What is accomplished by dismantling it?”

“Honestly? Squelch doesn’t care. Nopony on this ship does,” he said with a shrug, noting the alicorn’s incredulous sneer and finding himself wincing again beneath it. Maybe it was an inherent alicorn ‘thing’ to make other ponies feel like misbehaving foals, “we were hired to do a job. It’s nothing personal.

“The Combine wants a base on this planet, and the Commonwealth prefers they don’t have one. The latter offered C-bits to fight the former. We need C-bits, so we’re going to do it,” he shrugged, “no malice. No personal investment. Just...business.”

“And that makes it better?”

“It makes it...what it is,” the earth pony sighed anemically, “that’s just how the galaxy works now, Princess. Everycreature just sort of lives in it.

“If you want to hate somecreature, then you know who’s ultimately to blame for this: Chrysalis. Her agents keep the factions fighting.”

“I still don’t quite understand why that is the case,” the alicorn murmured, looking back to the window once more, “how does the constant conflict benefit her?”

“If everycreature’s fighting, then they’re not cooperating,” Slipshod pointed out, flinching internally at how obvious it sounded, and so amended it with, “which means that Chrysalis doesn’t have to worry about any sort of coordinated effort that might contest anything she does. The perpetual need for competent BattleSteed pilots also means that there’s a constant supply of creatures delivering themselves to the hive on Equus to be...um…” he petered off, stumbling for how to phrase it such that Twilight didn’t feel compelled to question her decision to spare his life in the face of what he was.

“...How likely is it that the ‘Steed pilots we’ll be facing are also changelings?”

“I mean, obviously not every ‘Steed pilot’s a changeling,” Slipshod said, grateful for even the slight shift in topic, “but the academies on Equus are genuinely some of the best in the galaxy, overall. Whoever’s in charge down there probably went to a good academy, so they might be one…” he shrugged, genuinely sorry that he couldn’t be more definitive, “every drone’s not exactly given a comprehensive list of who is and isn’t one of the Queen’s operatives.” That’d be quite a long list anyway.

“A vast operation like that would require a substantial communication’s network,” the purple mare remarked, casting an askance view at the earth pony, “which is why ComSpark is running that secondary secret array you mentioned earlier?”

“Pretty much,” he confirmed.

The alicorn merely grunted and said nothing more on the subject. She continued to stare out the small window. Slipshod idly wondered if the mare was going to refuse to leave her quarters. He wasn’t precisely sure what the response to doing that would be. Probably, Squelch would just have him take the Rainbow Dash instead and hope that two ‘Steeds would be able to do the job.

Fortunately, it didn’t look like they’d have to seriously consider any contingencies. This time, anyway. Twilight spent a few more seconds looking down at the world, wearing an expression that spoke to her distress at the current state of the galaxy and its denizens. Then she turned away and headed for the door, her magic collecting her helmet on her way out. Slipshod fell into step behind her.

Flechette trailed them all the way to the ‘Steed Bay.

Valkyrie was already climbing into her Parasprite when the trio arrived. Slipshod broke off down the gangway leading to his Wild Bronco, though he did take a moment to admire the work that Mig and Tig had done on Twilight’s heavy ‘Steed before descending through the hatch. The pair of kirin had relished the opportunity to restore such a rare BattleSteed, and their doting showed itself readily. They’d polished and painted every piece of ablative armor until it shown like new, even going so far as to give the heavy ‘Steed it’s iconic cerulean coloriation and chromatic highlights.

If Slipshod hadn’t known any better, he’d have sworn it rolled right off the assembly line that day.

He idly wondered what he’d have to do to get the twins to give his ‘Steed that kind of attention…

Indeed, the only detractors from its appearance was the fact that its armament was lacking. Where there should have been a pair of Prismatic Projector Cannons hanging from pylons beneath each of the canards, were mere heavy energy beams. Similarly, only five-pack long range missile pods lay tucked behind its shoulders, where mountings capable of fitting much larger twenty-counts were present. Though the greatest disservice was perhaps the machinegun barrel poking mekely out of the center of the ‘Steed’s chest, where it was obvious a much larger weapon was intended to be accommodated. An autocannon type-ten, the stallion believed.

Still, it was a weapons compliment that far exceeded his own. His and Val’s combined, honestly. That―hypothetically―counted for a lot. Assuming that the princess could bring herself to actually pull the trigger at any point during the fight…

He paused, noting that Twilight herself had come to a stop at the entrance to the gangway leading to her ‘Steed. She was admiring the mechanical equine―no...that wasn’t quite it, the stallion realized. It wasn’t admiration on her face, it was...regret.

“Once upon a time, these were the only ‘Steeds designed for war,” the alicorn said, ostensibly to Slipshod since he was the only pony close enough to her to have been heard over the din of the ‘Steed bay, “all the others were conversions of industrial models.

“When Tirek was defeated, I had all the other surviving Rainbow Dashes decommissioned,” she continued soberly, “in the hopes that it would help the galaxy to heal―to go back to how it had been...but it didn’t.

“...these were never intended to be turned against my subjects. My friends.”

There was a resignation in her voice, a despairing tone which suggested that the reality of the state of the galaxy was finally setting in for her. Twilight had only known a united Harmony Sphere under the Celestia League, where every citizen cooperated and got along. Now the galaxy was at war with itself, and she was about to experience it first hoof.

He sincerely hoped that her stated reluctance to kill didn’t become an issue. Well...at least an issue for him. The stallion very much doubted that Twilight was going to let Valkyrie die to satisfy her conscience. She certainly wasn’t likely to do much that would directly save his life, of that he was confident.

For a not so brief moment, the stallion debated calling up Squelch and voicing his concern. He was prepared to face being called out for his hypocrisy―after all, he’d been the one who’d pushed for Twilight’s inclusion in the operation. But he was dubious about how likely they could accomplish the mission with just the Rainbow Dash and the Parasprite. Even if Twilight wasn’t keen on shooting at their enemy, there was no doubt that the Aris Highlander mercenaries down there would recognize the heavy ‘Steed as the more pressing threat and focus the majority of their attention on it.

If all that Twilight managed to accomplish was to draw enemy fire for a time, then that might actually be all that was needed, and definitely made success far more likely than him being both the primary target of the enemy’s fire, as well as the majority of his side’s own offensive capability.

For better or worse, they were probably better off with Twilight in the Rainbow Dash, even if she never fired a shot. Whatever questions that Val and Squelch had for the alicorn about her performance upon their return...well, he’d worry about defusing that situation when it came up. First, he had to focus on living through the afternoon.

“Before there were ‘Steeds, there were spears,” Slipshod finally said in response to the princess’ words, drawing the attention of the alicorn, “do you ever wonder if the creature that first invented those did so for the purpose of waging wars, or do you think that they were created to protect others from dangerous monsters; and that later the invention was co-opted for killing other beings?” the purple mare lowered her gaze in thought for a moment.

“You don’t get to control how creatures use the tools you give them, Princess” the earth pony shrugged before trotting to the cockpit of his ‘Steed and climbing up the side, “doing that would be called: ‘tyranny’.”

The earth pony stallion finally slipped into his ‘Steed and started going through the pre-deployment checklist. He took a moment to marvel at the quality job that the twins had done at repairing the damage that had been inflicted during his last outing. Though the pristine nature of the new paneling made it easy to spot what had been replaced. Hopefully there would be no need for the kirin mechanics to swap out the remainder of the control surfaces after this mission.

Through the window of his cockpit he saw the alicorn princess finally closing the hatch of her own ‘Steed as well. She didn’t like fighting. He understood that. However, he hoped that she understood that a lot of fighting was going to be required in the future if she really wanted to undo the damage that Chrysalis had inflicted upon the galaxy.

Things were going to get a lot worse before they could start to get any better.

He had just finished checking the last of the Wild Bronco’s systems when his headset crackled with static and Squelch’s voice made an announcement, “all pilots: atmo in five minutes. ETA to drop site: nine minutes, thirty seconds.

The earth pony felt himself tense up reflexively at the news. His earlier concerns about the quality of Twilight’s participation in the mission weren’t helping matters any. The opposition that they were going to be facing wouldn’t be all that much, relatively speaking: a few static defenses, screening vehicles, maybe some missile carriers―for which Slipshod was grateful to now have an LRM of his own to counter with. Their primary concern would be the ‘Steeds present at the firebase. Which the intel they had purported to be two light and two medium tonnage ‘Steeds. They were technically outnumbered in this fight, ‘Steed-wise, but their fielded tonnage with the Rainbow Dash should put them within ten tons at the most.

Not that going into a ‘fair fight’ was an ideal situation as far as most mercenaries were concerned―or most military-minded individuals in general. Why give the enemy a fighting chance, when you could overwhelm them instead?

Unfortunately, this was the mission that was available to them, so this was the battle that they were going to have to fight.

Slipshod’s piloting couch began to vibrate as the Galloway made contact with the planet’s atmosphere. He took a deep breath to soothe his nerves. He just had to trust that Twilight would be willing to make good use of her ‘Steed. For her’s and Val’s sake, if not his own. After all, she couldn’t save the galaxy from Chrysalis if she was dead, right?

I have eyes on the objective,” Valkyrie’s voice crackled over the comm.

The DropShip had seen fit to deposit the trio far outside of whatever radar array the firebase was likely to field, leaving the ‘Steed pilots with a lengthy jog to their destination. The blue pegasus’ light recon ‘Steed had assumed a distant point position, taking advantage of her sensor suite and low visual profile to avoid contact with any early warning systems and even found a few holes in the Highlanders’ own sensor net. Fortunately for them, the newness of the firebase meant that they were still in the midst of building up those early-warning stations, and so they didn’t yet have complete coverage.

Valkyrie had managed to guide them to within a few kilometers of the base’s perimeter, and was now perched just on the other side of a rocky mountaintop that permitted her a clear look at their target, “pretty typical layout,” she relayed to the pair of waiting pilots, “four medium magical energy turrets. Six Scorpion Tanks. Two Strikers. Four ‘Steed Stalls.

I only have IDs on three of the ‘Steeds though. Fourth Stall’s closed up. But what I do have eyes on is a Breezy, a Pipsqueak, and a Blackjenny.”

“Two lights and a medium,” Slipshod noted rhetorically. Valkyrie well knew the tonnages of those ‘Steeds. Twilight might not though. The stallion wasn’t positive on the dates that all of those designs had been fielded, and which ones might have been developed after she’d gone into stasis, “everything’s matching up with the intel brief so far. The closed Stall is likely a medium that’s being worked on. Which means that they might even be down a ‘Steed, depending on how far they’ve disassembled it.”

He paused now, considering the rest of the forces present. The turrets didn’t bother him too much. Most of their weapons vastly outranged the static emplacements and thus they could be taken out without any difficulty at any time during the fight. The tanks concerned him a little more. Those autocannon type-fives fired out further than their own heavy energy weapons, and could fire more frequently. The only real downside was the fact that it was a projectile weapon, and would need to lead its targets in order to score hits. All three of them were capable of moving pretty quickly, so as long as they kept moving, they shouldn’t be knocked around too badly before being able to deal with the tracked vehicles.

The Strikers were honestly the bigger threat with their LRMs. They’d need to go first. Once those missile platforms were gone, then the three of them would be able to move around the battlefield with relative impunity, Slipshod and Twilight raining missiles down onto everything until the Highlanders managed to get their pilots into their mechs.

Even then, he wasn’t worried much about the Breezy, with it’s quartet of machine guns, or even the Pipsqueak, despite its twin six-pack SRMs. It was the Blackjenny that had him concerned. If it was armed the way that they typically were, that forty-five ton ‘Steed arguably packed more firepower than his Bronco and Twilight’s Rainbow Dash combined, at the moment. It’s armor was significantly lighter than even his own ‘Steeds’, so it wouldn’t be able to take a serious pounding; but it would be able to do a lot of damage for as long as it was up.

Slipshod really hoped that that second medium ‘Steed wasn’t functional.

“We’ll start hitting them from here,” the golden earth pony began, laying out their plan of attack now that they knew precisely what they were up against, “we have LRMs, and Val’s sensors’ll let us get locks from defilade,” no sense in exposing themselves to enemy fire when they didn’t have to. It might even take the base’s defenders a volley or two to figure out where exactly they were being attacked from, “Twilight, you prioritize the turrets,” the alicorn shouldn’t have any qualms about destroying the unmared automated defenses, “I’ll focus on the Strikers.

“It’ll take a few minutes for their pilots to even get to their ‘Steeds, so once the turrets are down, Twilight, I want you to start hitting those,” can’t kill ‘Steed pilots if there’re no pilots in the ‘Steeds, “I’ll work on the Scorpions.

“Val, you stay down until they come out to engage us. Once we’ve got whatever’s left of their defenders occupied, move in and wreck the firebase and get out, got it?

“Remember, that’s the objective: the firebase,” he stressed to the mares, “no support facilities for their ‘Steeds means no useful ‘Steeds at all. They’ll be forced to pull back off-planet until a new one can be set up, and that’s all our employer wants. Once the firebase is leveled, we can withdraw and call Squelch in for an extraction. Understood?”

Roger,” Valkyrie replied. If she was unhappy about being kept from direct engagement with the enemy, the stallion couldn’t hear it in her voice.

The plan is...agreeable,” came the alicorn’s more reluctant response.

If she didn’t want to kill creatures, that was fine. As long as she helped, that was all that Slipshod really cared about.

“Alright then,” the earth pony moved his hooves around his control yokes as he selected the Wild Bronco’s new LRM launcher, “select you targets and fire at will.”

“You know,” the lilac hippogriff hen sighed as she held up a piece of what the cafeteria’s server had insisted was ‘cod’, but appeared to have the consistency of undercooked calamari, “one of the benefits of planetside duties is supposed to be that we eat better than we did on the DropShip,” she let the piece of flesh flop unceremoniously back onto her tray.

The cinnamon tiercel sitting across from her smiled around a mouthful of his own burger, “I told you to avoid the fish,” he chided playfully despite his full mouth. His lack of manners earned him a glare from his comrade, so he made a point to swallow what he had before continuing, “it’s exactly like what’s on the DropShip because it is what was on the DropShip,” he pointed out, “they just finished up the landing pad a week ago. The first ship carrying our foodstuffs won’t be in for another three days.”

The hen let out a defeated sigh and pushed her tray away, slumping morosely onto the table, “I should have brought my fishing gear,” she whined, “the perimeter crews said there was a river just five minutes' flight from here. I could have had all the fresh fish I wanted. Instead of...that,” she pointed an accruing talon at the contents of her tray.

Her partner chuckled and proceeded to take another bite of his burger. Beef seemed to hold up better to long-term storage aboard ships, so an experienced ‘Steed pilot like himself knew what to get when making his way down the chow line.

Just as he was about to clamp down on his meal, the building rumbled. It was only a slight tremor, doing little more than rattling the silverware on the table. However, it was enough of a shake to instantly silence every bit of idle conversation that had been going on in the dining area. Every head, beaked and muzzled, was perked up, everycreature looking around as though one of them had the answer to the question on all of their minds.

A question that the hen voiced, “what was that? Earthquake?”

The red-hued hippogriff dropped his burger and stood up, shaking his head, “too short to have been a quake, and I’m pretty sure I heard―” his words were cut off as a second tremor pulsed through the cafeteria, this one more significant than the first, and accompanied by a thunderous chorus of explosions. He was about to yell out when a much larger explosion followed a second later, on the hooves of the first. This blast was big enough to shatter the dining area’s windows, pelting those seated near the walls with shards of glass.

The pair of hippogriffs instinctively ducked, despite being far enough towards the room’s interior to be relatively safe from the debris. He finally found time to get out his warning, “we’re under attack!” he informed her. As though it had been waiting for his own assessment, the base’s sirens finally began to sound the alarm, their long, drawn out, howl cutting through the renewed―and much more energetic―verbal din of the now former diners. Creatures were darting for the exits in droves as they sought to get to their posts to repel the surprise attack.

“I thought we had an early-warning system!” the pink-hued hen protested as she hastily buttoned up her armor and grabbed for her helmet. Her companion was doing the same, the pair zipping for the exit that was nearest to the ‘Steed stalls, “we should have known somecreature was coming an hour ago!”

“They’re still setting it up,” the tiercel replied grimly, silently echoing her sentiment in his head, “apparently there’re a few holes,” his words dripped with contempt for the nameless individuals whose job it was to ensure such flaws weren’t present. Not that it was necessarily anycreature’s fault, he was forced to concede. The sensor net wasn’t done being built. Such things took time, and not enough had passed. If whoever these attackers were had waited another few days, it would have been a different story.

As it was…

“Just get to your ‘Steed!” he yelled back at her over his shoulder as the pair burst outside. A third explosion caught their attention and they whipped their heads to the right just in time to watch the small ploom of smoke rising up from where a defensive turret had once stood. The red tiercel whirled around to look in the direction of the motorpool and grimaced. One of the Strikers was already a flaming wreck―likely the blast that had shattered the windows of the cafeteria―which meant that they’d lost half of their ability to respond in kind to what had to be a missile barrage. Not that the other Striker was going to be doing them a lot of good without something out there to give them a target lock on whatever was bombarding them.

The missile carrier’s crew was at least currently clambering to get inside and power the vehicle up so that it could respond when the time came―

He saw the salvo arcing through the air. Five trails of gray smoke tracing their way through the air, diving in towards the firebase in a tight formation. The moment he spotted them, he knew what their target would be. And it didn’t matter. He didn’t have time to call out a warning. He was too far away to have been heard over the din of the klaxons. None of those in danger would have been able to react in time anyway.

All that he could do was look on, his face etched with grim lines, as those five missiles landed directly on top of the stationary remaining Striker. They were well armored enough to be able to take a hit or two, depending on where that hit came from, but they weren’t a ‘line unit’. They were artillery. Designed to hit from afar, and avoid direct engagement. They didn’t have a lot of armor.

Their crews had even less. Especially when they were still standing outside of the armored cab, exposed.

When the smoke cleared, the Striker was still standing, but none of the creatures who’d been galloping towards it were. Tendrils of smoke were wafting up from the vehicle. Somecreature must have seen something he couldn’t from where he was, because a couple of ponies and a hippogriff were grabbing up fire extinguishers and running towards the Striker. It carried quite a bit in the way of munitions onboard. If they blew…

That wasn’t his problem. Containing those fires wasn’t his job.

Getting to his ‘Steed and stopping whoever it was out there from killing any more of his comrades, that was.

The tiercel pulled on his helmet, angled himself towards the Stall where his ‘Steed was berthed, and winged his way there as quickly as he could. The ground crews flying and galloping around could have been mistaken for panicking to the untrained eye, but the hippogriff knew that every one of those movements had a purpose. These creatures had drilled more than once on exactly how to get a ‘Steed from inert to combat-ready in mere minutes.

In this specific case, those crews had a little bit more working against them than just a lack of adequate warning. The last components for his new ‘Steed had only arrived two days ago. In fact, he was informed that it had only just been completed last night. Today was supposed to have been dedicated to diagnostics and testing to make certain that everything was working as advertised. He hadn’t even been able to start it up yet!

Taking it into battle after powering up a ‘Steed for its first time was not what any pilot would consider an ‘ideal’ shakedown run; but it was what he was left with. Idly, the tiercel wondered if dismantling the Flash Sentry had been a good idea after all.

Not there was any helping it now.

He flew into the closed off ‘Steed Stall and arced towards the cockpit. Technicians were hastily disconnecting computer terminals and diagnostic equipment. The pilot received a talons-up from the chief mechanic, signalling that she―at least―was confident that everything was ready to be powered up and taken into battle. That was good enough for him.

He darted into the cockpit. Slapping the controls that would lower and seal the hatch on his way by. Clawtips danced over controls, powering up the ‘Steed’s various systems even as he set himself down in the piloting couch. All around him, lights blinked to life, and the cockpit’s interior began to hum with the sounds of activity from deep within his ‘Steed. Within seconds, the monotone voice of the computer systems announced that his brand new Queen Novo, and all of its very lethal heavy magical energy beams and prismatic projector cannons, were ready to go into battle.

The corners of the tiercel’s beak spread into a murderous grin, “come and get some, you fuckers!”

The light ‘Steeds are coming your way,” came Valkyrie’s warning over the radio.

Slipshod’s eyes darted to his map display as he confirmed the pair of red blips leaving the firebase at a speed far greater than any of the remaining tanks could have managed. According to the pegasus, he’d dissabled the Strikers and two of the Scorpions, and Twilight had made short work of the turrets and even landed a few hits on the Blackjenny before it had powered up and started moving. She’d ceased firing on it the moment that it had powered up, much to the stallion’s chagrin, but at least she’d hurt it. That should reduce the work he needed to do somewhat.

Briefly, the earth pony debating between advancing and remaining where he was. He had time enough yet to rain a couple more volleys on the approaching ‘Steeds before they found him. Ultimately though, he was better served being mobile and up to speed by the time those lighter units engaged. Speed was their primary asset, and it was in his best interest to not be stationary when they first made contact with him. It was going to be rough enough being outnumbered.

“Moving in,” he announced, his hind hooves pushing down hard on the throttle pedals, “once that Blackjenny’s clear of the firebase, move in and start wrecking shop. Start with the Stalls and command center.”

Understood,” the mare replied.

Slipshod glanced over his shoulder at the display screen linked to the external camera showing his right flank and the stationary Rainbow Dash that was there, “and feel free to join in whenever you want, Princess,” he offered in a sardonic tone, not actually believing that the alicorn would, “you came all this way; no reason I should have all the fun,” and with that parting quip, the stallion focused his sight ahead once more, locking his targeting computer onto the Pipsqueak and its twin SRMs.

In no time at all, his Wild Bronco was up to a gallop as he and the pair of light ‘Steeds engaged in a faux joust. He idly lobbed a volley of missiles at the fast-moving target, not really seeing a reason not to at least attempt to land a hit with his missiles. Though the probability of it happening was rather low, given the size and speed of his target.

His heavy energy beam was another matter though. The sapphire lance of light bridged the distance between them in an instant and carved deep into the left shoulder of the oncoming ‘Steed. The missile launcher sequestered there evaporated beneath the onslaught of potent energy and detonated, staggering the slightly-built equine frame. It kept on coming though, soon getting back up to its full speed.

Slipshod barely registered that the Breezy was breaking off to his left. He’d known before throttling up that it would be impossible to keep both light ‘Steeds in front of him, so he wasn’t going to try. His goal right now was to focus on one, down it as quickly as possible, and then deal with the other. Hopefully he could take them both out of the fight before the Blackjenny arrived. Two opponents were bad enough. Three would be the next best thing to impossible for him to deal with in the Bronco.

A quartet of muzzle-flashes flickered off to the side of his cockpit’s window as the Breezy’s pilot opened fire with its machineguns. What sounded almost like the muffled pattering of a tropical storm filled his cockpit as the streams of rounds impacted his ‘Steeds armor. They weren’t much of a concern right now, and both he and the Breezy’s pilot knew that. However, given enough time, they could eventually become a concern. Slipshod just had to make sure that he didn’t allow that much time to lapse.

Of greater immediate concern were the trails of missile exhaust that he saw streaking towards him. Slipshod tensed up, bracing as the sextet of ordnance detonated along his torso and forelegs. His eyes darted briefly to his integrity displays, which assured him that the hits had been spread out and only inflicted superficial damage. They also informed him that the Breezy’s hits were speckling his Bronco’s left flank now.

The earth pony selected the medium energy cannon which had been swapped in to replace the pair of small lasers that he’d lost in his last fight back on Lupin, and teased the reticle onto the Pipsqueak’s left shoulder once more. The emerald beam drifted slightly to the right, and missed digging deeper into the light ‘Steeds internals. However, it did manage to clip the limb’s joint enough to stagger the smaller mechanical equine once more. Slipshod seized upon the opening and kicked back with his hind legs on the throttle pedals even as his forehooves thrust forward on the control yokes.

The Wild Bronco leaped forward into the air, arcing up and forwards, as though aided by jump jets. However, this was no flight-assist. This was merely the feature which earned the ‘Steed its name. Long ago, in an age before combat was undertaken by pilots encased in steel quadrupeds, ‘Steeds had been designed, built, and operated by mining and construction outfits. To that end, they had needed to be able to navigate terrain which had previously not been developed. Terrain which included steep hills, mountains, and even small cliffs and fissures. The Wild Bronco traced its lineage to just such construction vehicles. In the interests of streamlining the shift from WorkSteeds to BattleSteeds, the designers had changed as little as they could about the Wild Bronco’s utilitarian design so that costs could be kept low and downtime to a minimum during the retooling of the factories.

As such, the ‘Steed’s ability to leap up small cliffs or across narrow ravines had been retained, though the need for the additional myomer musculature to pull off these feats had meant a reduced capacity to support weaponry.

Slipshod idly wondered if the Pipsqueak’s pilot had known about that feature of the medium ‘Steed, as the Bronco began to arc back downward. Doubtful, otherwise they wouldn’t have allowed themselves to get this close.

Fifty tons of leaping metal equine came down upon the smoldering joint on the Pipsqueak’s left side. The frame of the lighter ‘Steed had never been intended to support anywhere near that kind of weight, and sheared off nearly instantly. Had that been the end of it, the lighter machine might still yet have survived the encounter. However, while the Wild Bronco might now be back on the ground, its forward motion hadn’t abated in the slightest.

Raw physics worked against the Pipsqueak now, as fifty tons of Wild Bronco met thirty tons of crippled light ‘Steed. It was a foregone conclusion that the former would lose out in the altercation. Slipshod lurched forward on his couch, the restraints biting into the shoulder pads of his armor, as his ‘Steed was suddenly slowed by the collision. However, he was certainly not stopped by it. Through the window of his cockpit, the earth pony saw the frail little ‘Steed he’d just bowled over tumble across the ground in front of him, wiping out several hoofball fields worth of vegetation as it went. Another limb came off in the fracas, twisting out of its socket and sailing heedlessly into the air.

It was decidedly out of the fight now―

Something more serious must have come apart deep with the bowels of the Pipsqueak, Slipshod supposed, as the light ‘Steed’s midsection began to crackle with purple light before it had even come to a complete stop. The earth pony’s eyes locked onto the cockpit, his lips pulled into a tight line as he recognized that―assuming the pilot was even still conscious after a fall like that―there was little chance that the ejection system would even function if it was pointed in any direction but ‘up’. He idly hoped that the pilot was unaware of what was happening as the ‘Steed vanished within the violently crackling magical fire of a reactor breach.

One down, he supposed.

The stallion tightened his grip around the control yokes and heaved his Wild Bronco around to confront the Breezy.

Novo! Queen Novo!” Valkyrie’s voice crackled suddenly, and loudly, across the stallion’s headset, “the forth ‘Steed is a Queen Novo!

Slipshod jerked up in his couch and looked towards the firebase, “What―”

“―in the―?!”

The sound of the hippogriff hen’s voice cut off suddenly. The cinnamon tiercel’s gut tied itself into a knot as he mentally lambasted the Stall’s doors for their lethargic pace. It was taking them longer to open than it had for his ‘Steed to start up, for egg’s sake!

Though the opening was wide enough for him to catch sight of the violet fireball that blossomed into existence a kilometer away. His eyes darted up to the readout which displayed his lancemates and their respective conditions. One of the names was blacked out, indicating a loss of contact with that ‘Steed’s transponder.

He reached out and selected that specific channel, “Flight Three, what’s your condition?” he paused, his chest growing tighter with every fraction of a second that went by without a response, “Flight Three―Gulfsteam―respond!”


The tiercel snarled and switched back over to the lance-wide channel, “does anycreature have eyes on Flight Three? Did she eject?!”

Negative,” came a mare’s grim response a second later, “repeat: negative on ejection for Flight Three.”

The roar that escaped the hippogriff was primal.

The first victims of his fury were the Stall’s doors, who paid the ultimate price for their lack of haste as his heavy ‘Steed launched through them, ripping the multi-ton portal coverings from their mounts and sending them crashing to the ground below. Creatures screamed and scattered as they sought to escape from the tumbling wreckage left in the heavy ‘Steed’s wake.

The tiercel intended to reduce the ‘Steed of whomever had slain his lancemate to a similar state.

The most forward of the two visible enemy targets, as well as the one nearest the last known location of Gulfstream’s ‘Steed, was the Wild Bronco. He targeted the ‘Steed. His talons flicked through the firing controls on his yokes, pelting a steady stream of alternating indigo and chromatic light at the medium-tonnage mechanical equine. Even the Queen Novo’s plentitude of heatsinks wouldn’t allow him to maintain such a continuous barrage of destructive fire for long before the safeties triggered a shutdown of the reactor to keep it from going critical.

But it would be long enough to melt down the pilot who’d just killed his wife.

Slipshod had just enough time to process Valkyrie’s warning by the time the first column of coherent blue light struck the side of his ‘Steed. The cockpit lurched and the armor integrity indicator flashed. His mind raced with a series of images from his last confrontation. The earth pony didn’t want a repeat of that. Even if he survived the battle, he very much doubted that he’d live through whatever Squelch might do to him if he trashed his ‘Steed for a second time in a month.

He throttled up to the ‘Steed’s maximum speed. He didn’t have a destination in mind yet. He just knew that he needed to be moving as much as possible in order to make himself a more difficult target for whoever was shooting at him.

He suspected that it was the Queen Novo which the pegasus had just informed him about. This complicated matters. Significantly.

With the Pipsqueak out of the fight, ton-for-ton, their forces were on approximately even footing. At least on paper. Unfortunately for him, their heavy ‘Steed wasn’t likely to contribute as much to the engagement as the enemy’s was. Which was going to leave him and Valkyrie to fight all three of the remaining ‘Steeds and whatever Scorpions were still operational. The Breezy would be easy enough to deal with, provided he was willing to get battered around by the Queen Novo for a minute or two while he focused on the lighter menace. The Blackjenny was another matter―

Speaking of which, where was that Blackjenny?

Slipshod had only just glanced down at the map display on his console when he received his answer over the radio, “shit, they found me!” Valkyrie announced, “evading!

The stallion grimaced. She was right to pull back. She was outmassed, outranged, and outgunned by the medium ‘Steed, and he was in no position to support her at the moment.

Of course, now their whole plan was effectively shot to shit. Neither he, nor Val, were going to be able to get to the firebase and wreck enough of the infrastructure to render it useless. The mission was a wash. Honestly, the smart thing for them to do now was withdraw and call for an extraction. Squelch was going to bite his head off over the penalty their employer would levy against the company for failing to fulfill the contract, but there was still a chance that whatever Tig salvaged from the Celestia League base would keep them in the black for this trip.

Right now, the best thing he could do was to limit the repair bill for their ‘Steeds.

“Gallop One to Gallop Lance: pull back. I say again: Pull. Back. Make for Nav Omega at best speed,” he swapped over to the comm channel for the DropShip, “Galloway, Gallop One. Set condition: Black.”

A second later he received a response from the orbiting DropShip’s on-duty communications tech, “Galloway copies Condition Black. ETA for pickup: five minutes.” the mic for the operator cut out, but not before the earth pony was able to catch the sound of a mare cursing in the background.

Well, that part was done. Now all he had to do was live long enough to reach the rendezvous. Which would be immeasurably easier without that Breezy eroding his armor while it circled him. The Wild Bronco faltered slightly for a brief moment. Slipshod learned the likely reason for the stuttered movement a second later as a sapphire beam flashed past his cockpit window from behind. The sensors nestled in his ‘Steed’s right hind leg informed him that the armor there had been significantly damaged by the hit.

He yanked on the control yokes and heaved the Wild Bronco hard to the left. A second later, a helix of rainbow light punched through the air where his ‘Steed had just been and impacted on the ground a few hundred meters away. An expanding field of shimmering multicolored light enveloped the area, its edges just barely touching his flank. Even that slight brush with the crackling energy field caused the readouts on his cockpit’s heads-up-display to waiver for a second. A direct hit from one of those Prismatic Projector Cannons was certainly something to avoid, Slipshod concluded.

The stallion snapped off a shot with his medium energy cannon at the Breezy, but knew even as he did so that it would only be a glancing hit. The reminder that his Wild Bronco had bigger guns than the lighter ‘Steed, and that the gangly mechanical equine carried less ablative plating than was present in one of his legs at least convinced the Breezy’s pilot to break off its attack for a moment while it repositioned itself out of Slipshod’s line of fire. It would only be a brief respite, but he’d take any amount of time that he could get.

Distant bars of emerald light and muzzle flashes drew the earth pony’s eyes to where Valkyrie was currently attempting to outrun the Blackjenny. He briefly spied the bulbous bipedal ‘Steed as it bobbed through the trees. One of her radar dishes was missing, a few tendrils of smoke trailing from the Parasprite’s backside where a hit from the medium ‘Steed had blasted it off. Valkyrie was much quicker and more agile than the pilot chasing her, and was already outside of the effective range at which medium energy weapons could do meaningful damage. If she could survive long enough to get out of the much longer range of the Blackjenny’s autocannon type-twos, she’d be just fine.

Slipshod was going to have a much tougher go of things. The Queen Novo’s weapons complement were all weapons which possessed significant effective ranges. The PPCs especially so; and his speed advantage was marginal, at best. He certainly wasn’t going to be able to outrun the Breezy. However, hopefully that annoying gnat of a ‘Steed would break off once it realized it was too far away from its cohorts to be properly supported by them.

The Wild Bronco lurched again. His left side flashed red, an audible alert warning him that little remained of the ablative armor there to ward off future direct hits from heavier weapons. Unfortunately, all of the Novo’s weapons fell into that category. Two or three more strikes on that side from it’s heavy energy weapons, or those PPCs, and his reactor would be cracked for sure. Not that any of his remaining lightly damaged facings would last much longer than that.

He pushed his ‘Steed to its maximum speed, drawing the steering yokes to and fro in order to take the Wild Bronco into a slalom. Running in a straight line with his much thinner rear-facing armor exposed to the Queen Novo was the surest way to be brought low by a single alpha strike from the heavy ‘Steed. Of course, as the pilot of the Queen Novo didn’t have to engage in such maneuvers in order to track him with their weapons, it meant that Slipshods ability to grow the distance between them was severely restricted. The earth pony would be dodging enemy fire the whole way to the DropShip.

Assuming that he lived that long.

Another lurch. Another alert from the Wild Bronco’s armor integrity sensors.

The Breezy zipped by in front of him, all four of its barrels blazing away with reckless abandon. Close enough to the stallion that he could see the tips of the machineguns glowing white hot from the sustained fire through the ricochettes that bounced off his cockpit window, leaving behind a web of thin cracks in their wake. That pilot was certainly going to be getting an earful from whatever tech had to do the overhaul later. Slipshod panned and fired his heavy beam weapon, raking indigo energy across the harassing ‘Steed’s tordo. One of the machinegun barrels melted away, its ammunition feed mechanism detonating. The small explosion staggered the ‘Steed, but it managed to scamper out of his firing arc without much issue.

Any satisfaction that the earth pony felt at having cowed the lighter ‘Steed was almost instantly quashed by the convulsion of his cockpit, and the momentary blackening of just about every display screen around him. When the computer rebooted a few seconds later, he noted that his right flank was indicating that it was now devoid of any ablative protection. Another solid hit like that could cut the myomer musculature and cripple him.

He’d be as good as dead at that point.

Another lance of blue light sailed past him and incinerated a grove of trees in his path. It was a strike that, had it been just a few meters to the left, would have crippled his ‘Steed.

Slipshod grit his teeth and let out a frustrated snarl. The DropShip was just a couple minutes out. All he had to do was live long enough for it to arrive. Which meant he needed to make sure that the enemy’s hits were landing in places where he had plenty of protection. Like most ‘Steeds, his Wild Bronco carried its thickest protection on its forward facing areas; because that was―theoretically―the part of a ‘Steed that would most often be exposed to incoming enemy fire in a fight.

If he wanted to take hits, he’d have to be facing the Queen Novo.

The stallion jerked hard to the left and locked his ‘Steed’s rear legs. The back end of the Wild Bronco slid around over the ground, the angular momentum pitching the earth pony hard against his harness. When the move was completed, his hind hooves throttled the behemoth into full reverse. His speed would be half of what it was; but he’d hopefully live at least twice as long now that the enemy had largely unmolested ablative plating to deal with.

His hooves toggled the firing controls for both energy weapons as Slipshod found himself also now in the enviable position of being able to shoot at a properly surprised Breezy pilot. Just about every scrap of plating along the light ‘Steed’s left side dissolved beneath the potent attack. The equine machine stumbled, shuddered, but didn’t fall. It did, however, turn and bolt back in the direction of the firebase. The stallion launched a volley of missiles after the fleeing ‘Steed for good measure, though he doubted that they’d do much additional damage.

At least now he only had the Queen Novo to deal with.

Muzzle flashes in the distance ahead of him caught the earth pony off guard. He spared a second to check on the position of the Blackjenny, but it was still harrying Valkyrie several hundred meters away. The stallion would realize a second after that that the signs of fire that he was seeing were too spread out and too low to the ground to be coming from a singular BattleSteed anyway.

Oh, right. The Scorpion tanks.

The Wild Bronco shuddered and shook as explosive shells shattered the steel and ceramic plating coating it; punctuated by a beam of sapphire heat and coils of prismatic light. Those rainbow columns that didn’t hit his ‘Steed directly invariably landed close enough to interfere with the electronics that Slipshod effectively lost his HUD in its entirety. He was essentially firing blind. Fortunately―for rather broad definitions of ‘fortunate’―the Queen Novo proved a massive enough target that it wasn’t very difficult to hit while firing from the flank like he was.

Of course, there was a pretty evident disparity between the volume―and quality―of firing being exchanged between the two ‘Steeds. Slipshod tried his best to focus his shots on a singular point, with the hope of being able to burrow into the heavy ‘Steed and hit something vital enough to take it out of the fight―even just temporarily―but that was proving to be nearly impossible, given the pummeling his ‘Steed was taking from the Scorpions.

However long he’d thought that his forward-facing plating was going to last, he’d obviously grossly miscalculated. Slipshod prepared to turn his Wild Bronco back around and resume making a run for it and hope that no hits were scored on anything vital. Then, just before he manipulated the control yokes, a vast wall of cerulean slipped in front of him, obscuring his entire field of view. The stallion blinked in shock as he watched what turned out to be a ‘Steed perform what looked like an impossible sequence of maneuvers. It would only be later that he realized what was actually going on.

When most pilots engaged the jump jets of an equipped ‘Steed, it was in an effort to clear a significant obstacle, or even so that they could bypass or flank an opponent. Usually, this involved the ‘Steed in question vaulting dozens of meters into the air and then landing again some distance away in a generally straight line.

That wasn’t what Twilight’s Rainbow Dash was doing.

The alicorn pilot was feathering her heavy ‘Steed’s jump jets so that they just barely lifted the massive equine machine off the ground by less than a meter, so that she could use the maneuvering jets to strafe and yaw. That was how she was able to seemingly glide across the ground in the massive ‘Steed, taking several hits on her as-of-yet-unblemished plating. Nozzles pivoted and flared with plumes of magical violet fire from the Rainbow Dash’s fetlocks as they spun the ‘Steed in a wide arc. As it turned, twin pairs of sapphire and emerald light lanced out and converged on the Queen Novo’s left shoulder.

Assailed by a quartet of searing beams, the joint gave way, staggering the heavy ‘Steed. It was far from being completely out of action, but it did halt the onslaught of fire long enough for Slipshod’s displays to finally stop flickering. He wasted no time in lining up a shot on the same joint and adding to the damage. The limb fell away, leaving behind a smoking nub, collapsing the Novo.

Twilight did not seem to be done with her run though. Her ‘Steed’s jump jets cut out, dropping the Rainbow Dash to the ground once more, skidding through the dirt as it bled off the last of its momentum, coming to rest with one of its hind legs just about touching the front of one of the Scorpion tanks. This proved to have been completely by design, as that metal hoof gave a deft backward flick that lifted the front of the tracked vehicle up off the ground, where it proceeded to balance precariously for a second, before finally toppling over onto its turret and wobbling like a discarded foal’s toy.

The three remaining tanks took clear note of the new arrival, and appeared to all agree that the larger ‘Steed standing in their midst was a far greater threat to them than the battered hulk of Slipshod’s Wild Bronco. However, their turrets were unable to pan around fast enough to accurately track the rainbow-accented ‘Steed that was prancing around them, casually tipping them over one by one until all four of the tanks were left helplessly upended, yet all completely intact. Slipshod suspected that the crews were all relatively unharmed as well―save for a few assorted bruises―though they most assuredly had to be feeling quite put out by the whole ordeal.

Slipshod’s attention was drawn away from what was being done to the tanks as he saw that the Queen Novo was slowly starting to rise back up on it’s three remaining legs. The stallion grunted and took hold of his ‘Steed’s controls, trotting it out of the immediate line of fire as quickly as he could. His Wild Bronco was battered, yes, but still whole, and quite mobile. He had the advantage now, and was prepared to circle and harry the larger ‘Steed in much the same way that the Breezy had been whittling away at him.

Before he could fire though, the earth pony found his field of view once again obscured by a cerulean wall of metal and chromatic highlights. Beams of blue and green light leapt from the Rainbow Dash as it once more skated across the ground, riding upon plumes of purple fire. The readout of the Queen Novo’s condition on Slipshod’s displays showed that the enemy ‘Steed was losing functionality in several of its weapons. Both PPCs had been lost with its leg, but now it was also down two of its three heavy magical energy beams.

The Rainbow Dash slowed and set down standing directly in front of the crippled Queen Novo.

Slipshod heard the alicorn mare’s voice crackle over his headset as she broadcast on a wide-band frequency so that all nearby receivers could hear her, “forces of the Aris Highlanders: stand down! You have only two barely operational BattleSteeds,” the stallion balked and quickly scanned the map display. He saw the marker for the Blackjenny...but noticed that it was no longer actually moving. The blip which served to represent the Breezy was though, but the blue marker that must have been Valkyrie’s Parasprite was just about on top of it. Given the state that Slipshod had left the enemy light ‘Steed in, the pegasus mare’s recon frame would have little issue finishing it off if it gave her cause.

The same went for the Queen Novo, in fact. It still had an operational beam weapon, but the pilot would only get the one shot with it before Twilight responded and likely detonated his reactor core with a concentrated shot. Not that the earth pony suspected that she would. However, the enemy pilot didn’t know that.

Enough creatures have died today,” the alicorn continued, “there’s nothing to gain by throwing away more lives. Power down your ‘Steeds. Evacuate the firebase.

We’re here for the infrastructure, not your hides.”

“―not your hides.”

The cinnamon tiercel scowled through the cracked viewport of his cockpit at the enemy ‘Steed. They managed to sucker him into their ambush perfectly. He’d been too blinded by his rage to realize that there had to be more out here than just the single medium ‘Steed and the recon chassis. A Wild Bronco couldn’t have accounted for the volume of missile fire that had been raining down on the base at the onset of the engagement.

He’d just assumed that any attacking forces would have shown themselves the moment his Queen Novo arrived on the scene. After all, if they’d had anything more capable of repelling a heavier ‘Steed like his own, then they’d surely have sent it out earlier and not let him come so close to destroying the Bronco, right? Keeping a heavy ‘Steed back in reserve for so long was not a move that he could have predicted.

To say nothing about anticipating a Rainbow Dash, of all things, to be said heavy ‘Steed!

Where this outfit had managed to dig one up...he couldn’t imagine the money and resources required for such a feat. Whoever these mercenaries were, they were well-equipped and well-financed. Staffed with expert pilots too. He’d only seen jump jet control like that a couple times before in his career. It wasn’t easy to pull off.

The hippogriff’s eyes scanned over the map display as he took a few seconds to assess their situation, and their possible options. Flight Two was down, and Flight Four nearly out of ammunition and badly damaged. Even if that Parasprite stood perfectly still, the Breezy didn’t have the resources to destroy them without at least a resupply.

Meanwhile he was down to a single heavy beam, and both of the ‘Steed’s facing off against him looked to have their full weapons compliments. Resisting was only going to get him killed.

His eyes darted to the smoldering wreckage that had once been Gulfstream’s Pipsqueak. They began to burn with grief. He’d urged her to swap to a heavier chassis. She’d declined, citing her appreciation for the faster and more agile ‘Steed. How now he so desperately wished that he’d pushed harder for her to at least start piloting a medium tonnage ‘Steed. If only he’d…

The tiercel’s foreclaw tightened around the trigger.

It wouldn’t accomplish anything. Not really. Still, that impulse to get any amount of vengeance welled up within him. A last shot, in her name, before he was sent to join his beloved…


His talons relaxed.

...Only she wouldn’t have wanted that. He knew that much, at least. His death accomplished nothing. It might even get more of his comrades killed back at the base. Gulfstream would never forgive him for that.

The mare was right in that regard: there’d been enough death today. He toggled his radio, “...acknowledged. All Highlander forces, this is Flight Lead: stand down,” he reached up and started powering down his weapons systems.

The future was an uncertain thing. Perhaps, if the universe felt like being kind, he’d happen across these ‘Steed pilots again in the fullness of time, under more favorable circumstances. Then he’d be able to properly avenge his wife’s death.

That thought gave him at least a modicum of comfort.

Chapter 9: TimberWolves on the Border

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“If I’d known you’d find a way to capture a Queen Novo intact, I’d have negotiated better salvage rights,” Squelch muttered as she looked over the after-action reports that he and Valkyrie had just turned in. Per company policy, Twilight was supposed to have done one as well, but the green unicorn agreed to give her a pass on the grounds that she wasn’t a traditional ‘employee’, as such. Also, the less of a paper trail there was regarding the alicorn, the better things would be for everypony concerned, honestly.

“If we’d known that there was going to be a Queen Novo, I’d hope that you’d have been able to negotiate for better pay,” Slipshod smirked at the mare.

She sighed and shrugged, putting the reports away to be read over more carefully later, “established Aris Highlander doctrine is that new firebases are initially garrisoned by a lance of light and medium ‘Steeds with vehicle support,” she offered lamely, “nopony had any reason to think they’d moved in a heavy that fast. I’m sorry.

“A Condition Black was the right call, by the way,” the unicorn added soberly.

That was gratifying to hear, honestly. Slipshod knew that nopony who operated a mercenary outfit liked to abandon a mission. Aside from the obvious financial impact of not only losing out on the pay for completing the contract, and also perhaps even paying a penalty for reneging, many organizations didn’t want to risk acquiring the stigma that their outfit couldn’t ‘get things done’.

While it was true that any mercenary company which continually failed to produce results was destined to go out of business, it was rarely the case that a single botched mission spelled out irredeemable doom for an outfit. While a prospective employer was certainly more likely to offer better work at higher pay rates to companies with excellent records, they hardly expected anypony to have a perfect one. That sort of thing basically didn’t exist. No matter how well-equipped or prestigious the organization.

The fact was, that for somepony to win a fight, somepony else had to lose that fight. If any organization had ever existed that never lost a battle, then they’d have conquered the entirety of known space centuries ago. Even the big players like the Shadowbolts, the Nirik Light Pony, and the Gray Lines Legion had all lost fights with somecreature at some point along the way.

Today it was the Aris Highlanders―or at least one of their subcontractors―who’d lost a fight to the Steel Coursers. Slipshod was pretty sure that the Highlanders would still receive contracts in the future. The same would have been true for the Coursers if they’d pulled out. Their employer wouldn’t be happy, of course, and it was possible that they, specifically, wouldn’t have been eager to give Squelch’s company any more work in the near future―or at least not good paying work―but they’d have found another job somewhere in time.

Squelch understood all of that. So she wouldn’t have held anypony personally responsible for the failure of the mission.

Fortunately, it looked like she wasn’t going to have to after all, “and I guess taking the alicorn on as a pilot was the right call too, apparently,” the green mare added, her lips curling into a wry smirk at the golden earth pony, “Mig says the Rainbow Dash hardly has a scratch on it and it’ll be fixed up in a day. Val’s Parasprite’s a little more roughed up, but it’ll be good to go by the time we’re ready to jump out of the system,” now the unicorn’s eyes narrowed at him, “the Bronco, however…” her horn began to glow, as her magic retrieved another datapad.

The stallion let out an aggrieved sigh, “oh, for Celestia’s sake―”

“Eight tons of ablative plating, half a ton of myomer, two joint replacements―” she began reading.

“Am I suddenly the only pony who remembers the Queen Novo?” Slipshod asked sarcastically.

The unicorn didn’t react to his comment as she continued to list off the damaged components logged by the kirin mechanics, “―three heat sinks, the LRM needs to be rebuilt, thirty-four relays were burned out by all those PPC blasts―”

“It was a Queen. Novo!” he repeated in exasperation.

“―and you were a colossal moron to send a Wild Bronco up against it unsupported!” Squelch snapped at the stallion, her eyes flaring with anger. The earth pony recoiled as the pad was suddenly hurtling his way, deflected at the last moment by his quickly upraised hoof. His employer was out of her seat now, marching up on him, her features contorted by a sneer. Slipshod instinctively backed away from the irate mare until he felt his hind end meet the wall of her quarters, “that is twice―in a month!―that you’ve nearly gotten yourself killed down there! What the fuck is wrong with you?! You’re better than that! You’re smarter than that!” she seethed at the pilot.

“This is a dangerous job, Squelch, you know that―”

“Well it didn’t used to be this dangerous!” she snapped back, cutting him off. The unicorn paused, took a breath, and then finished with a resigned sigh, “or, ast the very least, you used to be better at avoiding it before,” again, she shot him another brief glare, “so whatever you’re doing different: stop it!

“If you get yourself killed out there I’ll―” Squelch sputtered and huffed for a second as she seemed to come up with some sort of punishment that she could possibly inflict on the stallion that would act as deterrent, “I’ll...I don’t know what,” she finished off lamely. Then the mare jabbed him sharply in the chest with her hoof, “but you won’t like it!”

If he smiled, it would be significantly unappreciated; so Slipshod expended a colossal amount of effort to ensure that his expression remained properly cowed, “I understand,” the mare huffed and turned away, collecting her discarded datapad and returning it to her desk, “and I’ll try to take better care of the Bronco―and myself―in the future.”

“Don’t bother,” she sighed, prompting a raised eyebrow from the stallion, “about the Bronco, I mean. We’re stripping it for parts and selling whatever’s left.”

Slipshod blinked in shock, “...what?”

“It’s just not cost effective anymore,” Squelch explained, “it’s never had great firepower, but that hasn’t mattered as much up to this point because we’ve just been clearing out rag-tag raiders and insurrectionists who couldn’t afford a ‘Steed of their own. Now that we have the Rainbow Dash, those sorts of contracts just don’t pay enough to maintain it. We need to take contracts that involve fighting other ‘Steeds.

“Which means we need you piloting something that can hold its own in a real fight.”

The stallion frowned. He’d been piloting that same Wild Bronco for nearly two years. He’d grown pretty attached to it, and all of its little quirks. His employer was right though: it wasn’t the most combat effective design that had ever been produced. It wasn’t a dedicated military chassis after all. It was easy to repair, cheap to maintain, but it also packed the firepower of a true combat ‘Steed half its weight. If they were going to be involved in more fights like the one they’d just been in, he would need a better BattleSteed.

“So what’d you have in mind?”

A pad was floated over for him to look at. Slipshod took it in the crook of his fetlock and reviewed the information contained on it. His eyes widened at what he saw. When he looked back at Squelch, she was grinning now, all traces of her earlier ire vanished from sight, “guess what was in that old Celestia League outpost?”

“Running away from home was the best thing that we ever did,” the rosey pink kirin mare sighed as she stood looking up at the large BattleSteed strung up in the last remaining unoccupied stall of the Galloway, “first we got to restore a Rainbow Dash, and now we’re working on an OG Crystal Cavalier,” Mig grinned with excitement.

Better than ‘OG’!” her twin called down from where she and a pair of technicians were pulling out one of the weapon mounts so that it could be rebuilt. While the ‘Steed had been intact and undamaged where the salvage teams had found it, it had also been without any sort of maintenance for the better part of five centuries. It would need a decent amount of care before it was usable again. Even more so than the Rainbow Dash, as that had at least had the benefit of being in a vacuum, which mostly preserved it.

The Cavalier, on the other hoof, had been exposed to the slowly corrosive effects of oxygen and humidity for all that time. Still, if there were any mechanics in the galaxy that could effectively erase any evidence of the passage of so much time, it was the two kirin.

“This is a 6b!” Tig was dancing on the tips of her cloven hooves, “double heatsinks! Pulse beams! Endo crystal chassis! Eeee!” the powder blue scaled equine veritably leaped down through the opening that had been created by the removal of the mount and vanished completely into the ‘Steed’s interior. Her voice echoed out from within, “it’s so shiny!”

Mig chuckled, casting an aside glance at the earth pony standing next to her, “you keep bringing us choice ‘Steeds like this to work on and you might just get a chance to make that ‘sequel video’,” the kirin purred.

Slipshod was actually pretty sure that she wasn’t joking. Though, even if she wasn’t, that wasn’t where his mind was at―not right now anyway. Truth be told, he was just as enamored with the new find as the twins were. If for slightly different reasons. For the mechanics, it represented a chance to indulge themselves in a rare opportunity related to a job that they’d loved doing enough to flee a life of near-infinite luxury in order to experience it.

For him, it was a little different. He didn’t regard the Crystal Cavalier as an expression of art and design like the two mares did. Instead, he saw the heavy BattleSteed and the raw combat power that it represented as a large step forward in his personal quest to see the aspirations of his former queen reduced to dust. He wouldn’t deny that, overall, he still didn’t have anywhere even close to the quantity of resources he’d need to destroy Chrysalis. Nopony knew better than he did what was waiting in the Faust system for anycreature foolish enough to think that they could wrest the seat of power from ‘Queen Twilight Sparkle’.

Hundreds of BattleShips. Thousands of assault-class BattleSteeds, all equipped with the advanced technology of the Celestia League which had largely been lost to the rest of the galaxy’s major powers over the centuries of fighting and destruction.

Anything less than a genuine army wouldn’t last past the first few hours after jumping into the system. Slipshod knew that.

However, he also knew that any army had to begin somewhere, and a Rainbow Dash and a Crystal Cavalier were a decent start. Twilight knew the locations of dozens of other ancient Celestia League strongholds, each of which might contain even more potent treasures than they’d found here. The recorded data at these sites also contained information regarding the location of many other sites which the alicorn didn’t know about, as well. Given enough time, they wouldn’t just be able to bring an army to the Faust system, but one that was built upon the very same advanced losmagitek weapons and systems that Chrysalis’ forces wielded.

Maybe it would take many more years―perhaps decades―to get to that point, but he was finally confident that they could get to that point!

“I’ll keep that in mind,” the earth pony replied, his eyes still surveying the salvage team’s latest find, “did your sister bring back any other neat toys?”

“Weapons, ammunition, myomer, plating,” the pink kirin replied nonchalantly, “that sort of thing. There were ‘Steed parts, but nothing that was worth the space they’d take up to bother bringing them back,” she gestured behind them at the Rainbow Dash, “though we do finally have what we need to get the RD properly loaded out,” she smiled, “between that and the Cavalier, you guys should be pretty unstoppable―as long you don’t go tangling with a lance of Big Macs at least.

“We also recovered a lot of stuff that’s mostly useless to us right now, but it can be sold for a good price. So Squelch is pretty happy about that.”

“She could have fooled me,” the stallion murmured under his breath, recalling how his earlier debriefing had gone.

“Bah,” the kirin waved a dismissive hoof, “that’s just because you abused our Whittle Bee,” the mare’s expression became briefly accusatory now too, “again. What’d it ever do to you, anyway?”

The earth pony massaged the bridge of his nose, “Queen. Novo,” he hissed through gritted teeth.

Mig snorted derisively, but her face quickly broke out in a smile again as she returned her gaze to their new acquisition, “well, one of those shouldn’t rough you up too badly anymore,” she announced, “it’ll take us a few weeks to get it all sorted out,” the mare continued, shifting the topic of conversation slightly, “but everything should be good to go by the time we’re looking for our next contract. Has Squelch suggested when that’s going to be, by any chance?”

She had actually, “we’re heading for New Aris, as it turns out,” Slipshod informed the kirin, “it’s the largest market in the cluster, so we’ll get the best price for all that surplus gear clogging up our cargo hold. Should be plenty of jobs posted on the board there too.

“Hopefully one of them’ll take us to the same planet as another of those League bases Twilight told us about.”

“Ah, sailing right into the heart of Combine-controlled space immediately after dismantling a Highlander firebase,” the mechanic said with a smirk, rolling her eyes as she did so, “won’t we be popular?”

“We’ve taken about as many contracts for the Combine as we have against them,” he reminded her, shrugging, “there shouldn’t be any hard feelings,” he thought for a moment, “as long as we don’t run into anycreature who knows a pilot whose death we were directly responsible for…”

“Knowing your luck?” she chided him.

“It’s a big galaxy. The chances of that happening are―”

“―much higher than I anticipated...” the golden earth pony muttered under his breath as he, Valkyrie, and Squelch strode into the briefing room where they would be meeting their employer and receiving their intel dump for the upcoming operation.

The two week trip to New Aris had been largely uneventful, with the majority of the time taken up by his familiarizing himself with the Crystal Cavalier, as well as he and Val working to integrate Twilight into their previously established tactics and doctrine. That had been quite the experience, and not for the reasons that Slipshod had initially assumed. Given the rather abrasive way that the purple alicorn had conducted herself thus far during their―few―social interactions, the stallion had fully expected for the mare to immediately dismiss everything that they said and insist on implementing her own tactics from that point forward.

However, that had not been the case. Oh, the alicorn had certainly had a few...what could be loosely considered ‘critiques’ about the way the Steel Coursers went about doing things; but she had found the pair’s actual tactics to be quite commendable, given their available equipment and numbers. It was something of a novel concept for her, actually. As the nominal developer of many of the technologies behind the first generation of WorkSteeds, and the driving force behind their subsequent militarization, Twilight had been working with them for longer than anycreature who’d ever lived. She’d also never had to go into battle with any fewer BattleSteeds than she’d desired, since she was the one who’d chosen where and when most fights happened, and her personal forces had constituted the next best thing to all the BattleSteeds in existence most of the time.

Being the pony who also―quite literally―wrote the book on ‘Steed tactics, she was able to make several suggestions on how to adapt and refine the duo’s doctrines in order to best accommodate a third pilot. Slipshod didn’t miss the fact that every one of those new engagement profiles also prioritized disabling the target ‘Steed or vehicle, and largely avoided doing anything that might kill the pilot or crew, respectively. Valkyrie didn’t take much exception to this, as her Parasprite didn’t see much direct combat in most cases anyway―provided everything went according to plan.

For Slipshod...it honestly didn’t matter to him either way. His priority had always been completion of the contract. Leaving a body count didn’t earn him any additional bits, not really. Kill bounties on certain contracts were tied to the ‘kill’ of the ‘Steeds or vehicle encountered, not the creatures controlling them. To his knowledge, no employer usually offered C-bit incentives for wiping out infantry companies on the battlefield. It was just hardware that everycreature cared about.

So, if the only way that Twilight was going to reliably help them out was if he made a concerted effort to stop a ‘Steed while putting its pilot in minimal jeopardy, then so be it.

On the other hoof, if one of his shots meant to slag a weapon mounted in an enemy ‘Steed’s shoulder happened to drift a little to one side and snipe the cockpit...the battlefield was a chaotic place with a lot of things in motion. Not every shot could be perfect. The princess would just have to live with that reality.

The point was that the alicorn seemed to at least tolerate his existence now; which was a marked improvement when compared to her initial efforts to crumple him up like a used tissue. She wasn’t a particularly warm or inviting conversationalist―with him―by any stretch, but Slipshod would have gladly endured several long months of the alicorn’s detached aloofness to what he was likely to experience over the next couple hours in this room.

The burnt orange hippogriff hen sitting across the table from them at the far end of the room was staring daggers into the earth pony stallion from the moment he walked in. He noticed that the talons of one of her hands were digging into the surface of the table, etching noticeable groves into the laminated surface. Slipshod idly wondered if it would make things better or worse if he said anything. Best not to risk it, he ultimately decided. He and Val were here mostly as ‘window dressing’ anyway; Squelch was the one that was here to do the talking.

“Jilted lover?” he heard the azure pegasus mare standing beside him whisper. Obviously Valkyrie had taken notice of the special attention that he was being given by the hen.

“I wish,” the stallion replied just as quietly. He meant that, too. Creatures he ran into later after an ‘evening encounter’ who might be a little put out at being a mere tryst―though a rare occurrence―were easy enough to deal with; and more often than not ended up back in his quarters. Being a creature that could read the emotional state of another like the menu at a café had certain advantages when it came to manipulating behavior.

However, that was―unfortunately―not the case this time, “remember that op on Atlantea eight months ago? The one where we were ‘disrupting’ an arms deal between the Aris Highlanders and that Our Worlds League company?” he inclined his head slightly in the hen’s direction, “her brother was the Highlanders’ rep for that meeting.”

The pegasus’ eyes narrowed slightly in thought, “...didn’t we blow up the―oh,” the mare’s eyes widened now in realization.

“Yeah,” Slipshod confirmed, nodding his head slightly, “a week later I received a message from his sister which was...creative about how I’d be punished for that.”

“Oh...well, this should be fun!”

Squelch cleared her throat in a noisy enough fashion that Slipshod felt Doc Dee would have been motivated to prescribe her his most potent decongestant. The two ponies took her meaning and ceased their hushed exchange. Val took up an appropriately prim and proper stance behind her employer, looking every bit the professional ‘Steed pilot that she was. Slipshod felt that he would have been able to look similarly impressive, if not for the fact that he felt compelled to look in any direction but forward, where the orange hippogriff hen was still drilling into him with her intense gaze.

Two other creatures were in the room as well, and both seemed to be largely oblivious to the animosity; or were at least too professional to acknowledge it. Likely the latter, the stallion suspected. Sometimes mercenary companies had histories with one another. That was the nature of the business. Most didn’t take it personally―grudges didn’t typically pay maintenance costs. Sometimes though, that was harder to do. Especially where family was involved.

“That should be everycreature,” a violet tiercel began solemnly, tapping at a few keys on the console built into the table. The room’s lights dimmed and a holographic display materialized in the center of the room, “so let us begin:

“This is System PEA-02-UX. If that doesn’t sound like the name of a typical inhabited system, that’s because it isn’t. Records suggest that it was slated for terraforming and colonization prior to the dissolution of the Celestia League, but efforts were halted when Crown funding dried up. However, we now believe that the terraforming progressed far enough for the system’s second planet to become at least marginally habitable.

“We believe this, because the Combine has received intelligence suggesting that Commonwealth forces are setting up a forward supply base,” the hippogriff paused, favoring all of the other creatures in the room with a pointed look, “allow me to emphasize what I just said in case there was any misunderstanding: Commonwealth forces are setting up a forward supply base. Specifically, elements of the 5th and 12th Dongola.”

Slipshod’s eyes widened slightly as he took in the meaning of what had just been said. It was certainly something that had needed clarification, as the political nuances of Sphere politics usually meant that star nations and their nominal pocket mercenary outfits could be used interchangeably. When the Gray Lines Legion, for example, launched an attack on a Federated Moons planet, it was implicitly understood that they were acting on behalf of the Our Worlds League. Officially there was a distinction, so such an attack wasn’t an actual ‘act of war’; even if everycreature ‘knew’ who was behind it.

In such cases, the appropriate response was for the Shadowbolts to attack something of the Our Worlds League. Not at the behest of the Federated Moons, of course. Just...as a matter of their own, independent, business.

That was how the ongoing cold war of the Harmony Sphere perpetuated. ‘Hot’ wars meant massive mobilizations, huge expenses, colossal body counts, and a lot of wrecked infrastructure that nocreature wanted to have to spend the C-bits to rebuild. It was cheaper to just fling mercenaries at each other like foals having a snowball fight...but with BattleSteeds.

That’s how Chrysalis preferred things anyway.

An open war―a real war―meant that it was possible that one side or the other might actually win. Then, suddenly, the five major powers would become four, with one of those powers now controlling twice the resources of any of the other three. At that point, the three smaller powers would be forced to band together to oppose the new, much larger, nation. To do otherwise would risk a second nation being invaded and annexed. At which point, there would be nothing the remaining two powers could do against the third, overwhelmingly powerful, adversary which now controlled a majority of the galaxy’s resources. When those dominos started to fall, it was inevitable that the worlds of the Harmony Sphere would eventually come under the control of a single star nation again.

Chrysalis didn’t want a single, unified, star nation that controlled the resources of the former Celestia League surrounding her. With no opponents to fight any longer, creatures would stop sending applicants to the Academies on Equus; which meant no food for the hive and, worse, no means by which to replace those in power with her operatives. She’d lose control of the Harmony Sphere, and there’d be nothing that she could do about it.

No, the changeling queen didn’t want open warfare. There was no ‘good’ outcome for her that was better than the existing status quo.

If the Pony Commonwealth was indeed making preparations to launch a genuine invasion of the Hippogriff Combine, then she’d want them stopped at all costs. She wouldn’t be able to do it through ComSpark though. That was established as being an apolitical entity, with no official interest in Sphere goings-on, and thus no stake in how much territory or power any of the five major star nations possessed. So she’d need to act through her operatives in the Combine.

Which explained how the hippogriff leadership had come to learn about this otherwise secret build up of Commonwealth forces on an uninhabited world beyond the Sphere.

What it didn’t explain was why the Steel Coursers had been brought in on this operation―

“Normally,” the tiercel continued after having made his point clear, “the Combine would look to the Highlanders exclusively to clear out such a threat. However, many of their companies in the region are dealing with a TimberWolf incursion,” the violet hippogriff cast a side glance at Squelch and her mercenaries, “which has become significantly more difficult to ward off since the recent destruction of a firebase that was meant to support those efforts.”

Squelch made no comment on the matter. Business was business, after all.

“Things being what they are, however,” the tiercel continued, “House Novo has authorized the funding to hire additional independent contractors for this operation. That is where the Steel Coursers come in.”

“Forgive me, Baron Mar,” Squelch began, “it’s not that we don’t appreciate the work; but I am curious why an operation like this one is going to be so small. If there really are two regiments down there―”

Elements of two regiments,” the tiercel corrected gently, holding up a talon, “at this moment, we suspect that there are only fifty or so ‘Steeds in total, with support vehicles.”

It was all that Slipshod could do not to snort derisively. ‘Only’ fifty ‘Steeds! With support vehicles! The expression on his unicorn employer’s face suggested that she was experiencing similar thoughts, but their benefactor spoke up before Squelch could voice aloud what would have been improper for him to.

“However, the part that you’ll be playing should mean that you’ll avoid any entanglements with the main body of the Commonwealth forces on the planet. Specifically,” the holographic display shifted to show a map of what the earth pony presumed was the operational area of the mission they were being briefed on. Several locations lit up along the perimeter, “we would like the Steel Coursers and Captain Peregrine’s lance” he gestured towards the burnt orange hen who had remained silent throughout the briefing thus far, “to strike at their observation and communications posts. By hitting their outlying positions from opposite sides simultaneously, it should hamper the ability of the Commonwealth’s reactionary forces on the planet to respond in force to any one attack.

“To be clear: your priorities will be the designated infrastructure. How many of their forces you tangle with is your business; as long as the priority targets get taken out. You are merely the prelude to a larger offensive that is being mounted in a neighboring system as we speak. Once their sensor and comm nets are down, The Highlanders can land their assault divisions and remove the base and its garrison before it gets any bigger.”

The earth pony was chewing his lip thoughtfully as he regarded the projected map. Even if they were supposed to just hit minimally defended perimeter bases, he didn’t like the idea of several dozen ‘Steeds being only an hour away at most. If they got hung up at one of their objectives, they could end up in big trouble. Honestly, he wasn’t entirely convinced that this contract was worthwhile, and wouldn’t have been surprised if Squelch refused to be a part of it―

“Sounds good. We’re in,” the pegasus said succinctly.

Then again, what did he know?

“Excellent. Then let us all get comfortable and begin going over the details for the operation, shall we?”

Two hours later, the trio of ponies were in the limousine on their way back to the Galloway. The briefing hadn’t been anything special, and nothing about their mission seemed out of the ordinary. Though Slipshod did have to marvel at the quantity of information that the Combine appeared to have on the supposedly ‘secret’ Commonwealth base that had been set up on an entirely unsettled world. It only served to reinforce his theory that Chrysalis’ agents had been involved in ensuring that the Combine was in a position to put an end to the Commonwealth’s planned invasion as quickly as possible.

Doubtlessly, Archon Dominus Blueblood would be quite put out at the rather egregious hole which apparently existed in the Commonwealth’s information security where secret military operations were concerned. An investigation would be conducted, those changelings present in his intelligence services would fabricate evidence implicating a suitable scapegoat, said scapegoat would be summarily tortured and executed, and everypony would move on with their lives, satisfied that no such issue would threaten future operations.

The status quo of the Sphere would be maintained and no creature would be any the wiser as to the hows and whys. Just as had always been the case for the better part of half a millennium.

In fact, the only real mystery to any of this would be: “why did you accept this mission?”

Squelch regarded him with a slight frown. A not unusual reaction to having her leadership implicitly questioned by one of her employees. It was the sort of question that she wouldn’t have tolerated at all from just about any of her other employees in the company. However, Slipshod’s position as a ‘Steed pilot―who would be directly subjected to all the associated hazards of the operation she’d ‘volunteered’ him for―afforded him a little more leeway where such things were concerned.

“Because accepting and executing contracts is how mercenary companies like ours make money,” the green unicorn mare replied tersely. From beside her, Valkyrie chortled as she failed to completely suppress her mirth at the response.

Slipshod was less amused, “you know what I mean. Going up against two ‘Steed regiments? With just ours and Peri’s lances? No offense, but you’re not usually this ambitious with our contracts.”

“True,” the unicorn mare conceded with a nod, “and, honestly, this mission is a bit outside my own comfort zone too,” this prompted a raised brow from Val as well as the earth pony stallion, “but it’s our best shot at getting to another Celestia League outpost in the area.

“We’ll be getting routed to PEA-02-UX through the system where the Highlanders are staging their invasion forces. That system is the Dovetail System, which was once home to a League R&D facility, according to our guest. While we’re there, we’ll drop off a team to survey and salvage the site. Hopefully, they’ll pick up a few losmagitech toys without anycreature being the wiser as to what we’re up to.”

“The Highlanders aren’t going to wonder what we were doing on the planet?” Valkyrie inquired.

“We’ve got an untested Crystal Cavalier that’s just been refurbished,” Squelch pointed out with a shrug, “it would be reckless to not put it through a shakedown run.”

She had a point, Slipshod conceded. They’d want to spend a day or two making sure that Mig and Tig got it working right. Or at least find anything that they missed. Still, “a raid like this is still pretty risky,” he pointed out.

“Not if you do it right,” his employer countered, “everything suggests that we’ll get the drop on the Commonwealth forces, which means that you should be able to get in, hit your targets, and get out before their forces can mobilize a proper response. At worst, you’ll run into some of their lighter picket lances.

“If things do go bad,” she amended, “then call a Condition Black and the Galloway will pull you out.

“But, if it’s all that same, I’d rather you avoid doing that unless absolutely necessary. After Kenway, we’re not the Combine’s favorite mercenaries right now. Botching this operation on the fetlocks of raiding one of their firebases might get us on their ‘naughty list’ for a while, and we’re in the heart of Combine territory. I really don’t want to have to pay the transit fees to get us all the way to Federated Moons controlled space without any work along the way.

“We’re not that far in the black.”

“Noted,” Slipshod smirked. He took a deep breath and nodded, “alright. We’ll do our best. As long as the Cavalier works as advertised, we shouldn’t have any issues.”

They certainly knew how to build ‘Steeds back in the day, the stallion decided. The smile spread across his lips grew even broader as he depressed the rear pedals even further, his eyes flicking to the readout displaying his current speed. Twenty-five tons heavier, and yet the Crystal Cavalier was easily able to match the speed of his Wild Bronco. Half again more armor and double the firepower cemented his newfound love for the heavy ‘Steed.

His gaze flickered ahead to where his HUD was advising him of a hostile-marked contact. Several actually. Unconcerned, his forehooves nudged the control yokes they were wrapped around, teasing the crosshairs onto the targets. A helix of rainbow-patterned light bolted from the tip of the lance mounted on the ‘Steed’s right side. A second later and a thousand meters ahead of him, the canvas silhouette of the Demolisher Heavy Tank vanished in an expanding sphere of chromatic electricity.

Two subsequent pulls of the trigger reduced two other mock ‘threats’ to ash as pulses of sapphire energy lashed out and struck them down. He leaned his ‘Steed to the left, guiding it in a wide arc towards the next set of targets. Nearly a dozen transponders lit up in front of him, denoting vehicles of various types and sizes. Slipshod eased back on the throttle and cycled through his weapons as quickly as they would recharge, keeping an eye to the steadily climbing temperature of his reactor.

Even though the Crystal Cavalier had been designed from the ground up as an exclusively energy weapon based platform, and the 6b variant used―now―hard to come by double heat sinks, Slipshod was finding it difficult to maintain a steady volume of fire even while keeping the temperatures dangerously near the shutdown threshold. He suspected that only two or three alpha strikes would be enough to trigger an outright shutdown of the reactor in order to avert a meltdown.

Even so, he was able to make steady progress through the second throng of targets in what he felt was a respectable amount of time. When the last target was incinerated, he flicked open his comm and proudly announced, “that’s the last of ‘em! Perfect accuracy too,” he couldn’t help but grin at the accomplishment, feeling rather satisfied with himself.

Three hours of work undone in ninety seconds,” came Mig’s sardonic reply through the radio, “how’s the ‘Steed doing?

“No issues that I could find,” the earth pony stallion informed the kirin mechanic, “acceleration was good, handling was smooth, and targeting was right on the money.”

Noted. I’ll have the crew do a quick tear-down and inspection all the same once you get back.”

“Mind if I stay out here a little longer?” he asked, “I want to try and get a better feel for the balance at different speeds. See how well it bucks and pivots too.”

Knock yourself out,” Mig said, “be as rough as you want. It’ll give us a better idea of how it stands up to real wear and tear. So go nuts.

“Don’t mind if I do!” Slipshod kicked back hard on the throttles and grinned as he felt the ‘Steed suddenly lurch on ahead as it propelled itself back up to a full run.

A second mare’s voice chimed in over the communications channel, “if I might make a suggestion?” the stallion recognized Twilight through the radio’s mild distortion.

What’s that, Rosie?

There was a short pause and Slipshod felt himself cringe empathetically with the inhalation that he knew the alicorn was taking as she withheld her annoyance at the use of the pet name that the kirin twins had adopted for her since it had been decided that her name for the purposes of employment with the Steel Coursers would be: Purple Rose. She’s been annoyed enough at the use of a pseudonym as it was, but had at least agreed with the reasoning for its use. Nicknames, she had not agreed to, “...perhaps a mock battle is in order? That would be the best way to simulate realistic wearminus the battle damage, of course.”

That sounds like a wonderful idea,” a third mare joined in. Slipshod frowned, wondering why so many other ponies were suddenly so interested in contributing to this conversation. He also couldn’t help but feel a little wary at the note of amusement in Squelch’s voice, “sending out the commands to your ‘Steeds now…” the displays in the stallion’s cockpit flickered briefly before settling down again, but with a yellow hue to them, “...and that should do it. When the two of you are ready?

I am prepared,” Twilight confirmed.

Perfect. Match start!

“Hey now, wait a min―!” Slipshod began to protest, but stopped abruptly as a column of rainbow light streaked by just ahead of his cockpit, missing him by less than a meter and inducing several rapid blinks as his eyes protested the sudden assault by so many bright colors at once. He jerked his control yokes and heaved the Cavalier hard to the right, away from the source of the incoming fire.

His ‘Steed stumbled, throwing him into his harness, and an indicator flashed on his rear ablative plating to denote where he’d been struck. Twilight had missed him on purpose with the first shot, he instantly realized. She’d forgone the strike against his ‘Steed’s modestly armored barrel in order to scare him into exposing his less protected rear. The stallion grit his teeth and silently cursed how easily he’d been manipulated. Now not only had the alicorn drawn ‘first blood’, but she was also in a position to keep shooting at him while he couldn’t retaliate at all!

An advantage which the purple mare was apparently willing to take full advantage of as more sections of his plating flashed warnings, and his cockpit continued to buck and lurch. He was honestly getting more than a little annoyed at his ‘Steed right now.

After all, Twilight’s weapons were not actually doing anything to his ‘Steed at the moment. As a result of the commands that Squelch had transmitted to their computers, both his and the alicorn’s weapons were shooting little more than brightly colored lights at one another. The energy output wasn’t even high enough to scratch the paint. What was happening was that Twilight’s ‘Steed was transmitting its targeting computer data to his own ‘Steed’s computers so that his Cavalier knew where it had been ‘hit’, and it could register the damage and react to the blows accordingly.

Every jolt that he was feeling right now was actually his ‘Steed’s own myomer muscles throwing him around in order for him to receive the same tactile sensation that he would in an actual fight. The idea was for trainee pilots to be able to get used to the sensation during mock battles so that they didn’t become disoriented by the phenomenon in their first actual fight.

Right now though, Slipshod was just finding it really annoying!

“Alright, princess,” he grunted under his breath as he focused and took hold of the controls, “let’s see how you handle this!” He heaved the control yokes and worked the throttle pedals, throwing his ‘Steed’s hind end around in a skid that allowed him to perform a pivot, bringing his weapons to bear on the princess. He fired, sending out dual streams of pulsed blue energy―

―into nothing.

“Wait, wha…?” the stallion blinked in surprise. His eyes then immediately darted to his navigation map and the blip that insisted his adversary was still directly in front of him.

A flash of prismatic light from above caught his attention. Slipshod’s screens blurred and briefly cut out appropriately in response to the PPC’s distorting effects, much to the stallion’s frustration. He glared at the airborne Rainbow Dash. A tug on the controls slammed his own ‘Steed’s hind end to the ground and allowed him the elevation he needed to track his target. A rainbow helix of his own leapt skyward from his lance…

...only to have the other ‘Steed dart effortlessly to the left with a burst from its jump jets before finally falling back towards the ground.

His screen suddenly flashed with crimson warning messages alerting him to a missile lock. Slipshod’s eyes went wide. He pushed ahead on his control yokes and pedals both, but he already knew it was a futile effort. It would take his ‘Steed a couple of seconds to stand back up and get underway to a respectable speed. Those ‘missiles’ were already in the air, of course. Slipshod closed his eyes in silent resignation as the cockpit shuddered to simulate the peppering of those forty missiles as they hammered home onto their largely stationary target.

Just as Twilight had intended them to.

Every move she had made so far had been carefully calculated to elicit a specific response from him that she could then take advantage of. Had he been watching her do this to anypony else, he’d have found it to be a decidedly fascinating fight. However, as it was his flank that was being soundly bucked up one side and down the other…

The Cavalier was finally back on its hooves, and once again Slipshod was throttling it up to a full run. He fired alternating blasts of pulsed sapphire energy towards the princess’s ‘Steed, noting that his shots appeared to be pulling to the left. Apparently his computer had determined that the damage that he’d sustained in the fight thus far had affected his targeting systems. Not that having a perfectly aligned system was likely to have helped him anyway. Twilight’s Rainbow Dash was doing remarkably well at living up to its name and making a trivial effort of using bursts of its jump jets to dash from side to side and avoid his shots altogether.

Slipshod’s teeth grit in further frustration at having all of his efforts thus far thwarted. He continued to charge headlong towards her, his weapons chain-firing in an attempt to saturate the area and score a hit through sheer volume, if nothing else. It didn’t even occur to him that she wasn’t returning fire until after the fact. Presumably this was done in an effort to draw him further in by not giving him any incentive to veer off.

The stallion’s tunnel vision meant that he was taken completely by surprise when the Rainbow Dash’s jump jets flared one final time, arcing its hind end around into a powerful hook kick which caught Slipshod’s Crystal Cavalier square in the side of its head. His ‘Steed had no need to ‘simulate’ the hit this time as the force of the blow from his opponent’s ‘Steed was more than enough to send his own off balance and careening into the ground. His harness kept him from getting seriously injured, but the wrenching force of the impact still disoriented him nonetheless.

The earth pony allowed himself to hang limply in his sideways piloting couch for several long seconds as he awaited the inevitable announcement of the results of the match through his comm system. Princess Twilight Sparkle had not merely won the fight, she’d given him an indisputable thrashing; and all without sustaining a single hit on her own ‘Steed. She’d enjoyed it too. He could actually taste her satisfaction from here. It’d be deliciously refreshing if he weren’t so distracted by his own eviscerated self-esteem.

“...now that was just sad,” Squelch lamented over the radio, “I almost feel bad about taking High Gain’s C-bits,” a brief pause, then, “Purple Rose, get him on his hooves and teach him how to pilot a damn ‘Steed, will you?”

I’ll see what can be done,” was the alicorn’s terse reply.

Slipshod’s eyes briefly darted to the ‘Steed’s scuttling command switches. Dying in a reactor meltdown would at least mean he didn’t have to endure whatever awaited him back on the Galloway

There was a burst of muffled static before he heard the princess’ voice again, “that was simultaneously cathartic and depressing,” Twilight chided him, “I thought you were trained at the ‘best ‘Steed academies in the galaxy’? Isn’t that why the pony whose identity you stole after murdering him went to Equus in the first place? To become an ace BattleSteed pilot?

Slipshod’s eyes widened in a moment of terror until he saw that the two of them were conversing over a privately encrypted frequency, at which point he allowed himself to relax. A little, “first off: I haven’t ‘murdered’ anypony,” he corrected the mare, insistently, “and second...you’ve been doing this a lot longer than I have,” he winced at how petulant the excuse ended up sounding out loud.

My excess of experience does not excuse your multitude of mistakes,” Twilight said before starting to list them off. Slipshod wisely chose not to inform her of how much she was reminding him of his old instructors at the academy right now...or how much what she was saying now directly echoed their criticisms of his performance then, “you turned your flank on an actively engaging enemy. You came to complete stops multiple times. You closed to melee range with a more agile foe. And, most egregious of all: you fought in close quarters against a ‘Steed whose capabilities you did not fully understand.

The earth pony stallion cringed and hung his head. Yep, that sounded all too familiar alright. What made it worse was that he’d routinely exploited exactly those sorts of flaws in his opponents. He used terrain masking and sensor net holes to start engagements from his enemy’s flanks. In their last battle on Kenway, he’d managed to use an enemy pilot’s ignorance of his Wild Bronco’s ability to leap great distances to lethal effect. What was perhaps even worse, was that he knew Twilight was capable of using the Rainbow Dash’s overpowered jump jets to devastating effect! He’d seen her do it!

I find myself honestly wondering how you’ve managed to survive as long as you have,” she said in a dismissive tone.

“By being a medium-sized fish in the tiniest ponds I could find,” he retorted. It wasn’t like he wasn’t aware of his lackluster skills as a pilot. Fortunately, a high degree of skill hadn’t been required to successfully put his Wild Bronco up against Scorpion Tanks and Savana Masters.

Was maintaining only a moderately passable competence at ‘Steed piloting part of your grand plan to defeat Chrysalis?” Twilight sneered through the radio.

Slipshod rolled his eyes, “like I ever really believed I’d have a chance of doing something like that,” he snapped back at the alicorn, “I knew it was a pipe dream; but what could I do about it? Even if I’d become the best pilot in the Sphere, I still wouldn’t have had a chance,” he pointed out, “there isn’t enough skill in the galaxy to overcome the numbers she has.”

When we finally locate the remnants of the Ninth Force Recon, the odds will no longer be stacked quite so steeply against our success,” the earth pony stallion envied the mare’s optimism. He was pretty sure that they’d need more than a small ragtag cult operating out of the Periphery to stand much of a chance against the Queen’s guards, “which means that, if you actually want to survive long enough to see Chrysalis defeated, we’re going to need to work rather hard to lift up your level of skill.

It would be a shame if you got cored in the opening engagement,” Slipshod perked up in his piloting couch, not able to help but feel a little surprised at the notion that Twilight might actually care about his well being, despite her publicly displayed attitude towards him on the DropShip, “that Crystal Cavalier is a very valuable ‘Steed, after all.

Oh. Right.

Chapter 10: Double-Blind

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“‘Marginally habitable’,” Slipshod snorted derisively, “there’s nothing ‘marginal’ about this place. It’s a damn tartarus-scape,” the earth pony stallion noted as their trio of ‘Steeds strode across the basalt flats between a pair of volcanoes that looked a little too active for his liking.

The operation, thus far, had gone off without a hitch. All indications were that their insertion into the system via a ‘pirate jump point’ had gone largely unnoticed by the Commonwealth listening posts. That probably wouldn’t have been the case in a truly developed system, where the coverage would have been considerably more extensive, but PEA-02-UX was a recently established forward support base, and thus had little in the way of orbital surveillance. What there was would have been focused on the zenith and nadir of the system’s primary star, which were the two typical points of entry for a jump ship.

The two small DropShips―both that of the Steel Coursers, and Captain Peregrine’s―had managed to evade the plotted planetary surveillance network as well, utilizing the exceptionally well-mapped satellite constellation around the planet.

Slipshod found himself idly wondering if anypony on either ship found it the least bit bizarre that the Pony Commonwealth seemed to have such a massive security leak that all of this information had paltry little trouble finding its way into the talons of their employer. The earth pony felt like he’d have certainly been questioning the plausibility of having gotten such extensive information on a military target like this.

Then again, he supposed that these sorts of intelligence windfalls were hardly rare. Any time Chrysalis’ agents uncovered this exact kind of operation―which wasn’t difficult, as those same agents were typically in positions where it was part of their job to plan these operations―exactly these sorts of treasure troves of information were passed along to the relevant party so that they could put a stop to it. A suitable ‘security leak’ was then fabricated out of a convenient patsy, said patsy was ‘dealt with’ by the outraged leadership, and everypony moved on to plotting their next move; inexplicably hoping that it would all go according to plan ‘next time’.

Rinse; repeat.

So, the earth pony supposed, when it was actually fairly typical to receive this kind of detailed information about planned clandestine military incursions, then it made a certain amount of sense that nopony questioned how so much intelligence had been allowed to leak to the enemy. Apparently without the perpetrator of the operation even being aware that so much of what they were doing had leaked!

Every satellite was exactly where it was supposed to be. Nothing had been moved to compensate for the calculated holes which had been plotted by Combine Intelligence―Slipshod idly wondered if the ponies who’d set up the net for the Combine hadn’t specifically created those holes to be used for this very purpose…

The more he thought about it, the more the earth pony came to conclude that the reason that all of this seemed to frustrate him so much was because he knew that it was all a farce. The fighting, the scheming, the plotting, all of it. He knew that it was all fabricated behind the scenes by Chrysalis and her operatives. To everypony else though, it appeared to be wholly organic. Politicians and military leaders were just going about their day making the decisions that they thought would best advantage their star nations. That was what it looked like to the common creature.

None suspected for a moment that many of those politicians and military leaders in opposing factions were actively working together to orchestrate these sorts of confrontations. No creature thought that, because no creature could possibly conceive of a reason why that would be the case. What good could such a thing possibly accomplish for anypony? It certainly wasn’t benefiting any specific group. Prominent Houses rose and fell on a nearly monthly basis somewhere in the galaxy, so it wasn’t like there was a cabal of the ‘ruling class’ working behind the scenes to retain power.

At least, not that anycreature could see. After all, Queen Twilight Sparkle didn’t have any ‘power’. She certainly never took any public stances on the fighting or voiced any support for a specific faction. So if any were so conspiracy-minded as to want to look for malicious interests influencing galactic politics, they certainly weren’t inclined to consider such things from her perspective.

So, here he was, galloping across a planet on his way to begin the first phase of an operation that would stop the Pony Commonwealth from launching a surprise invasion of the Hippogriff Combine and risk altering the precarious balance of power that Chrysalis was intent on preserving in order to keep the nations of the Harmony Sphere fighting amongst themselves. An operation that had been specifically engineered to succeed through the combined efforts of a carefully mismanaged setup by the Commonwealth units on this planet, and the well-informed forces that were about to assault them.

It was like playing a game of chess against yourself.

All that Slipshod had to do was find a way to specifically not fuck this all up and snatch defeat from the jaws of all-but-assured-victory.

Though, admittedly, the stallion was finding it a little hard to take this mission seriously, knowing that it was supposed to be effectively impossible for them to lose this fight. After all, if the Aris Highlander forces lost, then the Commonwealth would be able to launch their attack on the Combine and start a genuine war.

Chrysalis wasn’t going to allow that to happen. She couldn’t afford to.

That meant that no chances had been taken with this operation, and far more forces than were necessary had been committed to ensure its success.

Which honestly said some things about the quality of the Commonwealth’s leadership that weren’t actually Chrysalis’ drone operatives that they’d seen nothing wrong with setting up a forward staging area which could be crippled by two lances of ‘Steeds without much issue.

In fairness,” Valkyrie’s voice replied over the radio, “the whole planet isn’t like this. The Commonwealth specifically chose to set up their base here so that the ash clouds would conceal their facilities from passive orbital scans.”

The earth pony rolled his eyes, finding himself having to keep from audibly expressing his exasperation at the idea that so much effort had been gone through to keep information a secret that was just going to be fed to the enemy anyway. He wondered if there was a drone somewhere in the Commonwealth who was having trouble keeping a straight face as they meticulously went through planning all the ways to keep an operation like this a secret, while simultaneously sending a detailed list of everything they were doing to their counterpart in the Combine.

For his part, the stallion thought back to their planning meeting about this operation, and the layout that they’d seen of the base’s facilities, “fat lot of good it did them,” he murmured off-mic before keying his comm, “isn’t the rest of the planet an ice ball or something?”

I mean...yeah,” the pegasus mare conceded.

The atmosphere is too thin to retain sufficient heat,” another mare’s voice chimed in. It was Twilight, “that’s usually the last step in the terraforming process once all the toxic gasses are removed and sufficient oxygen is added to be able to breath.

With enough additional thickening agents like nitrogen and argon, this world would warm up and become perfectly suitable for colonization. Another planet that could be cultivated for food production,” there was a resigned note in her voice as the alicorn managed to remind herself of one of the ostensible justifications for the ongoing fighting in the galaxy: food and resources.

That was the rhetoric fed to the public, of course. It was a better motivator for long-term hostility than simple ideological differences. Ideologies could shift and morph over time. Hunger was eternal.

Not that resource scarcity wasn’t a genuine issue, of course. It was. However, Slipshod knew that a lot of that would be mitigated if the wide-scale destruction caused by all the fighting stopped for a decade or so and the land and agricultural infrastructure was allowed to recover. Of course, creatures were hungry now, so few were willing to entertain long-term solutions when short-term ones could garner sufficient public support. Plus, there were plenty of ‘experts’ in Chrysalis’ pocket who weren’t shy about crafting reports and studies that decried the theory that the devastation of perpetual fighting contributed significantly to existing scarcity issues.

Officially, it was all just an inevitable numbers game. Too many creatures existed to be supported by available production. For some to have, then some would have to do without. That was just how the math worked. No malice. No malevolence. Just...survival.

Anycreature was hard-pressed to come up with better excuse for fighting than that.

First target’s five klicks out,” Val informed them.

Slipshod turned his thoughts back to the task at hoof. Served up to them on a silver platter or not, this mission would still carry risk, because the Commonwealth forces on this planet certainly hadn’t been told that they were supposed to lose.

“Acknowledged,” the stallion replied over the radio, “Val, you and I will screen any forces present at the site. Twilight, focus on taking out the transmission towers and the sensor array,” those two structures wouldn’t be occupied, so there was minimal risk that she’d kill anypony.

Understood,” the alicorn responded evenly.

Valkyrie’s Parasprite picked up speed and began to pull away from their formation, getting out further in front of them. Her ‘Steed’s sensors would allow for Twilight’s missiles to lock onto and take out their objectives from as far out as possible. Which would minimize the chances that any distress calls would get out before they lost the capability to make any.

Slipshod’s HUD illuminated with a crimson blip, “perimeter defense turret,” he snapped in warning, “they know we’re coming,” he teased his ‘Steed around, bringing his prismatic projection cannon to bear and fired off a shot. The helix of destructive chromatic light effectively vaporized the automated weapons platform.

I have sensor contacts at the outpost,” their point mare announced, “isolating the primary targets...annnnnd...marked!

The stallion’s display lit up with additional markers as Valkyrie shared her targeting data with her comrades. Two seconds after they appeared, a storm of missiles arced overhead. A second identical stream of exhaust trails followed close behind those as Twilight fired off a barrage from her second launcher. In the distance, missiles poured down upon the base’s transmitter tower, crumpling the steel truss almost instantly. The sensor array went down in a slightly more spectacular fashion as the alicorn’s LRMs shredded the dish with a succession of impacts until the whole construction inevitably collapsed into a heap of scrap.

Slipshod keyed in his radio, using the frequency that allowed them to contact their nominal partners for this operation, “Gallop One to Raptor Lead; Target Apple is down.”

Understood, Gallop,” came Captain Peregrine’s gruff reply, “Target Bronco is down too. We’re already moving onto Canter. You take Diamond Dog.”

“Wilco,” the earth pony swapped back over to the lance channel, “set heading for Nav Delta―” the words were no sooner out of his mouth than he noticed that his map was populating with a host of scarlet contacts, “shit! Multiple contacts in the outpost. Break and engage!”

Fortunately, nothing immediately registered as a ‘Steed at the moment. It looked like it was just the base’s organic vehicle garrison, along with a half dozen or so turrets. The latter wouldn’t prove much of any issue as long as they kept far enough away, and they no longer had any reason to close with the outpost now that the installations which they were concerned with were gone; but they’d want to eliminate those combat vehicles.

Slipshod selected his ‘Steeds dual heavy pulse weapons and dropped the targeting reticle over the nearest vehicle―a Pegasus Hover Tank―which had raced out ahead of its cohorts. Presumably in an effort to strike a quick blow with its SRMs and scoot on by and out of range again before any of us could respond. Unfortunately for the crew of that vehicle, the earth pony was far too accurate, and the weapons on his ‘Steed far outranged theirs.

Pulses of brilliant indigo light hammered the speedy hovercraft. Centimeters of armor plating evaporated with each successive blast of energy until the weapons inevitably punched through to the vehicle’s interior. The crew was vaporized by a single pulse. The one after that effortlessly sliced through the paneling leading to the engine compartment. Subsequent pulses sailed through the expanding cloud of debris that the hover tank had become until the firing sequence was finally completed.

A cerulean and yellow streak with rainbow highlights lurched ahead of him, charging at the distant vehicles. Slipshod blinked in surprise before growling in annoyance at the alicorn. He empathized with her desire to minimize casualties, but he still found those efforts frustrating when it meant that she was obscuring his own shots. He watched the barrel of the autocannon mounted in her chest belch out a shell, striking the ground just below another hover tank with a precision that the earth pony might have considered reckless. Even the slightest misstep given the speeds and distances involved had as much chance of demolishing the vehicle as accomplishing her goal: which appeared to be to use the detonation to send the hovercraft vaulting tail over nose into the air and crashing to the ground on its side.

The craft was certainly out of action now, though Slipshod was dubious as to how intact the crew was after something like that. Hopefully none of the occupants had seen fit to leave their harnesses unfastened in their haste to respond to the Steel Coursers’ assault on their base.

A muzzle flash in the distance announced the presence of a scorpion tank. The resounding ‘ping!’ the earth pony heard through his cockpit, accompanied by the indicator flash on his console, informed him of their target. Twilight was free to take all the risks that she wanted in her effort to spare the lives of the crews trying to actively kill them.

Slipshod wasn’t inclined to be quite that merciful. He hopped his ‘Steed to the side to clear the alicorn’s Rainbow Dash from his line of fire and sent a blast from his recharged PPC at the offending tank. It promptly detonated. Twilight snapped something at him over the radio, but he wasn’t paying attention to her protests as he sought out the next threat. The ponies in those vehicles had understood the risks of facing down ‘Steeds when they’d left their base’s perimeter. They’d chosen this fool’s errand. Saving them from their own stupidity wasn’t his job.

Defending himself and his lancemates, and completing their employer’s mission was.

He selected the next target.

Target is moving on to their next objective,” the mare’s gravelly voice announced through the headset.

The only source of light in the dim cockpit was the navigation map and the trio of slowly moving crimson blips upon it. Everything else was powered down so as to ensure that the Sombra assault-class BattleSteed didn’t show up on their target’s sensor systems until it was too late. The three Pharynx heavy ‘Steeds at his flank were in a similar low-power state. All four were being fed information on their quarry by the Swift Wind parked at the edge of the caldera.

A smile tugged at the equine’s chitinous lips as his eyes tracked the movement of the three crimson blips. They were following the path traced out for them―provided ever so graciously by their Combine employers―almost perfectly. To deviate from it was to risk setting off the sensor net that they had been told existed in the area after all.

While that network of detection towers did exist, it was entirely unpowered at the moment. “For maintenance”, was the official reason given. Their targets didn’t know that, of course. That detail had been omitted from the intelligence packet delivered to the Combine.

Another bit of information that had been left out of the briefing was that the radio tower at the 5th Donogal’s firebase in the area would also be offline today―for a routine firmware update. Even if the Highlanders’ raid on these outposts went awry, there wouldn’t have been any Commonwealth forces that would hear the distress calls. At least, none that could respond in time to do anything about the attacks. Though, the tower being inoperative had not been for the benefit of the Steel Coursers. Not entirely.

In reality, it’s suppression had been so that his lance could move in and level the firebase without word getting out. Their mission was of far too critical importance to risk having it be spoiled by the intrusion of Commonwealth ‘Steeds.

The pilot of the assault ‘Steed reached out and toggled their radio, “all units: power up on my mark. Focus fire on Bogeys Two and Three. Aim for the cockpits. Target limbs on Bogey Prime only,” he stressed.

“Her Majesty wants that one alive…”

You didn’t have to kill them.”

Slipshod let out a frustrated sigh. He’d desperately hoped that this was going to be a conversation that could have waited until they were back on the DropShip, where he’d have had the option of locking himself in his room and turning up some music to drown the alicorn out. Apparently Twilight had considered that course of action, and so was choosing to berate him now so that he couldn’t ignore her.

Clever mare.

Though that didn’t mean that he was going to be any more amenable to this conversation, “they didn’t have to fight us,” he quipped, “if somepony attacks me, I’m going to defend myself, Princess. That’s just how it’s going to be, and I’m not going to apologize for that.”

They didn’t stand a chance―” she protested.

“All the more reason they should have stayed at the base!” Slipshod snapped at the mare. He refused to be made to feel guilty for killing ponies who made the conscious decision to fire on him. It was enough, as far as he was concerned, that he didn’t take the initiative to cause any more property damage than the contract called for. While the mission objectives specified the destruction of the communication and detection capability of their assigned targets, there would certainly have been no issue raised if the Steel Coursers stomped every single structure flat before leaving.

Besides, the ultimate fate of every Commonwealth pony on this planet was to be either killed or captured by the Highlander invasion that was due to jump into the system in just a few hours. How many were among the latter group would depend entirely on how much brig space existed on the DropShips. Which Slipshod was honestly willing to bet amounted to: ‘not a lot’.

He idly debated whether it was worth letting the princess in on the fact that every pony she was ‘sparing’ right now was more than likely going to die during the imminent invasion anyway. Arguably, it would be more merciful to kill them quickly now, rather than risk their deaths being through hypoxia and asphyxiation when their barracks’ were cracked open by Highlander weapons. That sort of death was slow, agonizing, and terrifying. Being vaporized by pulse lasers was at least mercifully instantaneous.

Really, when he took the time to think about it, he was the ‘kind’ one here. Twilight was the monster for choosing to subject the Commonwealth ponies to that kind of fate.

The stallion suspected that such a revelation wouldn’t exactly go over well if he pointed it out to her.

Gallop One, I’ve got...something...” Valkyrie interrupted.

Slipshod spared a moment to silently thank the pegasus for the conversational diversion before allowing himself to feel mildly annoyed for a different reason, “that’s what I like most about you, Val: your exemplary field reporting…”

It’s hard to identify!” the mare retorted acidly, “I almost didn’t pick it up at all. I think I’m just catching refractions. There’s a lot of crap in the atmosphere bouncing signals around. I’m trying to narrow down a source.”

The stallion narrowed his gaze and scrutinized his map display, “I’m not seeing anything on sensors, and we’re too far away from the next objective to be picking them up,” not that their next target should be having much call to be sending out transmission in the first place, “you sure it’s not our own stuff coming back at us?”

It’s a completely different frequency,” the mare said, sounding mildly distracted by her own efforts to ferret out an explanation, “and I think it’s encrypted too. It’s hopping around a lot.”

Now he was concerned. Encrypted radio chatter from an unknown source? If that wasn’t a ‘red flag’, the earth pony didn’t know what was. He chewed his lip idly in thought, very briefly mulling over instructing their lance to divert their course. Had he not known what he did about Chrysalis’ desire for this base to ultimately be destroyed, he probably would have. However, knowing that pieces were being deliberately maneuvered to guarantee the success of this operation made him hesitant.

For all he knew, this chatter was from operatives on the ground actively working to sabotage the Commonwealth forces, and the best thing for the three of them to do was stick to the plan as it had been given to them. Otherwise they risked actually fucking things up.

“Keep an eye on it,” Slipshod finally said, “but continue with the plan.”

Lieutenant Valkyrie,” the stallion wondered if the mare’s official rank sounded as odd to her as it did to him as the alicorn intruded back into the conversation, “would you mind sharing those readings with me?”

Sure; here’s what I’ve got,” a pause, “also, ‘Val’’s fine, by the way.”

Apparently it did. Wait; why didn’t Twilight ever call him ‘captain’?

His musings were abruptly cut off by the alicorn’s next transmission. It was odd hearing the usually reserved mare sound panicked from inside her ‘Steed, “these transmissions are using CLDF encryption protocols!” she blurted out, not bothering to hide her astonishment.

CLDF?” Valkyrie said in mild disbelief, “who even has those codes anymore?”

Perhaps they’re elements of the Ninth Force Recon?” theorized a hopeful Twilight, “could they have agents nearby?”

Slipshod wasn’t paying much attention to the pair at the moment. He knew perfectly well what group would be using that defunct encryption standard, and it wasn’t the Disciples of Discord. His unease rose slightly, but he still refrained from commenting on it. He’d already mused that those errant transmissions had been chatter between changeling operatives on the planet working to actively help with the Highlander raid. Knowing that the signals were using the security protocols that Chrysalis had co-opted from the Celestia League centuries ago only further confirmed it.

Though, he didn’t need the princess insisting that they deviate from the mission to check to see if the source was her potential saviors. They needed to stick to the plan, which meant that he needed Valkyrie to confirm the origin of those signals were parts of their target. How exactly he was going to explain Commonwealth military units using CLDF encryption algorithms, he didn’t know yet, “Val, could you track an origin if Twilight gives you the protocols?”

Sure thing. Princess?”

Transmitting...there you go.”

Awesome,” the pegasus said, “now we just use a little grade school trig to triangulate the orig―wait; what?”

Slipshod frowned, “is something wrong?”

Maybe?” the mare sounded unsure, which made the earth pony nervous, “the transmissions are coming from the caldera to our right.”

“You’re sure?” the stallion studied his map. No Commonwealth installations were noted to be near there. A firebase which housed a lance of ‘Steeds was on the other side, but the volcano obscured any radar that their base might have, and no transmissions had reached them. The Commonwealth forces there wouldn’t have been using CLDF encryption anyway. It had to be changelings, but what reason could they possibly have for being in the crater?

Oh shit,” the mare piped up, “I’m also getting active radar emissions from that direction! Somepony’s tracking us!

Now he was concerned, “you’re sure they’re tracking us?”

It’s low-power, narrow-band, and uni-directional,” the mare informed him tersely, “which makes it nearly impossible to detect unless you look for it―which I just did―and only useful for keeping an eye on a small area. Basically only used by scouts to track specific targets at long range. There’s either a recon ‘Steed or a Swift Wind near that crater.”

Somepony was tracking them? Or rather, Chrysalis’ agents were tracking them, he corrected? Why? While he knew that it was important to the Queen that this base be destroyed, he very much doubted that an observation team would have been dispatched here specifically to foalsit the Highlander ‘Steeds on the ground the whole time. Even if the operation was only marginally successful, Slipshod was confident that Chrysalis’ Commonwealth agents could persuade the Archon to rethink the plan and pull his forces back. This level of hoof-holding was simply uncalled for.

They weren’t here to help with the operation. They couldn’t be.

But...they couldn’t be here to keep an eye on them...could they? What exactly made the Steel Coursers so important that Queen Chrys―

“Oh...fuck!” Slipshod wasn’t positive if that part had been transmitted over the radio, but he made certain that the second part was, “Abort! Val, Twi: turn back, now!” he was already heaving his galloping ‘Steed hard to the left even as he issued the order. He’d have to come up with some sort of excuse later for why he was scrubbing a mission that was ostensibly going perfectly fine, anomalous radio chatter aside. Squelch wasn’t going to like it, and he had no idea how he was going to excuse it to her, but he knew that the three of them needed to be anywhere else.


Abort?! What are you talking about, ‘abort’?” the pegasus mare demanded indignantly, “why―? Power ups! Multiple reactor power-ups!” Valkyrie’s tone rapidly became almost as panicked as the stallion’s had been. He saw the quartet of crimson blips flashing on his navigational map, “four contacts,” she continued, giving her report almost by instinct as her experience took over and spurred her into action, “three heavies and an assault by reactor output. Computer doesn't recognize the profiles.”

Well, that was concerning, the stallion grimaced. Their internal databases contained profiles for just about every ‘Steed ever manufactured and fielded in the last five hundred years. Even extinct designs like Twilight’s Rainbow Dash were stored; in case such obscure designs suddenly ceased to be extinct. That way, the targeting systems could provide reliable information about what a pilot was shooting at.

Slipshod did know, however, that there was a small list of ‘Steed designs which were not stored on any computer in the Sphere: those which had been independently designed and built by Queen Chrysalis’ changelings on Equus. Those ‘Steeds very rarely left the Faust System, in order to keep the existence of such designs a secret. They were only ever deployed on very special missions.

The stallion suspected that ‘capture the real Princess Twilight Sparkle’ was exactly the sort of mission that such a lance of ‘Steeds would be sent out on.

These ‘Steeds wouldn’t be push-overs either, he knew. Unlike the rest of the galaxy, the Faust System’s manufacturing and technology base was pristine. What was considered ‘losmagitech’ to the rest of the Harmony Sphere was just ‘tech’ for the changelings. Which meant that all four of those ‘Steeds were going to be at least as capable as his and Twilight’s; and that Val’s Parasprite might as well not even be a factor in this fight.

Two-to-one tonnage and number disadvantage. Not a fight that Slipshod relished. The stallion had to fight hard against calling in a Condition Black to the Galloway. Valkyrie’s computers might not be providing her with a profile ID, but he could tell what they were going up against. That Sombra assault ‘Steed had a pair of gauss cannons, and each of the heavy-weight Pharynxes had a PPC. Those weapons would shred a Mustang-class DropShip in just a couple of volleys. Squelch and the rest of the crew wouldn’t live long enough to come to a hover, let alone actually retrieve them.

No reason everypony had to die…

Could he surrender, maybe? If he turned over Twilight and revealed to them that he was a changeling, there was a chance that they’d let him live. Not a big one, sure; but a chance.

They wouldn’t let Valkyrie live though. Not their ‘Steeds either. The sensor data they’d collected couldn’t be allowed off this planet. Slipshod could plausibly explain Twilight and Val’s deaths, as well as the loss of all three ‘Steeds to Squelch.

That would be the end of the Steel Coursers though. The company didn’t have the finances to buy even a single ‘Steed, let alone replace three. The unicorn mare would cut her losses, fold the company, take a job with another outfit in their accounting department or something. He’d...be left on his own again.

Back right where he’d been two years ago. Would he get lucky a second time and just fall into a good outfit?

He certainly wasn’t ever going to come across a second long-lost alicorn princess that gave him at least a tenuous shot at getting revenge on Chrysalis for all that she’d done to him. Which meant he’d be back to impotent pipe dreams again.

Was he ready to be set back like that? After managing to actually get a chance at revenge? Was he really going to give that all up?

Slipshod’s hooves tightened their grip around his control yokes as he glared at the quartet of blips. She’d already stolen everything from him once. He wasn’t going to let Chrysalis do it again.

The stallion closed his eyes, took a deep breath, and then heaved the Crystal Cavalier around in a tight skid. His hoof tapped furiously at the console before transmitting to the other two ‘Steeds in his lance, “focus fire on the assault’s left barrel!” he barked over his mic, “one meter down and two meters back from the shoulder joint!

“Twilight, get airborne and hit the heavies on their backs! Just to the right of the spine, midway down!”

What?” Valkyrie blurted in shocked consternation, “first you’re screaming for us to abort and now you’re telling us to fight?! Will you make up your damn mind!

“Shut up and move your flank, Val!” Slipshod shouted as he drove hard at the Sombra, “stay away from the Pharynxes and hit the Sombra exactly where I told you to. Your medium cannons aren’t going to do any damage worth a damn anywhere else!”

That’s another thing: how do you know what these things are or where to hit them?

“I’ll tell you later,” the stallion said grimly, not particularly looking forward to doing so. Though, it was entirely possible that he wouldn’t have to make good on that promise.

Knowing the weak points of these particular designs hardly guaranteed them victory. These were very formidable designs, and were equipped with technology that eclipsed most of what was available to the common inhabitant of the Harmony Sphere. Their pilots wouldn’t be slouches either.

There was every possibility that they’d lose this fight. These changelings wouldn’t have launched this attack if they’d thought there was anything remotely like an even chance that they could lose, after all. This was an ambush, designed to capture Twilight. It had been planned around the operation that the Steel Coursers were a part of. Very likely, their deaths would be blamed on a Commonwealth Quick Reaction Force response being more timely than anticipated. Captain Peregrine's lance would finish off the targets the Coursers didn’t make it to, and the operation would continue as normal.

Nopony would be the wiser, and Squelch would have to accept that her mercenary company was effectively wiped out under perfectly acceptable and not-at-all-unusual circumstances.

Assuming that there wasn’t also some sort of ‘accident’ awaiting the Galloway before they made port in another system. Leaving nopony alive that could report on the existence of another alicorn.

Chrysalis would keep her secrets, and capture the ruler she’d replaced so long ago. Without the galaxy knowling that anything out of the ordinary had transpired.

That was what would happen if they lost this fight. That was what these changelings intended to have happen. It was part of their plan.

However, what wasn’t a detail that they could have factored in, was that one of the ‘Steeds they were currently ambushing knew just as much about the design and production of their ‘Steeds as they did. To include certain vulnerabilities and shortcomings that were unavoidable in any design.

Like the fact that the Sombra’s dual gauss cannons required an oversized capacitor in order to sustain a charge. The placement of which had shifted the reactor’s position to the left of the ‘Steed’s center. The engineers had done all they could to ensure as much reinforcement as possible was in place to protect the vital component, but other physical realities had meant that certain limitations existed: such as the need to place the anchor points for the myomer muscles of the joints in very specific locations to ensure the limbs moved properly. These anchor points could not be reinforced with additional protection below the ablative plating without hampering range of motion. So, if a shot got through the Sombra’s―admittedly quite thick―armor at the location Slipshod had indicated, it would meet effectively no resistance before it cracked the reactor’s casing and triggered a nearly instant detonation.

All that they had to do was not get killed before managing to do that…

Pulses of emerald light battered Slipshod’s ‘Steed as he charged the onyx mechanical equine. He responded in kind, jabbing at the much heavier assault-class ‘Steed with a barrage of cycling streams from his quartet of medium energy weapons. The damage that those weapons were doing to his target was minimal, but it was keeping the other pilot’s attention focused at least. Slipshod’s Crystal Cavalier would be able to stand up to much more of a pounding than Val’s Parasprite. A single strike from those gauss cannons on just about any part of her light bipedal ‘Steed would spell the end of her tenure as a mercenary pilot.

Not that even his heavy ‘Steed would be able to take many hits either, he soon discovered as twin nickel-iron slugs struck him in the chest, missing his ‘Steed’s head by less than a meter. Alarms sounded and warnings flashed, informing him that the armor plating there had been completely compromised. Another head-on hit would crack his reactor, no question.

The earth pony grimaced as he veered to the right. He teased the control yoke and snapped off a shot with the prismatic projector cannon in the ‘Steed’s side-mounted lance. Not wanting to risk lingering too long near the larger opponent, he turned wider and took an opportune shot with his heavy pulse weapons at one of the Pharynxes which were trying their level-best to swarm Twilight’s Rainbow Dash.

However, the alicorn was doing a fine job of demonstrating what age and experience could make up for where numbers were concerned as she danced her ‘Steed around them.

Maxillae’s eyes widened slightly as his ‘Steed shuddered from the PPC hit. Not because of the damage that it had caused, as that had been mitigated significantly by the thick armor plating. It would take several more shots like that to penetrate it.

However, what was interesting to the changeling stallion was that the pilot of the Crystal Cavalier had chosen there, of all places, to land their blow with their heavier weapon. The other shots hadn’t done much more than blacken his plating. Using the PPC in conjunction with the medium energy weapons would have been much more effective, and an expected tactic from most opponents.

That he’d waited was curious.

That he’d placed the hit on the Sombra’s left side behind the shoulder was concerning.

It had to have been a coincidence. No other explanation existed. Still, he’d have to make an effort to be more vigilant about which side he had exposed to the enemy.

He turned to keep his focus on the heavier ‘Steed. What he saw made Maxillae frown. Three-on-one odds should have meant that his lancemates would make short work of the princess’ ‘Steed. It should have. However, the reality appeared to greatly differ, as he watched the cerulean ‘Steed effortlessly slip and slide around the darker foes surrounding it. The few shots that managed to hit the alicorn’s ‘Steed looked to be only glancing blows as well.

With a snarl, he toggled his radio, “what are you fools doing? How hard is it to cripple one ‘Steed?!”

A lot harder when the only parts of it you authorized us to target have fucking rocket engines attached to them!” came a snapped response from a mare, “meanwhile, she’s hitting us wherever she damn well pleases―” the transmission cut out briefly. The cause was readily apparent as the Rainbow Dash suddenly shot upward, arcing over one of the Pharynxes in a forward flip of all things, pumping successive shots from it’s PPCs into the other ‘Steed’s spine, “fucking bitch!” the mare snarled, “hold still you fucking―!”

The transmission cut off again, but not for any overt reason that Maxillae could see. It was likely nothing more than the pilot realizing that she still had a hot mic, but no longer had anything relevant to say to her lance commander. The stallion watched as the offended ‘Steed wheeled around and fired off a barrage of shots at the fast-moving blue equine.

Those shots were very clearly not being aimed anywhere near the Rainbow Dash’s limbs, and he was about to chastise the other mare for her disobedience to the Queen’s orders when the Pharynx suddenly stopped firing altogether. In fact, it stopped doing...everything. A quick glance at the status read-outs for his lance confirmed that the mare’s ‘Steed had powered down.

He frowned. Overheating a ‘Steed to the point of an emergency shut-down was such a novice mistake that he was loath to believe a member of his team would have made it. The stallion made ready to reprimand the pilot the moment her ‘Steed started back up.

Which, honestly, it should have already started to do by now…

“Swarm Two, get me a status on Swarm Three,” Maxillae instructed, “why isn’t her ‘Steed starting back up?”

Unknown,” came the response, followed soon by, “I can see her through the cockpit. She’s alive. Cursing up a storm too, by the look of things. Going to try patching her helmet’s transmitter into my comm network. Wait one, Lead...there we go―”

“―iece of fucking shit! Start up, you scrap heap!

Well, she was clearly unhurt. Thank Her Majesty for small favors, “report, Swarm Three,” he cut in through her tirade, not having the time to waste waiting for her to finish berating her inoperable ‘Steed. In the meanwhile, he resumed firing on the far-less-maneuverable Crystal Cavalier. The pilot of which was making a valiant effort not to let him get off another hit on their chest with his Sombra’s gauss cannons. A pity.

The mare broke off her cursing. Mostly, “my worthless cheapest-fucking-bidder reactor won’t cool! The temp’s still at ten-thou and won’t come back down again,” she groused, “I don’t get it; cooling system’s running, but nothing’s happening!

Maxillae cursed under his own breath now―off mic. They didn’t have time to troubleshoot this kind of issue during a fight. Down a ‘Steed already and they hadn’t managed to accomplish any part of their objective in this fight. No help for it at the moment though, “understood. Report any change in your situation. Two? Get back after the princess.”

Understood, Lead.”

In the meantime, he would best serve his lance by eliminating the other two targets so that he could help capture the alicorn. The stallion lined up his targeting reticle on the Cavalier and fired.

Slipshod reeled as his ‘Steed was rocked by the hit. More alarms sounded. More notifications that a facing had lost all effective armor protection. So much for his Cavalier’s left barrel. At least Twilight had managed to take one of the Pharynxes out of the fight. Hopefully she’d even be able to appreciate that he’d given her a way to do it without killing the pilot.

The earth pony idly wondered if, when the report of this confrontation finally reached Canterlot, the Queen would call in a second team of engineers and task them with revising the design―after letting them witness the execution of the first team she called in for not having already addressed a known exploitable flaw in the heavy ‘Steeds. Not that there was much that could be done about it anyway. It wasn’t like engineers liked designing in vulnerabilities. Whenever such things existed, it was because there was simply no choice.

In the case of the Pharynx, it was a matter of mitigating a potentially catastrophic design flaw by replacing it with a―theoretically―less severe one. BattleSteed coolant reservoirs were subjected to extreme pressures. It was necessary so that the fluid could perfuse throughout the entire radiator system of such massive machines. A direct hit from weapons fire on such a reservoir produced an explosion not so very unlike a magazine detonation. As such, they tended to be sequestered as deep inside a ‘Steed as possible, not unlike volatile ammunition and the reactor itself.

Space considerations of the heavy ‘Steed had meant that the designers couldn’t quite fit the reservoir and the coolant pumping system right next to each other and still keep them properly protected. So, the options left to the designers had been to either leave the reservoir exposed to enemy fire―and the risk of an internal detonation as the result of a lucky hit from the enemy―or to separate the two components and connect them through additional pressurized lines.

They’d chosen the latter option, and run those lines along what should have been the least vulnerable part of any BattleSteed: the spine. Attacks from above happened, yes, but not even experienced pilots or ‘Steed engineers considered them “common”. The dorsal facings of ‘Steeds were the first places that any mechanic went to when looking for places to strip armor to free up tonnage for the installation of additional weapons, ammunition, or other systems, simply because it was extremely rare for an enemy to score hits there.

Strictly speaking, the actual damage that Twilight had done to the ‘Steed was minimal. It would take a reasonably competent repair team less than six hours to replace the severed pressure lines and refill the reservoir. Slap on new plating, and the Pharynx would be as good as new. They wouldn’t even need to send a recovery team to fetch it, as the reactor would manage to self-radiate enough excess heat to start up again in about an hour. It would behoove the pilot to keep the ‘Steed’s speed down to a gentle trot until the damage was repaired―firing any energy-based weapons was right out―but it would certainly be able to return to whatever DropShip was waiting to retrieve these pilots under its own power―

The head of the heavy BattleSteed exploded.

―or not…

A moment later, Slipshod saw the Rainbow Dash sprinting past the recently decapitated Pharynx that was already collapsing to the ground. Wisps of smoke whipped from the barrel protruding from the cerulean chest. The golden stallion was taken aback for a second by the sight, and suffered for the distraction as his cockpit shook with another hit. He quickly took hold of the controls and resumed his evasive movements.

His jaw set in a firm line. Of course, he thought, Twilight wouldn’t have any compunctions about killing changelings the way she did about any other creature…

He snapped off a twin burst of indigo pulses at the Sombra, shearing off several plates of ablative armor from its right flank. The pilot of the assault ‘Steed had obviously caught on to what he was trying to do and was now being quite coy about showing Slipshod his left side. That wasn’t good. The stallion wasn’t sure that his Crystal Cavalier would last long enough to take down the much heavier opponent the conventional way.

Viridian flashes caught his eye from the far side of the Sombra. The gray ‘Steed seemed to flinch, and then Slipshod saw Valkyrie’s bipedal Parasprite sprint on by, slipping in and out of the Sombra’s field of fire before the enemy pilot appeared to even be aware of what had just struck it.

His eyes snapped up to the cockpit display that provided a readout on his target’s disposition. The armor just behind the Sombra’s left shoulder was at critical levels. A few more good hits should be able to punch through it. With the two of them working together, the assault ‘Steed’s pilot shouldn’t be able to keep from being outflanked.

He slammed his hooves down on the throttle pedals and spurred his ‘Steed forward. Slipshod braced himself for the impact as the gauss slug caught him in the flank. It didn’t completely strip away all of the armor plating from the Cavalier’s hindquarter, which was a welcome sight. The damage that Val’s light ‘Steed would have suffered had he not interposed himself between the Sombra and her Parasprite would have been significantly greater.

I could swear that we’ve already talked about you playing ‘hero’ where I’m concerned,” the pegasus mare quipped over the comm.

The stallion smirked, “I don’t know what you’re talking about. My hoof slipped,” he fired off a round of his own medium magical energy cannons at the assault ‘Steed, raking it’s chest but doing little else besides scouring the metal.

Uh huh. I guess I should tell Tig you’re getting her new favorite toy beaten up because you’re clumsy?

“I’d prefer you didn’t,” he replied, though he did cringe slightly as he imagined what the teal kirin’s reaction would likely be when she saw how roughed up the Crystal Cavalier had gotten on its first outing during what was supposed to have been a relatively low-risk outing, “you know, Rigger Brush used to work as a manedresser at her aunt’s salon. I could arrange for her to set aside an hour or two next week for you―”

Did you just imply that my mane needs work?

Slipshod blanched, “uh…” there was a right answer here, he was pretty sure of that. He just didn’t quite know what it was.

The Parasprite sprinted past him, slipping around a pair of pulsing emerald blasts from the Sombra that tried to tag her. The recon chassis’ bulbous head pivoted on its squat torso as Valkyrie once more managed to maneuver her much more agile ‘Steed back into a position where she could get a shot on the vulnerable portion that Slipshod had identified. Her own twin beams of destructive energy flashed out, boring into the ablative armor as they depleted their capacitors. Once they were exhausted, the ‘Steed’s head locked forward once more and Valkyrie throttled up to its maximum speed as she made her exit from the engagement zone.

Slipshod ensured that the Sombra’s pilot didn’t get too focused on the smaller target by firing off his prismatic projector cannon. A rainbow helix sprung out of the heavy ‘Steed’s side-mounted lance and stuck the Sombra in the shoulder with enough force to briefly stagger the assault-class mechanical equine. But it was at least enough to send the shot that was fired off at the retreated Parasprite going wide to the left. He followed up the shot with an additional onslaught of his four medium energy weapons, one after the other, in a nearly continuous stream.

The shots were debatably ‘wasted’ on the Sombra’s chest and shoulders, well away from the vulnerability on its barrel, but Slipshod was much more concerned with keeping the assault ‘Steed’s attention focused on his Crystal Cavalier, rather than Val’s recon chassis. His heavy ‘Steed was designed for front line combat, and he had enough plating remaining to take a few more decent hits―theoretically.

The changeling pilot swore as he watched a second Pharynx shut down. The pilot had only just managed to get out a report that his heat management systems appeared to be non-functional after receiving a hit to his ‘Steed’s spine. Maxillae immediately realized what must have happened. He was familiar with the schematics of that design, and knew about the work-arounds that had been done regarding the cooling systems.

However, there was no conceivable way that Princess Twilight could have known about it. The Pharynx was a heavy BattleSteed which had been designed centuries after His Queen had usurped the alicorn’s throne. Twilight had never seen a Pharynx before today.

It was possible that she had simply gotten lucky. Any passable ‘Steed pilot knew that the dorsal plating of a ‘Steed was usually the thinnest, so it wasn’t completely unexpected that she’d take advantage of her Rainbow Dash’s jump capabilities to try and score hits along the spine in a effort to get through to internal systems more quickly. Seeing how well it had appeared to work the first time would understandably have compelled the alicorn to try it again.

On its own, it could have just been a coincidence.

However, the flashing crimson indicator on his left barrel made him reluctant to write it off as one.

Again, most ‘Steed pilots―even the less skilled―knew that ‘best practice’ during a fight was to pick a facing and lean into it when possible. The faster one got to the internals of an opponent, the faster the fight could be ended. In that respect, it only made sense that one of his Sombra’s facings should be receiving the brunt of the enemy’s fire.

But the fact that it had been that facing, gave him pause.

Identifying both vulnerabilities on ‘Steed designs which none of the pilots here should have seen before was not something that he was willing to chalk up to a ‘coincidence’. Somehow, these ponies knew where to hit their ‘Steeds to make them hurt. His lance was down to half strength, and so far they had only managed to seriously damage one of the targets, and the Rainbow Dash was not even close to being crippled.

He tuned his radio, “Swarm Lead to Overlord: Request for emergency extraction,” the words tasted like bile in his mouth. In the back of his mind, he was already dreading the report that he would be forced to file explaining this fiasco. Unfortunately, there was no help for it. They’d been outmaneuvered somehow.

The only rational explanation was that there was a changeling within the Steel Coursers. One that had supplied them with information about the capabilities and weaknesses of Her Majesty’s BattleSteed designs. He’d have to ensure that a search of the agent records was conducted to see what operatives might have been embedded with the Coursers, and what information could have been extracted from them.

An intelligence leak like this was a serious matter―

Mission status?” came the terse reply from the ship in orbit. The changeling on the other end of the line sounded bored more than anything else. Maxillae grimaced. Hardly an appropriate tone to take when one received a request for an ‘emergency’ extraction. That sort of thing tended to suggest a sense of urgency, he’d have thought.

“Mission failure,” he replied bitterly, “Swarm Three and Four are down. I’ve received significant damage. We are outnumbered, and it is no longer possible to secure the target. We need immediate extraction!”

Negative, Swarm Lead,” the changeling ‘Steed pilot blanched in shock at the response he received, “recovery is not authorized for this mission without completion of stated objectives.

Maxillae’s lips set in a grim line. So that was how it was, “Understood. Swarm Lead, out.”

He supposed that, in hindsight, he shouldn’t have been too surprised by the revelation. This was an operation to recover an alicorn, after all. Obviously, getting hold of Twilight Sparkle was a high priority, and of paramount importance to Her Majesty. Maxillae had hoped, however, that the operation taking place on a world outside of the Harmony Sphere meant that some of the usual clandestine provisions surrounding a high-priority operation would be waived.

It seemed that he was mistaken.

There was only one way off this planet for him: with a crippled Rainbow Dash ready to be recovered by the waiting DropShip. Otherwise, all that the vessel in orbit was prepared to do was to recover the remains of their ruined ‘Steeds in order to mitigate the evidence that these designs existed.

He’d certainly have preferred for the DropShip to fly in, use its own substantial weaponry to pound the targets, and then recover whatever was left of the princess. However, that would be noticed by both the Commonwealth and Combine forces in the system. Not nearly enough of the ground radar was incapacitated to hide that sort of activity. To say nothing of the satellite network.

Her Majesty wanted the alicorn princess; but she wasn’t willing to expose ComSpark’s true capabilities to get her. Yet.

What was left of his lance certainly wasn’t going to be able to accomplish the job. That was an unfortunate reality, no matter how he looked at it. He was not going to be able to disable the Rainbow Dash with the resources he had left.

However, that didn’t mean that there weren’t resources elsewhere that couldn’t be brought to bear. He swapped to another frequency, “sound the alarm,” he instructed the crew of the Swift Wind, “let the Commonwealth ponies know what’s happening; and where.”


The changeling pilot returned his full attention to the fighting now, glaring at the cerulean ‘Steed darting around the field, “let’s see how well you fare against a company or two of the Archon’s finest…”

Slipshod’s cockpit shuddered again. His ‘Steed’s left foreleg wasn’t looking so good. It had lost effectively all of its ablative plating, and the endo-crystalline structure wasn't nearly as up to the task of resisting incoming damage as the armor plating had been. He was also down a pulse laser. Hopefully it just needed a rebuild; because he was not looking forward to listening to Squelch rant about how difficult―and costly―finding a replacement would be.

At least this fight was going pretty good for the three of them overall. Twilight was making good use of her Rainbow Dash’s jump capabilities, and Valkyrie was keeping her little Parasprite mostly out of the more dangerous firing arcs. His was the only ‘Steed that had taken a serious pounding. It was worth noting that the goal of the enemy lance would have been to take Twilight alive, and had prioritized trying to destroy his ‘Steed from the outset over Val’s. Taking that into consideration, Slipshod felt that he was actually doing remarkably well, despite the damage he’d sustained.

After all, he was still alive...

Another rumble as a hit was scored on his ‘Steed.

...so far.

The earth pony banked his Cavalier hard to the left, covering his more heavily damaged limb with his right flank. He and Valkyrie were doing a commendable job of tagging in and out with each other as they slowly chewed away at the Sombra, but the truth was that the ninety-ton assault ‘Steed was very heavily armored and could take a harder pounding than the two of them put together. Twilight was tangling with the final Pharynx, whose pilot seemed to have finally learned what the alicorn had managed to do to its two compatriots, and was doing a frustratingly good job of avoiding becoming her third such victim. Twilight was finding herself having to fight her remaining opponent the old fashioned way: with brute force.

The Rainbow Dash had an intimidating arsenal of weapons for a ‘Steed of its size, this was true, but so did a Pharynx. Few other heavy ‘Steeds of a similar tonnage would have been able to make that same sort of claim, but both designs were designed and built around a technology base that no longer existed for much of the Harmony Sphere. Twilight maintained an advantage in maneuverability, thanks to her ‘Steed’s jump jets, and that would no doubt mean that she’d inevitably come out as the victor; but it was still going to take her time.

She wasn’t going to be able to help them with the Sombra. He and Val would have to take it down themselves.

Slipshod tensed as he saw the assault ‘Steed shift right just as Val’s Parasprite was zipping in to make another pass, “Val, break off!”

Whether a result of his warning, or because the pegasus had seen the same motion that he had, the Parasprite’s course shifted at the last minute, but it wasn’t quite enough to completely avoid the hit. A nickel-iron pellet struck the lighter ‘Steed on the left side of its bulbous torso, shearing away nearly all of the plating. Sparks and smoke billowed from the wound as vital systems gave way beneath the devastating blow.

The ‘Steed staggered, stumbled, but it didn’t fall. Slipshod watched with bated breath as it sprinted back out of the engagement area, “I’m alright! Left cannon’s gone, but everything else looks good,” she insisted.

That had been too close. A meter to the right, and that gauss round would have blown through her cockpit, “go help Twilight; I’ve got this guy,” it was perhaps a bit of a bold claim, he supposed, but he knew that there was no way that he’d be able to convince the mare to stay out of combat for the rest of the fight, despite the hit that she’d just taken. The least that he could do was steer her towards the ‘Steed that wouldn’t be able to take her out with a single hit.

...roger,” the Parasprite arced towards the Rainbow Dash.

Slipshod breathed a small sigh of relief, though it was overshadowed by the realization that, while Val was no longer fighting the Sombra, he still was. He was also now the only concern that the Sombra’s pilot had. Wonderful.

Not unexpectedly, the larger gray ‘Steed began to turn to confront the earth pony. Slipshod throttled up and got himself moving as fast as he could in an effort to make himself a much harder target. The Sombra’s armor was in much better shape than his overall. The only section that had sustained serious damage was the plating on its left barrel where he and Valkyrie had been focussing their attention. Meanwhile, he had quite a few facings that wouldn’t hold up to another good hit.

With nothing left to divert the other pilot’s attention, Slipshod kewn that he was going to have a difficult time getting another clear shot. In fact, it would probably be impossible. He toyed with the idea of just playing grab-flank with the assault ‘Steed until Twilight and Valkyrie finished off the last Pharynx and could come over and help him. It was certainly an option.

Gallop One, I don’t know what’s going on down there, but we’re seeing multiple launches from the spaceport,” the Galloway’s comm officer, High Gain, informed him, “the signatures are heading your way. They read as Friendship-class DropShips, One. Three of them.

The commander wants you out of there now. We’re making our approach. ETA: five minutes.

The stallion’s gut tied itself into a knot. A Friendship-class Dropship carried a company-sized ‘Steed element. With three of them en route, that meant that up to thirty-six Commonwealth ‘Steeds were on their way to join this fight. He wasn’t sure what the pilots of those ‘Steeds would make of the unknown Pharynx and Sombra designs, but they’d know that those units weren’t Commonwealth BattleSteeds. The orders would likely be to shoot first, and sort through the salvage later.

He momentarily considered what had tipped those forces off to their presence, but he quickly concluded that it had to have been the changelings. It was a move that he’d honestly not thought they’d go with. The Commonwealth pilots didn’t know that the Rainbow Dash was piloted by the real Twilight Sparkle. They wouldn’t be trying to preserve her life, and could very easily end up killing her in the fight. Everything about this operation up to this point had suggested that Chrysalis wanted the alicorn alive.

Then again, Twilight had been assumed to have been dead for a few centuries now. Perhaps the queen was perfectly fine with returning to that notion if this cursory attempt at capturing her failed.

In any case, this new information certainly shortened their timetable considerably.

“Understood, Galloway. We’ll be ready for you,” he reached to cut his comms completely, but then hesitated. He had a unique opportunity, he realized, that he probably wasn’t going to get again any time soon. He punched in a new frequency. One which he’d used only once before, two years ago, “how’d you find out?”

Slipshod fired off another volley of emerald beams, entertaining a brief moment of mirth in the back of his head at the juxtaposition of shooting at the very creature he was attempting to open up a dialogue with. In fairness, he had serious doubts that he’d actually get an answer. He just figured that there was nothing to lose by trying.

Which was why the earth pony was genuinely surprised when he received a response over that very same frequency from an amused-sounding changeling drone, “well, I assume that it wasn’t from you. Fascinating. Though that would explain a few things. It also raises some additional questions.”

Viridian pulses smacked the Crystal Cavalier on it’s right flank. Slipshod responded with significantly heavier sapphire pulses of his own across the Sombra’s right shoulder. Both exchanges did little real damage to their opponent’s ‘Steeds. Fencers tapping their swords together to remind them that a fight was still nominally going on.

“I’ll answer yours if you answer mine,” Slipshod offered, matter-of-factly.

Nothing in the Sphere happens without Her Majesty knowing about it,” the Sombra’s pilot reminded him haughtily, “ComSpark’s reach is infinite.”

“And yet,” the earth pony stallion said as he loped just out of the path of a gauss round, circling in a wide arc as he jockeyed to get at the assault ‘Steed’s left side again, “you obviously missed a detail this time, didn’t you?”

Which I will definitely notate in my after-action report,” the other pilot quipped, “this oversight is going to devastate someling’s next performance review

Now, I do believe it’s my turn to have a question answered, correct?” the Sombra was trying to turn with Slipshod’s Cavalier, but the much heavier ‘Steed was very slowly losing ground. It would only be a matter of seconds before the earth pony was presented with another opportunity to strike at its left side. Which was good, because they only had minutes before either the Galloway or the Commonwealth arrived.

“Shoot,” the stallion grimaced as the Sombra did just that the moment he uttered the word, “funny.”

I thought so,” the changeling chuckled, “but I digress. What I’d like to know is what would possess one of us to threaten the great thing we have going for us. What were you offered?

“I’ll tell you what I wasn’t offered,” Slipshod growled, “a seat at the table. Your ‘great thing’ didn’t get to be my ‘great thing’. So what does it matter to me if it all goes up in smoke?”

There was a pause, then, “ah, I see. Note added to the report: Keep. Better. Tabs. On. Capstone. Drones.

The golden earth pony’s lip curled back in a sneer. “Capstone Drones”. Drones whose job it was to close out an identity, and nothing else. Drones like he was; given the mission to leave Equus and make port on another world...and then die soon after so that there was a complete paper trail, complete with a corpse.

His eyes flickered to his weapons status indicator.

You’ll have to forgive us; your types usually die off within the week. Seems a shame,” the other changeling added, sounding genuinely sympathetic, “you’re obviously quite resourceful. You’d have made for an excellent agent,” a pause, “perhaps you still can.”

Slipshod’s ear flicked at that. He shifted his gaze from his weapons to the terrain in front of him, doing a little rough geometry in his head. He was only going to get one shot at this. If he failed, even if he lived, there wasn’t going to be time to try again before the Commonwealth arrived and surrounded them. It was certainly too risky to board the Galloway with the Sombra still active.

But he’d be lying if he said that he wasn’t at least a little curious about what the changeling commander had to say next.

A lot of creatures are going to be listed among the dead when this operation wraps up,” the Sombra pilot continued, “your identity could be added to the list easily enough. We can take you back to Equus. Place you on a new assignment. Something worthy of your obvious adaptability.

The earth pony briefly stalled to avoid another gauss pellet, then continued on, visually plotting out his route, “noling gets a second assignment. You know that.”

I’m sure Her Majesty will make an exception for the drone that brings her Princess Twilight Sparkle. I’m offering you a ‘seat at the table’. But it’s an offer with a short suspense time. Specifically until those DropShips arrive.

He did hesitate. He wasn’t ashamed to admit that. An offer to be set up with a new identity and a new life? One with an organic social support network that would keep him pleasantly topped off on love with a minimum of effort on his part? It was exactly what he’d been promised the first time, before having it denied at the last minute.

It tempted him. It definitely did. All he’d have to do was swing to the left instead of the right. Twilight’s Rainbow Dash had its flanks to him. He’d be able to leg her before she knew what was happening. It’d only be a matter of time after that.

All he had to do was...swing left.

Slipshod throttled forward.

The burst of speed sent him almost completely around the Sombra’s heavily damaged left side, going far too quickly to have a hope of making a turn that allowed him to fire his weapons at the assault ‘Steed. Even if he’d tried to kick out into a skid with his back end, he’d have ended up spinning too far around by the time his Cavalier came to a stop. There’d have been a moment during such a maneuver where his weapons would traverse across the Sombra, yes, but it would have been folly to try to make that kind of shot with any sort of precision.

They were out of time to fight this out any longer. The Commonwealth DropShips were only a couple minutes out, as was the Galloway. They needed this to end now, which meant he could afford to try for a difficult shot that had such a high chance of missing. He needed a solid hit on that weak point. A guaranteed hit.

Which was why he didn’t skid. He jumped. His galloping Cavalier leaped into the air, landing up the wreckage of the seventy-five ton Pharynx laying in a heap in front of him, and bounding off at a near-right angle. The force of the rebound sent the massive gray meta carcass skidding a hundred or so meters across the volcanic wasteland, but it served its purpose perfectly by negating his forward momentum, and diverting his direction of travel directly at the ninety-five ton Sombra assault BattleSteed.

Slipshod hooves kept themselves depressed on the pedals, driving the ‘Steed hard at his target. The other pilot didn’t have time to process the sudden change in direction and react to it before the earth pony collided with him. Metal screamed and plating shattered as two ‘Steeds with a combined weight the better part of two hundred tons made a valiant attempt to become a single entity. The earth pony’s harness strained to keep him restrained as his speed dropped down to zero in less than a second.

He shook his head, pretty sure that Doc Dee was going to diagnose him with another concussion―he idly wondered how many of those he could get in a year before it caused actual brain damage. Then the stallion’s eyes looked out the right side of his cockpit. A satisfied smile pursed his lips as he beheld the lance’s tip embedded in the Sombra’s barrel, a meter below, and two meters behind, the Sombra’s left shoulder.

“I’m not much for ‘sloppy seconds’,” he muttered, not even sure if he was still transmitting, or if the other pilot was even listening anymore. He depressed the trigger on his prismatic projector cannon, which was mounted within the lance. A rainbow corona of light bled out of the hole in the assault ‘Steed’s armor where it had been pierced, and out the other side.

A second later, the Sombra began to crackle and glow with violet lightning. The reactor was going critical. Slipshod slammed his hind hooves on the pedals, reversing his ‘Steed as fast as it would go. He didn’t know exactly how much time he had to clear the blast area before the core blew; but he was fairly sure it was just the unfortunate side of ‘not quite enough’.

Slipshod decided that he wouldn’t mind being wrong a little more often just about the time the blast wave hit, bringing along with it a wall of debris that stripped away the rest of what little armor had managed to stubbornly cling to his ‘Steed throughout the fight. He set about silencing a slew of alarms and skimming the litany of reports that the computer fed him, paying more attention to what wasn’t being mentioned. Specifically the systems related to the Crystal Cavalier’s mobility. He wasn’t particularly concerned with weapons anymore. They weren’t going to be of any further help anyway.

The last target is down,” Twilight reported.

The stallion spared a second to see that the third Pharynx had indeed been neutralized. With extreme prejudice as well, he noted with a frown. The alicorn was indeed rather selective when it came to her ‘no killing’ policy, “perfect. Let’s move to the extraction point. The Galloway’ll be here in two minutes,” his radar, though much patchier as a result of the damage he’d sustained, seemed to indicate that the Commonwealth DropShips had landed spread out over the area, the closest one about five kilometers away from their position. Either the Donagle units didn’t know exactly where they he and the others were, and were trying to cover a wide area, or they were trying to box the Coursers in.

Either way, they should just have enough time to board their own DropShip before more than a few light picket ‘Steeds stumbled across them. If any of the Commonwealth’s heavier BattleSteeds showed up…

He was in no shape to do anything, and he doubted that Twilight was that good.

What about the last objective?” Valkyrie asked.

“It’s three klicks out,” Slipshod didn’t even try to hide how dismissive of the notion he felt. The pegasus had better sensors than he did. She knew perfectly well they’d never make it in range of the sensor and comm arrays in time, to say nothing of getting to their pickup, “and in the opposite direction.”

I can get us a shot from here!” she insisted, “If I go low power and uni-directional with my targeting radar, I can get a lock on the primaries. Purple Rose can use my tracking data to lob some Hail Celestias with her LRMs. They’d be ballistic on their way down, sure, but radar dishes aren’t known for their maneuverability―”

Slipshod had started shaking his head before Val was done talking, “it’s too risky. The Commonwealth’ll be on us in―Val!” the Parasprite was already running for the slope of the nearby volcano so that she could get the elevation she needed to acquire her line-of-sight lock on the outpost.

Mission first, remember?” the mare chided him, “I just need a minute!

The earth pony’s eyes went to his radar display. Crimson contact blips were popping in and out on the screen as his ‘Steed’s sensors made intermittent contact with the output from their reactors through the rough terrain. He wasn’t entirely positive that they had a minute.

Not that there was anything that he could do about it now.

His eyes bounced between his sensors and the Parasprite as it nimbly climbed its way to the lip of the caldera. His map suddenly lit up with over two dozen signatures as Valkyrie’s more potent detection suite found all of the incoming units closing in on them from its new vantage point. Then they began to slowly wink out as the pegasus mare tweaked her systems for focused distance, rather than broad area coverage.

Five agonizing seconds later, he saw two contacts illuminate in the distance. The comm tower and the radar array at their target, over four kilometers away.

I have tone. I have lock,” Twilight announced, “Firing first salvo...firing second,” Slipshod watched as a nearly endless stream of forty missiles streamed skyward from the Rainbow Dash’s backside, Missiles away.

“Great, now get down from there!” Slipshod snapped over his mic.

Can’t yet; I have to guide them in until they’re ballistic! Five more seconds…”

The earth pony felt his teeth grinding, nearly cracking a tooth when a new voice came over his helmet’s headset, “Galloway inbound,” High Gain announced, the stress of the moment clear in the unicorn mare’s voice. These sorts of hot-zone recoveries were understandably dangerous for all involved, and done relatively rarely if it could be helped, “pick up in thirty seconds!

“Val, get down here now!” Slipshod yelled into his mic. A new marker appeared on his HUD, supplied by their DropShip to let the three of them know exactly where they needed to have their ‘Steeds for retrieval. The Galloway wouldn’t be landing like it usually did, but instead coming to a hover so that it could start ascending as rapidly as possible the moment the ‘Steeds were secured.

Annnnd...Bingo! Splash two! Targets down; mission complete,” the pegasus announced excitedly, “see? Nothing to worry ab―”

The comm abruptly went dead.

Slipshod whipped his head around to look through the cockpit window. He was just in time to see Valkyrie’s bulbous little Parasprite topple over and begin tumbling limply down the steep slope of the volcano. Its roll permitted him periodic glimpses of the cockpit. Or, rather, the blackened divot where a cockpit had once been.

Multicolored helixes of light crisscrossed beneath the clouds as other Commonwealth pilots missed out on being the one to score the killing blow on the exposed little ‘Steed. Somepony would likely be bragging tonight about how’d they been the quickest on the trigger today, and maybe even score a free drink or two off their comrades for the feat. Valkyrie’s death would be reduced to a drinking contest by ponies who’d never even known her.

Val!” Twilight called out, “Galloway, Lieutenant Valkyrie’s ‘Steed is down; requesting S&R immediately―”

“Belay that,” Slipshod cut the alicorn off, “no ejection; no beacon,” he informed the DropShip crew tersely, “proceed with extraction. Get to the pickup site, Gallop Three,” he was already spurring his Cavalier to the designated coordinates.

But…” a heavy pause, “...understood,” the Rainbow Dash fell into step beside him.

Jade and sapphire beams of light danced around the pair of ‘Steeds, a few inevitably finding their marks by virtue of saturating the area. The range was still very extreme though, so even those hits did little more than burn away paint. A few seconds later, those shots received answering volleys from the Mustang-class DroShip that burst out of the overcast cloud layer. Heavy magical energy blasts, prismatic projection cannons, and missile volleys rained down from the sky, joined soon by emerald columns of light as the boxy vessel rapidly decelerated to an altitude of just fifteen meters above the ground. A scant few meters above the pair of heavy ‘Steeds that it was here to collect.

Blood Chit’s recovery team must have been jumping out of the ventral doors before the Galloway had even come to a complete stop, because it wasn’t even a second later that Slipshod heard armored hooves clattering over the exterior of his Cavalier. An identical team of six ponies had landed on Twilight’s Rainbow Dash, dragging down with them lines of steel rope that were swiftly and smoothly affixed to hoist points spaced strategically along the topside of the ‘Steed.

A third team seemed to have not gotten the message about Valkyrie, as a half dozen ponies started clambering back up their lines; having rather abruptly discovered that the ‘Steed they were supposed to be recovering wasn’t there to be recovered.

The ponies who ended up having actual work to do seemed completely oblivious to the lethal light show going on around them, which was now being joined by tracer fire as well. They had a job to do, and the sooner they did it, the sooner everypony would be out of danger. It wasn’t as though they’d have a hope of moving faster than a beam of light, or a supersonic kinetic round. They wouldn't even see it coming. So there was hardly a point in trying.

Even as that thought crossed Slipshod’s mind, he saw a unicorn with a line gripped in her telekinetic grasp vanish in a cloud of fleshy confetti. She’d been standing where an autocannon stream had apparently called ‘dibs’, and paid for it with her life. A pegasus who’d just finished securing his assigned line a couple meters away didn’t even flinch. He simply hopped over, grabbed the flailing bloody line with a wing, and completed her work.

The signal was given, and Slipshod felt his ‘Steed lurch upward. It was anypony’s guess whether it was because the winches were drawing them in, or because the Galloway was rocketing upwards away from the kill zone that the Commonwealth had been creating around them. Both seemed to have happened simultaneously, as far as he could tell. The recovery team was clinging to their lines like their lives depended on it.

Probably because they did.

Both ‘Steeds were fully winched inside and the ventral bay doors sealed shut before the Galloway hit the troposphere, but it was a near thing, judging by the fact that the techs were all wearing vac-suits. They’d obviously been prepared in the event that the DropShip’s hull was breached.

Slipshod numbly waited for the Bay team to lower his Cavalier back down to the floor of the ship before beginning the power down sequence. A rapping of a suited hoof on the outside of his cockpit drew the stallion’s attention. The earth pony saw a pressure-suited Tig shaking her head and motioning for him to lay back down before jabbing her hoof behind her. The earth pony craned his neck and saw that the Galloway had, in fact, not emerged from the battle completely unscathed. Repair teams were already working to seal the breach, but it would be some time before the ‘Steed Bay was repressurized.

Hopefully, it would be time enough for him to figure out how he was going to explain to Squelch exactly how things had managed to go so wrong on a mission that was supposed to be a cake walk...

Chapter 11: Shadows of War

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It was quiet in the conference room. Oppressively quiet. Yet, despite the echoing void of sound that was the rarely used chamber, that wasn’t the worst part for Slipshod. He could tolerate quiet. Truth be told, there were plenty of times that he yearned for a little silence every now and then. No, it wasn’t the muted aural atmosphere that was putting the earth pony off at the moment. It was the emotional atmosphere; and not just of this particular room. The whole ship...stank.

In two years, he’d never known the Galloway to taste this bitter.

Now, of course not every pony on the ship was in a good mood all the time every single day. Sometimes ponies had bad days. That was life. But those little motes of vinegar were easily lost in the mix of the otherwise prevailing upbeat mood that the majority of the crew experienced on any given day. Making for a generally pleasant dining experience for a changeling feeding off of the emotions of others.

But right now…

It was like everything in his fridge had suddenly moved past its expiration date. For the first time in two years, Slipshod was putting up every mental barrier that he could in an effort to stave off having to experience everypony’s grief and bitterness.

Not all of it was over Valkyrie, of course. Her’s hadn’t been the only life lost during those last fateful minutes of the operation. In addition to her and the member of Blood Chit’s retrieval team who’d been splattered by an autocannon burst, three other ponies had been killed as well. One of the ‘Steed Bay techs had been sliced neatly in half by debris created by the missile that had ripped into the service bay; and a pair of gunners operating one of the DropShip’s heavy energy batteries had been killed when their turret was struck by a Commonwealth PPC.

Five members of the Galloway’s crew had died in the span of a minute.

And Squelch was determined to find out exactly why.

Which was the reason that she, Slipshod, and Twilight Sparkle, were now seated in the briefing room, watching the recorded video feeds that Mig had extracted from their ‘Steeds’ gun cams. Squelch had ordered the feeds pulled as soon as the ‘Steeds were hooked up to their diagnostic umbilicals so that she could review them. Half an hour later, she called her two remaining pilots into the conference room. Twilight’s usual escort had been instructed to remain outside in the corridor, which piqued even Slipshod’s curiosity. Whatever Squelch had wanted to talk with them about, she didn’t want anypony else getting wind of it before she’d decided that they should.

Which made the earth pony a little nervous. There wasn’t a pony on the DropShip who could have not known that the operation had ended ‘poorly’. So whatever Squelch wanted to keep under wraps, it had to be something that wasn’t immediately obvious to the rest of the crew. The stallion, of course, knew a great many things that were best kept secret from other ponies on the ship. To the best he knew, his employer did not.

...Did she?

The sage green unicorn now watched the two videos simultaneously with the pilots whose ‘Steeds had recorded them as they played side by side on the room’s main screen, her chin resting delicately uptop her lightly touching hooves, as if in careful contemplation of what she was looking at. Her eyes barely even blinked as she reviewed the initial appearance of the four unidentified ‘Steeds.

Calmly, she reached out with her magic and paused the playback. Her eyes didn’t leave the screen. If anything, they got more intent as the feeds tracked back a few seconds, and then resumed again. She then paused them in the same place as before.

“Four-point-two-three-seven seconds,” the company’s owner stated coolly, having done the math based off of the feeds’ timestamps. She finally broke off the staring contest that she was somehow winning against the inanimate display screen, and turned those piercing blue eyes on Slipshod, “that’s how much time elapsed between your order to abort the mission, and the reactor power-ups of the unidentified ‘Steeds.”

The stallion winced, unable to bring himself to meet the gaze of his employer. He’d spent two hours sealed in his cockpit waiting for the ‘Steed Bay to be repressurized, preparing himself to face exactly these kinds of questions.

Oddly enough, he was responding exactly how he was afraid he would: with unforgivable silence.

“I’ll grant you,” Squelch pressed on, as though she’d anticipated exactly this sort of reaction from the earth pony, “that CLDF communications protocols are hardly a common thing to encounter...anywhere,” she nodded sagely, “a certain amount of trepidation is warranted under the circumstances. But...then we have this part:...”

The playback resumed. Slipshod closed his eyes, wincing slightly as he heard himself say, “focus fire on the assault’s left barrel! One meter down and two meters back from the shoulder joint! Twilight, get airborne and hit the heavies on their backs! Just to the right of the spine, midway down!

Again, the playback froze. The stallion shut his eyes and shrunk further back into the chair, as though he might somehow be able to violate every known law of quantum mechanics and phase his atoms through the seat, the floor, the room, the two decks below it, the DropShip’s inner and outer hull, and finally float out into the sweet embrace of death awaiting him in the vacuum of space beyond.

Unfortunately, his sins were far too great for the universe to grant him such a mercy as that, and so he was forced to bear the weight of Squelch’s questions, “...and I find myself asking: ‘how is it, that Slipshod recognized ‘Steed profiles from a kilometer away, before the ‘Steeds in question ever actually came into visual range?’”

He winced again, and reluctantly cracked open an eye as the unicorn demonstrated the voracity of her observation by resuming the playback, which indeed revealed that Slipshod had issued his commands to the others before the newly powered-up ‘Steeds had crested the lip of the caldera and began their descent toward the trio of Steel Coursers.

“‘Steed profiles,” the mare continued, her eyes boring into the earth pony, “which don’t even seem to exist,” this statement was punctuated by the unicorn’s telekinesis sending a display pad skidding across the table to come to rest in front of him, showing the sensor readings of the Sombra and Pharynx beneath large block lettering stating: ‘NO MATCH FOUND’.

Slipshod didn’t respond. He had no answer for her. Or, at least, he didn’t have an answer that he was prepared to give her. For reasons that the golden stallion didn’t comprehend, Twilight Sparkle was remaining mum on the issue as well. He idly suspected that it might be some sort of ancient pony evolutionary defence mechanism from a distant bygone era: when confronted by a dangerous threat that hasn’t noticed you yet; don’t do anything that might cause it to notice you.

Silence echoed through the briefing room again. He didn’t know exactly how long for, but it was both an uncomfortably long, and a painfully short time before Squelch addressed him again.

“I am in the process of writing five letters to inform next of kin of the deaths of their loved ones,” the unicorn said very carefully, “and I would like to be able to tell them more than the typical vapid platitudes of how they ‘died bravely’ and were ‘well respected by the crew’,” she seethed at the earth pony, “I want to at least be able to tell them who the fuck they died fighting against,” she jabbed a hoof at the display, “because that sure as shit wasn’t the 5th Dongola!

Who were they, Slip?!” the unicorn roared, shooting out of her chair and slamming a hoof down on the table hard enough to crack the screen of the holographic projector, “who shot up my ship and killed my crew?! I want a fucking name out of you, or I swear to Celestia I will drag you down to the airlock and space your sorry flank right fucking now!”

She meant it too. Even through his barriers, Slipshod could feel the raw, visceral, hatred that roiled within Squelch. She’d had ponies die on her watch. That was all part and parcel of a mercenary commander’s lot in life. War wasn’t a game; sometimes ponies died. So losing members of her crew wasn’t specifically what was aggravating the unicorn so much. It was that, in every prior instance, she’d known who was responsible. Mercenary outfits and star nation regulars wore their colors proudly and brazenly. It was how you gained reputation and notoriety: by having creatures know that it was you who’d participated in a specific operation.

So Squelch had always had a name and an emblem to go with the outfit that was responsible for killing one of her employees. It made it...easier. Because you could go out and trace back exactly why that fight had happened, and understand the reason that creatures had died that day. Even if it was ultimately a pointless reason, it still offered some semblance closure. For both her, and the next of kin.

In this instance though, she had none of that. No IFFs. No known paint schemes. No identifying emblem. Not even a hard reading on the tonnage of the mechs in question other than the class category typically associated with the recorded reactor outputs.

Those five crewmares might as well have been killed by ghosts for all the information she had.

Whereas Slipshod appeared to have a much better idea of what they’d been facing. More than that, he’d even inadvertently done something that an extremely select few experienced creatures could have pulled off: he’d identified ‘Steeds based off of reactor outputs alone.

He might as well have identified a pony based on the smell of their fart―which was technically possible.

For a changeling, anyway.

The alicorn seemed to have picked up on Squelch’s lack of exaggeration as well, and made the bold―if foolish―attempt to intervene on the stallion’s behalf, “perhaps if we adjourned for a few minutes to calm ourselves―”

Big mistake, the earth pony thought to himself as the jade green mare whirled on the princess with an audible snarl that made even Twilight recoil with a momentary look of fear in her eyes, “oh, I am calm compared to how I’m about to act with you!” she snapped, glaring daggers into the larger mare, “I may not be a ‘Steed pilot, but I’ve watched enough of these playbacks to know when pilots are pulling punches,” as she spoke, her horn glowed and began to manipulate the controls of the display, queuing up Twilight’s battle with the trio of Pharynxes, “so you better have a damn good reason yourself for why those three ‘Steeds are holding back!

“In the span of four minutes, I counted―counted―no fewer than forty seven moments when those ‘Steeds had a bead on your Rainbow Dash’s barrel and held. Their. Fire. Opting instead to try and leg your ‘Steed,” she growled, leaning upward in order to maintain her glare with the withdrawing alicorn, “and I cannot wait to hear your theory about why’d they do that.

“At the expense of their own lives, no less,” Squelch finished, coolly, as she finally backed off of the purple mare and returned to the seat she’d been occupying previously. Her eyes darted briefly to the crack she’d made in the table, prompting an annoyed sneer which may have actually been directed at herself for losing control and breaking part of her ship.

Slipshod suspected that the cost of the repairs was still going to be docked from his pay though.

The unicorn sat down, straightened out her suit jacket, and cleared her throat, before once more leveling her earlier deceptively serene look at the stallion, “now...let’s hear it: who were they?”

Not answering was not an option. Slipshod knew that. Of course, giving her the unbridled truth was just as equally out of the question. Squelch wasn’t ready for it. She still hadn’t accepted that Twilight was a real alicorn. If he tossed out a story that sounded like the plot to ‘Pony Snatchers from Beyond the Periphery!’ she was going to have him out the airlock before he’d finished the synopsis of the first act!

That meant finding a middle ground that was both factually correct...and not quite entirely accurate.

This was going to be one of the finer lines that he’d ever had to walk, but he certainly had some spectacular motivation to get it right on the first run through, “they were with ComSpark,” he replied simply. The less he said or embellished, the easier this would be.

It was a good thing that he was an empath, because Squelch’s poker face in this moment was impeccable. While her expression didn’t so much as twitch a muscle, the stallion could feel the incredulity beginning to build up within her. He could understand why that was too. After all: ComSpark? ComSpark was fielding an army of secret ‘Steed designs that the galaxy had never seen before? Everypony ‘knew’ that ComSpark was little more than a collection of glorified mail delivery ponies.

The idea that mail ponies were fielding lances of secret never-before-seen ‘Steed designs ambushing mercenary companies on backwater worlds during covert forward supply base strikes was so fantastically incredible that only the most gullible of morons would have believed it.

Which...was kind of the point, “a subsidiary of ComSpark, anyway,” the stallion elaborated, “one that carries out special missions in the Harmony Sphere for Queen Twilight Sparkle,” he ignored the alicorn’s own annoyed sneer at the use of the usurped name and pressed on, “missions that she doesn’t want the other powers to know about.

“There’s no data on those ‘Steeds because ComSpark has classified them. And it’s pretty easy to control what information gets spread around the galaxy when you’re literally the only means of spreading information around the galaxy,” the earth pony shrugged, unable to keep himself from spreading his lips in the tiniest of sardonic smiles.

Squalch’s indignation had withdrawn somewhat as she continued to regard the pilot. It had by no means vanished entirely of course, “...and you knew about these ‘secret ‘Steeds’...how?”

“I saw them while I was on Equus, attending the Sandhoof Royal Military Academy,” another factual truth. He’d done more than ‘see’ them, of course. He’d been fully checked out on those chassis, as well as every other ‘Steed that the changelings fielded. He knew everything there was to know about them. Just about every changeling did who were trained as ‘Steed pilots.

“You saw them well enough to know them by their reactor signatures from a kilometer away?” While her tone remained deadpan, the unicorn’s internal indignation was mounting again.

A skilled sensor tech with suitably sensitive equipment could get a reliable enough reading on a reactor that it could be compared to known ‘Steed reactor models on file. This wasn’t quite the same thing as being able to identify a specific BattleSteed, as different designs sometimes used the same make and model of reactor. Similarly, it was not entirely uncommon for outfits to swap out the factory standard reactor of a given ‘Steed. Either stepping it up in order to either give it more speed or rolling back to a smaller model in order to free up tonnage for additional weapons and armor plating.

Broadly speaking, you could always be sure of the tonnage class based on a reactor’s outputs. There wasn’t a lot of crossover between categories like that. A reactor designed for a light BattleSteed would barely be able to move a medium ‘Steed faster than a pony could trot, and putting a heavy ‘Steed’s reactor into a medium chassis would pretty much preclude it being able to carry any weapons at all. So crossovers like that pretty much never happened.

However, this wasn’t what Slipshod had claimed that he’d been able to do. He hadn’t merely identified tonnage ranges for the new contacts. His orders about where to focus their attacks had suggested that he’d instantly known the specific ‘Steed models that they were confronting.

Now, again, this was something that was technically possible; but was also very impractical for most sensor techs.

The fact was that the same make and model of reactor behaved differently based upon the ‘Steed that it was installed in. Each BattleSteed design had unique drive and weapons systems that put slightly different strains on their reactors, even for ‘Steeds of the same tonnage. Meaning that there would be a―very―slight variance in how the reactor’s output registered on a ‘Steed’s sensor suite.

To be able to pick something like that out, a tech would need to be able to consult a comparative database of ‘Steeds of every design using every make and model of reactor that could be physically installed on it. No such database existed―that Slipshod knew about, at any rate―as there wasn’t much benefit in a group expending the time, money, and resources to create such a database; as that would require going through and outfitting every ‘Steed design with all compatible reactors on the market in order to power them up, get a clear recording of the profile that was generated, and then log that profile.

Any conceivable benefit wasn’t worth it, as all it would really do was let a pilot know what ‘Steed they were going to be fighting once an opponent’s reactor showed up on sensors. Which was typically only a few seconds before visual contact was made, and thus the complete identity profile obtained at that point anyway. So, having such knowledge wasn’t really a huge practical benefit going into a battle.

Like Squelch had pointed out for their own fight: Six seconds was all the time that had elapsed between reactor detection and visual contact. Had those ComSpark designs been part of the galactic database, like any other ‘Steed would have been, his being able to ID their reactor signatures would have been of no real benefit.

It wasn’t like he’d made a concerted effort to memorize those sorts of readings though. He’d merely just happened to see them before while back on Equus two years ago and remembered them. In fact, he remembered every signature that he’d seen before.

That was part and parcel of being a changeling, after all: remembering every minute, fine, detail of what you saw, even if for only a few seconds. How else were you supposed to be able to mimic another creature’s identity?

“Yes,” Squelch’s incredulity was back as Slipshod sighed and closed his eyes, “I know every ‘Steed’s reactor signature.”

“Bullshit,” the unicorn blurted, glaring at him, “nopony knows that.”

“I do,” Slipshod stated coolly, doing his level best to keep a smile off his face now, lest she think that he really was putting her on, “eidetic memory,” he tapped his head.

Anger flared in the mare, “now I know you’re lying to me, because you’re shit with your memory! You forgot our anniversaries; every one of them: first meeting, first kiss, first ‘I love you’, the wedding―”

“August seventh, August twenty-third, November ninth, December twelfth,” the stallion rattled off, still ensuring that he didn’t smile upon seeing the green mare’s shocked expression, “at ten thirty-four, nineteen-twelve, oh-five oh-one, and thirteen-ten, respectively.”

Twilight was just as surprised as Squelch was. The purple alicorn blinked several times, then a thought occurred to her as she looked back and forth between the other two ponies, “wait, you two were married?” another thought, “you got married after knowing each other for just four months?”

The death-glare from the unicorn silenced the princess once again before Squelch resumed sneering at Slipshod, “don’t remind me.

“Of course it turns out you were lying to me the whole time we were together,” she scoffed, “why the sudden bout of honesty now?” Slipshod didn’t trust himself with answering that, “so how many ponies were there besides me? How many times did you cheat?”

The earth pony didn’t flinch, “just the once.”

The mare threw up her hooves, “fuck’s sake; I don’t even know who you are anymore, Slip!”

Squelch’s poker face was superb, but Twilight was best kept away from any and all card games whatsoever, the earth pony decided, “ha!” The alicorn snapped her mouth closed as both ponies shot her a look. The unicorn’s annoyed; and Slipshod’s anxious, “...sorry.”

The viridian mare took a deep breath and looked back to the earth pony, “so, assuming for a second that those were actually ComSpark pilots down there: why?” the mare massaged her temple, “fuck; how?! They were lying in ambush! They were waiting for us―for you!” Slipshod wasn’t certain if Squelch was referring to their lance, or Twilight Sparkle specifically. Chances were that the unicorn hadn’t quite made that connection yet.

“They’d have had to have gotten here before we did in order to do that,” the mare continued, thinking through the situation, “but this op was a secret and even we only found out about it with barely enough time to get here when we did!” She was glaring at Slipshod now, “I don’t suppose you can explain that?”

Of course, Slipshod was fully aware of how Chrysalis’ agents had gotten their hooves on the operational plans for this assault. More than one of those same agents had likely had a hoof in crafting them, after all. It was honestly a toss-up as to whether that lance of ‘Steeds on the planet had been positioned to intercept the Steel Coursers, or if the Steel Coursers had been given a route that would take them straight into the waiting hooves of the ComSpark forces. Perhaps a combination of the two.

He couldn’t tell Squelch that though. She wasn’t quite at the ‘the galaxy is controlled by shapeshifting bug-ponies’ stage of enlightenment yet.

That was likely going to be coming sooner rather than later though. In the meantime, the situation called for more not-quite-the-entire-truthing:

“All interstellar traffic goes through ComSpark,” the stallion reminded her, “they could have gotten the operation plans that way.”

“ComSpark doesn’t read the messages they send,” Squelch retorted dismissively, “that’s part of their neutrality charter. They just send the messages; no matter who from or who to.”

“Just like they also don’t field secret BattleSteed designs?” The stallion asked in a tone of feigned innocence. The quip earned him a pointed glare from his employer. Fair.

The unicorn closed her eyes and rubbed the bridge of her muzzle, “alright, I’ll grant you that there’s nothing that would physically stop them from reading any and all message traffic that they’re sending. As horrifying as those implications are―” this time Twilight managed to restrict herself to a half-suppressed chortle, “―but that still doesn’t explain why they were there!

“Captain Peregrin’s team wasn’t ambushed, so ComSpark doesn’t seem to have a problem with the op; they went after us, specifically. What did we ever do to―” Squelch broke off suddenly, her shocked gaze diverting immediately to the purple alicorn, “...you. They were after you!”

Twilight nodded, “almost certainly.”

The unicorn mare’s expression became haunted as she slumped back in her seat, “fuck...they know. They know we’re harboring a Disciple! We’re fucked!” Slipshod could sense the panic rising within her as her mind reeled with the revelation, “We’ll be blacklisted for sure! They’ll put a bounty―” she jerked up in her chair, confusion clear on her face.

“...they should have put a bounty on us,” she stated, perplexed, “the Highlanders should be arresting us right now―should have arrested us a while ago. If ComSpark knew about you enough in advance to have forces stationed here, then we should have been blacklisted before the Highlanders even approached us with this contract. They’ve had every opportunity to apprehend us over the last two weeks!”

“That would mean a lot of other creatures seeing Twilight,” Slipshod pointed out, “you know, the purple alicorn that’s not supposed to exist because there’s just the one? On Equus?”

“...they wanted to take her without anypony knowing,” Squelch said with shocked realization. Then the confusion was back, “but why? If she’s just some freak-of-nature Disciple,” the alicorn frowned at that remark, “what does it matter if others know who she is or what she looks like?

“What does ComSpark gain by keeping her a secret?”

Slipshod paused for a moment before venturing his response. The unicorn mare had just had a few of her foundations rattled in the last few minutes. She might be a little more amenable now, “...a lot; if what she told us before was actually the truth,” he said, nodding towards the alicorn. Twilight nodded somberly.

Squelch blinked at the pair for several long seconds before once more slumping, defeated, into her seat. She ran a hoof through her mane, shaking her head, “...I should have turned you over to the Canis authorities,” she said under her breath.

Twilight jerked in surprise, “but then Chrysalis would have me and there might not be any way to ever stop her!”

“Yeah...and?” the green mare asked derisively. The alicorn looked completely taken aback by the notion that a pony would knowingly aid the queen of the changelings, “I’ve lived my entire life―apparently―in a galaxy ‘ruled’ by this Chis...all...whoever―”

“Chrysalis,” Twilight supplied.

“I really don’t fucking care,” Squelch snapped, “and that’s kind of the point I’m making here: I. Don’t. Care.

“All I wanted from life was to make a stupendously large sum of money running a mercenary outfit so that I could retire in comfort with plenty of years left in my life to enjoy myself. A mansion, expensive jewelry, spending all day watching a legion of toned, oiled up, cabana colts cleaning massive swimming pools I never actually use; you know: the good life! And I was well on my way to having all that! Then...this happened!” the unicorn mare waved her hooves broadly about the room, “and now that dream is fucked.

“If it’s really ComSpark that’s gunning for us, then we are all fucked. You. Me. Every other pony on the crew of the ship who has no idea―or probably even cares―about what’s going on with you and this dopple queen―”

“Changeling,” this time it was Slipshod who supplied the correction. He then promptly ducked out of the way of the datapad that was flying towards his head.

I don’t care!” Squelch raged, seething in the direction of the pair, “do neither of you get it? We’re screwed! If ComSpark is really the one gunning for us, there is nowhere in the Harmony Sphere that we can go to get away from them. The moment we jump into any system, they’ll know where we are and they’ll be able to coordinate with whoever they want to get at us!

“And meanwhile, we’ll get exactly no contracts. That means no money. No money for food, fuel, ammunition, nothing. We’ll be dead in the water inside a month.”

Squelch wasn’t entirely wrong in that, Slipshod had to admit. He had to wonder if the failure by her personal forces here today meant that Queen Chrysalis would be willing to move more openly against them. He was somewhat doubtful on that front. ComSpark had a DropShip and/or a Jump Ship somewhere in the system at this moment, and therefore agents who knew that their abduction lance had failed to get the job done and that Twilight had made it off the planet. They could just as easily transmit a message to the Highlanders offering a bounty for the Galloway and its crew if they wanted.

If they hadn’t done that by now, that might suggest that the plan was still to keep Twilight’s existence as low key as possible. For now, at any rate. That was bound to change eventually, once the Queen became frustrated enough. They’d need to capitalize on her hesitation while they could.

Though that would be very difficult to do. ComSpark was indeed uniquely situated to essentially monetarily strangle their outfit to death. After all, ComSpark also controlled the Mercenary Review Board, which was responsible for listing all respectable licensed mercenary companies in the galaxy. The Steel Coursers would doubtless be shadow-banned from the MRB listings. Nothing overtly marking them as pirates or raiders, as that would paint a target on their heads and risk Twilight being outright killed before the Queen could get her. But, if the MRB simply...omitted the Steel Coursers as an organization available for hire, that would mean that they wouldn’t see any further contracts or job offers.

Even previous clients who had worked with them wouldn’t touch them for future business. Payments for mercenary services had to go through the MRB, otherwise the employer could get in trouble too and potentially lose access to respectable mercenary units. No creature in the galaxy liked Squelch enough to risk that.

The Steel Coursers were over with. Squelch might be able to officially dissolve the company and set up a fresh charter under a new name; but even then it would only be a matter of time before the Queen’s agents caught on and were once more on their trail.

Even ditching the alicorn wasn’t likely an option anymore. Not really. The Queen would want to make sure that there were no loose ends.

Slipshod idly wondered if her agents would go so far as to arrange for any Jump Ship they were riding with to suffer a ‘missjump’…

The terminal near Squelch chirped, alerting the unicorn to an incoming message. The jade mare glared down at the offending console and jabbed it with her hoof, “whatever it is, it’s going to have to wait,” she tersely informed the pony on the other end of the line. Clearly, she wasn’t quite finished berating the two of them, Slipshod realized with a grimace.

Um, Ma’am,” a very brave High Gain ventured, despite having just received orders to the contrary, “we’re receiving a tight-beam from the outer system,” there was a long pause as the mare considered how to phrase the next part, “it has a Disciple ident code.”

Slipshod and the alicorn exchanged equally surprised looks. Their employer merely closed her eyes and pressed a hoof to her temple, “because why shouldn’t it get any worse,” she grumbled under her breath, “fuck it, ComSpark already has us by the teets; why not consort with terrorists?”

She depressed the transmit button, “forward it to the conference room,” she said with a resigned sigh.

Yes, Ma’am. It’s text only.”

All three ponies shifted their gaze to the main display as the pair of video feeds was replaced by a surprisingly short blurb of text. The trio exchanged equally perplexed expressions at the message’s contents.


“...the fuck?” Squelch finally broke the silence, looking over at Twilight as though the alicorn should have the answer, “what is that, some kind of Disciple code phrase?”

“It’s not any official coded message that I recognize,” Twilight assured the unicorn as she continued to stare at the screen, “I think...it’s literally just a simple question.”

“They actually want to know who my first foalhood friend was?” the sage mare asked sardonically, “what’s next? The street I grew up on and the make and model of my first ground cart?

“Phishing somehow seems beneath even a terrorist cult…”

“Not your first friend,” Slipshod said before casting his gaze to the alicorn, “I think it’s not just ComSpark who knows you’re on this ship.”

“Oh, for fuck’s sake,” Squelch growled, “I don’t even know who you are! How does everypony else in the galaxy seem to?!” Then the unicorn blanched for a second and quickly became even more incredulous, “and how did the Disciples know we were going to be in this system?!

“Highlander opsec is a shitshow!”

This time it was Slipshod who snorted. If only the mare knew, he thought before once more focusing his attention on the alicorn, who was regarding the message now with genuine consideration, “they want to make sure I’m really me,” she observed, “by asking me something only the real Twilight would be able to get right.”

“Probably,” the earth pony conceded, “I’m sure that the Queen has tried to get her agents into the Disciples for centuries. Learning the real Twilight Sparkle is alive and about again sounds too good to be true, I bet.”

The purple mare brought her hoof up to her chin, gently stroking it, as she contemplated the screen and its ostensibly simple question, “Pinkie Pie was the first of my friends that I met in Ponyville…” she mused pensively, “but I wouldn’t say that made us ‘friends’ in that moment, seeing as how all she did was gasp and bolt off. Applejack treated me like part of her family right off the bat…Rainbow wanted to hang out again after only just meeting me...

“This is hard,” Twilight admitted, biting her lip as she receded deep into thought, “we sort of became friends all at once that night; I can’t really say which of them was first…” a thought occurred to the mare, “wait...Ponyville wasn’t where I made my first friend, not really. Back in Celestia’s school there was Moondancer! I didn’t think of her that way back then, but eventually I realized that that’s how she thought of me. It turned out that I was really important to her. So I guess she was my first fr―”

The mare broke off, staring blankly at the screen. Then the faintest smile tugged at the corner of her mouth and she let out an amused snort, “...I’m an idiot. I am literally the dumbest princess,” Twilight sighed. She was shaking her head as she rose out of her seat and stepped around the table to peer down at Squelch’s terminal. Her horn glowed with faint, purple, light as she tapped out a short, five-letter, response on the terminal, “send that reply.”

The unicorn glanced at the terminal, quirking a confused brow at the alicorn, “that’s all?” the purple princess nodded. Squelch shrugged in exasperation, “fuck it,” she reached down and activated the comm, “High Gain, I’m sending you message to respond with.”

...respond, Ma’am? To the Disciples?

Slipshop could understand the other mare’s surprise. After all, she hadn’t been privy to the revelation that ComSpark was already after them, and engaging in dialogue like this with the cultists was the sort of offense that could prompt ComSpark to blacklist an organization if they ever found out. In their specific situation, of course, it was doubtful that there was anything the ponies on this ship could do that would get them in more trouble with Chrysalis.

In for a C-bit, and all that.

“Tight-beam, of course,” Squelch responded, as though that should put the mare at the comm station more at ease, “unless that’s something you’re not capable of doing? Should I come up there and do it myself?”

No, Ma’am; that won’t be necessary. Transmitting reply via tight-beam.

Squelch closed the intra-ship channel, looking back at the alicorn, “I don’t suppose anypony wants to explain to me why we’re playing twenty-questions with the Disciples?”

“You wanted a way out of the system that ComSpark couldn’t track,” Slipshod pointed out, “something tells me that however the Disciples got here, it wasn’t with their blessing.”

“You’re not seriously suggesting that we sign on with those wackjobs?” the unicorn sputtered incredulously, “have you lost what’s left of your barely existent mind?!”

The stallion frowned, “I’m sorry, weren’t you just the one angsting about what ComSpark was going to do to us a minute ago? Unless you want to set down a homestead here, you’re going to have to make a choice, Squelch: ComSpark or the Disciples of Discord.”

“I’m not convinced that I wouldn’t live longer down on that tartarus-scape…” the green mare grumbled.

“The Disciples aren’t crazy terrorist cultists,” Twilight insisted, “If they really are the descendants of Discord’s Rangers, then they’re our best hope of defeating Chrysalis. They’re our friends, and they will help us and keep us safe. I promise.”

“‘Safe’,” the unicorn scoffed, glaring up at the alicorn, “because of you, five good ponies died today,” she reminded the larger purple mare coldly, “because I stuck my neck out for you.

“Nowhere you go is going to be safe,” she turned away and put her head in her hooves, “I should have turned you in…damn me for listening to the two of you,” she seethed.

“If you’d done that, there’d be nothing left to stop Chrysalis.”

“So?” the jade unicorn asked, glaring up at the alicorn, “you act like that’s a bad thing,” Slipshod wasn’t sure that he had the words in his vocabulary to describe the look of utter shock on Twilight’s face upon hearing Squelch’s statement, “if everything you’ve said in true, that we’ve all been living in this galaxy ruled by dopples―”

“Changelings,” the stallion corrected more quietly this time.

“Still don’t care,” his unicorn employer said dismissively, not breaking eye contact with the princess, “we’ve been living like this for...what? Five hundred years? Give or take?” she didn’t wait for a reply from the alicorn, “and everypony hasn’t been hunted to extinction or whatever. We’re still going about, living our lives. From where I’m sitting? Things aren’t actually so bad,” she shrugged, leaning back in her chair and crossing her legs over her chest, looking up expectantly at the other mare, “so explain to me why I should actually care who’s sitting on that throne on Equus?”

Twilight’s jaw moved wordlessly for several seconds as she seemed to try and process what she’d just heard. Obviously the idea that somepony wasn’t innately horrified by the state of galactic affairs hadn’t quite occurred to her, Slipshod suspected, “b-because it’s horrible right now!” she exclaimed, as though shocked that she even had to point out that fact, “creatures are fighting and dying all over the place! It’s terrible!”

“That’s life!” Squelch shot back, “sometimes it sucks for some creatures. That’s how it is! What, you think it’s supposed to be all sunshine and rainbows all the time?”

Twilight blinked several times before vehemently asserting, “yes! It was! Well, I mean, okay, it wasn’t always sunshine and rainbows. Obviously every planet has a night cycle, and crops needed rain, and some stars emit different spectrums of light that didn’t create what we think of as classic ‘rainbows’ when they’re refracted by―”

Squelch had ceased to actively pay attention by that point, “oh, I call bullshit! There’s no way every creature was happy and getting along all the time!” she shot back accusingly at the alicorn.

“Of course we all got along,” Twilight defended, “we were friends―all of us! We helped each other, and supported one another. We cared about each other, because we knew that we all came from the same place and had the same needs and desires as every other creature. Things like family, and friends, and love, and―”

“Oh, gag me with a rancid used dildo!” Slipshod scowled reflexively in disgust at the mental image that statement conjured, “you sound like a Cutie Cultist, except somehow worse! Spare me your ‘utopian dreams’ drivel―”

“It’s true!” the alicorn snapped at the other mare, “there was peace for almost a thousand years! It didn’t happen overnight, and it wasn’t easy, but eventually all of the creatures of Equus were brought together in harmony, as friends. And we brought that harmony with us when we spread throughout the galaxy. It was...amazing,” Twilight’s lip curled in a nostalgic smile as her eyes glazed over at the memories of a bygone era. A better era.

Then her expression fell, “...until I screwed everything up. I got so wound up in my accomplishments―so convinced that I could do no wrong―that I forgot that not quite everycreature had accepted the magic of friendship…

“Then came the day that Tirek, Cozy Glow, and Chrysalis escaped. My three greatest failures. Individuals that I gave up on redeeming. This―all of this―is my fault, and it’s my responsibility to fix it.

“You can leave me with the Disciples and do whatever you want after that,” Twilight continued, looking at Squelch, “I can’t ask you to come with me and fight. That’s a decision you have to make for yourself.

“You’re right: you’ve all built lives for yourselves in this galaxy, despite Chrysalis’ control―maybe even because of it,” she amended, noting her surroundings, “it was wrong for me to judge you because you never got the chance to experience anything better. That wasn’t your fault.”

Slipshod doubted that the unicorn mare had expected an apology during any part of that. A suspicion that was made apparent by the surprised look on the green mare’s face, “uh...right. Look, we don’t even know where the Disciples are in this system―”

The terminal chirped again, “Ma’am? Another message via tight-beam from the Disciples. It’s a set of coordinates...”

“Oh course it is,” the jade unicorn deadpanned off-mic.

“...It looks like it’s the super jovian’s L2.”

Aagin, off-mic, “pirate jump point. That explains it,” the mare rubbed her head and sighed. She was silent for several long seconds as she weighed their options which, in fairness, weren’t exactly ideal either way. Squelch looked back at Slipshod, “those were really ComSpark forces?”

The golden earth pony couldn’t keep the wan smile from his lips at the desperate note in his employer’s voice. She wanted him to have been wrong―needed him to have been wrong. She wanted to hear that there was still a chance at being able to go on with the life that she had built for herself. That everything she knew wasn’t over and done with and that she’d have to leave it behind.

He’d fed her a lot of lies over the years that they’d know each other. This was the first time he felt bad about telling her the truth, “they were.”

“Fuck,” she toggled the internal comm, “plot a best time course. Then break orbit,” the unicorn said with audible resignation.


“Do it,” the bite in her tone was only half-hearted this time. Squelch completely understood the other mare’s qualms. It looked like she was still entertaining a few of them herself. It actually bothered Slipshod a little to see his employer looking this despondent.

Squelch cut the line and then tapped out a series of commands on her terminal. A brief alert flashed across the screen indicating that a lockdown had been placed on all outgoing communications until further notice. Everypony on the ship would see the message the next time they accessed their terminal in their quarters, letting them know that any personal messages that they sent out would be retained on the ship. Not that any traffic was going to be leaving the system until the Highlander Jump Ship left in a week.

This was so that nopony on the Galloway could respond to the inevitable requests from the Aris Highlanders about where they were heading off to, when they were supposed to be either waiting patiently in orbit of the planet for the assault to finish, or heading back to the Highlander Jump Ship that would be ferrying them back to the Harmony Sphere.

Slipshod felt the deck plating lurch gently beneath his hooves as the DropShip accelerated out of orbit. Squelch stood up and headed for the door, “well, I have about six-ish hours to figure out how I’m going to explain to the crew that their lives are effectively over. Until then...Slip, go secure...the princess, I guess, in her quarters. Then don’t let me see you again until I’m sober, as I’d be just as likely as not to space you,” the earth pony’s brows raised in concern.

The jade mare keyed in her personal comm, “Cookie? I need you to pull out a bottle of the rankiest, swilliest, paint-peelingist, shit you’ve got. Fuck me up, mule daddy―” the door closed behind her.

The two remaining ponies stared at the door in silence, Twilight silently mouthing the last two audible words in contemplation. Finally, she ventured cautiously, “she’s...adopted?”



Another long period of silence passed between the pair. Broken once more by the princess, “you realize what ComSpark knowing about my presence on this vessel implies, don’t you?”

“Yeah,” a lump formed in the stallion’s throat. He’d realized the implication since seeing those ‘Steeds on the planet. He simply wasn’t quite sure what to do with the information quite yet.

“There’s a second changeling onboard,” Twilight said nonetheless.


Chapter 12: Service for the Dead

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The pair remained appropriately quiet and subdued as they allowed the security mare to escort Twilight back to her quarters. Not that this required much in the way of feigning on either of their parts, given the uneasy nature of the conclusion that they’d reached just minutes ago. Slipshod went inside with the alicorn ‘to help her write her first after action report’. Once the door was closed and they could be assured of having privacy from prying ears, it was time for them to resume the conversation that had begun in the conference room regarding the recent revelation that they’d made.

“I thought you said that Chrysalis didn’t have agents on every ship?” Twilight hissed, scowling at the stallion.

“I said I didn’t think she did,” Slipshod corrected pointedly, his own mind racing with the implications, “the Steel Coursers aren’t a high profile outfit. I figured there’s no way the Queen would waste an agent on them. There are a lot of changeling agents out there, but not nearly enough to genuinely bug every ship―er, infiltrate,” he mentally cringed at the unintended―yet not entirely inapt―pun.

“So you don’t know who the other changeling is?” the alicorn’s tone wasn’t―quite―accusatory. She wasn’t using her magic to compress him into a singularity again in an effort to figuratively―and literally―squeeze the information out of him; so it was doubtful that she actually suspected him of trying to hide this fact from her. After all, she knew that he wanted Chrysalis removed from power about as much as she did―if for entirely unrelated reasons.

“I have no clue,” the stallion insisted, “it could be anypony,” he thought for a moment and then hastily amended, “okay, well not quite ‘anypony’. There’re a couple dozen ponies I know for sure it couldn’t be.”


Slipshod tapped his personal terminal on his uniform sleeve, “the ponies on my rota. The ones I draw from. Another changeling wouldn’t let me draw from them, so none of the ponies I frequent could be the Queen’s agent,” he frowned, “though that still leaves a lot of suspects.

“And honestly...there’s at least a possibility that there actually isn’t another changeling on the ship,” the earth pony ventured, “you may not have left the ship since you woke up, but other members of the crew sure have. They weren’t supposed to say anything about you, but it’s not like everypony stayed completely sober the whole time they were in port. Somepony may have just blabbed about the ‘weird purple pony’ that was added to the crew in earshot of the wrong creature.”

“Can we really afford to take the risk of making that assumption?” the princess asked him pointedly.

“No. No we can’t,” Slipshod admitted bitterly, “we need to check. I’m just not sure how to go about it,” he looked to the alicorn, “unless you’ve managed to pick out any other ponies who didn’t react ‘appropriately surprised’ to you, like I did?” Twilight shook her head, “what about that spell that nixed my disguise? You could just go around blasting the crew with it…”

“I suspect that your ex-wife wouldn’t appreciate me using my magic on her crew without us first explaining why I’m doing it,” she said, casting an aside glance at the stallion, “besides, unless we were lucky enough to find the spy in the first few attempts, they’d doubtless get wind of our search. I shudder to think of what one of Chrysalis’ agents might do in an act of desperation if they thought discovery was close at hoof.

“Such actions would also necessitate revealing to the crew of the ship why we were doing it, and what we were looking for,” she reminded him, “do you no longer think informing them would ‘panic the ship’, as you put it?”

Slipshod opened his mouth, but said nothing before closing it again. He considered the idea carefully. Squelch had only recently grudgingly accepted that Queen Chrysalis and changelings might be a real phenomenon. The earth pony wasn’t quite so certain that she’d be receptive to the notion that a member of her crew was currently one of those very changelings.

Well, actually, that wasn’t quite true, now was it, the stallion snorted bitterly. Squelch would probably jump at an explanation for how ComSpark was tracking the Galloway’s location so easily. An embedded spy was the perfect scapegoat for her frustrations. That wasn’t the problem though. The problem was that the jade mare was already suspicious of how he seemed to know so much about what was going on.

She’d wonder if he was a changeling too.

If Squelch ordered Twilight to ‘test’ him, would the alicorn refuse? Would she fudge the results of the spell somehow? Or would she decide that exposing him was a way to further cement her concerns about the insidiousness of changelings and the danger that they presented? Assuming that Squelch didn’t outright kill him for being a ‘monster’, the fact was that having his true nature revealed to the crew would eventually lead to his death anyway.

There was no way that any of the ponies on his rota would let a shapeshifting monster anywhere near them. Especially when they found out the reason he wanted to be was so that he could feed off of their raw emotional essence. It would only be a matter of time before he starved to death.

“We need to keep this between us,” the stallion finally concluded unhappily. Twilight also was right, of course: the spy might do something drastic if they thought the crew was onto them. To say nothing of what the crew would do to each other in the meantime as they became increasingly more paranoid about who was and wasn’t a ‘real’ pony. In the aftermath, once the genuine agent was dealt with, there would almost certainly be dozens of torn and tattered relationships as a result of the inevitable accusations. Slipshod did not envy having to repair those rifts between members of the crew just so that he could get a decent meal again.

He was going to have a time of it as it was, in the wake of the recent tragedy. He couldn’t afford any significant backsliding right now.

“If we spook the agent, they might do something that gets a lot of ponies hurt, or killed,” he agreed, “right now, they have no reason to think we know that there’s a changeling onboard―another changeling anyway,” he amended with a roll of his eyes.

“I’ll find out who it is,” he insisted, “I’ll start with the more outgoing members of the crew that aren’t on my rota. Another changeling would need a wide social network in order to stay well fed, just like I do. It shouldn’t be hard to figure out who’s been frequenting a lot of the other crew’s quarters.

“In fact, it should be pretty easy to find out who it is right now.”

The alicorn raised a curious brow, “how so?”

“They need the crew to be as generally happy as I do,” Slipshod pointed out, “and right now there’s a dark cloud over just about everypony’s head. Neither they, nor I, will be able to feed until that’s mostly dealt with. Most ponies are going to be moping and stewing over the recent losses, but us changelings will be the ones actively going out and trying to get everypony’s spirits back up so that we can feed again.

“I’ll start asking around tonight,” he informed the alicorn, “I’ve got a lot of ponies to visit too,” he sighed, not looking forward to the workload that he had before him, “I can try and find out who else is going around trying to cheer ponies up.”

The princess seemed surprised by the notion, “that...is curious,” she said, prompting a look from the stallion, “in my time, reformed changelings very frequently pursued careers as counselors and therapists, due to their empathic nature, and desire for those around them to be in ‘high spirits’.

“It’s fascinating to see that this desire for happiness among the general population is inherent to even unreformed changelings. I had not anticipated such compassion from Chrysalis’ drones.”

“I don’t know if I’d call what I’m feeling ‘compassion’,” the earth pony frowned at the purple alicorn, “it’s not that I really care whether the ponies on this ship are happy or not, on a personal level. I may act ‘friendly’, but I’m not their friend. Changelings don’t have ‘friends’, we have ‘food’,” he told her flatley, “and right now everypony’s either nervous or in mourning. Neither of which are particularly ideal emotions to feed off of. The sooner I get some ponies cheered up and thinking positively again, the sooner I get to eat.

“This is about personal pragmatism, not altruism. If fear and loathing nourished us as much as love did...well, let’s just say that there’d be a very different dynamic between me and the ponies on this ship.”

That revelation certainly seemed to sour the alicorn’s opinion of him, the stallion observed. That was hardly his fault though. She was the one who was supposed to be familiar with changelings and how they operated. Nothing he had said should have surprised her.

“Look, I’ll work on vetting the crew, you just work on what you’re going to say to the Disciples to convince them that there aren’t any of Chrysalis’ spies on this ship,” he instructed the purple mare, who regarded him sardonically.

“But there could be a changeling spy onboard.”

“I know,” the stallion sighed in annoyance, “but what happens when they go looking for a spy and then find me?” he pointed out; then assumed a mocking, sarcastic, tone, “oh, no, Mister Disciple; I promise you I’m not the bad changeling! I super-duper swear it!”

Slipshod’s expression fell into a flat look at the princess once more, “unless you know how you’re going to frame it so that I don’t end up lynched? Or worse,” the mare frowned, but didn’t seem to have an answer ready for him. The earth pony sighed, “just...please don’t get me killed, alright? I recognize that the Disciples are the best chance either of us is ever going to have at beating Chrysalis...but my life is going to be hanging by a thread just being around them, more than it ever has.

“If Chrysalis has an agent on the ship, I’ll find them; and I’ll deal with them. I promise.”

Twilight regarded him for several long seconds before finally nodding, “I believe you. Very well; I’ll help you keep your secret.

“Go, see to the crew,” she said, waving him towards the door, “friends or no, it’s good that it matters to you how they feel.”

Slipshod frowned but left without another word. With a parting pleasantry to the security mare posted at the princess’ door, the stallion continued down the corridor, glancing at his fetlock-mounted personal pad and the rota that it contained. According to his normal schedule, this was supposed to be his and Channel Lock’s regular riff night. She’d have been on station in the ‘Steed Bay during that hasty retrieval just a few hours ago, so it was anypony’s guess as to whether she was still there or back in her quarters again.

It was a place to start though. If she was still on duty, he’d just move on to somepony else.

The golden earth pony was surprised to find that the door to the cabin that Channel Lock shared with High Gain was actually still open. He quietly crept up to its edge and peered inside. A concerned frown creased his lips at what he saw: the strawberry red unicorn mare was sitting on her bed, using her telekinesis to scrub furiously at the back of a vac-suit helmet with a rag that he didn’t suspect had been quite so crimson before she’d started. He didn’t need to be an empath to see that she was in distress, though it did allow him to understand that her features actually concealed just how distressed she really was.

His changeling senses also allowed him to pick up on the more subtle undertones of her emotional state: tinges of shame and guilt. Something terrible had happened, and she felt partially―if not completely―responsible for it. She was so distracted by these feelings that Slipshod somehow doubted that she was aware that she was continuing to wipe at an already clean patch of the helmet clutched in her hooves, while plenty of blood yet remained on other parts. Her eyes were clouded over, as though she wasn’t even actually seeing what she was doing anyway.

The unicorn mechanic also didn’t seem to be the least bit concerned with the splotches of blood dotted across the back of the rest of the vac-suit that she was still wearing. Or that she’d stained the sheets of her bed when she’d sat down on it.

“Chans?” he offered gently from the open doorway, softly rapping his hoof on the frame more out of propriety’s sake than anything else.

The mare jerked, letting out an audible yelp. The helmet went clattering across the room, coming to rest by Slipshod’s feet. The rag she’d managed to catch in her hooves as her magic failed her in her moment of surprise. Channel Lock instantly began to knead the stained swath of cloth against her chest as her wide eyes locked themselves onto the floor in front of her.

“S-s-sorry, Slip,” she said almost too quietly for the stallion to hear, “I...I know that we usually riff on Thursdays...but I think I want to pass this time. I’m...not really feeling into it right now…”

The earth pony reached down and picked up the helmet, briefly examining the blood stains. It was only the back of the helmet that looked to have been affected. Nothing that she’d have noticed until she removed it, he suspected, “is it Thursday?” he asked absently, even going so far as to glance at his fetlock, as though only now taking note of the date, “I’d honestly forgot,” he looked back to the mare, “no, I’m actually here to make sure you’re okay,” that much wasn’t a lie, at least.

“I saw that the Bay got hit. Wanted to check on you,” he made a show of looking between the blood-stained helmet in his hoof and the mare, “are you hurt? Should I get Doc Dee?” he knew that she wasn’t actually injured, but the perceived empathy was what was important for her right now.

Channel Lock shook her head, “I’m fine. Doc’s got his hooves full right now anyway.

“Other ponies...weren’t so lucky,” the last came out in an almost haunted tone.

Slipshod slowly stepped through the opened door, closing it behind them to give the two of them some privacy, and sat down on the bed next to the mare. He set the helmet on the floor, away from the unicorn, “tell me what happened, Chans.”

The mare closed her eyes tight, clutching the rag to her chest as she started to rock slowly back and forth, “I got somepony killed,” she said in a ragged breath, before sniffing loudly.

That sense of guilt flared white hot within the mare, nearly making the stallion visibly wince in response to its intensity. He reached out with a hoof and brought the mare in close to him. He’d have to quelch that first if he wanted to make any progress here, “if there’s anypony on this ship that’s responsible for what happened, it’s me; for calling the Galloway into the middle of that killzone. The Commies shot us up. You didn’t have anything to do with it.”

“You don’t understand,” she insisted, shaking her head even as the mare seemed to reflexively curl up against him, welcoming the embrace, “Spanner wouldn’t have been standing where he was if I hadn’t fucked up!”

She sniffed again, “the call went out: Hot Retrieval. Everypony in the ‘Steed Bay ran to the locker rooms to get their vac-suits. I couldn’t get mine on right. One of the zippers got stuck. Spanner stayed behind to help me. We finally got my suit on and ran out to Val’s stall.

“The way it was was that first on the scene gets the hoist controls. Second to get there watches the wire guides,” she sniffled again, “because Spanner helped me, he got there second. So he was watching the guides when…”

Her words cut off as a shudder coursed through her body at exactly the same moment that Slipshod was assaulted by a wave of cold fear coming off the mare, “it happened so fast,” she whispered, “all I remember is is it felt like somepony had jerked the catwalk from under me. I stumbled a bit. I go back up. I saw the hole in the door. It hadn’t been there a second ago. That was for the damage control teams to worry about though. My job was to hoist up Val’s Parasprite. Of course she―” Channel Lock broke off for a moment, looking briefly up at the stallion before continuing, “...there was nothing to hoist, so I turned around to go help one of the other teams…

“...that’s when I saw―” she clamped her lips shut as her body convulsed. Nausea. Revulsion. Then the guilt again.

“Spanner should have been the first out,” the mare said when she could talk again. Bitterness was overshadowing the guilt now. Self-loathing, “I was the fuck up. I should have been out last. Then I’d have been standing where I could see the wire guides.

“I’d have been the one that died,” anger now, “should have been the one that died.”

Slipshod sighed and closed his eyes, sorting through the tangled mess of emotions swirling within the unicorn mare. He traced each and every strand back to its source until he managed to find those that wouldn’t merely lead to further self-depreciation when pulled upon. If he could unravel the right ones, he’d be able to set her straight without too much trouble. It was just a matter of hitting the right notes in the right order.

“You said that you didn’t have time to react,” the earth pony began. The mare nodded, “if you had, would you have pushed him out of the way? Even if you knew you’d die doing it?”

“Of course,” Channel Lock replied firmly, without any hint of hesitation. She meant it too. He could feel it.

“Do you think that he’d have done the same for you?” the earth pony asked next, “you said he stayed behind to help you. Sounds to me like he cared about the ponies he worked with. Just like you. So if you’d been watching the wire guides, and he saw that you were about to be killed by debris, do you think he’d have tried to save you even if he knew he’d die trying?”

“He…” the mare squirmed uncomfortably at his side, “...he might have.”

“I think he would have,” Slipshod assured her, “you guys―all the ‘Steed Bay techs―you’re a team. More than that,” he amended with a dry chuckle, “you’re practically family, the way I see you guys acting in the Bay.

“You look out for each other. You help each other. When one of you’s in trouble, another steps up to lend a hoof,” he felt her guilt thinning as he spoke, “you didn’t get anypony killed, or ‘let’ anypony die. Spanner stepped up to help a member of his team in trouble. Just like you would have if it’d’ve been him struggling. Right?”

The mare nodded. Slipshod could feel her guilt ebbing, and pressed on, “it happened fast, like you said. That’s not your fault. Nopony’s faster than an autocannon round or a missile,” the stallion’s mind flashed with an image of the recovery team mare being splattered while securing Twilight’s ‘Steed, but quickly suppressed the image. It wasn’t about him right now.

“The point is that: if you could have saved him, you would have. Everypony knows that. Spanner knew that too. Nopony holds it against you that you were slower than an explosion. And, like you said: if everypony had seen it coming, Spanner would have taken that hit for you anyway.

He gave her a squeeze and reassuringly rubbed his hoof over her shoulder, “you didn’t get anypony killed, Chans. The Commies did this. Nopony else. You see that, right?”

Channel Lock sighed and nodded once more. With the guilt all but evaporated, her self-loathing burned brightest now. Her frustration with herself for not being able to perform like she was expected to, “which zipper were you struggling with?”

The red unicorn blinked through a brief moment of confusion before rubbing her hoof along the front of her suit, and the zipper that ran up her chest. Slipshod stepped around and knelt down, looking closely at the seam of her vac-suit. After only a few seconds, the earth pony’s lips canted in a wan smile and he pointed a hoof at a part of it, “about right there’s where it got hung up?”

She looked at where his hoof was indicating, and nodded her head, her eyes wide with mild surprise, “that’s exactly the place it got stuck! How’d you…?”

“If you look real close, you can see the stitching’s a little uneven,” he informed her, “it’s never perfect. Most uniforms with zippers have a spot somewhere that the zipper fights them a bit. If you’re not ready for it and pull too hard in the wrong direction, you can even jump the teeth and get everything all bound up.

“It’s a manufacturing defect,” he assured the mare, holding her gaze pointedly, “it’s nothing that you did. The stitching was just a little off. A pocket on my piloting barding’s left foreleg never quite closes all the way for the exact same reason,” he said, flashing her a wry smile.

The mare stared down at her chest, running a hoof along the seam, “...I should have inspected this better,” she insisted, though the earth pony could already feel that she wasn’t being quite as hard on herself as she’d been a minute ago now that she realized her wardrobe issues earlier hadn’t been caused exclusively by her own incompetence.

Slipshod shook his head, “issues like this aren’t always obvious,” he said, “here, take it off,” the unicorn mare seemed unconvinced, but complied. Her horn began to glow as she took hold of the zipper with her magic and drew it down as far as it would go. The stallion held up his hoof, “stop!” the mare did so, mildly surprised, “now back up. Slow,” the mare frowned, but complied. The zipper began to slowly ascend back up towards her suit’s collar.

It caught halfway up, dragging on the fabric of the garment and refusing to go any further. Slipshod looked more closely, “back down...stop...up again, but bent it to the left a little,” the mare quirked an eyebrow, but did as the stallion had instructed. This time the zipper didn’t catch at all and rode smoothly all the way up to her neck. The mare’s eyes widened in surprise.

“See?” he said, standing up once more and returning to the bed beside her, “you could have put this suit on a dozen times, and never known that the zipper would only give you problems if you held it a certain way. That’s not something that anypony can reasonably be expected to know about a vac-suit that they wear...how often? Seriously, outside of drills, when’s the last time you had to get this thing on in a rush?”

“...Never,” the mare admitted, more of her self-loathing melting away as she was forced to confront the evidence that she was not wholly incompetent at manipulating a zipper.

“You didn’t fuck up, Chans,” Slipshod reassured her, putting his hoof around her shoulder and bringing the mare in close once again, getting a read on her emotions. She was almost there, but not quite. All she needed was some outside assurances. He could easily provide the unicorn with that much, “you had a bad zipper that was hiding how screwed up it was. Your teammate helped you out, just like you’d have helped him. Nopony could have known where or how the ship would get hit. It didn’t matter where anypony was standing. Heck, if the helmsmare had picked a retrieval site a few meters in any direction Spanner would have been fine.

“Do you think it was the pilot’s fault for parking the ship where they did?” Channel Lock shook her head, “was it Mig’s fault for pairing you and Spanner on the same stall?” another shake, “was it Squelch’s fault for taking the job?”

“No,” the mare finally answered aloud, the faintest hint of a smile tugging at her lip as she was forced to accept the absurdity of her own thought process, “okay, you’ve made your point. It’s not my fault Spanner’s dead. But…” her features fell once more, “I just…” she let out a defeated sigh, “a good pony’s still dead. He shouldn’t have died like that. And it just seems wrong that nopony can be blamed for it! You know?

“If a pony dying like that isn’t anypony’s ‘fault’, that means it can happen again. At any time,” she withdrew on the bed, wrapping her forelegs around herself comfortingly, “and it shouldn’t be like that,” she frowned.

Slipshod gave the mare a brief, reassuring, squeeze and shrugged, “that’s...life. It’s not fair. There’s no way to make it fair. We just have to accept that,” he leaned down and gave the unicorn a peck on her forehead, “I think that’s what’s called ‘living’; you know?”

Channel Lock to a deep breath and let it out as a heavy sigh, “yeah...still sucks though.”

“Tell you what,” the stallion began, adjusting himself on her bed, “I suggest reaching out to some of Spanner’s other friends on the ship. Get together, swap stories, share a few drinks, toast the good stallion that he was. Like some sort of memorial or something.”

He felt the mare perk up at the idea, “you know, that’s a really good idea actually!”

Slipshod flashed the mare a wry smirk, “I do have those from time to time…”

“Sorry, I didn’t mean it like that,” the unicorn mechanic apologized, extending her neck to briefly nuzzle the earth pony on the nose, “but you’re right: the whole ‘Steed Bay should get together and do something for Spanner,” she thought for a brief moment before adding, “I mean, obviously anypony would be invited. He had friends in other departments,” another thought soon seemed to occur to the unicorn, “maybe this could even be more than about just Spanner!

“Can you talk to Squelch about hosting a shipwide memorial for all the ponies who died?” she asked the stallion, regarding him expectantly.

The earth pony winced and rubbed the back of his head, “ehhh...I would, but I’m not really Squelch’s favorite pony at the moment,” at the mare’s confused expression, Slipshod raced to come up with a plausible explanation as to why that would be. Channel Lock knew nothing about ComSpark’s involvement in the ambush, or even the fact that this ship was currently enroute to meet with the Disciples of Discord. Now was hardly an ideal moment to break that news to the tech either.

Not that Slipshod could think of when a particularly good time for such a thing was going to be coming up any time soon…

“I got the Crystal Cavalier beaten up pretty good,” he quickly explained, “and she thinks I fucked up by leading everypony into that ambush.”

Channel Lock’s face scrunched up in an almost incredulous scowl, “that’s hardly fair,” she protested, “you stuck to the plan the Highlanders laid out, didn’t you?”

“I did,” Slipshod nodded, careful to hide his own dour amusement at his knowledge that it had been ‘adhering to the plan’ which had allowed them to be ambushed in the first place, “and I didn’t say that Squelch was being rational about it,” he pointed out, “she’s just...stressed,” understatement of the decade, “she lost five of her crew, including a ‘Steed pilot, and we couldn’t even salvage Val’s Parasprite. The mission didn’t pay nearly enough to cover all of that.

“Her business took a really serious financial hit today,” he pointed out.

The unicorn continued to scowl, “she’s not honestly thinking about money at a time like this? Ponies are dead!”

The stallion waved his hoof at the mare’s ire, shaking his head, “trust me, she cares about those ponies. She’s writing letters to their families right now,” or soon would be once she was sober again, he didn’t add out loud. The tech calmed down somewhat at that information, “but she also has to take a longer view for all of the ponies that are still alive,” he continued, “which includes things like balancing the company’s budget. Being down a ‘Steed means we have to take smaller, lower paying jobs; which means taking more of those jobs to keep up overall income.

“Squelch doesn’t get the luxury of wallowing. Because I bet you still need to be paid by the end of the month, right?”

The unicorn tech looked away and awkwardly kneaded her hooves, “I mean...yeah. I guess I get it. I suppose I can talk to Mig, Tig, and Cookie about arranging something,” the mare decided, perking up a little more as the plan formed in her head, “food, drinks―ooh! I know! Eulogies, or whatever!” she looked back at Slipshod excitedly, “we’ll find ponies close to the ones we lost to say a few words about them!”

Slipshod nodded, smiling, “that sounds like a great idea,” he said, patting the mare on her head, “a great way for everypony to come together and find a little solace,” and perhaps an expedient method of dispersing that gray cloud that was hanging over everypony’s emotions too, the stallion thought to himself, “if there’s anything I can do to help…?” he offered rhetorically. He didn’t actually expect that there was anything further that the unicorn was going to need from him. She sounded like she’d have the matter well in hoof. So he started getting off the bed to take his leave.

“Um...actually,” the stallion stopped, looking at the unicorn with a confused expression, “if you could speak for Valkyrie, I think that’d be great,” Channel Lock said, sounding hopeful.

The earth pony blinked in stunned silence. She wanted him to speak for the pegasus pilot? Why? “Wouldn’t it be better to get one of her close friends to do it?” he asked, trying not to sound as sarcastic as he ended up being. He winced inwardly.

“Oh. I’m sorry, I thought…” the mare seemed uncertain, biting her lip, “I mean, you two were always hanging out together. I just assumed that you were close.

“I didn’t really hang out with her much,” she admitted, “so if you know a pony who’d be a better choice, by all means, ask them to do it. You’d know who’d do a better job, I guess. Sorry if I misread things,” she added.

“No no, it’s alright,” the earth pony waved off the apology, smiling at the mare, “I’ll get somepony to talk about Val, don’t worry. You just work things out with Cookie and the twins,” the tech nodded eagerly.

Sensing that his mission had been accomplished here, Slipshod took his leave. Once in the corridor, he hesitated. Had Channel Lock been serious about suggesting that he be the one to speak on behalf of Valkyrie? The idea seemed patently absurd to the earth pony. Obviously it should fall to one of her friends, like…

Slipshod was drawing a blank on candidates at the moment, but he did have a lot on his mind, so it made sense that he was having trouble focussing on something as trivial as that. Only, the stallion supposed that who Valkyrie spent most of her time with wasn’t quite so trivial a matter anymore. Not if he was supposed to find somepony to toast her at Channel Lock’s impromptu memorial service.

He’d seen her and Axel Rod in the gym at the same time on occasion. That seemed like a reasonable place to start his search, so he headed to the DropShip’s garage.

The head of the motor pool was currently buried up to his cannons in the engine housing of a cargo truck, performing a regular overhaul of the vehicle. At Slipshod’s prompting, the oil-stained stallion slid out from beneath the truck and retrieved a rag to wipe away the more egregious grease smears from his face, “you want me to what?”

“Channel Lock’s putting together a memorial for the ponies that died pulling me and Purple Rose off the planet,” the ‘Steed pilot reiterated, “I was hoping you could give Val’s eulogy. Since you knew her pretty well and all.”

The mechanic regarded the other earth pony with flat confusion, “...I didn’t even know she was dead,” he looked away for a brief moment, frowning, “damn. That sucks,” he turned back to the golden stallion, “how are you holding up?”

Now it was Slipshod’s turn to be confused as his lips curled into a frown of his own, “I’m fine. Why?”

“I mean, you just lost your friend,” Axel Rod replied, sounding a little bewildered at the question, “you two were practically joined at the hip!”

The pilot was about to rebuke the obviously erroneous observation, but no words ended up actually coming out of his mouth in refutation. He was forced to grudgingly admit that the pair of them had spent a lot of time together, even outside of missions, but that was merely a consequence of them holding the same position on the ship. They were the company’s only ‘Steed pilots. As a result, they were required to train and go on missions together. It had only made sense to share a lot of their meals too, so that they could discuss how their last mission had gone, or refresh each other on what was supposed to happen on their next outing.

That didn’t make them friends.

Friends...shared interests. Presumably outside of piloting BattleSteeds. Friends also frequently socialized. Again, presumably outside of the scores of hours that the two of them had spent conversing over the radio while on assignment. ‘Socializing’ only counted if the ponies in question were physically present in the same room.


Slipshod shook his head vigorously and looked back down at Axel Rod, “you don’t happen to know who else she spent a lot of time with, do you?”

“Besides you?” the oily stallion smirked at the ‘Steed pilot, who scowled in return, prompting a chuckle, “I mean, I guess she was on the bridge a lot. Maybe check with the bridge crews?”

That was right, Valkyrie had made several modifications to the Galloway’s sensor systems. She’d have had to spend a lot of time with the ship’s electronics techs, “Doppler!” the stallion blurted as he turned and quickly trotted out of the garage, leaving behind a bewildered looking Axel Rod.

“...good talk?”

Slipshod climbed up the four decks necessary to get from the garage at the bottom of the Mustang-class DropShip to its bridge in short order. He found the control center in a fairly subdued state, and didn’t quite appreciate the tense atmosphere he was getting from the three ponies currently occupying the room. They were cruising through space, well away from any possible threats. There shouldn’t be any reason for these ponies to be so nerv―

Oh, right. These were likely the only other ponies on the ship that knew Squelch had ordered them to meet with the Disciples of Discord, designated terrorists and avowed enemies of ‘Queen Twilight Sparkle’. They probably thought that their employer had lost her Celestia-given mind. Honestly, it was a testament to all of the good will that Squelch had earned with the ponies in her employ over the years that they’d even gone along with her orders thus far!

The stallion should probably soothe a few frayed nerves while he was here too, if he was ever going to get a decent meal today…

But how exactly was he supposed to sell these ponies―or anypony, really―on the idea of committing one of the few galactically recognized crimes that still actually existed in the Harmony Sphere? How was he going to make any of what was going on make any kind of sense without also hitting all of these ponies with some of the hardest to swallow truths that any of them would probably ever encounter in their lives: that the Disciples were the ‘good guys’, ComSpark was actually evil, Queen Twilight was a shapeshifting bug horse, and that ‘Purple Rose’ was the real Twilight Sparkle, lost in suspended animation these last five centuries?

Even after being confronted with what Slipshod considered an overwhelming quantity of hard evidence, Squelch was still only mostly on board with some of those realities. And he’d been chiseling away at her convictions for months!

What was he supposed to do that would calm these ponies in six hours?

Well...there was always his tried a true method of handling situations: lie and manipulate like his life depended on it.

The golden earth pony manifested a broad smirk and leisurely propped himself up against the frame of the open doorway leading onto the bridge, “don’t you all just look like a sorry bunch. What? Did Cookie put you guys on his ‘gruel only’ diet?”

The ash gray pegasus stallion sitting at the Galloway’s helm station turned his head to look over his shoulder at the new arrival, frowning, “the Captain ordered us to―”

Aileron!” High Gain hissed at the other pony from her seat by the communications console, glancing fervently between the two stallions.

The ship’s backup pilot scowled at the electronics technician, “oh like she’s not going to tell him eventually anyway!” he retorted, nodding at Slipshod. The earth pony mare rolled her eyes but offered no additional objection to Aileron sharing what they had all apparently decided was ‘sensitive information’ not meant for general dissemination among the ship’s crew. The stallion at the helm looked back at the golden earth pony, “the Captain’s having us ride out to meet up with a Disciple ship that commed us out of the blue,” his tone suggested that Slipshod should find the offered information to be profoundly shocking.

He made sure that his expression remained completely unphased by the news, “oh? Do tell,” the earth pony trotted over to High Gain’s station, peering over her shoulder at the display, “what’d they say?”

The earth pony mare frowned slightly, “well, I mean, they didn’t technically say anything. It was a text message. I didn’t actually read it. It was addressed to the commander. By name,” it was clear from the mare’s own tone that she was quite uncomfortable with the implications of that last fact.

“And now,” the comm tech continued, “the Highlanders are blowing up the comm lines, wanting to know where we think we’re going, but our transmitters are locked out,” she brought up the applicable notification so as to demonstrate this fact to the ‘Steed pilot. Sure enough, the console stated in no uncertain terms that nopony was permitted to transmit any outgoing traffic without Squelch’s explicit permission to do so, “so I’m pretty much just sitting here, logging all of the abuse they’re sending at us,” the mare reached out and tapped a button on her terminal, wincing in anticipation.

“―OU GET YOUR SORRY FLANKS BACK IN ORBIT THIS MINUTE!” even Slipshod recoiled slightly in genuine shock at the pure vitriolic hatred spewed out through those words. He couldn’t ‘sense’ the emotion behind them, but he could feel it, “IF I DON’T GET A REPLY IN THE NEXT THIRTY SECONDS, YOU’RE BLACKLISTED! YOU HEAR ME?! YOU’LL NEVER WORK IN THE COMBINE AGAI―”

High Gain tapped the mute button once more, sparing those present from being assailed by any more of the roaring tirade. Slipshod continued to look down at the terminal with an appreciative look on his face as he considered what he’d just heard, “they sound a little put out,” his sarcasm earned him a flat look from the earth pony comm tech.

“‘They’,” a periwinkle unicorn mare sitting over by the sensor station chimed in, “happen to be Baron Mar, the Aris Highlander leading this little operation,” the earth pony stallion recalled encountering the tiercel for their briefing on the operation, “he’s a heavy hitter in both the Highlanders, and also a part of the Combine’s government. So blacklisting the Coursers is a threat that he can definitely make good on.”

Slipshod smiled broadly, “he could,” the stallion agreed, though he certainly didn’t sound as though he was particularly concerned about that point, “siding with the Disciples is a pretty big deal after all.

“It’s a good thing we’re not doing that then, isn’t it?”

All three of the ponies on the bridge exchanged confused looks before looking back at the ‘Steed pilot. It was High Gain who spoke up, “excuse me? But we’re―”

“I know what it looks like we’re doing,” he acknowledged, nodding sagely, “but just ask yourself one thing: is Squelch an idiot?”

“I assume that’s a rhetorical question?” the unicorn sensor tech asked in response, propping her head up on her hoof, “or is our response going to come up on our next performance reviews?”

“That’s what I like about you, Doppler: you’re very career oriented. It puts a level head on your shoulders,” Slipshod grinned at the blue mare before clearing his throat and once more addressing the room at large, “seriously, though, we’re not throwing in with the Disciples. At least, not really,” the others flashed him a collection of confused and skeptical looks, “we’re plants,” he informed them pointedly, pumping every ounce of confidence that he could into his demeanor.

“Obviously, none of you heard this from me,” he went on, giving each of the bridge crew a knowing look until he got a nod from them, “but isn’t it a bit...odd, that there’s a Disciple ship parked in a system with a secret Pony Commonwealth base in it? A ship that has clearly been here since before we arrived?”

The three bridge ponies once more looked at one another, seeming to confirm between themselves that they each did now wonder about that coincidence. Slipshod seized upon their fledgling doubts in order to implant the new narrative that he was crafting for their consumption, “ComSpark has suspected for a while now that the Archon has been getting support from the Disciples, but there’s never been anything that they could prove. Even this is technically ‘circumstantial evidence’,” he gestured at a display with a map of the system on it, and the signal that they were enroute to, “if they want to pin anything on Dominus, then ComSpark needs hard evidence. Irrefutable proof that the Archon’s in bed with terrorists.

“How better to get that than to go right for the source?”

“This is part of an op?” Aileron quirked an eyebrow at the other stallion.

Slipshod tapped his hoof on the side of his nose and winked at the stallion, “I didn’t say that, of course. Right?” the pegasus offered a hesitant nod, “and, obviously, none of you should either. Because you didn’t hear that.”

High Gain frowned, looking back at her own console, “but that still doesn’t explain why the Disciples reached out to us first―”

“That was our doing on the planet,” the ‘Steed pilot quickly cut in so as to head off the technician’s well-founded doubts, “if you go over the logs, you’ll see that there was some coded chatter from my ‘Steed during that last little scuffle,” the earth pony mare frowned at him, but did turn back to her screen and skim back over the communication logs from the fight. Within a few seconds, her eyes widened in surprise, “see? Right after picking up those same kinds of coded chatter from the other ‘Steeds?” another nod of agreement.

“That was Val’s doing,” a tiny part of Slipshod’s meager conscience wondered at using the dead pegasus like this. Though, her absence made for a perfect opportunity to attribute to her whatever he wished to. It wasn’t like she was going to be able to refute any of it, “she intercepted and broke down their codes, and then I used them to convince the Disciples that we were their Commonwealth contacts! So now the Disciple ship is reaching out to us, thinking we’re the ponies they had on the inside.

“Baron Mar has to play all this up,” he went on, waving a hoof at High Gain’s station, “so that nopony gets wise to us. It can’t look like we’re getting away too easy, or that it went unnoticed.”

“...Oh fuck,” Doppler said breahtlessly, falling back in her seat as she digested everything that the golden stallion had just related to them, “this is...big time stuff though…like way above a small outfit like the Steel Coursers,” she added, sounding concerned.

“Which is why nopony would suspect us,” Slipshod pointed out, “we’re the perfect double-agents.”

“So the commander’s not actually throwing in with the Disciples?” Aileron asked pointedly in an effort to soothe his concerns.

“Squelch would be offended if she heard you ask that,” Slipshod frowned at the helmspony, “you know her better than that. All three of you do,” he amended, looking at the other two in turn, and seeing them shy away at his gaze. He could feel their shame at having doubted a mare that they’d all come to respect and trust so much.

“She knows what she’s doing,” he reiterated, “and she’s not going to do wrong by us, okay?” the other three nodded.

Slipshod spent a few seconds confirming that the majority of the apprehension that they three bridge ponies had been cultivating prior to his arrival had indeed been dissipated before nodding and making his way over to Doppler at her sensor station, “Doppler, hey, I was wondering if I could ask you to do something for me? Well,” the earth pony quickly corrected a second later, “more of a favor for Val, really.”

The periwinkle pegasus regarded him expectantly, “um, sure, I guess. What’s up?”

“Channel Lock’s going to be working with Cookie to organize a memorial service. Nothing big. Just drinks in the mess, I bet. She’s looking for volunteers to say a few words for the ponies we lost today. I was hoping that you’d be up for speaking about Valkyrie?”

The mare cocked her head to the side in clear confusion, “me? I mean...I guess I could, but…” she frowned, rubbing the back of her head, “I’d kind of feel real weird about it,” she admitted, “we barely said two words to each other since I came on board.”

Now it was Slipshod’s turn to look a little abashed, “oh, really? I’m sorry. I assumed that since you both worked this station that you’d...hung out I guess.”

“Not really,” she said, shaking her head, “she gave me an orientation on the tweaks she’d made to the ship’s sensors and then we only ever saw each other for the thirty seconds or so we tagged out shifts on the bridge,” the unicorn looked up at the ‘Steed pilot, “is there a reason you can’t go to the service? I’m sure Squelch’d let you get out of whatever she has you doing if you asked her.

“I think it’d be good for you to go,” she went on, reaching out with a hoof and placing it on his shoulder, “we all know how close you and Val were,” she flashed the stallion a wan smile, “if anypony on this ship is qualified to speak for her, it’s you.”

Slipshod wasn’t sure what surprised him more: the very genuine empathy wafting over to him from the unicorn, or the fact that he could feel how strongly the other two ponies on the bridge agreed with her. He was the best qualified to speak for Val? That couldn’t be right.

“Yeah...I’ll, uh...ask Squelch about it,” he managed to get out as the swirling mass of confusing emotions began to form a little tempest within him. How was it possible that he’d become the closest thing that that poor pegasus had to a genuine friend on this ship? There was no way that could be the case.

He turned to take his leave from the bridge, pausing at the door, “just, uh, remember: not a word to anypony about us being ComSpark spies infiltrating the Disciples,” he said absently before leaving. They assured him that they’d keep the secret.

Once more back out in the Galloway’s corridors, the stallion paused for a moment as he actually processed what he’d just said.

They’d really bought that story? It wasn’t even his best work…

It was barely even passable work, in his personal opinion.

He shook his head and resumed trotting away from the bridge, “and Twilight wonders how Chrysalis had it so easy convincing ponies that changelings aren’t a thing…” he muttered under his breath.

Four ponies down, another several dozen to go, Slipshod thought dourly. He’d known this was going to be a long and drawn out endeavor from the get-go, but that still didn’t make him appreciate the scale of it any less. That brief surge of compassion from Doppler had served as a refreshing little snack at least. Not that he was quite in danger of starving to death any time soon. He was certainly well on track to have a suitable little clique of ponies cheered up and content by tomorrow. So that was one less concern.

The bigger one was by far the still as-yet-unknown identity of the changeling agent on the ship. He’d floated the idea that Chrysalis had learned of Twilight’s presence through other means, but he knew that was likely not the case. His conversation with the ComSpark ‘Steed pilot on the planet had confirmed that there was genuinely an informant on the Galloway.

He was also convinced that they’d be doing exactly what he was: visiting crewmembers and raising their spirits. So, if he came across any ponies who looked like they’d already been cheered up, he might be able to get a lead on who’d come to them, and build his list of suspects.

They might even make an appearance at the memorial service. It was a prime opportunity to help a large segment of the crew work through their grief. The agent would either be working the crowd, or perhaps even be one of the ponies giving a speech. He’d have to keep an eye out.

Which would be a lot easier for him to do if he wasn’t also one of the eulogizers.

He needed to find a pony to speak for Valkyrie, but he was fast running out of possible candidates. Didn’t that damn pegasus hang out with anypony on this ship?! It sure wasn’t helping that every time he came up with a candidate, they went ahead and pointed their hooves right back at him! Now he was fast running out of leads, and could think of even fewer avenues of tracking down additional ones.

Specifically: asking Squelch to look at Val’s personnel file.

The company’s owner had made it pointedly clear that he wasn’t her favorite pony on this ship, and that encountering each other today would prove very dangerous to his health. However, he wasn’t seeing a lot of other options. Besides, she’d just been being hyperbolic about spacing him.


The earth pony stallion smelled Squelch before he saw her. Or, at least, he smelled what he hoped to Celestia the green unicorn wasn’t honestly drinking. Much to Slipshod’s horror when he stepped into the galley, he saw his employer slumped over a table, her hoof wrapped around a half empty bottle of...something. More than a little alarmed, he ran up to the mare and placed his hoof gently over her neck. She had a pulse, and was breathing; so it hadn’t killed her. Quite.

He picked up the bottle and examined the sickly yellow contents, making the fatefully unwise decision to sniff at the opening. He gagged instantly and extended the offending container as far from him as his leg would allow as he dry heaved, “sweet merciful Celestia!” he gasped, “what is this stuff? Cookie, what the fuck?!

“You actually drink this shit?” he asked the donkey chef in disbelief.

The jack was leaning lazily over the counter by the kitchen, watching the stallion’s display with his typically detached expression. He slowly shook his head, “tartarus no,” he motioned behind him with a hoof, “I use it to degrease the stove. Best shit for it. Look at that sucker: you can see yourself in it!”

Much to Slipshod’s chagrin, the donkey was not exaggerating: the stove looked absolutely pristine, despite its age and frequent use, “then why’d you let her drink it?”

Cookie shrugged, “she asked.”

“She asked you to let her drink oven cleaner?!”

“Cleaner? Boy, that there’s Jetsam’s Malroot. Minotaur booze,” the ship’s cook informed him, “I just use it as cleaner.”

Slipshod wasn’t sure if that was actually a meaningful distinction, but decided that getting into an argument over semantics wasn’t something that he wanted to do right now. Instead, he simply placed the container of―alleged―alcohol as far away from him and Squelch as he could get it, and looked to tending the unicorn mare. The rest of the crew certainly didn’t need to see their boss in this kind of state, “I’m going to get her back to her room,” he informed the donkey.

The sage unicorn stirred at his touch as he sought to scoop her up onto his back, opening one of her bleary, bloodshot, blue eyes. She groaned, closing it again, “...said’I’d kill’u…” she slurred. Maybe it was the booze, but she didn’t sound like her heart was really in the threat. She wasn’t putting out any particularly hostile feelings either. Granted it was hard to really pin down any of what she was feeling through her drunken stupor. In any case, she was hardly in a condition to make good on any threats that she might make.

“How about we get you to bed first?” he suggested. The unicorn offered an unintelligible grunt in response.

“You coming back for Channel Lock’s little service?” the chef asked before Slipshod was quite out the door.

He hesitated midstep, looking back over at the jack, briefly confused as to how Cookie had known. Then he realized that Channel Lock would of course have reached out to coordinate her impromptu service with the galley’s overseer as soon as possible, “yeah,” he responded, “I’ll be there.”

“Good,” he nodded, “I’ve got a bottle of Apploosa Estate set aside for you to use to toast Valkyrie after you’ve said your piece on her. Picked it up fresh for her on New Aris. She’s the only pony on the ship that drinks that brand,” the mule frowned as he corrected himself, “she was anyway. Not sure what I’ll do with the rest of it.”

“I’ll take it,” the words were out of the earth pony’s mouth before he’d quite been conscious of uttering them. He wasn’t quite sure what had possessed him to make the offer. He recalled the pegasus mare’s penchant for toasting successful missions using the niche rum, and knew that it was nowhere near the heavy favorite among the crew the way that spirits like Wild Pegasus, Prince Morgan, and Bonnie Trotter were. Without Valkyrie around, that bottle would likely go unused until some new addition to the crew came along someday who shared the pilot’s tastes.

Yet...that thought rubbed the stallion the wrong way for some reason. The bottle in question had been bought explicitly for Val. Nopony else should be allowed to drink it if they hadn’t even known the mare.

“After the memorial,” Slipshod said, “I’ll take it.”

“I’ll have it ready for you,” Cookie assured him.

The golden ‘Steed pilot shifted his burden to make sure the unicorn didn’t manage to slip off his back in her limp state, and left the galley. It wasn’t until he’d made it several steps down the corridor that he’d realized he hadn’t refuted the jack’s assumption that he’d be eulogizing Valkyrie at the group service. He let out a resigned sigh and shook his head. He probably did need to give up on what was clearly turning out to be a futile effort and submit to the collective will of the ship’s crew.

If everypony thought that he was the best choice, then who was he to argue?

Not that it made things much better. All it did was replace one problem with another. He no longer needed to trouble himself with tracking down a pony that had known Valkyrie well, sure; but now he was confronted with the prospect of having to draft a fitting speech in...five hours? Maybe a little less―

His personal pad beeped at him, the tone announcing that he’d just received a message. The stallion lifted his leg to peer at the screen. It was a calendar update. One that had been pushed out to the entire crew, inviting any who were interested to attend the memorial service that Channel Lock was organizing. It was scheduled for three hours from now.


Three hours to put together a speech that made it sound like he’d know his fellow ‘Steed pilot inside and out. Obviously, it wasn’t as though it had to be anything exemplary. None of the other ponies who were going to be offering any words for the other crew members who died had been given more time to fashion their speeches than he was. He’d likely just have to fill a minute or two. The length of the speech wasn’t the issue though.

It was the substance. Especially after finding out that everypony on the Galloway had thought of him and Valkyrie as close friends, he’d clearly be expected to offer at least something that made it sound like that had been the case. Just a few vague platitudes that could have made it sound like he was talking about anypony weren’t going to suffice. He’d be expected to talk about her like she’d been special to him.

Slipshod grimaced. It’d been a while since he’d had to put on an act like that. Even his planetside daliences hadn’t needed him to come off as genuinely emotionally invested in their interactions. Just like him, they’d been interested in finding somepony to share a good time with, not a long time.

In fact, the last time he’d had to put on that kind of an act with anypony had been…

The stallion turned his head to regard the listless unicorn on his back. Squelch could testify to his abilities to affect a facade of emotional attachment and investment better than just about anypony else who knew him. He’d had her convinced in short order that he genuinely loved her. Enough so that she had agreed to marry him in less than four months, as Twilight had noted.

A trivial task, really, when one considered that he could read in real time how the unicorn had been feeling about everything that he said and did. As a result, he’d always managed to say exactly the ‘right’ thing to her. His every action towards her struck the proper cord, making the mare believe that the two of them shared a deep connection that signaled something special. The sex had been amazing too, as it had felt―to her―as though the two of them responded instantly to one another’s desires.

And every moment of it had been a ploy.

Admittedly, an ultimately ill-thought out one. That had been his mistake though. One that he’d corrected as quickly as he could, once he’d realized that he’d made it.

Though, despite his changeling senses making him particularly adept at manipulating his way into a creature’s good graces by playing off of their emotions, that would still leave one middling little snarl when it came to delivering his speech: Valkyrie wouldn't be there for him to play off of. He couldn’t sense the emotions of a dead pony. Especially one whose corpse was still on a frozen wasteland of a plant tens of millions of kilometers away and getting more distant by the second.

Playing off the audience would be risky. Too many different ponies with differing expectations. He’d end up being all over the place if he tried to appeal to the crowd’s communal senses. Especially when it seemed like so few of them had known Valkyrie on any sort of meaningful level beyond: Parasprite pilot. He’d somehow need to come up with genuine feelings to draw on.

Which was profoundly difficult for a changeling to do.

His ear flicked behind him as he heard somepony talking softly, “...show me d’way t’go home,” Squelch was chanting in a somewhat sing-songy voice. Her right forehoof was waggling lightly in time with the―groosly off―beat of her words. Mostly, “‘m tired’n’I wanna go t’bed. Had m’self a’drin’ bout’n’hour ago, an’it wen’ staigh’ t’my head!”

Slipshod turned his head away from the mare, wafting away at the air in front of him as his features creased with disgust, “went straight to your breath too, sheesh! And it was a lot less than an hour ago,” he pointed out to the inebriated mare, whose response was to mekely swat at his head with a hoof that seemed quite unwilling to comply completely with its owner’s instructions.

She stubbornly continued on with her singing, though she did raise the volume a bit, “where’e’er I m’roam, in space’n’sea’n’foam, y’can always hear me, sin’in’ my song: show me th’way t’my home!”

“By your command, Commander,” the earth pony chuckled as he brought them to the door leading into her quarters, “and here we are!”

He shimmied up to the keypad nearby so that Squelch could submit her personal code to get in. The sage unicorn turned her head and squinted at the panel in irritation. Likely because it was making less sense to her now than it typically did, and she was of a mind to ascribe malicious agency to the door on that count. After limply fat-hoofing a few buttons, she let out an annoyed grunt and turned away from the uncooperative keypad.

“Y’do it.”

“I don’t know your code, Squelch,” he reminded her gently, unable to keep himself from smirking a little.

“S’day you cheated,” she mumbled. Adding a half-hearted, “y’bastard,” a breath later.

The earth pony frowned at the revelation but diligently typed in the date without remark.

The door obediently slipped open with a welcoming chime and the stallion stepped inside. He gingerly sidled up next to her bed and carefully eased the quasi-fluidic unicorn onto the mattress. It was frankly always fascinating to him how amorphous ponies became when they were drunk enough. It was like the alcohol content of their blood had a direct correlation with the rigidity of their bones.

He tugged at the sheets, draping them over the prostrate mare, who shifted and snuggled with a contented sigh as she was deftly tucked in. Then the earth pony dragged over the waste bin and placed it near the head of her bed ‘just in case’. He stepped into her cabin’s attached latrine―which was notably bigger than the one that he had in his quarters―and retrieved a glass of water and a bottle of aspirin, placing them on the nightstand nearby.

“There you go,” Slipshod announced, looking around her cabin to see what additional precautions he should consider taking where her impending hangover was concerned. He glanced up and then reached over to dim the lights to a level that was unlikely to split her head open from the inside when they came on again later, “all ready to wake up regretting the day you learned alcohol existed!”

Squelch groaned in response and rolled in her bed to face away from him, pulling the covers tightly around her. She mumbled something that he could quite make out, and honestly doubted would have made much sense if he’d been able to hear it anyway, “I’ll take that as a ‘thank you’,” he said, heading for the door, “get some rest. I’ll handle things until you’re feeling better―”

The stallion stopped short at the door, as something had his tail rather firmly rooted in place. He looked back over his shoulder to see tendrils of cyan magic gripping him from behind, “...stay.”

Slipshod sighed, a wry smile winding its way across his lips as he nodded and turned around. Her magic faded away and the stallion daintily crawled up into the bed next to her, doing his best not to disturb the drunken unicorn. Her body squirmed and shifted until her back was pressed up firmly against him. The earth pony crossed his hooves, and craned his neck, laying his head down over the unicorn’s shoulder, looking down at her face.

Drunk though she may be, he features right now looked anything but relaxed or carefree. He reached out with his empathic senses and very quickly found the worry bubbling up within her, fighting its way to clarity through the alcohol, “m’scared.”

He frowned, feeling sympathetic for the mare. She was casting aside the life she knew―her entire world-view, in fact―on the say-so of a mare that she’d known for only a couple of months. It wasn’t even just her own future that was at stake either. She was risking her entire crew, nearly all of whom didn’t know anything about what was happening. Sometimes, operational security meant that she couldn’t tell everypony everything that was happening. That was the nature of the beast. But there was keeping a few mission details a secret, and then there was...whatever this was. The two honestly couldn’t be reasonably compared.

The reality of the Steel Coursers’ situation would come out eventually. Then what? What would the crew do? How would they react? What vengeance would they exact on Squelch for leading them down this path and putting all of their collective futures on the line like this? She could try to put the blame of him or Twilight, sure; but ultimately she’d been the one to make the decisions. She was the commander and owner of the company. The C-bit stopped with her.

She was right to be worried.

“I know,” he said softly.

It wasn’t much, he knew. Honestly, he didn’t have all that much else to offer. His ambitions lay far outside the considerations of a single ship’s worth of ponies. A battle to topple Chrysalis would certainly result in thousands, hundreds of thousands, maybe even tens of millions of deaths. Perhaps several billion or more, in the fullness of time.

What did one DropShip with a crew of less than a hundred matter when numbers like that were involved? What became of these ponies after he and Twilight were delivered into the hooves of the Disciples of Discord honestly didn’t matter. Not in the long run. Besides, everypony on this ship was a mercenary, why should they care who and why and where they were fighting for? The Hippogriff Combine, the Pony Commonwealth, the Federated Moons, the Our Worlds League, the Kirin Confederation, ComSpark, the Disciples―they all wanted to fight somecresture, and they all payed those who fought in one manner or another.

These ponies took on contracts from nearly any organization against any other. So it wasn’t as though they had any particularly strong allegiances towards any group in the Harmony Sphere. Would there really be that strong of an outcry about throwing in with the Disciples, as long as they were extended the promise of continued pay? Granted, the Disciples presumably didn’t pay in C-bits―for obvious reasons―but money was money, no matter the denomination it came in.

Besides, Slipshod was confident that he could come up with a plausible enough lie that would satisfy the crew, if it really came to it. The bridge crew had seemed eager enough to believe that this was all part of some elaborate ComSpark plot to infiltrate the Disciples. Once Squelch sobered up, he should be able to get her to pass that off as the ‘official’ purpose behind them doing all of this.

It certainly would explain why she’d been so mum about the details until they’d docked with whatever Disciple ship was out here: the crew had to be kept in the dark to avoid possible leaks to the Commonwealth until they were out of the Harmony Sphere.

The best part was: it was the sort of story that would hold up over the long term too. It could legitimately take years to get whatever information they decided they needed to get for ComSpark. So, reasonably, most of the crew shouldn’t get too suspicious if it was a while before they made their way back to the Sphere. There might be some grumbling about exceeding their previously agreed upon contracts, but Squelch could just extend them, citing ComSpark as the reason for the extenuating circumstances. Even those grumblings shouldn’t be anything a little bump in pay, or maybe some bonuses to make up for the inconvenience, couldn’t solve.

“It’ll work out,” he assured the unicorn, “you’ll see.”

The mare didn’t respond. She just closed her eyes. Slipshod remained in the bed with her for another ten minutes, until he was certain that she was genuinely asleep. Once her breathing had settled into the familiar soft snores that he remembered from their nights together, he carefully extracted himself from her bed and slipped out of the room; making sure to set up a ‘Do Not Disturb’ warning on the doorside panel.

Well, that was one minor crisis dealt with, he supposed. All that was left was to come up with what he was going to say in remembrance of Valkyrie…

Channel Lock did good work, Slipshod concluded, as he stepped into the ship’s galley three hours later. Something of an altar of sorts had been assembled on one side of the mess, hosting five holo-busts of the crewmares who’d died that day. A few already had little collections of offerings and tokens gathered around them, presumably left by ponies who’d known them. Slipshod inwardly cringed as he realized that he hadn’t brought anything specifically to leave as a tribute. As Valkyrie’s foremost ‘friend’ among the crew, he was probably expected to have done something like that.

Thinking quickly, the earth pony stepped up to the table with the holo-busts and very somberly removed a pin of a stylized robotic pony head and crossed lances from his duty uniform and placed it by Valkyrie’s image. He’d be able to get another of the company’s BattleSteed Pilot designators easily enough later. It wasn’t like anypony was going to jump him for being ‘out of uniform’ anyway.

He noted a couple of nearby ponies regarding his actions with approval. His respects properly paid, the stallion began making his way around the room, taking stock of who was in attendance and what they were doing. This was one of the most likely locations that he was going to find the other changeling, after all. Somepony here was going to be far more actively pepping the others up, he just had to figure out who―

“You made it!” a strawberry unicorn mare’s face popped up into his field of view, a glass of white wine floating in her magic. She pressed the fermented beverage to the earth pony’s chest, smiling at him, “I was honestly getting a little worried,” she admitted, biting her lip nervously for a moment before her expression brightened again, “but now we have everypony who was going to speak.

“There’s not any real order that I had planned, but I’m wondering if you wouldn’t mind going first?”

“Uh, yeah, sure,” that was probably for the best, Slipshod decided. He’d be able to focus on the crowd without having to worry about when his turn was coming up. He took the offered drink in the crook of his hoof and redirected himself back towards the memorial altar. As though the ponies in the galley somehow were able to recognize the difference between a pony going up to offer a token, and one preparing to give a speech, Slipshod felt a hush slowly descend over the room.

He turned around to find that every other face in the room was looking in his direction, expectantly. All idle chatter had ceased, as they waited for the impromptu ceremony to get underway. The earth pony stallion suppressed a grimace, as he realized that while going first offered him an opportunity to conduct his audit of the attendees unmolested, it also meant that he’d be setting the standard for what was expected of the eulogizers. He hoped that what he’d managed to come up with passed muster.

It wasn’t as though he’d done a lot of these in the two years since leaving Equus.

Slipshod cleared his throat, glancing briefly at the monochrome image of a smirking pegasus mare with a short-cropped mane. He took a preparatory breath and looked back at the crowd, “us ‘Steed pilots, we go into this job with it always in the back of our minds that every mission could be our last. This job has risks. We know that, and we accept it,” a few ponies were sagely nodding their heads in agreement. He seemed to be on the right track, at least, “and for mercs, the job’s not about ‘duty’, or ‘honor’, or some noble higher calling,” he favored the crowd with a wry smirk, “it starts out being about the almighty C-bit.

“We live hard, on the chance that we’ll be able to retire young. Looking for the next big payday, and hoping that we don’t meet that HE shell with our name on it before we find it,” a few scattered chuckles, though there was certainly a bittersweet tinge to the mirth, “that’s how it starts anyway. You focus on yourself, think about your own bank balance, and get along with your life one day at a time.

“Then, one day you sign up with a crew that motivates you to fight for more than your own bottom line. You start going that extra kilometer. You put in that extra effort, because the ponies around you matter to you. Maybe even more than C-bits,” Slipshod grinned, “maybe,” some audible laughter this time. He was sensing a general upward trend in the atmosphere though. It was going well.

“That was Val,” Slipshod went on, “this ship mattered to her―this crew mattered. She put in that extra effort, tweaking the Galloway’s sensors until they were so finely tuned that they could detect a pony farting in their vac-suit on the other side of the solar system,” another chorus of gentle chuckles, along with a nod of agreement from a periwinkle pegasus mare who’d managed to steal herself away to the memorial despite still technically being on shift on the bridge.

“She was my eyes and ears on the ground, keeping my dumb, blind, flank out of trouble on every op. I can’t count how many times I’d have been killed if it wasn’t for her,” marginally true, if a little embellished, “this op was no different. She spotted that ambush before they could spring their trap,” that much was certainly true, “she’s why Purple Rose and I made it out, and she’s the reason that we completed the op,” he allowed his tone to become more somber now, as he headed into the bitter ending of his speech.

“She exposed herself to enemy fire in order to get a target lock that would have been impossible for any other pilot. Because completing the op was how this crew’d get paid. And this crew mattered to her. Mattered more than C-bits. Mattered more than her own safety.”

Correctly sensing that he was coming to a close, Cookie stepped out from the galley’s kitchen, balancing a tray on his back containing a bottle of Apploosa Estates and two full shot glasses. He slipped them onto the altar, where Slipshod put down his wine, picked up one of the shots, and faced Valkyrie’s image.

“Well, you mattered to us too, Val,” he stiffly touched his shot to the one by the pegasus mare’s image and then tossed it back. He suppressed a sour expression at the bitter brew. He could see why nopony else on the ship seemed to care for it. He honestly wasn’t a fan either. He placed the now empty glass back on the table, “and you’ll be missed.”

Slipshod picked up his wine glass and turned back to the crowd once more, who were now mutedly stomping their hooves in a reserved applause, most just finishing mirroring their own toasts to the dead ‘Steed pilot. It looked―and also felt―like the rest of the crew approved of the speech and the perceived sentiment behind it. Mission accomplished, it seemed.

Channel Lock stepped up to the stallion and embraced him in a tight hug, “that was lovely, Slip; thank you,” she pulled back a little, looking up at him, “are you okay?”

“I’ll manage,” the earth pony assured her with a somber smile. He leaned in and gave the Maresaille native a polite peck on each cheek before parting company with her to take up an unobtrusive spot near the back of the room where he could get a view of everypony else in the room. A few other ponies extended their own condolences and words of appreciation for his speech along the way, to which Slipshod respectfully responded to each in kind, a smile plastered on his muzzle.

“Blood Chit? If you’ll do the honors?” the unicorn technician hosting the event beckoned.

The stallion in charge of the Steel Coursers’ recovery teams stepped up to the front of the room, taking up a position next to the image of the unicorn mare who’d been killed on Twilight’s ‘Steed. He took a deep breath, “Lifeline was a good mare…”

The earth pony quickly tuned out the rest of the speeches. They weren’t why he was here anyway. His attention went exclusively to the crowd, and the ponies within it. The other changeling had to be here, just like he was, and for the same reasons. They’d be working the crowd, soothing emotions and raising spirits. More so than other ponies. They’d be moving from clique to clique, not limiting themselves to what would otherwise be considered their ‘circle of friends’.

That tended to be unusual in an organization like this. ‘Steed mechanics hung out with ‘Steed mechanics. Engineers hung out with engineers. Electronics techs hung out with electronics techs. It wasn’t a ‘rule’, per se. It was just how things tended to work out: ponies formed bonds with those they spent a lot of time with, and they spent most of their time with other ponies on their shifts. There were social butterflies on every ship, of course, and those were the ponies he needed to find and vet, because it was one of those ponies who was Chrysalis’ agent.

So he watched, and he waited. He made careful observations about which ponies were mingling with which groups, and whether or not they were migrating towards ponies from divisions of the ship that they’d have little expectation to encounter during their normal duties. Having once had a direct hoof in helping Squelch manage the outfit, Slipshod had a general idea of who worked where for the most part. He didn’t know everypony on the ship in serious detail, as there was always some turnover every few months, but he could look up records later using his old access codes if he really needed to.

Over the course of the rest of the service, he managed to compile a list of a few suspects that bore serious investigation. Three ponies in total:

A unicorn stallion who worked down in engineering, Arc Light, who was being a little more chummy with Rigger Brush and her team than he had any professional right to be. He’d been brought onboard six months ago, and Slipshod hadn’t had much cause to interact with him on a regular basis. He resolved to make an effort now though.

Then there was Dustoff, a pegasus mare assigned to Blood Chit’s team, who hadn’t spent hardly any time at all with those that had come to mourn Lifeline before meandering over to Channel Lock’s group of ‘Steed Bay mechanics, and then on to the ponies from the gunnery crews. That was an unusually wide social net to have cast, to be sure. It was definitely worth finding out what connections could possibly exist there.

Lastly, there was Wing Nut. Who...honestly was standing out by virtue of not standing out. They were one of the two vehicle mechanics who worked with Axel Rod in the Galloway’s garage. Slipshod was having a difficult time trying to place why the earth pony mare was even up here in the first place. They weren’t mingling with any of the other groups, and hadn’t seemed particularly invested in any specific eulogy. They were just kind of...there.

Not so very unlike what he was doing right now, honestly.

Slipshot narrowed his gaze at the mechanic, wondering if he might have actually managed to track down the most likely candidate to be a changeling spy. Not that there was any great hurry to nail down who it was just yet. He still had some time before action needed to be taken. The Disciple signal that they were heading to was almost certainly a Jump Ship. Why else be located at a Lagrange point? There was also no way that this system was only a single jump out from whatever planet they had their base on. Which meant that there’d be weeks of transit time ahead of them.

Plenty of time to thoroughly investigate all three of his suspects and present his conclusion to Twilight.

At which point they could then decide on how they wanted to handle things. Whether that meant disposing of said changeling quietly, or setting things up for the Disciples to find them out and try to capture the agent for interrogation. Slipshod knew for a fact that would be a useless endeavor, but there was no reason he could think that the Disciples would be aware of it.

The earth pony glanced at the time on his personal pad. It was nearing the time for their rendezvous with the Disciples. He slipped out of the galley and headed for the bridge. Squelch having drunk herself into unconsciousness was perhaps for the best. It meant that Slipshod could take charge of the situation and ensure that things went in the direction that he needed them to. Though he did need one other pony present with him.

“Flechette?” he spoke into his transmitter after keying in the desired recipient, “have Purple Rose brought to the bridge please.”

Yes, sir.”

Slipshod closed the channel.

Time to join ‘The Resistance’, he thought with a smirk.

Chapter 13: Malicious Intent

View Online

“Clearing the super jovian now,” Aileron announced for the benefit of the ponies on the bridge, most of whom were peering out the forward-facing viewport at the massive beige-hued gas giant that seemed to take up a full half of the visible area around the ship. Slipshod surmised that, had the planet been just a bit bigger, it might very well have collapsed into a second star and rendered this into a binary system. As it was, the gaseous world merely presented itself as an ideal spot to hide a ship from view from the inner system.

To say nothing of providing for some very generous-sized gravitationally null locations that a Jump Ship could use without the need to loiter for all to see at a system’s typically utilized distant zenith and nadir points of entry, which allowed for substantial margins of error, and were much easier to plot. ‘Pirate’ jump points, like the one that was likely used by the Disciple ship, were quite dangerous. Not only were they much smaller, and thus much harder to ‘hit’, they were also much more mobile, making them exceedingly difficult to plot.

This was especially true for systems like PEA-02-UX, which saw effectively zero regular traffic, and thus no routinely updated stellar navigation data was available for an astrogator to use to plot the jump. Granted, even in those systems which saw a lot of thru traffic, these sorts of inner system jump points were almost never used. The risk simply wasn’t worth the measly few days that one saved in sunlight transit time.

Honestly, the only time using risky points of entry and exit like this made any sense was for cases exactly like this one: where a Jump Ship being operated by an outlaw outfit wanted to get in and out without reputable forces knowing anything about it.

Not that it made it any less risky. These Disciples were either needlessly reckless, exceptionally skilled, or very desperate.

Slipshod suspected that it was the latter.

“Getting a contact on sensors,” Doppler said, leaning over her station’s displays as she endeavored to make a determination of what she was seeing, “it’s big,” there had been little doubt that it would be, “getting lidar returns on a cross-section...computer’s made an ID. It’s a―” the mare broke off unexpectedly, looking back at the other ponies on the bridge, her jaw agape, “...it’s coming back as a WarShip! Manticore-class!”

More than a few sets of eyes went towards the viewport, despite the millions kilometers still between them and the Disciple craft meaning that physically seeing the WarShip wasn’t actually possible. Slipshod quickly crossed the bridge to join Doppler at her station and look at the display screen himself. It wasn’t that he actually doubted the mare’s ability to relay the ship’s determination accurately, it was simply that he hadn’t quite been prepared to learn what had been waiting for them here.

He’d assumed it would simply be a Jump Ship. Never would he have believed that the Disciples would tip their hand quite this early on.

“What the fuck are the Disciples doing with a WarShip?!” Aileron sputtered in disbelief. His consternation was hardly a unique reaction. Even the guardsmare assigned to escort Twilight was gaping out the window in response. Slipshod could understand why it was a sentiment mirrored by the other ponies on the bridge. Save for Twilight, of course.

The Disciples of Discord were a galactic ‘joke’, after all. A ragtag band of crazy fanatical cultists who appeared seemingly at random to terrorize underdeveloped systems and wreak a little havoc. It usually didn’t take a lot to drive them off, as they never appeared with so much as a Breezy in attendance. Just some lighter combat vehicles. The perfectly rational conclusion to draw was that the group had very limited funding, and paltry few sources from which to draw their equipment. Which made sense, seeing as how nopony of any repute in the Harmony Sphere would knowingly deal with them to sell ‘Steeds or heavier vehicles to them.

That was the ‘official’ rationale, of course.

The reality was that the Disciples never bothered to bring any of their substantial firepower with them. After all, if they appeared to be a genuine threat, then Chrysalis would pay them actual attention and dedicate the resources necessary to finding their bases and rooting them out. The Disciples were doubtlessly better equiped than anypony could conceive of, but Slipshod doubted that they were genuinely capable of staving off the dedicated might of Chrysalis’ Equus-based forces if she was inclined to bring them to bear.

However, so long as they continued to operate like they were little pissant raiders, she’d keep those forces at home, where they could keep her safe. Any given planet’s local militia or―at most―a light mercenary lance were usually more than enough to drive the Disciples out of wherever they popped up.

It wasn’t like it took a lot of firepower to blow up lightly defended secret hyperpulse generators anyway. Why bring a lance of Big Macs, when a half dozen harriers could do the job?

They had Big Macs though―or at least ‘Steeds just as powerful. Slipshod had always suspected as much, given the nature of their origin as refugees from the defunct Celestia League. Twilight’s revelation that the Disciples’ emblem was that of an old Celestia League military regiment cemented those suspicions. Even on Equus, the records were spotty as to how much equipment had been smuggled out of the system by the defecting CLDF commanders. Likely by design, the earth pony assumed. They’d certainly taken plenty of jump-capable ships. Of that much there’d been no doubt. It only made sense that those Jump Ships would have been loaded down with all the ‘Steeds they could get their hooves on.

It seemed that they’d made off with quite a few WarShips too.

“Well, we were sent to find proof that they were getting Commonwealth support,” Slipshod offered in response, turning his head to smirk at the pilot. He ignored the confused look on Twilight’s face. He’d not yet had a chance to fill her in on the cover story that he’d come up with for the bridge crew. Hopefully she was perceptive enough to play along.

“‘Support’?! A Manticore-class WarShip isn’t ‘support’!” the other stallion retorted, gesturing wildly at the viewport with his wing in exasperation, “where did the Disciples even get one?!”

That was a fair question, Slipshod supposed, as even the major powers in the Harmony Sphere didn’t possess such vessels. At least, not anymore. Those which weren’t currently being hoarded in the Faust System, or hadn’t fled with the defectors, had been whittled away during the centuries of fighting that followed the League’s dissolution. Losses had tended to go unreplaced, not that the initially catastrophic levels of infrastructure destruction commonly seen prior to the adoptions of the Aris Conventions had left many intact shipyards capable of building such ships. By the end of the first decade of fighting, it was functionally impossible to build anything much bigger than a Princess-class DropShip.

Not that the extinction of WarShips was something which the major governments of the galaxy lamented. Not really. WarShips were expensive to build and, frankly, not cost effective for perpetuating the ongoing ‘proxy wars’ between the major powers and their in-house mercenary companies that were the current norm where modern conflict was concerned.

WarShips were designed to wreak vast devastation upon an enemy force, and that was no longer the goal of most battles these days. The Harmony Sphere was plagued by scarcities of every kind, to include the very warfighting materials and weapons needed to continue waging their ongoing conflicts. Thus, the goal of most fights was to defeat an enemy while placing the victor in a position to recover as much salvageable material as possible, so that it could be refurbished and pressed back into service against the enemy from which it had been plundered. The devastating weapons of a craft like a Manticore-class battleship were ill-suited for such operations; and so, there had been little purpose behind maintaining them any longer.

There might be some smaller non-DropShip capital vessels among the navies of the Great Houses or their vassals―the odd frigate or destroyer-sized ship mostly. Craft which were treated more like well-armed pleasure yachts than true combat vessels. They honestly rarely left the capital system of their owners, lest they be destroyed in a fight and the prestige associated with possessing one lost forever. In any case, no creature―save for Queen Chrysalis herself―laid claim to any vessel nearly as large as the two million ton bona fide ship-of-war that was pinging their scopes at this very moment.

At least, no creature in the Sphere.

“Our mission is to find out,” the earth pony reminded the ship’s pilot pointedly, sounding as though he wasn’t nearly as phased as the other ponies on the bridge. Again, aside from the alicorn. Which only served to reinforce the notion that the two of them were ‘in’ on more details of the alleged ComSpark plan than the rest of the crew. In that regard, it was perhaps doubly best that Squelch wasn’t present for this. She could remain cool under pressure most times, but if their last meeting was any indication, the mare did seem to have her limits; and these last few months had pushed hers right up to the breaking point.

There might even be some minor cracking, if he was being honest.

Slipshod looked back at High Gain, “have we received any additional signals from the Disciple vessel?”

The earth pony mare hesitated for a second or two, clearly still trying to process the enormity of the revelation that the presence of a WarShip precipitated. However, in short order she was looking back at her own console, “um, no, nothing from them ye―” her terminal beeped, “oh. Message coming in. Text only again,” she said, looking up at Slipshod with a bemused expression, “...addressed to ‘Princess Twilight Sparkle’.”

Aileron scowled, “‘Princess’? Is that supposed to be some weird sort of slight? Why even bother with a royal title at all?” then the stallion’s expression contorted even further as he processed the rest of what the mare had said, “why would they even be asking for the Queen anyway? They don’t honestly think she’s on the ship, do they―?”

Slipshod cut off the pilot, looking pointedly at the comms tech, “pass it through to Purple Rose,” he instructed, and then motioned for Twilight to seat herself at a nearby auxiliary bridge terminal. The alicorn nodded and made herself as comfortable at the station as her size would allow. The designers of the DropShip had obviously not taken alicorns into consideration when deciding on the ergonomics of the bridge’s various stations.

High Gain blinked in surprise, looking between him and the purple mare before merely shrugging and complying with the instructions that she had been given, “...transferring to Aux One.”

The earth pony stallion left the sensor station to make his way over to where Twilight had seated herself, peering around her to get a look at the message:


Slipshod frowned at the screen. His frown deepened when he noticed that Twilight seemed to be just as confused by the message as he was, “what does what say?” he decided to prompt anyway.

The alicorn merely shrugged, “I have absolutely no idea,” she admitted, “‘it’ could refer to so many things, that it’s impossible to know what ‘it’ they’re talking about. The Journal of the Two Sisters, The Elements of Harmony, The Tree of Harmony; I don’t have any context for this question,” the mare sounded clearly frustrated by the presentation of what seemed to be an unfairly vague riddle.

“Well, you may want to figure out some context,” Doppler called out nervously, her eyes glued to her display, “because I’m picking up some movement on that WarShip’s weapons mounts! I think they’re targeting us―” the bridge’s speaker system issues out a loud, and rather shrill, warning trill, indicating that the ship’s systems had registered a radar suite singling them out, “yep! They’re targeting us!”

Aileron bolted upright in his piloting couch like he’s just been struck by lightning. His hooves and wings instantly reached for the controls at his station, “starting evasive maneuvers!”

“Belay that!” Slipshod ordered, earning stunned expression from every other member of the bridge crew, “hold steady! They didn’t call us out here just to kill us,” maybe. He hoped, “they’re vetting us,” he nodded his head towards the alicorn currently pondering the nebulous question that they’d been sent by the Disciples.

“And we’re not going to pass,” the pegasus stallion pointed out, clearly more than a little on edge. Understandable, as they’re just been targeted by weapons that were capable of launching projectiles approximately the size of a ‘Steed at them. Even a glancing blow from one of those would effectively destroy the Galloway. The earth pony recalled the extent of the damage he’d seen while investigating the wreckage of the Strongheart-class DropShip that they’d found Twilight in. That hadn’t even been a ‘direct hit’ either, “we need to get out of here while we still can!”

“We’re not escaping a WarShip,” Slipshod stated bluntly. He’d be lying if he said he wasn’t feeling more than a little anxious himself, but the cold fact of the matter was that they were at the mercy of the Disciples. He’d assumed that they’d been given these coordinates because Twilight managed to pass their initial test. But, if that had been the case, then why ask another question now?

Then something occurred to the stallion. He looked over at High Gain, “you said this message was addressed to Twilight, right?” the mare nodded, “the one from before though, that one was addressed to Squelch?” another nod.

Slipshod massaged his chin in thought. They’d known that the Galloway was going to be here, and wanted to get its captain’s attention. So they’d addressed their first message to the unicorn owner. It had still been a question meant for Twilight though. Presumably, the alicorn had given them the correct answer to their question. Otherwise, why even send the coordinates to rendezvous with the WarShip?

So they now knew that Twilight was onboard. Which was why this message had been addressed to her specifically. That still didn’t explain why they were asking a question that she clearly didn’t know how to answer. Honestly, it puzzled the stallion as to why they were still sending messages in text form. Why not use audio, or even visual comms if they wanted to make sure she was really here? They had line-of-sight. Establishing a secure tight-beam video exchange that couldn’t be intercepted or overheard by the Highlanders would be foal’s play.

The answer came to him almost as soon as he’d finished forming the question: changelings.

The Disciples knew about changelings. Using sound or images risked passing on voices or likenesses that Chrysalis’ agents could then mimic, if they ever got hold of them. Text was just text. As long as they vetted the creature on the other end with targeted questions, they didn’t have to worry as much about being compromised by changeling spies.

Of course, that only worked as long as the recipient of the question understood the questions meant to vet them!

A flash of green light out of the corner of his eye drew Slipshod’s attention. For a brief moment, he felt himself panic, as the hue had been a nearly dead ringer for a changeling’s transformation. His brain whirled for a fraction of a second as he battled with the possibility that Twilight had been the changeling spy all along and that this had all been some sort of elaborate setup.

Fortunately, though the realization came too late to spare his now tachycardic heart, the light had not been produced by Twilight revealing her ‘true form’, but had instead been generated by a quaint―and very anachronistic―looking roll of parchment. It was even enclosed by an embossed red wax seal.

“Huh,” he said, blinking at the sight, and willing his pulse to slow so that it was no longer throbbing in his ears.

The alicorn’s horn glowed as she lifted the scroll off of the console in front of her and very deftly popped the wax seal. The ancient-looking vellum noisily unfurled. Upon it was written four words: Welcome back, Your Majesty.

Twilight glanced briefly over her shoulder at Slipshod, who was still utterly baffled at where the scroll had come from and how it was supposed to have gotten there in the first place. It had obviously been through magical means, yes, but the color and method were confounding him. It had been green fire. He’d seen it. But that was changeling magic...wasn’t it? The purple mare didn’t seem to be at all put off by that fact, however; and she should have been just as aware as he was...right?

...Was this all some weirdly convoluted plot to entrap him? Did that make any sort of rational sense?

Was there an irrational angle that he was discounting?

Heedless of the earth pony’s own internal turmoil, Twilight typed the words from the scroll into her terminal and glanced over at High Gain, “would you please relay this message?”

The comm tech bit her lip, looking apologetic, “um...I can’t,” she admitted, gesturing at her terminal, “I’m still locked out of the transmit functions. Per Squelch’s command override,” she swallowed now, recognizing the danger that they were in. The WarShip was awaiting their response to the question they’d posed―which they’d apparently sent to Twilight magically―and deadly consequences would befall the Galloway should they give the wrong response. Or likely no response as well. At least, after whatever the Disciple commander over on that ship decided was a suitable amount of time to wait for one.

Unfortunately for the Steel Coursers, they didn’t have much in the way of an articulable quantity of minutes that would constitute a ‘timely manner’. Which meant that they could have anywhere from ten seconds to an hour to transmit the answer to the question they’d been asked before they were blown out of space. However much time it turned out that they had to give their response, Slipshod surmised that it was best described as: ‘the rest of their lives’.

The earth pony looked back to the alicorn, “can you send it back the same way they sent it to you?”

Twilight frowned, “I could if I knew who I was supposed to be sending it to. This isn’t Spike’s clawwriting, so I don’t think teleporting the scroll to him will let the response get to that ship out there any time soon,” she admitted.

“Oh, we’re fucked,” Aileron snarled, once more reaching for the controls so that he could try and get them away from there.

However long they had to respond, Slipshod was quite confident that making any alterations to their course would constitute the ‘wrong’ answer, and only serve to get them all killed, “belay that!” he yelled, charging across the bridge and outright tackling the pegasus out of his seat before he could touch the controls. The pair tousled briefly before the earth pony jumped back up off of a shocked Aileron.

“Are you crazy?! We can’t respond; we’re locked out!” the feathered stallion was yelling at him in consternation.

Slipshod ignored the ship’s pilot and instead rushed over to High Gain’s terminal. He firmly―though not quite violently―bumped the startled mare out of the way, prompting a surprised yelp as she stumbled to the deck, “―the fuck!”

The golden earth pony paid her just as little mind as he quickly brought up the terminal’s override commands. He deftly tapped away at the console for several seconds, all the while aware of the stern glares that he was getting from the other members of the crew. However, he didn’t address any of them immediately. He had to save their lives first.

The comm station let out a pleasant little chime as it acknowledged the passcode that he’d entered, having received it from a drunken Squelch just a few hours ago. He then proceeded to forward Twilight’s message to the Disciple WarShip. The stallion earnestly looked over at a stunned Doppler, who was paying far more attention to the goings-on happening in the back of the bridge than she was her own station, “status of the Disciple ship?” he demanded sternly.

The blue unicorn blinked in surprise before spinning back around and looking at the reading on her computer, “...they’re lifting their lock,” she announced, deflating in her seat as the tension of imminent death left her body. Slipshod experienced a similar feeling of relief wash over him, helped greatly by everypony else’s agitation levels ratcheting back down.

High Gain was looking up at him with a confounded expression, “...you know Squelch’s codes?”

“She gave them to me so that we could respond,” he lied. Then he looked over to Aileron, who was still glaring at the earth pony even as he got back onto his own hooves, “sorry about that. We just have to play this cool, alright?” he looked around at the rest of the bridge crew, “look, I get that none of you exactly trained for this kind of mission, and so you’re all a little...twitchy. But you can’t just jump to conclusions and react, alright? Just stay calm, and wait for my orders, got it?

“I’ll get you guys through this.”

“You mean Squelch’s orders, right?”

High Gain’s question drew the earth pony’s attention, and he blinked at her a couple of times before recovering from the unexpected prompt. Slipshod briefly considered his options, but then decided that it was worth taking a risk, “no. I mean my orders,” he then went on to clarify when he saw the rebellious looks in the eyes of the comm tech. Understandable. She’d signed a contract to serve on Squelch’s ship, not his. She was also a new hire since he and Squelch had separated, and wasn’t aware of a time that they’d run the company jointly.

“Squelch owns and runs the outfit,” he explained, “but I’m the one with the experience needed to run this op. Like you just saw: sometimes the situation can evolve quickly, and we’re not going to have time to wait for Squelch to evaluate and vet every call I make on this thing,” he waved a hoof in the vague direction of the distant WarShip, “you just watched me handle making contact with the Disciples.

“I’ve got this; alright?”

The earth pony stallion looked around the bridge, holding the gaze of each of the other ponies present until he saw them nod in acknowledgement. He’d worry about selling Squelch on the mission hierarchy that he’d just imposed later, after she’d sobered up. Slipshod also noted that the glare Twilight was giving him suggested that he’d need to have a private conversation with her as well.

The comm console beeped, drawing his attention to it. He saw that the terminal was alerting him to an incoming series of text instructions from the WarShip. He stepped away from the station and offered a helping hoof to High Gain, “the Disciples are contacting us again. It looks like docking instructions,” he gestured towards a still fuming pegasus, “coordinate with Aileron and dock the ship. Follow any instructions you receive to the letter.

“We’re almost done with the hard part,” he assured them, flashing each a confident smirk, “let’s not go and get ourselves killed by doing something stupid.”

“You mean other than trying to bluff our way into the Disciples?” the comms tech countered. She jabbed a hoof at the purple alicorn as she continued to glare at Slipshod, “what exactly do you think they’re going to do to us when they find out she isn’t the real Queen?”

“Yeah,” Aileron piped up, “and why are they calling her a ‘princess’ anyway? What the fuck’s going on?”

Their questions were understandable and perhaps even warranted under the circumstances, but they were also damned inconvenient. Slipshod had been essentially pulling cover stories out of his flank all day, and was on the brink of backing himself into a corner. Assuming that he hadn’t already. He honestly couldn’t remember the last time he’d had to concoct this elaborate of a cover story.

Though, in fairness, he’d never tried to obfuscate a defection either.

In some respects, it would simplify things greatly if the crew were brought in on the scheme. However, he’d be doing so in the face of a lifetime spent ‘knowing’ that the Disciples of Discord were crazy equicidal terrorists. Undoing all of that conditioned learning would have taken a lot longer than the few hours of intrasystem travel that they’d just undertaken. It could very well take more than the few weeks of jump travel that lay ahead of them as the WarShip ferried them to...wherever it was they were headed to next.

The stallion inwardly grimaced at the realization that it would even be hard for him to rally the crew using Twilight as a figurehead. Squelch’s reaction to the purple mare’s true identity would more than likely be shared by the average pony on the ship: so what? In her assumed identity as ‘Queen Twilight’, Chrysalis had counter-intuitively receded from the image of the alicorn ‘ruler’ being a pseudo-deity. Her involvement in galactic affairs was negligible. To the point where most denizens of the harmony Sphere regarded her as a name, and little more.

Queen Twilight owned ComSpark and...that was essentially it. At least, as far as most were concerned. She certainly wasn’t the focus of abject devotion by the public.

Which meant that there was little reason that most of the ponies on the ship should care that Purple Rose was the real Twilight Sparkle. Certainly they wouldn’t care enough to effectively abandon the lives they’d once known.

And if she and Slipshod were to reveal the true nature of ‘Queen Twilight’, and the existence of a vast network of shapeshifting changelings that were controlling the Harmony Sphere…

Beyond the initial panic that would doubtlessly run through the ship, the stallion worried that even then there would be a lingering sense of apathy. After all, the galaxy had existed in this state for the better part of half a millenia, and everypony on the ship was living a decent life.

So where was the motivation to overturn the status quo?

Unlike Twilight, they knew nothing of the golden age of the Celestia League. They didn’t know a galaxy of creatures united in genuine peace and harmony was even remotely possible. How would a pony who’d known only an endless state of scarcity and conflict even be able to comprehend such a thing intellectually? Even Slipshod, who, while knowing that an era of peace had existed, found it extremely difficult to actually imagine what it would have been like to live in it. Squelch’s skepticism was hardly going to be a unique reaction as a result.

So how exactly was Slipshod supposed to inspire the crew of the ship to follow along with his plan using the truth? He couldn’t. Nothing about the reality of the situation would ensure the continued cooperation of the ponies onboard. They cared about their jobs, their livelihoods, and their families back home. Those were the pressure points that he had to use for as long as he could.

If his deception unraveled before he and Twilight were safely in the heart of Disciple territory, then he’d likely be in a lot of trouble. However, if he could just keep stringing everypony along until then...it’d be okay. Whatever the crew found out, and whatever they did after he and Twilight were with the Disciples didn’t really matter. They’d have outlived their usefulness by that point anyway. One more DropShip was hardly going to matter much during the eventual invasion of Equus.

The crew could do whatever they wanted at that point, as far as the earth pony was concerned. However, until then...

“Just dock the Galloway,” he repeated, throwing some authority behind his tone, much like his instructors had back at the academy, “Squelch and I will tell you what you need to know, when you need to know it. Don’t worry: everything’s well in hoof, alright? I’m going to get you all through this.

“I promise.”

The three ponies on the bridge crew exchanged skeptical looks, but eventually offered up reluctant nods. At the end of the day, they were paid to do a job; and that job was to follow Squelch’s orders. Even those being ostensibly relayed by her ‘designated representative’. Fortunately, the earth pony stallion’s well-understood personal and professional relationship with the sage unicorn mare saw him filling that role with relative consistency. It was genuinely believable that Squelch had placed him in operational control of this mission.

After all, he routinely held operational control during their mercenary contracts planetside.

He looked to Twilight’s escort, “take Purple Rose back to her quarters. I’m going to update the commander,” and get her lucid again, he didn’t add out loud. The security mare nodded and stepped up beside the purple alicorn, silently prompting her charge to leave the bridge.

Twilight regarded the earth pony with a dour expression, but remained thankfully silent as she allowed herself to be led to her quarters. Slipshod decided that he likely wasn’t going to enjoy their next conversation.

Par for the course, he thought to himself. After all, he wasn’t going to enjoy his upcoming conversation with Squelch either. As he stepped off the command deck as well, he idly regarded his rota, hoping that whoever it was that he was supposed to meet with this evening would be in a better mood than either of those mares were going to be.

Much to the stallion’s surprise, he found that Squelch was already out of bed, and combatting her hangover by doing what she did best: paperwork. The sage unicorn mare was sat at her desk, pad and terminal in hoof, her horn aglow as it floated a carafe of coffee to her lips. A tray that had likely been delivered by Cookie was nearby, and contained a mug that the company’s owner had apparently opted to bypass in the interests of efficiency.

She glanced at him out of the corner of her eye as the door to her cabin slid open. The earth pony cringed slightly as he realized that he hadn’t used the chime to request permission to enter her locked quarters, and had instead used her personal code again. In his defense, he’d been operating under the assumption that the unicorn was still asleep, and hadn’t wanted to wake her with something as abrasive as the door’s call function. The mare seemed to rethink commenting on his lack of manners, and instead returned her full focus back to her work.

“You’re up,” he said before once more cringing at his statement of the obvious. He was only slightly more annoyed by his own nervousness. Slipshod was well aware that Squelch was more than a little irked by the events of today. And while she was very much inclined to place the manticore’s share of the blame on his shoulders, he figured that he was, at worst, only tangentially responsible for their current predicament.

He’d convinced her to keep Twilight onboard, yes; but that had only manifested itself as a problem once Chrysalis became aware of it. That information getting back to the Queen was not something that he’d wanted at all, and both he and Squelch had done just about everything that they reasonably could to keep Twilight’s existence a secret. However the changelings had learned about Twilight, that wasn’t his fault.

It also wasn’t his fault that they’d been ambushed on the planet. Even if he had known that Twilight’s existence had been discovered, the speed with which Chrysalis’ agents had been able to move in response was phenomenal. He’d only done some of the rudimentary math in his head, given the distances involved but, basically, this all had to have been set in motion within just a week or two of the Galloway coming across that crashed DropShip in Canis.

Even then, that team that had ambushed them would have had to have been enroute to the planet long before the Steel Coursers had ever been made aware of the mission. Honestly, given the extent of the construction that had happened at that Commonwealth base...Slipshod was half convinced that even it had been part of the plan to capture the princess. After all, what better place to allow the ComSpark retrieval team to get on and off planet undetected than on a planet which lacked the typical orbital infrastructure of even the most sparsely populated worlds?

Not that Slipshod thought for a moment it would help his situation in any way to point out to his employer that the mission that she’d accepted had been an elaborate trap in and of itself.

The stallion idly wondered what Chrysalis would have done if Squelch had turned down the operation? Had other missions been set up in the region that were also traps? Possible. In fact, quite probable; and it would have hardly taken any effort at all to do, given that a significant proportion of every operation that happened anywhere in the galaxy was initiated on one side or the other by Chrysalis’ agents.

That too was probably not information that Squelch would find reassuring.

“So what are you doing?” Slipshod asked, stepping a little closer so that he could see the screen of her workstation. He tried to make the question sound as innocuous as possible, but the totality of the existing circumstances likely ensured that whatever question he could have asked would have sounded like the not-so-subtle probe that it was.

Fortunately―or perhaps not so fortunately―Squelch seemed of a mind to allow him the facade. Partially, “finalizing the op’s after action reports,” she replied tersely. Then adding, “after this, I’m going to process the authorization for the release of the death benefits to the next of kin for the five members of my crew that died today.”

That last sentence possessed an edge to it that Squelch had very plainly made no effort to hide. Slipshod didn’t have to spend long reasoning why: that release would require transmission to the Mercenary Review Board, so that the funds could be dispersed from the company’s escrow account. Of course, there were no ComSpark relays in this system that could be used to transmit that information. Those communication packets would have to be carried by the Aris Highlander-owned Jump Ship.

The Jump Ship controlled by the same Highlanders who’d likely by now disavowed the Steel Coursers, and were certainly not about to deliver any of their mail.

Squelch’s message wasn’t going to be acknowledged. The company’s accounts weren’t going to be debted. Those families weren’t going to see a deci-C-bill of the compensation promised in the crew’s contracts. More than that, they were unlikely to even receive news that their loved-one had died. It wasn’t uncommon for letters to take months to reach destinations when the nature of a pony’s work entailed them traveling from one side of the Sphere to the other. It could likely be quite a long while before those families even began to get worried.

Well, perhaps not that long. That worry could very well kick in quite early, even for the families of the members of the crew who were still alive.

The Highlanders would be back in civilized space in another couple of weeks, after they were done mopping up the Commonwealth base. Once back, they’d report that the Steel Coursers had gone off the reservation to the MRB. At which point, all the assets of the Steel Coursers would be frozen. To include the salaries of the crew. Most of which were funneled back to their families on whatever worlds the crew called ‘home’. Next month’s deposits would be a no-show, and those families would almost certainly wonder ‘why?’.

A lot of families were going to be in a bad way in a few weeks.

None of that was directly his fault, of course. Squelch likely didn’t see it like that though. Not that he fancied arguing the particulars on that point. Instead, he took the coward’s way out and bypassed the remark entirely, “we’ve made contact with the Disciples,” he informed the unicorn, “they’re going to allow us to dock,” he paused for a moment, briefly weighing the benefits of elaborating on any of the details, then, “it’s a WarShip. Manticore-class.”

The mare stopped typing. She turned her head to look at the earth pony. As impassive as she’d been trying to be, even that information was impossible not to react to with the appropriate amount of shock that it deserved, “what.”

He nodded, “yup. They brought a battleship to meet us. Whether that was because they figured only one of the biggest WarShips ever built was the only vessel suitable to ferry the princess, or because they wanted to be ready for anything ComSpark might have tried to pull, I can’t say.

“Word’s going to get around about that, and soon,” Slipshod pointed out, “even if the bridge crew doesn’t say anything―and I told them not to―this ship has windows. As soon as we’re within visual range, somepony’s going to look outside and see a damned WarShip.”

Squelch turned back to her desk and put her head in her hooves, “fuck me,” she groaned, “a fucking WarShip…”

“For now I’m trying to play it off as us being part of a deep cover mission directed by ComSpark,” the earth pony explained, “the bridge crew is mostly buying it for now. The best part is that we don’t need to be able to explain how or why the Disciples have WarShips, because that’s the whole point of the alleged ‘mission’: to find out.

“They are starting to ask questions about ‘Purple Rose’ though,” he added with a frown, “the Disciples continually referring to her as ‘Princess Twilight’ isn’t going unnoticed. I’m not sure how to play that off yet, so if you have some ideas―”

The unicorn sat back up and flashed a sharp look at the stallion, “deep cover? ‘Play it off’? You mean you haven’t told the crew yet?”

“Tell them what? That ComSpark is controlled by changelings and that they’ve infiltrated the highest levels of Sphere government? Tell them Purple Rose is the real alicorn princess and that the Disciples are the true defenders of galactic harmony or whatever?

“Exactly how much of that do you believe? Even now?”

The mare frowned but didn’t say anything in response. Not to say that she was completely accepting of his actions, “...I’ve never lied to this crew before. I don’t want to start now. Especially not when this isn’t just going to affect them,” her gaze darted briefly back to her terminal and the work that she’d been doing when Slipshod came in, “their families―”

“Are going to be screwed no matter what,” the earth pony finished, “if you tell them the truth, there’s going to be a mutiny.”

“It’s not a ‘mutiny’ if the captain’s leading it,” Squelch quipped through gritted teeth as she glared at the stallion.

Yup, she thought of this as being―at least partially―his fault. Unfortunately for her ire, there existed a few uncomfortable realities, “even if you turned this ship around and threw yourself at the mercy of ComSpark and the Highlanders, you’re not nearly naïve enough to believe that anypony on this ship will live to make it back to civilized space.

“Shit, Chrysalis might even arrange for all of the Highlanders to die too, just to make sure that there’s nopony in the galaxy alive who’s actually seen Twilight,” Squelch looked away now, her expression suggesting that she did, in fact, recognize the existence of that probability. He could empathize though, with how little that knowledge did to ease her frustrations. She felt like she was being herded into an uncomfortable situation―which she was―and she was not a mare who liked being puppeted. After all, she was supposed to be the master of manipulating data to put herself in exactly the right place at exactly the right time to benefit her.

Now she was the one being moved about like a game piece at somepony else’s whim, and she didn’t care for the sensation at all.

“We can’t just keep lying to them,” she insisted, though she did not opt to voice a counterproposal either, Slipshod noticed. She wanted an alternative, she just couldn’t think of one yet.

Or at least, she couldn’t think of one that wasn’t as bad or worse than the earth pony’s current plan. He just needed to make certain that she understood that, “telling them the truth doesn’t help anypony,” he countered, “and it could end up hurting us.

“Aileron’s nerves are on a knife’s edge up there,” he gestured in the direction of the bridge, “he’s ready to bolt. The problem with that,” among other things, he thought sardonically to himself, “is the Disciples know that we have Twilight now. They’re not going to let us go anywhere, and the only pony on this ship they give a damn about is the alicorn.

“If this DropShip so much as twitches the wrong way, they will run us down, they will board us, and more members of this crew will die as the Disciples use any and all force they believe they need to to ‘rescue’ their princess.”

Slipshod truthfully had no way of knowing how ruthless any boarding party sent by the Disciples would actually be. They knew about changelings, and would almost certainly be operating under the assumption that any and every pony they met―to include Twilight Sparkle―was a changeling agent in disguise until they could find a way to prove otherwise. That was likely the bulk of the reason why they were still refraining from making audio or visual communications.

So it was certainly possible that they’d be less than accommodating towards any perceived resistance by the crew. A crew who would also be operating under the assumption that the invaders were crazed mass-murdering terrorists. To say that the situation would be ‘tense’ was undoubtedly an understatement. One wrong word, one wrong twitch, and it could all erupt in violence.

However, none of that happened as long as the Galloway’s crew believed that it was their job to ‘play nice’ with the Disciples in the first place. Everypony would be on their best behavior, on both sides. Nopony would get twitchy. Nopony would start shooting. Everypony―including him―would live to see tomorrow.

Which meant that Slipshod could spend the rest of this trip dedicating his time to contemplating much more important matters: such as finding the probable changeling agent on board, and figuring out what methods the Disciples would use to screen the crew for changelings, and how to avoid getting caught in them. He hoped that Twilight could provide some insight into that.

He briefly considered doing nothing about the agent and leaving them to be caught by the Disciples, but then thought better of it. If they found one changeling agent, that was far more likely to make them look extra closely at the rest of the crew, as they’d have their suspicions confirmed that changelings had been implanted even on a ship this insignificant. The longer their screening process went on without giving them any positive results, the more complacent they would hopefully get, as they started to view the vetting process as more of a procedural activity than a critical one.

That might have been wishful thinking on Slipshod’s part, given that the Disciples had to be more aware of the stakes than anypony else in the galaxy, but the stallion had enough stressors at the moment without thinking about worst-case scenarios. He needed to believe that he’d be able to fool them. Otherwise, what point was there in any of this?

The sage unicorn was still defiant, though he could sense that her resolve was wavering slightly in the face of his arguments, “and what about their families? They deserve to know that their families aren’t going to be receiving their deposits any longer―”

The stallion waived away the mare’s concern, “we just brought the Disciples their long-lost princess. Do you really think we won’t be able to negotiate some sort of reward for that? They have a WarShip. I think they can find a few million C-bits for the crew. They clearly have ears in the Sphere too, if they knew we were going to be in this system,” he pointed out, prompting an annoyed look from the mare as she was reminded of how poorly kept this ‘secret mission’ had apparently been.

“I bet they can get some money into the accounts of the crew’s families.”

Squelch was silent for several long seconds as she considered what the ‘Steed pilot had said. She wasn’t happy. Not that many ponies were at the moment. For the umpteenth time that day, Slipshod found that his empathic senses were completely redundant in the face of plainly obvious expressions. Finally the mare sighed and gave a slight nod of her head, “...fine.

“Write up a mission profile. If we’re going to pretend this is an op, then we should treat it like one. Send me an outline, I’ll proof it, and then we’ll at least be able to keep our stories straight,” she then threw a hard gaze at the earth pony, “and tell ‘her highness’ to meet me in the conference room in an hour.

“I want assurances from her about compensation for the crew. As well as a promise that nopony on this ship will be harmed.”

“I’m sure she’ll agree to that,” Slipshod said, nodding his understanding, finally allowing himself to breathe just a small internal sigh of relief that the cover story he’d so hastily crafted on the bridge was going to receive corroboration from the ship’s captain. Between the two of them, they should be able to plug any of the holes that he’d missed too. He hoped. Ponies were gullible, but they weren’t morons. If any blatant cracks in the story were left unpatched for too long, they’d start to pick at them.

Such as finding a way to explain how their ‘fake’ Twilight was apparently able to pass all of the Disciple’s tests, and why the Disciples seemed to be so welcoming of their ‘avowed enemy’ in the first place.

That was going to be a really tough sell…

Slipshod took a deep breath and shook his head to clear it. That was a problem for Future Slipshod. Present Slipshod needed to go and have a talk with the princess, “I’ll see you in an hour,” he assured his employer, “and I’ll have a draft for the mission profile by then too,” the stallion promised. He then left Squelch’s quarters and made his way to Twilight’s.

He found the purple alicorn lounging on her bed, holding the vellum scroll in her magic. She only seemed to be half-regarding it though. Her expression was glassy, as though her focus was a thousand lightyears away. The earth pony felt a miasma of melancholy permeating the room, emanating from the princess. Even though she’d verbally acknowledged his use of the chime for her quarters, Twilight didn’t seem to quite register that anypony else was in her quarters until the door slid shut behind him.

Then her gaze broke off from the parchment floating before her, and found its way to her newly arrived guest. Instantly, her mood soured, evoking a mental wince from the stallion. He was getting a little irritated at everypony disliking him today. Especially when he’d worked so hard, for so long, to be a pony that just about every other member of this crew looked forward to seeing.

“Good work up there,” Slipshod said, nodding his head towards the door. It certainly hadn’t felt like Twilight was going to initiate anything approaching a civilized conversation, given the feelings of animosity he was picking up from her, and the earth pony very much did not want this encounter to devolve into any sort of screaming match. She didn’t like him because he was a changeling, her mortal foe. He could accept that.

He was also the only ally she truly had on this ship at the moment.

She had to accept that.

Of course, once she was delivered into Disciple custody, that dynamic would change. He’d cease to be of immediate value to her as a sole ally. Which meant that it was also in his own best interests to both keep from antagonizing her unnecessarily, and to demonstrate that he’d still have value to her after they docked with the WarShip. Slipshod wasn’t entirely positive how he’d do that yet, but he was working on some possible angles to play.

“All I did was answer a question,” Twilight replied tersely. Her telekinesis carefully furled the scroll back up and gently set it down upon her desk. The purple mare then cast a withering look at the earth pony as she added, “...honestly.”

“Oh, for Celestia’s sake…” Slipshod said under his breath, prompting an intrigued eyebrow raise from the alicorn, “I just got done having this talk with Squelch,” he informed her flatly, “so can we just skip to the part where you acknowledge that it’s what’s best for everypony for the moment? The truth can come later. Right now our primary concern is getting you to your subjects or whatever.”

“The ends justify the means; is that it?” she posed cautiously.

“Yeah, they do,” was Slipshod’s unabashed retort, “especially when the ‘means’ are a few harmless―and temporary―lies, and the ‘ends’ are keeping you away from Chrysalis,” the earth pony sneered at the mare, “unless you want to be captured? Because there’s not a pony on this ship that would have taken you to the Disciples―in direct violation of ComSpark directives―if they’d known that’s what we were doing.

“Without me and what I said on that bridge, you’d be cocooned and on your way to Equus right now,” he informed the princess bluntly, “so you’re fucking welcome.”

Twilight paused for a moment and then nodded her head, “I acknowledge that what you have done has ultimately helped me―and will help the whole of the Harmony Sphere in the future. But it’s a fallacy to presume that it was the only way you could have helped.

“You don’t know for a fact that these ponies wouldn’t have responded to the truth,” she tried to point out.

“Don’t I?” the stallion snorted, “I’ve known these ponies for years. I’ve worked with them. Gotten to know them. I can literally feel what they think,” he tapped the side of his head smugly, “I like to think that gives me just a little bit of insight into how they’d handle the truth about you and ComSpark.

“As opposed to how you think they’d react, having known them for all of...what? A month? Two? And we’d kind of be stretching the definition of ‘knowing’, seeing as how you haven’t even had a real conversation with anypony outside of me, Squelch, and Val,” Slipshod was mildly gratified to get the satisfaction of seeing the alicorn frown in acknowledgement of the truth of what he’d just said.

Suddenly she didn’t seem to be a big fan of ‘honesty’, the stallion thought with a smirk.

“These aren’t you subjects, ‘your highness’,” the earth pony continued on, “they didn’t swear fealty to you. They don’t know you. They have no reason to trust you or anything you say.

“You heard Squelch,” he reminded her, “I’ll tell you right now that her opinion isn’t an anomaly. The average pony probably genuinely doesn’t care that Chrysalis is just posing as you. Oh, sure, they certainly might get a bit pissy if they learned what really happened to the academy applicants who went to Equus,” he nodded his head in agreement, “but, then again, look at the number of creatures that changelings are devouring directly when compared to the number of casualties on any given day throughout the Sphere; what we’re doing barely registers as a statistically significant ‘cause of death’,” he scoffed.

“More ponies die in this galaxy every year from bona fide DropShip accidents than from husking.”

That earned a baleful stare. Twilight wasn’t happy to hear that, and it was clear that it did little to shift her opinion on the matter either, “I think it’s perfectly fair to count the constant war and bloodshed going on in the Harmony Sphere as being ‘caused’ by Chrysalis and her changelings,” she countered primly, “seeing as how you informed me that the machinations of her agents are what perpetuate it.”

Slipshod shrugged, unabashed, “eh. Even if you convinced the crew that changelings existed, asking them to believe that we’re all part of an intergalactic cabal of shapeshifters who’ve infiltrated every planetary government in order to carry out a centuries-long conspiracy would be a tad more difficult.

“And then, you’d still have to get them to care.” he added, “and even Squelch very much doesn’t. Not really,” the stallion snorted, “most creatures already possess a resigned acceptance of the idea that political institutions are controlled by an entrenched ruling class that’s indifferent to the plight of the ‘common creature’. All you’d be doing is replacing ‘the bourgeois’ with ‘changelings’. Nothing of their worldview would really change.

“All Squelch wants is a cushy retirement. Most of the ponies on the ship want that, and could care less who they’re paying taxes to at the end of the day.”

“I don’t believe that,” Twilight insisted, shaking her head, “when they find out that they could have a better life―a life free of constant wars and hate and violence―they’ll help me stop Chrysalis.”

Slipshod audibly laughed at the notion. It was hard not to, “if you find a pony that believes that kind of existence is actually possible, please send them my way. I’ve got some beachfront property on that ice ball of a planet we were just on that I’d like to sell them,” he flashed a smug smile at the alicorn.

“Face it, princess, that’s an uphill battle.”

“Maybe so,” she conceded with a somber nod, “but it’s a battle that needs to be fought, for the good of everypony.”

“I think you’ll find that those high-minded ideals died with the Celestia League...” the earth pony scoffed.

“Maybe not,” it was Twilight who was smirking now, “these ‘Disciples of Discord’ may still hold true to those values as well,” again her gaze narrowed at the stallion, “...values which include honesty.”

“Fuck me,” he groaned, “will you let that drop already? I did what I had to do.”

“Lies like that are going to get you into trouble eventually,” the sanctimonious tone of the alicorn’s voice was particularly grating on the earth pony.

“‘Lies like that’ are what have kept me alive these last two years!” Slipshod snapped at the mare, causing her to recoil slightly at the sudden forcefulness of his demeanor, “and don’t you talk down to me, you hypocritical bitch!”

So much for not getting into an antagonistic screaming match.

Twilight narrowed her gaze at the earth pony, “how dare―”

“Oh, I’ll fucking ‘dare’!” he snarled, cutting her off. He adopted a mocking tone, glaring at the alicorn, reveling inwardly at the satisfaction he felt at her loathing as his voice perfectly matched hers, “‘your whole species is based on lies and deception’,” his lips curled back into a sneer, as he then dropped the unflattering affectation of the mare’s voice, “remember that? Well guess what? You weren’t wrong.

“My whole existence is founded on lies,” he conceded, not sounding the least bit ashamed of the admission, “my name, my appearance, my history, my family, everything; it’s all lies. I have nothing of my own!” He leered at the alicorn, noting that she looked less self-assured now, having had her own words thrown back in her face―in her own voice no less, “except for my vengeance. That’s mine.

“The truth is a death sentence for me,” he said coolly, “so of course I’m going to lie. I spent eight months lying to my wife; you think I’m going to hesitate for a moment about lying to anypony else on this ship if that’s what it takes to keep me alive, and get me what I need?

“And don’t pretend for a moment that my lying isn’t about to get you everything you want too,” he pointed out, “I didn’t see you chomping at the bit to correct anything I said on that bridge. You could have turned me over to Squelch and told her what I really am from day one.

“But you didn’t,” the earth pony reminded the alicorn, a wicked smile crossing his lips, “you kept my secret. Lied by omission to everycreature on this ship. Are you about to sit there and try and argue that it’s not the same? That lying by keeping your mouth shut when you know the truth is really so much better than lying outright?

“It served you then, so you let it happen. It’s going to serve you now,” he stressed, holding the alicorn’s gaze, “...so you’re going to let it happen. It’ll serve you in the future...so I suggest you let it happen when it does.”

Slipshod held the purple mare’s gaze for several long seconds, daring her to argue with any of the statements that he’d just made. She declined, so he nodded and recomposed himself before he spoke again, “Squelch wants to talk with you in the conference room in forty-five minutes. She wants your word that her crew will be treated well, and that their families will be financially taken care of. I told her that wouldn’t be a problem.”

He smirked at the alicorn, “...you’re not going to make a liar out of me, are you?”

For a brief moment, Twilight’s amethyst eyes glared at the earth pony, but her ire subsided quickly and she sighed, nodding her head, “that...is the least I can do for the ponies on this ship. I will talk with whoever is currently in control of the Disciples and see to it that arrangements are made to properly compensate them. You may assure your commander of that.”

The earth pony nodded, “good. Now, if you’ll excuse me, my nature is compelling me to go and organize some lies,” he said, not hiding the note of contempt that colored his words as he turned to leave.

“...I’m sorry.”

The stallion stopped just before reaching the door, his ear cocking in Twilight’s direction.

“About what I said to you that day. It was unkind,” the purple mare admitted soberly, “I was...upset. I lashed out. I shouldn’t have, and I was wrong to do so. You have helped me, and placed yourself at great risk doing so.

“Thank you.”

Slipshod closed his eyes and took a deep breath, “I’m not doing this for you, princess.”

“I know; but you are doing it nonetheless. For now, that’s enough.”

“The ends justify the means, is that it?” he wasn’t able to resist throwing the comment back in the alicorn’s face. To her credit, her expression seemed to acknowledge the hypocrisy.

The stallion moved for the door, but was once more given to pause as the alicorn asked a rather unexpected question, “what’s your name? Your real one.”

He turned his whole head to regard the mare this time, studying her. She was more subdued now than she had been earlier, and he did get a sense of genuine shame seeping off of her. Some of what he’d said had apparently bitten a little deeper than he’d expected. She genuinely did want to know his name.

Unfortunately for her, the earth pony wasn’t in the mood for olive branches at the moment, “it doesn’t matter. I’m no more that ‘ling than I am Slipshod,” and with that, he left.

Chapter 14: Far Country

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Slipshod slumped onto the bed, utterly exhausted; both physically and especially emotionally. Tensions on the ship were still running high―there wasn’t much that could be done to fully eliminate that, given the circumstances―but he felt like he’d managed to make at least some progress on that front. Enough for him to finally get in a half-decent meal or two over the last week. He was far from sated, but he wasn’t in danger of collapsing from hunger either. Which was about as much as he could hope for right now.

A pair of hooves placed themselves onto his shoulders and pressed down. The earth pony groaned with a mixture of pain and pleasure as he felt the knotted muscles beneath his hide get kneaded out of existence. He’d been waiting all week for this moment, and voiced as much aloud.

The stallion kneeling over him chuckled, “I’ll bet. I don’t think I’ve ever felt you this tense,” Blood Chit commented as he began to slowly, and diligently, work his way down the earth pony’s backside.

Slipshod stiffened briefly as one of his vertebrae gave an audible pop, before immediately melting back onto the mattress, “OoOoOhh...it’s been a long week,” he said, “for everypony.”

“Tell me about it,” the pegasus frowned, “I’ve got a list of massage requests as long as my wingspan. Fortunately for them, it’s not like I’ve got anything better to do…”

The earth pony heard the sour note in the head of recovery’s tone. His sentiment was one that Slipshod had been becoming all too familiar with of the last eight days.

Docking with the Disciple WarShip―which had identified itself as the Rockhoof―had gone about as well as could be expected. Text instructions had been relayed to the Galloway about where to dock the DropShip. Then, the moment the clamps were secured, both ships jumped out of the system without warning. Doppler hadn’t managed to get a fix on what system that they had jumped to, exactly; but she had at least been able to determine that it was in the general direction of ‘away’ from the Harmony Sphere.

The same had been the case for the jump that had been made yesterday.

Including their jump to PEA-02-UX, they were now the better part of a hundred lightyears outside of the Harmony Sphere. Deep in the Periphery. Certainly well outside of the part of the galaxy that anypony on the ship knew anything about. Well, at least that anypony knew anything reliable about.

Strictly speaking, even the changelings only had fuzzy data on the regions of space surrounding the Sphere. After all, they could only get their agents properly inserted if the creature whose identity was to be assumed traveled to Equus, along with an extensive record of their personal and professional histories. The middling ‘star nations’ of the Periphery, unsurprisingly, sent in few applicants. Which was to say: zero.

Reconnaissance was periodically conducted, but mostly just for the purposes of tracking whether or not any of the minor powers out in this part of the galaxy might present a genuine threat Chrysalis’ designs on the Harmony Sphere. Thus far, the answer to that question had proved to be a resounding: not in the least. By the best estimates of the changelings, even if the whole of the Periphery were to band together into a singular coalition and invade, they could be thoroughly trounced by any one of the larger mercenary outfits in service to the major powers.

With nothing to draw the interests of the significant political, economic, or military power of the Sphere, little effort was made to reach out and interact with the Periphery, leaving it as mostly an ‘unknown’ quantity. While this didn’t give most of the local denizens the feeling that that region of space was dangerous, per se, it was still a source of wariness. The public’s ignorance regarding the Periphery had certainly proven to be fertile ground where theatrical thrillers were concerned. Whenever a vid’s narrative called for some previously unheard of threat to manifest, having it originate from beyond the borders of the Sphere was a staple of the industry.

The prospect of the same ‘unknown’ quality that served screenwriters so well was currently responsible for a significant portion of the crew’s overall apprehension. Unfortunately, there wasn’t much that Slipshod could do about that. If there was a silver lining to be had, it was that the crew was significantly less concerned about the Disciple ship itself as a result.

That, the earth pony concluded, was a phenomenal accomplishment in and of itself.

Of course, there had been something very apropos to outright panic when the Rockhoof had become visible through the DropShip’s exterior viewports. After all, WarShips weren’t a ‘thing’ in the Harmony Sphere anymore, and all that remained were the―over exaggerated―stories about their awesome destructive power. Yes, they were genuinely very potent ships in battle, but it boggled Slipshod’s mind how many ponies on the Galloway believed that ancient battleships like the one currently ferrying them were capable of outright destroying a whole planet!

Questions not unlike Aileron’s proceeded to flurry about the crew: where had a middling little terrorist cult like the Disciples managed to acquire a WarShip?!

It had helped a little―very little―that the ostensible reason why the Steel Coursers were docked with the WarShip was to find out the answer to that very question. At the very least, it then made sense why nopony had a real answer. Theories abounded, of course.

The earth pony’s current personal favorite was that the Rockhoof was, in fact, not a WarShip, but was instead merely a new design of heavily armed Jump Ship.

The golden stallion was not entirely certain what the purpose of that distinction was supposed to be―it seemed entirely semantic to him―but it had gained popularity among much of the crew, and had somehow seemed to help put them at ease.

Fucking ponies…

Armed with that―dubious―assurance, the members of the Steel Coursers had managed to soothe the worst of their trepidation, and were now focused on the next steps of the purported ‘operation’; which was to ingratiate themselves to the Disciples by remaining cordial and offering assistance when asked.

This facet of the ‘mission’ had thus far been phenomenally easy, as the Disciples barely communicated with the crew of the Galloway outside of a request for a daily status report. Which meant that it was next to impossible for the Steel Coursers to somehow inadvertently offend their hosts. The latter directive was just as easily accomplished, as the Disciples hadn’t asked for help with anything.

So, with nothing ‘mission essential’ to really focus on, the crew had fallen back into some of their old routines. This wasn’t the first time the ship had been en route to a destination where the journey was going to take a much longer time than usual. Every once in a while, Squelch would come across a tidbit of information that she deduced would lead to a lucrative contract for the company, but would also require the Galloway to spend over a month in transit to get to the site of the contract.

During such times, the crew turned inward and focused on ‘housekeeping tasks’. Overhauls were conducted on the ship’s drives. In depth inspections which required many of the more essential flight systems to be taken offline were made. BattleSteeds were effectively rebuilt so that any minor deficiencies which had been previously overlooked in the interests of getting the ‘Steed ‘combat ready’ as quickly as possible could be addressed before they became major deficiencies. Just about every cabin and corridor of the ship was scrubbed down to within an inch of its life…

You know: ‘busy work’.

None of which involved Slipshod―except for the cabin cleaning bit.

However, the stallion had been far from bored these last eight days. After all, he had an investigation to conduct. Which was why he’d spent last week getting to know all three of his primary suspects as intimately as he could. One of which he’d inadvertently gotten to know a little more ‘intimately’ than even he’d intended. On the other hoof, it had been a while, and who knew when they’d next be in port anyway…

Unfortunately―or fortunately, depending on how one looked at it―Slipshod’s investigations had not turned up what he’d been hoping to find. Or―more accurately, he supposed―what he’d been dreading he’d find.

The good news was that neither Arc Light, Dustoff, or Wing Nut were changelings. All of them had allowed Slipshod to draw from them, and all of them had turned out to have plausible explanations for their otherwise ‘unusual’ behavior at the memorial service.

It had been revealed that Arc Light had simply had a crush on Rigger Brush and had decided that an ideal time to make ‘first contact’ was while she was mourning the loss of a dear friend. The way the unicorn had described his thought process to Slipshod had been: “I figured she’d need a shoulder to cry on, and I could be it. Besides, when mares get mopy and emotional like that, things happen, you know?” Followed by a wink.

Definitely not a changeling. An empath would have known better. Especially where Rigger was concerned. He’d actually talked to the thestral about it during his next modeling session. They’d shared a good laugh.

By some strange coincidence, the morning after their conversation, a rather unflattering―though impressively drawn―picture of Arc Light had manifested in engineering at about the time his shift came on duty. It very quickly made its way around most of the ship, to the great delight of many of the unicorn’s peers who seemed to find it quite amusing. Arc Light, it seemed, had been less than pleased.

The artist remains unknown.

Dustoff, it turned out, had a wider and more varied circle of friends that he’d have assumed. She’d been a little wary, at first, of the stallion’s sudden recent interest in her affairs, but had opened up soon enough. That was how Slipshod had first become aware of a phenomenon known as ‘roleplaying’―which he had previously only known as a term applied to other activities. Dustoff and several other ponies from vastly divergent segments of the crew met up on a semi-regular basis to partake in some sort of fantasy adventure game.

It was a subject which the pegasus mare was very enthusiastic about, and had been more than happy to regale the stallion with at length. While the initial information dump had made the prospect seem daunting at first, Slipshod had agreed to participate in one of their sessions ‘to see how he’d like it’.

Perhaps it was a changeling thing, but there was something very appealing to him about assuming a faux identity for the sake of entertainment. The others at the session―which had indeed included ponies from among the ship’s ‘Steed mechanics and gunnery crews―had commended Slipshod on how adeptly he had taken on the role as the group’s freshly-minted bard. He’d left that evening with the promise of returning to participate regularly.

Also not a changeling.

Which had left only Wing Nut as his sole remaining suspect.

However, she―it turned out―had been ‘looking for a shoulder to cry on’. She and Lifeline had apparently been something of an ‘item’. There had even been a conversation or two about making their relationship ‘more official’. She’d attended the memorial service intending to find some measure of closure, but had quickly been overwhelmed and wasn’t able to process much during the event. The earth pony mare had then snuck off to go and cry in Lifeline’s old bunk.

The mechanic had been particularly susceptible to offers of condolences in the wake of the loss, it turned out. Slipshod wasn’t often one for pity sex. The emotions entwined with it were bitter and unsatisfying. But with the uncertain prospect of how often he’d be presented with any meals at all at the time, he’d taken the opportunity that had presented itself. Valkyrie likely would not have approved if she’d been around to find out he was engaging in dalliances with the crew―even less so when that crewmember was in a ‘vulnerable state’.

But she wasn’t there, and he was hungry.

The mare had hardly said a word to him since that night, and had certainly not sought out further sexual encounters. Likely for the best. In any case, she too was clearly not a changeling agent.

And, with that, his list of suspects had evaporated. Even he didn’t have the time to devote to vetting every single pony on the ship. There were dozens of members of the crew that he didn’t even know by name, and it’d take days with each of them before he’d be able to try and draw from them in order to determine whether they were a changeling or not. He didn’t know how much time they had left before they arrived at wherever the Disciples were taking them, but he doubted it was nearly that much.

Besides, any changeling on the ship needed a wide social network. Otherwise they risked drawing from any single pony too often, which would produce a noticeable change in the victim. Slipshod knew all of the ship’s other social butterflies who went out actively carousing with the crew. Anypony he didn’t know by name by this point was simply far too introverted to be a changeling.

There wasn’t a spy on the ship.

Which, while that technically fell into the realm of ‘good news’, it arguably made him more uneasy. If there wasn’t an agent feeding information to ComSpark about Twilight, then how had they figured out so much? The earth pony knew that he’d proposed the notion of a member of the crew making an off-hoof remark about a ‘new member of their company who was a purple mare with wings and a horn’ at a public venue in earshot of a changeling. And, yes, that was possible.

But the chances of it were...well, slim. Bordering on nonexistent really. Never mind that setting up the kind of elaborate trap that was necessary to have lured the Galloway to that out of the way system would have required more intelligence about the Steel Coursers and their commander than an off-hoof remark in a pub, or even an official dossier, could provide. It would have required knowing that the only reason that Squelch had taken such a mission in the first place was because the staging system was also the location of a defunct Celestia League outpost.

In fact, thinking back on it, and all of the possible systems that the Aris Highlanders could have used for a staging system, Slipshod had to wonder at whether it was actually a coincidence that it had been one which the Steel Coursers knew to host a CLDF facility. Only a select few ponies on the Galloway knew what systems they were interested in though. That information was certainly not anything that had been made broadly available to the crew. Yet, at the same time, Slipshod was extremely confident that it couldn’t be any of the company’s command staff.

It certainly couldn’t be Squelch. Never mind that he’d been married to her and very nearly husked her during their relationship, the unicorn mare was hardly in a position where she needed to use subterfuge to hoof over Twilight. She could have just...done it. Val wouldn't have gotten herself killed in that ambush if she’d been the plant. Heck, she’d warned them about it. His night of passion with the twin kirin mechanics squarely ruled them out as the agents. While Slipshod had never gotten personally close enough to Doc Dee to try and draw from the unicorn stallion, he knew that the physician rarely ever left the med bay. He certainly wasn’t being social enough to sustain a changeling’s needs, in the earth pony’s opinion.

Yet, that sort of information couldn’t have merely been gleaned from overheard drunken ramblings. It was far more likely that a mole was onboard the Galloway. If not a member of its core staff, then one who had access to the ship’s encrypted files.

And he had no idea who they could be.

Which was the source of much of the tension that Blood Chit was very graciously working out of his body at the moment. The scarlet pegasus shifted to the side and propped one of Slipshod’s hind legs over his shoulder as he started working his hooves over the earth pony’s hanches, prompting another brief grunt of pain, followed by a contented sigh.

“Seriously, this is bordering on unhealthy,” the winged stallion commented as he located a particularly rigid span of muscle, “I don’t know if you need to get laid or what, but you need to find a way to relax.”

“Is that an offer?” the earth pony murmured into the pillow as his leg was manipulated.

The recovery pony snorted, “I don’t think my coltfriend would like that very much.”

Slipshod suppressed a grimace as he felt the feelings of worry begin to trickle down from the pegasus. His coltfriend was back home in the Sphere. Blood Chit, nor any of the crew, knew how long it would be before they saw their loved ones again. The earth pony decided to try and steer the conversation away from that particular topic, “probably not.

“Bet it’s just because it’s been a few weeks since our last round of euchre. Have you found a new fourth yet?” Lifeline had been a regular feature in their games.

The stallion sighed as he continued to massage the leg. Tinges of guilt now, “I honestly haven’t been looking,” he admitted, “replacing her feels...I dunno. Shallow? It’s stupid. It’s not like there’s published etiquette on the appropriate amount of time one should wait before replacing a pony in their euchre group.

“But, still…” he let out a rough sigh.

“No, I get it,” Slipshod nodded, “patching over all of the bits of your life that they were a part of can feel like you’re ‘erasing’ them. Obviously, you’re supposed to ‘move on’, but you don’t want to actually forget that they were there in the first place,” he could feel Blood Chit’s appreciation at his apparent understanding of the pegasus’ dilemma.

“How about this,” the ‘Steed pilot suggested, “we put up an extra chair at the table ‘for Lifeline’ for the next few sessions. Until we feel like we’re finally comfortable enough to play without it. That sound like it’ll help?”

“...yeah, actually,” the scarlet pegasus said, sounding a little more chipper, “it’s a little cramped in the locker room with four chairs as it is, but maybe putting her picture on the table, or an extra shot glass. Something like that.”

“Something that ‘includes’ her in the game,” Slipshod agreed, now able to relax more completely that his masseuse wasn’t feeding him second-hoof tension.

“Yeah. Sure, I’ll put the word out. See if anypony else plays, or maybe wants to learn,” he moved on to the earth pony’s other leg, “so, how are you doing?”

The golden stallion canted his head around, looking at the pegasus with a raised eyebrow, “with…?”

“Val,” Blood Chit prompted, “we haven’t had much of a chance to talk. I know you two were close. Just checking in.”

Slipshod sighed and turned back around to rest his chin on the pillow, “I’m alright. ‘Steed pilots die. That’s the name of the game. It was just as likely to be me as her,” he said, doing his best to feed the other stallion what he was pretty sure he expected to hear, “don’t get me wrong: I’m sad she’s gone,” he affected a wry chuckle, “and not just because she still owed me twenty C-bits from the last Solaris Tournament,” he turned back briefly to wink at the recovery pony, smiling wanly, “but, at the same time...we both kind of knew it’d probably happen to one of us someday.”

“Yeah, I get that,” the pegasus nodded in understanding, “I tried to tell myself the same thing about Lifeline. We’re not in the sauce nearly as often as you ‘Steed jockeys, obviously. Still, we trained for hot pickups like that one because we knew they could happen,” a little bud of pride welled up in the stallion, “and I’m damn proud of my team for how they performed. They hit every beat and came within milliseconds of their best simulation time.”

“Exactly,” the earth pony agreed, “we train to do our jobs, and we go out and do them. But, bullets don’t care about flawless execution,” he soberly reminded the feathered pony, “Val performed admirably. She was on top of her game,” these were all vapid lies, of course. She’d disobeyed his orders, moved out of formation, and needlessly risked her life to accomplish a mission that had long since ceased to matter in the face of the ComSpark ambush. She’d died trying to live up to some sort of noble drivel about ‘placing the mission first’.

Drivel that she’d, admittedly, picked up from him because he’d been trying to affect a change in her mood after a mission. He’d been talking out of his ass at the time, of course. Lying to her. Manipulating her emotional state. It’d worked in the moment. He hadn’t expected words from a feigned ‘pep talk’ a couple months ago to have continued to affect her still. Apparently, she’d really taken his ‘advice’ to heart; and paid the price for it.

The truth of the nature of Valkyrie’s death wasn’t what Blood Chit needed to hear now though. He needed affirmation about what he was feeling, and hearing somepony else echo his own thoughts would help. So Slipshod was going to massage the truth of the events during their last mission to accomplish that, “she managed to help pull off what should have been an impossible shot, given the distances involved. She was exactly where she needed to be, when she needed to be there...

“...and then she was standing in exactly the wrong place for a second too long,” he shrugged, “with the ranges involved, that PPC blast that popped her cockpit couldn’t have been deliberate. Nopony’s that good. It was just some Commie pilot hoping they’d get lucky,” Slipshod let out an appropriately anemic sigh, “and they did. And Val didn’t. Simple as that.

“It was the same with Lifeline,” he added, glancing again at the pegasus, “whoever fired the shot that splatted her wasn’t aiming to hit her. They just missed Purple Rose. That was all it was.

“And that’s...how I deal with it: it wasn’t anypony’s fault. I couldn’t have done anything to prevent it. So instead I focus on moving on with my life,” he concluded. Pointedly ignoring the reality that Val had only done what she did because of how he’d informed her ‘real’ mercenaries acted during a mission.

It wasn’t his fault that she’d believed his lies.

“...I can see that, I guess,” the other pony said with a sigh, finishing up the earth pony’s hind leg and laying it on the bed. A moment later, the pegasus lowered himself down beside Slipshod, propping his head up on his hoof as he looked at the ‘Steed pilot, “you don’t have anypony back home, do you?”

Slipshod shook his head, “Archon wiped out my whole family while I was on Equus. Didn’t even bother going back home. When I made port on Simeron I signed on with the Steel Coursers the next day. Everypony I know in the galaxy is on this ship.”

The pegasus nodded and a wry smile wound its way across his lips, “weirdly enough, I think you’re kind of lucky,” he chuckled when the earth pony understandably raised a skeptical eyebrow, “not because of the familicide; that’s horrible, obviously. Heh, no, I’m talking about everypony you care about being on the ship. It means that, no matter where you go, you’ll never be far from the ponies who matter most to you. Even out here in the backend of wherever the fuck we are,” he gestrued broadly about the room with a wing.

“I’m envious of that.”

“Yeah, well, don’t take this the wrong way: but I hope you don’t end up being like me,” he winked at Blood Chit, “your coltfriend’s too cute to die.”

The pegasus let out a bubbly little laugh this time as he rolled over onto his belly, “I know, right?! He’s adorable; but he’d be the last one to agree with you if you told him that. I don’t know how he can look in the mirror and not see it?!”

“It’s the freckles,” Slipshod nodded sagely, basking in the loving feelings emanating off of the stallion as a result of his thoughts about the pony he cared most about in the galaxy. This could turn out to be one of the better meals he’d had in a while.

AGH! Those freckles!” Blood Chit veritably screeched with joy, wrapping himself up in his forelegs and wings and rolling around on his half of the bed, “I just want to stare at them all day! The way they move when he eats; I can’t take it!

“I just want to tackle him out of his chair and chew on ‘em,” he flashed a devilish grin at the earth pony. His love was now tinged with more carnal feelings. Still nourishing though, if a little tangier, “when we finally get back home, I’m going to kiss each one individually,” those sweet feelings soured now, prompting a disappointed grimace from Slipshod that he quickly covered up.

“Which, I guess could be a while,” he mused aloud, “we’re not even going to be able to write home for who knows how long.”

“We’ll reach a settled system eventually,” Slipshod pointed out to the pegasus, “that system’ll have corporations, and one of them is bound to own a Jump Ship. I know that when we find one, Squelch’ll hire it out to travel back to the Sphere and transmit some letters back home to the net,” that was something that would almost certainly not be possible, the earth pony knew; but having the crew at least think that letters were getting home would help keep morale up.

He made a note to ask Squelch about feigning that, in the interests of maintaining the crew’s spirits. The happier they were, the better they’d perform―and the better he’d eat. Meals like this one were simply far more sparse than he’d grown accustomed to over the last couple years.

He idly debated if he should try to rope Wing Nut into a more permanent arrangement. While he’d discovered that using a monogamous sexual relationship as his sole source of sustenance was unsustainable in the long term, he’d managed to get a good six months out of Squelch before signs of deterioration had started to become troublesome. He could likely get a lot longer out of the earth pony mechanic, since she wouldn’t be in a position to make life or death decisions involving the crew when the cognitive decline started to manifest.

Maybe he could even get a year out of her before she was past the point of no return and he needed to move on to another crewmember?

Considerations for later, the stallion decided. Right this moment, he had a perfectly delectable serving of loving feelings right here beside him―

The bed quivered for the briefest moment. Both stallions blinked and sat up, looking first at each other, and then around the room.

It was Blood Chit who spoke up first, “did...that feel a lot like―?”

“―damper lag from an acceleration burn? Yeah,” Slipshod finished, noting that the knowledge that his initial assumption was being corroborated by another didn’t seem to be doing much to abate his confusion. The Galloway was still docked with the Disciple WarShip, which was―or until recently had been―holding position near this system’s primary star as it recharged its jump drive. They’d already been there for the better part of a day and a half.

There was no reason for them to be moving anywhere. And yet―

A sour tone blared sharply from where his barding lay crumpled on the floor.

The earth pony rolled off the bed and scrambled for his pad, which had no doubt just received a message containing information that would answer the questions budding in his head. A nearly identical sound from behind him on the bed suggested that the pegasus had received an alert of some sort as well. That actually prompted only more questions, as the two of them were parts of very divergent chains of command.

Slipshod was the mercenary company’s Lance Commander; one step below Squelch herself in the pecking order. His inclusion in any major command decisions, and updates on any important information affecting the outfit were part and parcel of his position. Meanwhile, Blood Chit technically fell under Mig’s supervision, as his recovery team was classified under the broad umbrella of ‘BattleSteed Operations’ over which the kirin held sway. The pegasus wouldn’t be getting the same news that Slipshod was. His marching order would be getting distilled through the kirin mechanic.

Blood Chit’s pad was a lot closer at hoof to the pegasus, and so he finished reading his briefing just as the earth pony untangled his own interface. His stunned comment did at least serve to give the ‘Steed pilot a clue as to what he was going to find waiting for him. Though it certainly raised far more questions than it answered.

“...My team’s being moved to ‘Ready Status’,” the scarlet stallion stated in blunt surprise, He shifted his baffled gaze to Slipshod, “...we have an op? How?”

The earth pony was parsing his own message quickly, and only half heard what the flier had said, “we’re deploying? Where and how?” he now turned to meet the other pony and both shared a brief moment of solidarity in their surprise, “guess I’d better go and find out,” the earth pony said as he began to throw on his jumpsuit.

“Squelch wants me in the conference room. We’ll catch up later, ‘kay, Chit? I want to hear more about your coltfriend’s freckles…”

After all, he was still hungry…

Slipshod was the last to arrive in the ship’s conference room. A result of the combined factors of the distance of Blood Chit’s quarters from the briefing room, as well as the difficulties he’d had getting an uncooperative jumpsuit on. It hadn’t exactly been removed with the greatest of care at the time…

As expected, the rest of the company’s senior leaders were also in attendance. What he had not expected was to find that Twilight Sparkle had been included in the meeting as well. Sans guard. Admittedly, the concept of an ‘escort’ had largely become superfluous, given that it was the Steel Coursers who were effectively the ‘captives’ at the moment.

Slipshod wasn’t sure why it irked him that the alicorn was sitting in Valkyrie’s old seat. Not that the conference room had ‘assigned seats’ aside from Squelch’s. Everypony did tend to sit in the same place during each of their meetings though, having laid a de facto claim to them by virtue of choosing them at some point in the distant past. His annoyance was probably just some subconscious aversion to seeing a pony in the ‘wrong’ place. It passed soon enough.

It wasn’t like Val was going to be using that chair again anyway, whoever sat in it.

“Now that we’re all here,” the sage green unicorn mare began, the edge in her tone suggesting that she was annoyed at how long it had taken the ‘Steed pilot to arrive. At least, that was likely how everypony else in the room would take it. Slipshod knew that there were a litany of reasons that Squelch didn’t regard him as her favorite pony these days. His lack of punctuality wouldn’t be found anywhere near that top of that list though, “let’s begin with some situation updates:

“First off: we finally know where we are,” the ship’s commander said, her horn glowing as she manipulated the console controlling the projection table. Which, Slipshod noticed, had had its surface repaired since the last time he’d been in this room, “during recharges, the Rockhoof has been careful to keep us out of line-of-sight of any possible navsats in the systems we’ve been to. Likely an opsec concern.

“However, now that their ship’s heading insystem, Doppler was able to ping a sat and get a fix on our position,” an image of the Harmony Sphere manifested above the table briefly, before the stars began to shift and move about. Soon the projector had isolated a much smaller section of the settled galaxy. One of the stars was encircled by a bright blue light, hanging within a highlighted cluster of several more stars.

“Capensis,” the company’s owner announced, indicating the star system that the view was centered on, “one of the border worlds of the Farisian Empire,” she looked down at her terminal and briefly entered a few additional commands, “a brief history lesson for those that didn’t pay enough attention in whatever passed for an ancient history class wherever they went to school―which included myself until about fifteen minutes ago:

“After the fall of the Celestia League, several of the more...shall we say, ‘less sociable’ creatures took it upon themselves to emigrate out of the Sphere in an effort to stay out of the fighting that was breaking out. These included―but are not limited to―zebras, minotaurs, donkeys, griffons, felines, diamond dogs, and a host of others I’d never actually heard of before today.

“In any case, these creatures set themselves up with little enclaves beyond what was, at that time, ‘settled space’. They left early enough that there were still a few terraformers in operation. Presumably those have all broken down or are defunk now. But they didn’t have much else.

“Technologically and economically, they are middling, at best.

“The Farisian Empire is a zebra-centric star nation consisting of thirteen settled systems and a population in the single-digit billions. They’re not big, and their GDP is smaller than some major spaceports. Other than that, not much else is known, because hardly anypony back home cares.”

The unicorn looked back up from where she’d been skimming over the records she’d found and once more looked around at her command staff, “now onto more recent events:

“Two hours ago, sensors registered an Finder-Keeper event in the system. Thanks to Val’s upgrades, Doppler was even able to get us a set of coordinates for the jump translation…” she paused and shared a knowing look with the others, as though she was well aware of the sort of reaction that she was likely going to receive, “...the L1 of the only inhabited planet’s moon.”

Slipshod nearly got a headache from the sheer intensity of the shock and surprise that burst out of every other one of the room’s occupants. It was a mercy that he couldn’t experience feedback from his own emotional state, because he hadn’t handled the revelation much better.

“A moon’s L1?!” Doc Dee sputtered, sounding almost professionally offended at the notion, “even if the crew survived, the kinds of spatial stressors an exit like that places on the body are serious! Nausea, migraines, double-vision…” he was shaking his head in clear disgust.

“Who’d be crazy enough to risk a jump like that?” Tig asked skeptically, “you’d need positional data accurate down to the kilometer and minute!”

Squelch shrugged, “Well then they must have had it, because whoever it was made it into the system without misjumping to Celestia-knows-where. Something smaller detached and started burning towards the planet minutes later.

“Half an hour after that, we received a message from the Disciples,” she nodded her head in the direction of the purple alicorn, who now produced what Slipshod initially mistook for the same scroll that she’d received on the ship’s bridge when they’d first made contact with the Disciple WarShip. However, as she unfurled it, he realized that this missive was much longer, and had a lot more written on it than a four word greeting, “they’ve informed us that the planetary government is requesting help.

“The new arrivals are pirates, and this system is undeveloped by even Farisian standards. They don’t have the ability to defend themselves effectively.”

“A backwater system of a backwater star nation?” Slipshod flashed a sardonic smile as he interjected his own commentary into the conversation, “their local militia is probably still armed with spears and hoof-blades…” his slight was answered with a snort from Tig and a frown from Squelch. The earth pony cleared his throat and leaned back in his seat.

Doc Dee furrowed his brow, “...the zebras asked the Disciples for help?”

“Specifically, it seems,” was the unicorn mare’s dour reply. Her distaste was understandable. Not because she found the idea of somecreature rushing to the aid of zebras unpalatable―Squelch was hardly the bigoted sort. No, her displeasure was solely for the implications associated with what a request like that entailed.

First, it suggested that the local zebra government was familiar with the Disciples. Yet, at the same time, was possessed of a vastly differing opinion on the quality of their character. In the Harmony Sphere, a settlement that felt threatened by a Disciple raid would have been inclined to reach out to any local pirates for assistance in repelling them―and likely would have even received it. Even pirates held a dim view on the fanatics.

After all, most raiders launched their assaults for the purpose of obtaining wealth and materials. Understandable and forgivable motivations, given the state of scarcity in the Sphere. Heck, that was ostensibly the reason for the near-constant fighting amongst the Great Houses and their pet mercenary companies. Meanwhile, the Disciples―according to all sources labeled as ‘reputable’ by ComSpark―killed indiscriminately for the sheer glee of it.

Second, was the idea that the zebras might also not be the least bit put off by the fact that the Disciples in the system had arrived onboard a WarShip. It was a notion that made everypony uneasy. After all, surely such ancient weapons of war being controlled by the Disciples of Discord weren’t such a common sight in the Periphery as to be unremarkable…


“...which brings us to our part in this,” Squelch continued, her lips curling into a sardonic smile of her own now. She waved a hoof in Twilight’s direction and receded back into her chair, crossing her hooves across her chest as she directed her attention to the alicorn.

Several eyebrows―including Slipshod’s―rose along with the purple mare as she stood up and began to address the room, “these pirates are known to the Disciples,” she explained, referring to the―rather lengthy―unfurled scroll in her telekinetic grasp, “they are ruthless, and formidable. The Rockhoof carries a company of ‘Steeds, yes, but the pirates will be fielding at least as many as well.

“They have asked for our assistance, and―after discussing the matter with your commander―the Steel Coursers have agreed to render it.”

Slipshod wasn’t quite able to keep himself from looking in Squelch’s direction in surprise. However, the unicorn was very pointedly avoiding looking anywhere other than the alicorn’s direction as the purple mare continued talking, “fundamentally, this will be treated as any other paid contract,” Twilight said, “the Galloway is faster and more maneuverable than the Disciple’s own Friendship-class DropShip. If it departs now, it can reach the planet quickly enough to intercept the pirates before they reach the principal settlement.”

The earth pony blinked, looked around the room hesitantly, and then raised a tentative hoof, “uh...you said the pirates were deploying a ‘Steed company...right? As in: twelve ‘Steeds?”

“Obviously, it’s impossible to know until the pirates have actually debarked their forces exactly how many ‘Steeds they will be fielding,” Twilight pointed out, “but that is their standard operating profile for raids like this one, according to the Disciples.”

“No offense, Rosie,” the earth pony responded, continuing to use her pseudonym while in the presence of the rest of the crew, “but even you’re not that good,” otherwise, she wouldn’t have been driven off by Chrysalis’ ambush five hundred years ago, he thought to himself, “two ‘Steeds can’t beat a company.”

Squelch chimed in now as well, “our mission from ComSpark is to ingratiate ourselves to the Disciples,” she explained for the benefit of the rest of the command staff. She and the two ‘Steed pilots knew, of course, that that ‘operation’ was a farce, “helping them out in a jam is a perfect way to begin.”

“And exactly how much use are we going to be to them after both our ‘Steeds get slagged in a hopeless fight?” Mig asked, obviously dubious about the merit of such a mission. Slipshod found himself in agreement with her point.

“Our objective is one of harassment only,” the alicorn sternly informed the gathered ponies, “Slipshod and I will deploy as a screening force with the objective of slowing the pirates’ advance until the Disciple DropShip can land.

“As such, we need not get into any drawn out confrontations. Both the Rainbow Dash and the Crystal Cavalier are fast enough that only lighter units will be able to pursue them,” she looked at Slipshod now, “the pair of us should have little difficulty neutralizing light and medium tonnage ‘Steeds that insist on engaging us, correct?”

The stallion frowned. At face value, that seemed reasonable; but he was experienced enough to know that it was still a risk. All it would take is a couple of lucky―or unlucky, rather―hits to a leg joint, and suddenly any heavier opponents would have little trouble in running the pair of them down. Still, both of them had long-range weaponry that should hopefully afford them enough of a head-start if a withdrawal was warranted. So he nodded his assent.

“Good,” Squelch said, getting up from her seat, “the two of you get dressed and meet with the twins for your pre-launch checklists. We’re undocking in five minutes and burning for the planet,” she started towards the exit, murmuring under her breath, “might as well void the warranty on these engines. Not like I can ever get them serviced at a license dockyard again anyway…”

The pair of kirin mares stood up next, both exchanging frowns with each other, “and we have some reactor housings to put back together in record time,” Tig said with a grimace.

Literally every time we try to service the mana injectors,” Mig growled, “every. Time.”

“And I guess I should brush up on zebra-pony communicable diseases,” the ivory physician said as he stood up and made to leave as well.

“That seems a little excessive, don’t you think?” Slipshod said, arching his brow at the doctor.

“Hardly,” he replied matter-of-factly, “it's well established medical knowledge that populations which have been isolated from one another can cultivate diseases which are harmless to them, but dangerous to new arrivals. Until I’ve done a few blood screenings of the locals, I recommend against any prolonged physical...contact,” he said the last with a pointed look in the earth pony stallion’s direction, prompting the ‘Steed pilot to scowl.

“Very funny.”

“Very serious,” Doc Dee replied stoically, “no planetside trysts until I say otherwise,” and with that, it was only Slipshod and Twilight in the room together.

The earth pony eyed the purple mare for several seconds before his gaze drifted to the scroll, “so what’s up with those anyway? A bit ‘low tech’, isn’t it?”

The alicorn levitated the rolled vellum up to eye level, her expression growing distant for a brief moment as she stared at the parchment, “...before digital media, this was how I received nearly all of my correspondence: scrolls sent via enchanted dragonfire. Instantaneous transmission of a message from anywhere on Equus―and later, the galaxy―right to my hooftips.”

The stallion cocked his brow, “dragonfire? Not changeling magic? Because the color of those flames…” he let the observation hang in the air between them.

The mare chuckled, “I once conducted a very thorough study on that exact phenomenon. Turns out it’s just a coincidence,” she said with an almost apologetic shrug, as though she anticipated that that was not a very satisfactory answer. From what he could feel, she hadn’t found it to be one either, “or, if there is a connection, it predates any existing written accounts.

“Changeling magic is obviously innate, and so the color it manifests as is the color it manifests as. The dragonfire enchantment is the alteration of the natural order. After all, normal dragonfire is the same color as any regular fire,” she said, her tone and demeanor becoming more analytical. Suddenly, Slipshod felt like he was back in one of the academy’s lecture halls.

He didn’t like it.

“I learned the spell from Celestia,” Twilight continued, seeming to actually get some measure of enjoyment out of relating her ancient academic adventure, “who once told me that she learned it from pre-Equestrian zebra shamans. Now, a lot of zebra rituals weren’t written down; they were passed on through oral tradition. It served as a sort of ‘barrier to entry’ for the position of shaman: they had to be cognitively able to retain a perfect rote memorization of their profession’s oral history in order to be inducted into their ranks.

“Fortunately, I had tutored the great grandmare of one of the stallions on their High Council, and he was willing to recite for me the portion of their tradition dealing with that particular enchantment and its origins,” she frowned now, “unfortunately, it had been on the condition that I didn’t write it down either. I couldn’t even quote him in the citations of the study I wrote up, because that would have counted as a written record.

“My paper was rejected under peer review by the Journal Arcana Equina because of ‘insufficiently supported assertions’. That one really hurt to swallow…” she let out a mournful sigh, but then delved back into her account.

“Anyway, according to him, the zebra shamans of old learned the spell from ancient thestrals, of all ponies!” her uptick in both tone and emotional excitement suggested that Slipshod was supposed to find the revelation as astounding as she had―and apparently still did―however, the earth pony could safely say that he was very unmoved by that information. So he merely regarded the mare in bored silence.

Twilight let out an aggrieved sigh and sought to explain the significance of the revelation to him, “by the time Nightmare Moon rose to power, thestrals were as magically illiterate as pegasi!” she stressed, almost as though this was something that he was supposed to have been aware of already, “but―apparently―thousands of years before that, they were creating high-tier magical enchantments?!

“What happened in their history that erased that level of magical acumen among their race?” Slipshod blinked, and then shrugged, “exactly! Nopony knows; and that’s the point!

“Oh, I was so tempted to revive the study of time magic in order to find out. Of course, I’m the one that outlawed any further research into those sorts of spells after...things...happened; so that would’ve been a bit hypocritical of me…”

“So...not changeling magic,” Slipshod offered by way of succinct summation,

“Not as far as I can tell.”

“Cool,” the stallion shook away the sense of detached apathy that he hadn’t felt since his days at the Sandhoof Academy and turned towards the door, “let’s get our barding on; we’re probably already in orbit by now…”

“Hey, you asked!” the alicorn huffed indignantly.

Orbital scans show the raiders making their way west towards the planetary capital,” Squelch’s voice crackled over his helmet’s headset as the earth pony completed the last of his pre-launch checks. He could feel the turbulence of the DropShip’s atmospheric entry through the Cavalier’s piloting couch. They’d be deploying in a minute or so, “unsurprisingly, local defense forces haven’t been able to do much to slow them down.

The stallion was unable to suppress a grimace at the news. Not because it signaled any sort of foreboding omens―he hadn’t expected to hear anything different. No, his annoyance was prompted by the thought that any of the local forces would have bothered to even try to stop the pirates. They had to have known how futile and ineffective it would have been to try and stop a company of BattleSteeds with mere ground vehicles.

Unless the vehicle force possessed stupendously overwhelming numbers, or some other advantage, it was nothing but an exercise in suicide as for as the stallion was concerned.

The Disciple commander says they’ll have their forces deployed and ready to intercept the raiders in half an hour,” his unicorn employer continued, “but you’ll have to keep them from reaching the last phase line for that to happen. Otherwise the drop zone’ll be too hot for a deployment.”

Slipshod reviewed the map of the engagement area, noting the marked points of interest. While Capensis was far from what most ponies who hailed from the Harmony Sphere would consider to be a ‘developed world’, it did still have some of the fundamental amenities like aerial defense batteries. Nothing even remotely approaching the level that one would see on a frequently contested world in the Sphere, to be sure, but enough to give a single DropShip pause and decide it was more amenable to debark their forces outside its coverage area.

As such, the pirates had made planetfall about a hundred kilometers outside of the city. They were proceeding relatively slowly, suggesting that a number of their units were in the upper end of the heavy-tonnage range. On the bright side, it had bought the Steel Coursers the time needed to beat them to the city itself. Though, not by much. Maybe a dozen kilometers or so. Enough that if they got pushed too far back to quickly, they’d basically be fighting in the city itself. At that point, it would be questionable if their actions had actually done any good for the residents.

Phase lines had been established to help him and Twilight track their withdrawals, and gauge how quickly they were being pushed back. They had worked out minimum allowable times for each line of retreat. If they were forced back too far too fast, the Galloway would be called in to retrieve them.

This was a risky operation with a frankly low chance of success given the odds involved. The Disciples seemed to acknowledge and understand that, and they weren’t asking for he and Twilight to defend the city to the death. Slipshod idly wondered if they’d have felt that way if anypony other than their long-lost princess had been one of the ‘Steed pilots involved.

Remember: this is a delaying action,” she stressed, “no heroics. No getting into brawls if it can be avoided. Pin the enemy down and then fall back when they try to flank you,” Slipshod frowned at the thought of his combat inexperienced boss attempting to explain tactics to him and Twilight. Likely she was saying all of that for her own benefit, rather than theirs. There were obviously quite a few factors at play that made this operation significantly more stressful than similar ones they’d conducted back in the Sphere.

“But if I can’t act heroically, then how will I impress all of those fine and exotic striped mares down there enough to attract a personal harem to take with me for the rest of our trip?” the golden earth pony quipped, looking to inject an iota of levity into the tone of the briefing, “since cleaning out my cabin, I figure I’ve made room for about a half dozen nubile young zebras.”

...Gallop Two?

Yes?” Twilight replied.

If you see Gallop One in trouble, don’t help him.


“Harsh, but fair,” Slipshod said, nodding to himself, feeling a little smile touch his lips.

ETA to drop: thirty seconds,” the sage unicorn mare said. Even through the distortion of the radio, the stallion could hear that there was a little less stress than there had been a moment ago. Hearing the earth pony making lecherous remarks during an op served to add a level of familiarity that helped to ease some of her tension. She knew how to deal with Slipshod’s off-color commentary, after all.

Slipshod both heard and felt the ventral thrusters roar to life as the Mustang-class DropShip slowed its descent and came to a hover above the drop zone. The doors below his Crystal Cavalier slid open, revealing the dusty brown surface below. Once the ship had come to a stop, the cabling holding his ‘Steed in place released, and both the mechanical equine and its pilot fell out of the belly of the ship. The earth pony braced himself as the ‘Steed’s leg actuators worked overtime to absorb as much of the force of the drop as possible, but he was still significantly rattled by the landing.

Through the cockpit’s forward viewport, he saw the cerulean and yellow Rainbow Dash touch down daintily upon the ground, riding the plumes of its jump jets. He couldn’t help but frown at the sharp contrast of their landings. For a second, he considered asking Tig to outfit his Cavalier with some jump jets of his own, but soon discarded the idea. He wasn’t nearly familiar, or skilled, enough with the use of the thrusters to make any advantages they might be able to provide him in combat worth whatever armor plating or weapons would need to be sacrificed in order to find the tonnage necessary to add them.

Still, they would have been useful in that exact moment.

That thought was pushed aside to make way for more pertinent ones. Specifically, the current location and vector of the incoming enemy BattleSteed company. Without Valkyrie or her Parasprite to provide them with real-time reconnaissance, he and Twilight had been forced to spend the entirety of the trip to the planet planning out their strategy and making contingencies. Fortunately, the Disciples had been able to provide them with decently detailed topographic maps of the area.

They approximated the likely course of the enemy’s forces according to how the terrain would affect their movement, and selected several advantageous ambush locations for each likely route. Their plan was to find the enemy, anticipate which of the routes they were using, and then assume the appropriate positions where they’d be able to launch their attacks.

As Squelch had stressed earlier, the idea was not to get into a prolonged engagement. He and the alicorn simply did not have the firepower for such a thing. They would instead pick out specific targets, attempt to cripple or lame them with their first few volleys, and then fall back to the next ambush site. Hopefully, if they were lucky, they’d be able to lame one or more of the enemy’s ‘Steeds, slowing the whole element enough for the Disciple DropShip to have time to get their forces into position for a more sustained repelling operation.

“Move to Point Apple and see if you can get a look of where they’re at,” the earth pony said. With her jump jets, Twilight’s Rainbow Dash was better served as their scout. She’d be able to ‘peek’ over the crest of the ridgeline long enough to get eyes on the enemy. Hopefully without exposing herself long enough for them to get a good look at where and what she was. They’d certainly get a flash on their sensors for a second or so, but that wasn’t a lot of time to learn much about a sensor contact.

Will do,” the alicorn acknowledged, her heavy ‘Steed turning and cantering off towards the eastern ridgeline.

Meanwhile, Slipshod turned his own attention to his ‘Steed’s communications suite and tuned his receiver to the channel that they’d been given for the local planetary defense forces. Perhaps they might have some additional information to share that would prove helpful, such as descriptions of the ‘Steeds involved and the formations that they were using.

“―second platoon, withdraw!” a stallion’s frantic voice could be heard yelling over the frequency, “you’ve got hostiles three clicks out and closing fast! LRM carriers are gone; you’ve got no fire support up there!

Evac’s not complete,” came a mare responded, “it took us longer than expected to package up some of the ICU patients. We’ll be able to move out in five minutes.

“Five minutes?!” the incredulity in the stallion’s tone was palpable, “turn your fucking head northeast; you can see the enemy ‘Steeds! You need to leave now!”

I’m not leaving them behind,” her determination to do her duty would likely be considered commendable by some. Slipshod, however, had to wonder at the ‘heroism’ of electing to die with civilians who wouldn’t be saved either way. He was hard-pressed to conceive of what dying along with them accomplished for anypony.

You’re a damn fool,” the earth pony found himself in agreement with the stallion’s assessment, “...I’m moving the Partisan into position,” he continued in a resigned tone, “I can’t promise you five minutes, but...I’ll do what I can.”

Understood, sir. Thank you.”

You can thank me by trimming down that time,” while the stallion continued speaking, it was clear that the target of his next directions were somepony other than the mare from earlier, “move the partisan forward; target the Gilda! Fire once you have a―shit! They’ve spotted us; get down―!”


A few seconds later, the mare from earlier could be heard again, “Major Sable? Sir? Shit. I think they hit the CP. We need to hurry up and...oh fuck; they’re here. Everypony, back inside the hospit―!”

Slipshod was unable to restrain his eye roll as a second burst of telltale static monopolized the frequency. After several seconds, it was clear that no other transmitters were in range which were using that channel. It hadn’t been a complete wash, at least; he’d learn the identity of one of the ‘Steed types that they’d be facing. He reached down and brought up a profile for a common Gilda variant.

Large-bore autocannon, medium magical energy weapons, an LRM, and jump capable. A lot of firepower for a medium ‘Steed, to be sure; but it was something of a ‘glass cannon’. If Twilight was able to connect with it with both of her PPCs, that might actually be enough to break it in half, if she hit it right. Though, that was naturally only a possibility if the alicorn decided that she wanted to fight like her life―and the lives of millions of innocent civilians―depended on it.

Personally, the earth pony didn’t particularly care whether this mission ‘succeeded’ or not, so long as he survived it. Which wasn’t to say that he was quite willing to abandon their objectives right out of hoof either. The Disciples would be watching his performance during the operation. Anything but his best efforts wouldn’t do much to help assure them that he absolutely, one hundred percent, pinkie-swearsies, wasn’t a changeling.

So, he was certainly going to give a good account of himself in this mission. Maybe he’d even manage to get a kill or two on some of the lighter BattleSteeds that the raiders had brought with them as vanguard units.

His biggest concern was how much effort Twilight would put into getting him out of any trouble he might find himself getting pulled into. Squelch’s earlier ‘joke’ aside, Slipshod was keenly aware that the purple mare likely felt no great compunction to kill other creatures in order to save the life of a changeling. If things started to go poorly for him, the stallion strongly suspected that he’d be on his own.

Meanwhile, he’d have to do everything he could to bail Twilight out if the situation called for it. After all, if she died, his dreams of unseating Chrysalis likely would die with her. If the Disciples hadn’t seen fit to move against the queen in five centuries, he couldn’t conceive of them doing so at some future date either without the support of the once―and maybe future―alicorn monarch.

I got a read on an enemy lance,” Twilight reported, her tone tinged with frustration.

The stallion’s brow furrowed in confusion, “‘lance’?”

They split up,” the alicorn informed him, the source of her aggravation now clear.

It made a certain amount of sense, the earth pony supposed, now that he thought about it. The raiders had to know that this planet didn’t possess much in the way of forces that could offer meaningful resistance to ‘Steeds. With that in mind, keeping their forces concentrated in a single company limited the area that they could cover in whatever timetable that they’d set for themselves.

While splitting their forces made truly ‘stopping’ the raiders, even for a short while, effectively impossible, it also afforded the two mercenary pilots an opportunity to hurt them. Severely. Two ‘Steeds against a full company? That would have been tantamount to suicide.

But...two of the deadliest Celestia League era BattleSteeds ever fielded in near-mint condition against a lance of whatever ‘Steeds these Periphery-based pirates had managed to piece back together from scraps? Slipshod liked those odds a lot better.

“Alright, new plan,” the earth pony declared, “no ambushes. We move in fast, we hit that lance hard. Any mayday that they send off will either prompt the other lances to withdraw off planet or chase us down. Either way we get them away from the city. Sound good?”

Admittedly, I do find the idea of fighting only four opponents a lot more agreeable than twelve,” she acknowledged.

“Alright, let’s form up. Stay at my four o’clock on the way in,” he began ordering as he spurred his Cavalier up the side of the mountain ridge that Twilight was currently perched on, “we’ll work from lightest to heaviest,” he declared.

There were typically two schools of thought where the matter of prioritizing targets was concerned, and each had their merits.

One was to focus fire on the biggest ‘Steed on the opponent’s side at the start of the engagement. After all, the heavier the ‘Steed, the greater the threat it tended to represent. Removing it removed more guns from the enemy’s side of the fight. This in turn hopefully more greatly reduced the damage that your side took for the rest of the fight.

The downside to such a strategy was that heavier ‘Steeds also―by their nature―took longer to bring down because they tended to be more heavily armored. Which meant that your side was subjected to the full weapons complement of the enemy force for much longer until the target was finally taken out of the fight. Which translated into more damage taken, and a greater chance that something important would be lost.

Like his life.

For this reason, Slipshod tended to prefer eliminating lighter ‘Steeds first. They might not hit the hardest, but they went down much more quickly, and so it was easier to reduce the overall volume of enemy fire much faster. You obviously had to be on your guard for the heavier opponent, who’d be able to hurt you badly if you let them, but it was easier to prance around a heavy ‘Steed than lighter ones. If you weren’t paying attention, a Breezy could get behind you and just drill into your ‘Steed’s rear with impudence. Even an assault-massed BattleSteed like a Radical was easy enough to keep from getting behind you in a melee.

“And, Twilight?”


“Whoever these guys are, they’re not worth your mercy. Okay? Trust me,” he doubted that she’d been listening in on the same broadcast that he had, and he didn’t really have time to convince her that he’d heard the live massacre of a hospital full of sick and injured zebras.

Honestly, it unnerved him a little too. Mostly because of how unusual this level of malevolence was to see, even among raiders. At least back in the Sphere. At the end of the day, pirates in the Harmony Sphere were out for resources and materials that they could sell for cash. It wasn’t anything personal. So they certainly never went out of their way to kill anypony that wasn’t standing in their way.

If for no other reason than because missiles weren’t free. Massacring civilians, thus, wasn’t cost-effective.

That didn’t seem to be the mindset of this group however. It was a level of depravity that Slipshod hadn’t seen from ‘Steed pilots first-hoof before. Certainly not from licensed mercenaries or House Regulars in the Harmony Sphere. A part of him even felt a little affronted to see ‘Steeds being used for something like this. He was certainly not a noble espouser of warrior ideals or anything like that; but he respected his craft enough to know that you didn’t waste a multimillion C-bit BattleSteed by using it to stomp on helpless bystanders.

It was...unprofessional.

“Set speed at sixty kph,” Slipshod instructed, “nothing fancy; center of mass hits,” while the chest and trunk of a steed were typically the most heavily armored parts of a ‘Steed, and thus could absorb more damage, it was the surest way to bring down an opponent. With lighter chassis, there also tended to not be all that much more ablative plating when compared to other parts of the ‘Steed anyway. A Pipsqueak or Breezy actually tended to have fewer tons of armor on their cores than even his Wild Bronco had had on a leg, “move out.”

The earth pony throttled up his Cavalier to the speed he’d indicated. It was very much near the maximum run speed of his BattleSteed, while still leaving him a little bit to play with if the need arose. Twilight’s Rainbow Dash was capable of quite a bit more, of course.

Both ‘Steeds crested the rise and immediately began galloping down the rocky slope on the other side of the ridge. This was the first time that Slipshod got a clear view of precisely what they were dealing with, though it wasn’t far off the mark from what he’d anticipated under the circumstances. The enemy lance was running a balanced mix of tonnages. A single light SneakyShy was leading the diamond formation, followed by a pair of Gildas, and a Riflemare bringing up the rear. A lot of firepower, to be sure, but not an overwhelming amount to deal with. Especially if they managed to down one or two of the enemy’s ‘Steeds by the time they got into an all-out brawl.

Slipshod selected the light BattleSteed out in front of the formation as his first target and carefully teased his reticle onto it. The distance between them was still well over the kilometer, but that number was dropping fast. He could technically land a hit with his prismatic projection cannon from here, but the chromatic coil of destructive light would have lost a lot of its potency by then. It was best to wait until he was within five hundred meters.

One weapon system that was perfectly capable of striking their target while not suffering ill effects of the extreme range was Twilight’s forty long range missiles. Missiles, the earth pony noted, which the purple alicorn had yet to fire, even though more than enough time had elapsed for her to achieve a firm sensor lock on their first target. A missile barrage like that would ravage a frail ‘Steed like a SneakyShy. If it didn’t destroy it outright, it certainly would have chewed away just about all of the lighter chassis’ armor, and left its internal systems vulnerable to a hit from his PPC or pulsed energy cannons to finish it off.

She wasn’t firing them though.

Slipshod felt his teeth gritting in frustration. While he couldn’t honestly say that he was surprised that the mare wasn’t taking his earlier remark about showing mercy to these raiders to heart, it was nevertheless quite annoying.

It didn’t take the enemy lance long to realize that they had company. Though it did take them slightly longer than the golden stallion would have thought to react to their appearance. Presumably, that hesitation had been the result of their surprise at seeing a pair of heavy ‘Steeds coming at them on a world that shouldn’t have had this sort of firepower at hoof. Of course, these raiders would have been able to do basic math and recognize that they had both a clear numerical and weight advantage, so they probably weren’t terribly concerned about their chances in this fight.

Slipshod did have to wonder whether or not they’d taken into account the ‘Steeds that they were going up against beyond their raw tonnage. The Rainbow Dash would have had little trouble facing off against an assault class ‘Steed on its own. Even his Crystal Cavalier was far superior to most contemporary ‘Steeds of its class, thanks to the Celestia League era weapons and systems that it possessed. They were also in near-perfect condition. While the enemy’s Riflemare had likely been rebuilt from salvaged scraps a dozen times over.

Probably not, he decided as the range to the SneakyShy finally dropped below five hundred meters. His ‘Steed’s side-mounted lance belched forth a helix of rainbow light which struck the lighter opponent, who had been charging headlong at him, squarely in the chest. The impact of the heavy weapon was enough to briefly stagger the SneakyShy, dropping it out of its own sprint. The earth pony’s eyes darted briefly to the display showing his target’s condition. Sure enough, every scrap of ablative plating had been dissolved absorbing that initial hit, leaving little of significance behind to ward off another hit.

He fired both of his pulsed cannons.

To the enemy pilot’s credit, they must have seen what was coming and took commendable actions as a result. Slipshod saw a flare of blue flame ignite from the top of the SneakyShy’s head and rocket upward just before the sapphire pulses of light drilled into the ‘Steed’s chest. The small metal equine’s reactor casing shattered beneath the abuse and promptly detonated in a violet ball of magical fire. The ‘Steed was gone, and likely unsalvageable by even mechanical wizards of Mig’s and Tig’s skills, but the pilot would at least live on to learn from the experience.

And then there were three.

The SneakyShy’s blitzed destruction apparently was enough to inform the raider lance that they needed to adopt a strategy other than ‘charge headlong into the fire of more advanced ‘Steeds’. The Gilda’s broke off in either direction, seeking to flank their opponents from the sides. The Riflemare continued to plod along straight at him and Twilight though, likely trusting that its heavier plating would help to keep it intact after sustaining more than a single alpha strike. Which was probably a fair assessment. It was finally opening fire though.

Slipshod felt his Chrystal Cavalier tremble as autocannon shells struck home. Soon after, the projectiles were joined by beams of indigo light. His armor indicators flashed, but the damage was comparatively light. The Cavalier had been initially built with a lot of armor in mind. Designed to be able to take a heavy pounding as it charged into battle to deliver devastating melee strikes with its lance. While such an archaic combat doctrine had been long since abandoned as the finer points of BattleSteed tactics were refined, and later revisions of the Cavalier saw some of its armor reduced to free up tonnage for more ranged weapons, the design was still much better protected than many ‘Steeds of its tonnage.

He actually had nearly twice the ablative plating of the Riflemare. Half again as much as the Gildas. In fact…

Slipshod had been about to order Twilight to break right with him so that they could concentrate their efforts on one of the flanking medium ‘Steeds and stick to his initial plan of working their way up the tonnage chain, dealing with the Riflemare last. However, that plan had been devised before he’d known that the heavy ‘Steed that they’d be facing was one which was so lightly armored for its weight. The fact was that the Riflemare would go down faster than either of their two medium opponents.

“You break right,” he barked over the radio to his alicorn lancemate, “I’ve got the Riflemare.”


He saw her blip moving off on his sensor display. This still left the Gilda that had gone left uncontested, but there was no helping that. As though the pilot had sensed his thoughts on the matter, the earth pony received a warning that an enemy had acquired a missile lock on his ‘Steed. Seconds later he was rocked by a succession of explosions as those missiles hit home along his Cavalier’s left barrel. Again his cockpit displays flashed alerts about the condition of his ‘Steed’s armor, but the damage was still minimal. For the moment. The Gilda flanking around him was keeping its distance, wary that he might turn and bring his heavier weapons to bear on them if it proved to be annoying enough.

However, the stallion had locked his focus onto the Riflemare, the pilot of which seemed to have taken note that the Cavalier wasn’t breaking off like the Rainbow Dash had. The heavy ‘Steed slowed to a stop, and then began reversing as quickly as it could. Which, honestly, wasn’t very quickly at all. Its weapons cycled continuously, the dual pairs of energy and projectile cannons mounted to either side of its back spitting out a steady barrage of destructive light and explosive shells. Sapphire beams danced around the earth pony as he guided his Cavalier into a gentle slalom. It wasn’t much of an ‘evasive maneuver’, but it was better than galloping in a perfectly straight line. It at least kept the enemy pilot from being able to easily focus their fire on a single point of his armor.

He lost a good bit of armor on the way in, some segments bleeding into the orange as more than half of the ablative plating was lost beneath the onslaught of fire from the Riflemare. But it was nothing compared to what he inflicted upon the retreating ‘Steed the moment his heavier armaments had recharged.

Again, he started with the PPC. The rainbow helix slammed the Riflemare square in the chest. Twin pulses of sapphire light drilled even deeper still. This wasn’t enough to finish off the heavy ‘Steed like they had the SneakyShy―it wasn’t that lightly armored. But he also wasn’t done yet. Successive viridian columns spat out from the center of his own torso as his medium magical energy cannons were triggered in quick succession. Each of these carved away at the last vestiges of the enemy’s armor, leaving their internal systems exposed and vulnerable.

Slipshod throttled up, squeezing out the last few bits of speed that had been held in reserve. He grit his teeth and braced for impact.

His Chrystal Cavalier’s lance struck home, sinking deep into the bowels of the Riflemare, unfettered by any thick armor plating that might have deflected it away. He outmassed the enemy ‘Steed, and both of them had been traveling in the same direction as well. Physics became the earth pony’s ally as his superior momentum merged with the Riflemare’s, and caused it to be pitched upwards and backwards. Sparks and fire spewed forth from the hole his lance had carved into the heavy ‘Steed’s chest. He wasn’t able to deliver an internal PPC shot the way that he had with the Sombra, but he didn’t need to.

Again, the stallion caught sight of rocket flames out of the corner of his cockpit’s viewport as the raider pilot recognized their doom and ejected. The now inert Riflemare ceased to resist its fate as it fell onto its backside and flopped over limply. The Cavalier’s lance tore free in a shower of twisted steel and alloy frame.

Only two raiders remained.

Slipshod’s cockpit shuddered once more as missiles pelted his ‘Steed’s hindquarters. He grimaced, but wasn’t concerned quite yet. The Gilda was still keeping its distance from him, clearly wary. It was faster than he was though. Strictly speaking, it could easily kite him if so inclined, firing at him with its missiles while keeping itself out of effective range of his PPC. He’d be able to land hits with it of course, but the sturdy medium ‘Steed would be able to weather the greatly reduced damage well enough. On the other hoof, his Cavalier should also be capable of surviving enough missile barrages to run the enemy’s magazines dry.

Meaning that this would turn into a stalemate.

At least, it would if it was just between him and the Gildas. Twilight’s Rainbow Dash was fast enough to keep up with them, and she could double their combined missile output on her own.

The question was whether or not she was willing to use them. He doubted it.

Out of curiosity, the earth pony locked his sensors onto the medium ‘Steed that the purple alicorn was engaged with. He felt a mixture of frustration and satisfaction when he saw that, while it was clear that Twilight was making an effort to avoid outright destroying the ‘Steed and risk killing its pilot, she had managed to cripple most of its weapons. At the moment, it had lost its autocannon and half its energy weapons compliment. Two of its four limbs also showed significant damage. Another good hit or two should be able to effectively lame the Gilda and keep it from escaping.

Unfortunately, that did not seem to be Twilight’s intent, he soon discovered.

Aghast, Slipshod watched as the Rainbow Dash seemed to cease firing altogether. A moment later, the Gilda that she had been tussling with wheeled about and began to sprint away at its maximum available speed. His piloting couch trembled as his ‘Steed sustained another hit, this time from an autocannon. A second later, the other Gilda rocketed past him, riding the flames of its jump jets, as it sped to catch up with its partner. The whole time, Twilight made no effort to finish crippling her target.

She was letting them go.

Slipshod keyed on his radio, “the fuck are you doing?” he snapped angrily, “finish them off!”

They’re withdrawing,” came the alicorn’s indignant response, “there’s no point in continued hostilities.”

“No point in―?!” the earth pony let out an aggravated groan, “do you have any concept of how many zebras these raiders have killed?”

Will killing those two raiders bring the dead back to life?” she asked tersely.

“No, of course not―”

Then killing them serves no purpose,” she concluded, “I have spoken with them, and instructed them to leave without further incident. The matter is resolved.”

Slipshod found himself blinking in utter bafflement. She’d what? That was it then? She told them to go, and now they were leaving, and that was that? Was she serious?

The stallion desperately wanted to point out how ludicrous what she’d said was, but thought better of it. Frankly, they didn’t have time for him to sit around berating her for her naivety. They’d stopped one lance of raiders, yes, but that still left two others that needed to be dealt with before they reached the city and reeked untold havoc on the populace there.

“Fine. Whatever,” he relented. It wasn’t like they were getting kill bounties anyway, “form up and let’s head for...Nav Ferrier. We’ll set up at the phase line there and see what comes our way.”

The alicorn didn’t fight him on that point, at least, and guided her ‘Steed back to his four o’clock as the two of them headed for the designated point. Slipshod took the opportunity to take a closer look at how his Cavalier had held up during the fight. His front sections were roughed up, but not quite critical yet. Another such charge at a heavier ‘Steed was probably ill-advised though. He’d have to keep a closer eye on how often he exposed his ‘Steed’s chest to enemy fire for the remainder of the operation.

His left hindquarters were leaning further into the orange than he’d have liked too. A result of that Gilda having unfettered access to his flank while he’d been dealing with the Riflemare. There’d been no helping it. Honestly, if he’d joined Twilight in her fight with the one Gilda, he’d have probably come out even worse on that flank, as both the other medium and the heavy raider ‘Steeds would have been hitting him in that quadrant. His chest would have been much less scuffed up, but he liked the idea of being a single hard hit away from losing a leg a lot less than having a battered torso.

He just needed to give the enemy his right side to shoot at for a while and he should be fine. For at least the next fight. Hopefully the Disciples would be deployed by then and he and Twilight could withdraw back to the Galloway.

By the time they’d made sensor contact with the next group, Slipshod was feeling much less sure about their chances. This looked to be the raider’s ‘heavy hitter’ lance. The lightest ‘Steed it had was another Gilda, supported by two heavy chassis in the form of an Iron Will and a Shining Armor, with an assault tonnage Ballista in support. Unlike the last group of raiders they had encountered, this lance was more than capable at extreme ranges, and that Iron Will, with its massive alloyed axe clutched in its right hand, would have little trouble besting his Cavalier in a melee tussle if he let it get close enough.

A real fight like last time was out of the question. They had to go for mere harassing actions and hope that they didn’t get roughed up too badly in the process, “keep moving, take potshots when you can, and try to draw them back north,” he advised the alicorn while maneuvering his own ‘Steed to at least attempt to get around to the enemy’s rear.

They saw him coming of course. Missile lock warnings blared, and the earth pony felt his gut tighten as he saw the stream of LRMs arcing skyward from the Ballista. Flashbacks of his confrontation back on Lupine passed through his mind. Hopefully this wouldn’t end in the same manner. He heaved hard on the controls of his BattleSteed and did his best to show the incoming missiles his mostly pristine right side. His command couch shuddered with the impacts. Not every missile scored a hit, but a lot of them did. He snapped off a shot with his prismatic projection cannon, but the shot went wide as he was forced to quickly duck away from a hail of heavy energy cannon fire from the enemy heavy ‘Steeds.

Twilight was having a much easier time evading enemy fire as her jump jets allowed her to strafe from side to side while keeping her forward-facing weapons on target. Her own twin PPCs scored a hit on the Ballista, focused on one of the missile racks. Even the combined firepower of those cannons wasn’t quite enough to take the launcher out of action though, not at these extreme ranges. Another dual blast might finish it off though.

On the bright side, they were proving to be successful in their objective: the raider lance had turned away from the city and seemed content to focus on the pair of Steel Coursers who had showed up. Of course, that silver lining brought with it its own dark cloud in the form of the better part of three hundred tons of BattleSteed firing on them. Slipshod didn’t have a hope of avoiding all of it. His armor was relentlessly ground away beneath the withering hail of enemy fire. As maneuverable as his alicorn companion was, even her Rainbow Dash couldn’t evade such saturating missile and autocannon fire.

The earth pony pilot darted in where he dared in order to score a hit with his pulsed energy cannons, and sought to retreat just as quickly before the enemy could respond with their own heavier weapons. He paid for these sallies though, as more armor was chipped away. The Gilda was proving itself to be exceptionally troublesome. It was the quickest and most agile of the enemy ‘Steeds, and was decently armored to boot. More than once its autocannon found its mark on his Cavalier, and made a good account of itself where his ablative plating was concerned.

They eventually managed to shear off one of the large twenty-count launchers from the Ballista’s back, cutting its bombardment abilities down to nearly half, but that didn’t seem to significantly improve their situation in the short term.

Then things got worse as the third lance of raiders showed up. This one had the same weight class composition as the first, while fielding slightly different ‘Steeds, but Slipshod didn’t believe for a moment that they’d be able to deal with it nearly as easily as the first.

The raiders seemed to be of the same mind on the matter, as the heavier lance began to turn back towards the city not long after the other lance had appeared on sensors. They were confident that the lighter ‘Steeds would be able to finish off the heavily damaged Steel Courser duo without help from their heavier companions. In the stallion’s own estimate: they probably weren’t wrong. Even the Rainbow Dash was looking worse for wear. Slipshod wanted to believe that things would be going better for them if Twilight wasn’t still clearly holding herself back, but that honestly probably wouldn’t have been the case, given the odds against them.

This fight had never been intended as one that they’d be able to actually win anyway, he knew. Their job had just been to buy time. Unfortunately, it didn’t look like quite enough of it had been bought yet. The Disciples were still five minutes out from having their forces deployed. There wasn’t anything notable left of the planetary defense forces to stand in their way.

He and Twilight were it.

Slipshod activated his mic, “you keep playing grab-flank like that with these raiders, and they’ll make it to that city,” he informed the alicorn coolly, “now, I couldn’t give two shits about how many zebras get killed when that happens.

“How much sleep are you going to lose though?”

If we do enough damage, they’ll pull back to their DropShip and leave,” Twilight insisted, “we just need them to see that whatever they’re trying to accomplish here isn’t worth the cost.

“And what are they trying to accomplish, princess?” the stallion inquired pointedly, “this isn’t like any raid I’ve seen. Nothing in that city is valuable to them. They should be targeting a military base or supply depot if they’re after salvage worth selling on the open market.

“But they’re going for the city. They’ve already lost more than enough ‘Steeds to make something like this a wash. So why persist?”

...I don’t know,” she admitted, “but there has to be a point where they’ll decide enough is enough and leave on their own. We don’t need to kill them to get them there.”

“Fine,” the earth pony shrugged, “then let’s withdraw and let the city burn. Let the raiders have their fun until they’re ready to go home. Anything to keep you hooves clean, right?”

That’s not what this is about,” the mare insisted.

“Well it sure isn’t about protecting the citizens of this world,” Slipshod quipped. His eyes went to the map as he appraised their tactical situation, “withdraw to the next phase line,” he ordered, “we’re not taking this new lance head-on,” he turned his Cavalier around and spurred it into a run for the next pre-defined point on their map. Twilight fell in at his side. The third raider lance turned to pursue them.

They made their way up to the crest of the ridgeline running parallel to the advancing heavy lance. They were extremely exposed up there, but would be able to duck to the leeward side of the mountain range while their weapons charged. Strictly speaking, the raiders could likely simply go on ignoring both him and Twilight, and not have to worry about being seriously hurt any time soon. The range was pretty extreme, and the weapons that they had which could do any damage out that far were few.

But he certainly wasn’t about to take them into a melee, as damaged as they were. Twilight was free to use her missiles if she wanted. She had nearly the bombardment capability as the Ballista. Enough to take out maybe one or two of them if she actually wanted to.

Slipshod fired off a shot with his PPC, striking the bipedal Iron Will in the back of its right shoulder. The heavy ‘Steed paused, turned its torso, and responded with a shell from its autocannon. The earth pony had already veered to the side and dropped below the ridgeline however. He saw the spurt of dirt and rock as the shell detonated harmlessly on the face of the mountain. His eyes darted to his sensors, keeping note of the lighter lance which was circling wide to try and get an angle on them on this side of the ridge. The earth pony didn’t care for the idea of being pincered like that, but it would be difficult to avoid at the moment. Breaking to either side would mean getting into a close up fight with either lance, if only for a minute or two.

The lighter raider lance would be difficult to outrun even then. The heavier lance could be left behind easily enough, but they’d be able to inflict a lot of hurt on the pair of them for the minute or two that they were within range. Maybe even enough to cripple one or both of them. Honestly, the lighter lance would probably be capable of doing that at this point, the scallion thought, looking at the status of his ‘Steed.

Of course, for all his and Twilight’s harrying, the lance of heavier raiders was far from deterred. They were very nearly in range of the city’s outskirts too. Slipshod was sure that evacuations had been underway for a good while by now, and would certainly have to have started from the side of the city that would be struck first. That would hopefully mean that civilian casualties would be kept to a minimum. However, there was no way that the whole city had been cleared out by now. Not in only a few hours. Something like that would have taken a day or more at the least.

His screen was populated by a smattering of new sensor contacts. They weren’t pinged as hostile though. Slipshod soon discerned that these were additional planetary defense units. Their last line of defense, made up of everything that had either somehow survived previous skirmishes, or had been kept in reserve for one reason or another. Tabbing through the list of contacts, he saw that it wasn’t much of a last line honestly. Light recon units, and a few missile carriers. Nothing that would manage to stop the enemy.

Most of them wouldn’t even get a chance to fire if that Ballista got a lock on them.

“They might as well just slit their own damn throats,” the earth pony murmured to himself.

Perimeter turrets emerged from their sequestered mounts as the city’s automated defenses were activated. These turrets had been kept hidden in order to ensure that their targets would be within range of their lighter weapons when they finally deployed. Having them out sooner would have just let the raiders snipe them from beyond the turret’s own range.

As it was, revealing them at the last minute didn’t help much. Each turret got off maybe a single volley before being burned down by the raiders. It amounted to a few scattered hits being scored on the largely untouched ‘Steeds. None of which had been concentrated on a specific point on a single target. For all the effectiveness that they ended up having, Slipshod suspected that the city’s administrators would have been better off not deploying them at all. At least then they wouldn’t need to pay to replace them.

Assuming that there was even enough left of this place to bother rebuilding when the day was over with…

No, there was no stopping these raiders now.

...But Slipshod figured that there might be at least something that they could do to help out that might make a difference. Maybe.

He keyed up his mic, “we’re going to make a pass on the Ballista,” he announced, “and we’ll be targeting the right hind leg,” he added with a sardonic smile that he suspected the mare could hear in his voice, even if she couldn’t see him, “they’ll have to slow down to not leave it behind,” despite their penchant for senseless violence, these raiders had thus far proved that they were tactically minded and well coordinated. Which meant that they likely observed other basic tenets of BattleSteed combat as well. Such as: a lance is only as fast as its slowest ‘Steed.

“Stay on my flank,” Slipshod ordered just before taking hold of the controls and driving his Cavalier back over the ridge. The Iron Will had been waiting for him to make another appearance, but the pilot of the heavy ‘Steed had been a little off in their prediction of exactly where Slipshod would emerge from. A boulder a few meters to his left exploded in a shower of dust and pebbles. He depressed the throttle pedals with his hind hooves, coaxing every last ounce of speed he could out of his charge.

He held his fire even as the rangefinder informed him that his target was entering the extreme of his effective range. They’d only get one run like this. That other lance was doubtlessly on their way up the ridge at this very moment, and would be cresting it soon. Turning around for another pass would mean charging straight at two lances of ‘Steeds. So he wanted to be sure that he got the most out of every one of his limited shots, as each of his weapons would only have time to fire once. The closer he was, the more potent his weapons would be.

The Iron Will paused and turned its whole body to track his galloping ‘Steed. The bipedal bovine fired at him with viridian energy and streaking short range missiles. Some found their marks, eliciting alarms in the earth pony’s cockpit as the last vestiges of ablative plating were whisked away by the impacts. Another reason that only one pass would be possible.

The Shining Armor had taken notice too, pivoting and firing with its own heavy energy cannon. Indigo light burned across his Cavalier’s right shoulder. The pulse cannon mounted there flashed an alert. Slipshod’s eyes darted briefly to his HUD’s weapons status indicator. The weapon had been damaged, but was listed as still being operational. He might just have only the one shot with it anyway, as it turned out.

The range ticked down to three hundred meters. Slipshod’s hooves danced along his controls as he fired off every weapon that he possessed in rapid succession. A double-helix of chromatic energy carved away at the armored knee joint on the Ballista’s right leg. Successive pulses of blue light landed a half second later, clearing away the rest of the plating that had managed to survive the PPC strike. As expected, the damaged pulse cannon winked out of operation as something critically damaged by the Shining Armor gave way under the stresses of a discharge.

No matter, it had done its job.

By now, he was two hundred meters away from the Ballista, well within range of his medium energy cannons. These he quad-linked and fired at the naked joint. Emerald light drilled into the exposed steel skeleton and actuators. Unfortunately, it didn’t prove to be quite enough to do the job of crippling the limb entirely. Twilight’s PPC hit finished it off though. The rainbow projectile punched straight through the weakened joint, severing the leg entirely.

The assault-weight BattleSteed buckled and stumbled, collapsing to the knees of its forelimbs as the gyros fought for balance. It would inevitably be able to carry on with just three limbs, but at a greatly reduced pace. That should buy the city at least a few additional minutes.

A kaleidoscope of weaponized light, sprinkled with tracer fire and missiles, dazzled his cockpit viewport as Slipshod’s Crystal Cavalier sprinted away from the lance of raider ‘Steeds. He and Twilight drove hard for the distant ridgeline and the cover that it offered from the worst of the enemy’s fire. That other lance of lighter ‘Steeds would doubtlessly continue to pursue them even past the crest of the mountains, but there wasn’t anything that they could do about that.

Indicators on his HUD flashed warnings as the last vestiges of his rear ablative plating were chewed away by the barrage. There wasn’t much more that he could do about that other than slalom a little to and fro. Of course, the more drastic the serpentining, the lower the overall speed of his retreat, and thus the longer he spent under fire.

His alicorn comrade was at least able to help cover their withdrawal somewhat. She had turned her Rainbow Dash completely around and was using her jump jets to propel it in reverse in bursts. This allowed her to move much more quickly in reverse than she would have been able to using the normal drive train. The sudden thrusts of motion also helped her avoid being hit by too much of the enemy fire, while still allowing her to lay down covering volleys of her own every time her ‘Steed landed. Slipshod doubted that she was looking to target anything particularly critical on the enemy ‘Steeds―like their cockpits―but her partisan PPC shots should at least keep the raiders pursuing them from getting too complacent in their chase.

They wouldn’t be able to keep it up forever though. The purple alicorn’s lone ‘Steed wouldn’t be able to fend off all four members of the lance chasing them down, and their BattleSteeds were too battered to survive a prolonged conflict. They’d need a new plan, but the earth pony was fresh out of those. He idly considered calling in for another Condition Black. If the Disciples weren’t deployed by now, then they were going to be too late to do much good anyway.

The pair crested the ridge and started down the other side. Which was about the time that Slipshod’s sensors lit up with contacts. A dozen of them. He very nearly slammed the brakes and turned his happy flank back around to take his chances with the eight raider ‘Steeds to their rear. Then the IFF resolved and informed him that all twelve of these contacts were marked as ‘friendly’. Beyond them, the rotund spheroid silhouette of a Friendship-class DropShip was visible.

The Disciples of Discord had arrived.

At least, that’s whom Slipshod assumed they were. The emblem painted on the side of the DropShip wasn’t of a crossed horn and antler though. Instead, it was a six-pointed star. A nearly dead ringer for the bygone Celestia League. The color was a little off though, he thought.

Whoever they were, they were set up in what was quite clearly a firing line of heavy and assault BattleSteeds. Slipshod’s jaw went slack as he marveled at the chassis that he saw. More surprising than the distinctive profiles of the gargantuan Big Macs and fearsome Shadowbolts were probably the BattleSteeds that Slipshod didn’t recognize. Nor was his Chrystal Cavalier’s targeting computer able to make sense of what it was seeing. The Disciples had been designing new ‘Steeds of their own, the stallion realized.

Chrysalis definitely didn’t know anything about that!

The earth pony’s radio crackled to life with an unfamiliar mare’s voice, “y’all’re gonna wanna duck.”

Slipshod felt no compunction to ask for clarification as he wrenched his control yokes and veritably threw his ‘Steed into the dirt. Twilight was a tad more graceful in her efforts, thrusting her Rainbow Dash far to the side, well beyond the limit of the line of Disciple ‘Steeds that had taken up position at the base of the ridge.

A few seconds later, the lance of raiders crested the rise.

Just as his screen had, Slipshod knew that those pilots were seeing a slew of new contacts populate on their sensors. There was no way for them to stop and turn around in time of course. In fact, more than that, in the few seconds it would have taken them to realize that they’d wandered into the wrong valley, their momentum had taken them below the peak of the ridge, and out of direct radio contact with the other lance. They couldn’t warn the raiders marching on the city that trouble was on its way and they needed to leave now.

They couldn’t do that. They weren’t even able to turn their ‘Steeds around and retreat in time to avoid the onslaught of missiles, high-explosive shells, and searing energy which leapt up the mountainside and reduced their doomed ‘Steeds to so much wreckage. There probably wasn’t even anything salvageable left. The stallion had only caught sight of a single ejection too.

Shit...shootin’ range at the fair was more challengin’ than that!” the same mare barked a laugh, “mighty oblidgin’ o’you to lead’m to us like that,” a brief pause, followed by an appreciative whistle, “y’alls ‘Steeds look rougher’n porcupine’s hind end. Take a load off. I figure we got it from ‘ere.

Up an’ o’er fellers! We got us more barrels o’ fish to shoot up!

Apparently, that was command enough for the assembled Disciple ‘Steeds to begin their ascent up the mountainside towards the valley containing the last remaining lance of raiders. Who, Slipshod surmised, still had no clue that their companions had just been wiped out, and that a company of fresh BattleSteeds was on its way to hit them hard from behind.

It was going to be a slaughter.

One which Slipshod was perfectly fine to sit out, honestly. Whoever that mare was, she hadn’t been wrong about the state of his Cavalier: it was rather battered and beaten. Tig was going to have some words for him when they got back to the ship, that was for sure. Especially if they weren’t able to rebuild the pulse cannon. Though, the stallion was willing to wager that the Disciples had, and would be willing to provide, replacement parts for his damaged ‘Steed. He’d spied a Crystal Cavalier or two among their own ranks. Probably even 6b variants like his own.

Though he was definitely far more curious about those designs which he hadn’t recognized. He supposed that he shouldn’t be all that surprised. Any organization that had the resources to maintain a WarShip like the Rockhoof for five centuries surely was in a position to design and build new ‘Steeds. The changelings had certainly been doing it, after all.

Maybe he’d have the chance to get a better look at them once they got to wherever the Disciples were taking them.

In the meantime, he was grateful enough to get a break and be done with the fighting for the day. He keyed in the frequency for the Galloway and commed up to the DropShip, “Gallop One to Galloway, mission complete. The Disciples are landed and mopping up the last of the raiders. Ready for pickup whenever you are.”

Roger that, Gallop One,” High Gain’s voice responded, “plotting descent course for rendezvous and pickupwait one…”

The earth pony straightened up in his seat, now more intent on the conversation. He couldn’t conceive of an interruption that would be to their benefit, after all. By the time the earth pony mare resumed speaking to him, he’d already gone through a half dozen scenarios which spelled their utter doom.

Gallop Lance,” the stallion couldn’t help but smirk slightly at the thought of designating the pair of them a ‘lance’, “we’re picking up a distress signal five clicks from your position. Civilian convoy under attack from two ‘Steeds. Their escort is heavily damaged.

Slipshod frowned. He could empathize with civilians in distress, but he and Twilight were hardly in any kind of shape to help those zebras, as battered as they were, “send it to the Disciples,” he sighed, “they’ve got fresh ‘Steeds”

Their company’s moving in the opposite direction,” High Gain noted, “you’re closer, and it doesn’t sound like they’ll last much longer. Obviously nopony up here can force you to go, and Squelch isn’t ordering you to. Technically we’ve fulfilled the contract we had with the Disciples…” the mare’s voice hung for a moment, “I’m just...letting you know.

The stallion sighed. Squelch wouldn’t order him to help, though she would certainly want him to. The Disciples might call up and request an addendum to their contract; that might change things. Though it sounded like there wouldn’t be time for that, if things were really as dire as High Gain was making them sound.

The bottom line was: there was nothing to gain that was worth the risk. What was the gratitude of a convoy of fleeing civilians when compared to the thanks they would be receiving for saving a whole city?

Then a thought occurred to the stallion. High Gain had mentioned that two ‘Steeds were responsible for the attack? There were only supposed to have been a company of raiders on this planet. Twelve BattleSteeds. Four had just been killed here, four more were being destroyed on the other side of the mountains at this very moment, and he’d slagged a pair during their tussle with that first lance.

The only two raiders that could be attacking the civilians then were...

“Send us the coordinates,” he said to the DropShip’s comm operator, “we’re on our way,” a nav point appeared on his map. He swapped over to the internal lance frequency, “Twilight, we’ve got a distress signal. We’re heading there to help,” sometimes knowledge was even more valuable than C-bits.

And he was going to see to it that Twilight got an education today.

The distance between them and the source of the signal was just under five kilometers. Honestly, Slipshod wasn’t convinced that they’d make it there on time to do any good anyway. Which, frankly, was just fine by him. In a way, that might even make for a more pointed lesson if they did arrive too late. He had to make it at least look like he’d had them make every effort to get there in time to help if he wanted that to stick though, otherwise the alicorn could deflect blame onto him for the massacre.

Sure enough, when they came into visual range of the fight, he found exactly what he’d expected: two Gildas attacking a column of fleeing trucks. What was surprising was the convoy’s escort: a Philomena. The earth pony had thought that the planetary defense forces were devoid of BattleSteeds. Otherwise, they’d surely have been deployed to fend off the raiders, right? What made this convoy so important that it warranted the protection of what had to be the only friendly ‘Steed on the planet?

He supposed they’d have to save them to find out.

The stallion targeted the Gilda which Twilight had already damaged significantly during their first encounter and snapped off a PPC shot. Unfortunately, it went wide, but it certainly seemed to get the other pilot’s attention. The raider diverted from its attack on the badly damaged Philomena and turned instead to face the new arrivals. Or, perhaps, ‘old arrivals’ was more apt?

If Slipshod thought that the raiders would be more skittish about tangling with the same pair of ‘Steeds that had sent them packing earlier, he’d have been wrong. Since that last encounter, he and Twilight had taken quite a bit more damage, while neither of the Gildas seemed to have suffered too greatly in their encounter with the convoy’s escort. The stallion couldn’t disagree that their chances were not quite as lopsided as the fielded tonnages would suggest.

A missile lock warning blared, and a plume of smoke rose from the back of the Gilda facing him. He cringed in anticipation of the hit, idly wondering what systems he’d lose when those warheads landed, because there certainly wasn’t much armor left to absorb the damage.

His cockpit darkened briefly as a massive shadow passed overhead. The cerulean Rainbow Dash arced above him, just in time to catch the missiles meant for him on its backside before it landed in front of him. The alicorn’s ‘Steed retaliated with a missile barrage of her own―finally. Forty LRMs spewed forth from the launchers sequestered behind her ‘Steed’s shoulders and streaked for their target. They drilled home, one after another, in quick succession, obliterating plating and internals alike until one―or more likely several―found the reactor and detonated it.

There wasn’t an ejection.

Twilight wasn’t done either. Her BattleSteed raced on ahead, riding upon pillars of violet fire as its jump jets propelled it forwards towards the remaining medium raider ‘Steed. Her prismatic projection cannons fired a pair of shots that smashed into the Gilda’s barrel, staggering the winged ‘Steed. A puff of smoke and an explosion signaled the impact of an autocannon shell. Finally, the Rainbow Dash itself connected with the smaller BattleSteed.

It split neatly in two as seventy tons of flying metal pegasus met with fifty-five tons of half-eviscerated griffon. The Rainbow Dash emerged from the other side of the crackling ball of electric fire that was all that remained of the Gilda. It was going to need a new paint job, but otherwise looked intact.

Slipshod could only sit and sigh, propping his head up on a hoof as he regarded the sight, “now was that so damn hard?” he muttered to himself. He then reached over to the radio and sought out the frequency for the convoy’s escort. He made sure to include Twilight in on the conversation so that she’d be able to hear what was said, but not transmit, “Somepony call for the cavalry?”

The response was heavily distorted, likely as a result of damage sustained to the other ‘Steed, but it was comprehensible, “Whoever you arou made it just in time. Another ten secds and I’d have been a gone―!”

“No problem,” Slipshod said, doing his best to sound pleasantly amicable, like the true gallant hero he was pretending to be, “glad to help. Did the convoy make it okay?” he intended for the question to sound innocent enough, but this was the part that he wanted Twilight to hear most of all. Hopefully, it was all that he hoped it would be.

A defeated sigh was audible through the crackling. A good sign, “we started wittwenty-three trucks. There’s...seven now,” the resignation was palpable, but the other pilot was doing his best to stoke even the barest mote of optimism, “but, that’s seven more ththere would have been without you. So than―you! Truly!

Sixteen trucks loaded with fleeing civilians destroyed by the same pair of raiders that Twilight had let go earlier―against his explicitly stated advice, “damn,” he said, feigning his own resignation, “wish we could have gotten here earlier. We might have been able to save more lives,” he was going to drive this lesson home for the alicorn, and he wasn’t going to be subtle about it.

If she wanted to keep applying her ‘mercy’ to these fights, he was going to ensure that she understood the full ramifications of it.

Not your fault,” oh, to have been near the mare to feel her emotional reaction to that line, “didn’t think they’d go for uthey were heading for the city last I kne―. Not sure why they turned around.

“Who knows why raiders do any of the things they do?”


“Well, good news at least: the rest of them have been dealt with,” he informed the escort pilot, “I can put in a call to my DropShip and our allies to get some medical personnel and supplies out here. Sound good?”

I’ll have to check with...well, whoever’s in chrge now; but I think that’d be fine.

“Understood,” Slipshod said before keying over to the channel for the Galloway, “Gallop One to Galloway; convoy is secure. Requesting medical for the survivors.”

Understood, Gallop One. We’ll coordinate with the Disciples. Hold fast at your current position.

“No problem, Galloway,” the stallion said, smirking, “we’ve got to debrief anyway…”

Planetary resources were stretched pretty thin at the moment―for obvious reasons. As a result, there wasn’t much that the local government could do to help the survivors of the convoy. Fortunately, between the Disciples and the Steel Coursers, enough supplies and medical personnel were found to provide aid and treatment. The ‘Steed Bay of the Galloway was turned into a makeshift infirmary for the wounded until more permanent arrangements could be made in the city. By their best estimates, it would likely be another couple of days before something was found.

Which meant that ‘Steed maintenance would be getting performed outside―much to the annoyance of the twin kirin mechanics. In fairness, they were far more put out by the quantity of damage that Slipshod and Twilight had “let happen” to their ‘Steeds than the fact that their Bay had been co-opted by Doc Dee and his recently deputized ‘nurses’―which consisted of pretty much any member of the crew who’d taken so much as a CPR course in their youth.

There wasn’t all that much for the two ‘Steed pilots to do though. After the briefest post-mission medical evaluation that Slipshod could remember receiving since signing on with the Steel Coursers, Doc Dee had pronounced both of them “not dying” and immediately moved on to tend to the dozens of zebras who very much were. As the earth pony hadn’t received medical training of any sort before, and Twilight admitted that she’d never bothered to learn healing magic as she had found other schools of arcana more captivating, the pair relegated themselves to just trying to stay out of the way as much as possible. To that end, they hadn’t even gone inside the DropShip yet. Even the parts of it that weren’t serving as triage, treatment, or recovery wards, were clogged with ponies carrying both patients and medical supplies between them.

The Galloway was a full on hospital ship, and neither ‘Steed pilot had any place in it.

They were watching the activity though. Especially Twilight. Her expression was haunted. The guilt radiating off of her was acrid and bitter.

Yet Slipshod found that he was absolutely reveling in every moment of it. It was the best tasting foulness that he’d ever experienced. Sanctimonious vindication turned out to be one tartarus of a spice!

“You could have stopped this, you know,” damn it was hard to not sound smug, the stallion thought to himself as he spoke, “I even told you to finish them off.”

He had the satisfaction of seeing the alicorn wince, her shoulders slumping. She didn’t meet his gaze. She just kept staring off in the direction of the DropShip, “...they said they were leaving the planet,” was her hollow-sounding excuse.

Slipshod couldn’t suppress his derisive snort, “and I’m sure they were going to...eventually. After butchering a few hundred more civilians,” he waved his hoof in the direction of the ‘morgue’, which was little more than some tentage erected over a swath of bagged bodies awaiting pickup by the city’s doubtlessly already overworked mortuary services. Only Celestia knew when those bodies would actually get collected.

Or as much of any given body that was recoverable from the wreckage. Energy cannons were terrifyingly adept at vaporizing anything organic that they struck. Slipshod idly wondered how robust the DNA records were on this planet; because that was the only way that far too many of the dead were going to be able to be identified. When all that was left was the odd hoof or hip, there really weren’t many other viable options.

“It…” the words caught in the purple mare’s throat. She swallowed, “...I never imagined it could be like this,” she admitted, “there’s no reason for it,” she said, as though that statement would somehow undo the past and bring all of the dead back to life.

“Since when does shit like this need a reason to happen?”

Twilight was shaking her head, “you don’t understand: stuff like this didn’t used to happen! Creatures didn’t do this to each other!”

“No, you don’t understand,” Slipshod countered coldly, glaring at the alicorn, “however things used to be? Doesn’t matter. They aren’t that way anymore. The galaxy you knew? It doesn’t exist. That reality? It. Doesn’t. Exist,” he jabbed a hoof once more at the rows of dead bodies, “that is reality now.”

“But it doesn’t have to be that way!” she protested.

“Of course it doesn’t!” It honestly looked like his candid admission shocked the alicorn, “in a galaxy where everycreature ascribes to the Magic of Friendship, something like this would never have happened,” the stallion acknowledged, “but that vanished a long time ago. This isn’t the galaxy you knew anymore. It follows a different set of rules.

“One of those rules is that there are creatures who will kill, if you give them a chance.”

“I can make things better,” the alicorn insisted.

Slipshod shrugged, “and I believe that,” again, another look of shock, “what? You’re an immortal demi-goddess,” the stallion favored the princess with a sardonic smirk, “once Chrysalis is gone, you will literally have all of eternity to work on restoring everlasting peace to the galaxy. I assume that, eventually, you’ll even succeed. Even if it takes a thousand years. Or more.

However,” he stressed, his expression growing cold once again, “you’re going to need to decide how many innocents you’re willing to sacrifice to build your utopia.

“One way or the other, that ‘better galaxy’ of yours is going to be built on a foundation of blood and bones,” Twilight cringed at the thought, and looked like she was about to protest, but the earth pony didn’t give her an opening, “Chrysalis isn’t going to just roll over for you,” he pointed out, “taking her down will mean a fight. A long one. A bloody one. And not just fighting changelings either. She’ll throw ponies, kirin, hippogriffs, thestrals―whoever she needs to―at you.

“If you don’t fight them, somepony else is going to have to,” he nodded his head towards the DropShip packed with the wounded, “and that somepony else might not be as skilled as you are. And they’ll get hurt or killed. Because you flinched.

“And you want to know what the worst part is?” Slipshod curled his lip at the princess in a contemptuous sneer, “it’s that you’re such a hypocrite about it,” he snorted, “about a lot of things, turns out.

“You’re willing to kill,” the stallion noted, “and I’m not even talking about today, either. You killed during that ComSpark ambush,” Slipshod let out a dry, cackling laugh, “I even gave you the perfect way to disable those ‘Steeds without harming the pilots; and you murdered them anyway!

“So it’s not that you ‘won’t kill’, or that you think it’s ‘objectively wrong’; you just want to be the one to have the final say in who does and doesn’t die,” he deduced, “you really missed having control over everything that much, didn’t you?”

“It’s not like that!”

“Then what is it like? Why did those changelings deserve to die―executed while trapped in disabled BattleSteeds―but those fucking raiders got a second chance to go on slaughtering civilians?”

“I…” the alicorn faltered, her eyes downcast, “...because Chrysalis destroyed everything,” she murmured, “she took my throne and used my image to undo all the good in the galaxy. Everything that’s wrong is her fault!”

“And so every changeling in the galaxy deserves to pay for her crimes? Got it,” he scoffed.

“No, that’s not―”

“Fuck you,” the stallion snarled, cutting the alicorn’s protests short, “and you know what? Here’s the thing: you don’t need to justify yourself to me. I honestly don’t care who you kill, or why,” he said with a shrug, “but what I do care about is you using sanctimonious bullshit to try and validate your pathetic excuses as to why you refuse to give it your all out there in the field!

“I need you if I want Chrysalis gone,” the earth pony growled, “and I need you to take this shit fucking seriously. I need you to understand that half-assing it out there; it leads to this,” another wave at the morgue, “and if it goes on for too long, you’ll create so many of those that there’ll be nocreature left to help you bring Chrysalis down once and for all.

“Or, worse, I might end up in one of those fucking bags,” he added with a sneer.

“So you better get your priorities straight, or the last time you see a field filled with bodies, it’ll be the entirety of whatever army was stupid enough to trust you to lead them to victory on Equus…right before Chrysalis cuts your fucking head off and removes the last remaining threat to her control over the galaxy.”

Slipshod held the alicorn’s gaze...and had the satisfaction of seeing her look away.

The two pilots sat without uttering another word to each other for several long minutes after that. Then the silence was broken by a zebra stallion who was walking in their direction. At first, Slipshod took him for one of the civilians that they’d rescued. It wouldn’t be the first time that evening that one of them had come by and expressed their gratitude to their ‘saviors’. The striped equine had a bandage taped over the side of his jaw, and his shoulder was covered by an elastic wrapping, and his stride showed him clearly favoring the joint. He certainly looked like one of the injured civilians.

However, this soon proved itself to be an erroneous assumption, “hey!” he greeted, “Name’s Xanadu. I know I said ‘thank you’ over the radio, but I figured I’d come and express my gratitude again in person,” the stallion grinned broadly at the pair of ponies, “you two really pulled my flank out of the fire back there.

“Never expected that a pair of ‘Steeds would come to my rescue,” he offered an anemic chuckle, then added, “didn’t really expect any rescue, to be honest…”

Slipshod took the initiative in responding to the zebra, as he could feel from Twilight that she was likely not quite in the right mind to be cordial yet. He was a lot better at feigning the proper emotional state for most interactions, whether he was actually up to it or not, “well, we didn’t expect to be rescuing another ‘Steed! What, are you the only pilot on the planet or something?” he asked, half joking.

“Pretty much, yeah,” the striped stallion said, shrugging with his good shoulder, “I’m a private security contractor. My current―or former, rather―employer was the owner of AgriCorp. They essentially own every farm on the planet. If you buy food on Capensis, you’re buying it from AgriCorp. Everyzebra’s gotta eat, so he could pretty much print money,” the stallion thought for a moment, then added with a chuckle, “come to think of it, AgriCorp uses ‘company script’, so he actually does print money, heh!

“Er, did. Damn,” he frowned.

“Private security contractor?” Slipshod raised a curious brow, “that’s a pretty fancy way to say ‘mercenary’.”

The zebra grinned, “that’s what the title for the position was when I took it. Pretty good gig. Just had to park my ‘Steed at the front gate of the corporate headquarters and then fuck off all day doing whatever. Never knew sitting on my flank would pay so well!

“Don’t get the wrong idea,” he hastily amended when he caught the disapproving expression on Twilight’s face upon hearing about what could easily be taken for his lack of work ethic, “it’s not that I’m lazy or anything; it’s just that there wasn’t anything to do. AgriCorp is literally the only source of food on the planet. Nocreature’s stupid enough to fuck with it. A BattleSteed for ‘security’ was way overkill. I was just a ‘status symbol’ more than anything.

“The CEO really did just want my Philomena parked in front of his office,” he snorted, “he even had it waxed to make it look shinier! Who does that to a ‘Steed?

“After three years of that, I almost thought I’d never have to do an ‘honest day’s work’ for the guy,” a heavy sigh, “I’m gonna miss the old bastard.”

“I assume he died in the attack?” Slipshod ventured.

The zebra nodded, “yeah. He was in the rear vehicle. Insisted on being the last one out of the building. He was absolutely vicious at the negotiating table―AgriCorp didn’t always have a monopoly on food on Capensis―but the guy did genuinely care about his employees. He understood that, without them, there was no AgriCorp. So he took care of them real good.

“There’s a shelter he had built for them and their families in the mountains over there,” he nodded to the northeast, “a place to hold out in the event of a raid or an attack or whatever,” the stallion shrugged, “a lot a zebras felt he was being a little paranoid about it. But I guess when you’ve got the kind of ‘do whatever I want’ money like he did, you just...do whatever you want. And he wanted to build a shelter in the mountains big enough to house a thousand zebras for something like six months or whatever.”

The striped pilot smirked, “guess he had the last laugh though. Turns out the shelter was a good idea after all! Probably should have built it a little closer, in hindsight,” he frowned, rubbing the back of his head, “I really thought we were in the clear too...then bam! Two Gildas pop up on our six. Missiles were flying before I could even get turned around.

“CEO and his family died in the first volley,” he offered a wry smile, “probably not gonna mention that on my resume…”

“What’ll happen to his company now?” Twilight inquired.

“D’unno,” the zebra admitted, “a lot of the execs died in the attack. Chances are the ‘next in line’ is some admin assistant who doesn’t know a damn thing about managing a farming conglomerate. It’ll probably go under in a matter of weeks.

“Something’ll obviously pop up in its place eventually,” he went on, still sounding indifferent to the situation, “but I would not want to be around for the inevitable food riots until that happens,” the striped stallion shared a knowing look with the other two pilots.

It was all that Slipshod could do to maintain an appropriately sympathetic expression as he feigned concern for the surviving civilian population, all the while reveling in Twilight’s despondency as she realized that more innocent bodies would soon be tied to her earlier inaction, “yeah, I can imagine those’ll get pretty awful. It’ll probably be months before a relief convoy can be sent, huh?”

“At a minimum,” the zebra nodded in agreement. Then he bit his lip and looked between the pair with a sheepish expression, “so, on that note, not to sound too desperate or anything, but: are you guys hiring?”

Slipshod cocked his head to the side, considering the zebra for a few seconds. He didn’t know nearly enough about this pilot to be able to fairly judge their skills. The catastrophic losses that the civilian convoy had suffered were hardly a fair metric, as it was the next best thing to impossible to stop two ‘Steeds from doing whatever they wanted to in that sort of situation. The fact that he’d lived long enough to be rescued suggested that he had some talent though.

“I’ll talk with our boss about it,” the earth pony offered, “see if she feels like taking interviews. Fair warning though: we’re probably not going to be hanging out in the Periphery long.”

A look of relief washed over the zebra’s face, “no worries there. I don’t have a lot of ties to the Empire these days. Lost any family I cared about in a Reiver raid nearly a decade back. I’m willing to go wherever.”

“‘Reiver’?” the purple alicorn inquired.

“That’s the group that attacked us here,” he explained, “The Red Reivers. Pirate band operating out of a couple nearby systems. They extort a lot of the Periphery this side of the Sphere.”

Slipshod had to admit that even he was a little surprised by the level of candor in the zebra’s tone. He might as well have been talking about this region’s weather. As though such raids were little different from the occasionally destructive storm.

“And they make attacks like this often?” Twilight asked, sounding aghast.

The zebra shook his head, “nah. This kind of thing’s pretty rare, actually. As long as a system is paid up on their dues, they leave you alone,” he looked around him for a moment and then returned his gaze to the pair of pilots with a shrug, “guess the governor fell behind.”

“Why doesn’t anypony do anything about them?”

He frowned at the alicorn, “uh, because we can’t? What you saw here was one of their smaller raiding parties. Their strongholds are just that: strongholds. The Empire doesn’t have the resources to dig them out. It’s cheaper and easier to just pay them off.”

“This doesn’t look very ‘easy’ to me...” Twilight muttered acidly.

“Like I said: attacks like this are rare. Maybe every few years, and only to serve as a reminder of why missing a payment is a ‘bad idea’. Don’t get me wrong: everyzebra would love it if the Reivers were dealt with once and for all―probably a few other local governments as well. But...there’s nothing we can do about that.”

Twilight scowled, clearly not at all happy with what she was hearing. Her amethyst eyes darted in the direction of the distant Disciple DropShip that was visible on the horizon, “oh, I think we can,” she stated resolutely before looking back at the zebra, “tell me everything you know about these ‘Reivers’...”

Chapter 15: Daughter of the Dragon

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The intercom buzzed, drawing the attention of both passengers in the rear of the limousine whose sides were emblazoned with the silver pony head silhouette that was the emblem of the Steel Coursers, “five minutes out, ma’am,” Axel Rod said from the driver’s seat, “BattleSteeds visible on the horizon.

Squelch craned her head around to try and get a look forward. Sure enough, she was able to easily spot the hulking mass of a Big Mac looming in the distance, parked in front of the spheroid Friendship-class Disciple DropShip. It looked powered down at the moment. That fact didn’t make it look any less threatening though. The same went for all of the other massive heavy and assault tonnage BattleSteeds arrayed around the ship, like hulking steel sentinels.

The sage green unicorn took in a deep, reassuring breath, and did her best to relax herself. To help distract from her nervousness, she once again looked over her suit, smoothing out wrinkles that really weren’t all that visible, just so that she’d have something to do. Celestia knew that she wasn’t going to be contributing much to whatever ‘discussions’ Purple Ro―Twilight Sparkle, she corrected ruefully―intended to have with the Disciples.

That was still a hard pill to swallow, the unicorn thought to herself wryly. The alicorn sitting on the throne on Equus had been an imposter for centuries, and the Disciples of Discord were the good guys, fighting to free the galaxy from her clutches. So much as things like ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys’ mattered these days. Squelch was still nowhere near convinced of the purple mare’s assertions that life could be anything other than strife. Fighting and killing were just too...commonplace.

Besides, something about the whole situation was still bothering the mare.

If Twilight’s accounts were to be believed, she’d presided over a galaxy that had already been united. Some cracks had started to form in the wake of Tirek’s return―spurred on by a mare named ‘Cozy Glow’, whoever that was―and Twilight was in the process of mending those budding fractures in the Celestia League when she was ambushed and replaced by Chrysalis.

Which meant that Chrysalis had also effectively already gained control of a single, peaceful, monolithic, galactic star nation. According to every book and vid plot that the unicorn had ever read or seen, that was traditionally the aspiration of would-be despots: having complete, undisputed, control over everything. This changeling queen had had that gifted to her from the outset!

So why go through the trouble of breaking the League up and plunging the galaxy into turmoil? Had she just turned out to be nowhere near the diplomat that the genuine article had been? Perhaps, but...she controlled ComSpark, and through it the Mercenary Review Board. She was actively profiting off the fighting; while simultaneously creating the primary currency―the C-bit―used to wage it. And Squelch could think of nothing that ComSpark had ever said or done that could have been perceived as an attempt to curb the bloodshed. The Aris Conventions, the most that had ever been done to address the rampant destruction of civil infrastructure caused by the fighting, had predated ComSpark. So it was unlikely Chrysalis had had a hoof in them. Directly at least.

If anything, ComSpark and the MRB were perpetuating the conflicts raging across the Harmony Sphere.

What kind of aspiring ‘supreme ruler’ encouraged instability? And why?

Maybe she could get some answers from the Disciples.

Though, even there, she was finding herself with a lot of questions.

They were supposed to be ‘small time’ terrorists with little to no resources. So how had they gotten their hooves on a WarShip?! More than that: if they had WarShips, why hadn’t they already moved in and toppled Chrysalis and restored the Celestia League, or whatever it was they were hoping to accomplish? Even just on its own, the Rockhoof would be able to devastate most of the Harmony Sphere! They could just fly around wrecking shit. They could jump to the Faust System, aim one of their oversized naval autocannons at Canterlot Castle, and end the problem once and for all.

Boom; done. Hold for applause.

But they hadn’t done that. Instead, they’d played grab-flank with the Harmony Sphere for the better part of five centuries, all the while hiding their real capabilities and assets. Only even risking their revelation to ComSpark in order to rescue one mare. True, she was an alicorn, but so what? What was she supposed to be able to do to help that a WarShip couldn’t?

Yeah, the sage mare was bubbling with questions, but she wasn’t sure if she’d be given the opportunity to ask any of them. After all, this was a meeting between the Disciples and Twilight. She was just there to…

...why was she there? Probably because she was the one who owned the limo.

The unicorn smirked to herself, looking out the window. Then she frowned, her eyes narrowing. They were much closer to the DropShip now, and she could see that not only did the Disciples have BattleSteeds outside their ship, they had ground vehicles staged as well. APCs specifically. A lot of them.

They were currently in the process of being readied to go...somewhere. Large armored equines―as well as creatures who were not equines, she noted―were rallying in preparation to board the transports. As were a much smaller group of non-armored zebras dressed in what Squelch had to assume was ‘odd attire’ by the standards of just about anypony these days. It certainly didn’t look anything like what the Disciples around them were wearing!

Then Squelch’s gaze was drawn to what had to have been a rather hastily set up ‘royal reception’, given that the unicorn mare was well aware of exactly how much time had passed between the acceptance of Twilight’s request―though Squelch was of the impression that it had ultimately been more of a ‘demand’―for a meeting, and their arrival here now. The Disciples had had less than thirty minutes to get these preparations in order, but she had to admit that they’d done very well for themselves given that sort of timetable.

Banners bearing the six-pointed star of the Celestia League had been hung, framing one of the DropShip’s massive ‘Steed Bay entry ramps. A deep purple carpet ran down the length of the ramp, extending all of the way out to a congregation of uniformed equines who were standing in formation, clearly waiting to receive their regal guest. It all looked very professional and well coordinated.

Again, not what Squelch had come to expect from a group which held the reputation of being ‘crazed terrorist cultists’.

Axel Rod pulled the limousine up to the waiting formation and expertly parked it so that the rear door of the luxury car was perfectly framed by the waiting retinue of Disciples. On instinct, Squelch moved to exit the vehicle, but the gentle pressure of a purple wing kept her in her seat.

“Protocol is for the Princess to exit first, and then her staff,” Twilight murmured softly. The sage green mare bristled briefly, fighting back a harsh retort. Then she reminded herself that, despite the employer-employee relationship that they’d broadly been observing over the past few months, that wasn't actually the dynamic anymore. Squelch wasn’t about to bend her knee to the alicorn anytime soon, but there was no denying that Twilight was still much higher on the social pecking order than she was. Especially here, surrounded by their present company.

She’d do well not to offend the sensibilities of the ponies with Big Macs parked in their front yard.

“By all means...Your Majesty,” the mare said, gesturing for the alicorn to precede her out of the vehicle.

Twilight hesitated for a brief moment, having noted that the use of the title hadn’t actually sounded very deferential at all, but she ultimately chose not to remark on it. Her attention was better spent focusing on other, more important, matters: such as the Disciples. She stepped out of the vehicle, mentally smirking at how ‘underdressed’ she was for this sort of reception. She’d left her royal regalia aboard her personal transport...five hundred years in the past. Not even Celestia knew where it was now.

Not that anypony here was likely to, in any way, make a note of her ‘lackluster’ appearance. Though, the alicorn supposed that there was at least something that she could do to help her ‘look the part’ of a princess. She closed her eyes for a brief moment and focused her magic. A second later, she heard a muted gasp from behind. Twilight ever so slightly tilted her head to catch sight of Squelch, and her dinner plate sized eyes, as the smaller green unicorn watched the alicorn’s magenta-streaked mane grow from its close-cropped ‘Steed pilot trim out to a body-length mane which looked as though it were billowing in an ethereal wind which no other pony could feel.

The uniformed guards to either side snapped to attention. Twilight regarded them, noting their neat appearance, and meticulously polished barding. Professionals through and through, who would not have been the least bit out of place among her own bygone Royal Guard. If these Disciples weren't the descendents of her stalwart supporters, they certainly played the part well.

She paused for a brief moment, glancing subtly between the Disciple guards and the pair of mercenary ponies. The Disciple ponies certainly looked a fair bit...broader. Taller too, by a significant margin. It was like she was looking at a lineup of Big Macs and Rockhoofs. The alicorn pushed the curious thought aside with a mental shrug. It made sense that an honor guard would consist of the most impressive specimens from among their forces, she decided.

The alicorn looked towards the ramp, noting a trio of figures standing at its base, awaiting her with rapt attention. Two of them were ponies, a pegasus and an earth pony. The other figure, standing in the center, was bipedal. With scaled wings.

“Is that...a dragon?”

Twilight almost missed Squelch’s whispered statement. The cobalt blue dragoness standing at the head of the waiting delegation was attired in what was quite obviously military liverly far more resplendent than anything that the others were wearing; leaving no doubt as to who was in charge. She too looked every inch the consummate professional, her scaled features looking impassively forward.

“It is,” the purple alicorn noted with mild approval, “and an admiral too,” she added as she started walking forward.

“The fuck is a dragon doing with the Disciples?” was Squelch’s incredulous demand under her breath. Then she noticed the other armored figures near the APCs that were almost certainly also dragons, “multiple dragons!”

“By the time of Tirek’s defeat, the Celestia League Defense Force was comprised of a significant percentage of dragons,” Twilight answered simply, a wry smile creasing her face, “even after a millennia of exposure to the Magic of Friendship, their race was possessed of a temperament that made them...shall we say: ‘ideally suited’ for the role?”

It took hardly any time at all for the pair to cross the short distance to the base of the DropShip’s ramp. Once there, the dragoness finally moved, falling reverently to her knee and bowing her head. The uniformed ponies to either side of her likewise knelt in supplication to their long lost princess.

“Your Majesty,” the dragoness said, “we are honored to be the first to welcome you back from your absence.”

“Arise, admiral,” the purple mare instructed, smiling warmly at the group, “and thank you for all that you’ve done. May I know your names?”

All three members of the Disciple delegation rose to the feet once more, the cobalt dragon nodding, “Star Admiral Cinder, Your Majesty. This is the captain of the Rockhoof, Star Commodore Mizzen, and this is the commander of the Fourth Special Recon Binary, Star Captain Honeycrisp,” there were nods from the almond brown pegasus stallion and cherry red earth pony mare respectively.

Twilight looked to the ‘Steed commander and cokced her head slightly, “am I to understand then that it’s you I have to thank for that timely intervention yesterday?”

The earth pony beamed brightly, her freckled cheeks dimpling with her wide grin, “shucks, Yer Majesty; weren’t nothin’. ‘S’far as I’m concerned, it was y’all that did the heavy liftin’! All my pilots an’ I did was bat a lil’ cleanup.”

“Nevertheless, you have my thanks,” the alicorn then paused, considering the mare a moment longer, before her own smile broadened slightly, “and I can think of nopony I’d rather have looking out for me than an Apple,” her amethyst eyes darted briefly to the nearby BattleSteed, “and I know the real Big Macintosh would be very proud of how his...however-many-times-great granddaughter is doing.”

The mare managed to blush through her already thoroughly red coat as her hoof scuffed at the ground, “...thanks, Yer Majesty. That means a lot.”

The alicorn then looked to the pegasus, “and thank you too, commodore―sorry, star commodore,” she corrected herself, cracking a slight smile at the unusual rank, “for all that your ship and crew risked coming to retrieve me from the Harmony Sphere. I am exceedingly grateful.”

“Service above self, Your Majesty,” the stallion responded with a bow of his head.

“And, star admiral,” Twilight Sparkle continued, turning back to the dragoness once more, “I thank you for your willingness to see me. I understand that you have security protocols in place, and nopony knows better than I why they are so important,” she acknowledged, which did a little to soothe the ranking officer, who was clearly still not entirely thrilled about this meeting, “however, I have never been one for impersonal exchanges. There are important matters that the two of us need to discuss.”

“Several, in fact, Your Majesty,” Cinder agreed with a curt nod, “one of which was very nearly undone by the Reiver raid yesterday.”

The alicorn quirk a curious brow, “explain, star admiral.”

“Capinses was a planned layover location for a very specific reason, princess,” she explained, “it is the traditional home for a collective of zebra alchemists. A number of them were supposed to shuttle over to the Rockhoof while we were recharging the jump drive in order to help screen the crew of the Galloway for changelings.

“The raid threatened that, and so we had to intervene to ensure that no harm came to the alchemist enclave here. It was a grievous violation of procedure, but we were left with few alternatives,” the dragoness frowned, “it’s possible that irreversible damage has already been done.”

“What damage?” Twilight asked, a little taken aback.

“We have reason to believe that there is―or at least was―a changeling infiltrator aboard the Galloway. We’d intended to keep the crew isolated on board so that we could keep the spy from escaping. But now…” she shrugged helplessly, “they could have easily fled and hidden themselves among the populace of this planet, and we don’t have the resources to screen a few million zebras. Not in the timetable we’re working with, anyway.

“We’ll still check out everypony currently aboard the Galloway, but I’m not confident about finding the spy,” the admiral shook her head in resignation, “losing an intel source like that is a shame. But, like I said, our hand was forced as a result of the attack.”

The dragoness then fidgeted ever so slightly, her mouth quirking, “...to that end, Your Majesty, if you will forgive any perceived insult: I would very much like to, erm…” her gaze shifted uneasily, “that is to say, while I would never presume to order Your Majesty to submit to, uh―and I assure you that it isn’t that I don’t trust Your Majesty―”

Twilight chuckled warmly, “I understand completely, Star Admiral Cinder,” she assured the cobalt dragon, “and I will graciously submit to whatever test is required to prove my lack of ‘changelingness’,” she nodded her head in Squelch and Axle Rod’s direction, “all of us will.”

Cinder’s posture relaxed considerably and she issued a slight bow of her head, “thank you, princess,” she then cast her gaze to her right and nodded her head. At her signal, an elderly zebra mare wearing brass circlets on her neck and cannons approached, a small clay jar balanced neatly on her back, “may I present: Madame Zora, High Matriarch of The Conclave.”

“It is a pleasure to meet you, Madame Zora,” Twilight said warmly, nodding down at the mare. The wrinkled zebra nodded in turn, but said nothing. The alicorn raised a brow, glancing at the star admiral.

The dragoness cleared her throat, “the members of the Conclave have taken a vow of silence, until such time as the changeling threat is resolved.”

“I see,” the purple princess said, looking back to the striped mare, “in that case, I hope to have a conversation with you soon,” she flashed a broad smile at the zebra, “now, what does this ‘screening process’ entail exact―” the alicorn went abruptly silent as a swath of thick green slurry was smeared across her eyes by the zebra. The princess blinked in silence for several seconds before nodding, a wry smirk touching her lips, “...right, I remember now,” she glanced down at her hooves and then her wings, “and not even glowing this time.”

The zebra mare had already moved on to the unicorn behind the princess, who instinctively recoiled away from the outstretched hoof covered in green slime, “woah; hold on! Careful, this jacket is―” the older striped mare was surprisingly quick for her advanced age, managing to smear the poultice across the unicorn’s eyes despite her recoiling, “...mohair,” Squelch finished flatly, watching with resignation as a few idle droplets dripped from her cheeks onto the lapel of her suit jacket.

Squelch glared first at the zebra, who didn’t give any outward appearance that she’d noticed the look, and then the dragoness, “you couldn’t have let me at least take it off first?” the mare sniffed, then quickly scrunched up her muzzle and stuck out her tongue, “ugh! This stuff smells like compost!” She wiped at her face and proceeded to fling as much of the substance away as she could, “you guys ever hear of blood tests?!”

“Changeling magic is difficult to disperse,” Star Admiral Cinder responded simply, offering a mild shrug, “and their disguises hold up perfectly under nearly all mundane medical procedures. Otherwise they’d be undone by a simple x-ray,” the dragoness looked back at the alicorn and bowed her head, “I thank you for your cooperation, Your Majesty. Allow me to show you to a washroom so that you may clean up―”

“I’ll survive,” Twilight assured the scally officer, “instead, I would like to speak with you about these Reivers, and what can be done about them.”

The admiral hesitated, briefly exchanging glances with the other two ponies with her, before nodded, “as you wish, princess. If you would accompany us to the officer’s mess? That should be a suitable setting for our conversation.”

“Well I’d like a shower,” Squelch muttered bitterly, still shaking green slime from her hoof.

“Ah’ll show ya to one,” Star Captain Honeycrisp grinned motioning for the unicorn to follow her.

“Once you’ve done so, star captain,” the dragoness said, “take the convoy out to the Galloway and screen its crew. It might already be too late, but we still need to be sure anyway.”

“Righty-oh, ma’am!”

Whether because the personnel situation became desperate enough, or Doc Dee had determined that the educational barrier to entry was no longer warranted anymore for most of the patients, Slipshod eventually found himself inducted into the growing ranks of the ship’s newly-minted ‘medical corps’. This cadre of ponies essentially consisted of every member of the crew that wasn’t either tending to the three damaged BattleSteeds, or otherwise performing a duty vital to the DropShip’s operation.

This still left a pretty abysmal ratio of attendees to patients though, in Slipshod’s opinion. Not that he knew much about how a hospital functioned or what the staff ratio was in one of them. On the ship it was just Doc Dee. He didn’t even have any sort of assistant. He also rarely had to deal with more than a couple patients at a time.

The unicorn physician was certainly justifying his pay today though. Slipshod barely saw the fluttering white lab coat for more than a second or two at a time as the doctor darted from one ward to another doing his rounds. In theory, there were supposed to be more genuine medical personnel on their way here from the city to help out, but Celestia knew when they were actually going to show up. The golden earth pony was sure that the local population’s medics were already plenty swamped as it was. Likewise, the medical personnel from the Disciples had been dispatched to the city and its surrounding suburbs as well.

No, there wouldn’t be any help coming for quite some time.

Which was why Slipshod was currently carefully making his way across the packed floor of the garage, balancing a half dozen trays of food on his head and back. The vehicle bay was just one of the many areas of the ship that had been cleared out in order to create a patient ward. The ground carts that would normally have been parked in it were currently scattered outside. Well, most of them anyway.

A couple were missing at the moment. The limousine and one armed truck to escort it.

Squelch, Twilight Sparkle, Axel Rod, and a number of Flechette’s security team, were currently elsewhere, meeting face-to-face with the Disciples.

At first, the request had been flatly refused. In fact, it had been repeatedly refused a half dozen times. The Disciples were adamant that they would not physically meet, and that all discussion was to continue to take place through text message exchanges.

Then Twilight Sparkle had taken the first scroll which she’d received from them, written something upon it, and used her magic to teleport it away. Ten minutes later, Squelch had received very specific instructions on where and when she could send a delegation to meet with the Disciples.

Slipshod had not been invited. Strictly speaking, nopony other than Twilight and Squelch had been named in the instructions that had been given. However, the sage green unicorn was not about to go riding off into the middle of nowhere on some backwater Periphery planet without at least a token protection detail. The earth pony wasn’t sure how the Disciples were going to react to having their terms spurned like that, but he did wish that he could have been there to see it.

Ah well, he’d just have to settle for hearing about it when they got back. In the meantime, he―apparently―had duties to perform. He glanced down at his datapad for several seconds and then cast his gaze around the garage. Credit where it was due: Doc Dee was a phenomenal organizer. In spite of the initial chaos―or perhaps even in anticipation of it―he’d been absolutely draconian in his enforcement of documentation procedures. Every zebra that had been brought to the ship had been issued a patient identification number before any form of treatment was performed.

That patient was then triaged, treated, and sequestered somewhere in the ship where they could be checked upon periodically so their condition could be monitored. Throughout that whole process, there was a member of the crew standing by the doors leading to and from these new ‘wards’ that logged the patient’s identification number in the ship’s system.

The result was that the Galloway’s logs contained a continually updated roster of what patient was in what part of the ship, along with what was wrong with them and what had been done for them. Lucky for Doc Dee, while most of the crew didn’t know all that much about medicine, they were all long-time veterans of corporate accountability practices! If there was one thing that every department on the Galloway participated in doing, it was tracking inventory and personnel.

For all intents and purposes, the patients had become cargo, and were tracked as such.

This made it exceptionally easy for Slipshod to find the patients he was here to deliver meals to.

If there was one equine on this ship that was more overworked than Doc Dee, it was probably Cookie. The crotchety donkey had very suddenly found himself going from feeding less than a hundred ponies to putting together meals for the better part of five hundred. As if to complicate matters even further, the ship’s physician had even placed very specific parameters on those additional meals, tailoring them to the requirements of the patients based on their condition and disposition. This meant that the donkey couldn’t just throw together a massive cauldron of soup and call it “good”. He’d had to actually prepare specific meals for hundreds of new mouths.

Slipshod suspected that a raise was going to be asked for when his contract came up for renewal…

Just as the earth pony was delivering the last of the trays he’d been carrying to a very thankful zebra mare, his comlink chirped, alerting him to an incoming message. He frowned and tapped the acceptance key, “what is it?”

Sir,” Flechette’s voice was tense, “I believe we may have a problem.”

The stallion sighed and rubbed the bridge of his muzzle with his hoof, “oh, you are going to need to be a lot more specific. The ship’s crammed with wounded zebras, Cookie’s liable to quit if somepony so much as asks him for a little extra salt on something, Mig and Tig are using the next best thing to hooftools on spark reactors just outside the ship…

“But go on, what’s your ‘problem’?”

Honestly, that little tirade probably hadn’t been warranted. He was just stressed. A consequence of being an empath surrounded by hundreds of anxious minds. It would have been unusual for him to not suffer more than a little ‘bleedthrough’ under the circumstances.

There’s a convoy of APCs approaching,” the ship’s head of security informed him, thankfully choosing not to remark on the ‘Steed pilot’s outburst. Bless his professionalism, “I think they’re Disciple.”

Slipshod frowned in thought, “that might be the medical support they promised,” he pointed out, “or they’re coming to transport some of the wounded to the city.”

I feel like we’d have been notified about that by the commander,” he pointed out.

Now the earth pony was concerned. The guard pony had a good point, “has High Gain heard from Squelch?”

I commed her before reaching out to you. Nothing’s come through her station. As the ranking officer on site, I figured I’d come to you for guidance.”

The earth pony snorted. ‘Guidance’? Their ship was grounded, their BattleSteeds were in pieces, and their security detail consisted of fewer than twenty ponies. A full quarter of which were already out with Squelch and Twilight. Exactly what ‘guidance’ was Slipshod supposed to give in this situation? The Steel Coursers weren’t even remotely in a position to rebuke the approaching Disciple convoy. Whatever those ponies wanted to do, they were going to do it.

“If they’re gracious enough to stop and tell you what’s going on, comm me,” the golden stallion responded, not bothering to hide his resignation on the matter, “otherwise, try not to get yourself run over when they blow past you.”

Understood, sir. Out,” at least the chief of security sounded like he hadn’t anticipated that there was much else that they could have done.

Still, the news did raise some questions that the ‘Steed pilot would have preferred to have answers to, “High Gain? Can you raise the commander?” he called up to the bridge as he left the garage and headed deeper into the ship.

I just tried,” the communications tech admitted, sounding a little anxious, “no response. A message did just come through for Doc Dee though,” she informed him, “it was a request from the Disciples for a complete personnel roster, to include a count of all the wounded on site.”

Slipshod’s brows furrowed, “they wanted a list of all the wounded and the ship’s crew?”

Yes, sir.

“Don’t they already have a roster? I thought we’d been sending them PERSTATS every day?”

Those were just raw numbers,” the mare explained, “they’re asking for complete files now. Names, descriptions, departments, everything.”

Slipshod’s blood froze in his veins. He could think of only a few reasons why the Disciples would want something like that. Combining those possible reasons with the news that a convoy of who knew how many Disciple troops were on the way here suggested really only the one possibility: they were about to screen the crew for changelings.



The stallion blanched as he realized his mic had still been hot. He quickly attempted to cover his flub, “sorry, nearly tripped over a patient. They’re fine. Uh, you said that Doc received the request for the records? Do you know where he’s at right now?” if he had any hope of finding a way out of this, it was through the physician and the records he was about to submit. Maybe he could find a way to scrub himself from them and then...figure out something from there?

I’d assume he has to be in his office getting the records togethoop! Yeah, I just got the packet to forward to the Disciples. If you hurry, you can probably catch him before he leaves.”

“Awesome, thanks!” Slipshod cut the comm line and picked up the pace as he tried to reach medical. Doc Dee might have already sent the records, but maybe he could get into the physician’s system using the access codes that he still remembered and alter them anyway. Then he’d forward the alterations to the Disciples as a ‘corrected record’ or something.

It was a longshot, sure; but it could also be his only shot!

Twilight sat across the table from Star Admiral Cinder and Star Commodore Mizzen in the small dining area which was reserved for the DropShip’s officer complement. The Galloway had no such exclusive eating area, as its crew complement wasn’t large enough to justify it. A Friendship-class DropShip, on the other hoof, was considerably larger, with an appropriately proportioned crew complement. As such, the design did include a separate, more intimate, dining area reserved for the ship’s senior officers.

It was well after breakfast, but not quite close enough to midday to justify lunch. However, the admiral had obviously felt that not offering their recently returned monarch something in the way of refreshment would have reflected poorly on her and her crew. A carafe of tea and a platter of pastries had been waiting for them when the trio walked into the room. Twilight had politely accepted a cup of the hot beverage and a scone, though she doubted that she’d actually touch the latter.

Despite her insistence that no washing was necessary, a pony entered not long afterwards carrying a small wash basin and a collection of warm, damp, cloths. The purple alicorn took them and dabbed at her face, clearing away nearly all of the substance which had been smeared there by the old zebra mare.

“How may we be of service to Your Majesty?” Cinder inquired as her pegasus subordinate poured out servings of tea for all three of them, “you mentioned the Red Reivers?”

“I did,” Twilight acknowledged, her tone growing terse at the memories of the death and destruction that had been wrought on Capinses by the raiders yesterday. Thousands―tens of thousands―of lives had been lost in the attack. Much more infrastructure had been destroyed, rendering many of the survivors homeless, or without access to food, water, and medical attention. The alicorn fully expected the death toll in connection with the attack to rise as a result of those secondary effects.

“I had a lengthy discussion last night with a survivor of the attack,” the purple princess explained, “a ‘Steed pilot. He indicated that the Red Reivers have been operating in this region of space for a long while―decades, in fact,” she leveled her gaze at the dragon, “what I would like to know is: why nothing has been done about them?”

The pair of Disciple officers exchanged a brief glance before the dragoness cleared her throat, “I can understand why Your Majesty is upset by the state of the Periphery,” she acknowledged in a diplomatic tone. The alicorn was already frowning, having heard such tones often enough during her millenia holding Court to know that a foundation was being laid for a response that all of them knew she wasn’t going to like, “but you must understand, princess, that we have been otherwise occupied dealing with the changeling threat in the Harmony Sphere.

“And while I truly empathize with the plight of the zebras on Capinses, as well as the rest of the Farsian Empire, my duty is to return with Your Majesty to Somni Patrium as quickly as possible.”

Twilight’s frown deepened, nearly to a full on scowl, “I will admit that my access to intelligence reports has not been what it used to be; however, I was under the impression that only limited operations are being conducted against the changelings in the Sphere. No WarShips, no BattleSteeds, not even particularly heavy ground combat vehicles.”

She gestured above her with her hoof, “may I ask what the Rockhoof is up to when not ferrying long-lost princesses?”

Star Admiral Cinder sighed, apparently already resigning herself to what she recognized was not going to be a well-received answer, “...moored at New Cloudsdale Orbital Station, Your Majesty,” then, as if sensing the probable follow-up question, she added, “along with an additional battleship, four heavy cruisers, seven light cruisers, and fifteen destroyers.”

“A healthy little fleet,” the alicorn noted, “more than enough to deal with some nuisance raiders, I should think.”

“With due respect, princess, the Red Reivers are a significant power in the region.”

“Significant enough to fend off the Rockhoof?” Twilight countered. The dragoness’ mouth opened briefly, and then closed as she silently conceded the point, “very well. Then we shall deal with these Reivers before moving any deeper into the Periphery.”

“Your Majesty, my orders―”

“Are rescinded, star admiral,” came the purple mare’s terse rebuttal, as she leveled a cool stare at both officers, “and I am issuing you new ones. We will travel to where the Red Reivers have their strongholds, raze them to the ground, and rid this sector of their threat once and for all.”

The almond pegasus stallion leaned towards his superior and quietly asked, “can...can she do that?”

Star Admiral Cinder squirmed uneasily in her own seat, “technically,” the cobalt dragoness admitted, though she didn’t sound all too happy about it, “...Your Majesty, if I may...counsel your decision?” the alicorn’s lips curled in a dubious frown, but she nodded nonetheless, “while it is true that no star nation, even in the Periphery, can repel the Rockhoof―or any WarShip, honestly―space superiority alone does not make a victory. Ultimately, putting hooves on the ground will be required.

“While I and the Star Commodore both have the utmost faith and confidence in the abilities of Star Captain Honeycrisp and her company, to put them up against the full might of the Red Reivers―alone―is not...an ideal disposition of forces.”

Twilight wanted to argue the point. She’d seen the BattleSteeds that the Fourth Special Recon fielded. The better part of a thousand tons of war machine was carried by this DropShip. They could tear through any raider company with impunity, surely. However, the alicron had to admit that she didn’t know how significant the forces were that the Red Reivers had at their disposal. They’d deployed a dozen ‘Steeds to this world just for the purpose of sending a message, after all. There could be whole divisions on whatever worlds those raiders made their dens in.

Sometimes quantity possessed a quality all its own, she knew. As skilled as she and her own personal guards had been, the sheer number of changeling ‘Steeds which had ambushed her five hundred years ago had simply been too much to fight off.

She wouldn’t put others in that position.

Twilight let out a resigned sigh of her own, “I take your meaning, star admiral. You are right. A single BattleSteed company cannot subdue an entire world,” she was still frowning though, “but I would assume that the Disciples have more than the star captain’s single company at their disposal. Why have the Reivers not already been dealt with?”

“It is our policy to not get involved with the politics of other star nations,” Cinder replied, “lest we draw attention to our true strength, and the existence of the Clans. Our best advantage against Queen Chrysalis is her overconfidence, borne of the ignorance of the actual threat we pose to her control.”

“The ‘Clans’?” Twilight posed, rolling the unfamiliar designation over in her mouth.

“The Dragon Clans, Your Majesty,” there was a rueful glint in the dragoness’ eye, “while dragons may have made up a ‘significant’ portion of the CLDF military five hundred years ago, they constitute the bulk of our forces today. By contrast, the units that the Sphere knows as the ‘Disciples of Discord’ are something of an exception, fielding almost exclusively pony forces during their operations.

“Presently, the changelings believe the dragons to have no interest in the Harmony Sphere. We are endeavoring to keep them believing so.”

“Honestly,” Mizzen said, sporting a wry frown of his own, “I could do with some of the Clans being a little less ‘interested’ in the Harmony Sphere.”

“Beg pardon?” Twilight said, looking between the two officers.

Cinder glared briefly at the stallion before turning back to the alicorn, “the political situation back home is...tense, Your Majesty. Rest assured, Dragon Lord Ember has matters well in claw.”

The purple mare held the dragoness’ gaze for several long seconds, evaluating how much faith she wanted to put in that statement, especially given how the pegasus had made it sound. Still, she knew Ember well―or at least, she had known the Dragon Lord―so she was inclined to accept the star admiral’s assurances. If nothing else, it was something of a relief to know that at least a few things hadn’t changed in the last few hundred years.

“Ember is still the Dragon Lord? Good. Good,” Twilight nodded, “I assume that I’ll be meeting with her soon after my arrival on―what did you say the planet was called?―Somni Patrium?”

“Yes, Your Majesty,” Cinder assured the princess, “that is where she and her consort hold court.”

“Her consort?” the alicorn’s lips turned up in an amused smile, “you mean Spike?” the star admiral nodded, “took them long enough to make it ‘official’,” the mare snorted, “figures. I wait a thousand years to officiate their wedding, and they somehow manage to get it done while I’m indisposed,” she narrowed her eyes playfully at the dragoness admiral and jabbed a pinion at her, “you dragons live too long. It gives you a warped sense of time. Who let’s an engagement last for eight hundred years?!

“Didn’t your kind ever hear of ‘eloping’?”

The senior officer squirmed uncomfortably again, though this time seemingly from embarrassment, “I’m...led to believe it’s evolutionary,” she muttered, “dragons are long-lived and tough to kill. If we reproduced as frequently as ponies, we’d have very quickly overwhelmed our homeworld, and exhausted our food supply.

“Thus, upon reaching adulthood, we don’t have much of a sense of...urgency, when it comes to...procreation.”

Twilight raised a brow, “you know, I don’t know that I’ve met a dragon who was this reserved when discussing their culture. In fact, dragons tended to be second only to yaks when it came to bragging about it.”

Again the dragoness seemed uncomfortable, “it’s different when the discussion is so...personal, Your Majesty,” Cinder admitted, “I don’t particularly enjoy discussing my parents’ relationship history.”

Twilight’s eyes grew wide, and her jaw fell slack as she gawped at the cobalt dragon. Then, in an act that was profoundly unfitting a pony of her majestic station and fell far outside the bounds of what anypony would consider proper decorum―even in non-royal settings―she snatched the dragoness out of her seat with her magic and threw her hooves around the decidedly shocked reptile, embracing the flustered star admiral in a spine-crunching embrace.

“Ohmygosh! I have a new niece!” the princess of the Celestia League squeed in a very foal-like manner.

That his mind was so focused on avoiding detection helped to explain why Slipshod didn’t notice the rose red unicorn mare making her way through a corridor intersection at the same moment that he tried to. The pair of ponies fell to the floor in a tangle of limbs, “ow!” “Celestia, fuck!”

The earth pony clambered stiffly back onto his hooves, looking down at the mare he’d unwittingly accosted, “Channel Lock! Are you okay?” He reached out to help her up.

“Yeah,” she winced as she allowed the stallion to ease her up onto her hooves, “sorry about that. I was a little distracted,” she admitted, “have been for a while, honestly,” the mare bit her lip pensively, “the memorial service helped, but I’m still...bothered, I guess?

“I mean, I could swear that I just saw Spanner right down the hall―”

Slipshod wasn’t even paying attention to what the technician was saying, honestly. He had far too much else on his mind at the moment, “yeah, no, that’s great,” he muttered, dusting himself off and reorienting himself in the corridor, “listen, can we talk later? I need to get to medical right now.”

“Oh...um, sure, I guess―”

He was already out of earshot of the unicorn, trotting through the winding passages of the DropShip on his way to the clinic. Though he was being far more mindful of other ponies as he went this time. He couldn’t afford too many more delays like that.

“Hey, Slip! C’mere a minute!”

Oh, sweet, merciful Celestia; what now?! The beleaguered earth pony turned to see Blood Chit waving him over, “can it wait? I’m busy with something,” he tried his best not to snap at the recovery team leader, he really did. Yet the other stallion still recoiled slightly, looking hurt.

“Uh...yeah. I was just going to ask if―”

His comlink beeped. Because of course it was going to. Slipshod wasn’t able to contain the exasperated growl that escaped his lips as he slammed his hoof on the key to accept the call, “what?!”

Flechette’s professionalism was uncanny, as the stallion didn’t sound the least bit fazed by the outburst, “update on the Disciples, sir: they’ve formed a perimeter around the ship. They’re asking for you.”

So that was what heart palpitations felt like, the earth pony thought to himself as his mind processed the security pony’s words, “...they asked for me...specifically?” he hoped that he hadn’t sounded as nervous as he felt. His throat had gone surprisingly dry though.

They asked who was in charge here with the commander away. I informed them it was you, sir. They want you to meet them out here.

Celestia bless his little heart. Flechette was just. So. Helpful.

Slipshod had to force his teeth to stop grinding, “thank you. I’ll be right there.”

He felt numb. His mind raced, desperately seeking out alternatives. He could try to make a run for it. Not that he’d get very far. It wasn’t like the Disciples would be able to miss him once he tried to cross their perimeter. He couldn’t even try to pass himself off as one of them, because he had no clue what their uniform even looked like! Damn them and their precautions…

Could he send somepony else out to meet them? Flechette had told them he was the pony in charge, sure, but that could also be his ‘out’. There were hundreds of injured zebras lying everywhere, after all. He was far too busy coordinating their treatment to spare even a moment for a ‘chat’ with the Disciples. That was plausible, right?

But who exactly was he supposed to send in his place? Doc Dee? That pony genuinely was too busy treating patients to spare time for a meeting. Mig or Tig? He’d have to go outside to get to their makeshift ‘BattleSteed Bay’. He’d almost certainly be spotted on his way there anyway; and if he had time to go and talk about BattleSteed maintenance at a time like this, then he obviously had plenty of time to talk to the Disciples about matters that they doubtlessly considered of far more importance than ‘Steed statuses. Flechette was already out there…


He enabled his comlink again, “High Gain, I need you to get me through to the commander or Twi―er, Purple Rose,” he was honestly having trouble remembering who knew that mare by what name these days, “just keep trying,” he ordered, “patch them through to me the moment you establish contact. Understood?”

Yes, sir.”

He didn’t like how helpless she’d sounded in that moment. The communications technician didn’t believe that she was going to be able to establish a successful connection to their employer any time soon. Honestly? Neither did he. Reaching them truly was looking like his only hope though. Twilight knew what he was. She’d be able to intercede. Wasn’t she their ruler or something? She could exempt him from whatever test they were going to administer.

If they asked why he was being exempted...well, wasn’t that the point of being a despot? You didn’t need to explain yourself to your underlings? You just sort of told them what to do and they did it, no questions asked? That was how the Queen did things. Twilight was a princess, so there shouldn’t be all that different of a dynamic.

...Unless she had already told them what he was.

Would she have? She’d told him that she didn’t like lying to ponies, but she’d also kept his secret thus far. Granted, the Disciples enjoyed a very different relationship to the alicorn than the Steel Coursers did. They knew who she really was. Twilight might be more inclined to be upfront with them than Squelch, who she clearly experienced some friction with.

It didn’t matter. Whether they knew now or not, they’d be subjecting him to whatever ‘screening process’ they had; a process which had certainly proven adept at detecting changelings thus far, he knew. Chrysalis had tried numerous times over the centuries to get an agent into the ranks of the Disciples. Many agents had gone in...none had ever sent back any information, and all were presumed dead.

How was he supposed to succeed where countless others had failed? Especially when he had no idea what they had failed at? That spell of Twilight’s had certainly had little issue dispelling his disguise in the conference room. However, he was given to understand that changeling magic was supposed to have been resistant to simple unicorn ‘dispelling’ cantrips. Enchantments of all types were routinely dispelled for various reasons as just a normal part of any given day. Agents would be getting unmasked every time they attended a sporting event if that was all it took!

So either it had been an effect specific to that particular spell, or the increased potency as a result of it being cast by an alicorn; or a combination of the two. The Disciples could have access to a changeling unmasking spell specifically, but surely that kind of magic in their possession would have made them far more adept at not just rooting out infiltrators in their own ranks, but at systematically revealing agents in the Harmony Sphere.

They certainly didn’t have broad access to alicorns!

It was unlikely to be a spell then. But what else could it be? Changeling disguises were complete enough to fool any known medical screening, so that couldn’t be it either…

These musings were doing nothing to reduce his stress level, Slipshod noted as he trod out of the ship. He also noted that he felt remarkably like a pony walking towards his own execution. What was he supposed to do?!

He easily spotted what must have been the principle Disciple delegation speaking with Flechette and another of the Galloway’s security team. Where the armored barding of the Steel Coursers security ponies was steel gray with maroon highlights, the Disciples of Discord were wearing suits which were primarily cerulean in color, with deep purple accents. A six-pointed purple star was emblazoned upon their chests. The ancient symbol of the defunct Celestia League, though the color was slightly different from what he recalled in the history texts. Even the real ones.

Odd. He had expected to see the crossed horn and antlers, but that symbol was nowhere to be seen...

He noted too that there were more than the large armored figures filing out of the APCs. Over a dozen zebras were with the Disciples, though certainly not dressed anything like them. The earth pony was hard pressed to identify their affiliation, because he wasn’t quite convinced that these particular zebras were affiliated with the local government either. He’d met Xanadu, and seen hundreds of examples of the local populace laid up in the Galloway. Other than being zebras, they honestly hadn’t seemed all that different from any other Harmony Sphere denizen, dressing with an eye towards contemporary fashion trends and sensibilities.

These zebras, on the other hoof, looked positively anachronistic! Hoof-fashioned brass bands were looped around their legs and necks. Beaded leather straps criss-crossed their barrels and chests. Their rustic saddlebags also had curious little clay pots topped with wax stoppers strapped to them with...was that twine? Even for a backwater Periphery world, that was a bit much…

The line of dozen or so oddly-dressed zebras was soon joined by twice as many Disciple troopers as the whole congregation marched towards the Galloway. As much as Slipshod wanted to see what it was they thought they were going to get up to on the DropShip, the earth pony knew that his business was elsewhere.

He approached the group, noting that there was one Disciple which all of the others seemed to be acting in clear deference to. A bright red earth pony mare with a sunflower mane and freckles on her cheek. Sturdily built, but certainly quite attractive nonetheless. Slipshod idly wondered if he’d be able to get out of this by reading and manipulating her...

Slipshod cleared his throat and nodded his head, “I’m Slipshod. Lead BattleSteed pilot for the Steel Coursers and current ranking pony onsite. I was informed that you wanted to speak with me?”

The earth pony looked him up and down, appraising him. He could sense their suspicion and distrust. Though whether that was just how Disciples felt about non-Disciples, or because they were on the hunt for changelings, Slipshod wasn’t able to tell for sure. He had a sinking feeling that it was the latter though…

The mare regarded him for several long moments before letting out a grunt, “Star Captain Honeycrisp o’ the Fourth Special Recon,” was her terse introduction, “tell yer fellas t’not give those zebras any hassle. Let’em do what they gotta do,” it was phrased as an order, and her tone left no doubt that there was no negotiating this point.

“Right,” the earth pony reached down and contacted High Gain once again, “High Gain, put out a shipwide alert; highest priority: if a Disciple asks anypony to do something; do it. Got that?”

“...Yes, sir,” it was somewhat reassuring to hear that the mare on the other end of the line wasn’t any more happy about it than he was. Though he suspected their mutual unease sprouted from vastly different sources. For High Gain―and likely most of the rest of the crew, Slipshod suspected―this would represent something of a sacrilege. The Galloway was the refuge of the Steel Coursers. Their home away from home. A place where they alone were presumed to hold sway, and all others that came aboard were merely guests passing through. The idea that outsiders could just board the ship and impose their authority felt...anathema. Even to him.

Of course, for the earth pony, it was more than just an invasion of privacy: it was a hunt. For him specifically.

Would they find the other changeling too, he wondered? How could they not? Slipshod had at least had the benefit of forewarning, and he hadn’t been able to do anything about it. Whatever agent was onboard right this moment about to be surprised by the sudden arrival of Disciple troopers surely stood no chance at all. After all, Slipshod was certainly fucked…

“Is there anything else you need?” the golden stallion inquired, doing his level best to sound cordial in spite of the circumstances.

The mare took out a datapad similar to the ones that were used throughout the Harmony Sphere, “Ah’d like to verify some numbers with you real quick,” she began, “how many patients did you pick up?”

The question surprised Slipshod initially, but he soon recovered and brought up his own fetlock-mounted computer, “give me a sec, I don’t know the patient count off the top of my head,” which was true, as he hadn’t seen a need to bother himself with what was quite clearly Doc Dee’s business, “it looks like...three hundred and seventy-two?”

The Disciple nodded in agreement, “and eighty-five members are assigned to your company, correct?”

Slipshod was about to disagree, but then quickly ran through the count in his head, murmuring out loud, “there’re usually eighty-nine, but we gained―” he broke off for just a moment, briefly unsure of how he was supposed to refer to the alicorn. Though, given who he was speaking to he saw little need to obfuscate, “―Twilight,” the crimson earth pony snorted at his use of her shortened name and omission of any titles. The stallion winced, “which put us to ninety. We lost five in the ambush, so...yeah. Eighty-five sounds right.”

He’d passed on the request to Squelch regarding Xanadu wanting to sign on with the company, but that had only been last night. It was pretty unlikely that he’d been formerly added to the crew roster already. Doc Dee would have had the additional personnel file if that had been the case―if not the time to do a proper onboarding physical. So that would have brought the count to eight-six.

The earth pony frowned now, wondering how the former ‘private security contractor’ would be counted for the purposes of the Disciples’ investigation, given that he wasn’t a ‘patient’, and apparently hadn’t been added to the crew roster yet. Unless...was he being counted as a patient? He’d certainly been treated after the fight…

Whatever; Doc Dee knew what he was about.

Though, now that he thought about it, Slipshod supposed that he should start acting like he didn’t know what any of this was about. After all, as a simple Harmony Sphere mercenary, he wasn’t supposed to know anything about the Disciples or changelings, “why the sudden interest in our personnel?” he asked, trying to sound properly annoyed at the idea of having his company’s files being audited by ‘outsiders’ who clearly had no connection to the Mercenary Review Board.

“We’re searching fer changelin’s,” Star Captain Honeycrisp stated bluntly.

It honestly caught Slipshod a little off his guard. He hadn’t quite expected for her to just come right out and say it. He opened up his mouth to inquire further, still intent on playing the role of the ignorant merc, but then paused.

Squelch and Twilight had gone to speak with the Disciples. The Disciples knew Twilight was their true and rightful princess. So, surely they’d have met her arrival with their highest ranking officers. This mare was a ‘star captain’―whatever that was―and with her accent, there was no doubt in his mind that she was also the mare in charge of the Disciple BattleSteed company that had intervened at the last moment against the raiders yesterday. Slipshod may not be an expert on Disciple rank structures, but he had to think that the senior ‘Steed pilot was pretty high up there, even for the Disciples.

How many star captains could they have on a single ‘Steed company?

This mare had very likely already met with Twilight; or at the very least been present when she’d arrived at their own DropShip for her meeting. Twilight certainly knew about the changeling invasion of the Harmony Sphere. She’d been there for it! The two of them had spoken about it on multiple occasions. Twilight knew; and the Disciples knew.

The question was: had Twilight informed the Disciples that he knew about the changelings too?

If he acted like he didn’t know, and Twilight had told her that he did, that would appear suspicious. If he acted like he did know, and Twilight hadn’t mentioned anything about him also knowing, then that would appear suspicious. The stallion’s head began to hurt at the mere prospect of trying to resolve a ‘do they know that I know they know’ scenario to anything approaching a positive outcome for himself.

Saying just about anything risked him sounding suspicious. Would saying nothing also make the mare wonder if he was out of place?

The golden stallion felt as though he was usually so much better at getting a read on any given situation. But he was just so damn nervous right now. The worst part was that those feelings weren’t even all his own! He was experiencing the emotional feedback of the hundreds of nearby creatures who were also currently riding various states of alarm for one reason or the other. There was little chance that he could block it all out and manage to focus, not that that would help resolve his dilemma of finding out how much about what the Disciples were doing he was supposed to already ‘know’ about.

Did Squelch know that he knew about changelings beyond what Twilight had explicitly told them? He was having trouble remembering through all of the psychic turbulence in the air. Would she have corroborated that he knew? Would she even have been included in any conversation between the ranking Disciples and the princess?

He didn’t know.

He didn’t know anything about how he was supposed to behave right now. Flechette was clearly baffled at what was going on, but he was understandably ignorant because he’d been kept in the dark at Slipshod’s own request to Squelch. He’d told the truth to some, lied to most, and now one from each camp had engaged in a discussion with the Disciples and the golden stallion had no clue what version of himself he was supposed to put on display for the star captain.

And making the wrong choice could get him killed.

What was he supposed to do?! What was he supposed to say?! Would saying nothing or anything be worse?

He didn’t know!


It was the most strained-sounding non-word that the stallion could ever remember uttering in his entire life. He hadn’t even been aware of consciously making it. It had just sort of...come out. At least it was broadly noncommittal, he felt.

He needed out of this conversation somehow. Now. He needed to come up with some plausible reason to excuse himself and then find some way to escape, or hide, or―

His comlink buzzed. Oh, thank Celestia it buzzed! What better excuse to say nothing more in a conversation than an incoming call? “If you’ll pardon me, star captain; I have to take this,” he gestured at his flashing datapad. For her part, the Disciple officer merely nodded and turned to talk to a zebra who was approaching their group, “this is Slipshod...”

Squelch stepped out of the shower with a resigned sigh. She’d scrubbed her face so hard that she’d genuinely feared she’d be scouring the fur from her muzzle, and she still felt greasy. The sage green unicorn had finally conceded that it must have been all in her head, despite the fact that her nose still crinkled at the faintest hint of the reek of the substance. She wondered if the zebras would be willing to give her a list of ingredients so that she could check to see if she might be allergic to something in it.

In any case, she’d used enough of the DropShip’s hot water, and the remaining half of a bottle of shampoo which she had been loaned. She made a note to have a replacement bottle shipped over from the Galloway’s stores as an apology. Her telekinesis enveloped a nearby towel and began to furiously rub it over her body as she walked back towards her discarded clothing.

The sight of the flashing datapad made the mare cringe. She’d been away from the ship for an hour, and somepony already needed her for something. The faint crease of her lips quickly morphed into an outright scowl when she noted that it was not merely one or two contact attempts which she had missed, but seventeen. All of them from Slipshod.

Squelch absolutely dreaded learning what news the stallion had that could have been urgent to warrant that level of harassment. The unicorn wrapped her mane up in the towel, and floated over a second for her tail as she took a seat on a nearby bench and mentally braced herself for whatever catastrophe presumably awaited her when she returned this call. She commed the stallion, who picked up almost immediately.

This is Slipshod.”

“Fucking tartarus, Slip,” Squelch snapped at him bitterly, wiping away at a tendril of wet hairs that had inexplicably managed to slip from beneath the towel, “can’t a mare take a shower anymore without coming back to a hundred missed calls?! If the Galloway’s not on fucking fire, I’m going to have your flank in a sling!”

There was a brief pause on the other end of the line. Hopefully, the unicorn thought, it was because the earth pony was contemplating whether whatever bullshit he was calling about would be worth the aggravation she’d be calling him if she deemed it to be trivial, “shower? I thought you were in a meeting with the Disciples?

“Twilight is in a meeting,” the unicorn corrected him tersely, “I had to go wash up after this zebra gave me a mud mask. Twenty minutes and half a bottle of shampoo later, and I still smell like a damn compost heap. Fair warning for you guys, by the way,” maybe it would be best if she and Twilight spent the night on the Disciple DropShip, she thought to herself. Even though she had her own washroom, there was bound to be absolutely no hot water available in the morning with over eighty ponies furiously scrubbing away like she had been.

Then the unicorn had an additionally unpleasant thought as she considered whether the Disciples were going to be mud masking the zebra patients too.

Mud mask?” the earth pony blurted, sounding utterly baffled by what she was saying, “what kind of meeting did you go to?

“Fuck if I know; now what do you want?”

The Disciples are here and they asked for personnel files for the whole crew,” Squelch frowned at the information, but didn’t remark on it. She still detested that they weren’t in a position to assert any sort of sovereignty, but the fact was that they were pseudo-captives of the Disciples. She’d seen the resources that they had at their disposal. Any refusal on her part to comply would only be notional, since there would be nothing that the Steel Coursers could actually do to stop them.

Better to simply cooperate. It was the least painful option. She could lodge a formal complaint with Twilight or whoever later, if she really felt like making a stink about it, “I assume you gave them over?”

Doc forwarded them, yeah,” Slipshod confirmed.

“Perfect. He has the latest ‘unofficial’ version anyway. Once he’s done with Xanadu’s physical―assuming he can ever find the time―he said he’d post it to the ship’s network.”

There was a pause on the other end of the line long enough that Squelch actually felt compelled to check to ensure that she was still connected to the stallion’s comlink. Then she finally heard him say, “...Xanadu was added to the roster?

“Should have been,” the sage mare said simply, “I got a read receipt from Dee, so he definitely saw the new file. I know he’s been pretty swamped, but it literally just takes seconds to add it to his database,” the unicorn floated over a third towel and began rubbing it over her damp fur to try and speed along the drying process, “but, like I said: it’s just in the file he has for right now. The ship’s network wouldn’t show it yet.”

So, wait...then shouldn’t it have been eighty-si―huh?” Squelch frowned and was about to ask what the stallion had been about to say, but she it sounded now like he was speaking with somepony else, “Oh, hello there. Sorry, I’m kind of in the middle of a call...what do you mean she doesn’t speak? Vow of silence? What is that stuff? Woah, hey, watch the eyes―!

The mare rolled her eyes, turning her attention to drying herself as she waited for the stallion to get back to the call with her. She felt herself smirk slightly at the thought of the golden earth pony now having to deal with the same stink that she had.

What she hadn’t been anticipating was the scream.

“AHG! Fuck; it burns! What theagh!

Squelch shot up to her hooves, towels slipping from her magic and tail, “Slip? Slip, what’s going on? Are you alright?” she didn’t hear the stallion, but his mic was picking up a great deal of additional yelling. Most of it was impossible to make out. A lot of ponies were very clearly upset about something though, “Slipshod!”

Back away; all y’all!” that was not Slipshod, but a mare’s voice that she only faintly recognized.

What’re you doing to him?!” that was Flechette, the mare knew. Had they done something to Slipshod?

Don't move!” that stallion’s voice she didn’t recognize; nor the multitude of other ponies barking jumbled orders that were in its vein, “Halt!” “Drop your weapon!” “Freeze!” “Stay back!” all being screamed at the top of their lungs it sounded like, but too far from the mic to be clearly distinguished. Squelch wasn’t even certain that she’d have been able to comprehend all of the overlapping commands had she been there in the flesh.

The gunfire though...that she heard clearly.

Chapter 16: Lethal Heritage

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Slipshod stared at his hooves. It was safer than looking anywhere else. The broiling hatred oozing off of the Disciples surrounding him suggested that they were all willing to act upon any excuse that they could get their hooves on to justify causing him a great deal of pain. Not that the stallion thought that any of their superiors would put much effort into checking into whatever explanation any of these soldiers gave as to why they’d beat their changeling captive to within an inch of his life on the ride back from the Galloway. They’d only get in any real trouble if they managed to outright kill him. Even then, the only trouble they’d be in was for killing him before they could torture him to death.

So he continued to look at his hooves. Or, rather, more specifically, the blood on them.

Flechette’s blood.

Nopony would be getting in trouble for that either, he reasoned. Squelch would obviously be livid that her head of security had been gunned down by Disciple soldiers, but their justification would be difficult to dispute, even for the sage green unicorn. He’d attacked them, after all. Well, more accurately, he’d been trying to defend Slipshod. Or, at least, the creature that he’d always thought was Slipshod.

From the security pony’s perspective, things must have been so confusing. He’d known nothing of ‘changelings’, or the secret war being waged by the Disciples against Chrysalis and her agents saturated throughout the Harmony Sphere. He was just a security contractor, hired by Squelch to keep order on the Galloway. A job that that was foalishly easy to do, since the most he ever had to deal with was the occasional employee who’d drunk too much and gotten a bit too rowdy as a result. These past few months ‘guarding the prisoner’ had been the most ‘real’ work that Flechette had had to do since being hired.

Which wasn’t to say that he didn’t take his job seriously; he did. The safety and the security of the ponies on the ship mattered to him. He cared about his fellow Coursers.

So, when he’d seen Slipshod, a Steel Courser whose safety and wellbeing was his primary concern, in obvious distress, seemingly as a result of something that a zebra working with the Disciples, a cult of fanatic terrorists, had done to him, he’d acted. It really hadn’t been anything too threatening, in the grand scheme of things. He’d charged ahead to interpose himself between the Disciples and his comrade, his pinions going for his sidearm as a precautionary measure. Slipshod wasn’t sure that the pegasus had even drawn it from its holster.

The Disciples had seen things from a slightly different perspective though. They’d been focused on one of the monsters that they’d been fighting for centuries―perhaps the single greatest threat that ponykind had ever known. Then, suddenly, an armed pony that they didn’t know―and hadn’t yet screened with their weird green paste―had sought to keep them from their quarry. They’d yelled their commands, but Flechette would have been a poor excuse for a security pony if he simply stepped aside for anypony who screamed at him while he was near the Galloway, the place where―to his best understanding―he held jurisdiction, and the Disciples did not.

Flechette was dead before Slipshod was even aware that the pegasus stallion had been trying to protect him. The forced transformation had been far more shocking this time than when Twilight had dispelled his disguise. Likely a consequence of alchemy being used rather than true magic. The other Steel Courser security pony that had been with Flechette had probably survived by virtue of having poorer reflexes than his superior. He’d at least had the sensibility to not reach for his weapon when a half dozen armed and armored Disciple soldiers put him under their guns.

Nopony was that fast of a draw.

These were all events that Slipshod pieced together after the fact though. In the moment, he’d been too disoriented to understand what was happening. From his perspective, there’d been a stripped hoof covered in green oatmeal reaching for his face, a sensation of burning pain, Squelch yelling in his ear, a lot more yelling from ponies around him that weren’t Squelch, some gunfire, and then he’d been tackled to the ground by no fewer than three ponies wearing very heavy barding.

Now he was sitting shackled in the back of a Disciple APC being driven back to their DropShip with a dozen armed ponies surrounding him, each one seeming eager for any excuse to cause him a great deal of pain. Barring some sort of miracle, or an uncharacteristic display of ineptitude from the Disciples, he was a dead pony―well, changeling now, he supposed.

Obviously, they didn’t intend to just outright shoot him when they got back to their ship. They’d have just put a bullet in his head back at the Galloway if that were the case. Likely he’d be tortured for information first. Slipshod weighed his options in that regard. Strictly speaking, he doubted that there’d be any way to make that process more tolerable. Even if he was completely forthcoming and upfront with every one of his responses to their questions, they wouldn’t believe him. Not just because of how unsatisfying his answers would likely be to them, but because what changeling agent worth their slime just gave in to their interrogators? Clearly he was lying to them!

He could be a spiteful little asshole and either remain silent or feed them a bunch of obvious lies until they finally just washed their hooves of the whole thing and euthanized him. If he was going to die anyway, he would have liked to have at least performed one last act of spite against Chrysalis by spilling everything he knew to her greatest enemies. It would have given him at least some measure of satisfaction. But, if they weren’t actually going to believe him and make use of that information, then he’d have to derive his satisfaction from pissing them off.

Maybe if he feigned resisting their interrogations at first? Acted the part of the tight-lipped agent until he was finally ‘broken’ by their torture and spilled the beans? They might believe the intelligence he gave them then. It meant enduring a lot of agony, but, let’s be honest: he was going to be enduring just as much of it no matter what he did. Whether he was upfront and honest, spitefully silent, or anything in between, they were going to torture him to death ‘just to be sure’. He wasn’t going to be spared any measure of pain or suffering no matter what.

In the end, all that really mattered was: what did he want to do?

The changeling hid a smirk. Well, obviously he wanted to live, but that was off the table. Next best thing then: he wanted to fuck over Chrysalis. The best way to do that would be to give the Disciples the information that they needed in order to have the best advantage possible in their continued operations against her. Whether they chose to believe him or not, they’d still have the information. Maybe, someday, after they could independently verify some of what he’d said, they’d begin to trust the rest of it too.

He might not be around to see the fruits of his labors first-hoof, but he could at least die with the comforting thought that―someday―Chrysalis would fall. That was a better death than he could have hoped for a year ago. Which was something.

Slipshod hadn’t quite been able to avert the snort of amusement at the thought of so dismal a ‘silver lining’, and quickly set about masking it with a cough as several pairs of eyes glared in his direction. He was careful to still keep his gaze focused on his hooves. The changeling frowned now, idly rubbing at the drying blood. Not that he was able to do much more than smear it around a little.

He mentally sighed. Squelch was probably going to blame Flechette’s death on him, adding it to Val’s and the others from the ambush. That was her prerogative, and likely not an unfair characterization. The unicorn was going to be in a state, he imagined. Part of him was kind of disappointed that he wasn’t going to be present when she finally received the news about what he was. It was probably for the best. The Disciples might actually offer him a cleaner death than what would happen to him if Squelch got her hooves on him after that…

Another snort had to be turned into a cough.

Squelch indeed was in what would be termed in polite society as: ‘a state’. Most anypony else would have described her as ‘freaking out’ though.

Slipshod’s comlink had gone dead seconds after the gunshots had been fired, and nopony else she could raise on the Galloway seemed to have any more idea about what was going on than she did. High Gain was on the bridge, and hadn’t been told anything yet. Though a few dozen ponies had certainly reported hearing the gunfire as well. Her Chief of Security wasn’t answering his comm for some reason, and the unicorn figured that if anypony might know who was shooting and why, it would have been him.

Her messages to the doctor were going right to his voicemail, but she wasn’t quite as surprised about that. He was already being stretched well beyond the limits of anypony’s expectations for him as a result of the influx of hundreds of zebras for him to treat. Mig had only been able to tell her that the kirin thought the shots had come from the direction of where the Disciples had parked their APCs when they’d arrived at the Galloway, but she’d been using a grinder at the time, so she couldn’t be sure. The chief mechanic had reported seeing what looked like a lot of activity, but again that was hard to judge, since dozens of ponies had been milling about the armored vehicles since they’d arrived.

All that the sage mare had been able to confirm was that Slipshod had indeed gone out to meet with the Disciples, and that there had been gunfire in the area. Nopony knew if anypony had been hurt, and the Disciples had issued a lockdown order for the area. Beyond that, there wasn’t any additional information available. Neither from from her own ponies, nor from the Disciples here. Star Admiral Cinder’s aide had curtly informed Squelch that, as she was not a member of their crew herself, the unicorn mare was not authorized to know what may, or may not, be going on with their personnel.

When the mercenary company owner had pointed out that this incident had apparently also included Steel Courser personnel, she had been told that she should then seek out details from the Steel Coursers. The unicorn had ground her teeth so hard she made a note to consult a dentist to check for chipped molars the next chance she got.

Now she was on her way towards Axel Rod and her waiting company limousine. Her suit jacket was slung over her back, and her shirt was on but hanging open, as her concentration was simply too frazzled for her to properly work the buttons with her telekinesis. If she couldn’t get any details over comms, then she’d go to the scene and find out what was going on firsthoof.

She emerged from the Dropship to find her earth pony driver still idly mopping at his face with a rag. Unlike her, Axel Rod had not been given the benefit of a shower. He noticed her approach and quickly tucked away the cloth, walking over to open the door for her.

Suddenly, an armored form stepped in front of the unicorn, drawing her up short. She briefly gaped at the Disciple soldier before narrowing her eyes at him, her lips pulling back in a sneer, “out of my way,” she practically snarled at the other pony, “I need to get back to my ship.”

“Ma’am,” the Disciple pegasus stallion said in a stern tone, “until I have been given clearance by my superiors that you are permitted the leave, I cannot―”

Fuck your ‘clearance’, fuck your superiors, and fuck you if you think you can stop me!” Squelch screamed at the now quite taken-aback pegasus, “one of my ponies might be hurt. I’m going to my ship,” she growled at the Disciple, “and if you don’t step aside now, I’ll drag your princess out here by her damn tail and make her order you to let me leave!

“I saved her fucking life, in case you haven’t heard,” she railed on, jabbing the stallion in his armored chest with her hoof, “she owes me for the next thousand years, as far as I’m concerned, and I’m not afraid to start calling in that marker right here and now to get your flank banished to fucking tartarus; so move!”

Admittedly, Squelch wasn’t certain if she actually had that kind of pull with Twilight. The alicorn seemed like a soft-hearted enough sort that she had to feel something was owed to Squelch and her mercenary company. At the very least the purple mare would give Squelch permission to return to her own damn ship. If this trooper wanted to make a big enough deal of all of this though, she might find herself detained in the brig or something until Twilight could be reached to clear things up. Celestia knew how long that could be. Minutes, hours, the rest of the day. Far longer than the unicorn wanted to be delayed, regardless.

The Disciple pegasus finally overcame his moment of shock and bristled at the sage green mare’s demands, glaring down at her, “Ma’am, I am ordering you to get back inside the DropShip until such time as I have been informed that you can leave the area,” his right wing lifted slightly, revealing a sidearm strapped to his withers.

Squelch didn’t miss the implication. She was also well aware that she had no recourse either. Neither she nor Axel Rod had any weapons. Not that drawing them if they’d had would have helped matters. The mare had no choice but to comply with the guard’s demands, not that that knowledge did anything to soothe her ire.

...No. No, she wasn’t just going to roll over and do what these ponies wanted. She might not be able to actually fight them, but that didn’t mean that she had to just submit either. If this stallion wanted to make a big deal about this, then she was going to let him, “fuck you,” she said to the armored soldier, and had the pleasure of seeing him look surprised once more. Clearly he was not used to not getting his way.

“Ma’am, if you don’t return to the DropShip, I will be forced to take you into custody,” he warned, “I don’t think you really want to go to the brig over this―”

“I want to go back to my ship and check on my ponies,” Squelch cut him off, “so you can either move, or take me to your brig. Your choice.”

The pegasus frowned and let out a resigned grunt, “fine,” he brought up his fetlock and spoke into it, “Main Entrance to Ops, I need a detention team here. Green unicorn mare refusing to comply with orders,” he eyed her carefully, “appears unarmed. Belligerent, but not combative. Over.”

“Oh, you haven’t seen ‘belligerent’ yet, trust me,” Squelch sneered at the guard, “allow me to tell you exactly what I think of you Disciples. First of all―”

The arrival of a pair of APCs distracted the mare from her intended tirade. The Disciple soldier as well seemed to forget that the two of them were involved in a heated exchange as he put a hoof to his ear and listened intently to whatever was being said over his comlink. A few seconds later, he seemed to forget about her entirely as he looked to the armored vehicles, his stance becoming much more rigid.

The unicorn mare glanced between the pegasus and the newly arrived APCs, “what? What’s going on?”

“Ma’am, go inside!” he barked over his shoulder. The stallion’s eyes darted briefly behind her before he looked back towards the wheeled troop transports once again.

Squelch nearly jumped in surprise when a hoof took her by the shoulder and attempted to draw her backwards. She wheeled around to find a pair of Disciple soldiers looking at her sternly. One of them held a pair of hobblers in her telekinesis, the other was floating a dampening ring, “you’re advised not to resist, ma’am.”

She very nearly jerked away, if only on instinct, but managed to retain enough dignity at least to remain still. She’d quite literally asked for this, after all. Her gaze darted to a quite obviously concerned Axel Rod, who looked like he was wondering if he was expected to intervene in some way to help his employer. The sage unicorn turned her head towards him and shook her head as her forehooves were fitted with the hobblers. There was no reason that the mechanic needed to suffer for her stubbornness.

Then she looked towards the APCs, and the Disciple soldiers that were filing out of the back of them. Specifically, her eyes locked onto the figure that was quite clearly not a Disciple. Nor a pony, she realized with stunned surprise. She didn’t know what it was; she’d never seen a creature quite like it before. Its shape was vaguely equine, yes, but the beast looked like something that would only come to creation if a mare fucked a cockroach.

Shiny black carapace, gossamer wings, bulbous blue eyes devoid of iris or pupil, and limbs that appeared to be perforated. The only word she could think of to describe it was: a monster, “what is that thing?” she couldn’t refrain from uttering the breathless question.

“A changeling,” the unicorn mare arresting her stated simply.

That’s a changeling?” then the horrific realization crossed her mind, “that thing was on my ship?” Twilight really had been telling the truth about everything, the mare realized, a cold lump forming in her gut. She’d never suspected for a moment that any of the ponies on her crew weren’t, well...ponies. How long had that...thing been hiding out on the Galloway? Months? Years?

Her captors didn’t have any answers for her, only pulling her back to the edge of the boarding ramp as the column of Disciple soldiers escorted the bug pony thing into the DropShip. For a moment, she thought it looked at her. It was difficult to tell with eyes like that though.

One of the new arrivals from the APCs, a pegasus mare glanced at the trio, raising an eyebrow as she glanced between the Disciple soldiers arresting her, “what’s going on here?”

“This mare refused to remain confined to the ship, Point Commander. We’re escorting her to the brig.”

The pegasus nodded her understanding before looking back at Squelch, “you’re from that other DropShip, right? One of the mercenaries?”

“I’m Squelch, owner and Commander of the Steel Coursers Mercenary Company, and registered Captain of the DropShip Galloway,” she was pleased to note that she’d managed a properly imperious tone as she rattled off her titles. Not that the ponies around her sounded all that impressed. That was usually the case with ‘bona fide military’ types, honestly. The unicorn didn’t quite understand why soldiers who were part of ‘proper armies’ felt themselves superior to soldiers of fortune like herself. As thought fighting and killing for a House and an emblem was so much more noble than fighting for C-bits and fame.

“The commander, huh?” the officer mare frowned and then looked at the other Disciples arresting her, “let her go. Something tells me that the star captain’s going to want to talk with her.”

Without protest, the pair of armored ponies removed Squelch’s hobblers and the ring on her horn meant to mute her magic, though the sage mare barely noticed, as she was more intently focused on what the pegasus had said, “why? What happened on my ship? I heard gunshots.”

The point commander frowned, “there was an incident while we were capturing the changeling,” she admitted, waving a wing in the direction of the procession that was vanishing into the bowels of the Disciple DropShip, “Star Captain Honeycrisp will be able to give you the details on what happened. The rest of your crew’s been screened. You’re free to go.”

Squelch scowled at the feathered mare, frustrated that she’d finally encountered somepony who knew what was going on and still wasn’t being given any details. Didn’t she have the right to know what was going on with her own damn crew?! With a disdainful huff, the mare gathered her fallen suit jacket and stormed off towards Axel Rod and the waiting limo, “get me back to the Galloway. Now.”

“Right away, boss,” the earth pony nodded, closing her door before trotting over to the driver’s seat. Much to his credit, it did sound like he was pushing the engine’s revolutions into a range that wasn’t recommended by most mechanics.

“Well, that certainly explains how you got me those scrolls,” the purple alicorn said as she floated over another scone, having rediscovered her appetite amidst connecting with newfound family. Though there were certainly plenty of arguments that could be made one way or the other as to whether the princess and the star admiral were actually ‘aunt’ and ‘niece’, respectively. To that end, Star Admiral Cinder felt that she’d have met with significant resistance if she’d ever tried to make a familial bid for Twilight’s throne.

Not that she’d considered such a thing for even a moment. She was in the process of being groomed to eventually succeed her mother for the position of Dragon Lord, and rule over the associated Dragon Clans. While the laws of their race precluded a successor from actually being ‘appointed’, per se, there was broadly little doubt that she’d be the victor in whatever trial her mother established in order to evaluate and choose her replacement. Not because any of the various Khans of the Clans thought that Dragon Lord Ember would manipulate the test to favor her daughter, but rather because they knew that Star Admiral Cinder was genuinely that capable.

It wasn’t like Admiralties were given out to just anycreature, after all, especially in the Clans.

“My father figured that it might come in handy someday, Your Majesty,” the cobalt-blue dragoness nodded, “though, I will admit,” she added with some trepidation, “I had begun to wonder if I would ever have need of it.”

“Please, you can call me Auntie Twilight,” the mare insisted, grinning broadly, “or just Twilight. Or Auntie!”

Cinder cleared her throat, “as you command...Auntie.”

Now Twilight frowned, “that’s not a ‘command’,” she insisted, “it’s just...you’re Spike and Ember’s daughter! That makes us family. You’re not this formal with your mother, are you?”

“Certainly in public settings, I am,” the star admiral said, “and our private interactions are much rarer of late. My assignments keep me from home much of the time.”

“Oh. I’m sorry to hear that.”

Cinder merely shrugged, “the price of doing one’s duty, Your―” the dragoness cocked a wry smile after catching herself, “Auntie.”

“Still, I couldn’t imagine being away from my friends or family for so long,” then a sad thought occurred to the alicorn, “...though, I guess from their point of view, I was. That’s probably going to be the weirdest part of all of this: seeing everycreature I ever knew having changed so much in what―from my perspective―has only been a few months.

“I know a little about what happened to some of my friends,” she continued, somberly, “I know Celestia, Luna, and Cadence were captured by Chrysalis,” she looked furtively at Cinder, “but I heard that Flurry Heart might be...dead?” she desperately hoped that wasn’t the case, and Slipshod had certainly suggested that it might not be.

Much to the alicorn’s immense relief, the dragoness smiled and shook her head, “Princess-Regent Flurry Heart is indeed alive and quite well...Auntie. She serves as the head of the aptly-titled Celestia League-in-Exile, of which the Dragon Clans are a part.”

“Thank Celestia for small favors,” Twilight said with a sigh of relief, with only a minor flash of bitterness upon recalling where Celestia currently was, “and where’s Discord? I assume that he’s at least somewhat involved with his unit’s namesake still.”

“Actually...no,” Cinder admitted, “Discord has been absent for a long while,” the alicorn’s eyes widened in stark surprise, prompting the dragoness to further clarify, “for all that he’s the ‘Lord of Chaos’, I think that the fighting was too much ‘chaos’ for him to stand.”

“That’s pretty hard to believe,” Twilight muttered with a frown, “he thrives on chaos.”

“He needs it to survive,” the admiral acknowledged, “that much is true; but I guess even he’s subject to the adage ‘too much of a good thing’. Everycreature needs water, but everycreature can also drown. I feel that’s what happened to him: he was ‘drowning’ in the chaos of a galaxy-wide war.

“He retreated to his realm not long after the fighting reached a fevered-pitch; and nocreature has heard from him since.”

“I see…”

Twilight frowned. That was unfortunate, and not just because her friend was suffering. Discord was an absurdly powerful being. She and the effort to restore the Celestia League would have benefited greatly from his help. Though, maybe it was for the best that he wasn’t involved. He derived his power from chaos. With the turmoil of thousands of worlds embroiled in a war spanning the whole of settled space…

...well, Twilight still recalled vividly how much trouble she’d had trying to contain and control the power of three additional alicorns. She didn’t want to consider what might have happened to her―and especially those around her―if a few hundred more alicorns worth of power had been stuffed inside of her. Would that much chaos energy overwhelm his reformed nature? She’d seen what his magic could do to others, even those who were pure of heart.

“Still, it’ll be nice to see Flurry Heart again,” the purple mare said, attempting to steer the conversation back onto more pleasant topics again, “maybe together we can start making a real push to defeat Chrysalis!”

“That has long been the hope, Auntie,” the dragoness nodded, offering her own smile in return, “we’re certainly glad to have you back sooner rather than later.”

“I’m glad to be back, but I’m sure that Flurry Heart has been doing a wonderful job in the meantime,” she paused and thought for a moment, “or at least as good a job as could be expected under the circumstances.”

“I apologize, that wasn’t what I meant to imply,” Cinder corrected carefully, “Princess-Regent Flurry Heart has performed commendably, yes,” she agreed, “what I said was in reference to the Dragon Clans,” her tone became significantly more somber now, and twilight couldn’t help but straighten up in seat as she took note of that, “they’ve become...uppity, of late.”


“After a fashion,” Cinder nodded, “our inherent nature as dragons can predispose us to avaricious ambitions. The Magic of Friendship and Dragon Lord Ember’s guidance has helped to curb the bulk of those desires over the last millenia or so, but…” she frowned now, shifting uncomfortably in her chair, “...well, it was much easier to do that when we still had other creatures to look to as aspirational examples.

“Now the creatures we once looked to for guidance on how to be friendly towards one another have apparently discarded those very ideals,” she shared a pointed look with the alicorn, “some time ago, a few of the Dragon Clans began to wonder aloud why we were still trying to cling to those ideals when even the bulk of ponykind had abandoned them.

“There is growing concern that they might invade the Harmony Sphere,” it was clear from Cinder’s tone, that the thought disturbed her, “and that they wouldn’t do so with the intent of helping the creatures within it.”

Twilight’s face blanched, “but Ember wouldn’t allow them to do that, right? She’s the Dragon Lord. The other dragons have to do what she says, don’t they?” the idea of a dragon invasion being launched upon the already violence-embroiled inhabitants of the Sphere was clearly quite upsetting for her to think about, and with good reason. The last thing that the galaxy needed was to be destabilized even further by a hostile dragon invasion!

The admiral proceeded to squirm uncomfortably in her seat now, “the other dragons ‘have to’ do what she says, only insofar as they believe that she could forcibly compel them to do her bidding by using the Staff of the Dragon Lord if they refused,” she clarified, “to be compelled in such a way is incredibly demeaning for a dragon―especially one who holds a position of authority, like a Khan―so dragons tend to follow whatever commands she gives without the need to be compelled. It allows them to retain their dignity and the respect of those they rule directly. However…” the admiral trailed off, furtively biting her lower lip.


Cinder hesitated for several moments before finally quirking her mouth and rolling her eyes, “shells, it’s not like the princess doesn’t have a high enough clearance or a ‘need to know’ for something like this,” she muttered aloud, though she did still cast a glance around the otherwise empty room, as though to confirm that no other creature had wandered in during the course of their chatting. Star Commodore had left to attend to his duties a good while ago, leaving the pair quite alone.

She leaned over the table, her gaze intent on the alicorn, the implied seriousness of the matter even prompting Twilight to inch her head in closer as well, “some time ago, Dragon Lord Ember confided in me that the Staff hasn’t functioned in nearly a thousand years.”

“What?” Twilight’s startle exclamation left no doubt to her own surprise on the matter, “a thous―? She never mentioned that to me!”

“Likely out of embarrassment,” the cobalt dragoness acknowledged, “for obvious reasons, she has kept the matter extremely quiet. Confined to her immediate family, I believe. And Princess Flurry Heart, of course. If the Khans of the Dragon Clans were ever to learn that she could no longer wield the staff’s power…” Cinder shuddered, “it would be pandemonium.”

“What’s wrong with it? Is it broken?”

The dragoness shook her head, “Princess Flurry Heart doesn’t believe so, but she acknowledges that she isn’t familiar with dragon magic. For obvious reasons, the Dragon Lord is reluctant to broach the subject of the Staff with other dragons. Those who are wise and old enough to know what might be wrong with it are also the same dragons most likely to revolt when they learn they are no longer tethered by it as they once were.”

“That’s...not great,” a grandiose understatement if ever there was one, the alicorn knew, “I’m not very familiar with dragon magic either,” she admitted, flashing a sardonic smirk at the admiral, “as you can imagine, dragons aren’t too keen to share where they get their power from.”

Cinder nodded in understanding, “indeed,” then her expression became more concerned again, “but this has led to something of a downward spiral: Dragon Lord Ember knows she cannot compel any of the Clans to obey her, so she shies away from issuing any order that they might balk at, and is giving the Khans much more leeway where their conduct is concerned so as to avoid being placed into a situation where she is compelled to forcibly reprimand them and reveal the Staff’s impotency. Similarly, many Khans have begun getting more brazen with their actions and rhetoric. For which the Dragon Lord has only reprimanded them for verbally. She threatens them with use of the Staff if they should go too far, and that has been enough of a deterrent for the moment, but…”

“It’s only a matter of time before one of them calls her bluff,” Twilight finished in a resigned tone. Cinder nodded.

That was...hardly ideal, the alicorn thought to herself. A number of theories as to what might have gone awry with the Staff of the Dragon Lord bloomed and withered in her mind as she considered―and quickly dismissed―various possible causes. Most intriguing though was the timetable that had been outlined: the better part of a thousand years since it last worked? That meant that whatever was wrong couldn’t be connected to anything that had transpired since Chrysalis’ return.

Twilight wasn’t certain if that made things better or worse. Certainly it made things a little more personally concerning, as there was the possibility that it might be connected to something that she’d done.

The purple mare took a deep breath and extended her hoof from her chest out to the side, feeling herself begin to recede back from the manic state that she’d been working herself into fretting over the Staff. Certainly there was no use putting too much thought to the matter when she hadn’t even seen it yet. Finding the problem, and formulating a solution, would have to wait for that much at the very least.

On that note: “how long will the trip take to reach...Somni Patrium?”

“Not long,” Cinder assured the princess, “a jump chain is in place beyond the Periphery, waiting to ferry this DropShip back to Clan space. A couple weeks, at the outside.”

“And what of the Steel Coursers?” Twilight asked.

The dragoness hesitated for several moments, “they will be coming with us,” she stated simply.

The purple mare frowned. She had not completely approved of the tone with which Cinder had said that, “what is to become of them?”

“Nothing,” the star admiral replied, still sounding a little confused, “I mean, we certainly aren’t going to harm them, or anything like that,” she assured the alicorn adamantly, sounding a little offended at even the notion that that might have been the assumption, “however, as they have all seen the Rockhoof, they cannot be allowed to return to the Harmony Sphere.”

“So...what? They’ll be imprisoned back on Somni Patrium until Chrysalis is defeated?”

The star admiral was squirming uncomfortably beneath her monarch’s gaze once again, knowing that the answer that she was about to give wasn’t going to be as well-received as she might have hoped, “essentially? Though, I assure you that they won’t be confined to anything even remotely like a prison cell. They certainly won’t be treated like criminals. They will be set up with proper homes and a modest living stipend to support themselves. They’ll even be free to pursue vocations if they wish―and still receive the stipend.

“They simply will not be permitted to leave Clan space until we have managed to finally defeat Chrysalis,” she finished, looking expectantly at the princess and hoping that her response had been found to be satisfactory.

“Knowing full well that it could take years―even decades―to complete such an invasion,” the dragoness was forced to acknowledge the possibility beneath the alicorn’s cool gaze, “perhaps the rest of their natural lives.”

“Word of our true capabilities cannot be allowed to reach the changelings, Your Majesty,” the star admiral insisted in a deferential tone, falling back into the formal relationship of a military leader and her monarch, “Chrysalis’ mistaken belief in her own superiority is our greatest asset at the moment. With the level of control she exercises over the Harmony Sphere, she has access to the raw materials and industrial capacity to outproduce the Celestia League-in-Exile. If she thought―if she even suspected―that anycreature else in the galaxy possessed a genuine navy, or an entire corps of BattleSteeds not under her influence, she’d begin a massive production effort to give her an indisputable advantage over it.

“If that happens…” the star admiral shook her head in resignation, “we’ll never be able to retake the Harmony Sphere. Chrysalis will have well and truly won, Your Majesty.

“The crew of the Galloway simply cannot be allowed to return to their homes. I’m sorry.”

“What of their families?”

The admiral balked again, “I...um,” she clearly had no response to that point.

Maybe she couldn’t do anything about the Red Reivers―not right this moment, anyway―Twilight admitted, but this much at least, she could do to help, “may I assume that the Clans operate a spy network within the Harmony Sphere?” the dragoness nodded. Twilight had figured that had to have been the case; and that it was a rather talented one. After all, they had known who she was with, and where to find her, almost as quickly as the changelings had, “then I shall have a list of the families of the Galloway’s crewmembers sent to you, and you will forward it, along with whatever proof of my authority is required, to the appropriate field agents, with instructions that they are to move those families into whatever protective custody is necessary to ensure they are safe from Chrysalis.

“Bring them all the way back to the Dragon Clans if that’s what it takes, and they are willing to come. Whatever must be done, they will be protected from Chrysalis. Am I clear on that point, star admiral?” the alicorn’s tone left little doubt as to the finality of this command, and so the dragoness nodded.

“Yes, Your Majesty. The arrangements will be made as quickly as possible.”

Twilight sighed now, resentful that a meeting that had taken such a warm and inviting turn should end on so formal a note. The pitfalls of leadership, the alicorn supposed. Still, with the next month to spend together, the two of them might still manage to form close bonds of genuine friendship, “thank you, Cinder,” she said, mustering a wan smile. Then she stretched her wings and touched the now thoroughly dried paste that was still spread across her face, her lips crinkling in a tiny smile as she recalled a future-that-never-was.

“And now, perhaps, I should follow Squelch’s example and seek out a shower.”

“A suite has been prepared and is waiting for you...Auntie,” Cinder said, standing up from the table and gesturing towards the door, “I’ll show you the way myself.”

“Thank you, Cinder. That’s very kind of you.”

Squelch stood in the infirmary of the Galloway, staring at the body of her chief of security as it lay beneath the sheet on the retractable locker slab. Her expression was cold and impassive, betraying nothing of the maelstrom of emotions that raged beneath it. The cherry red earth pony Disciple officer in charge of the screening operation here had been sympathetic, and acknowledged that the outcome had not been ‘ideal’, but had stood by the actions of her soldiers and their decision to open fire.

The Steel Coursers’ commander didn’t agree with the justifications as they had been presented to her, but she wasn’t a ‘fighting pony’ at heart. She freely acknowledged that she lacked the training, experience, and expertise, to evaluate when lethal force was acceptable. Squelch had traditionally relied upon the conclusions of those around her who did know better. In this case, she would have deferred to Flechette’s guidance.

But she couldn’t of course. Not this time.

He was dead. Killed in the confusion that arose from the exposure of a monster hiding in the midst of her crew. A monster that the Disciples now had in their custody.

As a result, it wasn’t the other soldiers that Squelch held responsible for this. It was that creature. It was their fault. That alone would have been enough to fill Squelch with a desire to see it punished. However, an additional reason to despise it was also present, “...you’re sure it was him?”

The only other living pony in the clinic at the moment, the other security pony who’d been present when Flechette had been killed, nodded, “yes, ma’am. It was Captain Slipshod. When the zebra put that stuff on his face he―it―changed into that thing…” the guard trailed off, clearly still trying to process what they’d witnessed.

Squelch could empathize. She was having trouble coming to terms with it as well. Slipshod? The stallion that they’d all known and trusted for years? An imposter? A monster? It was difficult to believe. Yet, the evidence was indisputable. Some of it was lying cold and dead right in front of her.

“That you, corporal,” the mare said in a cool tone, “you may return to your duties. See if you can track down the doctor. Tell him, when he gets some time, that I’d like to review Slipsh―that thing’s―medical records,” if changelings were going to be a part of her reality, she wanted to know as much about them as possible, in order to avoid something like this happening in the future.

“I...yes, ma’am,” the security pony said before withdrawing from the infirmary.

Squelch stood in silence, staring at the slain pegasus stallion for another minute or so. Finally, she reached out with her telekinesis and depressed the controls that would r