Tiberian Eclipse

by Material Defender

First published

Equestria is under threat from a crystal from beyond their world, one which earns them the attention of forces both benevolent and malevolent...

Tiberium. The infamous green crystal that destroys entire worlds in its wake of global proliferation. It has been a little over a century since the Tiberium threat was first wiped out on Earth, and with it, the primary vestiges of the Brotherhood of Nod. When the GDI advanced humanity to the stars, they found that Earth had not been the only target of the alien Scrin: dozens of other worlds had already been claimed by Tiberium, and the Scrin returned in full force, attacking human colonies across space, stopping human expansion. To fight back, the GDI undergoes a reformation to become the Interstellar Defense Intiative (ISDI) and enacts the Hallman Directive, designed to stop Tiberium spread wherever it may be; such a protocol brings the reincarnated ITC Methuselah to a planet being ravaged by the green crystal, and the forces under Commander Martin Alexandra deploy to stop the threat.

Crossover Material: Command and Conquer - Tiberian Series/MLP
Rated Teen for Graphic Violence and Language

Prologue: To Serve and Protect

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"Come on, come on! We have to get everypony outta here!" Applejack shouted through her hazard suit. A group of sky carriages on a nearby hill waited as the remainder of the population of Ponyville quickly shuffled on-board, clad in the yellow suits themselves.

"But... Applejack!" Apple Bloom trotted up beside her, her voice muffled through the suit's air scrubbers. "You're... what about you?"

Applejack smiled weakly at her sister, and looked towards the hole in her suit, on her left leg. "It's fine, sugarcube..." she said, coughing. "I'll be fine. You just keep an eye out for yourself, and keep your friends safe... okay?"

"But... you can't stay here! You just can't!" Apple Bloom's voice was filled with worry. Princess Celestia had mandated that all ponies that had come into exposed contact were unable to return to Canterlot, and Applejack's luck had run out when the mutated timberwolves charged into town and started attacking ponies.

"It's alright, Apple Bloom..." She hugged her sister for the last time. "It's alright. This was... we couldn't expect to see all of this coming now. Just go now, okay? Tell Big Mac and Granny Smith that I love 'em."

Turning around, she met the eyes of Rainbow Dash, her angry expression visible through her visor. "I... I can't bucking believe all of this! I... Applejack, just... I don't want to leave you down here by yourself!"

"I'm sorry, Dash..." Applejack said. "But that's how it has to be. I can't risk hurtin' any other ponies with this." She coughed again, this time a more serious fit of heaving. "I... I can feel it taking me already..."

"No! No bucking way, there's no way that I'm leaving you down here, just let me talk to the Princess, I'm sure I can convince her to—" Applejack put a hoof to her chest. It was truly futile... there was no known cure to fighting against the strange green crystal, and what little progress they had made towards it was ineffective. And by then, it was already too late.

"Dash... just go. Please."

"I... I..." Dash began to cry, hugging Applejack. "I'm sorry, AJ... I'm so sorry..."

"Don't be, Dash. You still got the rest of our friends, right? I'm sure things will be okay... just... okay..." Applejack said, quietly sobbing to herself. "Goodbye, Dash."

"Good... bye... AJ..." Dash said.

"Come on, hurry it up!" one of the guards shouted at Dash. "We can't stick around here too long, or our wings get iced!"

"I know, I know...!" Dash trotted away, giving Applejack a final sad gaze before leaving in the sky with the rest of the ponies.

And in that barren field of dead apple trees, Applejack felt very tired. She felt her hooves give way as she fell to the ground, and closed her eyes. So long as her friends, family, and everypony else was safe... that was all that mattered.

Twilight Sparkle sat in the study of the Canterlot Royal Library, fervently digging through dozens of texts to find any sort of mention about the crystal, its origins, or most importantly: the cure. The spread of the crystal had taken its toll on the ponies of Equestria, and what hope they now had was barely a sliver, a small dying light in an encroaching darkness, darker than anything Nightmare Moon or Discord could have ever hoped to achieve.

She flipped through another page of yet another nondescript book: her enthusiasm for reading had long since worn off, and she was only interested in finding answers where she had once perused a book’s content delightfully taking in everything it had to offer. It had been like this for the longest time now, ever since she and her friends had been called to action by Princess Celestia at the beginning of it all.

The strange meteorites had fallen from the sky just over a couple of years ago, and impacted around various regions. The one closest to Equestria had fallen straight on the outskirts of their territory, nearly the borders to griffon lands, and was right outside of Stalliongrad. Immediately, ponies of all kinds had rushed to see what sort of cosmic wonder had landed in their home. Guards rushed to cordon off the area, and the Princess had been contacted as quickly as possible.

All seemed normal in the beginning save for one thing: the strange rock had grown a green-like hue within moments, and was spreading its hue to the ground around it. A magical barrier was immediately created to contain the spread, and unicorns hailing from Equestria’s most talented institutions were granted leave to create a research facility under the approval of the Princess, dedicated to studying this wondrous new rock. Ponykind believed it to be a great and amazing discovery, one that they would be proud to unlock the secrets of.

They were wrong.

Within the rock’s protective magical barrier, the crystal itself had reached critical growth, nearly bursting at the seams of the barrier, growing steadily every time they checked on it. Removing samples small enough to manage became too dangerous to handle, and with enough testing, the researchers learned that they could reverse the growth of the strange rock, and immediately put it to use roughly around six months into their research.

That was the beginning of the end, or at least that’s what Twilight had assumed. She just considered it lucky, as conceited as it sounded, to not have been there when things went wrong. At first, the spells had worked: the crystals were reduced down to the original sample size from when it had first arrived on the world, and staff was present around the clock to keep it from spreading too much. The spell did degrade in containment from time to time, but the only thing that was required was a simple minute increase or decrease in magic to hold the crystal back.

Then one day, without any signs or clues, the crystal suddenly exploded in growth, shining with a strange new energy that none of the researchers had never seen before. The staff on hand immediately threw their spells forward only to find that it no longer contained the growth of the crystal, but accelerated it. Immediately within, the first casualties against this strange new enemy were tallied off on a report that Twilight would read in the future.

From there, it quickly engulfed the entire building and spread outside. Much like their compatriots within, those outside had no idea what the application of magic would do to the crystal, and quickly found themselves falling ill to the uncontained effects, falling where they stood as they, too, fell victim to the growing tide. Eventually, containment was all but abandoned, and everypony, or at least those who still lived, retreated as quickly as they could to return the news to Princess Celestia.

A small portion of the fleeing group redirected to Stalliongrad in an effort to evacuate, but the efforts were too slow, and too unorganized. Ponies screamed in terror, rushing in droves in an attempt to escape out of the city, only for the gates to clog as they tried to hold on to their possessions. Earth ponies naturally took the brunt of the deaths, as unicorns and pegasi managed to use their own specialized talents to escape from the city. What brave souls there were remained to ferry as many ponies as they could out of the city, until they realized that it was too late for them to escape.

With that, the first population center, one of Equestria’s proudest centers for military tradition, fell. Not with a bang, but with a whimper, one accentuated with the screams of terror of thousands of innocent ponies that freezing night. The returning force immediately broke through the guard and went straight to the Princess, retelling of everything that had happened. Noticing the growth on several of the members, Celestia ordered them to be quarantined until further notice. They died within several days as the crystal’s spread on their bodies went unhindered, and regretful letters of passing had to be mailed to the families of those who died.

Celestia declared an immediate state of emergency, and those cities that were nearest to Stalliongrad were to begin evacuations immediately, no excuses. Every pony and their families were to have everything prepared and ready to move within two days, and the Equestrian Royal Guard was to facilitate the whole event.

It turned out that two days was putting it generously.

Within a single day, the crystal had spread to the outskirts of the nearest towns and cities, Trottingham being one of note. Luckily, those living in rural territories were among the first to be evacuated, as strange mutations in local plant life were observed by those keen enough to watch. In the distance, endless green and now strangely enough, blue, seas of shining crystal acted as a reaper, slowly growing, completely unstoppable, as guard attempts to shield off areas went completely ignored as the crystal could now pass through them with no signs of deterrence.

Panic quickly began to settle in, but under the officious gaze of Equestria’s finest, order was maintained and all ponies were evacuated in a timely manner. But it wasn’t enough. The long trek to the refugees camps deeper in the heartland took a toll on morale. The crystal was at their tails and there was nothing they could do except keep moving from camp to camp, their groups growing steadily larger until it took days to set up a camp, only for them to tear it down the day immediately after to relocate.

Thankfully, though, as most speculations had assumed, the crystal began to slow down. Gone was its original rate of spread, of course, but the magic it had once been infused with at the beginning had been depleted, unable to replenish itself without an outside source. With this, the relief groups heaved a sigh of relief and turned to aiding the displaced as best as they could.

However, they were still hampered by a multitude of things: the climate of the land grew worse, as did the conditions for suitable life. Any attempt to grow crops on soil taken back from crystal growth was barren and dead, unable to support life. And then there were the problems of space: with every relocation, camps grew and moved closer to Canterlot. Eventually, they would deplete their options for running, and have to settle with living with whatever land they were on; unacceptable, given how the crystal’s growth seemed to have been appearing everywhere within recent times, and as shockingly far as the coastal eastern cities, far from where the original landing was.

The Princesses then, after much consideration, put the sun and moon into autonomous states, freeing them to focus on the problems that plagued their own world. Luna herself immediately took charge of leading the relief efforts on the front, paying visits to the camps and giving much needed morale to the weary subjects, which wasn’t enough. Unnatural storm clouds formed in the distance, crackling with green lightning. Food stocks were heavily rationed as discontent mounted with every new decree promising some sort of relief in time.

Then, after a year of continued hardships, came the worst of the crisis: the loss of Cloudsdale. Pegasi weather teams had done an admirable job of holding back the strange new influx of unstable clouds into the regions surrounding Canterlot, but the change to their own home came almost overnight. A great and dangerous storm brewed and collided with their home, turning the once docile clouds of the city itself into super-charged ones spewing rain and lightning in every direction. Most of the city’s population had been caught unawares, stuck in the turbulent winds and minefield of bolts, and what few survivors had made it out recalled a grim tale to the Princesses. Rainbow Dash and many other pegasi and ponies mourned for over a week over the loss of one of Equestria’s greatest cities, where many once called home.

Following that, two months later, during a disorganized relocation effort for Hoofington’s refugees, Princess Luna nearly gave herself up to ensure the escape of the ponies. The crystal treaded too close for comfort, and several ponies began showing signs of contamination. Luna created an immense and powerful barrier that held back the growth for a time, but it faded as the fields began to enclose around half of the shield, like millions of tiny daggers stabbing at the determination of Luna’s magical fortitude. Throughout this whole spectacle, however, ponies flooded out of the camp, but not fast enough. When Luna’s barrier broke, the nearby guards, under orders to maintain directing the flow of refugees, broke ranks and immediately rushed to save the last of the fleeing and Luna herself.

Luna’s body, half of it now dangerously covered in contagious crystal, was forced into hibernation and quarantined somewhere deep within the royal castle. Celestia was forced to face the threat alone. Though she had called upon the aid of the Elements of Harmony since the beginning of the crisis, their skills and talents seemed completely unsuitable to directly deal with the problem at hand: after all, one couldn’t use the power of friendship to stop an ever-spreading ocean of green rocks, after all. So they were sent to where they could help the most. All save Twilight were immediately redirected to aiding the refugee camps, while Celestia had tasked her with finding a solution—any solution—within the archives.

Then a plethora of misfortune happened: the crystal’s exponential spread, tons of territory was lost, deadly storms covered the skies, and death counts were... bad. Canterlot seemed to have been spared the worst of the ordeal given its location far above ground level and not being situated on a cloud foundation.

And within the Canterlot mountain’s depths, a great sanctuary was forged to contain the survivors still unsullied by the crystal. Those afflicted were kept outside in the city proper’s refugee camps, while others headed off into the wasteland, never to be heard from again.

So there Twilight sat, now closing in on two years, with nothing to show for her efforts. She had gone for so long without sleep now, and there were ponies out there that needed her, who depended on her for finding a cure in all this madness—

Rainbow Dash slammed the door open as she empty-mindedly walked over to a floor cushion and fell on it, making no attempt to start conversation.

"I... Dash, what's wrong?" Twilight asked. "Weren't you supposed to be with—"

"She's gone, Twi. Applejack's gone."

Twilight remained silent for several minutes. "But that's impossible! We sent her down with a suit along with the rest of the guards! How could she be taken out there? You two were just supposed to help move the ponies to the Canterlot refugee camp!"

"The timberwolves came out of the forest, and they... they looked so... so different, and they had the crystal all over them. And then they started attacking ponies left and right. The guards and us both jumped in to fight them back, but when things were over, she was... there was a hole in her suit, and a cut on her leg. And we could see that the crystal was already forming on her skin..."

"Oh, I knew we should have put armaments on the carriage!" Twilight angrily said. "There was every indication that the local wildlife might have turned more aggressive since the crystal fell, and now Applejack's... she's... gone..." she said, feeling tears slide down her face. Looking at Dash, she saw tears flowing down her face as well. "And... what about Rarity? Fluttershy? Pinkie Pie?"

"They're fine..." Dash sniffed. "Or... oh, Celestia, I really hope they are... I don't know where they are, they left to help other groups a while ago..."

They said there in silence, sourly enjoying the time they had to laze about, until they heard crying coming from outside.

"No, no! You can't die on us, you just can't!" Twilight and Dash rushed outside to the courtyard to see Pinkie Pie being carried through on a stretcher, her hazard suit bearing tear marks much like Applejack's. Fluttershy sobbed as she followed from a distance, unable to move closer due to contamination. "No... this isn't happening... this isn't happening..."

"What happened, 'Shy?" Dash asked, putting a wing to comfort her friend.

"She was.. there were... and I was... it was horrible, Dash! There are... those things out there, they... they used to be my friends!" Fluttershy sobbed.

Dash said nothing, but merely pulled Fluttershy into a hug as they both quietly cried. The shuffling of metal earned their attention to see Princess Celestia and a number of guards approaching them.

"Have you found anything of use, my faithful student?" Celestia voice was still the same as always, full of authority and understanding, but wracked with stress and fatigue. "Please... please tell me you've found something."

"I... I'm so sorry, Princess, but I haven't... as far as I can see, there's nothing that can work against it... nothing at all..." Twilight said sadly, as Rarity returned via sky-carriage with a number of more refugees, only to see the scene before her and finding herself caught up in the sadness.

"I... see," Celestia said. "Then we will have to redouble our efforts to try and save as many ponies as we can. Continue your search. The rest of you can find some rest now. You all deserve it."

"Of course, Princess," Twilight said. "I'll try my best."

"I know you will, Twilight. I know you will," Celestia said.

I know you're trying your hardest, my faithful student... but we're running out of time.

Chapter 1: Entanglement

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>Exiting hibernation routines...
>Initiating bootup protocols...
>Running preliminary shakedowns...
>Running interface systems...
>Electronic Video Agent initializing...
>Establishing connection with ISDSS Washington and ISDI CENTCOM...
>Verifying identification...
>Welcome back, Commander Martin Alexandra...

"Skip the pleasantries, EVA, and let's get started," Alexandra said, sitting down at the command console. "I just spent two weeks suffering through endless chair meetings and a lecture by ISDI Intelligence Ops reminding every commander in the Initiative about the Hallman Directive." He sighed and rubbed his forehead, the fatigue of going through days' worth of banal intelligence debriefings. "On a good day, InOps might be able to say that Tiberium is green."

"Affirmative, commander. The Interstellar Defense Initiative believes that all commanders should follow protocol and—"

"No. Stop that, EVA, it's annoying me. Just cut to the chase; I already know about everything you're about to tell me, and I'm not going to suffer through that again. Give me a situation report on the ITC Methuselah and what the hell's been going on here recently."

"Across the Methuselah's numbers of more than three thousand soldiers and crew, morale remains constant, though more veteran soldiers under your command have expressed their dismay at lack of combat time to their commanding officers. Scrin involvement on the frontlines remain at an all-time high, while border colonies are still under heavy protection by individual crawler support groups as dictated by ISDI CENTCOM."

"Any word from Washington about our next deployment?"

"Yes, commander. CENTCOM has directed us to begin controlled expansion over certain frontiers. Extraterrestrial contact has been deemed secondary to stopping the spread of Tiberium across other planets, should it be found. The Methuselah has been directed towards one of these sectors on behalf of your recommendation as an outstanding commander."

Alexandra sighed again. "Being top dog really sucks ass sometimes... do we have any sectors in range at the moment?"

"We are currently in orbit around an unidentified planet, noted to have Earth-like atmosphere. It is currently being ravaged by Tiberium and intensive scans on the planet have proven fruitless due to ion storm interference."

The holographic displays before Alexandra flashed, bringing up the tri-hex symbol of Tiberium and then cut to a data report of the planet they now sat over. "Hmm... sun and moon seem normal... almost reminds me of Earth, actually. What's the data from the Methuselah's InOps team?"

"InOps has speculated that the world is beginning the final stages of Tiberium proliferation. Categorization paints the world as seventy-eight percent Red Zone, twenty percent Yellow Zone, and 3% Blue Zone, the last of which is isolated to small landmasses surrounded by large bodies of water. InOps assumes that indigenous life may have been all but eradicated."

"Any Scrin presence?" he asked. That such a world rife with Tiberium was ignored by the Scrin meant that ISDI pressure on them was substantially more effective than previously thought. Scrin required Tiberium to survive, so being able to starve their enemies at every opportunity was far too great to ignore.

"According to the Hallman Directive, the Methuselah is to immediately reclaim the planet from Tiberium encroachment and defend it against any and all Scrin incursions that may appear when doing so. In the presence of local Scrin forces, the planet is to be taken back and—"

"EVA, directive 0095-XBC November. Please shut up."

"Understood, commander. Deactivating protocol reminders."

"And remind me to find the tech who updated you so I can kick his ass later," he grumbled. "So, Scrin presence?"

"There is no indication of Scrin presence on the planet, as no craft have been detected within the immediate vicinity of the Methuselah. In addition, there are no energy signatures from threshold towers planetside, so it is safe to assume that Scrin activity here is minimal or none at all."

"Why haven't we started landing forces on the planet yet?"

"The planet has heavy Tiberium infestation, and ion storms are present in most of the Red and Yellow Zones. General regions suitable for landing have been blocked off because of this. Further action was denied until your meeting with ISDI CENTCOM was completed and you were able to give a decision on the matter."

"Fantastic. Recommend course of action, EVA," he said. Though actual assessments from EVA were novice at best, it was interesting to Alexandra to see what sort of action EVA would recommend as opposed to his own; a keen reminder of how veteran commanders operated as opposed to ones still getting used to the console.

"Given intelligence and planetary composition, the recommended course of action would be to deploy a small team of elite soldiers to secure a drop zone via beacon. With that, I can plot out an accurate landing trajectory to avoid the worst of the ion storms and alleviate most of the interference for our Orca transports."

"Huh. You actually put together something good this time. Very well, EVA, let's go with that. Grab a squad of soldiers and a commando, and prep them for immediate drop. Notify CENTCOM that we're proceeding with Tiberium abatement protocol and will purge this world as necessary."

"Understood, commander. They will be prepared for drop within ten minutes."

"Lieutenant Anton Viers, you have orders for immediate drop. Prep immediately and meet in the launch bay in ten minutes."

"Fucking finally," Viers muttered, hopping out of his bunk and stretching his muscles. Though all the free time meant that he could work out at his own leisure, it was incredibly stale compared to operating in his own zone armor. At least in combat, you were always on your toes.

He pulled on his combat fatigues, his shirt emblazoned with the flying eagle insignia of the Interstellar Defense Initiative, and headed out the door. Ever since the Ascension Conflict had ended over a century ago, the reverse engineering of Scrin technology presented doorways for humanity that they never would have found quickly otherwise.

Among those of which were terraforming and jump technology, both primary pillars of Scrin technology that the then-named Global Defense Initiative quickly threw scientists at in droves. With the first crafts sent into space and the first colonies established, deep space scans quickly showed that the Scrin held several nearby systems, fully processed worlds that provided their lifeblood in large spades, spreading throughout the surrounding systems, though it was revealed later on that worlds containing life provided much faster growth compared to those without. To find them was easy: Scrin threshold towers emanated massive energy signatures, and GDI scanners could easily pick them up across vast expanses of space.

So to combat the Scrin's ever-increasing presence, the redesign of the GDI's Global Stratospheric Transports began, and resulted in the creation of the Interstellar Troop Carrier, now under the use of commanders throughout all of the ISDI. And each had a contingent of standard troops, battle-hardened soldiers, and as always, one or several of the ISDI's elite commandos.

Viers himself was one: he actually requested to be put under the command of Commander Alexandra given his reputation across several incredible victories on the war front. He was beginning to regret his decision, but now he was called to action. Perhaps this wasn't going to be so stale, after all; commandos were men of deeds, not words, and every single moment they were out in the field was another moment that could be spent helping the ISDI fight back against the Scrin.

Proceeding through the armory, Viers stopped before the armor refit station and entered in his identification. He stepped inside and stood motionless as the machines within went to work, assembling his commando zone trooper armor around him as his objectives appeared on his heads-up display.

"Blind drop into a Red Zone so we can go ahead with abatement operations, huh...?" His suit created a contained environment with a hiss, and his armor was good to go. "Test, test, come in, command," he said, pinging his direct comm link to Commander Alexandra.

"Alexandra here. Viers, you've got your orders. Proceed to launch bay D-7 and prepare for orbital drop." Alexandra was never really one for small talk, and that was something that Viers always appreciated from him.

"Yes, sir," Viers responded. A hatch opened on his right as he walked out of the refit station, and his Guardian heavy machinegun rolled out before him. Though most zone troopers were outfitted with more conventional portable cannons, high-caliber explosive ammunition with a high rate of fire worked just as well against the Scrin as anything else. "Will we have harmonic resonance weapons available to us?"

"Your attached squad will have access to them. They're veterans, don't worry. I know how you commandos hate being paired up with greenhorns, so you'll get some decent soldiers this time around," Alexandra said. "This might be Tiberium at a juvenile stage of evolution, so there's a good chance that they'll work."

"Who's the squad?" he asked, passing by a pair of navy technicians as he exited the armory. He rumbled down the hallways in the bulky suit, barely fitting through most of the bulkheads.

"ISDI infantry that have seen some good combat time, a small four-man zone trooper squad, callsign Yankee. Yankee Lead is already in the launch bay with his squad and awaiting your arrival."

"No worries here, commander, I'm already there." Viers entered the expansive launch bay, the view of the planet hanging just outside the hangar’s shielded doors and wreathed with musty green, to see Yankee Lead waving to him near one of the drop pods.

"Hey, sir! You're the commando, right? Yankee Lead, at your service!" He awkwardly saluted as his suit's hefty hand tapped against his faceplate. "Now that you're here, we just have to wait for the last bastard to show up."

Viers was unaware of extra elements being attached to his deployment. "Who else is there?"

Yankee Lead scoffed. "InOps. The commander wants someone with medical experience down there, since we're deploying blind straight into a Red Zone. So we have an InOps doctor heading down with us."

"What the hell does InOps do with a doctor?" Viers asked.

"Research on the biological effects of Tiberium," came a voice from behind them. They all turned to see another person decked out in zone trooper armor before them. "Since we can't deploy our full force, we'll have to do with just us. And in the case that any of you should fall ill," he said, "you'll receive immediate medical treatment."

Yankee Lead huffed. "With all due respect, sir, we're zone troopers. I think we can handle ourselves out there." He shuffled around on his hydraulics, putting a hand on his Enforcer tri-barreled chaingun. "We don't need a doctor following us around out there."

The doctor shrugged. "Orders are orders. You have a problem with it, talk to the commander."

Viers opened a line with Alexandra, as the droning of machinery echoed in the background as an Orca transport was brought through the area on its way to the engineering bay. "Commander, are you assigning an InOps doctor to us?"

"You'll be blind out there, and I'd rather not chance losing an experienced squad if I can help it. On top of that, intelligence reports that other Tiberium-afflicted planets with indigenous life have proven to be extremely hostile and possibly more than your weapons can deal with. I'm taking no chances. Now stop wasting time and deploy."

He turned to look at Yankee Lead. "Looks like it's legit. The doctor is coming with us."

"Then you'll get no arguments from me," Yankee Lead said, holding up his left hand as an affirmation. "Now let's get in the pod. God knows we've got our work cut out for us. Got that beacon, sir?"

"Yeah." Viers held up the drop zone beacon before placing it back into his pack. "Your squad ready?"

"Ready and raring, sir."

"Excellent. Doctor, you're with me. Stay close to us and try not to get killed."

"I know how to use a gun, you know," the doctor said. "I've been trained, I'm InOps, after all."

"I might be inclined to believe that when InOps can tell the difference between Scrin artillery and our own," Viers said, recalling an unfortunate incident of friendly fire on Avarus IV. "Now get inside."

"Register confirmation for drop pod EP-185, infantry group callsign Yankee. Registration confirmed from Commander Alexandra. Control tower to commando, callsign Dagger, you are clear for launch. Happy hunting down there, and godspeed."

The interior of the pod was lit with a dim red glow as Viers keyed the ready button. "Dagger, ready confirmation. Launching pod now."

Metal shook against metal as the pod was launched from one of the Methuselah's many launch bays, falling towards the planet at extreme speed. Comfort was a secondary concern in the cramped enclosure, as survivability was the primary concern, though their suits could absorb more than enough of the damage to keep their legs still functional after they hit the ground.

"Yeehaw!" Yankee Two shouted. "Now this is what I've been waiting for!"

"Hey, you and me both, man," Yankee Four said. "Finally going to get some real action down here, baby!"

"Shut the fuck up, you retards," Yankee Three said. "Can't you see we've got a commando operating with us? Get your shit together, this mission is going to go from cakewalk to shitstorm the minute we hit the ground, I promise you that."

"Come on, man, why do you have to be such a buzzkill?"

"We're going into a Red Zone blind with a medic as our only support. This has fucking Murphy's Law written all over it."

Yankee Two laughed. "Seriously, man, you should just go hang with the regular infantry bozos down at the mess hall if you want to get all yellow-bellied over it. We look forward to this stuff because we're the ones who get shit done, remember?"

"Yeah, so long as we get some Scrin to shoot at, I'm a happy camper," Four agreed. "But it looks like we're just going to have to clean this planet up bit by bit 'till all that Tiberium's gone."

"No fucking shit," Three said. "That's why I'm worried. The Scrin probably know about this place, they just haven't reached it yet."

"Cut the chatter, all of you," Yankee Lead said. "We're about to break atmosphere, and—" The pod rumbled violently as they made contact with the tiberium-affected skies, flying straight into turbulence. "Shit, what the hell is going on down there?!"

"It's a—fucking hell—class 2 ion storm, Sergeant!" the doctor said. "That means it's—son of a bitch—!" he said, slamming against the wall in front of him, "That means that it's a Yellow Zone about to go full blown Red Zone!"

"What makes you so sure of that, Doc?!" Yankee Three shouted.

"Because if it was a class 1 Red Zone ion storm, this pod wouldn't be here right now!"

Viers made no attempt to express his dismay, for he had none. Drops like these were an everyday occurrence for him, and to see people actually complaining about it was amusing. They should try coming in hot on a pod through anti-orbital Scrin ordnance...

"Ah, shit, you know you can tell when a world's been screwed up by that Tiberium!" Two said. "I can freaking smell it in here!"

"ETA twenty seconds to impact!" Viers called out. "Lock and load and prepare to exit!"

"Yes, sir!" the rest responded.

Viers had been focusing on the drop when he realized that the sound of static was barely discernible through his comms, catching bits and pieces of a voice in the noise. "—Dagger, contact—bzzt—EVA uplink and... cannot track—your own—bzzt—luck."

"We are out of contact with the commander!" Viers said. "We are restricted to local comms! Stay close, stay together, and watch your fields of fire!" A high-pitched whir hissed through the outside as the jet brakes on the pod activated. "We need to find a landing zone for the MCV before we start moving in!"

"What about crawler support?" Yankee Lead shouted. "We could use the guns down there!"

"Unless you want to burn a crawler through an ion storm, MCVs are our only option, Sergeant!"

"Point taken!"

The pod went dark as it impacted into the ground, blacking out Viers' vision.

"...ugh, son of a bitch. Everyone okay?" Viers asked, his vision blurred as his head reeled from the shock.

"That was not one of my better drops, I'll say that much," Yankee Four said, chuckling.

"Cut the chatter and sound off. Yankee Lead, I'm fine."

"Yankee Two, alive and kicking."

"Yankee Three, still here."

"InOps, still alive."

"Pop the hatch and let's get moving." Viers flipped a switch and slammed down the resulting button as it appeared, causing the side hatches of the drop pod to propel with explosive force. The sound of air rushed in through their audio receptors as the sight of the landscape before them appeared in a green haze.

"Oh, shit, this is a Red Zone, alright," Four said, jumping out of the pod as he pulled out his cannon. "Looks like this place got hit bad."

"This place is a lot worse than expected," the doctor said. "The local plant life has already been assimilated into the Tiberium landscape. Whatever life was here is most likely dead by now. We'll be lucky if there's anything here for us to rescue."

"Right, doctor, uh..." Viers said.

"Doctor Wesley is enough, lieutenant. As expected, the entire planet is covered with Tiberium Riparius. And over there in the distance, look: there are several instances of Tiberium Cruentus over there, along with Vinifera and most likely Arboreus, as well. The presence of Vinifera indicates substantial Tiberium incubation..."

"Yeah, that means we're going to need a boatload of reclamation vehicles to clean this place out," Three said. "Unless CENTCOM wants to spare a MARV or twelve. Or a whole fleet of harvesters."

"Doesn't matter. This place has been quaked to hell and back, and there's no suitable ground near here for the MCV to deploy," Yankee Lead said, pulling out a handheld sonic device, and walked over to a small patch of Tiberium. With a high-pitched whine, he directed the device at the Tiberium nearby as they all watched it crumble to bits under the strain of sonic sound waves. "We can check that one off since it looks like it works. Let’s get moving.”

The whir of their suits was the only thing accompanying them as they proceeded through the blasted landscape, passing through field after endless field of Tiberium. The sky cracked with unnatural lightning as the ion storm still raged on around them, the skies shifting in brightness as the bolts struck around them. The ground stood out like a sore patch, broken and cracked everywhere they went.

"Hmm, all these Tiberium glaciers in the distance there... that indicates substantial Tiberium growth. We're going to need more than a few harvesters or a MARV to destroy that thing." He faced leftward and and paused to get a closer look at the gargantuan emerald objects as Viers stopped beside him.

"The Methuselah is equipped with a direct strike ion cannon," Viers said. "When we get that uplink center established, we can begin softening all of this up."

"Hey, sir... look at that," Three said, lowering his chaingun to point at the location in the distance. "That looks like a town. Or what's left of it. Can't see shit through all this green haze. I think we’re in a valley of some sort."

"Well, I'll be damned," Two said, walking up beside him. "It looks like those quaint little European towns back on Earth. Except everything went to shit and now it's all covered in Tiberium and... well, other shit."

"Still not a good place to set up shop," Yankee Lead said. "Haven't seen a Red Zone this bad since the siege of New Oslo several years ago. That was a nightmare, and it was full of Scrin. Here, it's just... all quiet. Really gives me the creeps."

"That's because our boys in purple haven't shown up to the party yet, boss," Four said. "Hey, there looks like a good drop zone over to the right there, let's go check it out—" Several green shards appeared from behind them and clanged off of his armor. "Contact!" Four said, wheeling around with his cannon at the ready.

Yankee Lead opened fire with a steady flow of bullets from his chaingun. "Tiberium lifeforms!"

Wesley fired his own cannon, a shell smashing into the face of one of the snarling creatures. "They certainly look a lot like fiends from the Second Tiberium War! They gave our infantry a hard time back then, but with this technology..." He planted a metal fist into a fiend who treaded too close to him. "It's nice to see we have a substantial advantage this time around!"

"At least it's nice to know that even if InOps can't work worth a damn, you can still hold a gun!" Two said laughing, turning left to fire his cannon at another incoming group of fiends. "Just how many of these assholes are there?!"

"Take the high ground, Yankee! Down this road and up that hill, move, move, move!" Yankee Lead said, laying down a wall of suppressive fire, the fiends hissing as they turned back; the other soldiers rushed past him. Viers' explosive ammunition found refuge in the craniums of several more fiends until the beasts whimpered and began falling back.

As they sat on top of the small hill, Yankee Three gave the fiends a parting gift: a sonic grenade from the Enforcer chaingun's under-slung attachment, watching as more of them were felled by the grenade's resonating effects, shattering parts of their bodies into unrecoverable bits. "So much for no contact," he said. "So, local wildlife might not be all dead, but they're not all normal, either."

"Hey, boss, I think I got a live one over here!" Two shouted.

"If it's a visceroid or a fiend, you kill it, understood?" Viers said.

"It's not a tiberium lifeform, sir, whatever it is."

"Then tell me what it is, Yankee Two."

"It looks like a... uh, a horse thing. It's wearing a hazmat suit."

"That's bullshit, horses can't wear hazmat suits," Yankee Four interjected. "You sure your suit isn't compromised or something?" he asked, as the whole group made their way towards Yankee Two. When they arrived around him, they had to angle their bodies downward to see the creature laying before them.

"I don't know about you," Two said, "but I'm pretty sure horse-ponies don't wear cowboy hats."

"Is it dead?" Wesley said. "We might have to relocate this thing to somewhere safer... wherever safer might be considered." They nearly jumped back when the creature coughed several times and gave a heaving gasp, then returned to breathing quietly on the ground. "Goddamn, this thing is barely alive. The suit has punctures all over it..."

"Whatever the case, we've found our landing zone," Viers said. "This place looks like a farm. Lots of empty space and sufficient amounts of Tiberium for harvesting." He pulled out the beacon and tossed it several lengths away from him, landing with a beep and a flashing blue light.

"Uplink established... sending coordinates to ITC Methuselah..." his HUD AI said. "Reinforcements inbound."

"This thing needs medical treatment immediately," Wesley said, kneeling down as he shined his flashlight on the creature. "The tiberium exposure is still in the early stages; we can still save it. The fact that the indigenous population can wear hazmat suits might mean that there are more that we can help."

"Then this situation just got escalated," Viers said. "The commander's going to want to notify CENTCOM ASAP. Friendly first contact is considered high-priority on their protection list, after Tiberium and Scrin removal."

What few alien species had survived being exposed to the Scrin and the horrors of Tiberium had numbers dwindled down to near nothing until the timely intervention of the ISDI. Most now lived within ISDI territories as protectorates, their people former shells of what they once were. But if they could save the natives here, save their entire species from the Tiberium and the Scrin, it would not only signal a great victory for all of the ISDI, but for species everywhere.

And those victories were what was needed most.

"...and if the Scrin come to take this planet back, ZOCOM better send a hell of a lot more troops..."

Applejack couldn't tell what was going on. Her head was swirling and her mind was in a daze, and she had such a hard time trying to breathe... she couldn't think straight as every breath she took felt like her lungs were lit on fire. There were voices nearby, and she felt the ground shake for a moment, but she couldn't find the energy to pick herself up to look.

Where was she? What had happened? Why did it hurt to move, to think, to breathe? Things shouldn't be like this... what was she doing on the ground, sleeping...? She should be trying to harvest the apples right now... yes, that was what she needed to be doing...

Then she felt a bright light shine in her face and the sound of voices again, echoing in her ears from all directions. The ground shook several times as she saw the strange sky above her. Silly her. The sky shouldn't be green: it was blue, everypony knew that. Then the sound of air rushing around her put her mind to darkness yet again.

Chapter 2: Trepidation

View Online

>Establishing battlefield control, stand by...

The roar of half a dozen Orca dropships screeched through the sky as they weaved their way through ion storm clouds and narrowly missing numerous lightning bolts. Following the landing trajectory planned out by EVA, the entire group managed to avoid catastrophic system failure and pulled through with minor electronic interference.

"Reinforcements have arrived," EVA said to Alexandra. He received a satellite view of the ground as the MCV's local command uplink provided him with a visible but distorted view on the ground.

"Great. MCV, move to this position and deploy. Begin construction of power generators here and here, a refinery here, and barracks and medical station here," Alexandra said, indicating the positions for each building as he named them off. "Notify me when preparations are complete."

"Right away, commander," the MCV pilot responded, immediately deploying on flat ground and proceeding to use what prefabricates the deployment force had come with to construct itself quickly. Construction crew scurried back and forth on their supply movers, ferrying the needed prefabricates to construction sites as engineers hopped around in their zone jumpsuits, assembling them in record times.

"Radar is unavailable, commander," EVA said. "New objectives stand at establishing a current base of operations for our forward ground forces and reclaiming the immediate area from Tiberium incursion."

"Objectives noted, EVA," Alexandra said, receiving a communications ping from Viers. "Dagger, this is the commander. What's going on down there?" More zone troopers and several Titan Mk.5 walkers exited the dropships, taking up a circular defensive position around the MCV as the two power generators went up.

"We have an indigenous lifeform down here, sir. Most likely sentient, and afflicted with Tiberium toxemia. We need the medical station up ASAP so Doctor Wesley can treat her." Viers' face flickered on his transmission display as the volume cut in and out due to storm interference. "It's wearing a hazmat suit, sir."

"Interesting. Guess that means I'll be filing a contact report with CENTCOM, then. How bad is the Tiberium down there, Dagger?"

"Bad enough that we're staring at walls of it wherever we walk, sir. I don't think surgical strikes with the ion cannon is going to cut it this time around. Scrin presence confirmed to be absent, but I don't think it's going to stay that way for long. This world is about six to seven times more important in strategic value than any other planet on the frontlines simply due to Tiberium alone."

Alexandra tapped a few buttons and prepared a general operational report for CENTCOM. "EVA, give me an analysis of the Methuselah's forces against a full-blown Scrin planetary recovery group."

"Affirmative, commander," the AI said. "According to intelligence reports of known Scrin reclamation assault groups for planets of this condition, the Methuselah's forces will be outnumbered seven-to-one. In addition, these forces will most likely be veteran groups cycled out of the frontlines to take back high-value strategic targets, like Reaper, Destroyer, or Annihilator cults."

"Seven-to-one?" Viers said. "I think we’re going to need more soldiers than that..."

“Agreed. I’m going to have to requisition ZOCOM for some reinforcements; this is right down their alley. Dagger, I can’t see anything worth a damn outside of our base perimeter. The Tiberium fog is crazy down there.”

Yes, sir, it’s near-zero visibility down here. We could see some Tiberium glaciers off in the distance, but the fog’s blocking everything else. Refinery is up and running now, though. Crap’s all over the damn ground so expansion’s going to be on hold until we can clear the area.

“Right. And tell the good doctor to report back to me immediately on the status of the indigenous lifeform.”

Roger that, commander. Dagger out.

Alexandra sat back, watching on the green-hazed feed as a small team of staff rushed out of the newly-completed medical center with a quarantine gurney made to transport patients out of Tiberium-inflicted zones. Wesley pointed orders at them as they prepped to move to the medical center.

The engineer standing inside the doorway had only just finished slamming the last panel into place as the bulkhead to his right opened, and he was nearly pushed aside as a group of white-clad staff rushed beside him, nearly catching a faceful of blowtorch as they went by.

“Clear the path, doctor and patient moving through!” Wesley said, now donning a smaller medical suit. He and a number of staff pushed the quarantine gurney, sealed with a metal casing containing the creature they’d found, through the halls of the medical station on their way to the operating center.

They paused in an airlock, letting the decontamination systems run through their processes as the chamber was temporarily locked, scanned, and then purged of any contaminants before moving into the operating center.

“Clear away, opening the case!” an assistant called out. With a hiss, the sealed gurney was opened, revealing the orange pony within. Tiberium growth was clear on her legs and around her slash wounds, and its breathing was strained.

“EVA, prep surgical tools, ion scalpels, and D-grade sonic removal tools. The rest of you, prepare to move patient to table on three. One... two... three...” With a grunt, they shifted the removable pallet on the gurney to the table, finishing the final step needed before the operation. “Status on patient.”

A number of tools were shifted around as bright blue lights zipped and zoomed around her. “Scans read infection of up to fifteen percent of the inner structure, doctor. Toxemia levels are... less than seventeen percent? How long was it exposed?” asked a nurse.

“No idea. It was already like this when we found it, and it was wearing a hazmat suit.” Wesley pulled down a blocky device with a glowing blue panel, positioning it above the legs. With the push of a button, the sonic sound waves from the device immediately shattered the outer growth of Tiberium crusting along its skin. “Probably been like that longer than it took for us to pod-drop down here.”

“Over several minutes? But that’s impossible!” another assistant said. “Direct exposure to Tiberium would kill a normal man in less than three minutes!”

“Well, son, these aren’t humans, are they?” Pulling down a pen-like apparatus, Wesley began to shear away smaller rashes of Tiberium using the device’s high-powered directed ion particles. “Where’s the worst of the damage?”

“Legs and lower back, sir, mostly,” the assistant read off his monitor.

“Fantastic. Carbon-based lifeforms?” Wesley asked, not even pausing in his ballet dance using the ion beams as he cut through the muscle-turned-crystal. He was surprised that the creature didn’t even respond to the heated beams striking its leg, but the nerve endings had most likely been consumed by Tiberium.

“Yes, sir.”

“Chances of using regeneratives on it?” Taking a quick peek at the monitor to his left, the patient’s heart rate was still above normal, or at least above normal for a human.

“Rather high, sir. But our own medical applications have never been fully tested on extraterrestrial lifeforms, and even those we have tested them on are circumstantial at best—”

“Tell me, son, are you fresh out of med school?”

“No, sir.”

“Then as far as I’m concerned, we still have a life to save. Easier to ask for forgiveness than permission, and if we don’t do intensive treatment on it now, then we won’t be able to work fast enough otherwise to save it in time.” He pulled down a thin wiring tool, unceremoniously jabbing it directly into the incision he had created on her side. Activating the tiny nano-processing modules within, he began breaking down the tiberium attacking the flesh, vacuuming out the harmless raw materials into storage units that sat underneath the table.

“Toxemia levels decreasing... Tiberium affliction in the bloodstream is still present, but decreasing.” Multiple auxiliary beams attended to other parts of the leg as Wesley finished off the last of the external protrusions of Tiberium. A good part of the leg was gone, but at least it didn’t require a full amputation. Regeneratives would at least be able to help reclaim all the tissue that was lost.

“Prep sonic pulse and ready filters,” Wesley said. The Tiberium would break off into the bloodstream, spreading to other parts of the body and essentially making it near impossible to permanently remove it. But with sonic technology, early strains of Tiberium could be easily made benign and filtered out using external devices.

“Hold on a moment, sir, I have to...” The assistant checked up and down one of the forward legs, looking for a blood vessel. Shaking his head, he utilized another body scan from the monitors nearby and pinpointed one easy enough to use without causing internal bleeding or damage. “It’s in, sir, dialysis is ready...”

“Activate,” Wesley ordered. The table hummed and then whirred as the sonic pulse ran throughout the entire body of the creature, breaking down the remainder of the particles within the body to be caught by the dialysis systems.

“Heartrate is back to normal, but raw material residue build-up is centered in the lungs. Aside from that, though, it looks like we’re successful, doctor. The patient has been saved.”

Wesley sighed, thankful for his prolonged experience in treating battlefield Tiberium infections. “Notify the commander,” he said, walking out the door. “Keep the patient in the ICU under quarantine, and notify me of any changes in activity. I need a drink.”

“General Hallman on the line, sir.”

“Great,” Alexandra said. “Put him through.”

General George S. Hallman of the ISDI’s Zone Operations Command, and namesake of the Hallman Directive, appeared on the screen, wearing an expression that seemed to be a mixture of both amusement and serious interest. “Commander Martin Alexandra. How strange that out of all commanders that sent to this planet, it happened to be you.

“What can I say, sir?” Alexandra said, holding his hands up in the air. “Trouble has a way of following me around.”

So it would seem. According to what EVA tells me, you’ve found a world absolutely rife with Tiberium growth along with a seemingly strange lack of Scrin forces. You’re here to requisition reinforcements in reclamation efforts, I assume?

Alexandra nodded. “Of course, sir. We have confirmed presence of Tiberium glaciers and other signs of heavy incursion, and it’s going to take more than the Methuselah’s direct strike ion cannon to properly dispose of them.”

I see. I’ll divert the ITC Amaranthine with a full contingent of ZOCOM soldiers and reclamation vehicles to your control, along with Commander Trent Redding of the 305th ZOCOM Command Wing.

Alexandra mentally cursed. He’d worked with Redding before, and found that their methodology for combating the Scrin differed wildly, causing significant problems in cohesion on the battlefield: where Alexandra was a man who liked to think outside of the box, Redding was a commander that was strictly by-the-book and played heavily on conventional strategies.

“Uh... yeah, about that, sir... Redding and I don’t exactly... mesh well when it comes to battlefield command.” The thought of having to work with that robot wearing a human face wasn’t entirely too appealing on a sensitive reclamation operation like this.

You’ll have to deal with it. He’s one of the ISDI’s best, and I know you are, too, and all our other commanders are too busy elsewhere to order a fallback. Make things work, because I already have the Washington’s EVA unit processing all the information, and all outcomes point to Scrin involvement somewhere down the line. I want the planet locked down before they arrive.

“Of course, sir.” Flipping open Redding’s deployment history, he’d only returned from a recent deployment resulting in the resounding success of the defense of the planet Burkhart from Scrin invasion. His apparent strategy was to simply bunker down on the planet’s major cities and blow the Scrin to pieces with superior firepower as they attempted to take ground.

Great. Then expect the Amaranthine to meet up with the Methuselah within a week’s time. Hallman out.

No sooner had the direct channel to Hallman closed did Alexandra receive another incoming transmission from, obviously, Redding himself. Opening it up, he sat back and smirked at the screen. “Hello again, Redding. I guess we’ll be working together for this one...”

So it would seem,” Redding responded. “Should I be expecting more acts of bravado on your part, Alexandra?”

“Only if the Scrin threaten to drop six volleys of artillery fire on your men, Redding. Maybe if you’d actually try doing something different for once, you’d be less predictable and present yourself as less of a target to them.”

And remind me again whose idea it was to fly a retrofitted Kodiak loaded with explosives into a Scrin mothership again?”

“There was no foul on that one. We loaded it up, sent in the fleet to distract, and EVA autopiloted that thing straight into the heart of the Scrin battlefleet like a champ and cut off most of their C-and-C with minimal casualties. By your methodology, we would have thrown half the fleet into the frying pan and the other half into the fire in an attempt to try to poke their shields.”

And they retreated and regrouped, or did you forget that part? If we had held them up, closed the breaks in the line and flanked them properly, we would have been able to destroy their entire fleet and ground forces, also with minimal casualties.”

“Using time we didn’t have, of course. We were already losing, half our armor was gone, the other half trying to hold the LZs for whatever reinforcements we could throw into the mix. The fleet could have won a battle of attrition, maybe, but our ground forces did not have that going for them. Really, if I hadn’t done something about that, they’d be dead men.”

We had reinforcements inbound from the Steel Talons. If we had waited only a while longer, we could have routed them and taken the fleet simultaneously.”

“I don’t like gambling with the lives of my men, and certainly not because you almost cost me Hampton’s life. She was caught out two klicks from the LZ under heavy fire from Scrin artillery. If I hadn’t bombed that mothership and forced a retreat, she and a lot of my men wouldn’t be here right now.”

Oh, God, this again? I thought you’d already gotten over that...

“Hampton is one of my best crawler commanders, and one of the best crawler operators in the entire ISDI, period,” Alexandra said, voice strangely filled with calm given his tendency to become less than approachable whenever it was brought up. “As much as I like my showboating, my loyalty is to my men first, and like hell I was going to lose any more of my men just so the Talons could arrive and clean things up by the book.”

I share your concern, Alexandra. I value my men just as much as yours, but our methods of operating and their concerns are... different.”

Alexandra scoffed. “You got that right. Just make sure you show up on time, and we’ll split coverage of the planet so we don’t end up stepping on each other’s toes. I hope the General has allocated some MARVs to me?”

He has, along with a number of ZOCOM soldiers, which I assume you’ll definitely put to good use. Stay safe, Alexandra, and try not to do anything stupid before I get there.”

“Don’t worry, if the Scrin show up, I’ll take special care to save you some.” With a final begrudging nod to each other, the transmission ended. "So much for working together..."

Celestia stood alone within the marbled hall, dull brown light shining in through the windows, as she stood in front of the magical time-distortion sphere that held the body of Princess Luna within. Although the Princess of the Night was still alive, the damage to her body was severe, and it pained Celestia to see her sister like this, knowing that she could do nothing about it.

“Luna... if only you were here...” she whispered. She received no response save for the magical hum of the translucent glowing bubble in front of her. To actually magically affect the crystals on her body was too dangerous, so Celestia could only slow down time, and try to prolong any chance of saving her for as long as she could.

She stood for a moment, desperately trying to calm her own emotions and taking this moment of reprieve before she returned back to managing this incredible crisis that threatened to swallow everything she cared about. And so far, it was already well on its way to accomplishing that goal.

The sound of hoofsteps approaching from behind her broke her out of her trance, as she turned to see Twilight stopping at the doorway. “Princess...”

“I... it’s... this is terrible... isn’t it, Twilight?” she asked.

Twilight merely nodded slowly, sharing in her mentor’s pain as the floating body of Luna shimmered before her. “Will... will Luna ever wake up?”

Celestia looked at her sister, then Twilight, and then the ground. “I’m not sure, my faithful student...”

“We’ll find a way, I promise you. I... I’ve been taking those breaks that you keep reminding me to take, so I just thought I’d try to speak to you. Somehow, I knew you’d be here.”

“Yes... well... I believe that I’ve...” Celestia composed herself, and walked to the door with Twilight, her golden armor clanking as she joined her student. Though a superfluous decoration, Celestia had taken to wearing her ancient battle armor to give the ponies within the sanctum a sense of security and to keep them calm. It was the most she could do in the face of such adversity. “I’ve spent enough time here. Come, let us go.”

They walked through the halls of the castle in silence, occasionally passing by a pair of patrolling guards. Not soon after, they were approached by a bespectacled unicorn, his brown fur a bit matted and eyes slightly drooping with wear. “Princess, I have the status report that you requested...”

Twilight and Celestia exchanged a look, saddened that the time they’d spent together was so short. “Very well. Tell me everything, Scroll.”

Scroll rearranged his glasses and cleared his throat. “Our food rations are beginning to reach critical levels. Medicine is among one of our most important focuses right now, and we can’t maintain a supply great enough to meet demand. Living conditions are as good as they can get for what we have. And for morale, well... Princess, things are bad.”

Celestia sighed. “I know, Scroll, but what more can we do? We try, and try, and all of our efforts are for naught. Every single solution we’ve tried that Twilight has proposed has been completely ineffective.”

“All of the gardens have already been altered for food production, and still, it’s not enough...” Scroll muttered. “What should we do, Your Majesty?”

“We shall renew our efforts to find a solution to this crisis,” Celestia said. “Come, Twilight. This time, I shall help you look for a solution.” Twilight beamed at her, and for a moment, Celestia felt a smile break out across her face. Yes, with both of them searching, they may eventually come across a solution. Perhaps doubling the efforts may yield results yet...

Applejack could faintly hear the sound of a constant beeping as her ears twitched. Slowly opening her eyes, the first thing she noted was that it was bright. Not a dull green that she couldn’t see through, but white. Pure, crisp, blindingly refreshing white. It was soothing to look at... she hadn’t seen such a bright light since before everything happened, when the sky was blue and Celestia’s sun sat high in the sky.

Then she noticed that she had some sort of strange mask attached to her muzzle. Faintly tapping against it, she was sure that it wasn’t dangerous... it produced some of the cleanest air she’d breathed in months. She quietly laughed to herself, though her mouth was dry; the only thing it was missing now was the scent of trees and apples, and it would be just like back in the old days.

It was nice; she took in a deep breath of air, and it cleared her mind. Then, it hit her: she was somewhere unknown. Opening her eyes and looking around, there was an empty chair in front of her bed. The size indicated that it was made for something roughly larger than her... but who?

“H... hello?” she managed weakly. Her throat was so dry, her voice sounded like rubbing dirt on sandpaper. For a moment, there was no response, and she closed her eyes again for a moment as she felt fatigue washing over her body. Wait a moment...

Applejack immediately pulled the blankets off herself, and saw that her leg was wrapped in a cast. Multiple needles were stuck on various points on her body, and she began to panic. The door opened and some sort of strange bipedal creature—a male, judging by the voice—came in and began saying something incoherent, looking over his shoulder and shouting at another one of his kind at the door.

“H... hello? Can you help me?” she said. She coughed several times, and the figure was quickly at her bedside, and put a hoof—at the very least, it was what she thought was a hoof—against her forehead. When she coughed again and made the gesture for drinking water, the strange being understood; he quickly filled a small cup for her and was about the remove the mask off of her face when the same being from before returned with another one in tow.

The new arrival seemed to have asked what the one giving her the water was doing, making gestures indicating that he was doing as such. There was a pause as they looked at each other for a moment, before she felt the mask being removed from her face, and sweet, sweet water meeting her lips. At that moment in time, that clean water was the most glorious thing she’d ever had.

“Fine, give it the water. But please let me arrive before you do so, okay?” Wesley said. The attendant nodded and proceeded to give the water to the pony-thing, taking special care to avoid spilling any of the liquid.

I still don’t understand why it has apples on its flanks, he thought to himself. All the horses and ponies he’d browsed through on the database were nowhere near as garishly colored, and their apparent manes seem to indicate almost human-like qualities to them, and that didn’t even count out the fact that this creature wore a cowboy hat. It was a mystery, and it was one he was determined to solve.

Walking back into his impromptu office down the hall, he opened up the database on his portable computer again, and pulled out his own PDA. With a quick hookup on a hardwire and a check for authentication, he was in. “EVA, upload a copy of the Lang-Bergmann translation program into my PDA.”

Affirmative, Doctor Wesley. The Translation Matrix Foundation would like to remind you that the program is still incomplete, and translations may be crude at best.”

“With any luck, crude will work just fine,” Wesley said. “Make sure it’s the correct one, not one of the archived versions they keep on hand in the database.”

Yes, Doctor. Initializing the proper version on your PDA.”

The Lang-Bergmann was essentially humanity’s only key to speaking with extraterrestrial races, taking in the spoken word, and based upon a whole variety of variables including tone, pause length, and various other factors beyond Wesley’s scope of knowledge, managed to facilitate very basic communication with other races. It was a marvel of engineering and linguistics genius, but unfortunately was a field of study so esoteric that it was many long years until even a basic version was created.

“EVA, what’s the current accuracy rate of translation?”

According to previous tests, general translation rates produce optimal results, having an eight-seven percent correct translation. Do note, however, that this does not take into account cultural habits, traditions, or mannerisms, and caution is to be urged when dealing with extraterrestrials.”

“Thank you, EVA.” At the least, there were some absolutes he knew about their guest: it drank water and breathed oxygen, it could speak a language, it wore hats and suits, it had strangely human-like hair, and it obviously seemed to know what an apple was, or at least he assumed it was an apple. With any luck, he wouldn’t need to worry about cultural sensitivity if these discoveries proceeded along in a similar fashion.

Program has been successfully uploaded and configured on your PDA, Doctor.”

“Excellent, EVA. Send notification to Commander Alexandra that I’ll be keeping a close eye on our guest.”

Yes, Doctor.”

He looked away, taking an appreciative sip of his still-steaming mug of coffee when he noticed a figure standing in the doorway; it was the attendant. “Something else to report?”

“Yes, sir. Uh... it’s... talking, sir.” The attendant shifted nervously. “I... should I call security?”

“Do it, but keep them in the hallway and out of sight. Harmless as our guest looks, if things go south—which I hope to dear God that it doesn’t—then we’re going to need some muscle.” Wesley finished up the last dregs of the coffee before picking up his PDA and stood up, unruffling his lab coat. “That hazmat suit still in quarantine?”

“Yes, Doctor. The staff examining it have expressed their wonder at it; they say that the style and utility is startlingly similar to the style of hazardous material suits used during the 21st century.”

“It’s clear that we’re obviously dealing with an intelligent species. Let’s not keep it waiting, then. Fetch security and meet me at the room.” The attendant nodded and walked off towards the security checkpoint at the end of the hall, waving at the pair of ISDI rifleman on station as Wesley headed off in the other direction.

The orange creature was sitting upright in bed, cradling the small styrofoam cup in her hooves, when Wesley entered. He smiled at her, taking the seat next to her bed as he straightened out his glasses, and he heard the sound of footsteps as the attendant returned in tow. Catching the sight of the riflemen out in the hallway, he gave a nod to them.

“Sir, we have extra security measures on hand if you need them...” the attendant whispered.

Wesley held up a hand. “I’ll be careful.” Turning back to the creature, who now watched them with expectant green eyes, he activated the translation program on his PDA. “Hello, there... I’m Doctor Wesley. I believe I’m supposed to get you to talk into this thing...” He looked down at his PDA, then realized the in-built microphone wasn’t activated; he quickly flipped the device on via a switch on the side.

The creature opened its mouth, and it—she, as the voice was clearly feminine, at least to human ears—spoke. It was a calm sentence, slow and controlled, and as she finished, she carefully observed them for a reaction.

Wesley sat smiling for a moment, expecting an imminent response from the PDA, but received none. “Um... EVA, how much of a sample do we need in order to achieve translation?”

The program requires that the subject be speaking for at least a quarter to half a minute before an accurate analysis can be compiled.”

“Half a minute sounds like a goddamn miracle,” Wesley said. “So, do you have a name? What are you, exactly?” he asked the pony. “Do you have any family? Friends?” She merely sat back on the bed, eyes darting between Wesley and the attendant.

“I... don’t think she’s very much inclined to talk, sir,” the attendant said.

“I know that,” Wesley shot back. “But we need some way to...” he trailed off. “Get me an apple.”

“Yes, sir, right away, sir.” The attendant quickly left the room and was back with the small red fruit within several minutes. He handed it over to Wesley, who in turn held in front of the creature.

“See this? It’s an apple. I’m sure you know what an apple is, right...?”

The creature smiled as it looked at the apple, then broke out into rapid-fire speech. Almost talking excitedly, pointing at various places on her body, then her cup, then the apple, then the humans themselves, going on for several minutes; amidst her talk, the program beeped when it had completed processing the ample subject sample it received. It was time to begin.

Wesley held up a hand. “Shh...” he said, urging her to stop, which she obliged to. Leaning closer to the PDA, he carefully enunciated his speech. “Greetings... my name is Doctor Wesley. What is your name?”

Holding the PDA forward, it aired the response towards her as her eyes widened and she looked back and forth between the two, eventually settling her eyes on her hat at the foot of the bed. Turning back, she said a short sentence, then paused. The PDA beeped as it processed the response.

The audio was faint at first, and Wesley barely caught any semblance of speech the first time around. “PDA, repeat playback, and make it louder this time.”

Both the attendant and Wesley leaned closer to the PDA, trying to make out the speech. The program must have been repeatedly filtering out and trying to properly translate the speech, because the second response came back much clearer, and much louder.

“...name... is... Applejack.”

Chapter 3: Rendezvous

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“I don’t even... how does that even make any sense?” Wesley muttered. He was browsing through the technical specifications of how the translation program worked, and even then, it sounded like complete gibberish to anyone who wasn’t directly involved in the field. “Even the layman’s explanation is a maze to understand...”

Looking away from the ludicrous mathematical formula designed to calculate the nuances of a pause in speech for proper categorization and processing, he noticed that it was almost time for the daily checkup. The base, or as it was known now, Camp Greenwood, had been fully operating for a total of two days now with no major mishaps. New staff was increasingly rare as the ion storms fluctuated throughout the region, but abatement was proceeding along smoothly; the only worry was how much Tiberium had to be removed before the storms actually began to let up.

Grabbing his stethoscope and flashlight, he finished off another cup of coffee before heading out the door and down the hall. It was early in the morning, so the attendant wasn’t present at the moment, and Wesley was never one to let time go wasted if he could help it... not that he could manage much sleep after drop pod aftershocks. He was no zone trooper, that was for sure.

The hall was quiet, eerie with the sound of wind coming from outside, as the reinforced glass window that stretched down the entire length of the medical center’s second story produced a view of the green landscape beyond. A squad of troopers exited the armory across the road, on their way to another patrol to gather data and survey the geology, while the Vulcan-equipped watchtowers outside the walls in the distance temporarily rumbled to life as they fought off another one of many curious approaches by the fiends from the dead forest.

“How’s our guest holding up?” Wesley heard from behind. Breaking his observation through the glass, he turned around to see Viers, minus power suit, but still as equally intimidating. Tattoos covered the length of his arms and part of his neck, mostly ISDI homages and gung-ho skulls and quotes.

“She’s been doing fine. We had to remove quite a bit of matter from afflicted areas, but treatment is proceeding along smoothly. I expect her to be back on her feet... er, hooves, or what have you, within a week’s time. Miracles of modern medicine, you know?” Wesley responded.

A deep rumble shook the foundations of the base, causing the two to latch on to any solid emplacement near them. “Damn earthquakes,” Viers said. “Seismic activity is crazy here. I wonder if the Tiberium’s causing it.”

“No doubt it is. Shifting lands, changing lifeforms... it might be like several occasions before where underground Tiberium deposits were found, especially in places like Red Zones.”

“I see. So, does the commander have anything to say about our guest?”

“Nothing that we already don’t know. Keep her safe, ask what she knows, and try not to step on any toes while we’re here. Speaking of which, she’s due in for a checkup. Mind coming along?” Wesley asked, gesturing towards the room, guarded by two riflemen.

“Sure. You said you removed a lot of matter. How bad is it?”

“With regenerative medicine, she might be up and walking within about two days’ time, and that’s assuming everything goes along swimmingly. Rarely does it ever play by our wishes, though, so we’ll have to keep her in bed until further notice. She seems to be taking it quite well, though she doesn’t seem inclined to talk about much else at the moment.”

With a slide of his ID card through the receiver recently installed to ensure security, the door unlocked and the pair stepped through. Applejack sat on the bed, still groggy from the early morning fatigue usually accompanying patients under medication, but smiled when she saw Wesley enter. That smile quickly disappeared when she saw Viers standing behind him.

“Who is that?” she asked, wary of the newcomer. The now-wall-mounted PDA quickly chirped out a quick response, the program working much quicker than it had before over the exposure of conversations she’d had with her attendant and Wesley.

“Oh, him?” Wesley realized that even though he knew who Viers was, Applejack didn’t... and his appearance—shaved head, patrician face, and plethora of tattoos—certainly didn’t do much to give off an aura of being approachable. “He’s a friend, don’t worry about him.”

“Hello,” Viers simply said, giving a small wave.

Applejack’s mood quickly lightened. “Friend of Doctor is friend of mine,” she said.

Wesley pulled up a chair next to her, as Viers simply deigned to look around the room. “This is Lieutenant Anton Viers, and he was with me when we first found you. He was in charge of security for my team when we arrived.”

“Come from sky?” she asked.

“Yes, all of us came from the sky, Applejack. As you may have obviously guessed... we’re not from this world. How have your lessons with the attendant been?”

Applejack’s face furrowed in thought, an endearing trait so surprisingly human, as Wesley quickly found out during their conversation. “I learn alphabet,” she said.

“Really? That’s fantastic! Oh, and how are the apples we have?”

“Not bad. But mine better.”

Wesley chuckled. “Well, when the time comes when we can try some of your apples, we can see for ourselves. How are your legs?”

She jabbed at them. “Itchy.”

“That’s a side effect of the medicine, I’m afraid.” Wesley brought out his stethoscope, placing it on her chest. “Heart rate is normal, and...” He flipped over to his flashlight, checking her eyes to see any indication of mental damage. “...eyes seem to be okay. Don’t worry about your legs, the itchiness just means the medicine is working.”

“Oh... okay. Can go outside soon?”

“I... maybe. We’ll have to see about fixing up your suit.”

“Oh, right, that’s what I was here for,” Viers interrupted. “According to the specifications that we got from the hazmat suit, I arranged for the boys down in the armory to fix her up some zone armor, mostly parts that they could spare.”

“Really?” Wesley said, interested. “Well, that solves that problem, then. I had intended to ask Commander Alexandra if it would be possible for us survey the area around Camp Greenwood with Applejack, perhaps see what she can recognize.”

“I would hope so, otherwise all my work would have gone to waste. It’s kind of funny, though, since the suit looks like a miniature Mammoth assault walker. Had to build in a whole other compartment just to keep her tail in, too.”

“Don’t tell me you actually put guns on it...?”

Viers rubbed his chin. “Well, I thought it was a good idea, then I realized that she would have no idea how to use a gun, much less fire it. I’m still in charge of Yankee, and the Commander did place me in charge of your safety, and by extension, that also means her...”

“That’s true.” Wesley leaned forward, an indicator to Applejack that he was usually about to ask something very important. “Can you move your leg, Applejack?” Saying the name was still odd for him to do, but what he learned of what the so-called ‘ponies’ called themselves usually involved their trademark talent in some way. How they knew what that special talent was before they were born was something beyond him, but he decided to save that question for later.

Applejack kicked her legs a few times. “A little,” she said, looking at Viers. “He say we go outside soon?”

“Yes, very soon, seeing how well your leg is healing up. You can understand me, right?” It seemed superfluous at this point in time, but Wesley needed assurance that Applejack could still hold a conversation in the case she was being spoken to by anyone other than himself.

“Yes, can understand. Why?”

“Just making sure.” He leaned forward again, taking a long pause before asking his question slowly. “So, Applejack... do you have any family... any friends here? We need to know if you have anyone here, anyone at all, that you’re worried about. If they are here, then we will make it a priority to keep them safe.”

Applejack looked away, and Wesley feared the worst. It was the reason why he had been so reluctant to bring up the issue, at least until she had been settled in and grown accustomed to his presence: the fact that her family or friends might have been taken by Tiberium, and reactions to loss may vary across species.

“...lot,” she muttered. “In... lot.”

“I’m... sorry?” Wesley asked. “Could you repeat that again? I didn’t catch it.”

She looked back at him, a look of concern in her eyes. “Friends in Canterlot.”

“Canterlot... is that a city?” he asked. Applejack nodded.

“Capital,” she responded. “Of...” She must have been introducing new words that the translator hadn’t heard before, so it took several moments of repetition before it came through. “Capital... of... Equestria,” she repeated again, clearly annoyed at how slowly the program was working.

“Oh, Equestria? Yes, that sounds a lot like what I’d expect from a nation of... ponies.”

The lights flickered slightly as the sound of thunder could be heard through the walls. Patient care rooms within the medical center were present, but reinforced and tinted black for safety reasons, so it wasn’t surprising that Applejack hadn’t seen anything beyond her own room for quite a while now.

“That ion storm is picking up again,” Viers noted. “That’s bad, considering the commander had intended to send in another round of personnel to help bolster the base. The harvesting crew’s done a good job at cleaning up the area around the base, but we’re going to need to put down some silos now.”

“Hasn’t Commander Alexandra accounted for that already?” Wesley asked.

“Not yet. Since we’ve yet to expand our walls, we have nowhere to drop the silos. As it stands right now, we’ve got ninety, maybe a hundred men on base, including us. And you know Alexandra’s going to want us to head up to their capital and see if anyone is still alive.”

“So... that means soon, then. Very soon, since our friend here is already capable of moving.”

Viers nodded. “So it seems. Just a reminder to you, Wesley,” he said, moving to the door, “that the barracks and mess hall is attached to the medical center, so don’t just keep yourself cooped up in here all the time.” With a nod, he left the room to attend to his own errands.

Wesley looked back at Applejack, and gave a half-serious smile. “Well... let’s just keep you in bed for the moment. I’ll talk to the commander later and see if help can’t be arranged.”

“So it’s our turn to make the rounds, huh?” Yankee Lead asked. The eagle-marked gate before Viers and his men slowly lowered, revealing a barely-worn path that led to the ruined town beyond.

“Five men. Forest full of baddies. And a sea of Tiberium as far as the eye can see,” Two said. “Feels like a vacation.”

“We’re not making rounds today, Yankee,” Viers said. “Today, the con-yard manager wants us on overwatch as he expands the base, along with some other security detail out here. A dropzone for heavy transport and silo facilities are going to be going up.”

“Yes, sir, sounds like a cakewalk,” Four said.

“So we just stand here and shoot those fiends if they get too close?” Three asked. “Huh, I could have sworn I signed up for a harder op than this...”

“Be careful what you wish for,” Viers said. “Now fan out, and check your fields of fire.”

“No worries,” Two said. “We got these powerful watchtowers covering our asses, so it won’t be a total disaster if we get jumped out here.”

Engineers and several Titans exited the compound, moving in tandem with several hover transports with the prefabricates onboard. With a heavy clunk and activation of blowtorches, construction was quickly underway, the first building of which happened to be the landing zone.

There was a roar in the distance, a powerful one, strong enough to be discerned from the storm that brewed around them. “I don’t like the sound of that...” Three said.

“Maybe if you stop pointing that shit out, bad stuff will stop happening to us,” Four said, chuckling. “You’re the King of Jinxes around here, sheesh.”

The Titans certainly took notice of the roar, and began shifting their positions closer to the forest to keep tabs on any undesirables, maintaining their position for several tense minutes. Then, suddenly, a huge mass of dead brush exploded from the treeline as a huge creature pounced forward.

“Engage, engage!” Viers shouted as he and Yankee rushed forward to provide firing support. The creature seemed to be four-legged, almost as if it were some sort of creature from mythology, and futilely swiped its massive claws at the Titan’s heavy metallic legs.

“Shit, there’s more of them to our right!” Four shouted, directing his burst of chaingun fire down his flank. “Fiends! Fiends on the right!”

The watchtower cannons rattled as they brought forth a wall of lead into the advancing horde of creatures. “What the hell? There’s so many of them!” Yankee Lead shouted, gunning down a trio of fiends as a beam from one of the nearby Titan’s pair of high-penetration lasers blew off the left arm of the larger creature.

“More big guys on our left!” Two shouted, firing his cannon at a pair of the beasts charging towards them. “Wait, there’s more over—” He dodged backwards using his jump packs as a large shard of Tiberium smashed into the place where he once stood. “Whoa, that shit is not cool!”

“Those things are throwing Tiberium shards from their backs!” Three shouted. “Talk about kicking the beehive here!”

“Yeah, let’s not go into Tiberium-infected bees now, okay?!” Four said, slamming the barrel of his cannon down on the neck of a fiend, then quickly finishing it off with a shell to the back. He didn’t even turn around when another fiend jumped at him, smashing lightly into his faceplate.

The sound of metal grinding on metal joined the cacophony of battle, and more zone troopers poured out from within, joining the fight as alarms were raised. The engineers stayed back, doing their best to repair the damages on the zone troopers and Titans as the soldiers quickly formed a firing line against the incursion of lifeforms.

Viers’ own heavy brass casings bounced off of his shoulder plate, machinegun constantly on the fire as with every target he killed, another one appeared in its place. Among the fray, he noticed that the beings were no longer the two he’d noticed: the fiends and the strangely large lion-like creatures with stinger tails were now joined by more. These newcomers seemed like large bipedal dogs with hands and feet, and their eyes glowed green, a sure sign of Tiberium mutation.

“Are all the locals shiners now or something?!” Lead shouted.

“Doesn’t matter, keep firing!” Viers shouted, standing shoulder to shoulder as the field of bodies before them grew ever larger. Using his comms, he opened a line straight to the con-yard manager. “Get the commander on the horn! We need reinforcements now!”

Our forces are under attack,” EVA again repeated.

“I am currently... aware... of that...” Alexandra said, preoccupied with shifting through the intelligence reports that were flooding into his command console. The base would be overrun given the number of men it had against what he believed to be hostiles with clear numerical superiority. “EVA, analyze ion storm density and calculate survival rates for drop pod insertion.”

Affirmative, commander. Rates show that the ion storm is currently limiting our Orca dropships from making planetfall, covering a radius of several dozen miles over the current region with fluctuating levels of intensity. Drop pod insertions would have less than twenty-three percent chance of success.

Better than expected, but worse than what he wanted. “Continue monitor of pattern breaks, and notify me of any changes. What of the forces on the ground?”

According to the reports, both the construction yard manager and Doctor Wesley report that enemy presence has appeared on all sides of the base. Construction is delayed as the engineers deployed are currently too focused on maintaining repairs on the defending forces to focus on building more defenses.”

“Any solutions, EVA?” Worse came to worst, they would lose the base and all hands with it. And with that, their first and possibly only contact with the natives of this world, and that would be a hell of a thing to explain to CENTCOM if—more likely, when—they got wind of it.

We have a break in the ion storm, commander. There is a possible deployment radius with a break in the storm no larger than half a mile, with a landing zone due two klicks southwest of the Camp Greenwood’s location.”

“I’ll take that chance. Get Hampton and Michelin on the line, and tell them they’ll be going in with a full contingent.”

“Knock knock, party girl.”

Hampton turned off her ludicrously loud music and gave a look at the man standing in the doorway of her quarters. “Michelin. What brings you around here?” she said.

“In case you haven’t noticed, Hampton, we’re due to drop in ten minutes, all arms.”

“All arms? Is it that bad down there?” As forward battle commanders and operators of the ISDI’s crawlers, they served under a primary governing commander, which in this case happened to be Alexandra.

“Bad enough that Alexandra is sending both of us in with full stock to put out the fire. Now stop lazing around and let’s get moving. The troops are all onboard the crawlers already and judging by the tone of our commander’s voice, he’s getting edgy.”

“Well, let’s not keep him waiting, then. Let’s get down to the armory and get suited up.”

Michelin nodded and waited until Hampton had properly locked her quarters before continuing. “From what I’ve been told by EVA, we have a commando and a basic guard detail planetside. They’re getting hammered hard on all sides by hostiles and have a four-way split on their already-small guard detail to try to hold the base. The engineers they have down there are too busy trying to keep our boys alive to build new defenses, and what civilian staff down there are under lockdown. If we don’t move now, they’ll probably be wiped.”

“I can understand why Alexandra’s edgy about this,” Hampton said, laughing as they stepped into the service elevator at the end of the hall. “Equipment and vehicles are easy to replace; men aren’t.” She tied her hair into the signature ponytail that she was known for as the booth screeched downwards towards the lower decks, where the armories and the launch bays were held. “Isn’t the airspace above the drop zone hot at the moment?”

“As hot as can be. It’s loaded with ion storms, but EVA says we have a small break to drop in from, two klicks out from the base. Alexandra wants us to hit the ground running and cut our way through uncharted turf to them.” The bell dinged as the doors opened, revealing a hall bustling with dozens of other servicemen and women, readying their own equipment as they prepped to be dropped in with the battle commanders.

“Strange how we’re still stuck with standard ISDI troops,” Hampton said. “Alexandra is through-and-through Steel Talons, isn’t he?” They eyed the wall’s length of zone troopers as they marched past them towards the launch bays.

“Officially, yes,” Michelin said. “But it was his call when he was sent on this search-and-contain mission to leave the big boys on the homefront and take a regular detachment here instead.”

“Sounds like a win-win to me. Keep the Talons where they’re needed the most, give the greenhorns some time to shine, and put them under the service of a commander who knows what he’s doing.” She nodded approvingly. “That’s our boss for you.”

The pair nearly walked into the armory and straight into a wall of steel as they jumped out of the way of exiting zone troopers. “Looks like we’re a bit behind, huh?” Michelin said, chuckling. They walked inside, passing through the standard refit stations and proceeded to their lockers. Unlike their own troops, battle commanders stayed within their crawlers, so beyond regular integrated protection suits, not much else was needed.

Suiting up in record time as EVA sounded off the remaining time to drop, Hampton and Michelin pushed their way out of the armory again, past the soldiers in the hall, and entered the launch bays. Sitting closest to them were their own crawlers, Hampton’s offensive crawler Mobius and Michelin’s defense crawler Aegis, with their own specialized crawler drop pods opened to receive their cargo.

“Well, Hampton, see you on the ground?” Michelin said, holding out his hand. They shook before giving entering their crawlers, followed by the pilots for immediate vehicle production once they hit the ground, as only infantry and crawlers were suitable enough to weather the shock from a drop pod landing.

Sitting down in the operator’s chair, EVA authenticated Hampton’s credentials. “Welcome back, Commander Tricia Hampton.” She moved the crawler forward into its drop pod and waited until the hatches sealed with a hiss, notifying her that her group was ready to drop.

“This is offensive crawler Mobius, ready to drop,” she said to launch control.

This is defensive crawler Aegis, ready to drop,” Michelin echoed.

Affirmative on ready. This is deckhand to launch control, all forces prepped for drop. Green light when ready,” came the response from the deck crew.

Affirmative, deck, confirmation received. Crawlers, acknowledge.”

“Mobius, acknowledge.”

Aegis, acknowledge.”

Control, acknowledge. Dropping now. Burn-in to ground, ETA ten seconds. Godspeed, and happy hunting.”

“Doctor, what happen?” Applejack asked, as the noise outside grew louder.

“I don’t know...” Wesley said. “But whatever it is, it’s not good. The battle must be shifting closer to the compound.” He walked up to his PDA, and with some tinkering, patched himself into the battle comms as a listener, as staff of his clearance weren’t allowed to directly speak in battle comms.

You!” he heard Viers’ voice shout. “Yes, you, the engineer! Stop repairing that Titan, he can handle himself! Get back to the con-yard and get some more defenses out here ASAP!”

Yes, sir!” the engineer responded. “Engineer 0331 to con-yard, requesting pre-fabs ready at the door five minutes ago! Give me three builds, watchtowers, stat!” Wesley walked out of the room quickly, stepping up beside the two door guards as they saw the engineer hop through the opened gate and making straight for the con-yard. Machinery shifted as pallets of materials were prepared and deposited on quick-move transports to be ferried to the construction site.

This is con-yard to Dagger! Message is through, repeat, message is through! The commander is sending help our way!

Let’s hope they can make it here in time! Titans Sword Two and Four, pull back and stay behind the line! Watch the damage, your legs are giving out! Tiberium shards have blown off the plates guarding your hydraulics!” More gunfire echoed from the PDA’s speakers as Wesley quickly went to his office, pulling open one of the upper drawers and finding a handgun with several magazines within.

Exiting again, Wesley saw the con-yard using its own cranes to manufacture defenses within Camp Greenwood, in the case where their walls were breached. It was a handy function, allowing the engineers to work on other projects while the yard could produce defenses for itself. The medical center and barracks were directly across from it, so they would be under the protection to some extent.

“Doctor? Doctor!” he heard Applejack shout. He rushed back inside, loading his magazine into the handgun with a clack as he turned around to see hear more roars coming from outside. “Doctor, what happen?!”

“It’s bad, Applejack,” he said, flipping off the safety. “We don’t have enough of our own here to properly defend this base. Damn these storms; without them, we could have been reinforced yesterday!”

Get that harvester inside! This is our last run, so watch the gates! Don’t let a single one of them through!” Viers shouted again. “Yankee Two, that wall down on the east end’s been smashed, and I can’t see shit from here! Recon and report back!”

Yes, sir, checking it out now!” Two responded.

A rush of static flooded the comms for a moment. “Greenwood, this is Commander Alexandra. I’m sending in crawlers along with a full detachment of reinforcements. They’ll be landing two klicks out from your position, and will move to your position post haste. Bunker down and hold out until they arrive. ETA, several minutes if they don’t run into any of your friends down there.”

Yes, sir! Tighten up those lines and make your shots count! Yankee, hold down this side while I go check on everyone else!” Viers said.

Sir, the east wall’s been smashed hard! I think a couple of those bastards already got into Greenwood! I got an engineer here with me setting up a couple of watchtowers, though, just need a few put up and we can work on fixing this wall. Where the hell are these guys getting all this firepower, anyway?” Two returned.

Tiberium can do some crazy-ass shit,” Viers said. “South side is taking a beating, I’m moving to assist.”

The medical center’s roof-mounted defense turrets whirred and opened fire as several fiends ran through Camp Greenwood’s main streets. Red lights flashed and doors locked as the facility was put under lockdown. “Looks like we’re stuck up here, doc,” one of the riflemen said, hefting his gun.

Applejack gave a quizzical look at Wesley. “What is... Tiberium?”

“Oh, that... it’s the name that we gave to the green crystal when we first discovered it on our world. It’s supposedly named after the river near which it was first found, though there have been claims otherwise...” he said, trailing off near the end.

“I... see... Will crystal hurt you people?”

“Not us. We have special suits designed to protect us from them... at least, until they’re breached. Then we’re at its mercy like anyone else.”

“Friend say he make suit. Suit protect?”

“Yes, the suit will protect you a lot better than what you had before. Maybe we can go searching once you’re up and about.”

“What about monsters?”

Wesley looked back to Applejack, and saw her worried expression. Putting a hand on her shoulder, he gave a reassuring smile. “Don’t worry, Applejack. We’ll be here to protect you.”

“Stay here?” she said, as he turned away to flip off the comm chatter on his PDA, leaving the room in mellowed silence.

“Yes, I’ll stay here. The guards can manage the hall, so I’ll stay here... to protect you.” He left his gun on the desk next to her bed, and took up a seat next to her instead. “Say, Applejack. You say that you have family and friends here... what about this place? There’s a town nearby, close to where we found you. Do you know what it is?”

“Town?” she asked. “Yes, I know town. Town is...” She again grew annoyed when the PDA didn’t translate the last of her response, easily telling despite her lack of English knowledge as the sentence abruptly cut off at the end. “Town is pony...”

“Yes? Pony what?”

“Town is Ponyville!” she nearly shouted, then catching herself. “Yes, Ponyville. My home.”

“Oh, your home? Well, actually, I don’t even know why I’m surprised to hear that... anyway, what of your friends? Has... has anyone been... lost in the town?”

Thankfully, Applejack shook her head. “No. Moved before crystal came.”

“That’s great! No one was harmed, then. This is very good. Perhaps soon we can help you find your friends and family again. Now, I—” Another rumble shook the building, more seismic activity. “Damn... I’m beginning to wonder if this planet isn’t some sort of trap or something...” He looked back to Applejack, who was busy fiddling with her hat. “Well, let’s just hope this doesn’t end too badly...”

The crackle of thunder shot through the sky as lightning raged throughout the region, as objects in the sky above the world plummeted to the ground at high speeds...

Hampton, I’m starting to think that this wasn’t a good idea!” Michelin shouted over the comm.

“You don’t say?” Hampton shot back, busy dealing with the storm-affected malfunctioning displays on her own crawler as they burned in through the atmosphere. “Ten seconds! It was only supposed to be ten seconds!”

I think my crawler’s veering right! Oh, man, these storms are intense! Oh, wait, my pod’s shifting now! Stabilize, stabilize!”

The burn-in radar on Hampton’s display showed that the infantry drop pods going in alongside them seemed to be mostly unharmed. The mass of electronics and intricate systems that the crawler drop pods had meant that they were the ones in hot water. Their half-mile break in the sky had lasted only for a while, and they found themselves in the thick of it when it returned in full force.

I’m out! I’m out of the clouds! LZ is in sight, but I’m... oh, wait, I moved half-klick to the northeast! Yes! Mobility matrix and enhanced shields online! See you at the finish line, Hampton!” She saw that Michelin’s infantry pods diverted their course to intercept him at his drop zone, while hers still maintained the course. Curse Michelin and his luck... at least defensive crawlers moved like a turtle on flypaper. A turtle that had shields and big guns on it, that is.

“Just make sure our boys don’t end up as mincemeat, alright? You bring the walls, and I’ll bring the guns,” Hampton said. Her crawler pod’s external view opened up as they broke through the turbulent clouds, slamming into the ground with a quaking thud. She heard the ringing as the hatches blew open and her direct link to the Methuselah was re-established under the green skies that now spanned her vision. Zone troopers exited their pods and gathered up in formation around her crawler, as bits of tree and Tiberium covered the length of their journey ahead.

“Mobius and elements are on the ground. Moving to rendezvous at Camp Greenwood.”

Chapter 4: Traversal

View Online

Deployment successful, Commander. Standing by for your next order,” EVA said.

“Objectives stand: they need to reinforce Camp Greenwood. ETA on Redding’s reinforcements?” Alexandra asked. His command console blinked with a number of notifications as the ongoing satellite feed from planetside showed a battle raging on with a number of Tiberium lifeforms that he didn’t think the ISDI had ever encountered before. One of them even looked like a huge translucent bear.

Commander Redding is expected to arrive within the next week with the optimal route at best taking at least three more days.”

“Great. Ah, damn, I knew I should have sent in more people. These storms just aren’t letting up. How is G-Tech doing on that weather control technology?” More contacts on the base periphery rushed into the fray, turning his low-visibility feed into a green-fogged screen of gunfire and madness. “Hampton and Michelin really need to hurry up, or else there isn’t going to be a base to save,” he muttered.

G-Tech has reported no significant advancements in weather control. Original research conducted before the First Tiberium War has proven to have limited effects. In addition, control effects produce a complete battlefield overview failure on par with an ion storm, limiting its usefulness.”

“Ah, damn. Looks like we’ll have to stick with the old-fashioned option: wait it out. Check long-range status of the ITC Hammerfest. I might need to call them back into action soon enough.” The Hammerfest was his primary command ship, normally used on the frontlines as the premiere Steel Talons troop carrier until he had requested the Methuselah, transferring the Hammerfest to another temporary commander. It was staffed entirely by veteran Steel Talons soldiers much like himself, as well as all their iconic vehicles.

Hey, commander, where’s the backup?” Viers called to him.

“Hang in there, Dagger, help is on the way.” Checking the regional overview, Michelin’s crawler was moving at a steady pace towards the base. “A defense crawler is bearing down on your position, keep an eye out for the shields.”

Roger, sir, will do!” Viers’ indicated position at the southern walls flashed red for a moment as his suit signatures indicated he was under attack. A Wolverine Mk.3 walker branched off of his battle for a moment and hosed down a trio of fiends darting for the commando.

“Aegis, this is Alexandra, what’s your ETA?”

Aegis here, sir, making good time to Camp Greenwood. No offense, sir, but I’m really starting to wish that we had the Hammerfest here instead.”

“You and me both,” Alexandra responded. “That may change in due time, and be careful with what you wish for... the Hammerfest only gets called in when shit hits the fan. It’s currently in temp-command under Commander Bartley and is currently on shore leave at Osiris Naval Base. Pray it doesn’t get deployed here.”

I get you, sir. Just wishing we had some bigger guns to deal with this stuff. No better kill than overkill, right?

“Overkill’s not what we need right now. Make do with what you have. And make sure Hampton doesn’t overextend herself this time.”

Michelin chuckled, his laugh laced with an undertone of amusement, as if he’d been anticipating the order. “Don’t worry, sir, I’ll make sure she doesn’t do anything stupid. Especially considering that this time, she doesn’t have her precious Mammoths to back her up.

“Good. Hurry up, I don’t know how much longer the base can hold up.”

Nano-production modules have been up and running since the moment I hit the ground, sir. Let’s see how well these lifeforms can hold up against a focus beam or three.”

“Look out! Tower falling!” shouted a zone trooper. The sound of compromised metal groaning resounded over the battle as the last of the southern watchtowers fell to Tiberium explosions.

“Fall back to the gates! Tighten up those formations!” Viers shouted, waving towards the soldiers in front of him as they raced past him. Unleashing another hail of lead as they leapfrogged backwards, the commando dropped several C4 packs in a half-circle in front of him, set on a five-second fuse. “Move it! Go, go, go!”

“Do we have anyone inside the base?!” shouted another trooper.

“I think Echo’s inside!”

“Yeah, Echo pulled back inside! They saw a whole bunch of those dog-things get in!”

“Engineers are putting up defenses by the con-yard!”

Explosions rocked his vision as he turned around, turning a giant bear-like creature’s two front legs into fine chunks as the line of C4s made short work of anything unfortunate to be standing near them when they went off.

“Where the hell are those reinforcements?!” shouted another soldier, his armored left arm dotted with several shards embedded in the plating.

A purple shimmer in the distance caught Viers’ vision. Suddenly, the treeline exploded as a defense crawler appeared, the large artillery guns mounted on top of the machine firing away at the fleeing creatures, now unable to turn back as the crawler deployed at their primary routes of escape.

Defense crawler Aegis, at your service, Camp Greenwood!” the forward battle commander cheerily replied. “Sorry that we arrived late to the party, but now that we’re here, let’s liven things up, shall we?

Several emplacements went up, their blockish forms obscuring the distant treeline as they deployed underneath the crawler’s shields. Their high-powered lasers and automated tracking systems began honing in on the larger signatures outside of Camp Greenwood, firing a sustained and powerful beam that easily cut into the tougher of the lifeforms.

Take ‘em apart, boys!” A flood of infantry appeared from behind the crawler and advanced forward through the field of green, mowing down the creatures as the south side was finally reclaimed from lifeform incursion. “Linking to con-yard control network... and done! Emplacements are going up all around Greenwood! Now for the real party...

Yankee Lead wiped grimy liquid off his faceplate, kicking away the fiend’s corpse to clean himself. He took a quick break to notice that the creature’s hide was made out of... bark? A wolf made of wood, and covered with Tiberium? The scientists are just going to love this one, he thought. That, however, didn’t do much to explain their numbers.

Uh, Hampton, do you see this? Is that bear the size of my defense crawler?” a voice asked on the open channel.

Why, I do believe it is, Michelin! Oh, look, it’s running straight for me! I wonder what I’m going to do about that?” another voice responded humorously. “Two can play at that game! Full speed ahead!

A roar came from Lead’s left as he turned to see one of the giant bears being plowed aside from the northwestern corner, only to see that an offense crawler had charged at it, knocking the bear away. The crawler unleashed its cannons after regaining its footing, pelting the beast with explosive rounds.

“Crawlers! Nice!” shouted Yankee Two. He opened fire with his cannon, standing next to a focus beam turret as it locked on to their new giant target, blowing away its rather exposed and non-guarded skin and dealing immediate damage.

“Focus fire! Drive that thing back!” Lead shouted.

“Whoa, hey, hold on, boss! We got trouble inside the base!” Yankee Four shouted. “Some of those things got in!”

“Fine, let the Titans deal with that thing! Yankee, back inside! We’ve got some hunting to do!” Yankee lowered his gun and followed Four to the gates, waiting for the heavy slab to lower so they could enter. Just as they did, however, they saw several of the fiends run down the main street of the base being shot at by turrets... and being chased by a harvester.

Come back here, you stinkin’ dogs!” the driver shouted. “I’ll turn you all into fucking pancakes! Now stand still so I can squish you!

“Fire!” Lead shouted, as all of Yankee squad lined up and finished off the fiends, forcing the harvester to come to a screeching halt.

Thanks for showing up, but I could have handled that,” the driver said. “Damn things aren’t scared of troopers, watchtowers, or Titans, but the moment I roll out the old rapscallion and put the pedal to the metal, they start running for the hills. Figures. They were just lucky that my gun hardpoint is in need of repairs.” He wheeled the vehicle around them and returned to his harvesting duties in the nearby field, now strewn with corpses.

“Looks like that’s under control,” Three said. They turned around to see the bear-thing being run down by a squad of Titans, who spared no expense in repeatedly trying to make sure it was dead. The offense crawler stomped by the front gate, heading to the east side to clean up the remainder of the creatures as they scurried back to their forest.

Commander, this is Mobius. The base is secure,” Hampton responded on the comms.

Wesley breathed a sigh of relief as the alarm went off and the lockdown was released. “Well, that could have gone... not well,” he said, giving a nervous laugh as he turned to Applejack. “So, I think your checkup has finished. As usual, just press the button if you need anything, okay?” He waited until he received a confirming nod from Applejack before leaving the room.

Walking back out into the hall and past the guards now back at their post, he looked out the window. Camp Greenwood was a complete mess. Smoke billowed from the distance, corpses and pockmarks lined the street outside, and he definitely could see the top of the crawlers trudging about outside the half-destroyed walls, especially the defense crawler’s shields.

“That went... better than expected,” he said out loud.

“No doubt about that, sir,” one of the riflemen responded. “Would have been nasty if they got inside. I don’t know how well those bulkheads hold up, but I’m in no rush to see them stress-tested.”

“I understand that. There doesn’t seem to be any cries for medics, so I think we’re all fine.” He grimaced as he saw a squad of zone troopers walking outside, with some Tiberium shards jammed into their armor. “At least, I think we’re all fine...”

He walked back to his office and sat down at his messy desk, strewn with medical texts and old articles on the anatomy of equine species. It occurred to him that, like many of those not born on Earth like himself, hearing of many things from the origin world wasn’t uncommon, but he’d never actually seen a horse himself. How quaint.

Activating his study computer, the hologram flickered to life as his unfinished notes appeared before him. It would have been a nightmare if his notes were done on paper since books practically lined the desk and the area around it, much like his university days. In any case, the most important thing he was looking for was the recovery rate.

Tiberium exposure, even on the smallest scale, was extremely fatal. Complete unprotected exposure meant that the subject would die within several minutes, yet when they had found Applejack with her compromised suit, she’d been exposed for what was assumed to be much longer than that, and she only had to deal with loss of a moderate amount of muscle tissue on the latter parts of her body. How did pony bodies fight back against Tiberium?

Coupled with that, of course, was a more surprising revelation, one that Wesley didn’t care to reveal to Applejack: her body was healing at an abnormally fast rate. A human in a similar position as her—legs contaminated, loss of tissue, followed by regenerative therapy and medication—would have taken months to achieve full cognition again. Yet judging from the state of her injuries, she had quickly regained what she’d lost in the span of several days.

“Amazing...” he said to himself. Either their new batch of medication was absurdly effective, or perhaps the pony species has an incredible way to recover from injuries. If he could unlock that potential, it could be used to aid patients all across ISDI space... assuming that it wasn’t locked biologically, that is. It could very well just be a feature of their species, and if it was, then they’d be out of luck.

Doctor Wesley,” came the response from his computer. Alexandra had opened up a line without even notifying him, causing him to nearly jump back in surprise as the commander’s face appeared before him.

“Sweet goodness...! Oh, it’s just you. What can I do for you, commander?” he asked.

Our friend in the medical wing. What else have you learned about her?

“Well, our new friends seem to have a capital city, if my most recent conversation is anything to go by. Applejack says that this city is where the rest of her kind relocated to, after the Tiberium appeared. Judging from the implications, it seems that they probably had a lot more settlements than the one we found when we landed.”

I see. Did she tell you where it was?

“I’m afraid not. I’ll have to ask her about that. In any case, she’s healing up rather well.”

She’ll be up within the week?

Wesley shrugged. “Sir, at her rate, she’ll be walking around by tomorrow. Her rate of recovery is absolutely astounding. Pardon the joke, but it’s almost as if it were magic; such speedy recoveries are unheard of in our world.”

I see. How’s the language barrier?

“It’s worked out, for the most part. I can understand her, and I’m sure she can understand me, at least. The translation program is... rough, at best, but it works. You seem to have a vested interest in our friend, don’t you, sir?”

Just trying to avoid civilian fallout, doctor, especially if she’s the last one left. Civilians are always priority in the ISDI, whether it be in the standard corps all the way up to ZOCOM.”

“Well, I’m quite sure there are others still alive. They do have hazmat suits, you know.”

I’m aware of that. There’s a lot of trust being placed on you with this, doctor, but I’d like to make one thing clear: if they turn out to be hostile, then drastic measures will be taken. I’d like you to make sure that she knows that.

“Of course, commander. But in all due honesty, I doubt that it will come to that. Even with contact with alien species like the bug-like ecredians or the jellyfish-esque reteronds, none have ever come as close to exhibiting signs of an actual human-like culture before. The coincidence here is impressive.”

Not to mention that their population numbers don’t seem to have been pushed down to dangerous near-extinction levels. I’d like to make this mission a success for everyone, so do try to be tactful.

“I’ll try, commander. Just curious, though: aren’t you the one that’s supposed to be the acting diplomat in cases of extra-terrestrial contact? The commander is a legal representative of the ISDI, after all.”

Alexandra waved the notion off. “That’s just some pretty talk because Secretary General Antonidas can’t be everywhere at once. But, yes, I suppose I am. When we have things set up according to protocol, then I’ll most likely pay them a visit. And then I get the privilege of filing a report for CENTCOM and then get mysteriously accosted by paparazzi on ISDI long-distance channels,” he ended sarcastically.

“You speak as if you’ve done this before.”

I have. Just not with extra-terrestrials. Mostly with frontline work. Well, I guess in this case, we’re the extra-terrestrials, aren’t we?

Wesley took a sip of his stale coffee; at the least, it was still lukewarm. “Indeed we are. I have no doubt we’ll run into more of them as our operations expand. I guess I’ll have to keep Applejack away from the mess hall. I haven’t told her that we’re omnivores yet.”

But you know she’s a vegetarian?

“There’s not a lot of room for speculation on this, so I’d say yes. She’s been receptive to having greens, and her dental structure shows no evidence of a carnivorous diet. Considering that she’s about half my size, I shudder to think what would happen if she did eat meat.”

In any case, you look like a mess. Don’t overlook your own well-being just to tend to our guest... and make sure you eat properly.

Wesley smiled humorously. “I’m a field doctor, commander. My diet is comprised mostly of coffee and cigarettes, and sometimes intelligence reports when I’m working with InOps. But don’t worry, I can keep track on my own health, thank you. I am a doctor, after all.”

I’ll hold you to that, then.” Alexandra sighed. “Silos and dropzones are going up, but the ion storms are still on the loose. I might have to send in reinforcements via drop pods, but that’s risky... We really need those MARVs. Anyway, doctor, just find out where the rest of... Applejack’s... kind is, and we’ll work on trying to get to them. Goddamn, it feels like I’m talking about a cereal or something.

The doctor laughed. “Yes, you do get used to it eventually. In any case, I still have more notes to shuffle through, so until later, commander.” Giving a parting nod, he closed off the transmission and turned back to his notes. “I should really organize these things sometime... and where the hell is that attendant?”

Hampton watched on her monitors as the two-strong unit of Talons exited her crawler’s production facilities. Despite all the advancements in technologies, the light scout craft were probably still the same since their creation in the Ascension Conflict years ago. The most the hovercraft received were armament and engine upgrades, along with some minor armor plate additions, but were otherwise mostly intact. Don’t fix what ain’t broke, as the saying went.

Tiger One to Mobius, systems online,” the leader responded. “Where to?

“I’m going to need a scout of the initial area around Camp Greenwood, Tiger. The commander also wants a good look around that town just over the hills to the north. Report if you find anything suspicious.”

Right on, Mobius. Tiger is moving now.

“If you see any lifeforms, just shout and Aegis will send a volley of artillery fire your way,” Hampton said. Her mouth twisted in thought: the commander wasn’t really expecting to find anything on this place, did he? It was all Tiberium, even worse than a good majority of the operations she’d been on. That, coupled with its volatility... this place was quite literally a bomb waiting to go off.

Now why’d you go ahead and say that I’d send a volley of artillery fire their way if they run into trouble?” Michelin asked. “I don’t even have those guns up yet.

“But you were going to build them, right?”

Well, yeah.

“So why not?”

Obviously, if they run into some serious shit out there, and I don’t have it up, then they’re fucked, and then I—no, wait, you told them. You get slammed with charges of questionable integrity in command, and then a couple of families get that knock on the door, because—

“Alright, alright, I get it. Sheesh, totally blowing this whole thing out of proportion, Michelin. Besides, they’re my boys! They can handle themselves, and if they can’t, that’s why Talons totally rock at escaping!”

Michelin was about to voice his complaints when he was cut off. “Tiger One here, Mobius, we’re entering the village now. This place is totally whack, I’m telling you.

Hampton was intrigued. “Oh, really? What’s the matter, did you find a polar bear on a unicycle juggling bowling pins in the center of town?”

Tiger One stifled a laugh. “No, ma’am, but this place is just really creepy. It’s like looking at pictures of Red Zones in the EVA database back during the Second Tiberium War. Tiger Two’s sweeping around the other side of town and—whoa, what the hell!” A small rumble shook the terrain. “Oh, shit! Two just went down! A fucking hole just opened up and he fell in! Come in, buddy, you alright?

There was a moment of silence as they waited for Tiger Two to respond. “This is Tiger Two. I’m alive... I think. There’s a lot of smoke and dust down here, it’s hard to see, and... holy crap...

“Tiger Two, this is Mobius. What’s going on down there?”

With all due respect, ma’am, I think ZOCOM’s got their work cut out for them. I’m looking at... hold on, let me set up the feed...

A small window popped on Hampton’s display; it was a direct camera feed labeled “Tiger Two”, showing what the Talon was looking at. “I... can’t tell, Tiger Two. What am I looking at?”

Tiberium, ma’am. And tons of it. It’s a huge underground cave network, all full of Tiberium.” He zoomed the Talon forward, looking deeper into the network of tunnels. “Hoo-boy, that’s a lot of tunnels...

“Can you find your way out?”

Uh... I don’t know, ma’am. These tunnels go all over the place,” he said, driving through them and passing through vein after vein of Tiberium, “but I don’t see any of them that go up.

“Ugh, great. Fine, I’m on my way.” Hampton checked the status on the load-bearing crane that was attached to the side of her crawler; normally, it was used for heavy-duty repairs, but it wouldn’t be a utility if it couldn’t be used for more than one thing. “Get back to where you fell in and I’ll pull you out.”

Roger, ma’am. Moving now and—whoa, getting movement on my radar. There’s a lot of them. Oh, good lord, that’s a lot of them!” The sound of gunfire came in across the communications static. “Thank goodness they put guns on these things! Bugging out now!

Hampton charged ahead full speed into the town. She gave a silly grin when she passed a building that looked like a gigantic gingerbread house; oh, if only it were real. Actually, that would have been gross, since Tiberium was all over it now, so she broke out of that train of thought and continued forward, finding Tiger One sitting next to the giant crack in the ground where Tiger Two fell in.

“I guess he’s down there?” she asked.

Yes, ma’am. I can see his signature down there,” Tiger One said.

Hampton prepared the crane, turning her crawler sideways and allowing the miniature crane to unpack over the fault. “I don’t envy the ZOCOM boys who have to go down there to clean it all up. You ready, Tiger Two?”

Ready as ever, ma’am! I can see more of those things headed straight for me!” Tiger Two said, firing his machinegun in several bursts. “Oh, I wish I could use my missiles! Should have sent the bulldogs on this one!

“Bulldogs can’t get across this crazy terrain, Tiger Two,” Hampton said. “Hold on tight, I’m getting you out of there.”

Her crawler’s targeting systems locked in on Tiger Two’s signature, lowering the crane down and grasping the small hovercraft by its chassis. Pulling it up, Hampton could clearly see what had been chasing him: more of the dog-like creatures, their eyes glowing with green. They snarled at him as the Talon was pulled up to the surface.

Whew, that was a close one! Thanks, ma’am.

“No problem. Thank the Idris Corporation for wanting to put repair cranes on these crawlers,” she said, giving a short laugh. “The commander’s going to have a hoot when he hears about this.” Looking across the terrain beyond the town, she could see it marked with scars and various other signs of seismic damage. “Moving around here is going to be a pain in the ass.”

“Twilight! I think I found something!” Celestia quickly read through her passage, then closed her eyes and sighed. “Nevermind. I thought it was the right one... at least now I’m painfully aware of how many fields of study Star Swirl the Bearded managed to become involved in.”

“Can we at least somehow alter it to work with what we have?” Twilight asked.

Celestia shook her head. “I’m afraid not. It did seem to hold some semblance of promise... until I realized that the spell required direct magical handling of the object. And I’ve read the research reports... the results would be disastrous.”

“Oh...” Twilight looked glum. “Well, we’ll keep trying, okay?”

“I... listen, Twilight,” Celestia continued, using her wing to bring Twilight closer to her. “While... while the guards couldn’t find your friend’s body...” Her faithful student looked up to her with fearful eyes. “Rainbow Dash wishes to hold a candlelight vigil for her.”

“Dash...? I... I didn’t know she wanted to...”

“She wanted to ask me first...” Celestia said, smiling sadly at Twilight. “She wanted to make sure it was safe to do so. Would you like to attend? It’ll only be the both of us... and your friends.”

“I... I’d like that, Princess. When is it?”

“It’ll be later tonight. To be honest, I’d hoped to ask you sooner, but it would appear that we were entirely caught up with researching that I completely forgot.” The vigil was to be held in the royal gardens later tonight... underneath the dead skies. It had already taken enough magic just trying to keep the crops in the gardens intact, due to the lack of sun.

“Oh, well, I guess until then, we should just conti—” They felt a rumble throughout the Canterlot mountain, this one much more powerful than previous ones. “The tremors are getting worse...”

Celestia’s expression hardened. “This is worrying. I must notify Captain Golden Crest of this as soon as possible... we may need to dispatch another guard patrol to investigate whether or not the tremors are affecting the foundation of the sanctum.” She stood up and walked to the door, cracking it open only just slightly and whispered something to the guard outside before closing it again.

“Is it... bad, Princess?”

“If it truly does come to it, Twiilght, then it is... very bad.” And even then, that was an understatement.

The construction of the sanctum was hasty and ill-planned, so while it seemed stable for the time being, the infrastructure could only sustain so many quakes before it all came tumbling down... and with it, Canterlot. It was something destined to come back and bite at them later, but at the time, Celestia had no choice. There was simply no other place to put her little ponies without forcing them to endure the conditions outside, and the city was already full of the refugees who had been contaminated.

“Can anything be done about it?”

“I’m afraid not, my faithful student. Only time will tell whether or not we can. Now, if I’m not mistaken, you should be taking your dinner right about now. Go ahead and join your friends; I’ll stay here and continue researching.”

“Thank you, Princess.” Twilight gave her beloved mentor a quick nuzzle, before trotting out the door, leaving Celestia alone in her study, surrounded by candles and books. It produced in her an empty feeling, one that she had not been given to experiencing very much... it felt like despair, and hope, and worry, and so many other things all rolled into one.

She stood and walked over to the window, hoping for at least a glimpse of the night sky... but found only black clouds waiting for her. That was among one of the strangest situations that she had to take time to cope with: she was so used to seeing the sky, both her own and her sister’s, throughout most of her lifetime. That she could not see that sky now... perhaps it was simply a sign of things to come.

“Oh, Luna...” she whispered. “If only you were here...”

Tiger Two to Mobius, I think I’ve found something.”

“What is it?” Hampton’s crawler sat deployed in the middle of the destroyed town, surrounded by a number of Wolverines on watch after learning that the tunnels beneath had spawned more than a few curious parties; parties that quickly turned feral and attempted to tear them apart.

Uh... I think it’s a road, ma’am. ‘Think’ being the operative word here. It’s kind of hard to see it under all this Tiberium and dead brush, but I think it’s there.”

“So what are you waiting for? Go skim that road and report back?”

Uh, yeah, about that, ma’am... it’s like grass-level Tiberium here, but the whole way up that road is covered with tib-glaciers. Unless we’re going to ski across those things, we aren’t going anywhere. Think we can get a surgical ion strike in here?

“No can do, Tiger Two,” Hampton said, watching as a pair of Wolverines circled around what seemed to be a gigantic dead treehouse on their patrol route. “We don’t have an uplink ready yet, and as far as this operation goes, we might as well be sitting on thin ice with all these tunnels underneath us. An ion strike might do more harm than good. The commander’s going to have to make the call on this one.”

Roger, ma’am. Any further orders?

“Nothing much else for today. It’s hellishly dark down here and I don’t trust walking around anywhere in bat country after the sun goes down. Get your asses back here.”

Affirmative, ma’am. Tiger returning to base.

Hampton checked the satellite feed bounced off of the Methuselah. It looked like that path definitely led somewhere... and if it led to other settlements, then it would definitely be looking into, if not to find some destroyed ruins that archivists and researchers can dig into. She opened up a transmission to Alexandra. “Hey, commander, I got a problem with a roadblock here...”

Chapter 5: Ascent

View Online

Aaaaaappplleeeejaaaccckkkkkk!” Rainbow Dash weeped. “My best friend...!” She leaned into Fluttershy’s shoulder as the yellow mare attempted to comfort her. Twilight lit another candle underneath one of the large trees in the garden, stepping back into the line next to Celestia.

“Oh, Applejack...” Rarity said. “We didn’t always see eye to eye on everything, but... she was a good friend... Nay, one of the greatest friends I’ll ever have!” She began bawling, and leaned into Fluttershy’s other free shoulder.

Pinkie Pie was absent for this vigil. Much like Luna, she, too, had been placed into stasis, when the crystal began spreading on her body. The thought of losing two of their friends was horrific to bear, and only brought further sadness into their cries... Pinkie had come back on her own accord with the guards, but Applejack... she refused to endanger anypony else in the castle. She chose to stay.

“It’s okay,” Celestia whispered. Twilight knew what she meant, and before she realized it, tears were streaming down her face. It pained her very much to know that even if Applejack could have been brought back, there was nothing that could have been done to save her. She gave her life to protect other ponies... the Element of Honesty was never one to put herself above others.

The four Elements of Harmony gathered together in an inclusive hug along with Princess Celestia, mourning the loss of their dearest friend and beloved daughter of the Apple family. Not bothering to turn around, they felt hoofsteps approach from behind, and watched as Big Macintosh sat down next to them, without tears, but face still holding sadness.

“Thanks for inviting me, Dash,” he whispered.

“It... was...” Dash paused to wipe away her tears. “It was the least I could do.”

He nodded. “Damnit, AJ... why do you have to do these things? Now Apple Bloom’s goin’ to be alone without you, and Granny Smith is... I don’t know how her heart’s goin’ to take this...”

Dash broke out of their hug, walking up to him and giving him a much-needed hug. “It’s okay, big guy. You don’t have to be alone. We... we all miss her. A lot.”

Twilight looked up at the tree, still green despite everything that had happened recently. “Wherever you are now, Applejack...” she said quietly, but loud enough for all her friends to hear. “...we’ll always be thinking of you.”

Applejack sneezed.

“Oh, my! Do you need a tissue?” Wesley asked.

“I’m okay. I’m fine,” she replied.

“Very well, then, though I think I had one laying around here just in case... oh, it’s right over here.” He wheeled his chair several feet behind him to grab the tissue box from underneath the medical cabinet. “You’ve come all this way now, and it wouldn’t be good for a cold to put you back in bed, now would it?”

“No, Doctor,” she said, smiling. “I’m fine.”

“Just in case,” he repeated, leaving the box on her nightstand. “Right, so where were we?” He held up a fork. “Do you know what this is?”

“Yes. A fork.”

Wesley blinked for a moment, unsure whether or not he was comprehending that correctly. “Could you... repeat that?”


He looked at the fork, then at Applejack’s hooves. “I... how do you even know what this is? More importantly, how do you use it? This is a fork... it’s meant to be used with hands. You know, these things.” He indicated to one hand with the other.

Applejack reached out with her hoof and took the fork from Wesley’s hand. It seemed to stick on to the end of her hoof using... magnetics, or something vaguely similar to it. What mattered was that Applejack was clearly holding the fork in her hoof. She poked at the table next to her bed to show that it was firmly in her grasp, despite the appearance of being stuck to her hoof.

“I... uh...” Wesley stuttered. “How do you do that?”


He began to wonder if it actually was magic, and not just some sort of catch-all term or extremely elaborate prank that she was pulling on him. He’d seen the scans on her body post-surgery: she absolutely did not have any sort of magnets on her body at all. So how on Earth was this even possible? Magic, of course.

“O... kay...” Wesley said. “Sorry if I seem a bit... skeptical. Usually where I’m from, ‘magic’ isn’t really an acceptable answer for most things.”

“It’s fine. Not really magic pony myself.”

“So you’re saying that there are actually ponies that can use magic?”

She nodded. “Yes! Friend Twilight can use magic.”

“Right... Twilight...” Wesley muttered, jotting down another note in his already-expansive list of notes just from this session alone. Applejack held surprising recognition for a wide variety of human objects, from the fork all the way up to books and extremely specific objects like a train or a dress he’d shown her on pictures from the PDA. How ponies used trains or wore a dress, he didn’t know... but it would be interesting to find out. “So, that’s enough of that. It’s your turn to ask questions now.”

Applejack tapped her chin for a moment with her hoof. Wesley smiled; the reaction was so human that it was endearing to see another species do the same thing. “Your home?” she asked.

“Right, well... what do you want to know about it?”


“Okay, so,” Wesley began, “as you may have already guessed, I’m not from here, and neither are my friends. I myself was born on a planet known as Mars. It was nice, quite green most of the time, and the weather tends to be okay most of the year.”


“We had a home; I lived in the city, as did most of the people did when we began colonizing it. Loud, cramped, and pretty annoying... I certainly didn’t miss it when I went off to school on Earth. I prefer the countryside, though... plenty of quiet to be had there.”

“Good planet?”

“Oh, yes, very good. We could grow so many things there, at least after we managed to convert enough of planet’s space to livable conditions. Fruits and vegetables of all kind... and then some. Lots of space means lots of farms, and I don’t really think they ever did much else with Mars. It’s practically an agriculture planet.”

“Agriculture!” Applejack agreed. “I do agriculture, too!”

Wesley laughed. “Yes, I know that, already. You say you used to have a farm here?”

“Yes!” She nodded again. “Sweet Apple Acres! Has barn on it.”

“Oh, a barn...?” That would be a problem. If what he thought was correct, upon landing with Lieutenant Viers and Yankee, they found Applejack nearby a barn... which means that Camp Greenwood might have been built right on top of Sweet Apple Acres. They’ll probably need to clear off the land after all this business is said and done with, since she had claims to it first. And having what he knew of pony society, she probably kept a legal documentation of her rights to the land anyway, and the ISDI always honored those agreements.

He heard a ding and looked at the clock: it had just struck midnight. “Oh! Well, I’m sorry about that, Applejack, but I’m afraid it’s getting late right now. I’m sure both of us could use the sleep. I’ll talk to you some more tomorrow, okay?”

“Okay, Doctor. Good night!”

“Good night, Applejack!”

He exited the room to run straight into the attendant. “Sir, reporting for duty.”

“Right on time. I was told you were busy being tasked with repairing the damage to the barracks. Did you receive my message?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Good. You’ll be on night watch. Our guest is sleeping, but if she rings, attend to her quickly.”

“Of course, sir. Will that be all?”

“Yes. Now, if you don’t mind, we’ve all had one hell of a day. Good luck with your task!” he said, waving off the attendant as he proceeded past him. Now the only problem he had to deal with was finding his room in the barracks.

Alexandra walked past a pair of navy servicemen as he entered the command center. Hanging in the center of the room was a display of the planet they were now in orbit over, with red covering most of the territory due to Tiberium incursion.

Rubbing the back of his neck, he opened up the bottle of water he carried in his hand and took a long drink from it. Normally, he would have done better with coffee, but there were always rules, and it was mandated that all troopers keep themselves hydrated. Being stuck on an interstellar troop carrier with its own self-sufficiency systems to provide for water, air, and food made people get lazy in their self-maintenance, and CENTCOM didn’t like that.

“EVA, bring up Commander Michelin for me, please,” he said.

The transmission brought up a sleepy Michelin with bed-head hair. “Oh, hey, Commander, what’s going on?” he said, yawning. “Caught me just in time, you know... just woke up.

“Michelin, I need an ion cannon uplink established ASAP.”

Michelin blinked for a moment, before giving a nervous chuckle. “Whoa, sir... where’s the fire? Did the Scrin attack while I was asleep or something?

“Not exactly. But Hampton informed me last night that she found a road leading out from the town and towards the north. We’re going to deploy forces to see where it leads, but first, we need to clear out the Tiberium. I’m going to use a surgical stage two blast to clear the path.”

Roger, sir, just let me grab the pre-fabs now... you do know that the landing zone’s ready, right? The skies don’t look too angry today, maybe you can send in some more soldiers.

“EVA, check weather signatures. What’s the intensity of the ion storms at the moment?”

Storm signatures seem to be at a minimum at the moment, Commander. It is highly suggestible that you deploy forces to reinforce Camp Greenwood.

“Right. I’m sending down more dropships your way, Michelin. Keep an eye out for them.”

Yes, sir.” Alexandra’s console brought up a new window as the ion cannon uplink patched directly into the ITC’s orbital weapons system. “Ion cannon uplink is good to go, sir. Ready to fire whenever you need it. You said the blast is going to be stage two?

“If I were any stupider, I’d paint the whole area in a stage three or four, and watch as the entire damn region turns into a massive Tiberium bomb. Stage two surgical strikes are the best we can do now. I don’t want to rupture any more fault lines and cause the whole base to plunge into the ground.”

Understood, sir. I’ll let Hampton know.

Alexandra keyed in the orders for more units to assemble for immediate drop in the launch bays. “Oh, and also inform Hampton that she’s going to be on an escort operation soon?”

Really? Where to?

“Doctor Wesley from InOps is currently taking care of a special guest in Greenwood’s medical center. From what we’ve learned from it—her, so far, there might be more of her kind around here, specifically, in a city that might be nearby. Let her know to be ready.”

I’ll make sure she knows, sir... good thing, too: she gets pretty antsy when she’s not doing anything. Then again, so do I.

“Good. I’ll be keeping in touch. Right now, I need to get more information from Wesley on the location of this settlement. They probably need help, and they need it soon.”

You’re such a humanitarian, Commander,” Michelin said, chuckling. “Anyway, I’ve noticed some weird energy signatures coming up from the north, though. Chances are it’s probably Tiberium, but I think we should check them out, too. Sending the coordinates your way now. Until then, I still have repairs to look over, so I’ll talk to you later.

Michelin’s upload showed a number of energy signatures spanning the length all the way up north, past the mountain ranges. That region was beyond his jurisdiction at the moment, but Redding might be up to the task when he arrives.

Hello, Commander? I was told you wanted to speak to me,” came Wesley’s voice.

“Yes, I did. Get anything useful? You say there’s a city out there: where is it?”

Well, I’ve only just begun my morning check-up, sir. We’ve only just finished, but get this: she’s completely healed. Her legs are completely functioning again! It’s amazing, I tell you, she’s just walking around the room as if nothing happened just a few days prior!”

“That’s great news, I’m sure. What does matter is that we need to find the rest of her kind. I have no doubt that they’re probably hurting for aid, if all the Tiberium around here is something to go by.”

Yes, of course. I’ll ask her immediately.” There was the sound of a conversation in the distance as Wesley communicated with Applejack. “Er, yes, uh, she says there’s a path that leads north out of the town. She says that if we follow that path, it should lead us directly to the city of Canterlot—at least that’s what I think it’s called—the capital of the sovereign territory she resides in.”

“How far away is it?”

More conversation. “She... says it’s just up the mountain, facing west.

“Behind the mountain or on top of it?”

The conversation again continued, this time fraught with more confusion and questions as he heard Wesley speaking in the background. “She says it’s... on the side of the mountain now, facing west. So, yes, I assume it’s on the mountain.

“Good. Is she ready to step out into the field?”

More than ready, I’d say. She’s walking all over the place and I think she’s itching to get out of this room. Lieutenant Viers has notified me that the power suit built to her specifications has been completed. All they need now is her head’s measurements and they can finish the helmet for her suit.”

ISDI engineers were always busybodies. Figures that they would be able to make a suit on such short notice. “Good. Bring her down to the engineering bays and fix her up. Commander Hampton will be meeting you later today, and you’ll receive transportation through her crawler. Until then, Doctor.”

Of course, Commander.

The line went dead as Wesley turned around, seeing Applejack brushing off her hat before putting it back on her head. “Well, Applejack, you seem perfectly well. The wound had healed up nicely, and I don’t see any sign of scar tissue, strangely enough. Would you like to go for a walk?”

Applejack smiled and nodded. “Yes!”

“Good. Let’s get you down to the engineering bay where we can get your helmet fitted.” He grabbed the PDA off the wall and walked outside, stopping between the two door guards. “Gentlemen, your services will no longer be needed for today. Thank you for your work, sergeant.”

The soldier to his left saluted. “Anytime, Doctor Wesley. If you need us, you’ll know where to find us.” Getting a nod from the other soldier, the sergeant and his comrade departed down the hall and disappeared in the service elevator, as Wesley turned to see Applejack staring through the window.

The skies outside were still much of the environment she had come to expect—and hate—but the place she was in now was astounding. Her look of wonder drifted across all the buildings and the large cranes set up outside the construction yard, followed by a gasp as she saw Orca dropships descend from the skies and park itself at the landing pad built only the day before.

“Amazing...” she said, as the PDA translated. “How long you been here?”

“Several days now.”

“Build all this in days?”

“Yes. We’ve... gotten pretty good at building things really fast.” The Scrin threat necessitated the rapid construction of just about everything, lest they find themselves disadvantaged against a technologically superior alien race. Back in the early days, trying to keep up production was a problem, but with the advent of nano-production and modularity, most of those issues had been solved.

“How many of you here?” she asked.

“Total, and not counting those that haven’t even arrived yet? Several thousand, with more on the way.”

“That’s a lot,” she said simply.

“Yes, it is a lot. But it’s what we need to do to fight back against the... uh, green rocks.” He wasn’t particularly given to calling it Tiberium in her presence, since she was most likely not even aware of the term’s history. Did the ponies even have a name for it? “Say, do you have a name for the green crystal?”

“No,” she said. “Just call green rocks.”

So they hadn’t been quick to label the crystal. That was understandable... he half-expected something cryptic given its consuming nature, or perhaps similar to the Scrin’s label of ‘ichor’ for the substance. “Now, let’s head down to the engineering bay... it should be right next to the barracks, I think.”

They walked down the empty hall and proceeded into the elevator, catching the attendant that Wesley had sent to procure some extra medication to restock the medical cabinets in his office. “Oh, hello, sir. Are you heading out with the patient?”

“Indeed I am. I’ll be leaving my office up to you. I probably won’t be back until the end of tonight, so once you’re done restocking everything here, you’re free, at least until I return.”

The attendant nodded, nearly dropping his box full of glass bottles as he did so. “Whoa! Uh, right, sir, thank you. Have a nice day and, uh, stay safe out there.” He carefully walked off to the office, balancing the large boxes on his arms. Why the boy didn’t have the sense to get a cart was beyond him.

“Downstairs?” Applejack asked, as Wesley pushed the button for the ground floor.

“Yes, we are going downstairs. Let’s just hope you don’t draw too much attention... no offense, but you’re kind of... well, colorful. Very colorful, and that’s not something that’s normal from where we come from. Especially not the color orange.”

“What about orange juice?”

“Well, yes, of course there’s orange juice, but that’s a drink, not an actual pony like you. We’re just not really used to seeing things that can talk that also happen to be very bright in color. And how do you know what an orange is? I’ve only said that word once or twice.”

“Aunt and uncle named after orange.” Of course the rest of her family would be named after some other type of fruit. Naming things after fruit seemed strange. Then again, it was simpler, and Applejack may have held the same view on humans and their naming schemes.

“Mmhmm. Breakfast,” she said. “Like jello, and eggs.”

“Yes, jello.” Among one of the strangest revelations he’d had was that the ponies seemed to be entirely aware of what jello was. Not only what it was really, but how to make it. These ponies were full of surprises every day... like learning that they actually ate eggs. An expected connection, given that ponies seemed to be familiar with things like cake and other such products.

“You try Apple family food sometime.”

“Oh, really? What kind of foods are there?”

“Hmm... apple pie, apple fritter, apple dumpling, apple crisp, apple crumble, candied apples, apple turnover, apple cobbler, app—”

“That’s alright, Applejack, I think I get it... you make lots of... apple-based foods.”

“Try sometime?”

“Yes, I think I’d actually enjoy that. It would be a nice change from the mess hall’s food, if they can call it that.” The elevator dinged as they reached the ground floor of the medical center. Most of the staff didn’t even bat an eye at them, considering that the medical center itself had a barebones staff at the moment, and a good majority of them had spent time helping Wesley tend to Applejack and other officious duties.

“Ah, let’s see, the barracks was... that way,” Wesley said, pointing down the hall marked with a yellow line on the wall labeled ‘barracks’. “Come on, dear Applejack, I know you must be interested in just about everything here, but we’re hard pressed for time.”

“Clean,” she said, following him down the halls.

“Well, of course, it’s a hospital, my dear, what do you think?”

“Cleaner than Ponyville hospital. Well, not there anymore, so...”

They passed through the bulkheads leading into the ISDI barracks, and a multitude of servicemen stopped what they were doing, watching both Wesley and Applejack as they passed through the halls.

“Hey, doc!” A zone trooper walked up to him, still decked out in his power suit. “I see you got our guest fixed up! Oh, I’m Yankee Two. The boss and the rest of the boys are still in the armory getting refitted. What’re you two doing in the barracks?”

“We were on our way to the engineering bay to get Applejack’s suit fitted on to her.”

“Oh, really? Well, hello, there, uh...”

“Miss,” Wesley informed.

“Right. Hello, Miss Applejack,” Two said, leaning his faceplate down from his seemingly gargantuan suit. “I’m Yankee Two. I was with the group who found you.”

“In actuality, Yankee Two is the very one who found you, Applejack,” Wesley said.

“Found me?” she said, eyes lighting up in realization. “Thank you.”

“Well, I’m flattered by such manners,” Two said, his echoing voice chuckling. He pointed down a smaller hall behind them with his free hand, the other hefting his trademark cannon. “The engineering bay’s down that-a-way. Are you two the reason why the troops were ordered to assemble?”

“That’s correct, Two,” Wesley said. “We’re going for a walk.”

“Well, I guess the commando was right, then. The lieutenant is expecting you in the engineering bay.” There was rumbling again, but this one wasn’t caused by quakes. It was short, and the magnitude was far less than what they’d expected. “Oh, boy, looks like the crawler’s here.”

“Yankee, prepare to move,” Yankee Lead said, walking up behind Two. “Oh, hello, doc. Guess we’ll be part of your protection detail today. Best not keep the lieutenant waiting. Alright, Yankee, move out! Keep your heads on a swivel! And the rest of you assholes: stop staring. Didn't your mommies ever tell you that’s rude?” The four troopers shuffled their way towards an airlock on their right side, guarded by indoor defense turrets.

“Now, Applejack, if you would,” Wesley said, gesturing towards the hall that led to the engineering bay. “I believe we have an appointment to keep.”

“There you are. I was wondering when you two would show up,” Viers said, already in his commando armor. He took a more traditional approach this time, it seemed, as he was armed with a portable quad-missile launcher grasped in his left hand with the machinegun in his right. “The engineers are waiting on you now.”

A couple of engineers waved down Wesley as he was ushered into his own power suit. Applejack watched in wonder as the faceplate closed down over the suit and sealed with a hiss, making Wesley seem much larger than he normally did. Grabbing his own cannon, he waved at Applejack with a gauntleted left hand to move forward.

“It’s alright now,” Wesley said. “I’m uploading the PDA into my suit’s systems as I speak.” Within, Wesley simply attached the PDA to a slot located near chest-level, as the suit hooked into the PDA’s systems and transferred the translation program’s receiving audio to the suit’s receivers. “Come on now, Applejack, they won’t hurt you.”

“Okay, doctor,” she said, but stopped to grab her hat. “What about hat?”

“Hmm, yes, that will be a problem. Tell you what: I’ll hold on to it for you until we get up to the city. Is that alright?”

She held onto her hat for a moment longer, pondering about whether giving it up to a stranger; a stranger, or rather strangers, that saved her life, no less, but still strangers. Eventually, she sighed and took it off, holding it out for Wesley to take. “Okay,” she grumbled.

Opening his canopy again, Wesley took the hat and stored it inside his suit for safekeeping. “I’ll be sure to take special care, Applejack, don’t you worry,” he said, as the faceplate lowered down again. Applejack trotted up to the refit station, but found that it did not activate the same way like it did for Wesley. Instead, a number of engineers appeared and floated over to her carrying parts of their own.

Using specially-made nanite construction systems, the engineers quickly assembled Applejack’s power suit, using their own servo-claws to place and affix the parts with machine precision. Her tail and mane couldn’t be left hanging out as a safety precaution, of course, so they managed to tuck them inside the suit... something that Applejack seemed to take offense to when they attempted to move them.

“Hey!” she shouted.

Viers snorted. “No offense, doc, but I think she’s a little bit shy with those things.”

“Yes, I can see that,” Wesley said. “Damn this suit, I can’t take any notes in here. Fine, voice-to-text, please, PDA. Yes, good. Applejack seems to take offense with having her tail or mane handled. Must learn if this is some privacy concern given their parts assumed for reproduction, or whether or not it’s related to cultural upbringing. End note.”

“No offense again, doc, but that’s creepy as hell.”

“The commander said to avoid stepping on toes, and that’s what I’m trying to do. What else do you expect from a species that doesn’t seem to have any problem walking around being what is essentially naked?”

“You make a good point.” Viers stepped aside, walking towards the bulkhead in the engineering bay as the lights over it turned green. “Looks like the crawler just linked up with this bay.”

“Oh? Are we moving equipment onboard?”

“Nope,” Viers said, walking back towards the barracks. “I’m on protection duty. You and the miss are going to be staying onboard the offense crawler Mobius for your own protection. See you later, doc.”

So Alexandra didn’t want Applejack walking out in the open. That was understandable, since keeping her out of harm’s way was paramount if they were going to successfully establish relations with ponykind.

“Ah, damnit, I’m going to have to expand the helmet a little bit,” an engineer grumbled. He grabbed a bunch of spare parts and armor plating from a nearby table with his servo-claw and began adding new attachments to the helmet. “There, that’s better. Should fit her head now.”

Applejack had her mane moved aside and carefully fit into the back of her helmet as it sealed over her with a hiss. Within, a series of words she didn’t understand lighted over her faceplate as the suit’s systems activated, and her eyes followed the lights across her HUD as they turned from red to green as diagnostics completed.

“Ready, Applejack?” she heard Wesley say from her helmet’s speakers. “Let’s head over to the door now. Thank you both, engineers, you’ve done us a great service.”

“No problem, doc,” one of the engineers said. “Better in here than getting shot at out there, I say. Try not to get killed, alright?”

“You won’t find any disagreements from me.” The bulkhead door in the engineering bay opened, revealing a small cargo bay beyond: the crawler’s production bays. “Come on now, Applejack, let’s go see if we can’t find your friends.”

Hampton stood waiting in the control room of her crawler, eyeing the cameras as Wesley and the guest entered. That was strange. She was told to expect two InOps personnel by Alexandra. So where was the second?

Getting out of her seat, she took off her helmet and left it on the dashboard before heading out of the room and downstairs. “Hello there, doc! I was told that there was going to be two of you! So where’s the second?”

Her gaze fell upon the strange quadruped fidgeting with its helmet in her production bays. There was a beep followed by a click as the being pulled its helmet off, and sat it on the ground with its hooves, giving a disapproving glance at the helmet on the ground before looking up at Hampton with her emerald green eyes.

“Oh... my... God. Is that a pony?” She quickly charged down the stairs, and ran up and hugged it. “Did the commander get this for me as a gift? Oh, I’ve always wanted my own little pony!” she cooed, hugging Applejack and rubbing cheeks with her. “She’s so freaking adorable! Does she have a name?”

Applejack’s eyes were absolutely shocked as Hampton continued to pour her love into hugs, and she looked to Wesley for help. She couldn’t see his face behind the green faceplate, but she was sure he noticed given his shrugging reaction that probably meant he was rolling his eyes.

Wesley sighed. “Her name is Applejack. Listen, Commander Hamp—”

“Oh, Applejack! That’s so adorable! And look at her mane, it looks so cute!” Hampton said, running a gloved hand through Applejack’s mane. “And the end of her mane is tied in a knot! Oh, my gosh, that is just so adoraaaableee! Look at her now, all dressed like a soldier ready for war! Did the commander want you to stay close to me to protect you, you poor little thing? Don’t worry! Momma Hampton will absolutely destroy anything that even thinks about trying to hurt you!”

“Commander Hampton!” Wesley shouted, stopping Hampton’s monologue in its track as both she and the pony turned to look at him. “That pony is not a gift from Commander Alexandra. She is the second InOps personnel you were assigned to escort.”

“Huh... what?” Hampton said, moving her head away from Applejack and exchanging a glance with her. “You mean she... isn’t my little pony?”

“No, she’s not, Commander. And I, along with your commander, would appreciate if you would at least maintain some modicum of professionalism on this operation. We’re going to go look for a probable pony settlement, located up north.”

“Up north? You mean the road,” Hampton said, standing up. “So you mean we’re going to find her friends?”


“So you mean there are more of them? More of these adorable little ponies?”

Wesley sighed again. “Yes, Commander Hampton. More of them.”

“Oh, my bleeding heart,” Hampton softly responded, holding a hand over her chest. She closed her eyes for a moment then opened them up, shifting to a confident grin on your face, and looked down at Applejack. “Don’t you worry, Applejack! We’ll find your friends! Ah... she... probably doesn’t understand me, does she? Oh, well! Let’s get down to business!”

It didn’t occur to Wesley that Applejack actually understood her, especially considering that system from his suit and hers were linked, and as such, the translation program extended to Applejack’s audio receivers, as well.

Yeehaw! This is Tiger, ready to move, Mobius! Respond confirmation, over.

“Roger, Tiger, this is Mobius. I read you loud and clear,” Hampton said, disengaging the safety lock on her link with the engineering bays. “All forces, assume defensive convoy positions and prepare to move out. Tiger will be acting as scouts, while Spear and Scimitar units will take the forward and rear positions. The rest of you grunts, try and keep up. Move out!”

Wesley and Applejack watched from behind her as her feed showed a trio of Titans forming up in front of her, as the gates to Camp Greenwood opened. The crawler rumbled to life, moving forward as the infantry assigned to guard it poured out of the gates in platoon-strong numbers.

Got a lot of fresh meat down here,” she heard Viers say to the new arrivals; most were reinforcements sent down from the Methuselah only today. “Get your asses in gear and keep your eyes sharp.”

Tiger to Mobius. Still got that Tiberium glacier blocking our way up.

“Paint the target for Commander Michelin. He’s got the ion cannon uplink, but he needs coordinates. Get yourselves over there and make some magic happen.”

Hell, yeah! Tiger, moving to paint the target.

Hampton turned around to Wesley. “You ready for a light show?”

“As long as we’re not the ones standing in it,” Wesley said. Looking down the Applejack, he attempted to clarify for her. “We have some very powerful tools that can help us get rid of the crystals.” Applejack nodded, and turned to watch the monitors with them.

Smirking, Hampton turned back, watching on her radar as the pair of Talons moved through the radar fog, closing in on the beginning of the northern path as her convoy slowly followed along behind them. Eventually, the Talons stopped, and they saw a small targeting laser stem out from one of them. “Tiger to Aegis, coordinates locked in!

Aegis to Tiger, greenlight on coordinates,” Michelin responded. “Better get your asses out of there ASAP!

Don’t need to remind me twice, Aegis!” Tiger One responded. Hampton watched as Tiger quickly darted away from the target zone, as her own forces parked themselves in the ruins of the town of Ponyville, waiting for the beams to descend from the heavens above. Six small ion beams appeared, and began circling the ground.

What a nice way to start the day off,” Viers said, giving a dry laugh.

The beams closed in on themselves, before a final bright light obscured their vision for but a moment. Then, it suddenly exploded in a wall of blinding light, vaporizing all the Tiberium unlucky enough to be caught within its range as the shockwave fanned out all around it, utterly destroying the glacier and its Tiberium deposits. The sound it produced as it faded away sounded like a faint moaning, the destruction final and absolute.

Road’s clear, ma’am. Gotta love that ion cannon,” Tiger One said.

“Alright, boys, full speed ahead! Let’s see if we can find anything!” Hampton ordered, hammering down a lever and moving the crawler forward at maximum speed.

“Huh? Princess? Princess!” Twilight shouted. “Princess, you have to see this!”

Twilight was joined on Princess Celestia’s balcony as she stared up into the sky. From the view on the tower, they could see as multitudes of other ponies, from below in the gardens, to the inner doors, to the gates outside of the castle, all gathered around in groups, watching the sky as they saw the piercing beams that came from beyond the clouds.

“What... is that?” Twilight muttered, watching the spinning beams close in on themselves.

“I don’t know, Twilight, but I—” As the beams finally joined together, it created an instantaneous bright beam, producing a sound that was louder than the greatest thunder any storm ever managed... followed by a great explosion that produced a bubble of light that could probably be seen all the way from Cloudsdale, if it still existed.

As the light faded, a small plume of smoke rose from where the beam had struck. The ponies below all gathered around, whispering fervently to each other in barely hushed tones.

“Princess... what’s going on?”

“I don’t know, Twilight...” Celestia responded. “But I’m going to find out.” She turned around and walked out of her room, ordering the door guards to maintain their vigil and watch over Twilight. Whatever this was... she was going to investigate. She needed to muster the guards.

Chapter 6: Contact

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Applejack sat behind the human Wesley called Hampton, still amazed at what she had seen as they advanced their way up the hill. There was such tremendous power, the kind of power that she thought only Princess Celestia could hold, behind that single strike... it was fortunate that they had not sought to conquer Equestria, but rather, to aid it.

Wesley had carefully explained it to her afterwards; what she had seen was the direct output of something called an ‘ion cannon’. She commented on how it must have been a terrifyingly powerful device, and he had to agree: he explained that such weaponry was only used against the crystals as a measure that required immediate results. For the most part, it was to be used only on their enemies.

And when she asked Wesley about that, he merely deflected it, stating that it would be very, very fortunate if they didn’t show up. Given his tone, however, she found it unlikely, and she wasn’t in any rush to find out. It was certainly intimidating, though, and she wondered how many other devices they had at their disposal that could induce such awe.

So there she sat, watching on the screen as they trudged up the once-recognizable road that led up to the great Equestrian city of Canterlot. Hampton was speaking, though Applejack’s suit speakers struggled to identify the speech, and since the pony wasn’t wearing her helmet, it broadcasted the translation out loud.

“...check right for threats, and try not to fall off.” Hampton seemed to be masterful with the controls at her disposal, keeping a sharp eye on both her own displays and the terrain in front of her crawler as they trudged up the hill.

“It’s pretty empty here, don’t you think?” Wesley said. “Where are the crawler’s contingent of pilots?”

“They’re in the Titans at the moment. Usually the protocol is to bring along a regular force and deploy the crawler’s as backup support, but I figured that it wouldn’t hurt this time around. We’re making good time up the hill, though.”

Mobius, we got readings coming up ahead. What’s the call?” came a voice from the comms.

“What’s going on over there?”

Looks like a bend, and definitely a road. And... my radar’s picking up signatures. No idea what they are, but they don’t look hostile. Don’t take my word for that.”

“Infantry, keep your eyes open and make sure nothing fishy happens. Understood?”

Understood, ma’am.

“Doctor, did something happen?” Applejack asked Wesley.

“I don’t know,” he said, the canopy for his power suit raised. “They say we’ve encountered fliers, which is just our luck. For the most part, I think we were lucky that we didn’t encounter flight-based mutations for much of our operations, but it seems that luck is about to run out.”

“What do they look like?”

“Good question,” Wesley said, nodding. “Commander, what do these signatures look like?”

“It’s hard to tell at this distance,” she said. “The weather’s messing with our long-range detection systems, and there’s plenty of storm interference in the skies. I’m getting fuzzy read-backs at best here.”

“Hmm. Viers, what do you see out there?” Wesley asked.

“A whole lot of green and nothing to show for it,” Viers responded, spearheading the convoy. Behind him followed Yankee, their guns at the ready as the Titans maintained positions alongside them. “I can see them on my sensors, but they’re staying still.”

Hmm. Maybe our sensors are being faulty. In any case, keep an eye out.

“Will do, doc.”

As they continued forward, he noticed that the signatures always remained at a constant distance from them, even as they advanced along. That was a telltale indicator that they were being observed by observers who didn’t know that they were being observed right back.

“I wonder how long until the Scrin show up,” Yankee Four said. “Usually they’d be all over a planet full of Tiberium like flies to a plate of crap.”

“They’ll show up alright,” Yankee Three said. “And when they do, we’ll be waiting for them.”

“Really now? What happens if we run into Corruptor cult? Traveler? Subjugator? God, I hate that one. It’s a good thing we managed to counter their masterminds with all that fancy equipment G-Tech has been throwing out.”

“Leave that one up to ISDI Spec Ops to worry about,” Yankee Two said. “I’m more worried if we run into Reaper or Destroyer. Those tripods are tough to take down, and those cults just love their firepower.”

“Oh, yeah, those assholes are a pain to deal with. Don’t the Steel Talons usually get called in for those ones?”

“They have to. It’s not like they have a choice since regular grunts end up getting steamrolled by the better Tib-tech they run around with,” Lead said. “Hey, what the hell is that?” he asked, pointing to something in the distance.

“Whoa now. Convoy, hold,” Viers said, as the crawler and its escorts slowed to a stop. “Hey, Mobius, are you seeing this?”

Hmm, a purple energy barrier. If I didn’t know any better, I could have sworn Michelin’s crawler teleported itself up here and decided to set up shop. I’ll ask our little guest here if she knows anything about it.” Silence for a moment, as the Titans shifted around on their mechanical legs, looking around for possible threats. “Wow, that was some pretty good time! Looks like that’s our objective, Dagger!

Yes, we’ll be disembarking now,” Wesley chimed in. “Lieutenant, I want you and Yankee to be our guard detail. Mobius and its protection will remain here, just out of bounds. I don’t want to end up scaring them.

“Of course, doc. I suppose we’ll be bringing the miss along, too? I don’t think they’d be keen to welcome us with open arms otherwise.” Viers turned around to see Mobius deploy, opening up its cargo bay doors as the suit-wearing pony and Wesley appeared from within.

“Right, then,” Wesley said, pointing his cannon towards the glimmering city limits. “Let’s move out.”

“Princess? Princess!” Captain Golden Crest flew into Princess Celestia’s room along with his squad, circumventing the standard security protocol of ascending from the steps instead. “There are... things, Princess! And those things are headed this way!”

“I... who are they?” Celestia said, immediately turning to the mannequin near her and beginning to move the armor plates towards her. “What do they want?”

“I don’t know, Princess, but from what I can guess, they’re responsible for the pillar of light we saw from the skies earlier. I’m not entirely sure if they even know what’s up here, but they’re probably investigating the road. They cleared the giant crystal blocking the road up to Canterlot.”

“And if they continue investigating the road, then they will find Canterlot,” Celestia said. “Muster all of the remaining guard, and tell them to assume defensive positions on the outer Canterlot walls. We will meet these newcomers head-on.”

“But... what if they’re here to kill us?”

“Then it will save us the trouble of letting the crystal choke our kind out of existence,” she said gravely. “But we will not go without a fight. Go now, and alert the others.”

“Of course, Princess.” Crest and his squad bowed and flew out the window to the guard barracks, where the guards not on-duty would be raised to answer the Princess’ call to arms.

“Princess? Newcomers? You mean they’re... those things that we have to keep fighting off? The changed wildlife and other things?”

“I don’t know, Twilight,” Celestia replied, replacing her crown with a great golden helmet, adorned with intricate inscriptions and symbols. “But they might not even be such creatures if what I assume it true. All I know is that there is a possibility that they not be from our world. I know not of a single creature of this world that can call down such power from the skies themselves.”

Twilight gulped. “Should I... go with you?”

“I would like you to, but it’s a sensitive situation. But in the case where I do need you, I will call for you. Is that okay?” Celestia fitted the clasp onto her armor with a click, fastening her cloak into place. In her armored form, Celestia definitely fit the role of the ruler of Equestria, her wings guarded with light plate to allow for flight, but otherwise a shining wall of armor to stand against Equestria's enemies.

“Okay, Princess.... please, stay safe.”

Twilight could see her smile through the open helmet. “Fear not, Twilight, I will. And I will protect all of my little ponies... I promise.”

She walked out to the balcony, and with a powerful thrust of her wings, took to the air and directed herself south to the Canterlot city gates, the powerful barrier constructed by Captain Shining Armor still shimmering in the air above.

“So... what?” Yankee Two asked. “We just stand here and hope they notice us or something? Knock on the door? Ask if there’s anyone home?” He kicked the dirt and meandered around as they stood in front of the energy barrier, with a view of the massive closed gates of Canterlot before them.

“I’m pretty damn sure they noticed us,” Viers said. “Because my sensors are tracking movements all over those walls.”

“And what marvelous walls they are,” Wesley said. “Just look at all that. To think that these ponies managed such large-scale construction... well, they keep surprising us at every turn.”

“So why are we still waiting here, then?” Yankee Three asked, walking towards the barrier. “Can’t we just walk past—oof!” He slammed straight into the transparent wall, stopping him dead in his tracks. “Right... ‘barrier’... how silly of me to forget that.”

“Hello?” Applejack shouted in her native language. “Anypony home?”

“What’s she saying, doc?” Viers asked.

“Well... she’s asking if there’s anybody home...”

“Halt. Who goes there?” came a response from the battlements. “In the name of the Princess, identify yourself.”

“I’m Applejack, from Ponyville.”

“Applejack...?” Wesley could see that there were other guards on the walls, but only the face of one was visible to them; that very one took off his helmet to get a better look at Applejack. “We... I was there at Ponyville. You were attacked by the timberwolves... we thought you died!”

“And I would have, if these kind strangers hadn’t come along and patched me up,” Applejack said. “They’re here to help! They can get rid of the crystal!”

“That sounds very impressive, ma’am, but until we can confirm your identity, I’m afraid we can’t trust you or your companions. Princess Celestia is on her way here and...” The guard turned around, nodding at someone. “Right, she’ll be speaking to you momentarily. Open the gates!”

“Lower your weapons, Lieutenant,” Wesley said. “And you, as well, Yankee.”

“Setting weapons to safety...” Yankee Two said. “Don’t want to cause any trouble.”

The gate rumbled open to reveal Princess Celestia and her bodyguard detail, comprised of Captain Golden Crest and his squad. They approached the barrier edge as Celestia attempted to get a better look at Applejack.

“Uh... does she have a horn? And wings?” Yankee Three said.

“A unicorn-pegasus hybrid,” Wesley noted. “Strange indeed. But oddly fitting for the governing entity for a race of sapient ponies.”

“Uh, let us know what they’re talking about, doc,” Viers said. “Don’t keep us all out of the loop here.”

“Worry not, I am establishing a local link from my suit to yours and Yankee’s. The translator program’s a bit rough, but for the most part, we should be able to hear what they’re saying,” Wesley said.

“Applejack. Is it really you?” Celestia asked.

“It is me, Princess... uh, I’d take off my helmet right now, but the doctor told me that’s probably not a good idea to do out here,” Applejack said. “Uh, right, doctor?”

“Well, it would seem that the air up here has some breathability, at least. I wonder if that might be the barrier, though...”

“And who are you, doctor?” Celestia asked him.

“I am Doctor Wesley. My companions and I here were among the first of our group to land on this world, and we happened to find Applejack in dire need of medical attention. And before you ask, yes, I can speak your language, but to do so, I have to use a special device which I have built into my suit.”

“You have my greatest thanks for saving Applejack,” she said. “But I must ask of you: who are you, and why are you here?”

That was a simple question to answer. “We are the ISDI, the Interstellar Defense Initiative. And our organization is dedicated to stopping the spread of this green crystal wherever we find it, which has led us to your world. Who are you?”

“ I am Princess Celestia, the... as of now, lone ruler of the Principality of Equestria. So you’re here to help us, then?”

“Yes. This is a strange occurrence, though...” Wesley said, walking up beside Applejack. “In most cases, the crystal usually consumes all indigenous life on the planet long before we even arrive. I think it was extremely fortunate that we showed up when we did, and even then, at the right place.”

“And how do we know you aren’t the one who put this crystal on the planet in the first place?” Crest asked.

“That’s a good question. But we do have tools to destroy the crystal.” Picking up a small shard of Tiberium growing at his feet, he took out his sonic device and pointed it at the crystal. With a high-pitch whir, the shard began to disintegrate in his hands, leaving the ponies staring in awe.

“We could use some of those,” Crest simply said, exchanging a glance with Celestia.

“Where do you come from?” Celestia asked. “You do not appear to be from our world.”

“Well, that’s because we aren’t. We came from... well, up there,” Wesley said, pointing into the skies. “Our ship maintains its position high above the ground of this planet, and contains the majority of our other forces. We simply haven't deployed in full force yet because the storms are highly detrimental to our equipment and cause our transports to crash.”

“From above...?” Celestia said. Then it was true: they really were aliens.

“I won’t expect you to immediately trust us, so I’ll be limiting our exposure to simply myself and one of my bodyguards. Will you grant us access to your city? I need to know what sort of aid is required so we know what we need to send down.”

Celestia stood looking at them for a moment, carefully taking in the ISDI soldiers before her before sighing. “Very well. Doctor Wesley, you and one other of your choosing will be given permission to enter the city. Applejack will stay with you at all times.”

“That’ll be fine, Princess. It’s a strange feeling; it’s not everyday that I’d be able to address royalty.”

“And it’s not everyday where I’d be able to speak to an alien,” Celestia responded in kind. “Do you already know who to bring along?”

“Yes, I do, actually. Lieutenant, you’ll be coming with me. Yankee, I’m afraid you’ll have to remain here, outside the gates, until our business is concluded. Mobius is to remain at distance until further notice.”

“Yes, sir, doc,” Yankee Lead said. “Alright, Yankee, we are setting up shop here. Keep your eyes sharp and if its eyes glow green, you shoot it. Understood?”

“Crystal clear, boss,” Yankee Two said. “But I don’t think anything can get this far without Mobius noticing first. Time for another six months of suit-vision until all this Tiberium gets cleared up. Can’t wait to walk outside and actually breath fresh air for once.”

“Stay frosty and don’t do anything stupid,” Viers said.

“Roger that, Dagger,” Yankee Lead said, giving Viers a thumbs-up.

“Now, if you would, please,” Celestia said. “Follow me. We have much to discuss...”

This is Dagger to Alexandra. Wesley and I have made contact, and are entering the city now. We’re going straight to protocol and trying to evaluate their situation so we can bring in aid, over.

“Fantastic job, Dagger. With their cooperation, we might be able to pinpoint other settlements and see if we can’t alleviate their situation a bit. Until then, just help them to the best of your ability. I’ll have to start arranging our planetside moving operations, so I may not be in for a while. Contact EVA if you need to get in touch with me.”

Roger, sir. Will keep in touch,” Viers responded, as the line closed.

“EVA, switch to autonomous observation state. I’ll be back in a moment.”

Yes, commander.

Alexandra exited the command center, marching past numerous Navy personnel as he entered the elevator at the end of the hall, pressing the button that led down to the engineering deck, where the reactors and the room where the local EVA unit was kept, the latter of which was his destination.

Unlike the more bustling halls of the Navy-centered command deck, the engineering deck was mostly empty, save for the occasional yellow-helmeted technicians scurrying about from room to room to monitor the plethora of instruments and diagnostic readouts. In one direction was the reactor core for the Methuselah, an advanced reactor core that was a scaled-up version from the ones that the old Kodiaks used to have, complete with new bells and whistles for increased output, and in the other direction was the ultra-max security bulkheads that led to the mainframe for the Methuselah’s EVA unit.

Walking up to the bulkhead, half a dozen turrets immediately appeared from the ceiling, walls, and the floor, their tracking lasers pointing directly at Alexandra’s center of mass. “State identification,” was the security system’s automated response.

“Commander Martin Alexandra, Steel Talons.”

Step into the yellow box on the ground before you.” Alexandra obliged, and the walls shifted again as a scanner’s tracer flipped up and down as it scanned the body mass in the square, before beeping and retreating back into the walls.

The area in front of the square opened up, and a small terminal appeared. “Present eye and fingerprint identification.” Alexandra sighed and followed the instructions. As archaic as they seemed in the current time period, security measures were still as stringent as ever. And the turrets were always great incentive to make sure you did everything right, lest the ISDI be short one extremely talented but incredibly stupid commander.

Stand by for mental scanning.” The ceiling above him opened up to a wavelength detector device, a new security measure put into place to oust any mastermind-controlled ISDI personnel. It wasn’t exactly needed, given that nearly every piece of ISDI equipment was equipped with a broadcasting nanochip that disrupted mastermind control wavelengths, but it was for contingency.

Yet not many knew about how the chips worked. InOps had such a stranglehold on the exact nature of the chips that it was rumored that inside were nanites that occupied the oxygen they breathed and even the food they ate. Even if most of them were false, at least one or two was true: it was well-known that the Washington headquarters had nanite detectors all over the station, making Scrin infiltration impossible.

Identity confirmed. Welcome, Commander Martin Alexandra.” The locks began clearing themselves from the bulkhead in a timely fashion, before revealing an airlock within that led to a second bulkhead. The in-between was required, as it prevented immediate access into the core in the case the first bulkhead was breached.

The first bulkhead closed completely before the second bulkhead was allowed to open. EVA’s mainframe was a massive piece of technology, sitting directly in the center of the room behind specialized glass plating with a number of tubes protruding out of it to be used for reasons unknown. In the middle of the technological mess was a single table, messy and crowded with various Earth memorabilia and video game posters.

“Masterson!” Alexandra called, only to be ignored by the man sitting at the table as noises from the videogame he was playing boomed throughout the chamber. “Masterson...” Alexandra said, stepping forward over wires and boxes. He was nearly at an arm’s reach when Masterson suddenly turned around, a gun pointed at Alexandra.

“Aha, I got you now, you scumbag—oh, it’s just you, Marty. Sheesh, why didn’t you say something when you came in?”

“I did... but you weren’t listening.”

“Oh, right, sorry about that. Was busy trying to grind this boss out. So, what can I do for you, chief?” Masterson said, putting his GD-10 combat rifle into storage mode on his lap before removing his glasses to rub the bridge of his nose. “You don’t come down here all that often, so I guess something’s up. I’ve been checking up on EVA’s feeds, you know. Crazy stuff down there.”

Henry Masterson was Alexandra’s EVA maintenance officer, or simply ‘technician’, as Masterson wanted to be called; he believed that being labeled an actual officer of the ISDI would cause misunderstandings, since he was, by all accounts, a civilian contractor from the Idris Corporation, who helped to build and maintain most of the ISDI’s EVA units in interstellar troop carriers in the arsenal. He had helped to establish Alexandra’s unique EVA command patterns in the Methuselah’s mainframe, having transferred over with the commander to the Methuselah alongside Hampton and Michelin.

“So...” Masterson said, flipping off the monitor on his table. “You came to see me about something? Yeah, sorry, just let me move this stuff first so I can get you a place to sit.” A large box next to his chair was piled high with books, which Masterson moved to the floor with minor difficulty, dropping one in the process. Alexandra picked it up and gave a wry smile.

Messiah: The Legacy of Kane...” He smiled. “...by Elias Alexandra. My great-grandfather. I didn’t know people still read this pointless crap,” he said, unceremoniously tossing the book to the ground.

“Just a recent pick-up for my book collection,” Masterson said. “It’s a pretty interesting read, if not to see how Nod operated back in the day. And of course, the information about Kane himself, probably why everyone ate that book up the day it hit the shelves.”

“Kane was an asshole, plain and simple. A smart and clever asshole, but still an asshole.”

“Well, you do have a point, I guess...” Masterson said. “Kind of strange hearing the great-grandchild of an infamous Black Hand confessor denouncing Kane, of all people. And to think that it’s usually me that’s the paranoid one.”

“Elias never met me. He died before I was born,” Alexandra said. “Not that we would get along even if he was, anyway; I’m ISDI down to the core, and he was a Nod fanatic. But enough of that; I came to talk you about moving the EVA mainframe planetside, not to wax philosophical on Kane’s past.”

“Already planning on moving it? But you haven’t even established a proper base on the ground, and much less an actual command bunker.”

“I’m working on that. I’m asking how quickly we can establish a local ground uplink when we do end up moving planetside. The Scrin haven’t shown up yet, and that makes me suspicious.” Standard procedure was for commanders to move their EVA units planetside to avoid a total loss of the command network in the case the ITC was lost. The occurrence was rare, but it never hurt to be prepared.

“Oh, man, there’s just... I bet they’re already on the planet,” Masterson said, going into his full-on conspiracy mode for which he was known for. “No, even better: there are masterminds on the planet and they’ve taken control of the locals. That’s the only way they can get through all this completely undetected.”

“Masterson, that’s a load of crap. You know better than I do that our uplinks on the ground would have picked up any mastermind broadcasts. Hell, what am I saying? You would know about it, because you helped build the damn things!”

“Stop! Stop, stop, stop!” Masterson said. “You’re bringing logic into my theories, and that just won’t fly. Anyway, yeah, sure, I can have this EVA unit ready to be transferred faster than you can say ‘tinfoil hat’. Just let me know beforehand, okay? But seriously, what if the Scrin took over the bodies of the locals? The Scrin like to use things with three legs, but these pony things have four! Maybe they upgraded! Evolved! Increased their leg count by a factor of one! Maybe this is some hyper-advanced Scrin cult that’s so good at subterfuge that they adopted basic human cultural objects and mannerisms. Maybe that’s why their stuff looks a lot like ours and why this planet is covered with Tiberium. It’s a trap!”

“Masterson, you’re crazy.”

“Ha! Laugh it up all you want now, Marty! But when I’m right, you’ll be sorry! Actually, no, that’s not good, because if I’m right, and all my other theories are right, we’ll probably be royally screwed over in a way that’ll make recouping from losses impossible for a prolonged period of time.”

“Henry... Tiberium kills the locals.”

“Oh... well...” Masterson stuttered. “Yeah, I guess that might be a problem... Tiberium doesn’t kill Scrin. But, I might still be right on the mastermind thing! Oh, you know what you should do? You should show them the transcribed text from the translated Tacitus! If they recognize it... then they’re Scrin! Or controlled by them. Doesn’t matter either way.”

Alexandra sighed. “Sometimes I wonder why you’re not in a mental institution...”

“Because I’m too damn good at my job! Haha! I’ve yet to see someone rewire EVA’s receiver mainframe faster than seven-point-two seconds, which is my record, by the way. I should know, I was the one who did it. Uh, I accidentally reset the command protocols to default again, though, but that was a minor thing.”

“So you were the reason why EVA started spouting off warnings like I was some greenhorn commander!” He hit Masterson on the head. “I thought I got strapped with a default EVA unit again.”

“Right, right, sorry about that, Marty, won’t happen again. Oh, hey, I forgot,” Masterson said, picking up his GD-10. “Sweet, isn’t it? I scored it off of the quartermaster.”

“...how, exactly?” The GD-10 was a discontinued rifle series from the Third Tiberium War. Most were decommissioned and replaced with newer models, so to find an actual one in mint condition was a surprise.

“We made a bet. He lost. Never underestimate the power of probabilities.” He pulled out a magazine and dropped it into the rifle through the receiver on top. “This tech was pretty high-end for its time, you know. An automatic rail gun, missile launcher, grenade launcher, and get this: a portable ion cannon, right here on the gun.”

“You know we have rules about firearms in the mainframe room, Masterson.”

“It’s on safety, don’t worry. And besides, if they cared about that rule so much, how come they let me install fifty Vulcan turrets in here?”

“Fifty...? Where?” Alexandra asked, looking around the room occupied with either Masteron’s random piles of junk or pieces of extremely sensitive equipment. There was no sign of a turret being installed anywhere.

Everywhere. That’ll make those slimy Scrin fucks think twice about trying to get in here.”


Attention, Commander Alexandra. You are needed in the command center.

“Well, Marty, it was good talking to you, but it looks like you have less important things to attend to!” Masterson said, laughing. “And I’ll reiterate again: the conspiracy theories are a joke, so don’t report it up the chain, okay? I just like playing the crazy guy shtick a lot.”

“Of course I know that. Somebody reported you? Who was it?”

Masterson snorted. “Hampton. I messed with her crawler’s UI to endlessly play pop songs sped up by a thousand percent, then blamed it on space gremlins. When she found it I was the one who did it, she, uh... well, she can throw a mean right hook. I... hey... come on, it’s not that funny!” he complained, as Alexandra laughed his way out of the airlock.

You called for me, doc? What’s going on down there?” Alexandra asked.

“Well, sir, I mean... sheesh, look at all this stuff,” Wesley said, activating his suit’s cameras to provide a feed to Alexandra. “I kid you not, those are doors. With door handles on them. They don’t even have hands, but they have doorknobs. Forks. Spoons. Mugs with those handles that hang off the side. And they use all of that.”

“They’re pretty colorful,” Viers added. “It’s like something out of a children’s cartoon. Except it’s real. And they’re in a pretty bad place.” The refugees all gathered along the sidewalks as they stared at the suit-wearing humans. Some of them had clear signs of Tiberium affliction on their bodies.

“Um, are all your people like this?” Wesley asked Celestia.

“Not all of them are like that,” Applejack responded, her voice echoing over her helmet’s filters. “It’s just that... only the ponies who have the crystal on them stay out here.”

“Right, so immediate medical aid to the afflicted first,” Wesley said to himself. “How many of them are there here?”

“Several thousand,” Celestia responded. “It... wasn’t easy. They live in cramped conditions, and most of the castle grounds has been changed to host most of my guard or for food production, so we don’t have any extra room. Those who haven’t been afflicted live in the inner sanctum located deeper within the mountain.”

“So you mean there’s more than just the ones here in the city?”

Sounds like we might have to construct a refugee camp to host them, then. If she can spare the time,” Alexandra said, listening in to the conversation but unable to broadcast himself, instead having to use Wesley as a liason, “we can designate grounds for construction. Camp Greenwood has been mostly fortified now with shields and heavy defense emplacements, so we can spare having Aegis for defensive support to guard the site.

“Planning to visit the surface soon, sir?”

Not without a gun on me. I’m opening up all requisitions access to you, Wesley. If you need anything, just put a request through to EVA, and she’ll find the best way to get the supplies to you. I’m going to be busy trying to work things through with CENTCOM for a while... they just got my report.

Ponies whispered all around them as they finally reached the gates to Canterlot Castle itself. Even the guards were surprised at the size of the beings that Celestia had admitted in, but more so at Viers than at Wesley, for the latter was armed with weapons that looked as if they could level half the city if he so wished.

“We are here,” Celestia said. The guards looked at her, awaiting her orders. “Please, open the gates.”

As the gates parted, Applejack could see the familiar colors of a certain group of ponies waiting for her. “Applejack!” Rainbow Dash immediately crashed into her, knocking her to the ground. “Whoa, what’s with the suit?”

“My friends here patched me up, Rainbow!” Applejack said happily. “They saved my life!”

“Oh, it’s so good to see you again, Applejack,” Rarity said, about to give her a hug when she eyed the suit. “Hmm... I could have done better. It looks absolutely... bulky, and very ugly.”

“Uh, those suits are built for utility, not aesthetics,” Wesley commented.

“Well, when you put it like that, then it’s really hard for me to complain... does this suit really protect you from the crystal, Applejack?”

“Obviously, it would,” Applejack responded, “otherwise the doctor and his friends wouldn’t be wearin’ them. All of them wear suits like that so they can move around without gettin’ hurt... like I did.”

“Are you okay?” Fluttershy asked. “You’re okay, right? You’re not hurt or anything? Oh, it’s so good to know that you’re fine. We were so worried, and... and...” She began weeping. “We thought we lost you...”

Twilight walked up to Applejack, wearing the biggest smile that the cowpony had ever seen from her friend. “They... saved... you...?” Twilight said breathlessly.

“Uh... yeah, Twi. Are you... okay?”

“We can... we can... “ Twilight began hyperventilating, then her eyes suddenly went wide and she turned to look at Celestia. “Princess! We can... we can... we can...” she continued stuttering.

“Yes, Twilight. We can save Luna.”

“Uh... does someone want to fill me in here?” Wesley interrupted. “Save someone? Save who, exactly?”

“I think it would be better if I showed you, doctor,” Celestia said. “Applejack, you may stay here. Feel free to catch up with your friends. Twilight, you will be coming with me.” Twilight’s excitement faded and was replaced with graveness, and Celestia’s faithful student nodded. “Let us go, then. Captain Crest, you will be in charge of maintaining security until our discussion has been resolved.”

Crest saluted. “Of course, Princess.”

Wesley and Viers followed the Princess as they passed through the gardens, which were now lined with fields of vegetables, no longer holding the well-tended grass that once sat in their place. The stone walkway was cracked and in disrepair, leading to the stairs that led into the castle proper.

“Uh... are you all normally that big?” Twilight asked, looking up at Wesley. “Are you... machines?”

“No, fortunately, we’re not. I’m just a small being in a really big suit. Mostly for protection, both against regular threats and the crystal that we’re dealing with. Tiberium is fatal, even for our species.”

“Tiberium? Is that what your species calls it?”

“Yes. For the most part, the generally accepted origin is that it was named after the river near which it was found, the Tiber River. It is a nasty piece of work, and we were nearly engulfed with it ourselves, had we not found the foresight to develop countermeasures against it.”

“Really?” Twilight asked, interested. “What did your kind do? We had so much trouble just trying to barely contain it ourselves.”

“Simple: we learned how to break it down. Tiberium itself is extremely dangerous, and highly contagious in both airborne and physical forms, but when broken down, it simply produces harmless raw minerals that are extremely valuable as a commodity both in our economy and in our research.”

“So... you use it to make things?”

“Essentially, yes. I think something important to note for your situation is that the Tiberium siphons all nutrients from the ground, essentially making it impossible to grow on for a while even after the Tiberium is removed. That is more than made up for with its utility due to its extreme mineral content; you will hardly find anything more effective in terms of resource production than Tiberium.”

“Then... if it’s not from your world, where is it from?”

“The exact location of origin? To be honest, we still have no idea. But we do know what the crystal originates from: an alien race known as the Scrin. We had a disastrous run-in with them the first time they showed up, but after much effort, we drove them from our world and they never returned. Our kind progressed, we traveled to the stars, and lo and behold, there they were, running around harvesting planets by seeding them with Tiberium and then using them as farms.”

“And you think they’re doing this with our world?”

“Think?” Wesley said, chuckling. “We know. The only thing we don’t know, is why they haven’t shown up yet. In most normal cases, the Scrin would have arrived, killed off any survivors, and then turned the whole planet into another farming operation. Consider it one big stroke of luck that we happened to show up before they did.”

They rounded a corner and proceeded up a gradually rising set of stairs, leading them to the room that Celestia had deemed off-limits to all save herself, Twilight, and a select group of guards. Wesley noticed that unlike the other portions of the castle, which usually had someone around, the area they entered now was almost completely empty.

“What do the Scrin use the Tiberium for?” Twilight continued. “Oh, I’m so sorry, forgive me. I’m Twilight Sparkle, personal student of Princess Celestia! Thank you for saving Applejack.”

“No need to thank me; I’m a doctor. I was just doing my job. It’s a pleasure to meet you, Miss Sparkle. I am Doctor Wesley. To answer your question: the Scrin have... well, as best put it by someone who is no longer with us: they are an addiction disguised as a species. Tiberium is their lifeblood, and they will go to some extreme lengths to obtain it. Our own forces have been putting them on the defensive recently, increasing their need for a great and sustainable Tiberium source... like your world.”

“We are here,” Celestia said. “I have a great request of you, Doctor Wesley, one that I dearly hope you will accept.” The guards standing in front of the great double doors split away, and with a flare of her magic, Celestia opened the door, gesturing for them to enter.

As they did so, the guards shut the door, leaving them inside with silence... and the floating bubble that sat within. Celestia removed her helmet, letting her waving mane flow freely, before stepping in front of the bubble, Twilight alongside her. At first, Wesley could barely see what was inside the bubble, but as he focused, he could make out the form within: another pegasus-unicorn sat unconscious, suspended inside, with most of her body covered in Tiberium.

He knew what she was about to ask, and he already had an answer for her. All that remained was for her to actually say the words.

“Please, doctor... I plead you... please save my sister.”

Chapter 7: Escalation

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“There’s two of them,” Viers flatly stated.

“I can see that for myself, Lieutenant,” Wesley responded in kind. “Sisters, no less. Funny. In my experience, sibling royalty don’t exactly get along all that great.” He walked forward a few steps, getting a better look at the bubble. “Very well, Your Majesty, I will try my best to save her. EVA, I’m putting in a requisitions request for sonic containment rings.”

Yes, doctor. Camp Greenwood has a number of sonic containment rings in storage, and will be prepped for you when you arrive.

“Good.” He looked back at Celestia. “Can she be moved? As far as I’m concerned, this is not a hygienically sound environment. We will need to move her to the medical facilities in our current base of operations at the bottom of this mountain.”

“Princess, what about... Pie?” The last part of Twilight’s statement faded off, which usually meant that she was introducing a new word the program hadn’t recognized before. “She’s been afflicted, too.”

“I see. How is... aptitude with magic? She might be able to handle Pinkie Pie bubble while you deal with Luna’s.” Celestia turned around, and with another flare of her magic, drifted Luna’s stasis bubble towards them. “The bubble has its own magic, so you need not worry about sustaining it. All you must simply do is move it... but carefully.”

“I understand, Princess,” Twilight said, nodding. “I’ll do my best. I know Rarity will also want to help. Should all of us go along?”

“They are your friends, Twilight. And I’m sure you’ve had your share of being cooped up in the castle researching a solution for our crisis, which has now appeared to have quite literally dropped from the skies, it seems. Go now, Twilight. The sooner we can save Pinkie and Luna, the sooner we can move on to saving our home.”

“Right away, Princess.” Twilight levitated the bubble behind her, letting it trail levelly and at a pace slow enough to prevent any sudden shifts in movement. “Okay, Doctor Wesley,” she said. “We can move now.”

“Fantastic.” He activated his comms. “Mobius, come in.”

Mobius is here, doc. What do you need?

“Park the crawler right outside the gates. We’re about to pick up some VIPs.”

Whoa, that was quick. Right away, doc. All units, form up on me. We’re moving to the front door. And watch those lines, I’m picking up—enemy contacts coming up the hill! Scimitar, close the lines, and engage at will!” Gunfire followed in the background.

“What is it, Mobius? What’s attacking you?”

More of those things we fought outside of Greenwood. Turns out they followed us up here, but it’s just the smaller ones. Shouldn’t be too much of a problem for us.” Wesley waved Viers to exit the door before them as he followed, with the bubble-toting unicorn following him as he went. “Oh, great. They can burrow... freaking fantastic.

“We’re on our way to the gates now, Mobius. Just make sure you have the red carpet waiting for us when we get there.”

Can do, doc. Did you guys leave Yankee out by the door?

“Yes, we did. They’re on stand-by until we return.”

Great, they can join the party. See you then, doc.

Hammer here, commander. Yeah, I can harvest this glacier, but it’s going to take a while. You sure we got the silo room for this much Tiberium?” Alexandra’s battlefield view drifted over to a small mining vehicle convoy guarded by soldiers and Titans, as it prepared its vehicle-mounted ion cannon to begin shaving away the glacier into collectible chunks.

“We do. And if we need more, we can just expand the base. I’m in the process of trying to get heavy movers down to the surface. Most of the terrain is uneven and making it a pain to drop down pavement for easier transport.”

Roger, sir. We’ll have this baby cut apart by the time dinner rolls around. Sheesh, just look at that forest. It’s chock-full of Tiberium-spitting trees over there. No wonder why this place got eaten up. Uh, tell the deforest crews that they're going to have some trouble with that.

“Good. Watch yourselves out there.” He closed the transmission and zoomed out to a map of the region, several areas marked for prime military base construction by EVA. The one he was most interested in was in the mountain range across from the city of Canterlot. It was in the mountains above the Tiberium, hard to assault via ground, and provided a clear view of the valley below, making it ideal for air and artillery support. The only problem still lay in negotiating proper terms for building on it.

Mobius here, commander. We just picked up a few of the locals, afflicted with Tiberium. We’re preparing to transport them back to Greenwood for medical attention.

“That was quick. Relations were smooth, I hope?”

Smooth as ice, sir. Well, we haven’t shot at them, and they haven’t attacked us. I’d consider that pretty good, right? Aside from that, there’s a whole city of them, just full of ponies! I want to visit that place when I get some time off!

“Curb your enthusiasm and focus on the job. I’ve heard you met contact already on the way up.” EVA had notified him of a small engagement between Mobius’ detail and some stragglers from the valley. Their enemy had no methodology or routine to their actions, so it escalated their threat level, especially since it put scouting patrols at risk.

Just some minor elements. Nothing big. We’re currently on our way back down the mountain. Think we can get some aid up here? The doc says they’re pretty low on food supplies and medical aid. Not sure what we can do for food considering that all of ours is mostly processed crap... how about some of the veggies from the Methuselah’s hydroponics section?

“The dropships will be heading planetside with them the first chance they get.” He rubbed his head. “Well, at least we got off on the right foot. I wanted to get set up on the ground as soon as possible. Let the doctor know that establishing a proper presence on the ground is our current priority, short only of aiding the natives.”

Roger, sir, I’ll let him know.

Hampton’s face disappeared as Alexandra wheeled around in his chair, looking at the massive holographic projection of the planet that sat in the middle of the command center. “EVA, scan again for Scrin energy signatures.”

The display shimmered with waves of green light as the scans commenced, only to return nothing yet again after several minutes. Alexandra frowned; every known fact about Scrin operational doctrine meant that every planet seeded with Tiberium usually had a foreman group assigned to look after it. This planet was more than ripe for the taking, yet none were present.

So, it looks like there still isn’t any Scrin yet, hmm?” a familiar voice said, interrupting Alexandra’s train of thought. “Surprising, considering that this planet is barely off of the flanks of the primary frontlines. If we noticed this, they probably did, too.

“Redding,” Alexandra said, spinning around to look at the man sitting in what appeared to be a mirror clone of his own command center. “Nice of you to drop in. How long is it until you and your boys show up here, hmm?”

Not long, I would hope. The Amaranthine’s been doing its mandatory reactor core shakedowns, so we’re behind schedule a bit, and engineering is absolutely adamant about leaving us dead in the middle of space to make sure it gets done right. You can’t take any chances with such large engines of energy, after all. Fear not, we’ll be there in less than a couple of days, provided nothing explodes.

“That’s good to hear. Have the MARVs been outfitted with mining lasers? We’re going to need them to take apart the larger glaciers. The buildup down there is substantial, so I have no doubt that they’re going to see some use.”

Fitted with the newest vehicle-mounted ion cannons, courtesy of ZOCOM itself. The new versions have increased energy output for the same energy cost, a new refocusing system that G-Tech has put into play recently. We might see new weapon potential with that research... I’ve heard rumors that the Steel Talons have already gotten their hands on some small arms ion weaponry for their soldiers in use in the field.

Alexandra chuckled, for he knew just exactly where those rumors originated from... his own soldiers, who had been chosen to field-test the weapon against the Scrin in several small skirmishes. They were highly effective, to say the least. “Well, I can say one thing, at least, Redding... those rumors aren’t rumors.”

Redding raised an eyebrow. “You don’t say?” The lights behind him flickered for a moment as the screen shook slightly. “Ah. Looks like the shakedowns have been completed.” He turned around and spoke to a uniformed navy man, one that Alexandra recognized as wearing the ranks of a navy captain, standing near the star map. “Crispin, match speed to previous conditions and stay the course. I want to make good time on our rendezvous.

Aye, aye, sir,” the man responded, before filling Redding’s bridge with the sound of orders, as Redding returned to his conversation. Alexandra had to stifle a laugh when he saw a crewman trip behind Redding’s chair as he passed by the screen; Redding was not as easily amused, and merely gave the man a exaggerated nod to let him know that his dignity was still somewhat intact.

Well, we might make our schedule. But there might be something you should know, Alexandra.” Redding looked offscreen for a moment at his own command console, and sent something through the channel. Alexandra’s own console opened up with another display: this one a map of the frontlines, present as a vertical line just eastward of Earth’s territories, and their own position, just south of that very battle line.

“Well, I guess it was only a matter of time...” Alexandra said, noticing a direct advance from Scrin territories directly at his current position on the star map: his own ship, in orbit over this particular planet.

Yes, I believe our friends have finally noticed. They may have been detoured for a moment as I’ve received reports that GDI Spec Ops had successfully sabotaged one of their carriers via a long-distance ion strike at the engines, permanently putting the whole thing out of commission, but the other has been sent to reclaim this planet. InOps estimates at least several weeks before they reach you.

Alexandra’s eyes narrowed. “What cult are we dealing with here? Should I be worried about one drone carrier?”

Given that its cargo is still at full capacity with Scrin soldiers, yes, you should be worried. As for the cult... well, I’m not saying like this is some sort of coincidence or anything, but... you’ll be interested to know that the cult in particular on that ship belongs to one that you’re well acquainted with, Alexandra... Annihilator-2.

Alexandra could feel a sense of apprehension boil in his stomach. Annihilator-2 was arguably the largest Scrin cult there was, and evidently the most powerful: they were the no-holds-barred cult, with technology surpassing even the already-deadly Reaper-17 cult during the Third Tiberium War. And even their combat tactics were just as deadly: they did not stop any assault until all their soldiers were dead or victory was achieved, and every retreat that would inevitably follow a failed assault followed a scorched earth tactic to leave nothing in the way of cover for advancing ISDI troops to use.

They were a deadly foe to face in battle, and it was no surprise that standard ISDI infantry were easily overwhelmed by their advantage in both numbers and firepower. It was a miracle that combat-oriented cults often shunned masterminds or prodigies in favor of their own troops, though the exact reasoning why they did so produced a number of theories from InOps, ranging from animosity between cults to excessive pride. Short of the mysterious Conqueror-1 ruling cult of the Scrin, there was no deadlier foe that a commander could face.

But unfortunately for them, it had to be Alexandra. Protocol was protocol... and protocol demanded that the Steel Talons be deployed in response to stop this threat, in clear view of the conditions: a medium-strength contingent of regular ISDI troops on an almost completely unprotected world, covered with Tiberium. In other circumstances, such as the frontlines, multiple commanders could easily hold the line against Annihilator forces due to consolidation of firepower and teamwork using the regulars, but a concentrated attack like this required that the firepower put forward to match.

“Yeah, I remember those guys...” Alexandra said. “Victory at all costs and handicap the opponents in every way possible. Big guns, big soldiers, and lots of both. I suppose that General Hallman has already been notified?”

Redding smiled. “Well, look at it this way, Alexandra: the Hammerfest is returning to your command, courtesy of a direct deployment order from the general himself. And he’s already given full authorization for all the technologies across the board for you to use. Better get those anti-orbital defense cannons set up.

“I noticed...” he said. A transmission direct from ISDI CENTCOM danced in front of his eyes, detailing the very things Redding had just finished telling him. “So, I had a few spots for you to set up. We have some strange energy signatures coming up from north of our regions... nothing too large to indicate that it’s Scrin, but it’s there, and I don’t know what’s causing it.”

Sure, I’ll take up the slack in the north,” Redding agreed. “If we’re lucky, it’ll just be some fluctuations being caused by ion storm interference up there. A good clean-up of the Tiberium should do the trick, and maybe we’ll have some clear skies within a couple of weeks’ time. I should arrive before our friends show up... perhaps this time, we won’t have a repeat of what happened before.

“Of course.” The floating insignia of the Steel Talons appeared on another display as Alexandra gave confirmation on the green-light for his current command console to access high-tier technologies. “So long as we don’t end up bogged down again, I think we’ll be fine.”

Commander work. Never grows old or too easy, does it?

“If it were easy, we’d have every bright-eyed recruit from Jupiter applying for a commander’s chair straight out of the academy... though I do admit that we could use some more forward battle commanders in the field.”

Redding chuckled. “I doubt many would be willing to accommodate for that, Alexandra... experience fighting in the field is required for that.” The sound of rumbling could be heard in the background, as Crispin could be seen behind Redding charting a trajectory for the Amaranthine on the star map behind him. “Well, looks like things have finally picked up. We’re moving at full speed now. See you soon, Alexandra.

“Yeah. Don’t make any wrong turns.”

I doubt EVA would let us, the ever-correcting intelligence unit that she is. Redding out.

“Applejack!” Apple Bloom ran forth and caught her big sister in a hug, her face rubbing against the smooth composite plate of the armor Applejack wore in and attempt to nuzzle her. “You’re alive! You’re alive...! I... huh? Where’d you get this suit?”

“The folks who saved me gave this to me! It helps protect me from the green crystal and everythin’. And this here helmet’s what lets me breathe out there,” she said, producing a dull echo as she tapped the helmet next to her.

Apple Bloom eyed the stenciled diving eagle logo on the center chestplate for Applejack. “Wow... are those folks here, Applejack?” They turned their heads as they heard rumbling, only to see the massive form of Big Macintosh round a corner and gun straight for the orange mare.

“Applejack!” he shouted, sliding to a stop before her and picking her up in his enormous frame, hugging her tightly. “They told me... I thought you were...”

“Shh, it’s alright now, Big Mac,” Applejack said, hugging him back. “I’m here now, and I’m fine.” She ruffled his mane a bit, giving a reassuring smile to the stallion as he sobbed into her shoulder.

“I think Big Macintosh is merely putting our happiness in seeing you alive in the lightest terms,” Rarity said, standing behind her. Her normally pristine mane seemed to have lost its shimmer, though whether that was due to the climate or stress, Applejack did not know. “And now it seems we can save Pinkie, too... oh, this is such a grand turn of events.”

“Ma’am.” They turned to see a guard standing in the castle doorway nearby, a stone’s throw away from the tree that they sat under. Behind him stood Rainbow Dash and Fluttershy... and the glowing orb that held the unconscious form of Pinkie Pie within. “The Princess would like the one known as Rarity to take care of the patient.”

Rarity exchanged a confused look with Applejack. “But... why?” she asked.

“It is because we have a solution that has finally presented itself, Rarity.” Princess Celestia appeared from the doorway, alongside Twilight Sparkle and their bipedal guests. Twilight’s horn glowed with energy as she slowly drifted Princess Luna’s stasis orb behind her. “I am giving the Elements of Harmony a clear task: take Pinkie Pie and my sister with these humans, as I am told they are called, so that they may receive medical treatment. Treatment,” she enunciated, “that will save their lives.”

Applejack knew what was expected. They would take them down to the base, or Camp Greenwood as she had learned over listening in on the conversation between Wesley and Hampton in the crawler. Yes, this was their best chance, and perhaps their only one. They hardly had any room for other options.

“Of course, Princess,” Rarity said, bowing before taking Pinkie’s bubble from the unicorn guard that held it. “We will... all be going?”

“Indeed,” Celestia said. “This will also be a mission of peace. We wish to establish good relations with these humans, so that we can build a better future together. To help them reclaim our world from the blight that now stains it.” Her words held a great undertone of hope, much greater than any decree or public statement to her subjects to hold on, every single day. That voice seemed to instill an unshaken confidence in those around her, as the guards within earshot suddenly perked up, sharing in their ruler’s unspoken happiness.

“I promise that we will do everything within our power to save them,” Wesley said. “Our medical facilities are top-notch, and I’m sure my staff will be eager to tackle this problem head-on.” Applejack noticed Viers walk closer to Wesley, as the doctor slightly inclined his shoulder backwards in some unheard conversation, which the others did not seem to notice.

All, except Celestia. “Is there something wrong, doctor?” she asked, tilting her head in curiosity.

“It seems that the situation has changed,” Wesley said. “Our commander has issued a contingent-wide notice concerning our defense plans... and he wishes to establish a primary line of defense here, within the city of Canterlot. It is the primary settlement for your kind, is it not?”

“It is... and it is the only one. What is happening, doctor? Will there be an attack soon?”

“Judging by the information that I’m receiving, it would seem that our mortal enemies have finally taken notice of your world, and have dispatched a sizeable force to reclaim it. They are called the Scrin... and they are an alien race who thrive entirely on the crystal that now covers your world. And given the projections, we are unfortunately outnumbered ten-to-one, at least until our reinforcements arrive within the next week or two.”

“You say you are outnumbered, but are they dangerous? Can your weapons not stand up against them?” The tension in the doorway and garden was evident... that there was something else on an equal or even greater standing than the humans that visited them now. That was terrifying, to encounter not one, but two new alien races, that could easily wipe them off the map at any time, if they so chose to.

“Your Highness, everything revolving around the Scrin always involves the use of Tiber—sorry, I mean the green crystal. Their weaponry, their technology, even their very way of life requires the use of the crystal to survive. That is why they ‘seeded’ your world, so to speak. They need to be able to harvest massive amounts of it at any given time, and what better way to do that than to cover an entire world with it?”

“So we’re... they’re not even after us...” Twilight said. “They’re just coming here... for the crystal?”

“Correct. And it is our hopes, with your permission, of course, that we can establish a primary line of defense both here in Canterlot, and down in the valley. We intend to build large weapons that can fire into the sky, and hopefully destroy the invaders before they ever have a chance to break through the clouds.”

It was a tall order, of course, as Scrin drone carriers were designed to break apart upon destruction, cascading into a storm of smaller drone platforms that would find their places on the ground. It was about one of the few things that the Scrin utilized that the ISDI could not hard counter, so the best hope was to simply destroy as many as possible as they fell from the skies. Placing gun emplacements near settlements decreased the likelihood of a substantial ground force nearby.

“I... give you permission,” Celestia said, after a moment of palpable silence. “We ourselves clearly do not have the means to deter invaders, so it is to your group that we must place our trust in.”

“And your trust will not be misplaced,” Wesley said, turning to Viers. “Lieutenant, we have the green light.”

“Affirmative. Dagger to Alexandra,” he said aloud. “We have confirmation on defense line at the city. Dropzone on Yankee, clear ground outside the city, confirm coordinates.” There was the chirp of static and a low murmur from Viers’ suit before he continued. “”Roger, command, MCV inbound. Dagger, over and out.”

“I imagine the commander will want this area completely locked down before the Scrin arrive,” Wesley said. “Come now, Miss Sparkle, and friends. Our transportation is awaiting us at the city gates. I imagine we’ll have quite the scene when we arrive there.”

“I’d assume so,” Viers interjected. “The commander’s waiting for a window when the ion storms weaken before podding in the reinforcements. He’s going the whole nine yards for this place: walls, railguns, artillery, and even a Firestorm defense system.”

“I wonder how well that’ll work. The Firestorm system isn’t meant to be utilized in heavy urban environments.” He walked towards the gates as the Elements bid a farewell to Princess Celestia, quickly catching up to the pair of exiting humans. “At least, I’m not sure. I haven’t seen the outskirts of this place, so it might be possible to set up guns within the city itself.”

“Maybe medical facilities?” Twilight asked.

“For sure. But the city is already tight on space as it is. In due time, we’ll be able to treat everyone here.”

“You hear that, Pinkie?” Dash said to the sleeping party pony. “We’re going to save you! And we’re all going to visit the aliens! This is awesome.”

“At least it looks like our guests are happy about this,” Viers said. There would be much more work to come in the days ahead, and with the advent of the Scrin now, his desire for more action would be thoroughly sated...

Ponies quickly gathered in the streets as the group passed through the city, whispering many things among themselves about the humans and Princess Luna. Even more gathered at the open city gates as the great open cargo bays of the deployed Mobius sat open and idle, as the multitude of soldiers and walkers meandered around beyond the frame of the massive offense crawler.

A pair of young colts watched in wonder, galloping down the streets alongside the procession of pony and human that they struggled to keep up with in an attempt to get above the crowd and obtain a good view. Wesley was amused to see that even the pony youth behaved very much like children did. Well, that was probably because they were children, after all, but the behavioral similarities were still striking.

Yankee was still waiting on standby at the gates when they arrived, Yankee Two doing the signature one-armed push-ups that zone troopers had become fond of. Yankee Lead clumsily held his chaingun with his left hand, his right thumping against his ammo belt before he managed to effect a proper salute. “Sir! I heard we’ve got some big stuff flying in right about...”

There was a crack in the sky, as several objects quickly descended towards them. They slammed into the ground with a metallic thud, before the engines located on the corners roared into life, shooting the drop pods back into the sky and into orbit where they could be retrieved by the Methuselah. Gasps from the pony crowd came suddenly, as their eyes were fixated upon the orbital delivery device that shot back into the heavens themselves.

“There’s the MCV now,” Yankee Lead finished. “Looks like the commander spared us the expense of staying and gave it a guard detail of its own.” Groups of zone troopers marched around it as it deployed to the wonderment of the ponies within the city, the telltale yellow hard hats of the ISDI Engineer Corps quickly darting around as the framework for what Wesley recognized as an artillery gun began to be set up at the cliff edge.

Hello, boys, we don’t have all day now, you know?” Hampton’s voice echoed from Mobius’ outside speakers. “Get your guests inside and let’s hightail it back down to Greenwood! And hi, to all of you ponies over there! Uh, doc, this thing does translate, right?

Wesley’s suit shoulders heaved, in what could barely be described as a shrug. “I don’t know. I installed it, so I would assume that it works somehow.”

Great!” The wide-eyed looks of ponies in the city made her laugh. “Oh, don’t worry, I’m not a talking metal box! I’m just the person inside the metal box... I drive this thing. Well, drive, if you can call it that, but I also—

“What was that about wasting time, hmm?” Wesley called, ushering the Elements and their precious cargo into the Mobius. “Don’t we have somewhere to go? I—hey, careful with how you’re walking around with that thing, Miss Sparkle,” he said, as Luna’s bubble bumped into his shoulder.

“Sorry, sorry!” she said. “I’ll try to keep it away from other objects.”

“Good. Okay, then!” Wesley stepped inside, and tapped on the wall for Hampton to close the bay doors... only for nothing to happen. “Hampton? Commander Hampton! Move, please?”

I know, I know! Oh, look at them, there’s so many of them! Aww, they’re so cute! Even the guard ones, looking all strong and gruff and all that stuff!” She giggled. “Alright, Yankee, and the rest of you boys, get the hell in formation, because we’re double-timing it back down that hill!” The bay doors closed, and the legs of the crawler deployed themselves as it began to tower over the soldiers now gathering around it.

“So, Lieutenant, what’s the situation on the Scrin?” Wesley asked, opening the canopy on his suit. Dash had to suppress a giggle as she saw that his head seemed absolutely tiny compared to the actual suit, which Wesley responded to with a smile before looking at Viers.

“Hard to say, doc. He’s not released any information on the Scrin yet, but he has released the fact that he’s gone from T1 authorization to T4EX, which means we just went from peashooters to WMDs with a single escalation order from the man up top himself. Oh, and on top of our reinforcements from ZOCOM, the ITC Hammerfest has checked out of Osiris Naval Base and is on its way here. Piece two and two together.”

Applejack merely listened in on the conversation with interest, letting Dash check out all the cool glowing parts of her suit with the random tapping of her hoof as her friends continued to hold conversation around her.

“That bad, huh?” Wesley said. “Hammerfest is all Steel Talons, though... and Alexandra’s original famous—or infamous, depending on how you look at it—command ship. My guess is that it’s probably a substantial force heading our way. Are we even prepared to fight them off so early?”

“I don’t know, doc. We have the advantage on the frontlines due to knowledge of the worlds we were fighting on, but this place is almost completely dark. We don’t have any strategic information about this place aside from the region that we’re in. At least on the colonies, we had fortresses and guns all over the world to fight them off, but here it’s going to be like stemming the high tide with a wall of sandbags.”

“Can’t we stop proliferation somehow? They could land anywhere on this world, and we’ll be...” Wesley trailed off, until a pair of magenta eyes blocked Applejack’s view.

“Psst. Hey. Applejack.” Dash prodded her in the faceplate with a tap of her hoof. “What are they talking about?”

“Yes, what are they talking about?” Twilight said, smiling. “I can barely hear from here.” She moved closer to Applejack’s helmet in an attempt to pick up on what she was hearing.

“I don’t know, Twi...” Applejack said. “But I don’t think it’s anythin’ good. I think those Scrin things are pretty bad. The doctor seems to be spooked.” The final word caused her memories to drift back to Pinkie Pie: giggle at the ghosties! The only problem was that these weren’t actually ghosties... they were aliens who most likely wanted them not-alive...

“Oh... well... can we help? Somehow?” Fluttershy whispered. “I feel really bad that they’re so willing to help us out and there’s nothing we can do for them. And they helped you, too...”

“Sugarcube, at this point, I think we’d be doin’ the doctor a favor if we all just try to stay alive right now,” Applejack said. “He’s a good... er, pony, I guess. He found me, and saved me, and he doesn’t even want any thanks for it. Even if we can’t trust the rest of ‘em, we can at least trust him. I owe him that much.”

“Well, what happens when those other aliens show up out of the sky? Will it be like those grand pegasi battles of old that I read about in flight school?” Dash asked. “Like, massive battles in the air for control of the realm and all that stuff? Drama? Action? Betrayal?”

“I didn’t realize you were just a history buff, Dash,” Twilight said jokingly.

Dash shrugged, looking away with a bored expression. “Eh, it was back in flight school. I thought it was some pretty cool stuff, so that’s why I remembered it, that’s all. Seriously, with those guys wearing those suits, I wouldn’t be surprised if it isn’t as half as awesome as I think it’s going to be.”

“I would hope that such displays will not tarnish our home, as ironic as that may sound despite its current condition, though I believe I may have jinxed us just by saying that,” Rarity said, maintaining her flow of magic as Pinkie’s bubble floated behind her. “We already have enough trouble as it is, and there’s no need for us to have more.”

“Oh, do you know how their medical treatments work?” Twilight asked Applejack. “Maybe if we can get a glimpse into how it works, we can replicate it ourselves with our own results!”

“I wasn’t awake durin’ that, Twi. I was out cold the whole time ‘til I woke up in a bed with the doctor there beside me. It was a hard road, but earth ponies are tough,” she said, holding her head high with pride. “He said it was amazin’ how I managed to heal right up after only a couple of days.”

“Well, earth ponies are known for having a more hardy constitution than the other pony types,” Twilight said. “You said he was surprised by it? Humans must have a different experience recovering from medical operations... I know that unicorns and even pegasi can still get back to their hooves pretty quickly after an accident. Like that time Rainbow Dash broke her wing.”

“Yeah,” Dash said. “Though that was totally an accident. Fluttershy can totally vouch for me, because I know I told her that—huh, where’d she go?”

They all turned eyes to see Fluttershy approaching Wesley, albeit with small steps and a slight quivering of her body. Viers merely paused his conversation, beckoning Wesley to take up the conversation instead as he walked up the metal steps leading to Hampton’s control room. Wesley turned around, smiling as Fluttershy approached.

“Is there something I can help you with?” he asked. The statement came in two parts, one an echo of the other, as he spoke normally and then let his suit translate for him. “Well, at least, I hope you can understand most of what I’m saying...”

“Oh, um... I can understand you just fine...” Fluttershy said. “I just wanted to ask you if there’s anything we can do for you... that is, um, if we can. And, um, if that doesn’t bother you.”

Wesley gave a heartwarming chuckle. “Well, I don’t think there’s anything much you can do for us, really. Well, there is one, and I completely forgot about that: I was supposed to talk to your princess about finding a good spot of land to build housing for you ponies.”

“I think we can arrange for something...” Fluttershy said. “The sanctum is really cramped, and lots of healthy ponies have problems with things like food and space. And there’s also a lot of ponies that have problems with the crystal... and I’d like it if you could treat them as soon as possible.”

“Yes, the ones in the city, right? I could see signs of it on their bodies... legs, body, and head. Some of them might even be considered advanced stage growth... though nothing can compare to the princess that we’re bringing down to our camp right now,” he said, a grimace on his face as he observed Princess Luna. The crystal growth was prevalent enough to give the bubble that it was contained in a dull green glow.

“Princess Luna has been that way for a long time now...” She looked sadly at the Princess, who still wore her royal regalia, crown and all; they hadn’t enough time to remove it from her body before Celestia had put her into stasis.

“Well, I can say for sure that I’ve seen worse cases. If the constitution of your bodies is anywhere near what I’m assuming it is, this operation will proceed along swimmingly, as will the recovery. Now—” An explosion rocked the crawler. “What the hell is going on out there, Lieutenant?!”

“It’s those things again, doc! Sprung right up as soon as we reached the bottom of the mountain!” Viers shouted back from above. “Oh, damnit, not again. Just what reasons in the name of freaking hell’s bells does evolution produce a giant fucking bear of all things?!”

Two loud booms shook the hull as the crawler’s primary twin-barrel cannons returned fire. The comms exploded into chatter as the telltale whirs and discharges of Titan beams could be easily heard outside, and Wesley turned to see if any of the ponies had been hurt or disoriented. They were not.

“Sounds like somethin’ fierce goin’ on outside, doctor,” Applejack said.

“Something like this is going to be par for the course for the next several months...” Wesley admitted. “I doubt we’ll be getting much sleep in the days to come. Lots of things to be done and all that.”

“You know, I would have thought that extra-Equestrian contact would be... I don’t know...” Twilight said. “More... exciting? Lots of fanfare and all that stuff? The way you speak, doctor, it just seems like another day to you.”

“With all due respect, Miss Sparkle, this is just another day for me. I’m a doctor. I save lives. And that’s what I’m going to do. Not much else to it.”

What the hell are those things?!” came clear from Hampton’s seat, before a series of explosions rocked the hull yet again. “Floaters?! Are those floaters?!

No way, they’re too small to be floaters! Get the chainguns up front and mow ‘em down! Damned things are too fast to hit with our cannons!

“You should see this, doc...” Viers sent a live feed to Wesley’s display. The screen shimmered to life as it projected out of his suit, a hazy view of the battle that went on outside the crawler. Fluttershy moved forward in an attempt to see what was going on, only to meekly gasp when she saw what exactly it was that they were firing at.

“Um... I assume... you know what that... those things are...?” Wesley asked slowly.

Twilight trotted forth, her face scrunching in concentration as she gazed at the screen, only for it to spread into full shock as she looked at the now-cowering Fluttershy, realizing full well what the enemies were. She stepped back, her mouth opening a few times in an attempt to say something.

“Those... those are parasprites,” she said. “But that’s...” She watched as a pair of the sprites flew straight into a trooper, exploding in bright flash and green smoke but thankfully dealing little in the way of actual damage, as the trooper quickly recovered and returned his firing. “They’ve been...”

“Mutated,” Wesley said. “Indigenous wildlife always seem to have a better chance of mutating instead of dying off, plants included. We might have to cut down the entire forest on the other side of the valley, too... even at a distance, we can tell that they’ve been spreading the crystal.”

“The trees?” Twilight asked, shocked. “The trees are causing the spread of the crystal?”

“Normally used as an early-stage spread system, of sorts,” Wesley said. “It seems that an entire forest as dense as this one in particular has served all too well. Which way did the initial incursion come from?” The opposition began to flee back into the woods or towards the holes strewn about in the erratic landscape, leading down to places he couldn’t even begin to imagine.

“Up north, near the city of Stalliongrad. It was among one of the first cities we lost to the crystal, so I’m sure you might find important things there. The entire north was overtaken pretty quickly.” Dash floated past her with a bored expression on her face, and went up the angled stairs, seemingly enormous compared to her diminutive body, while Rarity was busy controlling Twilight’s own flow of magic to make sure she didn’t cancel it by mistake.

“Ground zero is usually where we launch our first efforts in reclamation. Strange, though, to see growth rates this fast. It must have compounded somehow, or perhaps had external aid.” Twilight’s head slowly moved as she continued listening to him, but was surprised to see him step into some machine that disassembled his suit with almost no difficulty at all. “Sorry about that. Suit can get a bit cumbersome, if you get what I mean,” he said, stepping out in his normal form, PDA underneath his arm.

“You’re so small! And those suits are so... big, compared to you...” she managed.

“Necessary, of course,” he said, shrugging. “With all the systems needed to keep it in working condition in such rough-housing situations like battle, bulk is an unfortunate by-product of design. Commander, what’s the situation up there?”

We routed them, doc. But they knew just where to spring up, just as we hit the bottom of the mountain. Real strange stuff, and it looks like they still got some more tricks up their sleeve, too. I gave that giant bear a couple of dead-on shots to the side before it ran away.

“We’re coming into Greenwood now, doc,” Viers said, descending the stairs as they could hear Hampton bickering at Dash upstairs to avoid pushing any buttons, no matter how shiny they looked. “Right, so about that... should probably make a note to keep them away from sensitive equipment.”

Wesley gave an awkward smile and Dash returned with a frown, preferring to converse with Rarity instead of putting up with Hampton’s newfound list of rules pertaining to equipment etiquette. “Sheesh, I just wanted to see what they did...”

“You know you shouldn’t be doing that, Dash,” Rarity said. “Can you imagine just how angry I would be if you went around messing with all of my dresses? Ah, perish the thought, it’s already making me queasy. These are poni—er, people with very important jobs. You shouldn’t tamper with their tools.”

The sound of hydraulics wheezing and a shock that threw Twilight off her feet signaled the crawler coming to a complete stop. “End of the line, doc,” Hampton said. “The boys are still outside cleaning up the rest of the things. We’re going to need to send a recon team into those tunnels soon. They’re just loaded with the things, and we need to clean some serious house.

Metal groaned and the bay doors opened, revealing the engineering bay that Wesley, Viers, and Applejack had embarked Mobius from. In place of the empty bay with a small number of engineers, however, stood a number of medical staff in full dress, standing with two gurneys.

“We won’t need the gurneys,” Wesley said. “Twilight, if you could please follow the staff and relocate your friends to the operating room. I’ll be joining you all shortly, as soon as I get myself into proper dress. The rest of you—that includes my current staff, not just the new ones—stop gawking and get your asses moving, ASAP! What’s the matter with you all? Haven’t any of you even seen a group of ponies before?”

Chapter 8: Reveal

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“Yes, I mean all of it. Cover every free space of Camp Greenwood in pavement. If these assholes can dig, then I’d rather not wait for another security breach to do something about it,” Alexandra said, watching on his feed as engineers hopped around the base with pack of concrete mix on their backs.

It’ll be done in no time flat, sir, I guarantee it,” the con-yard manager responded. “Anything else on the list today?

“There’s a shipment of aid coming in for the locals. Mostly basic amenities and food. Notify Commander Hampton once it hits the ground; she’s in charge of delivering the stuff.”

Will do, sir. Over and out.” The screen disappeared and was replaced with a global hologram of the world, a small ISDI insignia surrounded with a barely-noticeable green sphere denoting their foothold in the region.

“EVA, status on weather.”

Ion storms are steadily decreasing. Given steady rate of clean-up procedures, storm levels will soon be manageable within our aircrafts’ storm shielding parameters.” The upgrades for ion shielding during past conflicts meant that hovercraft would still be operable during the worst of storms, but aircraft had to fly through the thick of the clouds where the interference was greatest. The level still stood at the point where only the already heavily-shielded Orca transports could operate in the current conditions.

“Great. Notify the pilots that they might be seeing some air time soon. I want them all ready to launch on a moment’s notice within the next half-day, and make sure their Firehawks’ stratofighter boosters and AI cores are refitted with the appropriate storm shielding.”

Yes, commander. Warning: the current generation of SF-23 Condor fighters are currently not slated for Red Zone shielding upgrades. Deployment of these fighters in Red Zones may result in unpredictable outcomes.” As far as things went, the “Condor” was the official model name for the new aircraft series, but the soldiers stuck to the old name due to its similar fixed-wing design and functionality. Besides, “Firehawk” sounded much more intimidating than the “Condor”, and it was hard to argue with that logic.

“Order the engineers to accommodate as best as they can. We may not have the opportunity to wait for fairer weather before they need to be called in as support. On a similar note, what is the current status of the Methuselah’s Havoc gunships?”

The SA-7 Havoc gunships are currently at full battle-time readiness. They are ready to deploy planetside when given the order.” As expected of the pilots, they always stood ready to deal out pain at the drop of a dime. The SA-7 was the latest and greatest iteration of the Orca assault craft, now given its newest nickname after the legendary GDI commando, the late Nick Parker, for the amount of armor and firepower it now carried that allowed it to pull off feats of combat that could do the namesake’s reputation justice.

“Hello...? Is this the command center?” said a voice behind him. He rotated the chair around to see Masterson basking in the routines of the command center. “Wow, man, totally awesome! I should really check out this ship sometime...”

“Henry. What brings you up here?”

“Oh, you know, just thought I’d take a walk. Enjoy the scenery. Maybe get something to eat that isn’t pre-processed. And inform you that our EVA unit is ready for planetside delivery.” He held up his hand. “I know what you’re thinking, and I would like to assure you right now: I have cleaned out all my junk. So don’t worry,” he said reassuringly, “no one’s going to trip over anything or lose a hand or anything like that.”

“So I would hope. I hope you have that GD-10 stowed away.” Alexandra stood up and stretched his muscles; though the command chairs were certainly built for comfort, long hours sitting there doing nothing but what superficially seemed to be pushing buttons and talking made the body ache after a while. It was one of the reasons why commanders had stricter physical regimen compared to their subordinates.

“Don’t worry, it’s stored on the gun rack over my fireplace. And by that, I mean inside the standard-issue triple-threat codelocker that all InOps personnel are assigned to have.” Alexandra rolled his eyes. “Oh, you get what I mean! It’s antiquated hardware, Marty, no need to worry about it. I don’t even think it could dent a power suit anymore.”

“Sure,” Alexandra said. “So where did everything else in that room go?”

“Oh, that stuff? I just put them in the surplus cargo containers and hauled them down to Storage. Did you know that we happen to have three whole containers down there full of Mars Royter whiskey? That’s some potent stuff, you know; I wonder who brought it on-board. Hmm, wasn’t that stuff against regulations? I thought it was—”

“Stay focused, Henry,” Alexandra interrupted.

“Right, right. So, the core’s all locked down snug and tight, and the catapult systems are ready to disengage and launch that baby like a hot potato through space. All that’s left now is to make sure we have a proper landing site and hope we don’t end up crushing someone with the landing.”

Alexandra shot Masterson a skeptical look. “A catapult system? No, Henry, I thought we went over this already. We’re not going to fire billions’ worth of sensitive AI equipment out of an airlock like it was a pod and—you know what? Who the hell even installed this thing for you?”

“Idris did. I pitched the ideas to the board and they thought it could work. Imagine if we could just deploy the EVA cores planetside without any risk of intermediary transports being shot down! You remember Rostram VI, right? Core got shot down, and the entire landing force flew in blind before they could wire in a replacement. We could avoid that whole situation if this works out!”

“Answer’s no, Henry.” Alexandra rubbed the bridge of his nose. “You know how I don’t like it when you keep quiet on these things. And you definitely know how I don’t like it when you’re trying new things that could potentially put our entire operation—and my men—at risk.” The Methuselah had been undergoing upgrades and repairs when he received command of the craft: now he knew why.

Masterson paused for a moment, stuck in a limbo on a retort or an expanded explanation, before finally deciding on a simple sigh. “Yeah, I guess you’re right. We’ll find some other avenue to test it, I guess. Maybe some hot drops on Mars to refine the shock absorbers or crash cages. In any case, just let the transports know that it’s ready to be disengaged. Just remind them to align themselves properly to the hull, or we won’t be able to hook it back up to the Methuselah if they damage the hooks.”

“You’re being surprisingly sane as of late,” Alexandra said.

He nodded. “Yeah, lack of caffeine sobers me up pretty well. Redding’s on his way here?”

“If he makes good on his course, he’ll warp in before the Scrin show up. The Hammerfest is on it’s way here, too. Along with all the bells and whistles we’re going to need to stop an attack from a dangerous cult.” Alexandra walked over to the holographic globe in the center of the room.

“So it seems...” he said, slowly nodding again. “Well, I’m looking forward to being down there instead of up here when defecation hits the oscillation. Preferably under shields and deep inside a bunker, and of that, preferably your command bunker.”

“You’re supposed to be in there, anyways,” Alexandra said amusedly. “Still, though, that’s an insane amount of turf to cover... but I don’t think we’ll have to worry about that. So long as we’re both standing on the same ground, the Scrin know that they’ll never see the end of our attacks. They’ll try to eliminate us as quickly as possible, and that knowledge is going to work in our favor.”

“I feel bad for the natives,” Masterson said, watching with interest as the signatures of several Orca dropships departed the Methuselah. “They get us, but they get the Scrin now, too, all in one nice package. So, does this mean that ‘Crazy Ace’ Rowland is coming back to join us, too?”


“Well, the peace and quiet was nice while it lasted...” he said, shrugging. The last time Rowland had managed to gain control of the Hammerfest’s broadcast systems, he played sped-up polka music at full blast for several hours until Masterson locked him out. Though still a flyboy at heart, Rowland was certainly not a slacker when it came to other fields of expertise, and it seemed that most of Alexandra’s chosen battle commanders had some sort of prankster streak to them. Even Michelin, who loved jump scare pranks around the living quarters.

“He does what he does very well,” Alexandra said. “He wouldn’t be the support commander otherwise, and I’m sure his namesake squadron is just itching to tear some Scrin fighters apart.”

“And what a sight that’ll be,” Masterson said. Floating numbers and logistics reports drifted past his vision, and he couldn’t help but notice an impromptu note from Wesley giving a brief explanation of his visit to Canterlot, lodged in one of the many screens slowly rotating around. “Heh. Canterlot. It sounds a lot like Camelot. I hope you plan on paying them a visit soon?”

“Most likely, if not to let them get into contact with an ‘official liaison’, as CENTCOM likes to put it. InOps says it has to be done, otherwise there’s increased apprehension for the natives trying to interact with what seems to be a mostly faceless organization. One that just so happens to have lots of guns.”

“I hope I can tag along, if you don’t mind.”

“You’ll probably be riding down with me anyways, so I don’t see why not. Just make sure you keep to yourself, let me do all the talking, and don’t touch anything,” Alexandra said, giving him a cold look. “You of all people, especially. No souvenirs.”

“I get you, sir,” Masterson said. “No keepsakes.”

“Good,” he said, checking off on his naval contingent. The Methuselah’s escort force only numbered less than a dozen ships, less than a normal attack force would carry, and none carried the firepower required to fend off a large-scale orbital engagement. The Hammerfest and Amaranthine escort forces, however, had the battlecruisers necessary to go toe-to-toe with the planetary assault carriers and motherships of the Scrin arsenal.

“Well, I better get back to Engineering before someone realizes I’ve actually left my room and bugs me about it forever. See you later, Marty. Going to be looking forward to heading planetside!” he called back as he left the command center.

Small groups of people hanging around corners whispering to themselves or standing awkwardly in the halls were the only things surrounding the pony group as they waited outside the operating room. The sound of hums, whirs, and various hisses from the surgical tools inside only intensified their worry for both their friends.

“I... is this okay?” Dash asked. “We’re totally getting weird looks from everyone else around here.”

“Don’t think too much of it,” Rarity said. “I’m sure they’ll get used to it.”

“Oh, I’m so tempted to walk inside and watch the whole operation myself,” Twilight said, despondent over Wesley’s adamant decision to keep her out, citing that such an operation wasn’t really fit for pony eyes, or at the moment, it wasn’t yet. “How bad can it be?”

“Twi, they had to cut off parts of my leg to get rid of the dang crystal,” Applejack said. “With Princess Luna... well, I don’t think it’ll be a pretty sight. Pinkie’s probably fine, though. He’s a bit of a crazy doctor if he’s going to operate on them both in a row, though.”

“If he saved you, AJ, I think he might be able to pull it off,” Dash said. “It’s not like we can do anything otherwise...”

“Um...” Fluttershy said. “I think somepony’s walking towards us...” she said, giving out a meek gasp when the human, which Applejack recognized as her attendant, approached with a tray full of cups. He set down the tray on the coffee table in front of them before tinkering around with the small device he had planted on his belt.

“Huh... does this thing work? I think it’s supposed to work.” He tapped his earphones and checked his microphone. “Uh, Applejack, do you understand me?”

“Can understand you as clear as day, sugarcube. Thanks for bringin’ us some drinks.”

The attendant looked confused for a moment, then tapped the device again. “I didn’t know this thing could translate accents...” A small buzz emanated from the small boxlike device as he toyed around with a few dials. “You’re a cowgirl—cowpony, right?”

“Darn straight! I’m also a farmer. Well, except for the part where I don’t have a farm anymore... but that’s another thing for later. But, yeah, I am. Why?”

He chuckled. “Well, I’m Harold. Harold Terrence. You remember me, right?”

She smiled and nodded. “Yeah, I do. You were that nice feller who helped me out when the doctor wasn’t around. Gave me some of the best water I’ve ever had.” She picked up one of the cups from the tray with her hooves, staring into the clear liquid with a gleeful expression. “And you brought more!” She downed the whole drink in one gulp.

“So... you work here, Harold?” Twilight asked. “Oh, I’m Twilight. Twilight Sparkle, friend of Applejack. These are my friends Rainbow Dash, Fluttershy, and Rarity. And I see you’ve already met Applejack.”

Harold tipped his head towards her. “Nice to meet you, Twilight. The doctor has instructed me to keep you all here. Naturally, there are security concerns, and he doesn’t want you just walking all over the base, and certainly not outside.”

“Yeah...” Dash said. “Outside’s all pretty jacked up right now, isn’t it? I mean, at first, we didn’t believe the reports. We just thought that everything out there just got all swallowed up, and the towns that were still closest to Canterlot were the last to be evacuated. But when those things showed up...” She visibly shuddered. “I mean, I think I’m a pretty tough pony, but I don’t want to look at those things ever again.”

“Those poor creatures...” Fluttershy said, shaking her head. She would have nearly broke out into another round of weeping had Dash not moved to comfort her.

“I know this might not be the best time to point it out,” Rarity said, “but I do believe you look quite charming in that sweater-vest.”

Harold looked down at his wardrobe, then back at Rarity with a sheepish smile. “Uh, thanks, Miss Rarity.”

“Think nothing of it, darling,” she said, waving her mane around as she introduced herself. “I operate—well, used to operate Carousel Boutique, where everything is chic, unique, and magnifique! And right here in quaint Ponyville, or rather, what’s left of it. Now that I think about it, I wonder if the building is even still there.”

“Pony fashion. Interesting,” he said, rubbing the back of his head. “Um. I don’t really work here, per se... I’m just a... well, I’m freelance worker that just so happened to end up in this position through... well, a lot of dumb luck, a lot more talking, and a heck of a lot more paperwork. So now I’m working as a civilian contractor alongside a military force as a medical aide and-or secretary. Take that how you will.”

“So you help around?” Twilight asked. “That doesn’t seem so bad.” She frowned when she looked around her seat. “Though I just realized that I forgot to bring my note-taking materials. There’s just so much to document here!”

“I can grab a pen and some paper, if that’s what you need.” He jabbed a thumb at the receptionist’s desk just across the way from them. “Right over there.”

“Sure! Please and thank you!” Twilight said, as Harold walked over to the desk, talking with the receptionist and receiving the stationery, and sharing a laugh with the woman as he returned to them. “Oh, thank you!” She floated the materials out of Harold’s grasp and towards herself with magic, only to find herself grumbling when the pen couldn’t write anything.

“Um...” Harold smiled awkwardly and reached over, clicking the back end of the pen and making Twilight turn red.

“I... I knew that,” she said, and immediately went to work. Within minutes, Harold could see accurate sketches of the waiting area that they were in, and off in the margin, what he assumed to be a sketch of a human face. Or rather, his face, given how Twilight stared at him intensely for several seconds repeatedly before quickly scratching in the details.

“Nice sketch,” he commented. “Better than I can draw myself, actually.”

“Lots of practice,” she said, smiling. “Oh, I bet there’s going to be lots of stuff to study! You know, I have a question: do your suits run on magic?”

“Uh... magic? Why do you think so?” he asked. “I mean, I’m no egghead—” Dash let out a snicker as Fluttershy fell asleep on her lap. “—but you’ll have to ask the engineers if you want to know the real deal on those things. To answer your question, though: no, they don’t.”

“Oh, it just seemed like...” Twilight said, pausing for a moment to choose her words. “You humans seem... small, compared to those suits. I was just wondering if you’re all super-strong or something like that. I can hardly imagine wearing all that metal on myself. I’m not even sure if even our strongest earth ponies can wear all that.”

“Earth ponies?” Harold asked.

“That would be ponies like me, sugarcube,” Applejack said. “No horn, no wings, just one hundred percent pony. And proud of it.”

“Ah,” he said, nodding. “And then there’s unicorns and pegasuses... pegasi?”

“Last one’s correct,” Dash confirmed.

“Am I missing anything else?”

“Nope!” Twilight said, finishing an extended sketch of the translation device on Harold’s belt. “So why do you humans wear clothes?”

“Uh... we don’t have fur like you do. And when it gets cold, we really don’t have much in the way of protection against that if we’re nude. And then there’s the whole thing that humans have about being naked. We don’t really like to be naked, except when we’re cleaning ourselves, or... you know what? I’m just going to stop there before I end up causing an incident. Yes, we wear clothes most of the time.”

“Hmm, yes,” Rarity said. “I’d imagine that you would look quite dapper in a suit, darling. Perhaps when this whole business is over, we’ll be able to celebrate.”

“And Pinkie will throw us the best darn party she’s ever thrown the history of parties,” Applejack said. “She and the Princess will come out of this just fine. I know they will.”

“How long have they been in there so far?” Harold asked.

“Weren’t you here the whole time?” Applejack asked. “You’re here all the time, aren’t you?”

“Well, yes and no. I was busy filing the doctor’s study notes and restocking the coffee machine in his office before I came down here, where I found the note that he left for me, and then I brought you all some water, and... well, yeah,” he said, shrugging.

Heads began to turn when another round of shaking rumbled the building. “Uh, what is that?” Fluttershy said. “A-are we being attacked again?”

“No, that’s just our construction crews expanding the base. We’re trying to lay down some extra groundwork so we can move all of our forces planetside instead of leaving them all cooped up in orbit.”

“Orbit?” Twilight asked. “You mean you have ships in the sky?”

“That’s how we got here, yeah. You’re quite the studious type, Twilight.”

“She’s an egghead,” Dash said matter-of-factly as they both watched her attention jump all around as she struggled to document everything.

“And... there, that’s the lights...” Twilight said to herself, staring up at the ceiling as the pen continued to float, darting across the also-floating paper. “And those strange wires...” she muttered, the pen moving on its own accord as her gaze remained affixed to the ceiling.

“That’s, uh... how is she doing that? The whole floating thing?”

“Magic, duh,” Dash said.

“Right...” Harold said hesitantly, watching the purple glow around the objects. “Magic... yeah, we don’t really have magic where we come from. That’s why we have these things,” he said, waving the appendages attached to the ends of his arms. “Hands.”

“I remember talkin’ to you ‘bout those things,” Applejack said. “Pretty nifty, if I do say so myself. It’s like you humans got your own version of magic, ‘cept it’s mostly all stuff made of metal and it’s all these other weird fancy gadgets like what the doctor’s using for his operation.”

“Ooh, I’d like to take a look at that medical equipment when I can get the chance,” Twilight said. “Maybe I can even get to use it!”

“Uh, they sort of use them to do things like... cut, and various unsavory stuff like that,” Harold said. “You’ll have to ask Wesley about that, but I’m pretty sure he doesn’t like it when people—or ponies—play around with medical equipment, of all things. I hope you understand.”

“You raise a good point. Maybe I should start learning human speech! Do you have any works on basic human speech and language?”

“Um... I can try to pull something up for you, but it’ll take a while.” Harold pulled out his own PDA and began flipping through it. “Yeah, it’s just... we’re an expeditionary force, mostly fitted to combat Tiberium growth, not really so much as a ‘first contact’ sort of thing. Hold on a moment.”

“Looking for something, son?” came a voice from behind him. Harold turned around to see the form of Lieutenant Viers peering over his shoulder. “I’m sure she’ll have a heck of a time learning all the human languages.” Twilight looked quizzically at Viers, unsure of what he was saying in untranslated speech.

“I’m sure she will, sir,” Harold responded. “Just pulling up the information now, but that’s kind of a problem. It’s all text, and we don’t have any samples of their written language.”

“Oh, I can help with that!” Twilight drifted over a blank piece of paper and wrote down a number of symbols on it, and then drifted it over in front of him. “Here you go! The Equestrian alphabet, from A to Z! We can work on basic speech conventions later!”

“A to Z...?” Harold muttered, looking at the twenty-six ‘letters’ floating in front of him. “Twenty-six letters?”

“Yes! Is that odd?”

“Well, our standardized language also has twenty-six letters. Huh. I guess there might be the possibility that our languages are pretty similar.” He took the paper, folded it, and stored it in his pocket. “I’m sure the linguistics department back home would be interested in this.”

“Twenty-six letters! How coincidental,” Twilight said. “I wonder if our speech works the same, too!”

“If it does, then it might explain why the translator managed to adapt to pony speech so fast,” Harold said. “If your assumption is true, then what ponies speak is just essentially English, structurally, with different phonetics. That’s... weird, and pretty coincidental,” Harold agreed.

“So we have more in common with talking colorful ponies than an insectoid race,” Viers said. “I recall those days, reading the news on that. Took them freaking forever to translate bug-talk.”

“Proper term is ‘Ecredian’, Lieutenant,” Harold corrected. “And you’re right. It was a total nightmare to translate, last I recalled. Well, both sides worked towards translation, but it’s kind of hard to properly document a language that chitters with huge variations in tone creating entirely different meanings. I mean, you ponies can understand sarcasm, right?”

“Sarcasm? Yeah, we totally don’t understand that,” Dash replied, rolling her eyes. “That good enough for you?”

“And there you have it. Less trouble for us this time around, it seems. I’m sure the commander is going to be happy about that,” Harold said to Viers. “Oh, Twilight, just a question. Are words spelled the same way?”

“Hmm? Well, let’s use the word... ‘word’, for instance. That would be w-o-r-d. Or...” She wrote on her notes and displayed the word to him in Equestrian. “Like that! Word!”

“That’s freaky,” Viers said. “That ‘w’ even looks like an English ‘w’. Sort of. If it were all curly and crap, but you get what I mean.”

Suddenly, the PA system squealed to life. “Attention, all personnel. This is Commander Alexandra speaking. As some of you may already know, we’ve made contact with sapient lifeforms on this planet. Following protocol, we will be assisting them as best as possible, and thanks to the initiative of Doctor Wesley of InOps, we have a working translation program that can be used to facilitate communication with these natives.

“Huh. Guess we’re finally going full-blown on the relief efforts now,” Viers said.

However,” Alexandra continued. “I would like to make myself clear right now: if I catch anyone harassing the natives or otherwise causing—keyword being ‘cause’ here—a disturbance with them on any level, I will personally track you down myself, break both of your legs, and toss you in front of the brass at CENTCOM to explain yourself. They’re serious about this, and so am I. Have a nice day.” The PA system clicked off.

“Uh... was he joking?” Harold asked.

“He’s Alexandra. Hard-ass, takes no shit. His Steel Talons love him, the brass tolerate him, the regulars are awe-struck by him,” Viers said. “People will follow what he says. If they don’t, well... as a commando, I can appreciate the Steel Talons’ aptitude for combat. Some part of me thinks he’ll deliver if push comes to shove.”

“What was that about?” Dash asked. “That sounded pretty important. I mean, seeing as how all those guys over there at that corner just went all quiet and stuff.”

“Nothing to worry about,” Harold said. “Just our commander... kindly reiterating what happens if we happen to end up hurting a pony while we’re here. Though I don’t think that will be much of a problem.”

“Not with me around,” Viers said, raising a curious eyebrow at the staring Dash, who immediately turned her head away when they met eye contact. “What’s her problem?”

“Hmm?” Harold exchanged glances with both of them. “What’s up, Rainbow Dash?”

“Nothing. But he looks totally ripped. Kind of reminds me of my friend Gilda...” Her face looked forlorn. “I hope she’s okay. She was always real tough, wouldn’t let anything get her down. And I won’t let anything get me down, either!” she said, raising her own spirits. “I’m sure she’s okay.”

The red light above the ER doors shut off and a whole flurry of medical personnel broke out of the double doors, carrying a heavily-bandaged Princess Luna and Pinkie Pie off towards a ward down the hallway on their left. Wesley walked out, pulling off his surgical mask and shutting off the electronic adjutant system hanging off the side of his medical helmet.

“Well, that wasn’t too bad,” he said, taking in a deep breath of air, free from the confines of the mask’s musky filtration systems. He thankfully took his PDA from Harold’s ownership and activated the program, anticipating the inevitable questions from the ponies.

“How are they?” Twilight asked. “They’re fine, right?”

“Relax, Twilight, they’re just fine,” he said, pulling off his latex gloves. “Your pink friend was a minor case, since it was just a little under what Applejack had. Princess Luna, on the other hand...” He whistled. “Advanced stage. I’d say that her containment either was lucky or skillful, because if it had advanced a little bit further... well, I’m not entirely sure how organ donation works here in Equestria. Or whether or not some super-pony like herself even has a chance at organ donation.”

“But you managed to save her?”

“That we did. She’s without quite a number of things, though. Her crown and jewelry, or whatever the equivalent of what her sister was wearing is currently undergoing decontamination, but they should be readily usable afterwards. Herself, though...” Wesley shook his head. “Well, we did some serious operation on the wings. Manes and tails grow back, right?”

Twilight nodded. “They do, given enough time. The Princesses’ are different since they’re magically infused, but they should grow back all the same.”

“What about wings?”

Silence permeated the group for a moment, until Dash spoke up. “Did you... have to cut off her wings?”

“Sort of,” Wesley said, sitting down in the empty seat next to Harold. “I see you’ve kept them company, Harold,” he said, exchanging a nod with his assistant-attendant before continuing. “Luna’s wings were almost completely engulfed, and we had to apply some pretty extreme measures to remove it.”

“Uh... how bad was it?”

“Cutting it close kind of bad,” Wesley said. “You see, um... how should I put this... we have these really high-powered lasers—beams of pure energy, extremely focused for the nature of precise medical procedures—that we had to use to cut off the worst of it. She... doesn’t really have much in the way of feathers anymore, if you could even still call them that by this point.”

“So... you only cut off her feathers?”

“And some... parts of her wings,” Wesley said awkwardly. “Not all of it, but the tips were practically long-gone by then, converted into pure crystal. No chance of reversion afterwards, once something’s been claimed. About the only downside to our medical procedures: we can only save what’s still alive.”

“I saw that her horn was mostly intact,” Rarity pointed out. “Managed to save it, did you?”

“The horn was the least of our worries, but it was barely even afflicted. Knowing that you unicorns use it for magic,” he said, gesturing towards Twilight’s usage of magic before him, “I really don’t want to see what might happen if I had to cut it off with high-powered beams.”

“There wouldn’t be a large chain reaction,” Twilight stated. “It’s not as if all of our magic is contained within our horns, so it wouldn’t explode in your face or anything. But the worst part is that it’s an intrinsic part of our very being. To cut off the horn would cause a great deal of pain to the unicorn, on a level equal to or greater than that of giving birth, some say.”

“I can imagine why no one’s in a rush to find out...” Wesley said.

“So... can I go inside and look at everything in the operating room?”

“What?” He blinked for a moment, then fervently shook his head. “No! It’s still being scrubbed down and decontaminated for any rogue crystal particles that we might have missed. And besides, that’s dangerous equipment that we use in there, and it’s no place for a young unicorn such as yourself.” That’s not to say that the operations were entirely bloodless, either, which was the more concerning part for him.

Twilight looked at Harold, who merely shrugged. “Well, you can still dream, right?” he said.

“So was it her idea, or yours?” Wesley asked, unamused.

“Hers. I just told her what you would probably end up saying. Which you did,” Harold said. “Your notes are all filed, by the way, and the coffee’s brewing.”

Twilight floated the styrofoam cup towards her and took a sip from it. “Well, if you ever change your mind... I’m your unicorn. Oh, hold still for a minute, doctor.” She leaned forward, staring intensely at Wesley’s face, her pen flitting back to work. “What’s with the creases on your face?”

“Oh, you mean these?” He pointed at them, a curve across his cheeks and just above his nose. “From the mask. Sorry if it doesn’t look good, you can just omit them from your sketch there.” He waited a moment for her to finish sketching, then relaxed a bit, as Twilight turned her attention to Viers.

“Whoa, there, sweetheart,” he said, laughing as he turned his head away and held up a hand to block. “I don’t do pictures or autographs. Sorry.”

“What’d he say?” Twilight asked a smirking Harold.

“He says he doesn’t do pictures or autographs,” Harold repeated. “Uh, he’s one of the better trained soldiers in our force here. Deals with more secretive stuff and all that, so you can understand if he doesn’t really want any pictures of himself out there.”

“Oh... okay,” Twilight said, relenting. “Who else can I sketch? Hmm...”

“You could just draw Hampton, the pilot of that giant walking crawler thingy, but she’s stuck in it all the time,” Applejack said. “She seems to be the friendly type of person, though. She’ll probably agree.”

Just then, the sirens began to blare and flashing red lights permeated their viewspace. Personnel caught up in gossip on the ponies and other mundane things immediately jumped to action as the crackle of the PA system returned yet again.

Hello, everybody, this is Forward Battle Commander Hampton speaking! For those of you with adequate viewpoints, if you take a look just west of Camp Greenwood, you’ll see that we have an incoming wave of baddies! So all non-essential personnel, please find the nearest safe haven, stay inside, and remain calm until the situation has been dealt with. Please and thank you~!” she sang. “And for the rest of you grunts, battle stations!

“I better get to work,” Viers said. “Nice to chat with you all, though. Stay safe, doc, Harold, and guests.” He walked off, joining a small group of fatigue-clad soldiers sprinting for the barracks as they disappeared around a corner.

“Well...” Wesley said. “I’m sure this might be something worth documenting, Miss Sparkle. Let’s see if we can’t get a view from the third floor observation deck.”

“Wow, it’s pretty roomy up here,” Dash said, walking through the doors as they slid open. “Great view, too, and... whoa.” When the ponies had first encountered a battle, they had been located within the safety of the Mobius, and hadn’t actually seen the battle. With the observation deck view, they had an unobstructed view of the carnage unfolding as harvesters, convoys, and engineers quickly made for the safety of Camp Greenwood’s walls below.

Focus beams sitting on the periphery of Camp Greenwood’s walls immediately tracked the first of the invading elements and let loose powerful lines of particle beams as they cut a swathe through the charging creatures. Infantry squads clustered together in small fireteams in bunkers scattered in between the turrets, firing upon diamond dogs as they scrambled to get closer to the base’s reinforced walls, only to be cut down by the watchtower vulcans hanging from the parapets above the field of battle.

“This is... insane,” Rarity said, watching as an explosion rocked the far left side of their vision. A Titan waddled backwards on the field, its left leg hydraulics damaged as a group of mutated manticores attempted to encircle and finish the walker off. Redirection of fire from the nearby emplacements quickly solved the problem as the shimmering half-sphere shields of the Aegis whirred by their window, en route to the western gates.

“Insane? Perhaps,” Wesley agreed. “But needed in the greater scheme of things, especially when the Scrin show up. This isn’t even going deeper into the hierarchy. What we have here now is essentially bare bones compared to the soldiers coming in to reinforce us.”

“You kidding?” Dash said. “I mean, this is kind of awesome. You guys just fly in here and then just start kicking flank and taking names. I just wish you guys got here earlier. Maybe if we had you all, we could have saved Cloudsdale.”

“Cloudsdale?” Wesley asked as light flashed across his vision, the bright explosions from the landing of several missiles from the batteries on the walls causing him to squint.

“A city made of clouds, and one of the pride and joys of Equestria and the pegasi culture,” Twilight pointed out. “We... lost them when the storms suddenly got really bad. The weather seemed fine before, mostly minor turbulence, but when it struck, it struck hard. Most of the pegasi didn’t make it out, and those that did were even luckier to make it to Canterlot through the heavy rain.”

“Ah,” he said, nodding quietly, deciding not to push the issue any further out of respect. “I think it’s quite evident that we’re going to win the battle. But we need to know what they’re doing.”

“Huh?” Dash asked, breaking her out of her reminiscing stupor. “You mean they’re actually doing this for a reason?”

“They are. Every attack so far by them, it’s always been controlled, always in waves, and always from a specific direction. The first times, I believe they were merely trying to gauge our defenses, but since they’ve realized that we’ve been reinforced, they’re doing something else. What that is, I don’t know, but they’re not mindless animals.”

“Maybe they’re just here to get rid of you,” Rarity offered. “After all, you did set your forces up extremely close to the Everfree Forest.”

“One of many reasons, perhaps,” Wesley said, pondering the possibilities of why they’d—though who ‘they’ were was essentially unknown at the moment—so callously throw their own forces at a superior enemy. Were they trying to prove something?

Hey, doc.” They nearly jumped back when a power suit hopped up onto the roof in front of their window, only for Wesley to realize that it was Viers. “Nice view, huh?

“Uh, shouldn’t you be, like, out there, instead of over here?” Harold asked.

Normally, I would be. But Hampton’s told me to stay back. Apparently, she didn’t like me ‘over-performing’ on the way down from the mountain. Racked up too many kills, or so she said, so I’ve been relegated to overwatch. Besides, it looks like they’ve got everything under control.” He rotated his torso to get a better view of the battle.

“Hmm...” Wesley activated the lone terminal sitting at the window, punching in his credentials and waiting for the system to let him in.

“What are you doing, doctor?” Twilight asked, trotting up beside him and examining the terminal with a look of wonder. “Ooh... what is this?”

“It’s a terminal. With the proper authorization, you can access information across the entire network, all from a single location. Like... that.” The system’s circular loading screen disappeared and the display expanded, revealing a wide variety of information from standard news channels, along with a sidebar of InOps memos, which he closed. “Can’t have you looking at that,” he said, as Twilight frowned at him. “Sorry, classified.”

“So... what are you trying to do here, then?” she slowly asked.

“Trying...” he said, entering the local command network—normally inaccessible to regular personnel but allowed by InOps or similar CENTCOM clearance. “...to find... this.” He entered a sub-branch of the screen labeled ‘Infantry - Combat Cameras’, and wheeled down to a familiar entry labeled ‘Yankee’, and tapped on it.

In which they were immediately greeted with the deafening sound of speaker-filtered gunfire. “—whoa, whoa! Four, watch your fire! You almost hit that freaky bomber bug thingy right as it hit that Titan! Let them get some breathing space before you unload on that sucker!

I totally had that bastard! Yo, boss, watch your left!” The camera turned left and the face of a snarling diamond dog covered the screen, before an armored fist landed a solid punch on its face, sending it flying, and threw a line of spittle on the camera.

Ugh, gross,” Yankee Lead said, shaking his hand to wipe off the iridescent green saliva as Yankee Two stepped in and smashed the barrel of his cannon straight into the prone dog’s neck. “Man, that cannot be normal.” He looked up and saw the automated construction facilities for a bunker complete its self-deployment just a stone’s throw away, and pointed. “There! Move, move, Yankee, movement orders from Aegis! Let’s get the hell off this field!

Heavy thumping, the sounds of beams fizzing, and blurry camera movement of Yankee running for the bunker stayed for a few seconds before the dimmed interior of the emplacement came back into focus, with Lead’s chaingun pointing out an open port.

Watch out! Here come more of them!” Three shouted, unleashing a burst from his own weapon. “Wait, no, now they’re coming from over there! Now there! Holy shit, how many of these guys are there?!

Wesley looked up to see that the Mobius had now joined the fight in earnest, entrenching itself on the opposite side of the Aegis as their respective crawler repair fields helped to keep the Titans in working order, as their own defenses fired off against closing enemies. This was, by far, their largest battle yet, and he grew irritated; there was something to this. What did they want?

“Wait...” he muttered, before a surprised shout drew him back to Yankee Lead’s camera.

Agh, what the fuck?!” Lead shouted, as a diamond dog suddenly unburrowed in front of his port, evading his chaingun’s barrel and attempting to land a futile bite on his plated forearm. “Get the hell out of my bunker, you prick!

The diamond dog hissed something back in response, less of a shout or a snarl and surprisingly more coherent. Rough was the least to put it, but the translator fizzled out an incomprehensible response before returning nothing on the faulty sample it received.

“Damn it,” Wesley cursed. “Just what did that dog say...?”

“I... think I know what it said,” Twilight said, flipping to another blank page as she stared at the chaos outside.

“Really?” Wesley asked. “What did he say, then?”

“I only caught part of it, but he said ‘kill the crystal destroyers’, or something like that. He must be referring to you and the rest of the humans. And... ‘protect the home shard’.”

Thoughts whirred through Wesley’s mind as he blankly stared at the camera feed of Yankee Lead repeatedly slamming the diamond dog’s head into his port’s windowsill, before sending it off with another solid punch and a chestful of bullets. So the diamond dogs could talk. They knew something, and that something was something that he and the commanders needed to know.

“Time to flex my authorizations...” He opened a direct line to Hampton on the local comm network. “Commander Hampton, I have a favor to ask of you...”

Chapter 9: Descent

View Online

“What? I mean, alright, if that’s what you want, man,” Hampton said. The sound of shells cycling into her crawler’s cannons intermittently filled the cabin. “Does the commander know about this?”

No, but we hold the advantage in this fight. And if he doesn’t, the commander will know about it soon enough. Can you accommodate my request?” Hampton could see Wesley’s face on the screen, along with a pair of curious purple eyes peeking out of the corner at her.

“Yeah, I’ll see what we can do about it. Michelin, you read this?”

Reading loud and clear. I think I can have my beams set them up for a tag-and-bag. Focus beam gravity fields are now operational. Let’s see these suckers try to worm their way out of this one,” Michelin responded. “Feel free to take your pick.

“Affirmative. This is Mobius to all elements: InOps wants one of these dog-like bastards taken in alive. Incapacitate using any means, but if it gets hairy, don’t hesitate to put a bullet in them. In the case that any of you grunts actually manage to drag one of their sorry asses back to Greenwod, slap him in cuff and toss him in the brig. Let the security systems and grav-fields deal with the rest.”

The familiar sight of faint blue circles began appearing along the entire battle line, as the focus beams’ gravity fields began to come into effect. Hapless creatures stuck within struggled with their sluggish movements, the unfortunate target picked by the beams’ targeting systems completely suspended in place with little recourse on the matter. Trooper squads readily took this opportunity to mow down those that could still flee, leaving only the frozen in place.

There’s one! Grab him!” A trooper squad advanced forward underneath the covering fire of their comrades, and tackled one of the diamond dogs to the ground and applied copious amounts of blunt force trauma with their fists; if they hadn’t knocked the poor thing out, they had certainly given him ample incentive to pretend he was.

“Right on, boys. Haul that thing back to base.”

Yes, ma’am. Covering fire!” The trooper squad began dragging the diamond dog back towards the relative safety of Camp Greenwood, as the assault began to die down. Several groups attempting to flee tried to divert their course to attack the group, only to be met with half of the squad’s overwatch fire. The focus beams paused their firing switching back to their default mode of discharge before returning to the fray.

That wasn’t too hard,” Michelin said. “But the grav-fields are a total drain on my focus beams. Leave that stuff up to the Thunderheads, or until I can get a sustained power source down here with a hardline hookup to the base’s power grid.

“That’ll be it for now, Michelin,” Hampton said, shifting her crawler back into mobile mode to give a temporary pursuit of the creatures as they fled to their lairs. “Thanks for the help.”

No problem. Now I have to get my defense systems hooked into the grid and let the con-yard take over the control from there. I’m going to need my crawler’s power units for the big stuff Commander Alexandra’s going to want me to build later.

This is Zulu, Mobius. We’re in the base now. Heading for the brig.

Hampton smiled at Wesley. “Good enough for you?”

Absolutely excellent, Commander Hampton. Maybe now we’ll find out what they know. Stay sharp.” Wesley looked up, towards something that Hampton couldn’t see. “Lieutenant, meet us at the brig’s interrogation room. Keep your suit on. We’re going to need you to persuade him for us if he doesn’t want to talk.

“Getting dirty already, doc?” Hampton asked.

If he’s smart, he’ll realize that the quickest way out of this is to talk. If not...” He shrugged. “Then I guess we’ll have to make a house call.

“Wow, that is one ugly... thing,” Harold said. He squinted at the barely coherent creature as they observed it laying on the floor of the interrogation room from their observation suite. He looked at Twilight. “What did you call these things again?”

“Diamond dogs,” Twilight replied. “But they normally aren’t so large... or ugly... or aggressive. In fact, back when things were... normal, they tended to stay away from ponies and avoided causing trouble in general.”

The hiss of the hydraulic doors parted the metal blast doors, and in entered Viers, minus his arsenal. The only thing he held in his hand was a combat knife, one larger than human hands intended for use by zone troopers, which he tapped against his thigh. “Just in case.

“...grr...” The diamond dog began to stir, which Viers attempted to expedite by nudging the creature in the ribs. “...what?! Intruder!” He grunted in exertion as he attempted to flail his limbs around, only for them to remain rooted. “Die! Die, die, die!”

Real big talker, this one,” Viers said. “Feel free to ask your questions. I’ll keep an eye on him...

“You think he might try something?” Wesley asked.

Viers’ shoulderguards moved up and down, the closest indication for a trooper to a shrug. “For all I know, this guy might be able to freaking teleport and we’d never even know it. Best to be prepared.

“Duly noted. I’ll start asking the questions now, so be ready.” Wesley cleared his throat. “Hello there, creature. Can you understand me?”

The dog immediately froze, ears twitching as if he couldn’t believe what he had just heard.

Hey, dog-face. He’s talking to you,” Viers said, prodding him in the leg. Wesley waited; Viers did not have the translator working at the time, and he wanted to see the lieutenant’s reaction at getting a rise out of the diamond dog.

“You! Invader! You destroy crystal! You must die!”

Looks like he’s just fine, doc. Feel free to ask him your questions.

“Right... well, I know for a fact that you are a diamond dog, correct?”

“I will tell you nothing! Invaders must die! You destroy crystal, crystal is powerful! Crystal make us powerful, and show us the future! The future is crystal! With diamond dogs standing with it! No ponies, or griffons! Only crystal! Crystal is everything!”

Oh, God, it’s like Nod all over again...” Viers muttered. “Crazy whackos seem to be par for the course when we’re dealing with Tiberium, it looks like.

“This isn’t getting anywhere...” Wesley said under his breath. “We need coercion, but... what?” He turned to Twilight. “Since it’s obvious that you know these things better than I do... any ideas on getting him to talk?”

“Diamond dogs are known for their preference for... shiny gems,” Twilight said. “It might be possible that you could get him to talk by presenting him with one. Unless you don’t have any...?”

“No, we don’t.” He sighed. “I suppose I could procure one... on the off chance that someone likes extremely shiny gems. What would work best. Diamonds? Sapphires? Rubies? I’m not particular the most well-versed on this sort of thing, so...”

“That’s fine,” Twilight said. “I can fake one for you!”

“Um... how so?” Harold asked. “Oh, wait, does that mean... magic?”

“Yep!” Twilight said, happily smiling and nodding. “Of course, I’m going to need to present it in a discreet fashion. If he suddenly just sees it materialize out of thin air, then that’ll be suspicious... and I’m not sure if you guys want to reveal to them that you’re working with the ponies.”

“Well, we have a volunteer for that.” Wesley opened up a private line to Viers’ suit, away from the general comms that linked the interrogation room and the suite. “Lieutenant, we have a plan.”

Down and dirty already?” A sigh followed. “Alright, but this isn’t going to be prett—

“No, lieutenant, I’m talking about a different plan. No brutality, so that means keeping that knife away. These dogs like gems, and they like them a lot. We’re hoping to play off of that to see if we can’t get something out of him. Please move your left hand behind your back. Twilight is going to attempt to fake a jewel, which you’ll present to the dog when I give the say-so.”

Roger, doc.” He inconspicuously moved his left gauntlet behind his back, as the dog continued to ramble at the ceiling, spittle flinging in every direction as Viers stood, unmoving.

Wesley nodded at Twilight. “Give it a try.”

“Okay, here goes...” Her horn began to glow and Harold’s eyes widened at the intensification of the light, drastically more brighter than her casual use of levitation in the hospital lobby. They looked towards Viers’ open hand, where a faint glow slowly began to shift, materializing into a bright blue gem, a sky-blue gem.

“Fantastic work, Twilight!” Rarity said. “Why, the gem looks almost like Princess Cadance’s cutie mark!”

“Princess Cadance?” Wesley said, raising a brow at her. “You mean there’s another princess?”

“Well, she’s my... sister-in-law,” Twilight responded, her horn’s glow slightly wavering as she nodded towards the one-way mirror. “I’ll explain later. Let’s see what you have in mind, doctor.”

Wesley nodded back. “Alright, Lieutenant, feel free to wave that thing around the dog’s face.”

Viers took the initiative and crouched next to the diamond dog, slowly drifting the crystal across his gaze left and right and then precariously holding it right in front of his eyes. “Right on, doc.” He pulled his hand back and the dog’s eye did not waver in the slightest bit. “Got him right where we want him. He’s hooked.”

“Ahem...” Wesley switched the comm back to the interrogation room. “You see that? What do think that is?”

“C... crystal...” the dog mumbled. “So... blue... and so... shiny...”

“You like it? Then maybe we can agree on a deal... tell us what you know about this ‘home shard’... and I’ll let you have it.”

“Have it? Blue gem? No blue gem seen for so long!” the dog exclaimed, now drooling at the mouth as he could see his own mutated reflection in the azure facets of the gem. “Yes... yes! Shiny blue gem! Only blue gem! Give it to me! I tell you everything about home shard, just—” He was cut off as his eyes clenched shut, his face scrunching as he howled with pain.

What the—?! Doc, what the hell’s going?

“Yes... it is exactly as I feared...” Wesley said, eyes switching between his PDA and the dog before him. “I’m detecting brainwave patterns, ones different from yours or the ponies, Lieutenant Viers... the signature is strangely similar to the ones used by masterminds.”

Can you isolate it? Cut him off from the network?

“I can try to. All of our materials have been tempered with anti-psychic insulation, along with interception broadcast systems to nullify any Scrin control networks there may be. That it isn’t working here means that it’s not Scrin in origin...”

Great. Now one of the locals with a big enough brain can use it, too?

“No, it’s... it’s hard to explain.” Wesley cycled through a few tabs on his PDA, frowning at the information displayed to him. “I stand corrected. It isn’t psychic... it’s some sort of energy transmission, a link between the dog and something else. Our systems are filtering it, so the resulting receiving signal is substantially less...”

“There’s a chance it could be magic,” Twiilght said. “It must be very powerful magic if I’m not able to detect it, and I think I’ve seen my fair share of all sorts of magic. Could the crystal—this Tiberium—be causing it?”

“Could be, Twilight. Lieutenant, I’m adjusting the systems to counter this signal, too. Activating it... now.” At the push of a button, the dog’s howling suddenly ceased, and his head merely drifted to the ground as he momentarily passed out, only to wake up again as he looked around the room frantically.

“Wh... what?! Who?! Where am I?” he shouted. “I... body! What happened to my body?!” he shouted as he looked down at his torso, shocked at the crystallic growths on his fur. “The crystal! Crystal! Get it off, get it off!”

What the hell is he shouting about, doc?

Wesley exchanged a worried look with Twilight, then typed the discovery into his notes. “That signal was controlling him, lieutenant. He seems to have reverted back to being... himself, if you would. Flash that crystal again, try to get him focused.”

Sure enough, another presentation of the crystal calmed down the dog enough for Wesley to coax an answer from him. “Shiny... crystal...”

“Nice to see that we’re on the same page here. Now I’ll repeat myself: this crystal stands as an offer if you’re willing to exchange information with us, specifically on this home shard. Do you agree?”

The dog nodded. “I... I don’t know what happened. Crystal show up one day, fall from skies. Ponies tried to study it, then they ran from it. Then it spread, and diamond dogs found it. One of us managed to bring it back, put in home with other shiny gems. And then... it... it changed. Turned other gems into more green crystal, and then it... changed us.”

“Changed you how?”

“We... could not resist. It was so shiny, and there was so much... and it was amazing.” He gave a guttural laugh, laced with regret and self-disgust. “And how could we fight it? It was crystal, and not just any kind of crystal: crystal showed that it could make more of itself. All it needed was room. So we gave it room. Broke off shards and spread throughout all of home.”

“Didn’t any of you get hurt? Or die?” Wesley asked.

“Many, yes... but they said things before they died. Told us how crystal was powerful. Promise us many things. Don’t remember anything else, but we gave ourselves to crystal. Mind is blur after that.”

“That’s mind control, alright...” Harold said.

“And what of this ‘home shard’? Where is it?”

“Deep within diamond home,” the dog said. “It change us. Now we serve crystal, and crystal makes us powerful and strong. Make diamond dogs strong, stronger than ponies or griffons. Other animals turn, too. The crystal told us many things.”

Anything interesting, doc?” Viers asked, out of the loop in the conversation.

Wesley switched back over to their private line. “Tell me something, lieutenant: have you ever heard of Tiberium being able to talk before?” he asked.

I... what? Hell freaking no. The last thing we need is some talking Tiberium bitching about being turned into munitions and metal plating. Did this dog say something about that?

“Then I guess this is more worrying than I thought. The dog claims that the Tiberium was talking to them, promising them things and even bestowing them with power.”

That certainly explains how many of those suckers are still alive. Completely different from Earth-style infestation, with a small few able to mutate. If this new Tiberium can think and mutate things willingly... then we’ve got a problem. A real big one.

“I’m sure the commander will be very pleased to hear of this. I think the dog will be fine now, so you can step back and let me take over from here.” Viers stood back up and walked over to a corner of the room, standing back and keeping an eye on the dog. Switching back again, Wesley continued. “So... do you have the exact location of this ‘diamond home’?”

“It’s... near pony town. Underneath it, very deep below ground.”

“Those holes in the ground had to lead somewhere...” Harold said.

“So they’re underneath Ponyville?” Twilight said. “They must have expanded quite a bit over the years. Normally, their tunnels wouldn’t even come anywhere close to pony civilization. If they have entire tunnels full of all sorts of creatures... oh, my gosh!”

“What is it?”

“Then they might be trying to attack the Canterlot Sanctum! We... it’s still pretty high up in the mountain, but if they can tunnel up to it... or bring the mountain down...”

“More than enough reason to permanently secure our control of this area,” Wesley said. “And I’m sure Commander Alexandra would approve. Lieutenant, leave the dog here and meet me at the barracks’ command center. There’s a lot to talk about.” He set the room’s security systems to automate, and then turned to Harold and the ponies. “Let’s go. If this threat is clearly as pressing as it seems to be, then it would be best if we acted upon it as soon as possible.”

Alexandra took a sip from his coffee mug, glad to have the warmth of the liquid in his stomach. No amount of artificial heating could ever truly replicate being on a temperate world, so toes and feet were, more often than not, left to freeze against the standardized metal flooring of the Methuselah.

As he sighed contentedly after setting down his mug on the holder in his seat, a transmission appeared; high priority, which meant that it didn’t need to be accepted. Whoever contacted him could speak freely, but the issue had to be imminently important. “Commander, we’ve made a discovery.

“Doctor Wesley. What are your findings?”

We may have found the exact location of the enemies’ homebase. Granted, it was already quite obvious, but we may have ideal cause to move on this information. They’re underground, and at the moment, they present a clear and present danger to our newfound contact here.

“Underground? I suppose that much was obvious. What about this threat puts them in danger?”

Tunneling. If the tunnel networks underneath the nearby town seem to indicate anything, they have a whole system there that runs very deep, possibly for miles around. The information that we gathered is that these creatures are under the influence of some sort of mind-controlling Tiberium, origin unknown. They may have the capability to level the mountain nearby, which hosts the only known refuge for the ponies.

Alexandra sighed and rubbed the bridge of his nose. Mind control... how predictably obvious. “I understand. I’ll deploy an expeditionary force underground as soon as possible to weed that thing out. Lieutenant Viers, as the prime commando candidate, will be spearheading the operation.”

Read you loud and clear, sir, Viers said over the line. “I’ll make sure that rock gets smashed.

“Great. Until then, I’m going to need more information.” He brought up his command console, sending orders to Hampton and a hefty contingent to relocate themselves immediately to the ruins of the town, right near one of the larger rifts in the ground. “Does this conclude that we have an active clandestine Scrin element on this planet?”

Negative,” Wesley said. “Currently, I believe that the Scrin had nothing to do with this. The mind control capabilities it has were evolved by something else entirely.” Suddenly, a head peeked over Harvey’s shoulder, a purple-eyed unicorn looking straight at Alexandra. She said something to Wesley that he couldn’t comprehend, then jabbed her hoof at the screen. “What? Oh, yes, I forgot about that. Twilight, this is Commander Alexandra, the leader of our expeditionary group to this planet, and in charge of our protection. Commander Alexandra, this is... Twilight Sparkle, the personal student of Princess Celestia, one of the pony rulers, and quite the researcher herself.

“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Twilight...” Alexandra said, looking down at his battle fatigues and shrugging. “Though I’d wish I’d known I would be meeting one of the natives before I started talking. I’m no Redding, doctor. I don’t dress up like I’m expected to attend the Secretary-General’s Ball on the drop of a dime.”

It’s fine, sir... they aren’t exactly big on wearing clothes themselves. Anyway, we should contain and secure this strange type of Tiberium, and see if it reveals anything about this current situation.

“For the purpose of research, I guess it could be permitted. But I’d like to stress our objective, Doctor Wesley, and the only reason why we’re here in the first place: we’re here to destroy the Tiberium, new variants or not. I don’t care what the brass or InOps thinks: if I think that the crystal poses a threat, then I will destroy it. Is that clear?”

Absolutely clear, commander.

“Good. I will be transferring new orders to Commander Hampton and her trooper squads. You are to stay here, in Camp Greenwood, for both your safety and to observe the operation and process information as it comes to you. You’ll have to relay the signals through the crawler, so be sure your uplink is correct. And before I forget: what is the status of the patients you operated on?”

Both operations were a success, sir. Given that they seem to receive our treatments extremely well, I think it may be safe to move on to medical aid to the population up at Canterlot soon.

“That’s great to hear. I would imagine that things would have gotten... tense, if you hadn’t succeeded.”

If anything, sir, it was essentially an all-in solution. Without us, they would have died... and, well, on the operating table or in a magic bubble doesn’t really make much of a difference if it boils down to that.

“Always a reminder of why we do what we do,” Alexandra said, taking a swig from his mug again. “Oh, and Lieutenant Viers...” he said, as he saw the suited form of the commando turning to exit.

Yes, sir?

“No heavy ordnance. It’s going to be dark, claustrophobic, and unstable in there. Infantry only, since we can’t risk vehicles mucking things up down there. Bullets and flamethrowers only.”

Viers saluted. “Of course, sir. Can’t blow them sky-high so it’s time to turn up the heat.” His form departed through the doorway just as the free space was taken up by the curious looks of more ponies, or rather, four of them. They chatted to each other and made strange faces at him, as Twilight annoyedly called out to them and dragged their whole group off-camera.

Wesley merely gave him an exasperated look and a slight frown. “Sorry about that, commander, as you can see... they’re quite curious.

“That’s understandable, with us being the benefactors here. So long as they don’t push any big red buttons, I think we’ll be fine. Most of our touchscreen and holographic surfaces require fingers to use, anyway.”

Right then, another screen opened up, revealing one helmeted Tricia Hampton. “Hey, boss, what’s going on? You parked us near this giant hole in the ground... wouldn’t have something to do with that, would it?

Wesley smiled and nodded. “Looks like you’re moving onto the real business now. I’ll keep in touch, commander. And you might want to remind the harvesters to roll back out. They’re still sitting at the refinery.” The screen blanked out, and with a flick of his wrist and several taps of the screen, the harvesters and convoys were back on track for their reclamation duties.

“Hampton, I’m going to need you to set up shop there. Leave the Titans on the surface, and deploy mobile armories for the infantry. They’re going to take the fight to them, and the caves are too unstable to use explosives. Bullets and flamethrowers only. For every four-man squad, I want at least two of them with a flame weapon, got it?”

Loud and clear, sir. I’ll let them deal with picking the straws on that. Anything else with your order, or is that it for today?

“Yeah, one more thing. Lieutenant Viers is leading this operation, but I guess it’s great that you’re not really in a position to give orders down there. I’d rather not see a repeat of the missile blitz tactic that you’ve used several times already.”

Oh, yeah, don’t worry about!” Hampton nodded, her helmet shaking as she gave a salute and laughed. “Nothing so risky this time around, boss, I assure you. Uh, we managed to take one of them alive... can’t we just do the same for the rest of them?

“I shouldn’t have to remind you about the folly of trying to incapacitate an entire enemy army, Hampton. Not to mention that some of their larger friends might not be so inclined to being shocked.”

Alexandra viewed the entrance to the underground that Hampton had set up next to, just in time to see Viers appear within his screen, hopping to the head of the force with a lift from his jump pack. All the troopers turned towards him, as he began a small speech silent to his ears.

“If things get hairy in there...” he began.

...bring all our boys back alive. No problem. Mind if I ask what our plan B is if this doesn’t go through?

“Wait for Redding to show up and let his boys deal with it. I’m letting the regulars have their hand at it, because I know they have what it takes to get this job done. And if Redding isn’t up to the task... I’m sure the Hammerfest’s Inferno Corps would happily take this job.”

Ooh... the Burning Fists, huh...? Truth be told, I’m kind of missing them right now. Nothing makes you feel more safe than a bunch of pyromaniacs igniting a wall between you and and an army of Scrin. And most of them kind of revere you, don’t they?

“Yes, yes, the Nod thing. They take my orders very seriously.”

Aren’t they sort of some offshoot of the Black Hand or something? And worship Kane even though the guy’s already packed his bags and double-timed it off of Earth? They keep mostly to themselves, boss, and they’re kind of... I don’t know... whack.”

“Their... organization is unorthodox, but they’re good men, all the same. If you’ve ever bothered to have a serious conversation with them... they’re quite normal, aside from all the Nod paraphernalia they have hanging around, and the occasional recitation of Kane’s numerous quotes.”

Yeah, well, this place stinks. I think a lot of us would be happier when they take up the guard, and I’m sure they wouldn’t complain. Besides, that whole forest nearby needs to be put to the torch. Oh, shit, Viers is leading them down now!” Hampton shouted, nearly jumping out of her seat. “Oh, crap, did I...? Oh, phew. Picked the right loadouts this time. Michelin would never get off my ass about it if I screwed up an armory deployment.

“Don’t worry about him,” Alexandra said, sending off a set of blueprints to Michelin’s crawler, detailing the construction of the ISDI forward base... and the refugee camp within it.

“Holy fuck, it is dark down here. You know something’s up when the night vision works as intended instead of blinding you with the light of shiny Scrin projectiles. At least the flashlights don’t make it impossible to shoot stuff.”

“Hey, at least we still have some elbow room, right? Haha!”

“Shut up, Two, the commando’s here again. You trying to ruin my chances at a recommendation?”

“Chill out, Three! We totally got this in the bag... just some... cleaning house, yeah?”

“Yankee,” Viers said, pausing in his travel and bringing his group of soldiers to a stop. Using sonar, his HUD displayed the shape of the path ahead of them and showed that they still had quite a trek to make. The soldiers had split up the moment they stepped forth into the cavernous entrance, splitting up into several large groups to cover more ground. “You guys again?”

“Hey, you divvied us all out,” Yankee Four said. “We just ended up with you.”

“What’s the holdup?” a trooper shouted from the back. “Yankee’s loud mouth holding us back?”

“Ooh, Bravo Two is feeling a bit tough today, huh?”

“Only when you pansies keep holding us up, man! Come on, we’re here to kick ass and take names, stop bothering the commando with your small talk.”

“It’s fine, Bravo Two,” Viers said. “Let’s keep moving.” The motion detector on his suit brought up nothing; if the creatures were hiding down here, they were going to run into them eventually, but that they’d gone down far enough to require several transmission beacons placed at intervals to relay their progress to the surface.

“Yeah, do what the lieutenant says and zip it,” Yankee Lead said.

“That won’t be necessary, sergeant,” Viers said. “Keep the mood alive, and keep the boys less spooked. I think we’ve been shot at together enough times to drop the ranks. So, Yankee, who are you guys?”

“Oh, shit, he’s asking for our names. What do we do?” Yankee Two said.

Yankee Lead punched him in the shoulder before answering for them. “I’m Sergeant Jim Rosky, Yankee Lead. Or One. The loudmouths back here call me ‘Ski’ for short, when we’re not obligated by protocol to obfuscate clear distinction of rank by name by having damn well everyone in the battalion using numerical denotations. Now sound off, you apes.”

“Right. Uh, Yankee Two, Corporal Thomas Cliff... uh... ‘Cliff’ for short?”

“Private Ken Adalberto, Yankee Three. Call me ‘Bert’ for short. Honor to meet you, sir.”

“Damn it, man, you’re totally ruining our good mood here with your seriousness.”

“Only because I don’t want to stay in a company full of clowns, Cliff. Now stop making me look bad, you goof.”

“Aw, come on, now you ruined my introduction,” the last of Yankee said. “Yankee Four, Private Peter Jensen, at your service. Call me... ‘Badass’.”

“Come on, Jen, we all know what your shorthand name is,” Cliff said. “You don’t get to be called ‘badass’, because I’m totally going to get that name fir—whoa!” He tripped towards his right and tumbled down a small incline. “Shit!”

A wall of flashlights aimed down the tunnel as he slowed to a stop. “You okay, Cliff?” Viers shouted down at him, receiving a thumbs-up in response as the soldier climbed to his feet and picked up his cannon.

“Just fine, sir! A little fall, that’s all... where the hell are we, anyway? Are we even going the right—” A growl sounded off, just a distance away to his right. With the lights of his group on him, and himself being curious, he turned towards the sound, only to be greeted with the sight of diamond dog frothing at the mouth... and all his companions with him. “Aw, shit.”

“Contact! Fire at will!” Viers immediately shouted, bringing up his own cannon and watching his HUD’s simulated targeting reticule landing square on the dog’s center of mass. A pull of the trigger began their first battle. “Watch our flanks! Yankee, you guys stay here and watch the main path. The rest of you, down we go! Clean those bastards out!”

Yankee Two had reached the bottom of the incline just as the remainder of the infantry began their descent. Controlled bursts along with displays of fire along with the actual immolation caused by the fire quickly dwindled their numbers, as the dogs now realized that the humans had brought weapons that clearly gave them the advantage in the tunnel depths.

They howled at the sight of the cleansing flames, shrinking back as the encroaching lights of purgation shone the truth onto their desolate surroundings: bones of ponies, dirt, and death were all that surrounded them, and the zone troopers were more than willing to have the dogs join their unfortunate victims.

“Down, down! Chase them back!” Viers said. “Keep pushing, and watch your backs! Task Force Alpha, reporting to Mobius! We have contact, and are engaging!”

Copy, Dagger. Task Force Bravo and Charlie have just run into the thick of it themselves, no casualties so far. Sonar scans down that hole show a massive chamber sitting at the bottom of it, and there’s no doubt that’s where whatever we’re looking for is. Uploading the map to the network now.

“This tunnel connects to a larger one. No doubt that’s where they move the larger ones through,” Viers said. “Lancers! Make sure your beams are ready! Alpha, advance!” More dogs fell before them as pockets of parasprites exploded into clouds of green mist, quickly fading as the air circulating through the tunnels did the work of clearing things up for them.

The lancers of Task Force Alpha, discernible by the energy packs on their backs connected to their powerful infantry-sized laser beams, acknowledged Viers’ order. The sounds of the beams charging up echoed throughout the cavern, as the telltale quaking of a lumbering beast headed their direction quickly gave them pause.

“Are we really going to fight that thing?” Jensen asked.

“We push forward. This passage is bigger, but not by much,” Viers said. “We have the advantage. Let him come to us, then drop the hammer on his face.”

So they stood in silence as the rumbles grew ever closer, until the translucent starry hide of the Ursa Minor presented itself to them. The bear took notice of their lights, and roared straight at them, its gaping maw full of sharp teeth eliciting a sense of terror in the soldiers that Viers’ next response overrode.

“Shoot that son of a bitch!”

A hail of bullets, shells, along with lines of energy beams and columns of flame streamed forth, striking the beast in its vulnerable mouth. A lucky beam struck the inside of its cheek, blasting off a chunk of its left face and caking segments of the tunnel it sat in with flesh and blood, and it gave a roar in great pain before futilely attempting to take bites at them. The tunnel could not adequately fit its snarling jaws, and the brightness of the flames only served to disorient it further.

The lancers had taken to focusing their fire on one of two targets: the inside of its mouth, or the more important visual organs that were left unguarded as its head attempted to reposition itself again and again. Another beam seared a section of its right eye, eliciting another howl and causing the creature to retreat for good this time, its hurried pace back to safety quakin the ground around it.

“That... was one big motherfucker,” Cliff said. “Big game hunting at its finest... or worst.”

Attention, all task forces: Charlie is nearing the chamber now, and has reported significant enemy activity nearby. They will hunker down and wait for the remaining task forces to arrive at the designated waypoints before launching a final all-out assault on the enemy hive. Bravo and Alpha, please acknowledge,” Hampton said.

“This is Dagger, Alpha acknowledges,” Viers responded.

Task Force Bravo here. We acknowledge. Anybody run into any of those bear things yet?

“Alpha has, Bravo. We were damn lucky to be sitting in a small tunnel, or else a good chunk of us would be bear lunch right about now. Damage inflicted to our group was minimal: the creature has taken significant facial and eye damage, and may be retreating to the hive.”

Shit, sir, you sure know how to black an eye. See you at the assault. Bravo, out!

“Alpha, down we go!” Viers said, and they stepped into the bear’s tunnel, metal boots making disgusting squishing sounds as they stepped through blood and bits of flesh. “Watch your step... and stay frosty.”

All task forces acknowledge: courtesy of extra soldiers granted from Aegis’ detail, Task Force Delta is now heading down into the tunnels to lock down all previous cleared areas,” Hampton broadcasted. “Rest assured that more will be coming in due time, as reinforcements start trickling down from topside.

“Keep moving!” Viers shouted, as they charged down the hill. Clusters of Tiberium slowly began to increase in ever-growing numbers, accentuating the bright glow from their flashlights with an eerie green glow. “Ignore the Tiberium! Keep moving!”

“Are we there yet?!” Cliff shouted.

“We will be when I say we fucking are!” Viers shouted back. Bravo and Charlie had already taken up positions and had their positions updated as such; all that was left was for the final piece to arrive and the stage would be set. “Rally point up ahead!”

“No targets in sight,” Adalberto said.

“They must be preparing one hell of a welcoming party for us,” Jensen said, cycling fresh ammunition into his chaingun. “I’d hate for us to be ungrateful guests, so...”

“Slow down, and.... halt!” Viers shouted. The entire group came to a stop just as the hall began to open up, and another charge down into the lower depths greeted them. According to Viers’ map, sitting at the bottom of that charge was the entrance directly into the heart of the enemy’s territory. And there would be massive carnage to ensue.

“Ugh... down again?” Rosky said. “And here I thought we’d eventually end up on the other side of the planet...”

“Those suckers don’t have anywhere to run now,” Cliff said.

“Task Force Alpha, in position,” Viers said. “All units prepare to charge on my order.”

Bravo copies.”

Charlie, copy.”

“Alright then... everybody get your shit together,” Viers spoke on their general channel. “Because things are going to get hairy in there. Lancers have priority on the big targets, and they stay in the back. For everyone else... it’s open season.”

He paused as a roar came from below, as if the creatures within dared the soldiers to charge into their home territory, even though they’d been routed at every turn. Viers’ left-hand grip on his flamethrower tightened; this enemy did not see reason, and they were not going to surrender. So into the breach they went.

“Ready?! Three... two... one... charge!”

Commander. I’m glad you decided to tune in on this operation,” Wesley said. Surrounding Alexandra were dozens of displays, all carrying a live infantry feed, with the largest one sitting in front of him showing Wesley and the group of ponies looking off-screen as they watched the operation unfold. “Though... you look a bit different.

Alexandra shrugged and looked down at his integrated combat suit. “I’m set to move planetside pretty soon. CENTCOM seems to be pretty pushy about it. How have things been going so far?”

As one would expect when sticking their arm into a hornets’ nest,” Wesley said, sighing. “The whole situation has been... standard, so far. Contact was inevitable, and now that it’s happened, there’s nowhere to go but forward. The whole place is almost like an anthill, from what the map shows. Tons of antechambers and smaller halls for the lesser creatures, and primary mainstays for transportation for the larger ones.

Alexandra’s console lighted and withdrew the displays, producing a 3D map of the surface and the entire tunnel network underneath. At the bottom pulsed a waypoint left by Commander Hampton for the bottom chamber, and the rally points for each respective task force.

“How’s their progress so far?”

Smooth. Resistance so far has been brushed aside without much problem. Task Force Charlie was the first to encounter shards of Tiberium protruding out of the walls. Turns out that the lower they go, the larger the concentration of the crystals.

“Have they located the source?”

That would be the bottom, commander. No doubt that it must be some sort of hyper-advanced flora that adapted to spread at extremely fast rates. Soil samples have revealed seeds of such flora bearing such capabilities. Some of them now sit isolated in the labs as we look into it further.

“I see that all the forces are already gathered outside of that chamber. I can’t say that I’m not interested in what’s sitting in there myself, really.”

Agreed, commander. Now if you don’t mind, I—oh, there they go.” All three task forces positions shifted, all streaming into the chamber at once as the telltale sound of gunfire could be heard on Alexandra’s auxiliary feeds, their volumes choppy and partially muted as every camera flashed to life with images of gunfire and flames.

Twilight and the ponies gasped as one of them, a primrose pegasus hiding just beyond Wesley’s shoulder, covered her eyes and squeaked in fear. The rest attempted to comfort her as a means to distract themselves, unwilling to bear witness to the violence playing out before them.

“I take it they’re not familiar with violence,” Alexandra noted.

Oh, they’re aware of it... just that most of them probably never see something this extreme within their lifetimes. An unfortunate first time for everything, it seems, but they have told me that it’s their... duty, of sorts, to see and understand these things. And Twilight has refused my offer to have the MPs escort her and her friends to somewhere... less gruesome.

“If they insist... civilians have no place seeing this sort of shit up close.”

As one of the few that the Princess trusts, Twilight tells me that she and her friends were very important in keeping their country safe during times of turmoil.

“No offense, but that’s probably some pretty tame ‘turmoil’ if they haven’t exactly realized that everywhere else isn’t all sunshine and daisies.” The roster for the task forces showed that most of the soldiers were uninjured, with what few casualties there were merely being wounded. So far, so good.

They do seem peaceful,” he said, observing the ponies watching the screens. “Then again, they are colorful ponies...

“Well, I guess it would be surprising if such... cuteness, as Hampton would put it, masqueraded as anything else. Are you making any sense out of all of this?” The feeds were an absolute nightmare to decode, incoherent with sounds of orders and shouts adding to the frantic pace of combat.

Not much on my side, I’m afraid. Thank goodness things haven’t gotten worse. The combat’s practically censoring itself at this point. So many flames.

“So I can see. Dagger, sitrep.”

Things are hot right now, sir!” Viers said. “I think we got most of them now, and several of Bravo took some hits since they came straight through the middle. We got rid of the big guys and we’re just mopping the rest of them up now. Alpha, hang right! Let’s get to the bottom of this!

Alexandra brought up Viers’ camera feed as the commando entered the final chamber, his soldiers firing alongside him. “What the hell...?”

Holy shit...” Viers echoed, stunned enough by the sight to pause as his men continued to funnel past him and finish off the last remnants of the howling dogs cowering on the other side of the chamber. “Hey, commander... are you seeing this?

“Definitely...” Alexandra looked back at Wesley. “Doctor, what’s your experience with Tiberium types?”

Wesley looked up at him with interest. “Plenty, of course. In simplified terms, I have had research experience for all Tiberium types ranging from the sludge, from green to blue and red. Why do you ask?

Alexandra paused Viers’ feed, still pointing straight at the object that he knew was the source of this Tiberium incursion, and for the attacks on Camp Greenwood. It was a humongous sliver of crystal, identical in appearance to the Cruentus strain that had been well-documented on Earth.

...is that what I think it is, commander? The home shard?” Wesley asked, finding himself staring at the feed alongside the ponies.

“I don’t think that’s what we need to worry about at the moment, doctor. Tell me something... do you ever remember Tiberium being purple before?”

Chapter 10: Providence

View Online

“This is... interesting.” Wesley stared at the crystalline monolith, easily taller than the size of a walker as a group of research staff locked in sonic control rings, transportation rings designed to suppress growth, around the device in preparation for its ferry to the surface. “That is one large specimen. What do you think of this, Twilight?”

Well, it’s... enormous. Have you ever seen anything like this before?” Twilight responded from within Camp Greenwood, still in the command center with Harold. “In most circumstances, we only ever encountered the green variant...

“It’s certainly new to us, for sure. In our time fighting against Tiberium, we’ve come across a variety of strains... but nothing like this. Green, blue, red... purple is a new one. This ‘home shard’ must have some kind of communicative ability with the diamond dogs... but only after they’ve been afflicted.”

Viers walked up behind him, dropping a pair of floodlights into the ground and directing them up at the ceiling. “Shame we don’t have any Ghost Stalkers around... they would be pretty useful in seeing if that’s true.”

One of the staff finished locked in the final bolt and waved up to Viers. “Control rings are good to go, sir! Frame is in the green, thrusters are fired up, and EVA has the transportation route to topside calculated. Ready to activate thrusters on your go.

“Dagger to Aegis, have the facilities been prepared?” Viers asked.

Roger that, Dagger. The engineers have the research facilities set up near the landing pads. Just get it up here and let EVA do the rest. Be advised that base expansion is still under progress. Commander Alexandra is currently surveying for a base—now codenamed ‘Providence’—to establish his commander bunker.

“Read you clear, Aegis. Any progress on finding a location?”

It’s on standby. We’d ask ourselves, but the translation software that InOps managed to put together is still being distributed, and the city defense forces have yet to get them. We are, however, pouring down pavement as fast as we can, trying to get at least one road up the mountain before the Scrin get here.

“They’re overcrowded within Canterlot,” Wesley said. “Maybe we can finally get around to helping alleviate some of their overpopulation problems.”

I’ll talk to Princess Celestia when I get the chance,” Twilight said. “Or maybe Princess Luna after she’s finished recovering! I’m sure she’d agree. I think lots of ponies would be on our side, given that we’ve tried branching out from Canterlot before, and those didn’t end too well...

“Hence the sanctum and the segregation of those who had afflictions and those who did not. I wonder if medical and food supplies have reached Canterlot yet?”

Negative, doc,” Hampton broke in. “As it is, we’ve got a whole bunch of convoys ready to roll up the hill. Maybe you can grab one of them and head up to deliver the aid... and maybe find some prime real estate for Commander Alexandra?

“That sounds great. Lieutenant,” he said with a nod to Viers. “I’ll leave you to your supervising. Harold, are you listening? I need you to get down to the barracks and see if the engineers can’t rig up another suit...”

“Wow, Twi!” Applejack said as Twilight exited the engineering bays. “Your suit looks a lot like mine! And here I thought they just slapped mine together usin’ some spare parts or somethin’.”

“It does feel a little uncomfortable... but I guess I can chalk that up to being an actual power suit,” Twilight said, dropping the horn-fitted helmet over her head. “Can I...? Oh, darn it. I can’t use magic in this thing. I wonder if this is how the royal guards feel all the time.”

“If it’s that essential, we could just remove it...” Harold said.

“Well, unicorns are kind of known for being able to use magic. Could you ask if they could do that?” With a hiss, she took off her helmet and gave it to Harold. “I hope it isn’t too much trouble...”

“It’s just a piece of metal, how hard could it be?” Harold said, strolling back inside as Twilight and Applejack looked over each other’s suits.

Twilight giggled. “You know, it’s kind of weird seeing a pony without a tail or mane.” She looked over her shoulder at the extended posterior space within the suit allocated to fit pony tails. “At least they can make sure that crystals won’t catch on us. Mine feels a bit loose, though...”

“Well, they probably are spare parts,” Harold interrupted, returning with the helmet with a small hole above the forehead for Twilight’s horn. “The armor plates we use for you ponies use are far too small to be used on power suits except in specific circumstances, and I don’t think any such ones have arisen yet.” He checked his PDA: Wesley was scheduled to return shortly, and from there, he and Twilight would depart for Canterlot. “Doctor Wesley, ETA on your return?”

Right now. Is Twilight suited up?” Wesley asked, as Twilight levitated the helmet gently onto her head yet again, letting the nub of her horn protrude through the helmet’s open space.

“She just exited the engineering bays, and the suit looks good to go.”

Excellent. Send her our the barrack doors and I’ll meet up with her.

“Should I go with her?” Applejack asked.

“Applejack would like to ask if her presence is required,” Harold asked on her behalf.

If she’d like to. Being that she’s been here in Greenwood longer than any of her friends, though, I would rather prefer it if she stayed behind to keep them in check, and to help you gather information.

“Information, sir? Information on what?”

Them, of course. From what I can tell, pony society seems shockingly close to Earth-level technologies, cultural habits, and even language, if what the reports you’ve sent to me are true. You have a unicorn, a pegasus, and our resident earth pony, so I doubt you’ll have much trouble trying to learn things. Unless asking things about their species is a no-no, but I highly doubt that.

“Right, then. Twilight, Doctor Wesley will meet you outside. How does everything look?”

“Uh, there’s a lot of things that I can’t read in here...” Twilight said uncertainly.

“Are there any red lights?”

“No... uh, at least, if our definitions of the color red are the same thing, that is...”

“Red like the apples on Applejack’s... uh, hindquarters thingy.”

“Cutie mark,” Applejack corrected.

“Right, cutie mark,” Harold said, making a note of it in his PDA. “How the heck did it end up with a name like that...?” he muttered to himself.

Twilight blinked for a few moments, watching her HUD for anything outstanding. “When you put it like that... then I don’t see anything wrong. How bad is it if there are red lights, though?”

“Among many things, it usually means that your suit might be undergoing an environmental breach or suffering a catastrophic failure somewhere in there. It’s just been simplified to the point where if you’re seeing red lights anywhere on your display there, you should probably notify someone as soon as possible, preferably an engineer. I’ve taken the liberty of uploading a translation program into your suit’s systems, so you should be able to communicate to other humans without the doctor around.”

“Wow, this is all pretty impressive... uh, do I get to keep this?” Twilight asked, tapping her chestplate.

“Unfortunately not. It’s property of the Interstellar Defense Initiative, so you’ll have to return it after the current crisis has been resolved. The barracks main entrance is down to our left,” Harold said, pointing down the hall past the front desk and towards the wall in the far distance with a giant yellow arrow pointing due right, labeled ‘airlock’. “Come on, we’ll walk you there.”

“I feel like I should go with her,” Applejack said. “Twi’s never been much of a fighter, or at least when it actually comes to buckin’ a monster straight up. Can’t you at least give her one of your weapons?”

“Applejack, even I’m not certified to use those sorts of weapons, much less being properly trained to use them,” Harold said, checking the arsenal pictures of the weapons normally used by zone troopers. Just the basic chaingun or cannon was easily over Twilight’s size... no, they’d need a far more hardier pony than her to wield such weapons. “And even then, you ponies don’t have fingers... how would you fire the weapon?”

“Oh, I get you,” Applejack said. “You humans can sure do a lot of stuff with those hands of yours.”

“Yeah, it’s something that we’re really known for... even among the other species. Five seems to be the magic number, as opposed to three, or for you ponies... uh, none.”

They walked around the corner, and Harold stopped Applejack as Twilight walked into the airlock. She looked around for a moment, standing in the empty space and gave Harold a confused look. “Isn’t the door supposed to open?”

“It’s an airlock, Twilight...” Harold said, as flashing red lights flipped on and the bulkheads into the barracks began to shut. “Can’t let the air from outside get in here, after all! Good luck!” he managed to end with, as the bulkhead sealed shut with a thud.

“I hope she’ll be alright out there...” Applejack said.

“Well, the convoy heading up to Canterlot is armed, and we seem to have eliminated the most pressing threat at the moment. I don’t think we’ll have much in the way of trouble unless something else decides to rear its ugly head.” Harold tapped on his PDA, bringing up the minute amount of notes that they’d amassed on ponies. “The doctor wants me to gather information about ponies.”

“What kind of information? I ain’t tellin’ you anythin’ important, if that’s what you’re goin’ to ask ‘bout...” Applejack said cautiously.

“No, no, nothing like that,” Harold assured her. “He wants me to learn about you guys. History, culture, the kinds of food you eat, what’s up with the whole different pony types and all that stuff.”

“Oh, stuff like that? Well, I guess I can fill you in on that stuff... shoot, I’m not really much of an egghead. That’s usually Twi’s sort of thing, you know?”

“She’s into research?” he asked.

“And books. She’s practically read almost every book there was in the Ponyville Library... er, well, before all the books got moved back to Canterlot, that is. She can probably tell you every little detail on Equestrian culture and history without breakin’ a sweat.”

“Damn. She could have practically finished my assignment for me. Oh, well,” he said, shrugging. “Things is, though, he wants me to gather information on the other pony types, too. Since Twilight isn’t here, I suppose Rarity and Rainbow Dash can help me fill in the details?”

“You bet they will,” Applejack said, tossing her mane over her shoulder, irritated by it bumping off of her shoulder guard. “Dash just loves talkin’ ‘bout anythin’ related to pegasus history or culture, and I’m sure Rarity knows quite a bit ‘bout how unicorns act... they’re pretty frou-frou, so it shouldn’t be too hard to get it down right.”

“Great. They’re probably still with Pinkie... so we should go find them there.”

“Are we goin’ to ride those fancy movin’ metal boxes again?” Applejack asked.

“You mean the elevators?” he said, raising an eyebrow at her.

“Yeah, those things. We don’t have those ‘round here, so ridin’ in them is like takin’ a step into the future or somethin’,” she said, looking around for the telltale doorways from which elevator-goers exited from as she trotted towards the front desk.

“Wrong way, Applejack... the medical center is the other way,” he said, as she came to a complete stop. She turned around and gave him an awkward grin.

“Sorry, I’m more of a mare of action... my hooves start workin’ before my brain does sometimes. Uh, I’ll just follow you... I mean, you don’t get lost much, what with that fancy book-thingy you carry ‘round, right?”

“Well, the personal digital assistant does contain maps of the current base layout and building schematics... so, you’d be right. Not the most impressive thing we have around here, I’d say. That would probably be the nano-production facilities we have inside the construction yard, or maybe the interstellar troop carriers, but I can’t show you those.” He led them back down the tiled hall towards the medical center, a giant red arrow on the wall to their right pointing the way for them.

They passed through the lobby that the ponies had sat in earlier that day as they nervously waited for the results of the operation, going straight past the chairs and for the elevator that sat undisturbed at the end of the hall, still at the first floor since Applejack, Twilight, and Harold had taken it down themselves.

Giving a quick tap of the button, the doors parted and they stepped inside, and Applejack immediately pressed the button for the second floor. “Two. I can read human numbers now,” she said, chuckling as the elevator doors closed and the machine came to life.

“Not bad. I might have to pull out some more advanced books for you. Maybe ones that revolve around agriculture, perhaps? I know there’s a whole slew of farming techniques that we use ourselves that would probably interest you,” he said, meeting her gaze as emerald green eyes stared back at him.

“Well, I can’t farm or do anythin’ much ‘til our friends get out of here...” she said. “I’ll do it. I’d say you should pull up some adventure stuff for Dash, but she can’t read human. I’ll bet she would, though; don’t let her fool you, she just loves readin’.”

“Does she now?” Harold said, smiling to himself. “I’ll have to keep that in mind...”

“Do you like readin’, Harold?” she asked him.

“Me? I guess I do. I mean, my job involves doing a lot of it, but there’s a clear difference between reading for work and reading for enjoyment. I try to keep them separate, otherwise I find that the staleness of work’s readings will tend to bleed into my enjoyment, and that’s no fun. What about your other friends? Rarity, Fluttershy, Pinkie... or even Luna?”

“Mmm, the other aren’t much for readin’ types,” she said, as the bell dinged. They stepped off and into the peaceful halls, giving a nod to the guards that had been present ever since Applejack’s visit. “I think Rarity reads a bit, and so does Fluttershy, but I don’t think if Pinkie reads anythin’ beyond the Ponyville newspaper. And for Luna, well...”

They entered the hall where Luna and Pinkie were being kept to find the other ponies gathered around the bed of the former, all eyes turned onto them. The Princess of the Night, although still feeble, managed to open her eyes and direct them straight at Applejack and the human.

“...hello...” Princess Luna greeted.

“Greetings, Twilight!” Wesley said, waiting just outside the door for her as a convoy of hover-trucks sat stationary behind him. “Are you ready to go?”

“I guess I am,” Twilight said, her voice broadcasted through her helmet’s speakers. “Is the air out here okay to breathe without the helmet?”

“For short periods, yes. Prolonged exposure combined with saturated air can lead to complications in the long run, and it certainly doesn’t help that we’re in the process of cutting down the nearby forest to prevent any more spreading here,” he said, leading them to an Chariot APC at the head of the column.

“Those large machines...” Twilight said, staring in awe as a harvester passed by them on its way to the refinery to deposit its payload for processing. “How do they work?” she asked, breaking her gaze and entering the Chariot through the rear door, after which Wesley pulled a lever and the ramp lifted and sealed it off.

“Breaks the crystals into manageable sizes, then simply sucks them up for storage in the vehicle’s collection bays,” Wesley said, holstering his cannon in the vehicle’s weapon compartments and sitting down; Twilight took the seat across from him. “From there, it takes them to the refinery, where our machines break them down into raw materials used for our construction. It’s a very intricate process; I’d love to show you it later.”

“I’d like that a lot, actually. Wow, it’s just so... I don’t know how we can thank you, doctor. Our situation just seemed so hopeless, and then you all just sort of... showed up, out of nowhere.” Twilight nervously clapped her armored hooves together.

“There is one way you could repay us: we need land to build a primary base.”

“Oh, I heard you talking about that before... you can take the hills next to Ponyville, perhaps, up near Winsome Falls?” Twilight offered. “Or at least, what’s left of it now... it used to have clouds that poured liquid rainbow into the lake below.”

Faint communications chatter drifted in from the driver’s compartment, the sound of Hampton’s voice a tone higher than the regular fare before it went silent. Not a moment later, the Chariot lurched forward as the sound of engines drowned out any ambient noise, save for the whirs of the Orca dropships en-route to the landing zones.

“Waterfalls of rainbow...?” Wesley said. “Now that I would have liked to see... In any case, these Winsome Falls are the hills directly south of Ponyville?”

Twilight nodded. “Yep! The falls are all but gone now, though... the clouds were taken out when the storms started rolling around shortly after the destruction of Cloudsdale. It’s probably dried up by now, but I’m sure some old buildings might still be up there.”

Wesley marked the location on his regional map for Commander Alexandra to look at later on. Command bunkers needed to be established somewhere easily defensible, and the top of Winsome Falls sounded like the perfect place to build one. No doubt that the hills would end up looking like a fortress by the time the week was over.

Waypoint Delta has been reached, now heading straight up to Waypoint Castle. All convoys, check your cargo and buckle in,” the Chariot driver warned. “Stay right and follow my lead.

“I doubt they’ll have much trouble with their cargo...” Wesley muttered. “They’re damn hover-trucks, after all, and they’re just bringing up food and medical supplies, along with the staff that we’re bringing up at the moment to bolster OP Castle.”

“OP? What’s that mean?” Twilight asked.

“It means ‘observation post’. OP Castle sits right outside Canterlot and has an unobstructed view over the entire valley as well as having clear line of sight into the skies. That makes it particularly useful for defense... or at least until Providence is established.”

“Providence?” Twilight further inquired.

“The base that we plan to center our operations around, as well as being where we plan to establish our refugee camp for the ponies. How are the living conditions in Canterlot?” he asked, deactivating his visor’s natural green fog so Twilight could see his face.

“Very bad. I ventured out into the city once, and most of the buildings are barely being kept standing as it is. Most were destroyed when the worst of the storms blew through Canterlot, and lots of ponies unfortunate enough to not have a roof over their heads have to suffer through the night and cold. The sanctum isn’t that much better: everything inside has been rationed, from food, to water, and even space.”

“I noticed you had gardens on the castle grounds.”

“Yes, but that isn’t enough; it’s nowhere near enough to feed the mouths of every pony that we currently have. And to think that most of it is allocated to the rich nobleponies that would rather spend their concern on their own well-being than making sure that those who need the food get it first. Not to mention Prince Blueblood...”

“Prince Blueblood? Does he hold the same authority that the princesses do?” Wesley asked.

“No, he doesn’t, but the way he connives and schemes has been wholly detrimental to our efforts. It’s always little things: something missing here, or a different thing handed off there, but it all adds up when you see Prince Blueblood still able to take those lavish baths and indulging in expensive foods.”

Wesley frowned. “It looks like we’re going to have a conflict of interest with him, then, and these other nobleponies. Why hasn’t Princess Celestia seen fit to deal with them yet?”

“Because there’s never any proof!” Twilight shouted. “It’s just so frustrating because we are clearly in a time of crisis and he’s off... fucking around when we should all be focusing on trying to survive!” She panted heavily, as Wesley tilted his head at her.

“...you seem to be taking this a lot more personally than one would think,” he said evenly.

“Sorry, sorry, it’s just... lots of pent-up stress, and... that uncouth bastard is surrounded by sycophants, and he tried to make a move on me, and all of my friends! And when he didn’t get his way, he started trouble after that. Only when Celestia stepped in did he finally tone things down, but he...” She sighed and shook her head. “He’s bad news.”

“I’ll instruct the men to keep close tabs on our supplies, then, and make sure it gets distributed to the right parties. And if not, well... I can always persuade our commander to make sure it does.”

“How much influence do you have with your commander?” Twilight asked, shifting the subject to something less uncomfortable. “He’s in charge of the whole force, right? Isn’t he pretty busy?”

“Well, Twilight, I’m a pretty important man, or at least as important as things can get. Doctor by trade, intelligence officer by rank. Every commander has a contingent of ISDI Intelligence Operations members to help supplement his command with field intel gathering and analysis. I myself was assigned to his expeditionary force as an authority of the biological matters of Tiberium. My initial purpose would have been to land with the spearhead force, document any unusual traces of Tiberium growth, report the findings, and obtain any specimens of life we may encounter, Tiberium or not.”

“...specimens? You don’t mean us, do you?”

“Oh, heavens, no. I was brought on-board to analyze local plant life, but since we found you ponies instead, I seem to have had my role relegated to being an actual doctor instead a... well, biologist, essentially. We didn’t really count on finding untampered life here, much less an actual sapient species. But I guess that just shows how hardy anybody can be when they want to.”

“Well, we ponies are pretty resourceful...” she said, nodding.

“Having magic tends to help with that, I’d assume. Speaking of which, I do have some questions pertaining to the gigantic shard that we’ve found down in the caves. Has there been any instance recorded on your side in which Tiberium has shown to exhibit magic-using qualities?”

“No, none at all, actually. Most of the time, it was just the green variant, and nothing else. This is as much news to us as it is to you, doctor.” She fidgeted around in her seat; sitting on a seat made for much larger beings coupled with her suit’s flat armor plating made her feel sore. “But you have said that it communicates. That means something bigger is working behind the scenes causing all of this.”

Wesley leaned forward. “Are there any other races in Equestria capable of using magic? Maybe one of them could be the cause. It might even be a pony, perhaps a rogue unicorn?”

“Well, the griffons were never really one to use magic... the zebras don’t use it... the dragons could possibly fit the description,” she said, tapping her helmet’s chin guard in thought. “It could be them...”

“Dragons? In human culture, they’re considered mythological creatures. Unsurprising that we’d find one in land where unicorns and pegasi exist, though. What can you tell me about them? Visual description, habits... location?”

“Well...” Twilight began. “...dragons are usually scaled, in various different colors, and prefer to stay to themselves except when migrating as a group, and tend to be variable in levels of magical power ranging from miniscule to something comparable to the princesses.. They’re located up in the north, and they eat gemstones on top of regular fare given their omnivorous diet—”

“Wait, stop for a moment. Did you say that they eat gemstones?”

“Yes. I thought that would pique your interest,” Twilight said, laughing herself. “My assistant, Spike, is a dragon, though he... he departed for the dragon lands near the beginning of this crisis in order to contact the dragons. We haven’t heard from him since...”

“We’ll get to that when we come to it. That is a worrying prospect: they can use magic, they eat crystals, and... how hard are they to kill, normally?”

“Killing a dragon?” Twilight voice wavered for a moment, surprised by the unexpected question. “Well... Equestria hasn’t fought the dragons for... ages. Not since ancient times. Like, really, really ancient. The eldest of the dragons are probably weaker than the princesses, but far more powerful than any other being on the planet, and even then, most are pretty tough to kill given their natural constitution.”

Dragons. That was an interesting note that Wesley never thought he’d be adding to his specimens list. “Yes, very worrying. If they’re hard to kill, then chances are that they may not have been destroyed... they might have ended up being mutated and become reliant on the Tiberium itself to sustain themselves.”

“Oh, no... how bad can it be?”

“If they were mutated? Very. Moving on now, I’d like to ask about the average scale of dragons in comparison to, say... you or me.”

“A fully grown dragon is very large, even larger than the mechanical walkers that the ISDI uses,” Twilight said. “Gosh, I should have brought my own notes; I had an entire section dedicated to dragon biology due to taking care of Spike... anyway, a good deal are probably twice as tall as you are. And the biggest ones in known history can even reach the size of entire cities like Canterlot.”

“Then let’s hope that my worst case assumptions are entirely incorrect,” Wesley said. Size, power, constitution, and surprisingly, eating habits, all factored into this. Had there ever been any recorded incident in the ISDI archives where someone actually ate Tiberium? He’d have to check that later.

Doctor Wesley, we have arrived at OP Castle. Aid is ready to be delivered under your supervision.” the Chariot driver called back to him. “Take your time while you’re in the city. We can leave whenever you want.

Wesley fogged his visor again, as he pulled the lever and opened the rear hatch, deciding to leave his weapon behind since he was entering a civilian zone. “Well, Twilight, let’s get that aid to the city as soon as possible.”

One of the worst things about being commander was a condition simply named ‘flat-ass’, or discomfort of the aforementioned body part from sitting at the command console for prolonged periods of time. At its worst, a commander could be sitting in his command bunker in a contested area, the explosions shaking the ground only adding to the discomfort. It was one of the reasons why Alexandra had paid for a luxury chair out of his own pocket.

Commander, the relief aid has just reached the indigenous settlement,” EVA notified him. “Doctor Wesley has notified me that malcontents may be present, and has allocated increase security to ensure that the aid is given to those who need it.

“Does he now? Patch me through to him,” Alexandra said, flipping through his channels from CENTCOM. Ever the pencil pushers, commanders always seemed to get the worst of the paperwork. If he’d known that the red tape associated with being a commander was so great... he might have just opted for a forward battle command instead.

Yes, this is Doctor Wesley. I assume EVA has told you about my concerns...

“Explain to me about these malcontents. Are they getting violent down there?” Cute colorful ponies... getting violent. Amusing, but most sapient species had their fair share of violence ingrained into them; conflict was ingrained into nature itself, after all.

Well, they’re not... outright blanching at our presence. I’ve been notified by my friend Twilight here that there are groups within the refugees that are... well, I’m sure you know that certain corporation heads get leeway in times of emergency?

“I’m well aware of that.” At least in the ISDI, the only time they ever flexed their emergency powers was when things needed to get done. The Idris Corporation CEO had capitalized on that on more than one occasion to ferry sensitive components on his private spacecraft with authorized clearance to avoid being hamstrung by conventional transportation.

Well, assume it’s something like that, except the parties involved want to get their hands first on the goods before anyone else does. I’ve put extra troopers on security, and I have Twilight supervising the whole thing to make sure it doesn’t fall into the wrong... hooves. She isn’t very confident, as it seems that they also have eyes and ears everywhere...

“Then just make sure that the afflicted get highest priority on the aid and the food. I’d rather not have an incident on my hands... the news network are already well aware of my situation as it is,” he said tiredly.

It certainly can’t be that bad,” Wesley said, though the lack of enthusiasm on his face certainly said otherwise. “What we’ve found here is better than anything in the past. We didn’t find them nearly extinct, scattered across an entire continent in groups of a dozen or less.

“You do have a point. But this can go either way depending on how we play our cards, and the news are... well, let’s just say that running into more sapient life is cause to plaster this sudden revelation all over the news networks.” He sighed. “With lots more discussion about myself interspersed with it.”

Oh, really? I haven’t really stayed in tune with the news... it can’t possibly be that bad, could it?” Wesley said.

Alexandra shook his head, chuckling. “If only you knew...” He tapped a button off on the side, a mute of all the news feeds he had left unattended until now. The resulting audio unleashed came through all at once, a massive overlap of accounts and opinions that Alexandra had become rather used to.

—Commander Martin Alexandra has discovered sapient life on an inhabited planet, as released by ISDI Central Command! Can we really trust the man to—

I’m telling you, this can only end in disaster! Alexandra is a loose cannon commander given too much leeway with the men under his command! Innocent lives could be put at risk, so why not—

—see, this is why I agree with General Hallman’s decision. He’s afraid—nay, he knows that this situation is a volatile bomb just waiting to explode! It makes perfect sense to send a more sensible commander like Trent Redding to defuse this before it gets any—

—and we’re just going to let this stand? Our feeds have revealed to us that this so-called ‘inhabited’ planet rife with Tiberium is about to come under Scrin attack very soon. We all know of the Hammerfest’s departure from Osiris Naval Base. Clearly, this is a threat that requires more than just an expeditionary force to—

—we have a man like him presiding over first contact with another species! Honestly, this could go either way. I’m sure his bravado and unorthodox methods are what his detractors are focusing far too great on. People cannot forget that Alexandra has shown clear respect for the preservation of all lives involved, and I believe he can—

—his own Inferno Corps will absolutely be needed to combat this threat. Faithful of Kane, do not forget that we, those of the Word of Nod, have one of our descendants among the ranks! From the lineage of Elias, Martin will purge the ranks of the heretical Scrin through cleansing fire! Kane watch over him, for—

—and why not have our two of our best commanders sent to deal with this threat? Okay, see this: Initiative News Network says that the number of these new sapient species is far greater than any previously ever seen before! Hallman’s protocol again shows its utility in allowing the ISDI to respond quickly—

Alexandra reactivated the mute, looking at Wesley with a dry smile. “See... everyone knows. And everyone won’t stop talking about it. And me, apparently.”

I... didn’t realize you subscribed to the Word of Nod network, Commander Alexandra...” Wesley said. “It’s surprising how they’re still given any chance to speak after the Ascension Conflict.

Alexandra shrugged. “Old times, old people. My father, by grace of his social ties, introduced me to them early in my life, and they seem to think I’m a success story, of sorts. They’re not bad people; they just like adhering to Nod’s teachings a little more than the average person. Nowhere near as fanatical as they used to be, though. Or well connected.”

Allow me to say that I’m not entirely convinced by that...” Wesley’s looked off-screen for a moment, nodding several times as he uttered assurances to whoever he was speaking to. “Well, commander, allow me to introduce you to...” There was the click as Wesley switched the transmission view from him to his suit camera feed.

As the screen suddenly flickered, Wesley’s face was replaced with another, a equine face colored in a most pristine white, staring at him with pale magenta eyes as the sight of her horn and ethereal mane easily caught his attention.

...Princess Celestia. Ruler of Equestria and the current leader of the ponies. It’s an honor to have you down here with us, princess. I didn’t expect you to leave your castle,” Wesley said. “But that does save me the trouble of having to find you.

So it would seem,” Celestia said, as a small notification at the bottom right of the screen appeared to notify him that his console’s local translation program was doing the brunt of the work. Given that the data it was receiving was ripped directly from Wesley’s own PDA translator, the most up-to-date version, the conversion was quick. “How did the operation go? Did you manage to save them?

The operation was a success, Princess,” Twilight answered for him. “They’re currently resting down at the hospital, in the base near Ponyville.

Celestia gave a heavy sigh, then wearily smiled. “Thank you, doctor. You have my deepest gratitude for saving my sister, and Pinkie Pie. And now you’re even going so far as to provide us with your own provisions...” She levitated a carrot up to her eyes, rotating to give her a better examination. “I haven’t seen produce so fresh in such a long time...

But... uh, you know what that is?

Of course she would,” Twilight said, her tone bearing a trace of disbelief. “That’s a carrot. Everypony knows that.

Right, I had this sort of conversation with Applejack, too...” Wesley recalled. “You know what apples are. You know what oranges are. And now you know what carrots are, too. This is getting stranger by the minute.

“Let’s not get distracted here, doctor,” Alexandra broke in, earning a surprised gasp from Celestia as she looked around to determine where the sound of the voice came from.

That would be Commander Alexandra speaking, princess. He is viewing and listening in on our conversation through this device here: a camera, right next to my visor.” He tapped the lens several times for emphasis. “I decided to let him in on the conversation. He’s set to arrive here soon, but, uh... we still need lands for a proper base. Twilight has suggested that a location called Winsome Falls is a prime candidate for it?

Celestia’s face moved forward, an eye taking up the span of the screen as she spoke. “As it is, doctor, I’m perfectly willing to fulfill any requests for aid you may ask. Winsome Falls seems to have been mostly stable, as the trees died out early on when the skies were clouded over. The land should be suitable for your construction.

“You can stand back, Princess, I can see you just fine,” Alexandra said. “So, Winsome Falls. Where is that, exactly?”

In the hills just due south of the ruined town, sir,” Wesley said. “I’ll upload the coordinates to EVA and she can mark it down on the regional map for you.

“So, I’d like to make sure: I have your clear permission to build a facility on top of that spot?”

You are correct.

“Wesley, get it in writing. I’m afraid to end this conversation on such short notice, because construction has been put aside long enough... and I’m due for a visit.” Alexandra got out of his seat, putting on his commander’s jacket as he ordered the nonessential screens of the console to be shut down.

Wait, does that mean, you’re...?” Wesley asked.

“Roll out the welcome mat, doctor. I’m paying you guys a visit.”

“I swear to God, Alexandra, that’s why I told the board that we shouldn’t just rip all that Scrin tech and reverse-engineer it all willy-nilly,” Masterson said, putting on the bulbous helmet of his hazmat suit. “What if there’s, like... a crazy backdoor for their systems? For our systems? Maybe they planned on us using their technology all along! What if they have some sort of killswitch that can just shut off our jump drives at any freaking time that they want?! I’m pretty sure I saw that happen in a video game once.”

Alexandra shook his head, letting him ramble for a moment as he donned his own integrated combat suit. Would he need weapons? Most likely not, and he had a protection detail anyway. “If they had something like that, Henry, don’t you think they would have used it already?”

“Well... maybe,” he said, shrugging. “But it’s possible that they’re just saving it for later as a trump card or something.” His suit hissed as his seals activated, and he stood triumphantly in his custom-made hazmat suit, decked out with a variety of strange components across his torso and back. “Finally! It only took me about... twenty minutes to put this all together. Not bad.”

“And it was just a hazmat suit,” Alexandra commented. It had taken him a similar amount of time to put on his ICS, but that was more because of the underweave and locked-in components than dealing with the hodgepodge of electronics that Masterson carried on him. “What the hell do you even need all that stuff for, anyway?”

Masterson clicked on his flashlight and began cycling through his kit. “I... uh, this here’s a camera, this right here is a microphone for... data-gathering purposes... and this... well, I’m not sure what this one is, but it was in the box, so I think it’s important... oh, this one’s a naval distress beacon, for big emergencies, and this little box on my belt hooks up to EVA’s GPS system so she can have my position at all times. You know, since I’m not wearing a power suit.”

Alexandra’s helmet hooked into his neck’s underweave, the folding plates dropping into position over his face and sealing his helmet. He shut his locker with a slam and waited for the audio-visual receivers on his helmet to activate, providing him with a near-perfect perspective of normal eyesight, complete with HUD.

“Just how much money did you drop on all that, Henry?” Alexandra wondered out loud. “And why do you need recording hardware?”

“Several thousand. It’s all good, though, my salary can easily cover for that. And I have the recording hardware because, quite obviously, if I’m going to tell people that I was among one of the first to make contact with another sapient species, I’m going to need proof,” Masterson said, clapping gleefully as his test on the camera’s record function completed without error.

“I repeat myself: don’t start trouble, okay?” Alexandra said, wagging a finger at him.

“Don’t worry about that. Actually, I won’t record a single thing until after I receive permission from you, is that alright? Hmm, what’s this wire doing here...? Oh, they’re earphones from my old music player! I was wondering where they went...” Masterson said, untangling the device from his other wires and tossing it into his storage box before shutting his locker.

Alexandra rolled his eyes and walked out of the locker room as Masterson waddled out, earning several curious glances from a pair of naval personnel passing by. Alexandra’s HUD immediately hooked into EVA’s navigational systems and translucent blue arrows appeared over his display, contrasting with the dull yellow that the hallway was basked in.

“EVA, are you prepared for transport?”

Affirmative, commander. Final diagnostics were completed three hours and twenty-three minutes ago. My local systems on the Methuselah have had all power transferred to them while the main core is on minimal functionality in preparation for imminent departure.

“Good. Henry, stop trying to poke at your leggings with that pen. You might breach the suit.”

“I know, Marty, I know. Sheesh, you act like I’ve never done this before...” he huffed. “I can’t believe I have to wear something as primitive as this. Idris should make civilian-sector power suits.” He snapped his fingers. “Yes, that will be the topic of my next meeting with the board of directors.”

They walked along the hall with a momentary silence, letting the yellow on the wall direct them to the hangars, where their transport awaited them. “EVA, status of current weather developments in the region.”

Storms are minimal, and ionic interference has dropped to sustainable levels.

“Good. With any due luck, it’ll stay that way. Scan the region known as ‘Winsome Falls’ and gauge defensibility and subterranean capabilities. Location is in the hills due south of Camp Greenwood.” Their Orca dropship was the only transport ready to launch on the deck, and Alexandra’s trooper detail was already inside prepped for launch.

The region is clear. There is a clear lack of plant life, but the mountainous region located against the mountain face would serve nicely as a foundation for the command bunker, and the hills immediately above can be used as an airbase.

“Great. Estimate construction time and shield deployment charge-up.” The landing hatch began to whine, slowly closing as he and Masterson sat down across from the zone troopers. “Assume that all systems will skip shakedowns.”

Initial construction to a complete functional command bunker and base will take, at minimum two days. Crystal shield calibrations will take at least one. Citadel shields will take at least three.

He locked in his seat’s harness as the whir of the VTOL engines began to rev up, filling the cabin with the smell of exhaust. “Factor into refugee camp construction. Assume population count to be unknown, but factor in worst case scenario based upon area scan of the mountainside city,” he continued. There was no clear count of the numbers. He made a mental note to clarify that in person.

Destination set,” the pilot said. “ETA to Camp Greenwood: ten minutes.

“EVA, check weather scans again. What’s the difficulty of reaching OP Castle from our atmospheric entry?” Alexandra asked, as the vibrations from the craft pushing through the atmosphere made his voice shaky. Masterson was busy measuring gravitational pull on another one of his many devices as the butterflies in his stomach increased.

Minimal interference. Skies within the Greenwood region are safe to maneuver in.

“Pilot! Change course from Greenwood to OP Castle! EVA, notify OP Castle that friendlies are inbound... hope they can clear out a landing zone fast enough.”

Yes, sir!!” the pilot said. The tilt of the craft came in response to the order as he altered their course of direction. “New ETA: five minutes.

OP Castle is on standby for your arrival, commander. Ample space has been allocated next to the orbital defense cannon for your landing.

“This is clearly not the average civilian spacecraft...” Masterson managed to say, stuffing the device on his velcro hip-belt before hanging onto his harness for dear life. “I think I’m going to be sick...”

“First time on a dropship?” a trooper said, laughing aloud.

“Yeah! You guys have to deal with this all the time?!”

“Nope. Usually we just go in via drop pods, man! Twenty times as worse but a hundred times shorter. How the hell did you get on the Methuselah?”

“First-class transit from Idris’ own corporate spacecraft, of course! Hard to complain when you’re not the one paying for it!” he said, heaving several times as he fought to keep down his nausea. “But I guess there’s a first time for everything!”

“At least you’ll earn your burn-in wings, brother! Extra bragging rights if you don’t end up puking on your first time!” The trooper gave him a thumbs-up with his large hands as a meager reassurance.

“Don’t remind me, damnit! God, I think I’d hate to think what the flight would be like when the weather was still just ion storms up the wazoo. Er, aside from the part that we’d all probably be falling to the ground at neckbreak speeds, screaming as we’d be locked inside this metal coffin with no way out.”

“For you, maybe. We have jetpacks, man, we can just jump.”

“Damn. Okay, jetpack is going on my Christmas list.”

Final stretch is visible, commander, making our landing now,” the pilot said, as the atmospheric seals on the back of the craft opened up to reveal the sky and valley behind their approach. Though still tinted with the faintest traces of foggy green, sunrays were visible and served as a calm contrast to the darkened skies in the distance beyond the valley.

The Orca dropship rotated itself as it went into full vertical landing, turning their view of the valley into one of ornate city walls and the giant throngs of ponies now scrambling over each other to gain a better view of the flying machine. Alexandra judged by the numbers that they easily matched the average population size of the space colonies around Earth’s moon, if not more.

“Woo, yeah, I made it,” Masterson half-heartedly said. “Oh, man, remind me to never volunteer to ride on a ship with you ever again, Marty.” He unlocked the harness and had to have Alexandra help him out of his seat before merely waving him off and sitting back down, deciding to let the discomfort subside before walking outside.

Alexandra and the zone troopers, however, had no such problems, though he did think that it would have probably been a good idea to let Masterson know about the existence of anti-disorientation pills before he got on the dropship. He walked across the worn path leading to the Canterlot gates, passing by the defense cannon and meeting Wesley and his pony charges outside the gates.

He walked up to Celestia, putting his hands on his hips and merely taking in her details in silence before looking at Wesley and tilting his head questioningly. Wesley didn’t respond, nor did any of the ponies or the humans: he realized then the attention was turned on him. They were waiting for him to speak, to utter the first words exchanged between important representatives of both ponykind and humanity.

“...you know, doctor, I could have sworn that she looked bigger on the camera.”

Chapter 11: Reconstruction

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“I can think of better first things to say than that, commander,” Wesley said, suppressing his need to break out laughing on the spot. “Can’t you think of something better than that?”

“I’m a commander, not a diplomat, Wesley,” Alexandra said. “You want one of those, you go ass-kissing around the Office of the Secretary-General. Plenty of them around there.”

Celestia looked at him and raised an eyebrow, unsure of what Alexandra had just said. “Does he not have the same translation ability that you do, doctor?” she asked him.

“Well, he does, but...” Wesley gestured to Alexandra. “I guess he doesn’t have it on at the moment. Commander, if you would, please.”

“Ah, right. I keep forgetting that the damn thing doesn’t turn on by default.” Program select. Local. Task force. InOps. Translation program. Activate. He cleared his throat for a moment before starting, his voice low. “Hello there, Princess... uh, Celestia. I’m Commander Martin Alexandra, the leader of the task force sent to... well, ‘reclaim’ this planet. It’s a pleasure to meet you.”

“As it is to meet you, Commander Alexandra,” she replied smoothly. “I welcome you and your mission. You are... smaller in stature than the others.”

“That’s not a normal thing. My default size here is what a human is supposed to be... we just wear these suits as means to... uh, supplement our resilience and increase our aptitude in combat.” He looked at the zone troopers standing behind him. “Like those ones.”

“I see,” she said evenly, eyeing his armor as she sized him up compared to the troopers. Her sight was tinted purple as the barrier guarding Canterlot still stood between them, and she suddenly remembered that he was standing outside, and she inside. “Would you like to come in?”

“If you’ll have me, then yes,” Alexandra said. “There’s a lot of things I’d like to talk to you about, some of which you might have heard of already, if Wesley was with you at the time.”

“Yes... the ‘Scrin’, as you call them? I would like to know more about them, but I would rather not discuss it within earshot of my subjects.” Her horn glowed brilliant yellow and a small entrance in the bubble opened for him. “Please, enter.”

“Don’t mind if I do,” he said. He looked at the squad standing behind him and pointed at the ground. “Hold here. Assist in OP Castle’s activities if you want to... and make sure nothing bad happens. Usual fare. Got it?”

“Crystal clear, sir,” the closest zone trooper said, saluting him.

“Good.” He strolled through the barrier and heard a small buzz as it sealed behind him. “Shields... interesting. You use... ‘magic’ to power it?”

“Indeed. One of our own, Captain Shining Armor, is currently fueling the shield with aid from his wife, Princess Cadance. They’ve been doing it for as long as this crisis has existed, and I fear that its beginning to take their toll on them. Please, walk with me,” she said, gesturing with an open wing towards the main street that led to the castle.

“We could move in one ourselves, you know,” he offered as they began to walk, curious watchers held at bay by her royal guards. “Covers roughly the same amount of space, and maybe more or less powerful. Citadel shield systems were made to practically withstand the end of the world itself... or something similar to that. They can withstand orbital bombardment, so I guess that counts.”

“Orbital... bombardment?” Celestia tenuously asked. “You mean dropping things... from the skies?”

“Big, heavy things, fired at breakneck speeds that impact the ground hard enough to leave a crater,” he said, observing his HUD’s airborne contaminant readout. No detection of Tiberium spores within the area, and the atmosphere was breathable, but still bad. Par for the course on afflicted zones, but much better than the valley below.

It occurred to him that only he and Celestia were the ones walking, so he stopped, and turned around. “Doctor. You’re not coming with?”

“Apologies, Commander Alexandra. I am terribly occupied overseeing the distribution of relief aid at the moment,” Wesley said, waving him off as Twilight checked something off on the clipboard she floated in front of her as a box was handed off from trooper to pony. “If you require anything, just send me a message.”

“Understood.” Though the ponies seemed to be good-natured, it was in his experience as a commander that usually somewhere out there, someone wanted him dead. ‘Someone’ could apply to anything, including colorful talking ponies, but just in case, he had getaway devices built into his suit as a precaution, on top of the convenience granted to him by his jetpacks.

“You seem tense,” Celestia noticed.

“I’m always tense when Tiberium is involved,” he replied. How did she know? It wasn’t like she could see behind his helmet. There was no worry to be had here, anyway; if things went south, EVA would notify every ISDI unit within the immediate star system, and the soldiers around Canterlot would immediately drop everything they were doing and rush to his aid.

“If you wish, you can still bring along members of your security detail with you,” she offered.

He put a hand to his chest, feigning offense. “I assure you, Your Majesty, that I am clearly capable of handling myself during times of duress.” Dropping the act, he quietly added, “I’ve heard that there are... groups among you that aren’t entirely pleasurable to work with.”

“You heard correctly,” Celestia hushedly replied back. “Things... have been building up to a breaking point recently. I fear that they may spiral out of my control, should they decide to take control at a time where a power shift would be advantageous to their goals.”

“As far as things go, Princess, I don’t think I have much in the way of capacity to intervene. There are clear-cut protocols and rules laid out for assisting another sapient species under the threat of Tiberium, but I’m afraid getting involved in internal affairs is something we can’t do.”

“I understand. In any case, I have been anticipating their actions, and I may have to act soon...” she began, until Alexandra held up a hand to stop her.

“Make no mistake: we are a military and peacekeeping organization. If these troubles begin escalating to involve malicious destruction of property—either yours or ours—or harm to civilians or us, then we will intervene.” The crowds following them began to disperse as the guards became more forceful in their efforts to deter watchers, and they soon found themselves the only ones in the middle of the street, surrounded by a ring of guards.

Celestia watched him carefully for a moment, then spoke her next words evenly. “And you believe that they may come after you?”

Alexandra shrugged. “Maybe. Seems to be the easiest way to shoot yourself up the ladder if you’re looking for a convenient scapegoat, though that won’t really help much considering that if I get removed from the situation, my replacement isn’t going to be so carefree.”

And it was the truth. Redding was a methodical commander, always one to think first and act second; if he died, Redding’s first inclination would not be vengeance. He would look for answers, and he would get them... and due to his sense of strategy and tactics, along with his lauded textbook executions, he had been granted the largest InOps division and commando contingent in the entire ISDI. And Redding always favored situations that gave him an advantage...

“I see,” Celestia continued, meeting the eyes of a guard standing next to her. “Return to the castle immediately. I will expedite the journey of our guest here to my throne room to finish our conversation. You may meet us there.” The guard nodded, and stepped off to notify the other guards of her orders.

“Expedite? You aren’t seriously thinking of flying me to your castle, are you?” he asked.

She smiled mischievously at him. “Oh, no, of course not. I wouldn’t dare do such a dangerous thing, especially to an important guest such as yourself. I have something safer, and far quicker, in mind.” Her horn glowed again as an aura enveloped the both of them. “Do not panic. This will be over shortly.”

“So, wait...” he said, as he looked down at the rest of his body. “What are you doing?”

“Teleporting, of course,” she said matter-of-factly. “Or... does your kind not have this at your disposal?”

“Not... internally,” he said, ordering EVA’s systems onboard his suit to gather as much data on this strange phenomenon as it could. “Usually we have machines or something similar to facilitate that, but even then, the results have never been... fruitful.” Scrin jump technology unfortunately didn’t do much to forward teleportation technology.

“Well, then I hope this will be an... eye-opening experience for you,” she ended, giving a dainty laugh as his vision was blinded and he felt himself being pulled out of the world for the smallest fraction of a second.

Commander? Are you okay? Your position just shifted a huge distance within the span of a few seconds and EVA sent off some alarms,” Masterson’s voice echoed. “Uh, seriously, Marty. Just say something. Y’know, before I start crying wolf and you end up proving my theories right.

Alexandra coughed and opened his eyes, seeing the familiar light-blue font of his HUD, still fully operational, and the sight of red carpeting and a pale white wall beyond. The padded sounds of hoofsteps approached him and he saw Princess Celestia’s bangles stop before his face as she angled her head downwards and worriedly gave a look at the black matte color of his faceplate.

“Oh, goodness...” she said. “Commander, are you... are you okay?”

“Just... fine...” he said, to both Masterson on the comms and Celestia in front of him. “That took the wind out of my sails, Princess. One hell of a teleport.”

Jesus Christ, man, you nearly scared the living daylights out of me there. You’re lucky that your suit has a tracking chip in it, otherwise things could have gotten dicey. And what’s this crap about teleportation I hear?” Masterson said, as Alexandra ignored him to focus on Celestia’s words.

“I apologize. I had wanted to make a better impression than that, so I...” She sighed as he stood up, patting off his armor as she tilted her head at him. “I sincerely apologize.” She shook her head perfunctorily, tossing her wavy mane in various directions before stopping to stare at the ground. “These times have been very trying, and I wasn’t thinking straight. Very serious harm could have come from my teleportation spell.”

“Yeah... about that... what’s the worries behind that? You can just take matter and just go... poof!” He said, waving his hands around for emphasis. “And then it’s somewhere else.”

“Well... there was always the worry that either you yourself or anything that you wear might not... react well to magic. That could have very well ended disastrously for the both of us.”

“Humans don’t use much in the way of magic, Your Highness.”

That’s what you think...” Masterson said, catching wind of his conversation with Celestia. “You seem alright, so I’m going to just... uh, end this conversation here, since it’s important and all that. Just be sure to tell me the important parts about this teleportation, later, alright? It’s important for my... uh, notes.

“Duly noted, Masterson,” Alexandra replied under his breath. “So, Your Highness... Majesty... Excellency...?”

She laughed. “Any will do, Commander Alexandra.”

“Right, well... Majesty, I’m still alive, so there’s no harm done.” To put it lightly... “And we were discussing this whole... infighting problem earlier. I suppose you can’t just bring them in because they haven’t done anything yet, huh?”

Alexandra then noticed the guards positioned around the throne room as Celestia ascended to her seat of power, gracefully sitting down before looking down at him. “Correct. The party in question has... provoked several stern responses from me multiple times, but they have never escalated things to the point where I was required to bring them in.”

“Let me guess: politicians,” he blurted out.

“Hmm, almost correct,” she said amusedly. “Equestria has always been ruled by my own guidance as well as those of the ruling noble parties. I fear that some of them may be planning to do so, and I know that they have expressed intent to do this for some time now.”

“Infighting solves nothing,” he said, shaking his head as his repeated diagnostics on his suits had shown him that nothing was damaged. Good. “Why slimy fuc—assho—people like them even want to start up trouble during times like this is beyond me. Self-interests, I guess? Why the heck do they even want to depose a pegasus-unicorn hybrid that looks like the spitting image of royalty, anyway?”

“Many of them have their motivations, of course. All of which pertain to power and control, as is to be expected from one used to such positions,” she said. “I bring this up to you because I believe that you should be well aware of every party involved should things come to blows between us.”

“Well, I appreciate that, Your Majesty.” There were still concerns, of course, ones that would have to be relayed to both InOps and getting a second opinion from Redding on, but he would play along for now. Celestia did not seem to do wrong given how she and her subjects acted, but looks were always deceiving, and it was always a good idea to play the guessing game knowing your opponent’s moves. “Now, there’s something else I came to speak to you about...”

“Your request for land,” she said, nodding. “Granted.”

“...that’s it? No paperwork, no fanfare, nothing?”

“That will come later, I assure you, but for now, you are in pressing need to establish a foothold in this region, and your increased presence both here and in the valley would be greatly appreciated. You and your expeditionary force have been the greatest windfall for us in a very long time, and we have no wish to sour relations between us.”

“Good...” he said, sending the green light down through EVA’s lines and setting the gears into motion. “How many can I expect to house?”

“The numbers elude me at the moment, but I shall take a census and have the results delivered to you by the end of the day.”

“Counting that many in only a day?” he asked curiously.

She remained poised as a guard trotted up the steps and listened to her whispered orders, bowing deeply and galloping off out of the throne room doors as they shut behind him. “You underestimate how quickly we can accomplish things, Commander. I will have the results delivered to you, or Doctor Wesley, in the case where you cannot be located.”

“That’ll do,” he said, standing for a few moments as he watched the guards standing at the base of the throne.

“There is also the matter of the Scrin to attend to...” she said. “You say that they are coming to this planet. How long until they arrive?”

“Within the next several weeks, if our assumptions are correct. Their numbers are unknown, but they were originally intended to have two carrier ships en-route to this planet. One of them was sabotaged and destroyed by our strike teams, but the other escaped, and is on its way here now.”

He activated a hologram that transmitted from his helmet, tracing a star map of the current sector in the air in front of him. Starting with the planet that they were on, it zoomed out to show the ISDI and Scrin territories in the north, as well as the travel routes of their reinforcements.

“As you can see,” he said, “we’re both sort of in a rush to reach this planet. My expeditionary force is nothing compared to the elite battalions that I usually have under my command, and the Scrin forces en-route to this planet are one of the more dangerous cults. One that my own soldiers have fought many times before.”

“Dangerous? How so?” she asked. “And is there any way we can help you prepare for them?”

“Very dangerous. The Scrin military is divided into sub-groups called cults, each specializing in a branch of warfare that is best suited to their temperaments. The one en-route to this planet now is Annihilator Zero-Two, one of the largest cults and known for their ruthlessness and power. Any planet caught unaware by this is completely razed and converted for their needs. And as far as things go... no, I don’t think there’s much you can do to help us at the moment. We just need to prepare.”

“I see. Should you require the assistance of any of my ponies, simply ask and they shall provide it.” She sighed, shaking her head. “The onset of war in a time of crisis... this certainly does not bode well for us.”

“Oh, yeah, before I forget,” Alexandra interrupted. “I’d like to ask if you’d like to replace the shields...”

“Oh!” she said, standing and trotting down the steps. “Yes, I believe that would be for the best. Though I am... reluctant to hand away our protection to another party, Captain Armor has been at this for far too long. I will consent to your offer, and allow you to set up your shields within our fair city. I will notify him immediately.”

“Right,” he said. “You don’t mind if I tag along, do you?”

“I do not,” she said, her mane meandering around the air and catching his eye; EVA’s scans said it was definitely a mane, but nothing like he’d ever seen before. “Care for another teleport?”

“I’d prefer to walk.”

“Of course,” she said. “No accidents, of course. Are humans attuned to magic?” she asked, strolling past him towards the double doors as they glowed with a faint blue magic. It opened slowly as the guards standing on both sides bowed to her. Alexandra followed her out, entering the castle hall that was lit in a dull musty green from behind the stained glass windows.

“No, magic is a... myth, where we come from. Well, was a myth now...” They turned left and walked down the empty halls, towards a set of massive onyx double doors guarded by a dozen royal guards. A faint purple glow shimmered from behind the slits of the frame. “They’re behind that?”

“That they are.” As they drew closer, the glow intensified, almost to the point of blinding the naked eye had his helmet not immediately acclimated to the intense radiance of the purple light. The guards on duty seemed to pay no mind to it, saluting Princess Celestia as she unlocked the heavy deadbolts within the door’s structure and slowly pushed it open.

“Whoa,” Alexandra whispered. The room was almost barren, save for torches lining around the entire encirclement of the rooms, and a small door off to the side; in the center sat a transparent purple bubble, pulsating with magical energy as it shot into a great crystal dangling off the ceiling, shining rays of shielding magic onto reflectors that transferred the energy to the shield covering the city.

“They will be very glad to know that their time of rest draws near,” Celestia whispered, looking from him to the pair of ponies that sat next to each other on a spacious floor cushion within the bubble, their labored breaths following each other’s as their eyes remained closed, oblivious to their presence.

Celestia stepped forward first, holding an outstretched hoof to Alexandra to stay back. She circled around the bubble, watching the couple within with sad eyes as she stopped before them again, and inched her head closer to the bubble’s surface. “Shining... Cadance...” she cooed. “How are you both?”

Cadance opened her tired eyes, and gave Celestia a feeble smile. “Hello, auntie... we’re doing... fine...” she managed, still leaning against Shining’s shoulder as the stallion simply looked at Celestia and gave the best smile he could muster.

“That is good to hear,” Celestia soothingly said, feeling her heart sink at the sight of their tired eyes and haggard bodies. “Today... today I bring you good news, Cadance. We have found a candidate able to help us with protection of the city, and can provide a shield of their own.”

Both their eyes widened in surprise for the first time in months. “R-really...?” Cadance asked. “Oh, please, please, please tell me that this isn’t a dream, auntie...”

“It isn’t,” Celestia confirmed. “We’ve finally found a replacement for the both of you, so now you can rest. In fact, this newcomer stands with us in this very room...” Without looking back at him, she waved Alexandra forward with a wing. He quickly followed and appeared next to her, in all his alien wonder.

“Who... is that?” Shining asked.

“Greetings,” he said, giving a small wave. “I’m Commander Alexandra, leader of an expeditionary force sent to this planet to eliminate the presence of the green crystal that we know as Tiberium. After speaking with Princess Celestia here, it has come to my attention that we have the means to provide aid to you... in both supplies and shields.”

“How... effective... are your shields?” Shining asked. “You have to be able... to stop the crystal... from getting in... and stop the creatures from getting in... too...”

“Very effective,” Alexandra said, and that didn’t count guns, either. “Our kind has been dealing with the presence of the crystal for a substantial amount of our past. We know how to contain and eradicate it. Our shields were designed with this purpose in mind, among other things, to keep our forces safe in high-density environments.”

“And the defensibility of your shields?” Celestia asked this time. “To assure them of their effectiveness,” she quickly added.

“They were originally designed to protect cities, and from there, effectiveness increased as they eventually became standard for commanders like myself establishing a presence within any region. The threats we deal with are as well-armed, if not better armed, than our forces, so protection is paramount in every situation. Those shields can withstand a massive amount of punishment. I think you’ll find it more than adequate for your defense requirements.”

“How soon can you deploy this shield?” Celestia asked.

“I can deploy it right now, actually. The shields will require calibration over the next few days following activation, but we can bring it up to optimal operation parameters quicker if we reallocate the resources for it.” He tapped the side of his helmet. “The only thing I need right now is somewhere to drop it.”

“Is it a flexible shield?” Celestia pressed on, now genuinely curious. “Does it require a centralized point to project itself or can the shield and the point of origin be separate from each other?”

“Centralized, unfortunately,” he said. “We haven’t exactly... perfected the ability to move shields around while keeping the energy source stationary. But it’ll do the job.”

“Excellent. The market square of Canterlot will serve perfectly for your needs. It sits right at the heart of the city and has an ample amount of space. It’s been mostly unused since the crisis began, and acts as a gathering area for any announcements that I have my guards give out.”

Alexandra nodded. “Let’s set this thing up as soon as possible...”

“Wait a moment...” Shining interrupted, squinting his eyes as he looked up and down Alexandra’s body. “Just... what are you... anyway?”

“Well, that’s simple: I’m a human.”

“Whoa!” A trio of fillies skidded to a halt in front of them as Celestia and Alexandra approached the castle gates through the garden-turned-miniature-farm. “Is he one of them aliens that’s been showin’ up a lot?” Apple Bloom asked.

“You are correct, little Apple Bloom,” Celestia said. “I apologize, but we must head out into the city, so he cannot answer your questions at the moment.”

“What, really?!” the orange filly next to Apple Bloom said, frowning at the princess and giving a cautious look towards the spot that she believed to be Alexandra’s face. “He’s not as big as those other aliens. Maybe we should just ask those big ones instead.”

“Are you kidding?!” a strident voice interrupted, as the little unicorn filly jumped into the air. “You were at the gates with us! This guy’s the commander of all those really big guys that came into the city! You know, like Commander Hurricane?”

“Psh, he doesn’t seem so cool. Hurricane was way better than... this guy.”

“‘This guy’ can make fire rain from the skies, kiddo,” he said. “I’d like to see your Commander Hurricane do that.” Not fire... but ion cannon beams always did leave quite the lasting impression on the protectorate species, especially when they were used en masse in defensive campaigns. No one wanted to be on the receiving side of that.

“Whoa! He can talk?!”

“Duh, you heard him talk, Scootaloo! Don’t act like you don’t know!” the unicorn chided her friend upon. “Now let’s just leave them alone; Princess Celestia said we could ask him questions later!”

“Come on, Sweetie Belle, you know you have at least one question to ask him! Oh, oh, I know! We should ask how he knows how to speak Equestrian! Pretty good question for you, huh, dictionary?”

“I am not a dictionary! I’m just well-read!”

“You’re totally a dictionary. Cheerilee said so herself!”

“Am not!”

“Are to!”

“Are not!”

“Are to!”


“You will be available later, correct?” Celestia asked, ignoring the growing discussion in front of her and arching a brow at him.

“I will be, I guess.” He looked down at the three fillies bickering before him. “Hey, shorties, just stay here at the castle. I’ll be back later to answer any questions you’ve got.” He looked at Celestia and shook his head. “Youth these days.”

“Awesome!” they all shouted. “Cutie Mark Crusaders Alien Interviewers, go!”

“Hey, wait...” Apple Bloom said, stopping her friends as they were about to gallop off into the castle. “Y’all are headin’ out into the city, right? We can just go with you! What’re you goin’ to do out there, anyway?”

“I’m going to drop a shield.”

“Drop a shield? That doesn’t sound helpful at all,” Sweetie Belle said, looking confused at his statement. “Why drop a shield? Is it a special shield? Does it protect from the crystal?”

“He’s talking about a magical shield, Sweetie Belle,” Apple Bloom said flatly.

“Oh... oh! I knew that.”

“Did he just call us short?!” Scootaloo shouted. “Hey, tough guy, I’ll take you on any day! I’ll bet Rainbow Dash can kick your—”

“Scootaloo!” Apple Bloom reprimanded. “Now ain’t the time to be arguin’! This mister’s tryin’ to help us out here, and he’s in charge of the kind folks that saved my sister! I won’t let you talk down to ‘im!”

Talking down. That got a chuckle out of Alexandra. Aside from that, Apple Bloom was only half-correct: human shields were not magical in nature, but this was a learning experience for them. As it was for some other people... “Masterson, where the hell are you?”

What? I’m just sitting outside the gates, shooting the breeze with a couple of the guys out here. I took some pills the medics gave me to help with my flight sickness... at least I don’t feel like heaving chunks anymore. I’d rather not end up cleaning the inside of this suit...

“Great. Meet me in the city’s market square.”

Huh? Where the hell is tha—oh, you know what, nevermind. I’ll just talk to Doctor Wesley about it. I’ll be there... uh, whenever, I guess. What’s the occasion?

“Supervising the deployment of a Citadel shield.”

Really? Awesome, watching that stuff on the net always blows my socks off; it’ll be rad to see it in person. Uh, shit, there’s this... shield thing blocking my way in. I think I can see the doctor from here, maybe I can just get his attention. Catch you later, Marty.

Alexandra flipped his transmission to contact Wesley as soon as Masterson ended his call. “Wesley, I need you to let in someone. Guy should be standing outside the city shields, wearing a yellow hazmat suit,” he said. “He’s with me.”

Ah, is that what this is all about? I was about to call you about this when he started banging his fists against the shields, but if you say that’s how it is... I’ll notify the guards to let him through. Who is he, anyway?

“Henry Masterson, Idris Corporation. He’s in charge of maintenance of the Methuselah’s EVA unit, so he’s with me until our base is established. We’ve known each other since I was given command of the Hammerfest, so he can be trusted... to a point. Just make sure he doesn’t get his hands on anything. He’s an inquisitive fellow.”

Right... well, he just asked me for directions to the market square, which Twilight provided, and mentioned something about meeting you there. Finally getting down to business, hmm?

Alexandra sighed, looking at Celestia, then the Crusaders, and then the gates. “You don’t know the half of it...”

“...hey, what’s he doing? Why is he just standing there?” Sweetie Belle asked. “Is he doing some sort of weird alien trance thing where they communicate to each other using their minds?”

“Sweetie Belle! Don’t start judgin’ him on things you don’t even know ‘bout! He’s probably just waiting for us to finish talkin’!” Apple Bloom said. “Er, that was what you were doing, right, mister?”

“No, actually. Sweetie Belle is right. I was communicating to my subordinates using my special mind magic.” He waves his hands around in the air, wiggling his fingers for emphasis.

“Really? So you can use magic?” she asked, mouth hanging open as Scootaloo snickered. “Magic... aliens that can use magic! That’s so awesome! Wait ‘til Rainbow Dash hears about this!”

He nodded at her. “Yeah, magic. Just not your kind of magic. We can’t do that stuff, floating things and teleporting and all that. Now if you don’t mind, I’ve arranged a meeting with someone at the market square. Want to tag along?”

“Do we?!” Apple Bloom shouted. “O’course we’d love to! All the other foals will want to know all about you, mister! Er, that’s correct, right? You’re a ‘mister’, not a ‘miss’...?”

“Yeah, I’m a mister. Now let’s get going.”

“Alright!” they all shouted.

He looked to his right to see Celestia staring at him, and shrugged.

“Children, huh?”

“What are those things at the end of your hooves?” Sweetie Belle asked.

“They’re fingers. We use them to do lots of useful stuff,” Alexandra said, flexing the gloved appendage in front of her eyes.

“Really, like what? They seem really fragile.”

“Like picking up stuff, or opening doors, or using utensils to eat.”

“Really? Because ponies can do all that stuff with their hooves.”

He harumphed in disbelief. “Excuse me if I have a hard time believing that...”

“No, really!” She trotted off a way and picked up a small pebble and did a three-legged trot back to him. “See?”

He stopped for a moment, kneeling down to inspect the rock. She hadn’t used any tools, and her hoof was entirely bare save for the rock she held upright on its palm. Curious, he grabbed her forearm and slowly rotated the hoof to face against the ground... to find that the rock was still attached firmly to her hoof.

“That’s... odd. We have creatures that also use hooves back where we come from, but they can’t do anything like that. This is normal for you ponies?” he asked.

“Yep!” She flashed him a toothy grin.

“I can see why the doctor was interested in seeing this.” He stood up and continued walking, only to catch up to Celestia in short time as she awaited him at the entrance to the barren market square. “Something wrong?”

“Is that your guest over there?” she asked with a hoof pointing to the single wooden stage in the distance. Sitting facing away from them, his yellow hazmat suit was unmistakable, as was the sight of his menagerie of electronics as he caught the sight of ponies observing him at a distance, whispering to each other.

“That’s him, alright,” Alexandra said. “Though that stage is going to have to be moved since it’s sitting right in the center of the square. Unless you wouldn’t mind having it get smashed, of course...”

“Oh, certainly,” she said. “This shouldn’t be too hard...”

“What’s going on?” Scootaloo asked.

“Shh, just watch,” Apple Bloom shushed. “I think they’re about to pull a prank on him.”

Masterson didn’t notice as the stage he sat on began to slowly brighten, caught in a growing yellow aura until the stage itself began to shake as Celestia moved it closer towards herself. In panic, he looked around and rolled himself to the center of the stage and looking around frantically as he panicked, much to Alexandra’s amusement.

“H-holy shit! What the hell’s going on?!” Alexandra heard him shout. “H-help! Oh, shit, what did I get myself into? Did I piss one of them off? I should have brought guards along and... and... oh, very funny, Marty. Very funny.” The stage crashed into the ground in front of Celestia, and Masterson jumped off to fold his arms and stare him down.

“I thought you’d be more excited to get a first-hand experience of magic,” Alexandra said.

“First-hand nothing, man. I thought I would be torn to shreds or something because I pissed off one of them for some reason. Back on good old Earth, stages don’t move on their own accord.” He brought a small black box up to his visor and pressed a button; a flash bursted across his face as he immediately flipped it around and took a picture of Alexandra and Celestia standing next to each other.

“What’re you doing?” Alexandra asked.

“Taking pictures, man. This whole shebang’s a public operation, anyway, so I want to have some good stuff to take back home with me. You know, when the press gets news of this and flood this planet from top to bottom with journalists.” He stowed the camera and stepped aside. “Now, I believe you had some equipment to call down...”

Alexandra moved forward a few steps, snatching the camera off of Masterson’s belt before tossing it to the ground and giving it a hard stomp. The small device cracked underneath the strength of his combat-grade boots, and Masterson yelped in anguish as he finished the deed by lighting the remains on fire from his heel-mounted jetpacks.

“Seriously?!” Masterson said. “They’re just pictures!”

“And you can get your own when the clearance is allowed, just like everyone else.” Celestia and the Crusaders merely looked at him in shock, in which he shrugged. “I’d rather not have pictures of you all floating around if I can help it. Suck it up, Masterson, this isn’t the front-lines. You don’t get to take pictures all willy-nilly.”

“Didn’t hurt to try...” he moaned.

“Hmph.” Alexandra leveled his right arm up to his face as his right gauntlet expanded, revealing a targeting laser that he immediately locked onto the empty cobblestone ground. His HUD registered EVA receiving the uplink, transferring the coordinates to the Methuselah’s equipment launch facilities in preparation to deliver the Citadel shield.

Commander, the uplink has been established. The Methuselah currently has a loadout of six Citadel shields ready to deploy,” EVA notified. “The first has been loaded into the firing chamber and is ready to discharge on your command.

Such was the convenience of the future, where commanders could deploy critical structures immediately instead of having to build them or wait on requisitions. “Do it.”

Locking in trajectory now, commander. Maintain laser targeting until the payload has reached the ground. Secondary concerns: the shield system optimization has been ongoing for the past day, and will require at least two more before my calculations are completed to account for geographical and weather interference.

“Redirect assets from non-essential systems to calculations. I want the calculations finished as soon as possible,” he said, closing off his external audio to speak with EVA. “What’s the best you can do within my optimal parameters?”

A day and a half.

“I’ll take it. Upload the optimizations as soon as you finish them. Celestia, when can you bring down this shield?”

“I can disable it right now, actually. Do you require that I do so?” she asked. “The energies are receptive to certain magical signals, and mine is one of them. Shining and Cadance will be able to sense my request and bring down the shield as soon as possible.”

“Yeah, take it down, then.” His HUD flashed red as a timer to the chamber’s firing countdown began. Three minutes. “I’d like you to do that as soon as possible, actually.”

“Of course.” She tilted her head towards the skies and sent a directed beam straight into the apex of the shield’s curvature. Within moments, the purple shimmer began to fade as the magic began to recline, dissipating from the top down. A couple of minutes later, Celestia nodded to him.

The skies were as bleak as ever, but that didn’t stop Alexandra from catching a lone ray of sunlight directed straight upon their position. Masterson moved a hand to protect his eyes as the timer reached the seconds range, ticking down to zero in the blink of an eye.

Trajectory locked in. Deploying shield now,” EVA said.

Alexandra held his sight on the empty ground, ignoring the din of pony conversations going on behind him as the public numbers gradually increased. More than a few share of ponies had arrived to see what the commotion was all about, but respectfully maintained their distance when they realized Celestia was present with him.

A thunderous crack followed by a shrill whine increasing in tone greeted them as the sight of a falling object caused the crowd to stir, but not flee. Alexandra released his tracking beam and stepped back to observe the results, watching as the Citadel shield casing smashed straight into the ground, a massive monolith of steel and technology now sitting on Equestrian soil.

“What is that thing, Princess?” someone asked.

“I bet it’s some sort of alien doomsday weapon! They put it here to hold us hostage!”

“Aw, quit your whining. If they meant to do us harm, why didn’t they just blow us up from the skies?”

“I don’t know. But this has bad news written all over it, I tell you!”

“Please, everypony, quiet down,” Celestia assuaged, her voice holding an undercurrent of irritation. “This device was sent here to aid us. It is a replacement shield so that Prince Shining and Princess Cadance will no longer have to exert themselves to protect us.”

They were given no chance to respond as the clamps from the shield husk opened up, crunching into the ground with great force as the emission spire began to extend from its shell, rising high into the air as the flaps sitting at the top began to glow and hum with energy. Slowly, the spire began to rotate as a bulbous blue sphere appeared surrounding it.

“Man, I always forget how amazing this stuff is...” Masterson mumbled. “Idris put forward the blueprints for this thing...”

Shield systems activating... now.

As soon as EVA finished that statement, the blue glow seemingly exploded, stretching up into the sky and blanketing the city, adopting the same coverage that its predecessor had. Ponies all gawked at the sight of the magical shield being replaced by a new one, an artificial one from a machine, no less. Substantially more energized, the Citadel shield pulsed with enigmatic energy that seemed to radiate with incredible force.

“There. It’s all up to this thing now,” Alexandra said. Folding his arms, he turned to see Masterson jabbing a finger at Sweetie Belle’s horn, and Celestia with a horde of enthralled ponies standing behind her. “I trust this will be adequate?”

“From the looks of this shield, I think it will do absolutely fine,” she said. “But I suppose you must tend to construction of your base at Winsome Falls now?”

“Don’t worry about that,” he said, watching the skies as more burning comets blinked into existence, blazing a trail straight for the Canterlot valley. “My men can take care of it.”

This is Taskmaster to all convoys. Green light for Providence construction is a go. Pre-fab docks one through twenty-seven fully loaded. Citadel amplification cores en-route to destination. Security is Mark Zero-Zero-One, priority convoy security. And make sure your damn loaders are set to receive, not drop off. I don’t want any mishaps if I can help it.

Camp Greenwood was a hive of activity. A line of hovertrucks were queueing straight out of the front gates as the relocation of personnel from the Methuselah to planetside began in earnest, bringing with them more soldiers, engineers, and everyone in between. All of the new ISDI units were immediately assigned by EVA’s commands into security details for the roving convoys.

This is Mack One here, convoy head. Taskmaster, what’s the con-yard status on those command bunker pre-fabs?

Mack One, nano-production facilities are still working full-time on chugging out those parts. Schematics and base layout optimizations from EVA just hit the production lines, and the engineers at the site are swamped. Recommend that your convoy take the airbase pre-fabs, the commander’s going to want them.

Affirmative, Taskmaster, loading all airbase pre-fabs onto convoy now. Best of luck to you.” As every convoy shifted out, another one came in to take its place. An involved dance of man and machine rushing to meet demands and deadlines as each truck encumbered with dozens of pre-fabricated plates and parts were followed out by APCs full of engineers and technical staff.

Acknowledged, Mack One. Carrier One, what’s the status on your loading docks?

Carrier One to Taskmaster: Firestorm generators components have just finished loading. We are locking in the barriers and heading out to Providence now.

The Firestorm defense generator, one of the old world GDI’s most powerful experimental defensive perimeters, able to stop anything and everything that dared to fly above, run over, or burrow beneath it. An impenetrable defense, save for its massive energy consumptions that made it a gamble to rely upon, as evinced by Hammerfest base during the Second Tiberium War.

A restriction no longer present in the contemporary ISDI sphere, as new reactors and breakthroughs in energy technologies all but eliminated the downfalls of the Firestorm’s operational abilities, giving it the ability to run indefinitely... and paved the way for more efficient and effective means of maintaining its defense stranglehold. Any base using the Firestorm—and they were few and far in between—was essentially impenetrable, and was a rare technology only granted access to ISDI Central Command facilities and notable commanders, like Alexandra.

Affirmative, Carrier One, happy trekking. Don’t trip yourself up in those woods.

With this much firepower at our back, I’d say any rock we trip over better be ready for the punishment of a lifetime. Glad my boys aren’t the ones in charge of carrying the next pre-fab load, though.

I hear that... Hauler One. How nice of you to drop in. Wish I could have had all you guys draw straws or something, because you and your trucks get to haul the MAW manufacturing facility components.

Ah, crap... those things take forever to haul up an incline. Fine, whatever, loading it all onto my trucks now. If our trucks get smashed, I’m going straight to the commander and demanding compensation for this. We aren’t carryalls, damnit, our hover engines can only take so much heat.

MAW, or Mammoth Assault Walker, as the series was now known as, required its own special facilities to produce. The original Mastodon—technically the MAW Mastodon Mk.IV now—had maintained their namesake while undergoing substantial revisions to armor, mobility, and most importantly of all, firepower. Now a lumbering hulk similar to its predecessor, the Mammoth Mk.II, it was a fearsome sight to behold on any battlefield, and only used as an immediate high-threat responder to Scrin counterparts, such as Hexapods and Tripod strike teams.

The apprehension over being assigned to carry the MAW pre-fabricates wasn’t in that, however. In actuality, the building size required for the factory could easily have been scaled down to match the size of the airbase facilities or something similar; the actual size of the construction facility lay in its intended use: the construction of the MAW Behemoth Mk.I, the technical name of which, according to GDI standards, would be the Mammoth Mk.III had the assault walker series been successful.

Every major contractor for the ISDI came together to brainstorm the design and functionality of the Behemoth. Originally designed as a counter to the Scrin’s more lethal variants of the Hexapod, most notably the Annihilator Hexapod used by its origin cult, the size of the Behemoth was easily able to dwarf most small cities, bounding across entire city blocks with a single pass. Scale and load bear were a non-issue.

The Mammoth Mk.II’s original railguns were scaled up in size to deal massive damage against important Scrin targets and Hexapods, as well as being armed with a whole variety of point defense hardpoints on the front, sides, top, and bottom to make it effective against all enemy types. Additionally, the extra reserves granted to it by advances in reactor technology meant that the Behemoth could now complement its already-heavy armor with a Citadel shield system, turning the Behemoth into a walking fortress.

The size of the Behemoth meant that it could not be transported through space without extra equipment and maintenance, on top of occupying already crucial space limitations. And the Methuselah, being a standard ISDI interstellar troop carrier as opposed to the Steel Talons ITC Hammerfest, did not have production facility components already onboard for aerial drop-off, so everything needed to be produced and shipped off on the ground.

The only thing they need to stick on the commander’s new MAW is some launch and rearming bays for Firehawks, and we can call it a day. I never thought I’d see the day where I can watch something like this walk on any earth.

Don’t count your blessings just yet. Just remember that we’re going to be in the middle of this crossfire, too. Get your ass rolling; those parts are going to be holding you guys back for a while.

Don’t remind me. Hauler One, rolling out now.

That’s... what, several hundred trucks now? And they just keep coming back and forth, back and forth. Finally finished those rounds, Terra One? Docks one through twenty-seven were just off-loaded, and the command bunker pre-fabs just came out right now.

Fantastic. Where’s the C-shield, anyhow? Doesn’t make sense to haul those things up if there ain’t any—” A single cylindrical tube burned through the air, catching the attention of any within view facing towards the direction of Winsome Falls. Terra One, guiding his convoy in through Camp Greenwood’s eastern gate, noticed the spectacle right out of his front window. “Well, shit. I guess that’s it, huh?

Spoke too soon, Terra One. At least you can’t get lost if there’s a huge shield literally pointing out the way for you. How’s the construction going on up there?

Just fantastic, Taskmaster. I dare say that we might have that whole damn place finished before the day’s over. Hope so, at least. I don’t want to be stuck hauling things when night falls. Those woods give me the creeps, and the beam convoys still have to get to the other side of those hills.

Oh, trust me when I say you’ll be working overtime. Providence is just the tip of the iceberg. The rest of the place is going to be some sort of refugee camp of sorts. That needs its own C-shield and the engineers are supposed to be placing Firestorm barriers all around that beyond the emplacement walls for the defense towers.

What? Seriously? What’s the numbers on that camp, Taskmaster?

Uh, it’s... currently unknown. But the commander’s up at the native settlement getting numbers right now. Whenever he gets them, we’ll start cranking out the habitation unit pre-fabs. EVA’s being a bit generous with these numbers, though... the natives easily outnumber our forces by at least a factor of ten. Or so she thinks.

We’re just... what was it? A couple to maybe several thousand? We’re talking about holing up enough people—er, talking... ponies... to turn that place into a city!” Every crane loader in the construction yard was working at full pace, snapping up and dropping off every slab and slat as the raw materials from the refinery were funneled in through pipelines.

Uh, yeah, that’s the point. I heard through the grapevine that they’re all holed up in that city and inside the mountain. Must be a crappy place to live in, stuck in a hole in the side of a rock. It’s why the commander wants to—hmm, hold up. I need engineers down at dock three to watch that crane loading the blast doors on that truck!

Yeah, that’s me. I’m carrying the blast doors, Taskmaster.

Pfft. Well, good luck with that, man. How’re your engines holding up?

Readouts say they’re a hundred and twenty-three percent bear right now. Oh, boy, this ought to be fun. This is what happens when you have civilian contractors do military heavy labor. We were just supposed to come in and set up an outpost after we cleaned this planet up!” The metal creaked as the engineers struggled to centralize the weight burden on the hovertruck’s bed, locking it in place with high-density industrial wires.

Cross your fingers and hope you make it up that hill in one piece, huh, Terra?

Don’t remind me.

Wait, hold on a moment...” Again, sounds came from the dead hills leading up to Winsome Falls, but this one was of gunfire instead of a hard landing. Bullet tracers and beam rays could be seen trailing out of the forest depths as the skirmish intensified. “There’s some serious contact in the woods... the transmissions are saying that they’re not the same creatures. Someone get the commando on the line...!

Viers cursed inwardly as he boosted over a hill’s crest and continuing sprinting through afflicted forest. The Tiberium shard he’d been ordered to oversee had been successfully transported back into secure containment, and he’d seen fit to take his break after spending far too long in the subterranean tunnels. Following him in his footsteps was Yankee, officially designated his commando’s auxiliaries to ensure that he’d always have a squad on hand to deal with more dicey situations.

Situations like this one.

The call was a high priority; whoever thought it was worth notifying him for must have been either stupid or scared shitless, and the reports he’d seen coming from Mack One’s security detail scans showed that the threat that they were dealing with wasn’t the same as the ones they’d fought before. No, these ones were flanking the group, operating on tactics and trying to ambush the convoy.

For what reason, he didn’t know. Maybe the ponies had renegade elements as expected of any crisis-related societal breakdown, or perhaps they were merely estranged ponies that chose to leave for whatever reason. Either way, they were threatening the convoys and needed to be removed as soon as possible.

“Convoy Mack, this is Dagger! We’re coming in from the woods on your right, so check your fire!” The sidewinder trails leading up the mountain didn’t help the convoys achieve their objective any quicker; if anything, it only made them more vulnerable due to its pathways through the forest.

Roger, Dagger! Whoever these guys are, they’ve got... I don’t know, it looks like guns or something!” Mack One responded. “Some of our guys already took some hits, but it isn’t lethal. The Titans are holding the line for now, but I don’t know for how long!

“Did you get a look at the attackers?”

What? Yeah, I... I think I did. They’re four-legged, I think, some of them two-legged. Goddamn, my engines are shot. Just one hit and they were out! I don’t know how they shut them down!

“Hold tight, we’re almost there. Sergeant Rosky, take your guys and check on the convoy. I’m going in to handle these assholes.”

“Roger that, El-Tee,” Rosky said. “Yankee, get those med-sprays and welders ready! We’re going in for damage control! Over and up!” With a burst of fire from their jetpacks, Yankee hopped over a rock formation to Viers’ left, making a beeline for the convoy as he zoomed straight past them. A hail of iridescent green bolts greeted his vision as he narrowly dodged one flying straight for his faceplate, catching the bark of the tree behind him and blackening the impact zone.

“EVA, what the hell are these things?” he asked, huddling behind a thick tree as he leaned around to see forms moving about in the hills.

The exact nature of these combatants are unknown, but judging from a biometric scan, the profile of these new creatures matches up exactly with that of the pony hospitalized at Camp Greenwood. It would be safe to assume that they are hostile,” EVA said, graciously marking their exact position on his HUD’s radar as he noticed the group slowly sneaking up behind him.

“Analyze intention of attacking a construction convoy,” he ordered, firing a warning volley from his missile launcher to keep them at bay. The sight of explosives made them scatter their formation, and their fire became more controlled and directed at his position.

Probable cause says that they intend to sabotage the construction of Providence. Under ISDI protocol, however, given that the opposition is a sapient species, we cannot eliminate them. Forcefully subduing them and requiring the local authorities to try them under their laws must be done to avoid political fallout.

“Fuck.” As a commando, he wasn’t given to using non-lethal weaponry, much less subduing live targets, and he certainly didn’t have the time to run all the way back to Greenwood to swap his equipment out. The best they could do was to surround them and force a surrender. “Yankee, scrap that order! I need you and whatever troopers down there laying down suppressing fire on these guys ASAP!”

Yes, sir,” Rosky replied. “With my guys, there are thirty-two total from the security detail. Seven have incurred wounds through armor and on body, and the medics are busy trying to reseal their suits. Whatever firepower they’re packing, it has a hell of a punch.

“We need them alive. Nothing reckless here, advance up the hill with cover and slowly work around them. I’ll keep them from stretching out too much, but you guys have to surround them. Titans will provide covering fire. Understood?” He took a potshot up the hill, missing one of the renegade ponies on the hill, a unicorn firing magic bolts at him, and throwing up a patch of dirt as the shell impacted the hill in front of it.

Roger, sir. We’re moving up now.

Viers quickly looked around. The trees were too thick to make the Titans be of any use to them, so they were relegated to covering fire at distance. Protocol was still in effect, which meant that their new translation software might be of use now. “Hey, you assholes up there! Stop firing at us and surrender peacefully, and we’ll let you live!”

There was no response, though they did pause long enough for the troopers to get halfway up the hill before they resumed their hostilities. Bullets met magic as they traded shots, giving Viers the perfect opportunity to jetpack himself into the cover of another tree, firing another volley of missiles over the ponies’ heads as he did so.

“Hey, just surrender already, alright? I promise nothing will happen to you!” Again, no response, and Viers had been broadcasting his offers at maximum volume from his suit. The only way they could have ignored that was if they were deaf or daft. Perhaps both.

A spark of blue appeared at the top of the hill, and suddenly their rain of magic hellfire stopped. The sounds of shouting and groaning could be heard as a banshee’s voice tore through the silence as ISDI fire subsided. Before long, a single blue unicorn appeared and trotted a length down the hill, stopping only when she saw the zone troopers waiting, guns pointed at her.

She sighed before running a hoof through her tarnished mane, small chunks of crystal present on her forearms and horn. “Greetings, creatures. I hadn’t realized that you spoke Equestrian. I apologize for the brashness of my scavenger group. We’ve been running low on supplies recently and have been forced to resort to desperate measures to find what we need. Which, of course, should not involve assaulting armed caravans,” she hissed, giving a cold look over her shoulder at the ponies standing behind her.

“Do you accept our terms of surrender?” Viers responded, breaking out of his cover and walking towards her, weapons pointed at the ground in good faith.

“We do,” she said, eyes widening as Viers’ size began to grow on her. “You’re... what are you?”

“A human. I already know you’re a pony,” he said. “So skipping the whats, the question now is: who the hell are you?”

“Me?” she said, pointing a hoof to herself. “Well... I am the leader of this band of nomads, and have been since the crystal engulfed this fair land. I have led them through thick and thin, and am grateful to finally have a chance to give them a reprieve from this hardship. I am known as Trixie, and I look forward to working with you.”

Chapter 12: Foundation

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“Trixie, huh?” Viers said. “I’m Lieutenant Viers, of the Interstellar Defense Initiative. Did your group attack our convoy believing that there were supplies on it? They’re all carrying construction materials.”

“I had specifically told them to avoid any sort of confrontation,” she said, giving a dour look towards her subordinates as they merely gave her sheepish smiles and shrugs. “So you say that all these caravans were on their way up the hill to... from what it looks like, Winsome Falls?”

“Yes. We’re constructing a base up there...” he said, registering the growths on her body... and the strange discoloration of her eyes. Though his exposure to ponies was limited, he was sure that glowing eyes wasn’t a trait common to them. “You have Tiberium on you. How’d that happen?”

“Er, Tib-what?” she asked.

“The crystal,” he replied, pointing at her horn. “We call it Tiberium where we’re from. I wager you guys must have been living out here in the wild for months now, all among these crystal-spewing trees. How come they haven’t killed you yet?”

Trixie shuffled around on her hooves, frowning at the ground. “I... don’t know. We led a party out of here from Canterlot, barely able to protect ourselves from the creatures around here with what little we carried, though we lost half of our number along the way. We eventually set up our base within a cave not far from Winsome Falls, and have been operating there ever since.

“At first, it was strange... those of us who found growth upon them quickly succumbed to the symptoms and later died, and as much as we would have liked to honor them, their bodies needed to be removed as soon as possible. Later on, though, some of us—myself being among them—found those same growths on our bodies, but no harm came to us.”

Viers couldn’t help but to compare Trixie and her band to the shiners back on Earth... whose physical appearances shared common attributes with the ponies. “And let me guess: then the crystal started growing on your bodies?”

She seemed taken aback, and arched an eyebrow at him. “Yes... how did you know?”

“Just a hunch,” he said. “I also wager that you found the crystal to suddenly have healing properties for you, too?”

“...Yes to that, as well,” Trixie said, narrowing her eyes. “It appears you are well-acquainted with how this crystal works, Lieutenant Viers. Perhaps we can work out an arrangement between us, perhaps an exchange of supplies? You wouldn’t happen to have food, would you?”

“Last I heard, the capital atop that mountain was undergoing supply runs,” he said, gesturing to the foggy profile of the peak in the distance behind him. “Maybe I can convince my superior to send some down here your way. But before I can do that, I need to register you all down here for population count.”

“If you need to assure of all our numbers, then I can take you back to our base,” she said. “But only you and a select few. The rest must stay here.”

“That won’t be a problem,” Viers confirmed. He gave a voiceless recall command to Yankee to fall back in with him, and the soldiers left the convoy to recover itself as they joined him. “I’ll bring my squad with me. The rest of the convoy can stay here and move without us.”

“This will be fine. I trust that you will keep your weapons holstered,” she said, putting her thoughts in the air. “There are foals present at the camp.”

“You have my word,” he said. Trixie smiled and waved a hoof towards him, and trotted up the hill back towards the ponies, Viers and Yankee treading along behind her. “EVA,” he said, closing off external audio. “Could you send a message to the commander? Tell him we’ve found... pony mutants.”

“Shiners,” Alexandra said plainly, not even able to enjoy a second of his time as soon as he’d sat down on a bench in Canterlot’s market square. Masterson lingered nearby, rapt in the interaction of can-tossing between himself and the Cutie Mark Crusaders, made doubly more amusing without any translators to aid him. “Viers found mutants hiding out in the woods? Well, I guess it was only a matter of time...”

Correct. As of this moment, he and Yankee squad are on their way to their home base to take a census, and if need be, relocate them to Camp Greenwood as refugees.” EVA displayed a frozen image of Trixie on his screen, ripped directly from Viers’ suit feed and transparently plastered across his HUD as he kept an observant eye on his surroundings.

“What’s the damage assessment on the convoy and security?” he asked.

Several Titans have sustained superficial damage on the armor plating, while a small number of zone troopers have experienced suit breaches and minor injuries resulting from the firefight that Lieutenant Viers quelled.

He hummed to himself, nodding as the data scrolled by. At this point, he would be a fool to simply write off magic as pure hogwash now, especially since now that it was a known fact that magical bolts could penetrate power suits. But such inherently potent abilities could make them powerful allies for when the Scrin finally appeared. “Interesting. What’s being done about the wounded?”

They are being transported to Providence via the convoy. Medical facilities at base camp are prepared to receive them upon arrival and have Tiberium treatment machinery on standby. In addition, there is a standing request on behalf of the Lieutenant to allocate a relief shipment for the mutant refugees.

“Request granted. I guess I should probably let Celestia know about this...” He looked over to his right and tilted his head upward at the alicorn lounging next to him. “I think I should let you know that some of my men have found a group of ponies hiding out in the forest near Winsome Falls.”

Celestia’s expression remained calm, and all she did was simply nod. “I see. I had thought that the group that left Canterlot fared badly in its travels. It is nice to hear that they have not perished in such languishing conditions as I had thought them to be. Are they well?”

“Rather tentative, but I’d say they are,” he replied. “My soldiers are returning to their camp with them to assess their numbers, and if need be, relocate them to our nearby camp if their living conditions are decidedly not up to ISDI standards. We can’t have them all living in squalor, after all.”

“How kind of you,” she lightly joked. “But how have they survived in the forest for so long? The fauna and flora been turned, so they could not possibly be able to subsist on such sustenance... could they?”

“It depends. From the reports that I’ve been getting, they’ve been mutated, and if they’re barely getting by, they might have to resort to living off of anything they can get their hands... hooves on,” he said. He paused for a moment to let Celestia contemplate their findings, only answering when he noticed her frown. “Strange how their changes mirror our own.”

“Mirror?” she asked, turning to look at him. “I assume humans have experienced this before?”

“Of course. At first, we simply called them mutants, given their newfound resistance of Tiberium, and their usual horrifically altered appearances. The normal people didn’t like them, and naturally feared their contagiousness, so the mutants were kept away, rendered second-class citizens left to fend for their own in the wastes taken by the Tiberium. Despite their ability to heal in the crystal, though, research done by the predecessor of our organization found that the crystal, if left untreated, will eventually kill them, but it takes an extended amount of time to achieve that result.”

Celestia’s frown only creased further into a disturbed grimace. “But you can reverse this, yes?”

Alexandra shook his head, staring up at the humming column of energy stemming up from the shield generator in front of him. “I don’t know. For humans, yes, we can do it, and for ponies, we know that the extent of our medical operations are capable of removing crystals from the body. But to treat mutants... that’s something else entirely. When a being turns into a mutant from exposure to Tiberium, it’s not just their appearance that changes... their body’s very biology is warped, making them stronger and faster. Sometimes the change is irrevocable, and trying to fix it may end up killing them. It’s a risky affair, and hasn’t changed, even on our end of things. Mutants still exist in our day and age, as we really can’t limit their reproduction, but spread-suppression technology has made it so that they can now at least function as contributing members of society.”

“I see...” Celestia stayed silent, watching more foals gather around to play with the strange man in the bright yellow suit. “He’s a rather enthusiastic one, isn’t he?” she asked.

Alexandra glanced at her, and then Masterson, watching as he muttered something loud enough for Alexandra to catch something about football. “Masterson? I guess so, though he was never really much of a military man. He maintains the core of the systems aboard our ship, and can be a bit too fascinated with minor things sometimes, but he’s well-intentioned... and harmless. Mostly.”

“So I noticed. I think him being here will do well to show that your group is not all simply about discipline and military affairs...” She craned her neck towards him and whispered, “Many fear that your arrival is merely the harbinger of your impending conquest. I dearly hope that such a thing isn’t true.”

That elicited a chuckle from him as he merely crossed his arms and reclined further against the bench’s backrest, an addition he found odd to have for ponies, especially with how Celestia sat next to him: stomach against the ground with no use of the backrest. “I think humanity’s period of conquest has long since passed, Princess,” he said. “It’s not obvious to all of your ponies here, but we’ve been fighting a war since long before we showed up here. There’s no need to fear my superiors coming down here to try to oust you all from you land and turn you all into slaves or anything like that.

“In fact, I’d say it’s the opposite: I have more to worry about here than you do. This whole mission was originally supposed to be a routine operation: scout our flanking sectors, locate traces of Tiberium and eliminate it. Simple and direct. But then we found you here: a sapient species that we are obligated by ISDI protocol to assist and protect. This being a routine operation, all information pertaining to our mission is within the public sphere. And when word that we found another, of many, sapient species, reached that sphere, they worked themselves into a storm over it. If I mess this up, they’ll have my head on a platter, so treating you all badly is not in the best interests of anyone that has a stake in this, on your side and mine.”

“That is... reassuring,” Celestia said. The sun hung proudly behind the silhouette of the generator, and Celestia had to release a small smile at its sight, however obfuscated it may have been. “I’m sure this whole ordeal has been taxing for both of us. At the very least, I am pleased that you are taking the steps to ensure the best possible outcome to bridge our two species together. I promise you that we will do all our efforts to return your generosity.”

“That would be fantastic, Your Highness. And I’ll try to keep us all alive so we can get there,” he said, departing from his seat and waving Masterson over to him before turning back to her. “Now, if you don’t mind, I’m sure that we both have some pressing matters to attend to. Providence is going to be complete soon, and I’d like to make sure that I can be there to inspect it when it finishes. Have a nice day, evening, or whatever suits you.”

Celestia gave a dainty nod to Alexandra, acknowledging his departure as Masterson followed him. “So, uh, things are looking pretty good right about now, right?” Masterson asked.

“They’re not bad, if that’s what you’re thinking,” Alexandra replied. “This place is nice, but I feel we’ve overstayed our welcome here. I want you to hit the ground running when the EVA core gets delivered to Providence, you understand?”

“I’m always at my top game, man,” he said. “But, seriously, get this: you know that one unicorn filly back there? She can do all sorts of stuff with magic. I mean, she even managed to lift me a bit, even though it was only a couple of inches off the ground. That’s pretty awesome. Imagine if we had that: hands-free maintenance!”

“If only a kid can do that, then I’m impressed,” Alexandra agreed, strolling down the path that led to the city gates at the end. Strangely enough, despite the congregation at the square, the street was devoid of any bystanders. “I just hope they won’t tamper with the generators while we’re not here.”

“Oh, don’t worry about that,” Masterson said. “EVA keeps track of that sort of thing with biometrics and credentials, coupled with the generator’s extremely bright red holographic ‘stay back’ lights. If anything crosses the threshold, then you’ll get a warning about it, and the norm is that only anything wearing ISDI equipment with proper clearances can cross without triggering it.”

“Good. Remind me to get the soldiers at the gate on guard duty for it as soon as possible. I don’t like leaving things to chance.” He maintained his calm as Masterson began to segue into some rambling on detection fields used in the Firestorm defense generator, his eyes never leaving the radar on his HUD as they continued down the street.

Though the visual appearance seemed to show that the street was empty... the buildings were not. A single blip trailing across the rooftops might have been just a simple thing to ignore, but Alexandra had been in far too many close calls to write it off as such. Something... or someone was watching them, and whatever it was, it was a floating presence, devoid of life signs and specifically attuned to magical frequencies that EVA had recorded when Celestia had cast her teleportation spell—similar, but not hers. Someone was keeping an eye on him, someone that wasn’t Celestia... and he didn’t like that.

“Twilight? Are you okay?” Wesley asked, waving his mechanical hand in front of Twilight’s eyes.

“Huh? Oh, no, I’m okay...” she said, bringing her mind back to reality as she speedily caught up with the checklist on her clipboard over the recent distribution of supplies. She marked down several more names before returning to her casual pace, checking off names, refugee credentials, and what was given out as she supervised the exchange with Wesley.

“You were zoning out there for a moment,” he noted. Zone troopers manned the tables just inside the front gate, handing out supplies to the line of ponies stretching all the way into downtown Canterlot. “How are things going so far?”

“Oh, well, this list you had me make by ear is a bit unorganized, but I guess it’ll have to do since humans can’t really read Equestrian yet.” Next to each item on her list was a small sketch of the item itself, more for herself since it was very hard to keep track of everything, especially when they were all shipped in unmarked and sealed boxes made out of steel. “Everypony’s been getting the necessities so far, and we’ve handed off about half of what you’ve brought already.”

“Excuse me, Lady Twilight?” Twilight looked over her shoulder to see a squad of Equestrian Royal Guard next to her. “Under orders of Princess Celestia, we’re here to help oversee the supply operation and to ensure nothing goes wrong.”

“A good idea,” Wesley agreed. “I don’t know if we can really do anything here if things get rowdy. You can have them work the security on the lines, and keep a few up here to oversee the crowd.”

“I agree,” she said, nodding at Wesley and looking at the guard. Princess Celestia always seemed to know just who was underneath that helmet in her whole guard, but she had yet to learn. Perhaps it was merely magic. “And who might you be...?” she directed at the squad leader.

“Sergeant Firetrace, ma’am,” he responded.

“Okay, then, Sergeant,” she said. “You can divide up your squad to keep watch. I know it’s a lot of ponies for a group your size, but you’re here to mediate, not enforce. If things get a bit too dicey, then I can request some extra help from the human soldiers here. Is that fine with you?”

“Perfectly fine, ma’am. We’ve been stretched pretty thin as it is, so any extra help is welcome.” He whisked around and sounded off orders as his squad—a unit comprised entirely of pegasi, Twilight noted, which was extremely rare to see during the crisis—and then took up his position next to her, completing her entourage of both human and pony.

Lady Twilight, hmm? How proper,” Wesley said. Unlike the other troopers present near her, Wesley’s visor remained transparent, and she could see a multitude of data flowing by his face, laced with numbers and words she didn’t understand. “So... we have food and basic amenities. Is there anything else that’s needed?”

“Not really,” Twilight said. “The only thing we need at this moment is more space. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be surprised if we start picking up ponies from within the castle and sanctum over the next day or so, and there’s a lot more than those that live in the city. Are these supplies all we’re going to get?”

“Our facilities aboard the ship can handle the load, so I think we can accommodate for increasing numbers if we need to.” His eyes remained inclined towards the holographic screen, but he took the time to pay attention to the sound of clamors as he looked up and frowned. Twilight followed his gaze and witnessed a familiar refined mane making its way through the crowd.

“Out of the way, lessers!” a voice called out. “Prince Blueblood is passing through!”

Twilight could hear a low growl emanate from Firetrace’s throat, and she had to share his sentiments. Blueblood was a thorn in the side of the crisis committee’s efforts, squandering precious supplies and flaunting political power to extort more than that from the less fortunate. Princess Celestia had shut him down hard early on, but they still took every available moment to try to squeeze as much as they could out of the system.

And the saying always went that ‘birds of a feather flock together’, so it was no surprise that Blueblood had managed to procure his own, for lack of respect and a better term, group of thugs. “Alright, you mangy lot, get out of the way!”

Ponies scrambled to clear a path for Blueblood’s group as the prince trotted along behind his lackeys, haughtily holding his head in the air as the public eyed him with disdain. All knew what he was here for, and if they were unlucky, he would get it. Twilight narrowed her eyes as Blueblood neared the front of the tables, but the reaction from the ISDI soldiers there gave her a minor reprieve: they drew their weapons.

What’ll we do with this one, sir?” the zone trooper nearest to Wesley asked, lowering the box he was carrying it to the ground, nudging it away behind him as he drew his chaingun.

“Just wait a minute...” Wesley said. “Let’s see hear what he has to say. Who’s this spectacular role model of society and his merry band of misfits, Twilight?”

“Blueblood,” she said menacingly. “Don’t believe anything he says, especially if he tries to bribe you. I know for a fact that his group doesn’t have a single bit to their name, since it’s all owned by the crown—”

“Relax, Twilight,” he said, gently waving her down. “Besides, I don’t think anything he can put forward can match my pay grade, anyways. But let’s just assume that things go south, he gets hostile, and he might end up more... perforated than he was when he first arrived here. How will that go over with the rest of these folks?”

“No one will be crying, that’s for sure,” she replied bitterly. “He’s a burden, a cheat, and a thief. Given that we all live in such a confined space, practically everypony knows what Blueblood’s done by now, even the little colts and fillies. Why do you ask?”

“Just curious. I think I’ll have to put myself with Commander Alexandra when I say that I’m not a diplomat, either...” He cleared his throat and a small blue light appeared in the bottom left corner of his visor to broadcast to the staff. “Stay on guard,” he said untranslated. “Sources tell me that this whole group’s nothing but trouble. If things go south, let the pony guards try to deal with them first. If they fail... then we get to rassle these guys to the ground.”

Uh, sir... how strong are these guys, exactly?” another trooper inquired.

“Strong enough where you might want to consider covering your codpieces if they try to go for a nut shot, soldier,” he said. “But we have the advantage of maneuverability when it comes to fisticuffs. Looks like they also have a couple of magic users with them, including the leader, so it’s probably for the best that we all spread out if we get into a scuffle.”

“Please, please, gentlecolts,” the lead pony said with his Trottingham accent, trying his best to play it coolly as he leaned against the table. “There is no need to brandish those weapons in this fair city. We are simply here to collect our share of goods for the day... so, um, if you don’t mind, we’d like to collect our share, all of us here.” He gestured to the ponies behind him.

“Right...” the trooper said. “Listen, buddy, how about you and all your friends just go to the back and wait in line like everyone else?”

“What? Absolutely not. We are in dire need of these supplies, I tell you!” A round of disagreeing jeers arose from the crowd, and the stallion scoffed at them. “Please, it’s for the good of the crown. Are you really willing to let Prince Blueblood, great prince of the Equestrian throne just simply walk away empty-hoofed?”

“This whole operation has royal oversight,” the soldier replied, jabbing a thumb at Sergeant Firetrace behind him. “If you have a problem with that, take it up with him.”

“Ah, yes... um, sergeant... do you think you could do us a favor and perhaps give them permission to give us our due?” the stallion asked. Firetrace’s expression remained stone-faced as the guard stared directly into the stallion’s eyes. Murmurs passed through the crowd as some whispers spoke of the guards present to be under the employ of Blueblood, despite Twilight’s presence as a confidant of the throne and an Element of Harmony.

“Unfortunately, Princess Celestia has only granted my squad the clearance to oversee the security for this operation,” Firetrace said. He slowly turned his head left, and looking at Twilight and Wesley. “The authority granted to distribute these supplies is with these two. You will have to talk to them.”

“Alright, alright, we can do that...” The stallion cleared his throat, straightening his stance to gain a better view of them over the bulky trooper’s suit. “Um, excuse me, Lady Sparkle... could you perhaps simply allow us to—”

“No,” Twilight harshly replied. “Get back in line and wait your turn.”

The stallion anxiously looked to Blueblood, awaiting his response as Wesley kneeled next to Twilight. “You think they’ll do it?” he quietly asked her.

“They have to,” she whispered. “They don’t have any other choice.”

“Lady Sparkle!” Blueblood finally spoke. “Please, we honestly do require these supplies. If it pleases you, we could work something out perhaps, something that could work in your—”

No,” Twilight repeated. “If you really want it that badly, then you can get in line. I won’t repeat myself.”

Blueblood’s mask of calm shattered and he frowned at her, stepping forth past his cronies to look her directly in the eye. “But you must understand—”

“There’s nothing to understand, Blueblood. Get in line or I will have you, and you only, escorted back to the castle and your group jailed for obstructing the distribution of relief aid. And I will file a report with the committee over your brazen intrusion here this evening.”

Blueblood paused. Twilight inwardly cheered; she knew that as it was, he was already treading on extremely thin ice with his aunt, and a filed report over such a major event such as this would be sure to have Celestia bearing down upon him in unbridled fury. There was no way a noble such as himself could even think about going any—

“Is that it, then?” he cried out. “You would dare deny Canterlot’s greatest noble the right to his sustenance?! I’ll have you know, I have many ponies working for me across the city! Even if I do not have my way here today, I will regain what I have lost here tenfold! You can simply save face here by giving me what I demand, and I will not bother you any longer.”

“Is he really...?” Twilight said to herself.

“Yep,” Wesley answered, unaware of her self-directed question. “His reasoning is as shaky as it is stupid. He’s completely out of his mind.”

“Is there a problem here?” Commander Alexandra stepped in between them and crossed his arms, no less displeased at the delay. “What’s wrong?” he asked Blueblood.

“We are being denied our supplies!” he said, putting on an act of mock sadness as he fell to the ground and sobbed. “All the staff here have been so discriminating to us! We... we need these supplies to feed our families! Our foals! Please, sir, you must understand us, in these dire times, I know that—”

“Give them the supplies,” Alexandra said.

What?!” Twilight exclaimed, looking up at Alexandra. “Are you insane? We have all these ponies here before them, and you see fit to just—” Wesley put a gentle hand on her back, shaking his head to discourage her continued outbursts. “But I—augh, fine! Just let them take the supplies, then.”

“Good,” Alexandra said. The zone troopers placed the supply boxes atop their tables as the Blueblood’s group greedily put their hooves onto them. “Four boxes. No more, no less. Is that good?”

“That’ll be fine, sir. You must be Commander Alexandra, I see. I thank you very much for your continued service to our people,” Blueblood bowed gracefully before he left, ignoring the sneers and boos from the ponies that they passed on their way out.

“So... any reasoning behind that pleasant show, sir?” Wesley asked.

“Four boxes. Each supply shipment down from the Methuselah has tracking tags for logs that get sent back to Initiative Relief Logistics on it,” Alexandra said, looking down at Twilight. “I spoke with your Princess only a moment ago. If there’s malcontents running around, I don’t think it’s wise to put them in their places just yet... but that doesn’t mean we can’t keep an eye on them, either.”

“I... hadn’t thought of that, actually. Good thinking, sir,” Wesley said. His visor blinked brightly for several moments as a quartet of small green blips darted across his screen. “And like you said, there they are, dragging those things back with them. I’ll keep an eye on the supplies and notify you both when they’ve stopped.”

“Be sure to have Princess Celestia send some eyes their way,” Alexandra said. Masterson stood by him, again stupefied by the sea of ponies rushing in to fill the gap after Blueblood and company had left. “I’d rather not finish off one bad egg to have a dozen more pop up in its place.”

“I see you’ve gotten the shield generator up and working,” Wesley pointed out, gazing above into the shimmering canopy as the dimming daylight accentuated its sheen. “Are you heading down to Providence now?”

Alexandra nodded. “I am. Lieutenant Viers has come across an interesting revelation that requires me to put my full attention towards it. I’m sure the recent discovery is in your interest, as well, so I think I’ll simply part from the both of you with one word: shiners.” He slapped Masterson on the shoulder and left, walking to the gate as he directed the troopers he’d arrived with further into the city.

Twiilght blinked several times, wondering what the word meant. “Doctor Wesley... what’s a shiner?”

Wesley laughed. “I’ll tell you that after we finish up our tasks here. It’s going to be a long day...”

“How large is this cave we’re looking for, exactly?” Viers asked Trixie. Behind the two leaders trailed a small cluster of ponies, all donning various scraps of armor and haphazard melee weaponry as Yankee maintained the rearguard. “We’ve been walking for the better part of an hour already.”

“Relax, lieutenant,” Trixie assured him. “We are getting there. It was with specific intent that we relocated as far as possible from the dens of the mutated wildlife and diamond dogs, as well as providing ourselves some breathing room for our crops.”

“Crops? You maintain agriculture out here?” he asked.

“As much as the land will let us,” she said. The snap of a dried twig underneath her hoof signaled something primal deeper into the forest, and a low howl rose in the distance. “It looks like we are expected.”

“Expected by who?” Viers asked, clutching his cannon apprehensively. Things were going to get incredibly noisy if Trixie was leading them into a trap, though given the earliest confrontations with mutants during the early Earth years, his assumed chance that they would leave unharmed was slim. “What made that noise?”

“That would be the camp’s guardian, an Ursa Minor by the name of Otis,” she replied. “He’s not fully grown yet, but he’s saved our hides on more than one occasion. Oh, an Ursa Minor is exactly what it sounds like, by the way, since I assume you’ve never seen anything like one. It’s literally a giant bear whose material being is comprised of cosmic matter.”

“Yes, I think we’ve run into several of them already before...” he said. “Giant bears... yeah, I think we had to deal with a few down near our base camp.”

“An unfortunate coincidence,” Trixie said crestfallenly. Signs that they were near the camp began to show as the forest began to funnel out, revealing a well-traveled path in its place and the beginnings of outer defense emplacements shaped in the form of entire tree trunks carved into spears, situated so that they were protruding from the ground at an angle. “Otis helped us build these defenses. They’re sturdy enough that they keep the larger monsters at bay, though it has a secondary use for marking our territory for when we begin to expand.”

“Is Otis well-behaved?” Viers asked. A short text notification flickered across his HUD, EVA notifying him that Commander Alexandra was relocating to Camp Greenwood in preparation for his journey to Providence. The timing was excellent: if the mutated ponies had to be relocated, then he would be there to greet them.

“He doesn’t bite, so long as one of us tells him that you aren’t to be harmed. Everypony else in the camp has already made themselves known to him, but he tends to be very aggressive against newcomers,” Trixie said, levitating a pile of timber aside as she cleaned the path of blocking debris.

“How ‘aggressive’ are we talking here?” After passing by numerous defenses, they finally reached the gates of the camp, with wooden walls built taller than Camp Greenwood’s and reinforced with what appeared to be refined pillars of metal. Viers had to admire the skill put into it; a human group in a similar situation would have taken far longer to construct something only as half as grand.

“Well, I suppose we’ll find out, won’t we?” she said, smiling before looking up towards the ramparts of the gatehouse. “It’s Trixie, along with the scavenger group! Open the gates!”

The ponies on duty within obliged, and the gates began to creak open as Viers stared inside. At first, he couldn’t see anything except what seemed to be a twinkling of... stars? Otis’ scowling face burst forth through the tiny passage that the gates provided, and Viers felt his heart skip a beat as the Ursa Minor began to stare him down.

“Um... Otis...” Trixie nervously said. “It’s okay... they’re friends. Here to help us!”

“Can he... even understand you?” Viers slowly asked her.

“He does, or he usually does when we try to talk him down! It’s okay, Otis! They’re not here to hurt us!” she shouted out. Otis’ mood remained concerned, however, and he held his gaze on the command for the longest time as Viers’ body remained tensed, ready to unleash a volley of cannon and rocket fire on a moment’s notice as his jetpacks hummed in preparation of his immediate retreat.

He put a tentative step back as Otis opened his yawning maw, revealing a mouth full of razor-sharp teeth that Viers was sure would have no problems at all gnashing him into gruesome bits of dead human and gnawed armor. He nearly keeled over when Otis roared point-blank at him with enough force to quake the ground, and he would have, had he not already had a foot in place to bolster himself.

“Otis?! Otis! That’s enough!” Trixie shrieked. “Stand down, okay?! They - are - not - here - to - hurt - us!” she continued, screaming the emphasis as Otis suddenly stopped and looked at her, baffled. “Yes! They are friends! We don’t hurt friends, right?!”

The bear’s face frowned for a moment, then alighted in realization, and he soon nodded with a smile as he withdrew back into the camp. His thudding steps grew faint as Trixie let out a sigh of relief, and she shook her head as Viers caught up with her as she entered the camp.

“He looks like a lot of work to take care of,” he said nonchalantly. The tuft of the bear’s head could be seen at the far end of the camp as they passed by several huts with ponies working at preparing food. Foals were promptly shooed away by their elders as Trixie stopped.

“It definitely was,” she said over her shoulder. “We found Otis when he was but a cub, and his mother was nowhere to be seen. It’s strange, these Ursas: they only seem to require eating to survive at a young age, but eventually, their body tapers off and somehow becomes self-sustaining. Some part of me believes that it’s magic, but what can I say? I’m no expert.”

Her attention was redirected as her congregation swelled, and an elderly stallion at the fore spoke up. “Trixie, uh... just who are these newcomers, anyway?” Eyes watched as the scavenger group behind them scattered off and returned to their duties, having no bounty to turn in that day. “Are these the ‘outsiders’ we’ve all been hearing so much about?”

“Indeed they are, my good ponies,” she said. “Allow me to introduce Lieutenant Viers of the... um...”

“Interstellar Defense Initiative,” he answered through his power suit’s external speakers, giving his voice a hazy static tone through the electronics. “With permission given by your leader here, I’ve arrived here to take a census of you all for administrative purposes, and if need be, relocate you all to more proper housing currently under construction nearby.”

“Can we trust these outsiders, Trixie?” the stallion asked her.

“It’s okay, they can be trusted... or at least, I hope so,” Trixie said. “They were in the process of building a base nearby, the camp of which he spoke, and you’ve all heard the news from our scouts about how they’re purging the forest. I’d rather not stay here when they finally catch up to this location.”

They all whispered to each other, several jabbing a cautious hoof towards Viers and Yankee squad and waving Trixie over for private counsel as he took the time to survey their living situation. Though it wasn’t entirely decrepit nor sordid, most of the huts appeared to be made out of whatever plant life had once occupied this acreage, and on the way in he could have sworn he saw what appeared to be meat being prepared in the food hut they had passed on their way in. In conditions like this, he saw, it wasn’t wise to be picky about what you ate.

Sergeant Rosky and the rest of Yankee began to meander about, holstering their weapons on the suits magnetic back locks as they proceeded to show a willing disarmament in front of the ponies, which seemed to calm them down, if only a little. “With all due respect, sir, it’s a nice little place they got here, if a bit dirty,” he said on a closed line. “Are we still on track for relocating them back to Providence?

“We have to,” Viers responded. “SOP means they all have to be in Providence and underneath Citadel shields before the Scrin show up. They won’t make it a single day out here, otherwise, even with their giant guard bear romping about the camp.”

On top of that, sir, I think I saw some meat hanging off of some racks back there in that other hut...” Rosky commented, echoing Viers’ thoughts. “Guess when push comes to shove, you gotta do what you gotta do... but isn’t it a bit dangerous if they’re eating mutated creatures out here?

“Doesn’t really seem like much of a difference given that they’re all mutants already,” he said. “But maybe we can readjust them to their old diets when their supply shipments get handed out. Fresh vegetables and medical treatment ought to have them back to eating normal in no time.”

Medical treatment? I understand where you’re coming from, sir, but last I heard, you could only turn into a mutant, not the other way around...” Rosky said, sitting atop a worn rock distanced from the group and providing him with a clear view of Otis at the end. Trixie uttered a few parting words with her group, waving them away as she looked at Viers.

“While your offer to relocate to the camp is tempting,” she said, “the decision is that we will only agree under one condition: I will go with you to look at them myself. And depending on how things go, I will return and we will decide upon what happens next.”

“Sounds fair,” Viers said. “If you’d like, you can bring along others. It would be helpful if you had a few extra opinions on the housing.”

“My original group shall do,” she said. “I’ll grab them and then we can be on our way.”

Uh, Dagger to Commander Alexandra.

“This is Alexandra. What’s going on, Dagger?” Alexandra asked, bumping shoulders with Masterson as their transport slogged its way up through the hills. Despite the lessening turbulent conditions, rain was still at an all-time high, causing ground shifts and flash floods. Any other choice of terrain and conditions would have been preferable; it was a shame that atmospheric saturation didn’t produce a global Tiberium winter. At least snow could be used as a greater advantage in combat.

The mutants are interested in the housing, but they won’t move until they take a look for themselves. I’m bringing them down to Providence now. Maybe you should introduce yourself to them, sir?

“Don’t see why not,” Alexandra said. The din of construction creeped into earshot, and he looked out the window to see the Citadel shield generator being erected just over the treeline. “I’m almost there myself. How far away are you?”

Very close. Turns out their camp is only a couple of ridges away from Providence, actually.” The static buzzed through as Viers spoke quietly to someone else. “We’ll meet you at the front gate. Dagger out.

“Looks like we get a mutant welcoming party,” Alexandra said. Masterson merely tapped at the window, and then Alexandra’s shoulder to gain his attention, and then pointed out at the small gathering near the still-unfinished walls of Providence. Viers and company were already waiting.

“Well, at least they don’t look too different from the normal ponies,” Masterson said. “Though if there are shiners here, maybe we should probably keep an eye on Providence’s security. I don’t think anyone’s going to be a happy camper if a visceroid comes a-knockin’ on our door.”

“We haven’t seen any concentrations of Tiberium gas here, or at least not in this region.” Alexandra hammered the side of the transport, waving his instruction to the Chariot driver to move to the shoulder of the road as they neared the gate. “Things might be different elsewhere. Orders still stand to purge on sight, no matter the circumstance.”

Viers immediately greeted them as the rear hatch opened, giving them a small wave. “Welcome to Providence, sir. You’re in luck: they’ve just finished hooking up the EVA core into the command bunker.” A pony pushed past his arms and looked into the APC, looking curiously up at Viers, and then at Alexandra. “Oh, and this is Trixie, the leader of the pony mutants.”

“There are a lot more of you outsiders than I thought,” she said. “So much military for a simple cleansing operation?”

Viers and Trixie withdrew to give Alexandra and Masterson space to exit the APC. As they both stepped back out into the acrid Equestrian air again, Alexandra remained mute, taking the time to note the crystallic growth on Trixie’s face and horn. “Greetings, Trixie,” he said. “I’m Commander Alexandra, leader of all the ISDI expeditionary forces sent to this planet. I notice you have a bit crystal growth on you. How long has that been there?”

“As long as I can remember...” she replied. “It was... a long while ago. I haven’t really been up-to-date on the calendar, so I’m afraid I can’t really recall when.” Her eyes drifted across his faceplate and and down his body, and then up to his head again. “You and your companion are smaller than the Lieutenant here.”

“It’s the suits,” Alexandra said. “They need to do more and require more protection, so they’re larger. Mine’s just standard for officer loadouts. In any case, I’ve been told that you want to survey the housing units. Let’s go check them out.”

Engineers darted about, several beginning to place the foundations of turrets and cannons at the gate entrance as they passed by. The empty sockets for the deployment of anti-air batteries sat untouched within the walls as movers carried components for anti-orbital cannons further inside. Zone troopers patrolled the lengths of the walls and Titans stood in checkpoint bays in maintenance as they crossed to the refugee camps.

The blockish hill of the command bunker sat at the highest point of Winsome Falls as the Citadel shield generator rose into the air and finished deploying, fizzling to life as Trixie and her cohorts watched the shield project its defensive canopy above Providence, canceling out the rain and the noise within. “Quite... fascinating,” she said. “Are those... shields?”

“Yes,” Alexandra said. They approached another gate, this one already operational as it collapsed into the ground, revealing rows of generic housing units flanking the road on both sides. “There’s the housing units.” He looked over at a nearby engineer busy cataloguing crates of furnishings. “Engineer, what’s the status on these housing units?”

“We just finished them two hours ago, sir,” he said. “I see you’ve got some of the locals with you. They’re locked at the moment for security purposes, but I can have EVA send the access codes to you.”

“Much obliged,” Alexandra said. EVA’s notification that the access codes had been uploaded to his suit signature popped up on his HUD... along with a secondary notification from the Methuselah stating that advance elements from the Hammerfest had rendezvoused with it. Unsurprisingly, it was a high-speed troop transport with the familiar ‘EF’ callsign of the Inferno Corps. There was no doubt that they’d called first rights to landing ahead of the main force.

The housing units were roughly as large as the barracks back at Camp Greenwood, and had the same amenities to boot. As they walked past the engineer and towards the door, the red light switched to green, and the door opened to reveal an airlock. The interior was a strong white that brought back memories of time to Alexandra spent around operating tables—both around and on them.

“So... pristine,” Trixie said. “Hygienic, certainly, and very... secure?” she ended, as the door closed behind them. The locks shifted into place and a disinfectant spray drizzled over them as she and the other ponies winced. “This spray... stings...”

“Aw, shit, let me get this, Marty,” Masterson said, tapping away at his wrist-mounted PDA for a moment before the spigots closed off. “Forgot the sprays had Tiberium-neutralizing components to it.” The door opened as the color tone remained unchanged, painting the whole hall in surreal vibe that seemed utterly alien, even to the humans.

They broke off right as soon as they entered, and Trixie trotted inside to appraise the cabin. “How many rooms are there?” she asked, poking her head into a dresser before drawing back and sniffing the air. “The air... it’s so clean.”

“Filtering systems keep things as clean as possible,” Alexandra said. “And there are ten rooms per floor, with two total floors, complete with bathrooms at the end of each hall for communal use. Food will be taken at the mess hall and will be open all-day as per refugee protocol.”

“And the windows?” she asked, tapping a hoof against the tiny line of glass above the table. “It seems rather... lacking.”

“For security purposes. We can’t risk having anyone smash them open and causing a containment breach, so they’re made with reinforced glass and have only a minor presentation of the outside.”

“Excellent... and I expect that you are already aware of what ponies eat.” She watched her group trot around the room, poking their hooves inquisitively at the various modular fixtures and basking in the feel of the beds. “And it seems that the others think well of these accommodations. So that solves that problem, then,” she said, settling on top of the chair and bouncing upon it. “One more thing: will there be a place to stay for Otis?”

“Didn’t plan on it, but I’m sure we could work something out,” Alexandra said. “Will he be fine sleeping outside?”

“He prefers it that way, really,” Trixie said. “If there’s a large cave nearby, he can settle into that, but otherwise, it’s best just to have somewhere flat and clean for him to sleep. Oh, and food, of course, he loves his food.”

“Sure. What kind of foods does he eat, anyway?”

“Meat, various fruits and nuts, that sort of thing,” she said. Her horn glowed as she lifted moved the lamp around on its pivot, smiling at its design. “It’s been a long while since I’ve been in such a place like this. Very well, we shall agree to move into these premises, and to bring Otis along with us. Come now, my dear ponies! We have news to bring home!”

Alexandra stepped aside to let the ponies leave as a notification beep pinged in his ears, and he opened his HUD to find himself receiving a video transmission from the Methuselah’s newest arrivals. “Confessor Jeremiah Godric,” Alexandra greeted, smiling at the grizzled veteran’s battle-scarred face and noticing that his acquaintance’s eyepatch had changed yet again. “I should have expected that you and your men were itching to get here as soon as possible.”

Godric chuckled. “It’s Captain Godric, lad, but I guess if ye want to talk like the old days, then, yeah... ‘Confessor’ Godric will do ye jus’ fine. How’re things goin’ on down there? Been lots o’ talk ‘mongst the men ‘bout you findin’ some talkin’ horses down there.

“Ponies, Godric, ponies,” Alexandra corrected.

Bah, same thing. The whole damn press ‘s been up in arms up it, claimin’ all sorts of crazy shit and statin’ that the great ‘n mighty Alexandra is goin’ to fuck things up, yeah. Well, so long as my boys and I still draw breath, there ain’t goin’ to be any shit hittin’ the fan here. The Word of Nod wants to get an interview with ye whenever you’ve got the time, by the way.

“The general stance towards me seems to change every time I end up on the news,” Alexandra joked. “In any case, I have some stuff to attend to, so we’ll talk later. The refugees need a place to stay, and—” He was cut off as sirens began to blare and the room was painted in an oscillating red light.

Warning: this is not a drill,” EVA broadcasted on the base PA system. “Scrin drone ship detected in vicinity. Commander Alexandra, report to the command bunker immediately. Attention all forces: Scrin drone ship detected in vicinity. Security lockdowns engaged.

Aw, fuck, just our luck, innit, boy? Hold onto yer horses—oh, ain’t I a comedian, eh?—and lock down the base. M’boys and I are poddin’ in to give those bastards a good burnin’ in the good ol’ fashioned Nod style.

“A drone ship...” Alexandra said. He pointed a finger out the door at Viers. “Lieutenant! Get these ponies back to their camp and lock it down as soon as possible!”

“What?” Viers shouted. “With no backup?”

“The base isn’t complete yet, but I know that the Scrin aren't going to be interested in the ponies. I want you and Yankee to keep them all safe until this blows over, okay?”

“Yes, sir! How the fuck did they make it past our sensors...?” he wondered aloud. “Yankee, with me! Trixie, we have to get back to your camp right now. Let’s get moving!” They bumped Masterson aside as they charged into the airlock, and after yet another gate control transfer to the front door, were on their way outside.

They must’ve slipped in underneath the sensors, alright,” Godric chimed in. “The Methuselah’s tracked its trajectory in through the atmo. Seems like they’re an advance element... just like us. Don’t worry ‘bout the regulars muckin’ up ‘gainst the dangerous ones... just leave that to us. Time to turn up the heat. See you planetside, Marty. Peace through power.

The last that Alexandra saw of Godric was the Inferno Corps gearing up behind him, calling out prayers and arming themselves with their distinctive flame weaponry before the feed cut off. He chuckled quietly underneath his helmet at that piece of the old world that he’d long since become accustomed to as he grew up.

“Heh... peace through power, old friend.”

Chapter 13: Ignition

View Online

“Masterson, get down to the EVA core and lock down the bulkheads,” Alexandra instructed. Their boots clanked across the steel grate floors as Masterson hung a right and disappeared down a flight of stairs. Defense turrets mounted on the ceiling and floor tracked his approach towards the command bunker, opening up its bulkhead in preparation for his arrival.

Scrin drone ship has landed within the vicinity of Providence. Forces from Camp Greenwood are being mustered to aid the camp in its defense.” EVA brought up fuzzy orbital visual displays of the ship deploying in the forests, quickly replaced with a simulated regional overlay as forces began to pour out from Greenwood.

“Alexandra to Mobius, come in, Mobius,” he said, eyeing the crawler cutting its rounds around Greenwood’s perimeter short and redirecting towards the Everfree Forest.

Mobius reads you, Command. I assume you want us to roll out the red carpet for our new guests?” Hampton asked.

“Standard protocols apply: give them a wide berth and let the Titans tear them apart, with infantry to mop up if they get too close.” Alexandra walked up the steps to his command console as the bulkhead behind him closed, settling down into the command chair and watching from his seat as the doors sealed themselves. “You won’t be doing the heavy work for this one, though. That’s where the Inferno Corps come in.”

They’re here already? Damn, they’re fast.

“Godric was never really one to sit around. EVA will alter their deployment vectors and put them in a staggered entry along your path of advance. I’m sure you remember our unwritten rule when it comes to the Burning Fists?” he asked.

Of course. Stay behind them and try to avoid their flamethrowers, and hope they don’t find a reason to point it in our direction. I’ll practically have to keep my boys back since I have the regulars under my command, not Steel Talons.

Alexandra’s command display flashed red as EVA snapped his view further north. Tiberium encroachment was already well underway, with the Scrin buzzers already working to oversaturate the environment with Tiberium, giving anything they touched an artificial and glossy look, like green-tinted chrome spreading at the pace of a wildfire.

“You might want to double-time your movements,” Alexandra warned her. “It looks like they’re trying to roll their green carpet out to us first.”

Aw, shit. I hate it when they do that.” Alexandra brought his display back to Greenwood, watching as Hampton’s attack force settled into formation and began to advance, with Michelin’s defenses deployed in their wake.

“Why didn’t we pick up the drone ships on the Methuselah’s sensors?” he asked, checking the troop carrier’s detection systems. They read all clear.

Cause of infiltration is unknown, but it is possible that the ship had managed to effect entry into the sector quick enough to engage stealth systems. It is possible that this drone ship may not be attached to the Annihilator cult, and is instead being used to reconnoiter the area for the advancing invasion force. An alternative method of entry would be the drone ship making planetfall on another location in the world, and moving to our location afterwards. Our planetside detection systems are not calibrated to circumvent the stealth systems of a drone ship.

“Has this information been forwarded to InOps? And what’s the status of OP Castle?”

The information was forwarded the moment the drone ship was detected, commander. OP Castle’s anti-orbital cannons are fully functional, but can be redeployed to serve as a fixed artillery position if needed.

“No need. I’d rather have the cannons keep watch on the skies than on the ground. Give me a force projection estimate and threat assessment of the vanguard Scrin forces.” He relayed orders to a section of soldiers at the tail of Hampton’s column, redirecting them to the hills near Providence to assist Viers with the defense of the mutant camp.

Enemy resistance is expected to be minimal, or otherwise following standard scout element contingents for a non-cult Scrin drone ship. Threat assessment is rated high, however, given their ability to quickly counteract our abatement efforts and their rate of Tiberium spread.

“Damn. I’d rather try to contain them as soon as possible...” He checked over Greenwood’s garrison, noticing a single unit of Havoc pilots on the ground and on stand-by. “EVA, can low-altitude attack craft be deployed with the current levels of ionic interference?”

Contested. Ionic interference has only dropped to levels sustainable by aircraft, but operational capability should not be impeded so long as the levels do not rise, and the craft maintain consistent altitudes underneath mountainous regions. Precluding your assumed request to deploy Havoc attack gunships near the location known as Winsome Falls, be assured that they will function nominally in these conditions.

“Good. I know this is normally Rowland’s field of expertise, but he’s not here at the moment. Attach them to Mobius’ command and send them ahead to stem the Scrin spread.” The screen shimmered once as EVA acknowledged his order, and he sat back to let the plan unfold as the first of Godric’s forces began to arrive through transports, landing ahead of Hampton’s crawler as Nod confessors led their men into the gnarled woods before them.

The Havocs were off the ground in less than a minute, zooming out of Greenwood and past the ground forces, heading into the hills and beginning their bombardment runs. Cannon and missile fire were what greeted the first contact between Scrin and ISDI forces in Equestria. Alexandra had no doubt that things would get louder—and bigger—before long...

“Damn.” Harold hurried to the windows, peering beyond the grayed metal blinds as he saw the Havocs raise themselves into the skies. “Already? That’s far too quick...”

“Are we under attack again?” Fluttershy said meekly. “Should we... find somewhere to hide?”

“That won’t be needed,” Harold said, withdrawing his hands from the row of metal before him as the security systems automatically rotated them shut. Bulkheads followed, sealing the room and the outside world between layers of thick steel. “Secondary security measures have been activated...”

“Yes, sir,” came a voice Harold hadn’t heard for the longest time. The guard sergeant and the accompanying private stepped inside the room as the door slid shut and locked behind them. “Security just confirmed what everybody has been talking about: the Scrin are here.”

“No, no, that’s far too soon.” Harold returned to his seat under the worried gaze of the ponies, and cycled through the newest intelligence reports. “It’s only an advance element... thank goodness.”

“It certainly isn’t something to trifle with, if the measures you are taking seem to show anything, dear,” Rarity said. Her assumption was merely proved further as the guards shifted uncomfortably; even the sergeant, who showed discipline during his time as the head of the room’s security, let out an aura of unease.

“The Scrin have shown that they can be deadly even in the smallest numbers. And according to...” He enlarged a live feed display showing the Scrin buzzers, darting about as shimmering forms of energy-laden vessels, rapidly transforming the forest into a sea of emerald glass. “This is incredible. They’re using the fast-growth strain to suppress our advance and encircle us.”

“You know more about us than we do,” Applejack said. “So I’m guessin’ that this whole fast-growin’ stuff is probably bad business for us all, right?”

“Correct. I’ve been with the Methuselah’s staff for some time now. Most general combat scenarios we deploy into are textbook battles, mostly with our equally standard Scrin counterparts in turf gains or to soften them up for the big guns. The fast-growth strain is highly volatile and takes specialized task forces to properly deal with. The regulars simply aren’t prepared for this.”

“He’s correct,” the sergeant said, letting Harold’s PDA translate for him. “The tib that those bugs drop just moves too fast. Can’t get in any harvesters, notwithstanding that tib tends to make a big boom when you try to remove it with bullets. I saw a holo-vid of that stuff in action once... some unlucky bastards got caught in the wave. What was left of them wasn’t pretty to look at.”

“You mean that the crystal can eat people?” Dash exclaimed. “I sure hope these Inferno guys can handle the heat!” Upon realizing what she said, she added, “Pun unintended.”

“They have incendiary weapons,” Harold replied. “There’s no need to worry about where you’re aiming when all you need to focus on is what’s in front of you.”

“Do you require aid? Will more of them arrive soon?” Luna finally piped in. Bandages covered the majority of her body, with the remaining length of what was once her ethereal mane now cut short, to the base of her neck. A lone eye, colored a curious blue, remained situated upon him as the other was covered with a pad. “My guards stand ready to—”

“It’s not needed, Princess Luna. Really,” Harold reassured her for yet another time. Upon realizing that the medical feats performed by Doctor Wesley had saved her life, and Pinkie’s, she had been more than forthcoming in attempting to aid them in any way possible. “We can handle it.”

“If you say so,” she said, clearly unwilling to rescind her offer.

“Hospitality’s a big thing in Equestria,” Applejack answered for her. “You did right by us, so it’s only fair that we can at least help do right by y’all.” The ground shook violently, and the lights flickered until the tremors subsided. “Sheesh, this whole attack’s nothin’ but a can o’ worms, isn’t it?”

“You can never be complacent when facing the Scrin.” Harold checked his PDA, noting that Greenwood’s communications systems seemed to be running into interference. “EVA, what’s going on with the systems?”

Communications system—s seem to be s—suffering interfereeeeeeeeee—cause unknown—systems malfunc—enemy sabotage likely—shifting operational capabilities to autonomous mode. Awareness suites offline. Local OS mode engaged.

“EVA? EVA!” Harold looked to the sergeant, who was tapping the side of his helmet attempting to gain an uplink back to the network.

“It’s out,” he said. “Shit. Private, keep an eye on that door. Local OS mode just kicked in for me, and I can’t raise anyone on the comms at Providence or the Methuselah. Sergeant Easterling to anyone on Greenwood, please respond.”

“Sir, we have company!” the private shouted.

They looked to the door to find the mountainous form of a Black Hand trooper standing in the doorway, flamethrower in hand and pilot light flickering at the tip of a barrel ready to deliver fiery death to the ISDI’s enemies.

“Greetings, soldiers. My name is Confessor Winslow. I alone have been assigned as the Steel Talons’ ward to our quadrupedal friends. And in light of the EVA outage, it seems, none too soon.”

“Just one?” the sergeant said. “I’ll go bring more guards. The commander doesn’t want to take any chances with security here.”

“Do so,” Winslow said, crouching down to pass through the doorframe as he entered. Easterling left, leaving Boscoe standing at door duty and Winslow inside to tower above the intern and his pony charges. “So, these are our new allies, are they?”

“Not so much allies as people in need of aid,” Harold replied. He slapped his PDA; the feed on the comms was still dead, and there was no sign of returning service any time soon. “Damn, what the hell did they do?”

“I’ve seen jammers like this before,” Winslow said. “We dealt with them once, on New Feugoro. The Scrin deployed heavy scale communications jammers in an attempt to eliminate communications between soldiers and the command structure... which seems to be what they are attempting to do here.”

“You think the Scrin landfall might have something to do with it?”

“Possibly,” Winslow admitted, trudging around the room and staring back at them from beyond his blood-red visor. “Scout elements have never been known to use jamming equipment before. It’s far too large to carry with a drone ship, and the operation doesn’t lend itself to such wide-scale obfuscation.”

“So if the Scrin aren’t behind it... then what is?”

“Now that,” Winslow said. “is the question we want answered...”

Masterson!” Alexandra walked through the bulkhead of the EVA core’s new home, deep within the heart of the command bunker, right hand holding his sidearm in a death grip. “What the hell just happened to our systems?!”

“I have absolutely no freaking idea, Marty!” Masterson answered, tapping away on his keyboard as he ran check after check on EVA’s systems. “She’s running fine, but her outgoing facilities—comms, battlefield intelligence processing, commander suite sky-eye, Methuselah weapons uplink—won’t work. I’m trying to figure out what’s causing it.”

“Is it an ion storm?”

Masterson shook his head, pausing a moment to readjust his keyboard. “It’s not an ion storm. If it was, those Havocs would have already crashed and burned, but we would still have comms and the sky-eye. This is something else.”

Alexandra watched the lines of text speed up the length of Masterson’s half dozen monitors. “Is it a Scrin jammer? No, that wouldn’t be possible... the jammers require ludicrous amounts of energy and have a massive structure size to boot...”

“But the effects are similar to what we’ve seen so far. Nothing else that we know of in the Scrin arsenal is capable of stopping us cold like this. They may have prototyped a portable version, but I can’t imagine them being successful in trying to scale down the energy cost...”

“Can we trace the origin of the jammer?”

“If we had the uplink to the Methuselah, sure.” A screen switched over to the regional map, but only received a static-torn screen in return. “Like all the times before: we’re running blind here on the ground. Local comms will still work, just nothing high-scale like a transmission from here to Greenwood or the crawlers.”

“Hampton will be on her own, then,” Alexandra said. He continued staring at the text speeding past his vision as he deliberated on what to do: the Scrin could easily land reinforcements and strike at the ISDI positions while their systems were incapacitated. In the most urgent of situations, he would have been able to simply order an airstrike on the Scrin drop zone and end the trouble before it even began.

“Well, it’s not all bad, right? We were lucky when the Burning Fists showed up. Maybe they can clear a path straight to the Scrin base before things get worse,” Masterson said. The single system registered a beep of completion, followed by yet another as he sent it back to searching for a solution.

Alexandra’s silence answered for him. Godric, being more than simply another soldier underneath his command, had always been adamant in arriving early to assist him in whatever ways he could. Memories of hushed conversations between Godric and his father came to the fore, and he couldn’t help but wonder if there was a promise unknown to him brokered between them.

“Godric will know a way to deal with this. Combined with Hampton, I’d say that the Scrin already have more than enough to contend with.” Alexandra patted Masterson on the shoulder reassuringly. “In any case, we’ll know for sure soon enough.”

“... from localized ion storms...” Masterson muttered underneath his breath, staring straight at a screen off to his right. “Marty, the jammer always produced an ion storm, right?”

“Yes... why do you ask?”

“Oh, that’s it! We could—Marty, you know that crystal we brought up from underground? The one sitting in Greenwood right now? What if—and don’t act like I’m crazy this time, because I swear that I’m right—that damn crystal is the one that’s causing this?” he said, standing up and gesticulating wildly in Alexandra’s face. Had Alexandra’s helmet not been closed, Masterson might have seen him visibly react to his immediate outburst.

“It’s... possible...” Alexandra replied evenly. “But it might just be a coincidence. The research team only brought the thing in hours before the Scrin landed.”

“And we still don’t know how that thing ticks.” Masterson nodded, muttering several more semi-relevant words quietly. “Yes. It’s a coincidence, but it’s a damn big coincidence, don’t you think? It’s a Tiberium strain that works on magic, something that we only have the faintest of ideas on how it functions. Didn’t that doctor’s report to you say something about that?”

“The crystal was assumed to be... a communion object for the mutants. For what, we don’t know yet,” Alexandra said. “That was supposed to be the next step of Doctor Wesley’s research into the shard before more immediate concerns arose.”

“Well, we didn’t find an off switch on the thing, did we? We have the sonic control rings, like we used for the old Tiberium Control Network back on Earth, but we never had to deal with the Tiberium broadcasting any sort of signal from itself. It might be worth looking into.”

“I’ll keep it in mind,” Alexandra said. Masterson printed out a snippet of data from his checks, shaking his head at the unwanted result. “And keep trying to get our systems back up and running. I’ll arrange for a ride back down to Greenwood.”

“Will do,” Masterson said, waiting until Alexandra had left and the bulkheads again sealed themselves before relaxing. “Well, can’t complain about having another trial run for the counter-jammer...”

“Keep pourin’ on the heat, lads, we’ve got ‘em on the run!” Godric shouted, searing the ground before him with spray of fire. Tiberium cracked and broke away at their advance, and the the unlucky Scrin buzzers caught unawares by their sudden advance gave an alarmed chirp before dying away in the flames themselves.

Pressure, gentlemen, keep that roast going,” Hampton said on the all-unit comms. Her crawler launched another volley of thermobaric missiles, lacing the path ahead with fuel before they sparked and exploded spectacularly.

“Keep the fuel churning, and tighten up your lines!” Godric grunted disapprovingly. “And why’s the bloody network offline? Commander, things workin’ fine up there for you?”

No, captain, the whole thing’s gone dark. I’m trying to hail the Methuselah or Greenwood. Nothing. Keep pushing forward, we have to get rid of the ship before it has a chance to cause more trouble.

The Havocs—callsign Heron, courtesy of Hampton—remained above the advancing force, punctuating the air with the sound of cannon fire as they remained close to the Mobius. Further behind them, the zone troopers watched their flanks with cautious eyes, on both the deeper treeline and the ground before them. The movement of the unseen buzzers produced an eerie feel that only served to keep all of them on edge.

I’m getting more movement on the radar,” Hampton said. “Watch yourselves. Contacts inbound from the southwest. Heron One, we’re going to need another strike on the drone ship.

Copy, Mobius, but the bugs were setting up AA the last time we punched it out of there. Should we proceed?” Heron One said.

You’ll coordinate with the Talons for this one. Tiger One, you there?

Ready and waiting, Mobius. What’s the job?

Switch to hard target missiles, reconnoiter the Scrin drop zone, and destroy any AA if present. Don’t stay any longer than you have to.” Inferno Corps troopers slowed to shield themselves when another shard of Tiberium exploded. “Damn this fast-growth strain. Heron One, get a move on. Tiger One, I’m moving Spider and Wasp under your control, bumping you up to six: make sure there’s nothing left to bother the Havocs.

Yes, ma’am,” came the cool reply. Six Talons rushed by the Mobius, rearming themselves as their onboard production facilities automatically refitted to the new missiles. “We’ll be right back.” The hovercrafts vaulted over the wall of flames and disappeared within seconds.

The Havocs trailed after them, making straight for the drone ship smoking in the distance, the prior strikes from the Havocs already producing a visible effect. Scrin energy projectiles hissed through the open sky as they immediately scattered to avoid being hit.

“How much longer until we hit the drop zone, anyway?” Godric asked.

Several hundred meters. Sure seems farther than that with all of these trees.” Within the crawler, Hampton slammed her fist against the control panel as she groaned inwardly. Without EVA, all battlefield intelligence beyond what her crawler provided was inaccessible, though she already had a fairly good hunch as to what was causing their outage. “I’m hoping that Tiger reports back with a sighting on a jammer. Blowing the hell out of whatever’s causing this muck-up would make my day.

“Err on the side of caution here, ma’am,” Godric said. The staccato thumps of exploding hardware signaled the success of Tiger’s surgical strike, followed by the meatier series of explosions as Havoc swooped in. “We stretch ourselves too thinly, and the Tiberium growth will eat us all alive. ‘Sides that, I’m sure we would have seen the damn jammer on our way down here. This whole valley’s clean, as far as we’re concerned.”

Well, we were underground before you guys showed up. Had to fight our way down a hellhole just to kill off the mutant stronghold here, and drag that damn shard back up to the surface. If they had a jammer here, we would have seen it when we ran our post-op scans, and we did run scans all the way up until everything went dark.

“Hold on a moment. A shard, you say? A Tiberium shard?”

You heard right. Damn thing was nearly three stories tall and more violet than the purple hearts they give out to the poor guys in the hospital. There was a lot of talk about it being infused with magic, given how... well, you know, we’ve run into unicorns and stuff.

“Magic... unicorns... I don’t know if you’re speaking of this with a serious face or not, Commander Hampton. Such mystical properties are dangerous if left unchecked...” he warned.

All serious, Captain Godric. You’re free to go take a look at it back at Camp Greenwood once we mop up the Scrin.

“Excellent. I’ll keep that in—”

“Captain! Contact!” a trooper shouted, redirecting his flamethrower barrel at a swarm of charging buzzers that broke out of a smoldering tree trunk. The trooper laughed in triumph but was cut as a plasma bolt struck him in the chest and knocked him over.

Disintegrators! Open fire!” Hampton said. The Mobius’ cannons rotated to their left flank, and began firing at the skittering packs of gun-faced quadrupeds. “Check all flanks, I’m reading more contacts incoming!

“Get the lad to the medics!” Godric shouted, dragging the wounded soldier away from the combat and settling him against a jagged rock. As he waved a medic over, the Inferno Corps at Godric’s section withdrew to safety as the zone troopers stepped forward to lay down suppressive fire. “Tend to this soldier! Inferno Corps, maintain your stream of fire! We cannot let the Tiberium overwhelm us!”

The hail of lead from the trooper chainguns kept the disintegrators in check, leaving Godric free to order a switch in weaponry for his brothers: their flamethrowers were holstered and they brought out their own trooper assault cannons, armed with thermobaric shells in accordance with their doctrine.

“Return fire, brothers! Show the scum what it means to fight against Nod!” he shouted. The Inferno Corps were trained leagues better than the regulars, and it showed: the disintegrators were caught unawares by the new heavy weaponry as the shells detonated against their barrels, showering the targets and their unfortunate brethren in fuel before they could flee.

Another trooper screamed in pain as a bolt lanced straight through his shoulder. The disintegrators had newfound effectiveness following the Ascension Conflict; what had once only been marginally effective against basic infantry now held lethal implications for zone troopers, but the ISDI found that the improved performance from the power suits outweighed any detriments to wielding them against the common disintegrator.

And the disintegrators were not known for their accuracy, much to the troopers’ thanks.

Their numbers are running out, keep it on them!” Hampton said. The dual chainguns mounted atop of her cannons operated autonomously from the main system, chewing through the dead organic cover the disintegrators used as they shuffled around, half in retreat, half in confusion as the overwhelming firepower left them scrambling to reorganize.

Tiger and his unit returned, bounding over the huddling line of troopers as they wheeled around to engage the targets. The Havocs followed shortly, giving much needed assistance to the stalled ground battle.

Heron One, proceed with strike along the indicated path I’ve set on your HUD. Leave nothing standing,” Hampton ordered.

Affirmative, Mobius, moving to clean house.

The troopers cheered as the remaining signatures on the radar were wiped out by the missile strike. Godric, however, thought differently. “Don’t be countin’ your blessings just yet, troopers. Inferno Corps, form up and keep moving forward.”

Back to business, Mobius,” Heron One broke in. “We did a good number on the drone ship. I think it’s on the last of its legs now, but there’s an ion storm building up around it that’s sending our systems haywire, definitely localized. It might be the jammer.

Then we keep moving. All units, fall in. Objective still stands: take that thing out before we all buy the farm. Heron will provide as much support as they can until they can go no further. Let Captain Godric take the lead again—

The troopers glanced worriedly at each other during her pause. “Uh, Mobius? Are you there?” a trooper finally asked.

I’m here, trooper, just fine. Keep the line moving and keep your eyes peeled.

The storm intensified the further into the forest they went, the darkened clouds and the hazy sepia glow that were trademarks of the ion storm eventually forcing them to switch to their low-light visibility mode on their visors. What Hampton hadn’t had the gall to tell them was that their radar had gone out, and she’d seen many more enemy signatures closing in on them before it went dark...

“Commander Alexandra! What are you doing here, sir?” the tech at the containment facility’s front desk said. “We... uh, we weren’t prepared for a visit. Oh, you must be here for the shard, correct?”

“Correct,” Alexandra said, two zone troopers flanking him on each side. “Have you had any disturbances with the shard?”

“Uh, no, none whatsoever.” The tech cleared Alexandra’s authorizations, and stepped aside as the double bulkhead doors began to open. “Well, we haven’t had anything yet. Since EVA went down, the containment facility has been placed on lockdown. You can access the locker rooms and the primary database, but access to the specimen rooms has been disabled. Security precautions, you must understand.”

“I do understand, but I have to circumvent those security protocols because I believe that our current predicament is being caused by our newest addition. Gentlemen,” he called out behind him. A full team of engineers followed Alexandra and his entourage inside and began cutting away at the even larger security bulkheads protecting entrance to where the Tiberium shard was kept.

“I... uh... this is a breach of protocol... sir...” the tech meekly responded. “The sensors inside that room went offline over an hour ago due to the jammer.”

“I want you to do something for me,” Alexandra said, putting a hand on his shoulder. “Go round up whatever free security personnel there are here in Greenwood, and get them here ASAP. If what I think is true, then we’re going to need their help.”

“Right away, sir.” The tech disappeared, apparently grateful for having the chance to plausibly deny violation of protocol as Alexandra watched the engineers with impatience.

“Procedure once we get inside, sir?” the trooper to his immediate left asked.

“Lock down the area, and hope to hell whatever’s inside isn’t ready to tear us all apart.” The engineers’ plasma cutters whined to a halt as they fully effected a complete entrance through the bulkhead’s plating. One of them, bearing a blue-stamped shoulder plate that Alexandra recognized as the construction yard manager, stood up and gave him a little wave.

“Don’t mean to be stepping on any toes here, sir, but I’d highly suggest you stand back as we pop this baby,” he said. Motioning the troopers back and Alexandra further, his crew pushed the entranceway aside, revealing a maelstrom of iridescent energy coursing through the room. “Room’s hot, sir, what do we do?”

“Damn it, Henry, of all the times to be right...” Alexandra muttered. “Alright, I’m going to need the troopers to maintain watch out here. Engineers, we’re going to need to access the deconstruction module for this room, can you reach it?”

“Remotely, maybe. But the security system’s locked out here, no access until the lockdown is lifted,” the manager said. “But...”

“If you’ve got a way, I’d like to hear it,” Alexandra said.

“See, there’s supposed to be a control panel access in the room itself. If I can get in there and jack into the module directly, I might be able to shut that shard down before it can cause any more damage, but we’ll be minus one shard after it’s all said and done.”

Alexandra crossed his arms as a pair of engineers attempted to enter; the point engineer immediately keeled over, spouting profanities as his suit began to hiss and spark with the signs of failed electronics. The other quickly dragged him out by the heels, immediately getting to work on fixing the damage.

“Room’s readings are off the charts, sir,” another engineer said. “It’s like the whole room is more like an ion... tornado.” Alexandra’s HUD flashed with the data readings that the engineer had taken: circles flashed red in the room’s areas of energy buildup, and ionic interference had surpassed InOps record measurements.

“Won’t be getting in there without our suits locking up,” the manager said hesitantly. “Actually, I think I’ll take my chances trying to break into the security system. I’ll be right back.”

“Commander, I’ve got your backup,” the tech said, returning with a platoon of troopers in tow.

“What is the situation, sir?” one asked.

“We need someone to get inside and activate the shard’s chamber systems. The deconstruction module has to be activated so we can take that thing apart,” Alexandra said. “I know it’s a shot in the dark, but do any of you soldiers have upgraded shielding on your power suits?” When he received no response, he sighed and shook his head. “That’s what I was worried about.”

“Well, we’re shit out of luck, then, huh?” the manager said. “Just hang on tight, I’ll get into this system ASAP.” A shrill beep made him visibly recoil before the screen sparked for a moment. “Okay... uh, so much for that...”

“I’ll do it,” Alexandra said. “My integrated combat suit was designed for deep strike zone operations, and has the proper shielding installed to withstand even the worst ion storms and interference.”

“With all due respect, sir,” the manager said, slamming a gauntlet into the table as the console booted back up, “I don’t think ‘worst’ is getting anywhere near close to what this is.”

“Better than nothing,” Alexandra replied. “We either shut this thing down or the only thing our reinforcements will find is what’s left of Greenwood and a whole lot of Scrin.” Before any of the others could object, he sprinted forward into the room, letting the thumping of boots and the heaving of one pudgy technician gain their attention.

“Marty!” Masteron sprinted through the front door, pushing his way past the troopers to get to Alexandra. He stopped with a slide, bending over and holding up a finger as he heaved from within his hazmat suit. “Listen... I got... this... this thing...” He held up a data stick, waving it above his head. “You... you have to use this... uh, where’s the commander?”

“The crazy guy just ran inside to jack into the deconstruction module so we can turn that damn shard into raw materials,” the manager replied. “What’s that thing do, anyway? You got a bomb hidden in that stick somewhere?”

“Re... calibrations... for the shielding system... our standard one got blasted by the shard... it’s too powerful. The shield systems were overloaded, and the last several milliseconds’ worth of data that came out of this facility painted a lot of facts that brought the issue to my eyes.”

When the manager motioned to speak, Masterson bid him to wait, and continued with, “But not yet! The shields won’t work right now. The shard is draining the energy being sent to the whole facility system! You gotta kill the flow to this place first, and then you can upgrade the shields and restart them.”

“Uh, I know you’re in charge of keeping the EVA unit running, sir,” the manager interrupted, “but I’m not entirely sure we can go ahead with this. What if it doesn’t work?”

“You’ve got a point,” Masterson admitted. “But I don’t have anything I can use to vouch for it aside from my own promise. But we got to make a call, and we have to do it fast.”

“Fine, give me that thing.” The manager shut the power off and switched the systems to emergency power mode, receiving the stick from Masterson and letting it work its magic. “Wow, talk about fast,” he said to Masterson’s approval. The system updated in real-time without his input, and he raised his hands away from the keyboard as the work was done automatically.

“Well, it’s not just the upgrades. Standard protocol, you know: idiotproof maintenance. Well, at least at Idris it’s standard, the ISDI’s a bit more crude with their maintenance protocols. Guess that’s why they put me in charge of the EVA unit.”

Power flow to the containment facility was shut off when Alexandra finally responded. “Alexandra to... manager... I’m at the panel... but systems... not responding... power’s off?

“Hold on there, chief, your code monkey here found a way to fix this!” the manager said. “We don’t need that deconstruction module up anymore, we can contain the shard with an upgraded shield system attuned to the shard’s power output!”

Then do it already! I’m going to... here in case it doesn’t fall through. You got your orders!

“Yes, sir,” the manager said. The red tint of the screen turned green as the power system fired back up. The deep red of the room painted by the emergency lights was expunged with the cooler industrial lights that came standard with the pre-fabricates.

Local OS mode disengaged. EVA processes back online,” EVA announced. “Shard shield systems operating at nominal capacity. Shard energy output contained. Mobius attack group has been confirmed successful in Scrin drone ship neutralization. Warning: unknown enemy signatures sighted approaching mutant encampment.

“Trade one thing for another, huh?” the manager grunted. Alexandra was dragged out from the room with the assistance of engineers, letting their repair beams get to work as he was seated against the wall. “But I think having EVA up and running trumps anything the Scrin can throw at us.”

“Damn fine job, Henry,” Alexandra said tiredly. “I’m sure someone at CENTCOM would have thrown a shitfit over having to trash the shard. Now all we have to worry about are casualty counts and Scrin incursions. And maybe a real jammer somewhere down the line, but we can worry about that later. Maybe when we have Mastodons and MARVs to back us up.”

“That’s why Idris pays me. And I don’t trust anyone else to do it,” Masterson admitted. “Had to be me. Someone else might have gotten it wrong.”

“Right. EVA, is the Methuselah uplink online?”

Methuselah systems are linked. Weapon systems are primed to fire on your command. Mobius attack group is currently on standby and assisting to casualties. Thirty percent of the strike force has been injured, with two percent sustaining critical injuries from the engagement.

“Tell Hampton to send what help she can to Lieutenant Viers.”

Affirmative. Warning: new drone ships detected within vicinity of Providence and the mutant camp.

Alexandra scoffed as an engineer peeled away his right forearm’s plating to repair the nano-wiring within. “They must have been trying to catch us with our pants down. EVA, triangulate drone ship coordinates and initiate surgical ion cannon strikes against them. Stage three, wide spread. Use surgical stage two if the mutants or Providence are close enough to suffer collateral damage.”

Launching ion cannon strikes. Incoming transmission from: Doctor Richard Wesley, InOps.

“Put him through.”

Wesley’s smiling face greeted him. “Commander Alexandra! I take it you have our jammer situation sorted out already?

“Yeah, it was fine, Wesley. How are the ponies doing?” he asked, grunting in pain as the engineers peeled off his smoking right gauntlet and giving him breathing room to flex his raw hand.

Well, they did not react kindly to our reaction to the jammer. OP Castle was put on full alert and we had to lock down the city gates, and there’s a lot of gossip going around now speaking how we were under attack. Well, not here, but you understand what I mean. We could hear the fight all the way up here.

“So long as they’re fine,” he said, glancing at the right side of the screen as he saw Twilight talking to Wesley in the background. “You have a visitor, doc.”

Wesley looked over his shoulder, nodding reassuringly as Twilight. “Yes, I know. I’ll tell him.” He looked back to Alexandra and gave an apologetic shrug. “Sorry, she’s quite excitable about this. Princess Celestia has announced that she has a plan in motion for increased cooperation between Equestria and the ISDI!

“News to me,” Alexandra said bluntly. “What does she have in mind?”

Three words: pony zone troopers.

“I hope she intends for talks in greater detail in this, because I haven’t approved anything yet...”

Oh, of course, commander. Apologies for putting this on you, but she was quite curious after seeing how we produced one for Twilight, and absolutely would not back down. Judging by the reactions from her own soldiers, I’d say that they wouldn’t be averse to spending some more time outside, too.

Twilight returned and spoke to him again before disappearing in a flash of light. “And when are these talks, exactly?”

Right now, actually, Wesley said. “But these aren’t the official ones, just in-house discussion as they pick who to send as their representative unit. The real one will be at a time of your choosing, and after we...” Wesley looked up, away from the screen, and grimaced. “I see the Methuselah’s weapon systems uplink is back online.

“And just in time, too,” Alexandra said with a chuckle. “You’re right: I’ll decide on a time later. Right now, though, I should probably get this suit repaired.”

Of course, sir. Thank you for taking this meeting into consideration.

“I think they’ll do all right. Just have to give them the chance. And in any case, having both the pony mutants and the Equestrians on our side might work out in our favor during the long run.”

That’s what I hope, too, sir. Have a fine day. Be sure to drop by the medical clinic I’ve set up here in the city when you get the chance.

“I’ll keep that in mind. See you later, doc.”

Until then, Commander Alexandra.

Alexandra rested his head against the wall as he snapped his free hand’s fingers at Masterson. “So, Henry, how interested are you in visiting Canterlot again?”

Otiiisssssssssss! Sic ‘em, boy!” Trixie shouted.

Otis let out a mighty roar, rearing onto his hind legs before slamming them into the ground in challenge. The Scrin forces’ fire did nothing to him, as the disintegrators’ plasma only seemed to glance off of his thick hide. Retaliation from the ursa was swift and deadly, as not even in numbers could they escape the surefire destruction of a falling angry paw.

“Yankee, disperse!” Rosky shouted. The four troopers of Yankee took cover behind the rocks alongside the mutants, whose own militia took up their positions in the entrenchments outside of their camp.

Viers jetted around the flanks of the camp’s defenses, avoiding the spike traps that the disintegrators detoured from. The buzzers, however, had no such qualms, and promptly ate away at the static traps as the mutants returned fire admirably, taking down many in the process.

Heron One to Dagger, come in, Dagger.

“Dagger copies, Heron One, glad to see you here. Pick targets and engage, but be aware of friendlies maintaining positions near the shiner town’s gates. Your objective is to stop anything from getting too close from their lines. Ignore the bear, he’s here to help.”

Copy, Dagger, and... whoa, that is one big bear.

“Gawk at it later, we have Scrin to kill.”

“No! No, Otis, the flying metal birds are here to help! Okay, boy? They’re here to help!” Trixie shouted as Otis roared at the Havocs flying past overhead. “Otis! I mean it! Do not hurt them, or you’ll have to sleep outside tonight!”

The bear appears to be trying to attack us, Dagger, please advise.

“Let it sit, they’re trying to keep him on a leash. Space yourself if you need to, but we need those disintegrators flushed out, pronto.”

Roger, Dagger, circling around now. Confirm visual on targets, EVA should be painting them for you shortly.

True to his word, EVA lit up three congregations of disintegrators holding their position in the trees, most of their fire focused upon trying to futilely wound the ursa swatting at the buzzers like literal flies. “Dagger confirms visual. Wipe them out.”

With pleasure. Missiles away.

Heron zipped over the trees and left a line of destruction in their wake. Viers rolled down the incline behind him, using the break in sight to get himself closer to the disintegrators. Residual explosions from the broken parts of disintegrators were all that remained, and he spent the remaining time darting from one to another planting a shot within each of the carcasses to ensure the finality of their demise.

Yankee Lead to Dagger, the buzzers have been cleared out. EVA seems to be back up and running now. No targets within the immediate vicinity, sir.

“Good,” Viers said, scraping off Tiberium-stained mud from the bottom of his boot as he stepped across scraps of bent metal and frayed wiring. “How are our friends doing?”

The bear’s calmed down, at least. Seems to be a bit edgy, though. If you can see from where I’m at, he’s trying to swipe at Heron again.

“First time with the Scrin. I would be surprised if he wasn’t. I’m on my way back. Tell Trixie to keep that guy heeled before he ends up doing some real damage.” He looked around himself, surveying the deeper forest behind him as he frowned. “Get all the ponies back into the village, and put the rest of your squad on the walls.”

Yes, sir.

“Heron, return to base. We’re done here.”

Roger that, Dagger, returning to base.

Trixie was in the process of giving Otis a stern talking-to when Viers returned. “Otis! You do not hurt our friends, okay? They are here to help us! Help you! Imagine what it would be like when you can finally have a full stomach of fresh fruits and berries, none of the sort of unpleasant foods we’ve had to harvest here!”

Otis growled apologetically. “I think he gets the message, Trixie,” Viers said. “But I’ll put in a good word to the commander about bringing down a load of fresh fruit just for the ursa.”

“That would help far more than you can imagine,” Trixie said, sighing as she ran a hoof through her mane and plopped down onto the ground. She watched with a neutral expression as Yankee lifted themsevles to the wall on watch duty as Sergeant Rosky led the ponies back into the camp. “Much of our food is spent keeping Otis barely satiated. He’s a big bear, and he’s only growing bigger. I fear that without your help, we eventually won’t be able to sustain his diet and will be forced to... make a decision to his continued presence in our camp.”

Viers walked up to the unicorn, letting her gesture to Otis to return to camp before he spoke. “Expanding the farms you have is probably too much trouble as it is, huh?” he said.

She laughed sadly and pawed at the dirt with her hoof. “You’ve seen how the land is around here... we can barely get by as it is. Much of our food is magically-grown, meaning that we have unicorns that aid the growing process around the clock. It’s incredibly tiresome, but it is what it is.”

Trixie wrapped the cloak around her shoulders tighter against herself and stood as Viers wordlessly followed. Ponies clamored to shut the gates after they entered, sealing the Scrin-laden stretch of the camp’s approach away from the eyes of the prying youngsters as they were finally let out of their homes.

“Trixie!” one of them said. “We heard Otis roaring out there! Is it true he squashed them like bugs?”

“Indeed, he did,” Trixie said, smiling over the foals’ heads as Otis settled back into his bed at the opposite end of the camp. “He fended off the attackers as if it were nothing! A fierce swipe and dozens fell before him!”

The foals whispered excitedly to each other, stifling their giggles before they thanked Trixie for her work and dispersed to play. The casual capture of normalcy put a smile on her face, but she wasn’t the only one who noticed. “They don’t seem too fazed by this, are they?” Viers said, still acutely aware of the battle they’d fought not only moments before.

“We’ve put our heart and soul into protecting what we have, and we don’t intend to fail any time soon,” Trixie said. “It’s because of that absolute trust they put in us that they’ve grown accepting of the daily life that we now go through. The foals seem to have taken to it better than most.”

“It must have been a hard choice for you all, ending up out here,” he said.

“There wasn’t one,” she said simply. She led him back into a nearby hut, expansive inside as tables lined the space as a crude mess hall. Her magic carefully removed the improvised plates of armor on her torso and neck, placing them gently on the table as she took a seat upon the hard wooden bench. “There were... divisions, even among the refugee city in Canterlot. Those who were already infected were treated badly by those who weren’t. Fear and distrust spread, and it wasn’t long before suspicious deaths started to occur. It was a nightmare, almost as if we were through Discord’s reign of terror again.”

“So you decided staying wasn’t worth it, and you led them out here?” Viers ended for her.

“Myself? No, there was no way I could have possibly done any of this myself,” she said modestly. “There was a time when I thought I could... but it wasn’t just myself that saw the problems we had, and would have to bear in the coming months. We convened meetings, talked it over numerous times, and decided that trading what we had for relative safety behind the walls of Canterlot for the freedom from persecution from our own kin was for the greater good.”

“There are some very disturbing similarities here,” Viers said, kneeling down in front of her, bringing them to eye-to-eye. “At the onset of the Tiberium outbreak on our world, mutants were regarded much in the same way. Healthy people were in fear of being infected themselves, and cast out those unfortunate enough to be caught with it.”

“Then I hope I shouldn’t have to explain our dire situation at further length,” she said. The lone cook approached her with a shoddily-crafted with a pitcher of water, silently bowing before returning to her station. “Water. How easy it is to appreciate the simple things when you live long enough without them.”

“I definitely understand that,” Viers said, watching as Trixie helped herself to cup after cup with gusto. “Er, is that water... purified?”

She finished off the last of her water with a smack of her lips. “It is purified. We had a naturalist pony here who had experience living off of the land, and built us some basic filters. We also boil the water, too, just in case.”

“That’s helpful. Is he still with you?”

“No. He died... several weeks ago, long before you showed up. One of our scavenging runs did not turn out well, and his group in particular returned with only one. The fool,” she said sadly. “He was convinced that there was something occurring out there. He brought his group too far north, and they paid the price for it.”

“Did he find anything, though? Or was it all for nothing?”

“As far as the well-being of our camp went, it was absolutely for naught. In terms of knowledge, however, it was...” She leaned forward. “The evidence was faulty at best, terrifying at worst.” She cradled the cup of water between her hooves, staring down at the dull metal that produced a broken reflection of the mare staring at it.

Viers leaned in closer, giving her time to breathe as Trixie’s breathing had grown hard. Her throat felt dry, and she bid the chef to bring her more water as she nursed her head with a hoof and a thought to drive the demons away.

“What happened out there, Trixie?”

Dragons,” she hissed. “The old stallion was right. There was something out there, but... th-they saw us. Swooped in behind us, before we noticed, cooked half of our group alive before any of us could react. The rest of us... we... we ran. As quickly as our hooves could take us.”

Viers bit his tongue; unicorns and pegasi, and now dragons. Dangerous ones, apparently, ones that could breathe the kind of fire that the Inferno Corps could only wish they had. “Trixie... I know it’s tough for you... but I need to know the details. It’s important that we know about this, important to our whole war effort as a whole. What were they doing here in the valley?”

“I don’t know,” she said, leaning her head down upon her neck and holding back her tears. “It was... I don’t know. There wasn’t just one dragon. There were... oh, Celestia be blessed that it wasn’t a dozen, a dozen wouldn’t have left anyone alive. But there were more than one, and they were here, for some reason. I think... I think they brought something with them.”

Viers clenched his jaw. “This object, Trixie... were you able to see it? Any part of it?”

“It was large, very large. One of the dragons carried it in his arms when he brought it in. It was purple... almost like the magical kind, actually. We... never saw them again after that. Maybe that was for the best.”

He put a heavy hand on her shoulder. “Thank you, that’s more than enough. If you ever feel like talking about it... you can talk to me.”

“Thank you...” she said somberly. “I hope what I had to offer could help.”

“It definitely helped,” he said. He retrieved the cannon from its place on the ground, exiting the mess hall and leaving Trixie to her thoughts. Circumventing the standard comm channels, he had but one order to give to EVA. “Get me Commander Alexandra.”

“You... you wished to see me, Princess?” Blueblood made no attempt at being casual, well aware of the reason why he had been called to the throne room following his confinement. Guards trailed along next to him, ready to take him down at a moment’s notice if he would grow unruly.

“I did,” Celestia replied. Standing next to her throne were the Sparkle siblings: Captain Shining Armor on one side, and Twilight Sparkle—who stared daggers at him through her helmet’s transparent faceplate—on the other. “I have been lenient with your actions for far too long. The trouble that you and your entourage have caused has done far more damage to our peace than any monster can ever hope to achieve.”

“I...” Blueblood could say nothing, knowing that his general reputation had soured the moods of citizens against him. While he had been fortunate enough to be confined to his castle quarters, the rest of his group had been thrown into the dungeons, and he had no wish to join them.

“So we have convened here to discuss the matters of your punishment,” Celestia continued. Blueblood felt a chill tingle down his spine as she looked down upon him with a judging eye. “And I do believe we have a rather outstanding option that should keep you well occupied for the better part of your coming days. Captain Armor, if you would, please.”

Shining cleared his throat. “As you are a noble-born unicorn,” he began, “the amount of magical training as befitting those of high birth has given you a magical aptitude that most unicorns that we have, even in the ranks of the Equestrian Royal Guard, can only barely hope to match. Among the training that you’ve received, the use of magic in combat was one of them, and you passed your exam with excellent marks. Am I correct?”

“You are correct,” Blueblood said.

“Then our decision stands. Prince Blueblood, as of this moment, you are hereby conscripted into the Equestrian Royal Guard. You will be placed under the leadership of Sergeant Firetrace, whose orders you will obey to the best of your ability. Failure to do so will result in severe disciplinary action, up to and including corporal punishment.”

Blueblood nodded nervously, thankful to be assigned mundane guard duty than to be thrown at the crueler mercy of his other aunt, who was fortunately not present at the meeting. “Th-thank you, Captain Armor, I will fulfill my duties as completely as possible.”

“Furthermore,” Shining continued with mixture of irritation and restrained amusement at what was to come, “Sergeant Firetrace’s squad is within the jurisdiction of my company. After an intensive discussion with Princess Celestia and Princess Cadance, I have volunteered my unit to be the first to enter in a military coalition with our newfound allies.”

“To put it bluntly, Blueblood,” Twilight said matter-of-factly. “You’re going to war.”

“Yes,” Celestia added with a sagely nod. “Captain Armor’s company will be the first to integrate themselves with the human military forces. Many of our soldiers here have expressed their discomfort at the endless guard duty and the desire to do more for Equestria, so this will be our first foray in many months to reclaim the lands outside of Canterlot. You will be among them, Blueblood.”

“And with the recent sighting of the aliens on our world,” Shining said, “none too soon. With luck, the integration will proceed smoothly as we hope to acquire the protective suits the human soldiers use to aid our own in the field, and perhaps fight alongside them, as well.”

A bead of cold sweat trickled down the side of Blueblood’s face, his mouth babbling incoherencies as he processed the notion. “B-but, auntie...” he finally managed, but Celestia held up a hoof to stop him.

“Hush, Blueblood,” she said. “Reap now what you have sown. You will report to Royal Guard Headquarters tomorrow at six in the morning, on the dot. I need not remind you what will happen if you fail to keep this obligation...”

The noblepony hung his head in shame, as the lack of a response and an imperceptible nod from Celestia brought forth the guards standing attentively behind him. One let out a quiet whisper of an order in Blueblood’s ear, and he turned away, the guards leading him out of the throne room. As soon as the titanic doors had closed after them, Twilight let out a sigh of relief.

“Finally,” she said. “It’s nice to see that moron gets what he deserves.”

“Now that we have that matter concluded,” Celestia said, “Twilight, I would like for you to deliver the news to Doctor Wesley, and perhaps arrange for transportation. I would like to visit Luna.”

“Of course, Princess,” Twilight obliged, teleporting away as soon as her sentence had ended.

“I have to admit,” Shining said, stretching his shoulders. “It’s good to finally be able to do something aside from playing shield bearer. I’m glad to see that I haven’t lost too much of my strength... being in that room all the time was an exercise in patience. But I guess being tired helped speed things along.”

“Are you still sure about this?” Celestia asked him. “I know of the restlessness the soldiers have, but perhaps stepping from protection to actual fighting is far too great a change.”

“I’ll make sure they’re ready for it. I’ll begin drills tomorrow, focusing on the combat techniques. Pegasus and earth ponies will have to relegate themselves to finishing enemies off, while the unicorns will do the brunt of the work with their magic. If we can get the suits, though, we can even out the combat potential of the whole company. Especially with those weapons.”

“Always vigilant,” Celestia said with a knowing smile. “I trust you’ve already spoken to Cadance about this?”

Shining snorted. “After our previous meeting, yes. She... wasn’t too fond of me going out to play soldier so soon after coming out of recovery. I’m a hardy stallion, I can handle myself.”

“That’s what she’s worried about.” Celestia stood, nodding to all the guards as she descended from her throne and waited for Shining to follow. “I hope our meeting with Commander Alexandra goes well.”

The resulting chuckle from him caught her off-guard. “I sure hope so,” he said. “A couple of the guards have been excited to get their hooves on those human weapons for some time now...”

Chapter 14: Respite

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Trixie exited the tent, donning her trademark purple hat and raising a hoof to her eyes. Around her, the camp bustled about with its usual activities, brushing off the recent attack with no more than a casual interest. Living in such squalid and grim conditions had conditioned them to accept the worst of their circumstances, it seemed, and even she herself didn’t truly know what to think of it. It was scary to write off such violence as daily happenstance.

“How’re ya doin’, Miss Lulamoon?” She looked to her side and found an old earth pony stallion, wearing a simple dull green scarf with a wheat stalk hanging out of his mouth, sitting on the bench right outside of the mess hall. “Sorry, didn’t want to bother ya while you had yer little moment of mournin’. If you need some o’ the stallions to rough up that human for rousin’ you up, I can put in—”

“No, no, that won’t be needed,” she replied quickly, giving a somewhat flustered wave of her hoof. The stallion simply shrugged in response. “So, Flax... I assume you needed to talk to me about something?”

Flax nodded slowly, eyes closed with lackadaisical patience. “That I did, ma’am. Ran into the guy after he exited the tent. Was with Snips and Snails—you know how those two young’uns can be—diggin’ through the junk pile that Caramel and the others helped roll in. A bunch o’ scraps and bits... and alien parts. Most of ‘em fizzled away into nothin’, but there were some that made it out in one piece. Or a bunch of ‘em.”

“You brought the remains of the dead aliens into the camp?” Trixie asked, closing the distance between them and adding, “And without my explicit permission? You know how I am with accepting any new objects into our camp that doesn’t fall within our needs.”

“The deed was already said ‘n done by the time it got to me,” he said with a shrug. “So, anyway: I was diggin’ through the pile, picking through the useful bits as it looked like they just tossed in some o’ the alien remains in with our regular run, when that feller approached me. He said that we were playin’ with dangerous stuff, the alien bits just sittin’ ‘round in our camp like that.”

Trixie raised an eyebrow at him. Though she did have a good impression of Lieutenant Viers, she was more interested in how he interacted with her campmates. She took a seat next to him, looking around to see Yankee Squad still remaining on guard at the walls and with Viers visible on the other side of the camp, apparently engrossed in a private conversation within that bulbous headspace of his. “And what did he say to you?” she asked.

“Said to leave the alien bits to be. The Screen—I think that was what he called ‘em—boy, are they some strange critters. Snips had one o’ them in his mouth, a little thing that looked like a parasprite if you flattened it like a pancake and covered it with knives or somethin’, and I told ‘im to get rid o’ it. Too dangerous for foals to be runnin’ off with things like that in their mouths.”

“I certainly hope you did get rid of it, along with any other alien objects that were in the pile,” Trixie said. “Did you oblige the lieutenant’s order?”

“Yeah, I did. As if those little bug things, ‘Buzzers’ I think he called ‘em, weren’t bad enough, Caramel and the crew brought in one o’ the bigger ones. A dis-in-tee-gra-ter, as the human put it. Was big and ugly, like you took one o’ those fancy cannon barrels that we used to have on the royal guard airships and gave it legs.” Flax visibly shuddered. “I’ll be damned if that wasn’t the most alien thing I ever did see.”

“You’re digressing, Flax,” Trixie stated, waving a hand in front of his face as he straightened up and cleared his throat. “Stay on topic. Did you do as he asked?”

“Oh, right. Um, so the human told me that the thing was filled with acid! Can you believe that? Somethin’ that looks like a shiny walkin’ barrel with acid in it? Said that if we cut the wrong places or ended up crushin’ it, acid would just start flowin’ out of the damn thing, and that we should get rid o’ it. Ain’t my place to be puttin’ the camp in danger like that, so I agreed. He’s s’posed to have his people come down and clean it up for us sometime tomorrow mornin’.”

“Well, I did happen to get a closer view of the object while it was attacking the camp,” Trixie recalled. “There were certain visible parts that did glow a bright green. I suppose that might have been it, or the crystal that the humans are trying to rid us of. Perhaps it’s for the best that they take these things off of our hooves before we end up playing with things that we don’t fully understand.”

Flax nodded agreeably. “Seconded on that. In any case, we had a little talk right afterwards ‘bout the humans. They got a whole camp set up for us, do they? He said they’ve got hot water... and I gotta admit, as much as we can make do with making our own here in camp, it does take a lot o’ effort to heat anythin’ up. Effort that would be better off spent on tendin’ to them crops.”

“On food, and plenty of other amenities,” Trixie agreed. The sight of clean rooms and running water came up in her mind, and she had to remind herself that it wasn’t just a dream; these new domiciles were almost ready to be used, and only a short trip away. She sighed. “And I’m sure we will eventually make contact with the ponies of Canterlot eventually...”

“Don’t worry yerself over those city folk,” Flax said. “Sure, we didn’t flourish, but I ain’t gonna say that we didn’t carve ourselves our own home out here. Better than the crowded and cramped sanctum, at any rate. Got plenty o’ air ‘round here. Not fresh air, but you get what I mean.”

The joke elicited a chuckle from her, doubling as Flax’s own laugh joined in. “Well, I sometimes miss the snootiness of the old days. Traveling around, visiting towns and cities as a performing showmare...” She chuckled again, this one more somber. “I can’t believe I’m actually pining for the life I used to live... I’m sure it wasn’t as glamorous or as fulfilling as I think it used to be. What of you, Flax?”

“Well, can’t say things’ve changed much for me. Once a farmer, always a farmer, I guess,” Flax said. “Now, if you don’t mind, I should probably go see if them unicorns need help to tendin’ with the crops. Magic’s fine and all for keepin’ ‘em alive, but only the care of an earth pony will pull ‘em through. G’day, Miss Lulamoon.” He gave her a respectful bow of his head and left, leaving Trixie to contemplate her former life while sitting on a bench made out of bits of wood that may as well have once belonged to her travel carriage.

She stared out towards the open lane that ran straight to the camp’s gates. How peachy that just mere days ago, they had been busy scrounging whatever they could to get by. Equestria used to be a beautiful place, verdant with rolling hills, beautiful snow-capped peaks, rustic deserts with beautiful horizons, and everything in between... and now it was all what? Gone, forever snatched away by the accursed crystal and transforming the home of all who lived on this world into Tartarus itself.

Not to say that Tartarus was any worse compared to the realm of the living; last the scouts had reported in, Cerberus and the doors to Tartarus had both surprisingly managed to survive the calamity, though whether or not it was the intervention of magic more ancient than the Princesses themselves, nobody knew. The last thing Equestria needed was an outbreak of ancient monstrosities atop of their current crisis.

Trixie brushed off her star-dotted cloak, cleaning it of dirt before hopping off the bench and returning to all fours. There were a great many things that had happened since they left Canterlot, and a specific set of bridges that would need to be traversed again ever since the humans had arrived. They didn’t need to simply survive anymore... they didn’t have to languish day by day to a nightmare that they would never awake from. No, the dream had shifted dramatically, and now they could rebuild.

Rebuild. The word hung in Trixie’s mind, a strange concept that enthralled her as much as her magic tricks earned the adoration of the foals. To be honest, the thought titillated her, if only moderately. To see the vivacious lights of Manehattan’s nightlife once again... oh, how her heart fluttered.

But to reach that day, where Equestria rebuilt itself taller and prouder than anything they had once built... that would require time and effort. Trixie trotted towards her tent, located near the rear of the camp. Her simple home held all the basic utilities that a pony would need, but remained the closest domicile to Otis’ sleeping grounds, in the case that where she needed to rise immediately and march to battle, so would he.

She tossed aside the heavy cloth and made her entrance, immediately making for her office table: a relic of the golden days, converted from a strong plank of wood torn from a waxed cabinet door, and the only one she’d kept since then. She reached aside into the bag that sat at its legs, pulling out a roll of paper, along with a quill and an inkwell.

Equestria could rebuild, but it could not do so divided. And as much as she may have once hated even giving mere thought to the name, she knew now, out of everyone that she knew, that this one pony would never refuse to hear what she had to say.

Dear Twilight Sparkle...

The Canterlot General Hospital had fallen into disrepair since Shining Armor had last visited it, but the hardy building seemed to withstand the worst that the world could throw at it. Compared to most of the other buildings in its surrounding area, he thought it looked rather intact, though that could probably be attributed to the continued guard presence in the area. The extra security certainly put the continual lines of patients at ease.

He basked in the surge of activity, feeling very glad that he could about walk about and do something rather than sit cooped up in the castle to maintain the barrier. He had continued with his tour of Canterlot, leaving Celestia and Cadance behind to discuss the properties of the humans’ shield, a strange monolith that channeled new and alien energies never before seen by ponykind.

Shining had been in no mood to discuss anything related to magic after being shackled to it for so long, so instead he had sought out his sister, following Celestia’s directions to the hospital. The grimy tile flooring was no longer sullied, but now a clean stark white after janitorial staff had been brought in from the humans’ base to powerwash the building from top to bottom. Ponies huddled together in lines as ISDI soldiers directed the flow of the afflicted to the medical stations, set up on the ground floor rooms.

The machines that the humans used looked remarkably similar to their pony variants, and then there were the ones that he’d never seen before: machines with spindly metal arms and precise beams that were operated by technicians clad head to toe in operating gear colored in pure white and medical blue, and others with even stranger properties, like a machine that seemed to vibrate to a frequency that shattered the presence of crystals on a pony’s skin.

It was bewildering to him, to leave the sanctity of the bedroom he and Cadance shared and to walk straight into the rushed chaos of a fully-staffed hospital. The pony doctors on hand stood aside and watched with curiosity and rapt attention as the medical teams seemed to clock in and check out every patient in record time, performing triage at a rate that not even he could hope to aspire to.

As he passed through the halls, though, the population began to dwindle, and he eventually ran into the pony medical staff on the second floor and inquired them as to where his sister was. She was very hard to miss: Twilight herself was known throughout the city as Princess Celestia’s aide, and her new armor and vestments practically made her a beacon for attention. But the ponies did not know where Twilight was, and it was only when a helpful human nurse directed Shining to the third floor balcony that he finally found her.

Shining stood at the glass door, observing Twilight through the frame. Her helmet was off to her side, and she seemed... aloof, absentmindedly staring off towards the Canterlot gates as her tail seemed to flick around as she thought, occasionally darting from side to side with flashes of frustration. In a way that only a BBBFF could know, he had an idea of what had Twilight set on edge: a recent appearance by a certain somepony in the throne room.

“Twily...?” His sister’s ears perked up at the sound of his voice, and she looked at him in surprise. “Princess Celestia told me you came here to the hospital.”

“Oh, she told you that, huh...?” she said, trailing off as she began to zone out again.

Shining waved a hoof in front of her eyes, bringing her attention back to him. “Hey, sis, I can tell you have something on your mind. Do you want to talk about it?” he asked. Taking a chance on his hunch, he trotted up next to her and added, “Is it about Blueblood?”

His assumption was proven correct when she sharply inhaled. “Yes,” she said simply.

“Start at the beginning?” he asked, now dearly wishing that he’d brought Cadance along. “Don’t rush... we have the whole day, if you need it.”

She sighed, taking a deep breath before she began. “Okay, so... I’m sure at this point, you’re well aware of Blueblood’s... reputation in the city. With everyone, really, because at this point, there isn’t a single pony in all of the city and sanctum who hasn’t heard of what he’s done, and you were away with Cadance for most of the time, so you probably never heard any of it.”

“You’re right. I didn’t get much in the way of news from the outside,” he said, nodding and urging her to continue.

“Well... it started with me. Blueblood’s spree of debauchery was already well-known at this time, though I expected that he would burn himself out on partying hard and... everything else that comes with it.” She shrugged, pointedly glancing off to the side.

Shining felt his eyes narrow with contempt, almost on automatic. Twilight continued, her voice thick with sarcasm, “So, yeah... he got it in his thick head that I, the personal student of his aunt and the Element of Magic, would make a great new personal conquest. Even after I explicitly told him my intentions, and that was before he even sent one of his stupid groupies to ask for him.”

If the ambient sounds of life going on in the streets below weren’t present to anchor his sanity, Shining would have exploded in rage. As it was, he managed to keep a calm, yet dark expression upon his face as his little sister continued.

“One day,” Twilight continues, “he sends a maid to me. And it wasn’t just any maid; it was Lilydew, who everypony in the castle knows is Blueblood’s... pet.” The word exited her mouth with emphasized disgust. “She said that Blueblood would be honored if I would do him the favor of showing up to one of his parties.”

“I take it you didn’t accept?”

“Of course I didn’t. You haven’t seen the sorts of parties that Blueblood hosts since the crisis began.” She looked down towards the street, watching the lines of ponies below shuffle forward into the hospital in a slow yet steady trickle. She sighed. “All these nobleponies, still trying to live it big and pretend that the world outside their ballroom windows hasn’t just all shattered into tiny itty-bitty pieces, the kind of ponies that laugh at you when you try to get them to actually do something to help the cause.”

Shining nodded; he’d heard of this before, and had actually run into more times than he cared to admit. Certain nobleponies within Canterlot’s affluent circle practically acted as if the world revolved around themselves, with the worst being privy to Blueblood’s antics and joining with him, creating a whole clique of these like-minded buffoons. “And these parties were... how common?” he asked, unsure if he would be happy with the answer.

“Every half month or so, he’d have one,” Twilight said sourly. “And they always had these grandiose displays of food there, like it was a sick joke from Blueblood to every other pony in Canterlot. Princess Celestia made him tone it down when she found out, to the point where he didn’t even have access to food anymore beyond his rationed amount, which is the reason why he turned his attentions to the next greatest display of mockery he could find: mares.

“At first, it was the simple stuff: taking advantage of the maids here in the castle, but he always did it so subtly, like some off-hand remark or a casual touch of places where a stallion should never put his hooves without a mare’s consent. It became hard to out him for what he did when he always kept denying it, and it wasn’t as easy as trying to track where all the missing food kept going.”

“Someone must have complained, right?” Shining asked. With a pony with as much notoriety as Blueblood, there certainly was no room for mistakes. “Didn’t Princess Celestia reprimand him, or punish him in any way?”

Twilight sighed heavily, running a hoof through her mane. “Things weren’t great back then, Shiny. We had problems to deal with, so many of them like you wouldn’t believe: space management in the sanctum, crops to tend to in the gardens, supply distribution to the ponies in Canterlot, scavenging missions to other cities before we had to stop, and more... there was a lot going on, and we just couldn’t afford the time to deal with the problem.”

“Couldn’t one of the guards have helped you?”

She scoffed. “Are you kidding? The last thing anypony wanted to be was the target of Blueblood’s antagonizing comments. We had it happen once, to Princess Celestia’s other aide, Ink Well, who is now working in the library because of the trauma he caused her.”

A lull in their conversation arrived when the humming sound of an Orca dropship was heard, the craft flying in low from Canterlot’s north side and through the shields. The ponies below all turned their heads to the skies, several foals squealing in awe as the dropship landed at OP Castle outside the gates. The low static of public ISDI communications chatter could be heard from inside Twilight’s helmet.

“Well... I assume that you tried to do something about that... didn’t you?” he said, mind swirling in thoughts at the circus of activities he could put Blueblood through.

She groaned and plopped her head down on the railing. “My mood was frayed at the time, and I took the invitation from Blueblood personally. Lilydew and I traded some... heated words, some about her and most of them towards Blueblood, and then she stormed off to tell him what I’d said.”

Twilight groaned and wheeled around, grabbing her helmet and relocating it to the cushy lounge chairs nearby underneath an awning, still clean and in good condition from repeated use by the hospital staff. She took up a seat as Shining followed, reclining into her seat as her mood degraded. Shining himself sat prone on his chair, as close to the edge as possible.

“Sure enough, his attacks were focused on me after that. Oh, he never did anything directly—that would be too telling—so he had his subordinates fill in for him. Nasty words whispered by maids as I walked in the halls, the nobleponies trying to cause as much trouble for me as they could near the library and the office, creating accidents outside my room so I couldn’t get any sleep... I was already weary, and they were trying to drive me off the edge!

“And that wasn’t enough: they even went after my friends! Applejack would have lost a whole harvest of crops in the garden if she hadn’t the sense to buck all the thugs he sent to destroy it into tomorrow, Rarity had all of her tailoring materials stolen from her room while she was away, Pinkie Pie had all of her newly-baked pastries for the foals in the sanctum robbed from her, Fluttershy had to deal with rampaging animals after they were all riled up by extremely suspicious noises, and it’s fortunate that none of them were stupid enough to mess with Rainbow Dash, because they knew that would only end badly!”

Twilight was panting furiously, settling down from the rampant gesticulation of her hooves. Shining waited for her to calm down before saying, “I had no idea it was that bad. Was that the worst of it, or did he continue?”

No.” The word danced through the air with cold immediacy. “That wasn’t the worst of it.”

Shining blinked in confusion as she went deathly quiet. “Well...” His eyes looked away as he thought, judging the weight of his next words for fear that he would step into traumatic territory. “...he didn’t do anything to you... did he?” he asked, eyes slitted with caution as he leveled the question at her.

“No,” she replied again. “He... destroyed... my... books!” Twilight’s eyes snapped to him, filled with incomprehensible anger. “And not just any set of books! It was Star Swirl the Bearded’s Treatise on Thaumaturgical Applications of the Magically-Inclined Mind, and his subsequent addition of Magia Encyclopedia, volumes one through fifty! And they were all first editions. First. Editions. Poof. Lit up. Burnt to a crisp. Just like that.”

Twilight’s intense stare was broken as her face went from still shock to melancholic sullenness. Her shoulders slumped and she seemed to melt into her chair. Shining opened his mouth to speak, but found no words, unsure of how to go about Twilight’s loss of incredibly valuable books. He merely closed his mouth and stared off over the skyline of Canterlot, simultaneously thankful and terrified of the break in conversation that had come off of a high string until she continued.

“And that’s why I hate Blueblood,” she ended simply.

“You know... I thought that Blueblood had attacked you—physically,” Shining admitted. “But this... I know how much you love your books, Twily, and I agree with you there: What Blueblood has done is nothing short of a travesty. To think that the original works of Star Swirl the Bearded were destroyed in malicious intent...” He shook his head, and in all actuality, he did feel a pang of disappointment at the loss of work from an iconic figure in Equestrian history. “I noticed you were a bit off kilter during that meeting today. Why didn’t you tell Princess Celestia?”

“I tried to, but Blueblood had a solid alibi: he had been off in the city doing... whatever, and he had his lackey take the fall for him. I knew it was him because I was with her when she confronted him on it, and that self-satisfied grin on his face the moment Celestia turned around...” Her face scrunched and she shook her head, shaking her fist at the sky. “I knew it was him, and now he’s finally getting what he deserves, that parasprite.”

Her disposition recovered, reemerging as the little sister he knew and loved as she sat back and sighed at being able to overcome the explanation of her ordeal. “Thank you for telling me,” he said. “I know it must have weighed heavily on you, though... did the Princess not believe you?”

“Well, it was...” She grumbled, turning about in her chair. “Princess Celestia had been so busy during those times. And in every free moment she had, she always went to see Luna, always attentive to that stasis bubble of hers, and I just thought... she had enough problems to deal with.”

“What about your friends?”

“They had their own problems to deal with, too,” Twilight said, sighing. “Honestly, everypony has problems, building up all this stress for so long and now that we finally have our reprieve, everything is just...” She waved her hoof emptily at the horizon. “...falling into place.”

“I’m sure it is,” he said, lingering on his cushion as he looked up absentmindedly, the shield bubble shimmering as another dropship sailed through the barrier. “When you get the time, be sure to speak with Cadance and the Princess about this. I’m sure they would want to know, and maybe when we can all agree on a time, we can discuss this issue together.”

“I will,” she replied. “Thanks for listening, BBBFF.”

He chuckled. “You’re welcome. To be honest, it’s liberating to finally be able to walk around Canterlot again... the bedroom Cadance and I shared was just so...” He shuddered, feeling a chill tickle his coat. “I don’t think I’m going to stray anywhere near that room for a very long time. The power of love is great, but even that has its limits...”

“I know, it took quite the toll on you. But now you don’t have to worry about that anymore,” she said, looking up to the shield. “I’m actually very interested in how that shield works. When Doctor Wesley isn’t busy here, I’ll ask him.”

“He works here at the hospital?”

“Yep. He’s taking a nap right now on one of the upper floors.” She levitated her helmet and snugly fit it over her head. “And now that I think about it, I probably should, too... today’s been a long day. Or maybe I should visit Luna down at the humans’ base camp.”

“She’s probably still recovering from her treatment,” said Shining. “It probably wouldn’t be a good idea to check on her so soon...”

“What in heaven’s name are they doing over there?” Rarity wondered, looking across Camp Greenwood with a squint and seeing the engineers jet up and down the containment building in the distance. The perpetually-rotating apparatus that they installed onto the roof of the facility projected a shield, enclosing the facility two-fold with illuminating energy and the rising smoke.

“A lot of hubbub ‘round that thing lately,” Applejack said with an electronic echo from her helmet, grunting as she propped Luna up as her support. The sturdy frame of her power suit did more than its share of the work in that regard. “Hold on now, Princess. You okay?”

Luna had a featherless wing, darkly tinted in flesh and eerily nightmarish in appearance, wrapped around Applejack’s shoulder. “I think I can... walk,” she said uncertainly. She attempted to move forward, clicking her hooves against the tiled floor, but her legs wobbled weakly in response. “It... it will require time, but I think I may be able to walk by the end of this day.”

“What about your feathers?” Dash asked, gesturing to Luna’s spindly wings. “Got any alicorn secrets to growing wings back quickly or anything?”

“No,” she replied. “The feathers will reappear within a half-year to a whole year, but they will grow back.” A bandaged leg accidentally jerked in response and flung a hoof into Applejack’s stomach; the cowpony gave a pained shout in response. “Oh, I apologize, Applejack. My legs are not functioning as well as I hoped they would.”

“Um... Mister Harold and Mister Winslow have been gone for a while now...” Fluttershy said, staring at the closed door to the room with worry. “He said he would only be gone for an hour... and it’s been an hour and a half now.”

“They said it was a meeting,” Dash said, hovering over to her friend and sitting down at a comforting distance. “We had stuff like that all the time with the weather teams. Sometimes things didn’t go over well last time, or maybe there was a mix-up, or an accident. Stuff needs to get sorted out before it gets worse, you know?”

“Probably something to do with that,” Rarity agreed, still watching the building over the horizon. She whirled around to find Luna’s left side legs sway and fold as she crashed into Applejack. “Oh, dear. Perhaps you should let the recovery take its course first, Princess. Your attempts to walk do not seem to be yielding results.”

“A-ha!” Luna shouted triumphantly. Applejack scurried around her, leaving her to stand proudly on her legs. Wobbly as they still seemed, her bandaged legs remained steadfast, and she gave herself an approving smile, and turned to Rarity. “Success!”

“Woohoo!” came a quiet cheer. Pinkie Pie groggily waved her hooves in the air, a tired but attentive eye on Luna. Coinciding with her congratulations were Dash and Fluttershy’s cheers as Luna took her first steps in years. Applejack gave a quiet chortle as Luna’s stride appeared as if she were attempting a clumsy tap dance.

“Land sakes!” Applejack was again at her side, catching Luna before her direction would have led her straight into the door, which opened just as Harold looked up from his PDA and his face contorted in shock. He instinctively leapt aside, sliding onto the floor as the door guards responded with rifles aimed at the pony-alicorn pair. “Uh... hehe... sorry ‘bout that. Was tryin’ to help her back on her hooves.”

“You scared the sh—” Harold began, nipping his statement in the bud and ending with, “—crap out of me!” He picked himself up and dusted off his pants, already wrinkled with the lines of unending activity... and lack of sleep. The guards, in turn, lowered their rifles at the absence of a threat. “Honestly, Princess, you’re too early in your recovery to worry about being able to stand, much less walk.”

“I am perfectly capable of—” Her knees wobbled, and her defiant eyes met Harold’s, who reflected amusement. She bit her lip, trading glances between her hooves, then Harold, and it was only through will of force, it seemed, that prevented her legs from giving out. “I... shall... not... be... DENIED!

Harold’s half-smile disappeared and his eyes widened in horror as he was thrown out into the hall again, colliding with the reinforced window and hitting the floor with a solid thud. The guards looked at her in surprise, exchanging glances from behind their helmets that spoke of the outlandish reveal of Luna’s moving voice as they leveled their guns again at her.

“Keep your voice down in the hospital,” warned one of them.

“I... I apologize. I did not mean to act maliciously...” Luna said. The guard gave a slow nod before gesturing to his comrade to lower their arms. “Are... are you alright, Harold?”

“You... you can do that?!” Harold said, wiping stray spittle off of his lip as he repeated his uprighting process, this time proceeding to clear his shirt of any wrinkles and ensuring that he wasn’t injured. “Can all ponies do that? Just...” He waved in the air with his hands. “Just shout at people and then send them flying?”

“Well... being able to send ponies reeling was not the original intention of the Royal Canterlot Voice,” Luna said with Applejack standing directly underneath her as she was carried back to her bed. “It was intended to be a show of intimidation to demonstrate the power that an alicorn wields, and to ensure that our subjects would heed our word when the situation demanded it.”

“So this is just a... you-thing, right? Aside from your sister in the city?”

“Yes, this is indeed a trait unique to alicorns...” Luna said, sitting down on her bed. Across, Pinkie was flailing wildly, her enwrapped head and single eye thankfully only adding the presence of her movements and not her voice. “I believe Miss Pie has something she wishes to say...”

Rarity trotted over, levitating a pen and paper on a clipboard over to her. They stared intently at Pinkie as the party pony began to deliver a strange series of messages through rapid movements as objects were scribbled out: a cake followed with ‘x3’, an alicorn that appeared be Luna, herself, and a badly-drawn representation of a group of humans. She ended her drawing with a satisfied hum to herself and handed the clipboard back to Rarity, who in turn handed it to Fluttershy, who translated it for her.

“Oh, she wants to throw a party! Three parties, to be exact.” She pointed a hoof at Harold. “And you and all the humans are invited!”

“Me?” Harold said, gesturing with a finger to himself in surprise. Pinkie nodded.

“Well, it was quite the delivery,” Rarity said. “It was rather vague at first, but I can understand now that Fluttershy has successfully conveyed Pinkie’s intent to us. Pinkie wishes to throw parties: for the recovery of Luna, the recovery of herself, and the arrival of you and your human companions.” Pinkie tapped her shoulder, receiving the clipboard back and scribbling down a note at the bottom before showing it to Rarity. “Oh, and she wishes to bake all the treats for these parties. All three of them.”

“That’s going to have to wait until we finish the relocation,” he replied. The ponies’ ears all seemed to twitch in curiosity at that statement, a strange habit that left Harold repeatedly speechless. “Right... so, we’re going to relocate you all to the clinic that we just set up in Canterlot. With you girls there, and especially the Princess, they’ll be happy to see that you’re all alive and well... and not taken off to some alien camp down the hill to be dissected.”

“Yes, that would be a wise course of action, seeing as we are healthy enough,” Luna agreed, mulling over her mental backlog of issues gone untended since she had been put in stasis. “And I believe it has been long enough since I have spoken to my sister. I must find her.”

“We’ll find her as soon as we arrive at Canterlot,” he assured her. He rapped the side of his PDA with a flat palm, looking up and returning a sheepish grin as the ponies gave him a quizzical look. “Sorry about that, this thing is... well, it’s seen better days.” With a quiet beep, his eyes were drawn back down to the screen. “Oh, great. Winslow is waiting outside with the transports, but the engineers and medical technicians will be in charge of ferrying you downstairs.”

“You aren’t coming?” Dash asked.

“I will, but later. Doctor Wesley wants his file cabinets moved up to Canterlot, and, well, I got put in charge of that job.” He shrugged and looked over his shoulder at the guards. “You two will be going with them. Job remains the same: stand outside the door, keep them safe. OP Castle will have information on your new quarters.”

“Yes, sir,” the sergeant said with a nod. Harold flicked through his PDA again, mumbling to himself as he cycled through his notes in search of something else he forgot to mention.

“Ah!” he said as he happened upon the note. “Right, for Applejack: if you don’t mind, Wesley also has me slated to go downstairs with you to the barracks. The engineers want to do some touch-ups on your armor.”

“Really?” Applejack asked, interest piqued. “Can’t hardly see why they would need to, it’s not like any part’s broken or anythin’.”

“No,” he said, “but seeing as how the only two ponies on this world that are wearing power suits happen to be you and Twilight, he wants to keep the equipment already assigned contained to a select few. You two will be our test cases for now, and the engineers want to work on improving the design for a pony power suit.”

“Well, alright, then,” she said, the click-clack of her armor tapping against the ground as she trotted for the door. “Thinkin’ of givin’ some ponies these suits, huh?”

“Well, it certainly couldn’t hurt,” Harold admitted. “And there has been some speculation around involving the pony military in some of our military operations.”

“Hot dang, guess things are gettin’ pretty dangerous, huh?” she said with a laugh. “I think I know of a few ponies who’d be more than happy to kick some flank with these things on.” She trotted up to him and stopped, staring up at him with green on green between her eyes and the color of her visor. “Of course, y’all ought to avoid usin’ hand-me-downs when you’re makin’ new ones.”

“I’ll make sure of that.” Harold added in a footnote on his PDA. Having ponies wear obsolete—but not dilpidated—equipment was adequate, but Applejack and Twilight’s suits could only go so far: the power suit’s components themselves were not designed to the pony form, though that would be rectified in short order if the engineers from the Methuselah were already aware of the task that lay before them.

“These suits...” Luna said, her eyes observing the contours of Applejack’s armor. “I believe I may request one for myself, should the time come. They are designed for operation in our world’s hostile environment, yes?”

“Darn tootin’,” Applejack said, tapping a hoof against her chestplate. “These humans run ‘round in these things out there all day long! Imagine what we could do if we had some of these for ourselves!”

“Well...” A side of Harold’s lips curved up in uncertainty. “The alicorn form is different... that might require different accommodations to be made, but I think we can scale the suits based upon pony forms. That’s all through Requisitions, though, and they request these things in bulk. We’ll need to have all the sizes for any volunteers we get before we can start production on them.”

“Then it is done,” Luna said, smiling at him. “And if you could, I would like to request another, as well.”

“Oh? Who did you have in mind for this one?”

Luna closed her eyes, her smile never fading. “My sister.”

“It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” Celestia said. The pillar hummed with energy as the solid beam of light stretched into the sky, the continuing lifeblood of the shield that protected Canterlot. “Such strange and alien machinery, yet there still exists that familiarity with it... how it looks so similar to our own magical shields.”

“It is...” Cadance said, staring in wonder. Together, both stood at the foot of the citadel shield, arching their necks backwards to stare at the bubble it produced above them. “And you say this pillar just... fell from the sky?”

“Delivered, they claim, from a ship that awaits beyond the clouds. Beyond the boundaries of our fair world,” Celestia said with a calm smile. She looked down at the oblivious Cadance, whose face was no longer afflicted with the haggard lines of fatigue from an endless vigil. “And they say that such a machine is not uncommon for them. They have many more, ready to be delivered from the skies.”

“Incredible...” Cadance reached forward with a naked hoof, and gently made contact with the shield’s cold steel. She shuddered, letting the bite of the temperature course through her arm, but it was enjoyable, a simple pleasure in a feeling that she had not felt in ages. “It’s... cold...” she said, a small smile cracking across her face.

“Yes,” Celestia agreed. Wordlessly, she turned around as Cadance followed, but the young princess’ eyes never strayed even as they returned to a simple bench in the center of the square: the bench that Celestia and Alexandra had spoken on. “I believe it must be cathartic to finally be able to experience freedom and the great city again,” she said.

“Oh, yes,” Cadance said. She sat down next to Celestia, slowly taking in the scene before her: ponies gathering about in their own congregations in the square to talk and laugh with each other, with foals at play across the empty space. If not for the shield and the world being painted in a gloomily drab hue, she might have mistaken it for a normal day. But she could have, and that... instilled something in her.

“You feel it, too, don’t you?” Celestia asked as Cadance looked at her in surprise. “No longer is there worry, despair, or fear.” Their eyes met, and Cadance saw a glimmer in her eye, and they both shared a smile, eventually stretching their cheeks so far that they couldn’t help but laugh. The lilting sound of their happiness carried far as ponies all around saw two of their fair royalty in veritably high spirits, and more smiles spread in return.

“I know what you mean,” Cadance said, when they had returned to their calm. “It’s just so... liberating, I guess. There was... a time where I thought that Shining and I would...” She sighed, gnawing at the tongue in her mouth as she attempted to oust the words hanging in her mind as if expelling a curse. “...that we would die together on that bed. We gave it our all, just... all the time. It felt like forever.”

“For the both of you, it may have well been,” Celestia said, wrapping a comforting wing around her niece. “You did well, you two. You kept Canterlot safe for far longer than anypony could have anticipated, and your actions have been rewarded and our dearest wishes granted. We are no longer alone in this struggle.”

“So I’ve heard... and I’ve also heard that Blueblood is now... well, enlisted. I can only imagine how well that’s going to turn out.”

“Given how your husband is in charge of his overall training, I doubt it will take a turn for the worse,” Celestia said. “And Blueblood has already left a bad impression with our allies and already holds a stigma among the citizens, so he will stand alone in his endeavor. I am sure an... improvement in his character may result from his time in the service.”

“Shining told me that Twilight was...” Her lips curved into a frown, and she looked up to Celestia with an inquisitive resolve. “She was angry at him, somehow. Normally she wouldn’t be this... vengeful, but I suppose this hasn’t been the first time she’s been so apprehensive towards someone...” she trailed off, bringing up memories of her wedding and Shining’s explanation of the events before Twilight had rescued her.

Celestia said nothing, staring blankly towards the side as she ruminated on her own actions. Blueblood had been extravagant with his expenditures, but the losses were minor compared to the problems at the whole she had to deal with: the loss of the remaining refugee settlements beyond Canterlot, the growing discontent from the afflicted in the city, and the encroaching growth of crystals that, she had no doubt, would have made their way up the mountain eventually. But it pulled at her to know that Twilight had been so distraught—in hindsight, the signs had been so obvious—yet she had not found the time to personally console her faithful student.

“Why didn’t you talk to her about it?” Cadance asked, as if on cue and breaking the moment of silence. “I think it’s quite well known that Blueblood is a bit of a troublemaker. Why not give Twilight the time to hear her problems out? You know she wouldn’t do these things without good reason.”

“I was distracted,” Celestia simply replied. Cadance only nodded, well aware of her aunt’s regal burdens. Though the Crystal Empire was difficult to rule, there was no equal to ruling all of Equestria, still as immense as it was even as it sat crammed into the space of a single city and its adjoining mountain. If anything, the arrival of the humans simultaneously simplified and complicated matters for her.

The royal guard behind them, who remained silent during the course of the conversation, cleared his throat. With a hoof, he pointed towards the distance, on the far side of the square: a human was approaching, in that same suit that Celestia and Cadance had seen him in when they had first met.

“It’s Commander Alexandra,” Celestia said, her smile faltering as the procession that followed him did not halt. Two entire platoons of zone troopers followed him, marching neatly in two lines as he stood at the tip of the spear. The remainder of Celestia’s guard, a paltry three hanging near the avenue that led back to the castle, rejoined with her as Alexandra stopped before them and his troopers fanned out into a half circle behind him.

“Princess,” he said. “There has been a recent development that I need to speak to you about.”

“What development requires that you bring so many soldiers?” she returned. Uneasy she, Cadance, and the guards’ wings all remained half-spread, propped to leap into action should unwanted action occur.

Alexandra, realizing their apprehension, gestured behind him. “They’re here because of the development, Princess. If what my intel says is true, then we know the cause behind the discovery of the unknown shard found in the caves near our camp.”

Celestia stared at his helmet, unblinking. “And what have you learned?”

“How familiar are you with the dragons that live on this planet, Princess?”

Her heart skipped a beat. “We have not had contact for years now, Commander,” she said. “The last envoy we sent to speak with them was never heard from again. We had merely assumed that they had fallen prey to the crystal like so many before them.”

Alexandra folded his arms, slackening his posture. “Then it might amuse you to know that not only are they possibly still alive, they might have contributed to the seeding of Tiberium across your world in the first place. I haven’t asked too much of your side of the story, but it will be imperative that I have this intel: how many impact zones did you record when the crystal first made planetfall?”

Her smile having all but dissolved, Celestia lowered her head, mind sifting through the endless meetings she had been in and all the reports she had read. Having dealt with entirely domestic affairs during the crisis, she was at a loss, and when she looked back to Alexandra, she had but only one thought on her mind: what would Twilight think? Was Spike involved? Had he survived?

“We know of only the one incident to the north,” Celestia said. “A meteorite landed near the city of Stalliongrad, where we immediately deployed a team of researchers to contain and document the object. As you can see, the containment efforts failed.”

“There wasn’t just one...” he replied slowly. Silently, he pointed towards the line of men behind him, head bobbing as he entered into inter-helmet communications with his detail. The soldiers jumped to attention, heeding his orders as they began to shuffle away towards the castle.

“What are they doing?” Cadance asked.

“Patrolling,” he said. “Outside the castle, that is, though I would prefer that they be inside the castle, if possible, and the sanctum, as well. As if the Scrin wasn’t bad enough, it’s possible that they may have had collaborators to help them prime this world for harvesting.”

“You believe that the dragons may have helped them?”

Alexandra shrugged. “Maybe. New strains of Tiberium don’t appear without reason, and evolve based upon influences by local variables. What I’m assuming is that at or before the fall of the first meteorite, and that the uncontrolled—and uncontainable—spread might have something to do with the dragons’ involvement.”

“Dragons are ancient, and their elders are masters at the ways of magic,” Cadance said, putting a hoof over her mouth as she looked at Celestia. “If they somehow altered the crystal, then...”

“Then they could have countered our magic, and used it to fuel the crystal’s growth,” Celestia answered for her. “I understand the reasoning behind this, yes. Dragons have never been one to use magic in their daily activities, but their understanding of its nuances are far greater than our own. If they have turned...”

“Then it’s only a matter of time before we run into them,” Alexandra said. He paced around, trailing a circle on the cobblestone before breaking formality and squeezing himself in at the end of the bench, much to their surprise. “We don’t have the troops to deal with them,” he said, reclining back onto the bench’s backrest. “Not yet, anyway. We don’t have enough, and we’ll be stretched thin across this valley if we try to expand.”

“Well, if you require help...” Celestia said.

Alexandra turned his blank faceplate towards her. “I know. I learned from Doctor Wesley, who learned from Twilight, that you ponies have an interesting proposition for me.” He eased out of his slouch, leaning forward with his elbows atop his knees, hands folded together as he cocked his head sideways. “I am open to your proposal.”

“You wish to discuss this... right now?” Celestia asked.

“Now’s a good a time as any, right? Let’s get this out of the way while we’re all still here, and not busy.”

Celestia smiled, and turned to a guard. “Sergeant? Find Captain Shining Armor and bring him to me.”

Chapter 15: Mobilization

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“What’s this about?” Shining sat down, looking to Celestia and Cadance when Alexandra entered the room. “Oh. I assume we’re finally getting down to business?”

“That we are,” Celestia said. “Commander Alexandra, allow me to introduce to you again Captain Shining Armor and Princess Cadance.”

“It’s a pleasure,” Alexandra said, beginning the meeting in earnest as he sat down on a wooden box with a plush cushion atop of it. “A bit out of the way, hmm? Usually these official things are done in a place that’s… bigger than this.” The room, a great hall within the castle where nobles once gathered, sat empty and barren, save for a small sitting table and a circle of cushions surrounding it, which the ponies now sat on.

The serenity of the space was broken as the crude thumps of zone trooper boots sounded off against the smooth tiles. A pair of the soldiers entered, one gesturing with his large hands to a squadmate outside the door before he closed it, taking up guard positions at either side. Six guards were the royal protection detail, spread out in a half-ring at the far end of the room and watching the entrants with a steady eye.

“The Lilac Hall is quiet, though a bit plain. It’ll do nicely for what we need to discuss,” Celestia said. “Now, for what we came to speak about: the proposal.”

“Yes…” Alexandra began. “Now, you do realize that this will not be permanent. While we will supply you with the equipment and training required to operate these suits, I would like to clearly state that they are first and foremost ISDI equipment. Any tampering or unallowed replication will result in immediate revocation of access to the equipment, and you’ll be on a blacklist until reviewed by the Initiative’s trade commission and be subject to an official military investigation for misuse of resources. Not to mention that I’ll be under scrutiny, too, for lending you all of it.”

“Understandable,” Cadance said, looking at Celestia. “Twilight suggested this?”

“She did.” Celestia levitated a sheaf of paper up to the empty table, bringing out an inkwell and a quill with it. “We’ll begin with putting these details to paper—”

“No need for that,” Alexandra said. “We already have the agreement down, printed, and ready to go.”

“Really, now?” Shining asked. “That seems really strange for a bunch of aliens you’ve only just met.”

“Captain, you have to realize that you’re not the first aliens we’ve met. We have procedures in place for these things now,” Alexandra said. All three of the ponies’ eyes alighted with interest when his visor became transparent. “That’s much better. Figured that this talk would go better face to face. Hope I didn’t surprise you too much.”

“Well, we… had a general idea,” Cadance said. “We just, you know… didn’t really figure that you would… look… the way you do. We just sort of thought that you all… looked alike. At least it’s nice to know that you’re not faceless. And you have a beard. That’s new.”

“Yeah, the way it goes is that it promotes cooperation, or so I’ve been told.” Alexandra flicked his hand across the air, leaving the ponies staring questioningly at him until a trio of holographic screens flickered to life. Alexandra brought the first one, on his left and the closest to Shining, forward, minimizing the others and expanding the primary. “Now, here is the basic mockup we have for your suits.”

“Covers the pony from ear to hoof,” Shining said, nodding in approval. He pointed a hoof at the extremities. “It even covers the joints, too. That’s always been a problem with how our armors are designed. You normally end up trading defensibility for flexibility, and ponies usually tend to prefer the latter.”

“The armors have an underlying tight suit that’s made of versatile nano-fiber capable of withstanding conventional projectiles from weapons like our own, much more than simple armor plating, and energy projectiles, which is what the Scrin will be using against us. There’s also composite armor plating on top of that which should increase your survivability by factors more.” He flipped over to a basic schematic, crude and drawn with scratchy lines, a hasty work sent to him from the engineers at Greenwood. “What we have at the moment for the two ponies wearing the test suits are essentially trash cans compared to what we have in store.”

“Yes, Applejack was wearing one when we met at the gates,” Celestia said. “But I am concerned about the approach that you will take to accommodate the traits of our ponies, for flight and magic.”

“We haven’t looked into flight yet, since we don’t have a proper prototype for testing, but it should be a non-issue. All zone troopers are equipped with jump packs that provide limited, but effective, flight that allows them to cover large distances and vault over sizeable heights without much trouble.”

“But they can’t fly,” Shining said. “Our pegasi won’t be of much use if they can’t fly.”

“A valid concern, but it’s honestly not something you really want to do. There was a time where the ISDI itself once had flight-capable soldiers, but when all sides involved have very capable anti-air weaponry, the only thing you really want at that altitude would be vehicles. Regular soldiers would simply be torn apart.”

“Well… a good number of my company are pegasi,” Shining added. He frowned and stared at the schematic. “The pony type distribution is fairly even between the pegasi and unicorns, with a few earth ponies thrown in. I should probably mention that pegasi do have a much lighter weight compared to their counterparts. Maybe that could come in use?”

“Nimble on their feet—hooves, I mean.” Alexandra crossed his arms and flipped through more of the rough sketches, all presenting variants of the suits with variable size and positions of the plating on them. “I suppose we could look into a skirmisher variant for the pegasi, something that’s not too heavy for them to wear and useful in surgical strikes. Offering my professional opinion, though, the last thing we really want you guys wearing is something that’s just one step above what you have now.”

“What sorts of operations will the guards be involved in?” Celestia asked. “And to what extent will they be armed, if they will be using your suits?”

“And how much training will they have to go through?” Cadance asked. Her wings flapped as she stretched then, and she looked to her husband for his approval to receive a nod and a smile. “Since, you know… the other aliens are going to be here soon enough. Things like this normally take months, don’t they?”

“We’ll make it work, but one thing at a time,” Alexandra said. He touched the gallery of schematics with a finger, and they all disappeared. The visible UI flashed red for a moment before fading back to a cool blue, and the corners of his lips dipped slightly. “For operations, we have you tentatively slated to aid us in reconnaissance operations when we begin expanding our area of operation. Weapons have yet to be decided on. The engineers are still discussing hardpoints to lock the weapons onto since the ponies can’t hold them with their hooves, not without immobilizing them, and that comes into conflict with all the other hardware that’s going to be on it. It’s in my understanding that the ponies without wings or horns are hardier than the others. Is that true?”

“Yes,” Celestia said. “The earth ponies have greater endurance and constitution, and can carry heavy loads. We do have a number of earth pony guards that we’ve recruited due to circumstances… we could offer them, if that is what you seek.”

“It’s on the table. The suits are designed with the intent to be used by all ponies, not just the tough ones. There’s some potential in that, though… I’ll have to speak with the engineers and see what they think about getting a suit that can carry heavier weaponry.”

“And speaking of these weapons…” Shining eyed the troopers at the door. “Will they be using similar weaponry as those soldiers? We’ll probably have to, given that we can’t really do much aside from using the unicorns’ spells to perform similarly to them.”

“I’m glad you asked. One of the ISDI’s mainstays has always been heavy firepower. The troopers you see there at the door have weapons that require continuous fire to achieve maximum use, and utilizes our torso’s rotational capabilities to ensure a wide cone of fire. Given how you guys aren’t us, I’d imagine that being outfitted with that kind of weapon wouldn’t work very well.”

“You’re right,” Shining said. “I mean, we could do it, but it’d be really awkward and leave us in a bad stance and completely vulnerable. But I guess you probably have this planned out, too, right?”

“Correct,” Alexandra said. He enlarged a blueprint of several long-barreled weapons. “The engineers have something in mind for you. Given how you’re always going to be on all-fours, ponies will have a stability and low center of gravity that lends well to weapons with high recoil. Combined with the weight and stabilization systems of the suit, along with the added mobility of the increased speed and jump packs, having weapons that you can set up in a second, fire, and then relocate will work heavily in your favor. We have a few of those heavy weapons shown here.”

All three of the ponies curiously examined the weapons, eyes widening in surprise when Alexandra inserted the model of the pony power suit to show a proper scaling of the weapons to their frames. “That’s… pretty big,” Shining said, pointing a hoof at the blocks on the backs of the suits. “And those are the jump packs that you talked about?”

“Yes. They’re mounted on the shoulders, roughly a little higher than the positions that you two,” he said, pointing at Cadance and Celestia, “would normally have your wings. It’s going to be a challenge since the hardpoints for the weapons are required to be on the side of the suit, so the thrusters can’t block the weapon. We’re also trying to tinker with the weapons themselves to find a balance between size and effectiveness. As you can see here, the barrels on these weapons are easily three times the length of your own body. We’re looking to shorten that down to roughly equal size or a little over, something compact, just for the new suits.”

“And what about magic?” Shining asked, gesturing to his horn. A blue glow enveloped it, and a scroll floated around his head, which made a complete orbit before he returned it to its place on the table. “The unicorns won’t need to have weapons since we can simply cast bolts of pure energy and use them instead.”

“So I’ve noticed,” Alexandra said. “We can design helmets for them, but will the helmet affect the horn?”

“It’s actually kind of funny that you asked,” Cadance said. “We actually have a hazardous materials suit with a helmet for unicorns, and it doesn’t affect the magic in any way. That’s probably to due the fact that the material is made using magical treatment, and so allows the flow of magic from the horn to pass through the material without any difficulty. We can help you make something like that, if need be.”

“Then that’s one thing off the list. With that done, I’d like to move on to our next point: the training.” Alexandra closed the screens and turned to Shining. “You said you had a company. Roughly a hundred soldiers total, I’m assuming?”

“Yes,” Shining said, nodding. “Plus one… well, one unruly former noblepony. My entire company can be trusted, and if not… they’ll at least heed my authority. The training should go by without much trouble, but it’s that one pony specifically that has me worried.”

“What, is he insane or something?”

“No, but…” Shining looked at Celestia and shrugged.

“The latest recruit to Captain Shining’s company is Prince Blueblood,” Celestia said. “You may recall your interaction with him as the ill-tempered leader of the thugs who attempted to hijack your relief shipments.”

“Oh, that guy. I suppose you’re doing this to rehabilitate him?”

Celestia nodded. “He’s my primary concern.” She looked to the window, staring out through the haze at the blank sky, pondering for a moment until she looked at Alexandra with a steely gaze. “He’s unreceptive to all forms of authority save for mine, having been a bit… spoiled. You must understand, Commander, as bad a pony as he may seem, he still does care, somewhere underneath that facade he’s worn since…” She sighed. “Well, that’s another story.”

“Yeah, and he’s in my company. I’ve told my officers to keep an eye on him, and lay down the authority hard if he tries to worm his way out of this one,” Shining said with a roll of the eyes. “I’m not so sure on lending him the suit, though. He seems like the kind of pony who’d end up abusing it.”

“A remote shutdown system for his suit can be made,” Alexandra said with a smile. “Nothing substantial, just stops the suit from functioning the moment we give the command from our systems. He’ll be dead in the water since he won’t be able to get out of that suit unless we give the override.”

“I won’t lie: that’s sorely tempting, but let’s see how he shapes up in training first,” Shining said. “The training starts tomorrow in the morning, six on the dot. If you don’t know, it’s when the short hand on the city’s clock is pointing down with the long hand pointing up. If you want to come take a look, that is.”

Alexandra was about to speak when the door to the room opened and another trooper stepped inside. “What is it?” Alexandra asked.

“Sorry for interrupting, sir. I know EVA ordered all transmissions to be placed on hold until your meeting was completed, but Greenwood is reporting strange activity with the crystal again. The new countermeasures are keeping it in check, but the Inferno Corps… well, they’re pretty spooked by it. Captain Godric requests your presence immediately.”

“Ah, damn.” Alexandra stood, faceplate falling back into place as he gave a bow to the ponies. “I think we’ve covered the big points of the matter, so we can leave the finer details to a greater discussion at a later time. The crystals do take priority, so I’ll have to take my leave now. But…” He looked at Celestia, throwing a thumb up towards the door. “Think you have some time to come down to Greenwood with me, Princess?”

“Of course,” Celestia said, smiling as she rose and trotted up to him. “It would be my pleasure to visit your encampment. It has been too long since I’ve spoken to my sister.”

“You know, I’m interested in taking a look at the camp, too,” Cadance said. Shining nodded along with her.

“Well, the more, the merrier,” Alexandra said. “The transport’s waiting just outside the city gates. And in return, I think I’d be interested in seeing this sanctum of yours sometime. Maybe after we get our joint exercises up and running and the relief aid gets everybody back up to speed.”

“Quiet now, here he comes.” The barracks went deathly silent as the weathered doors slowly creaked open. In the doorway stood a unicorn, taller than any of the guards and with golden hair and pristine coat, face in a determined but terrified expression. Blueblood strode inside, dropping his bags to the floor.

“Whoa, what do you think you’re doing with those?” Blueblood was approached by Sergeant Firetrace, and the guard sergeant stopped at arm’s length and tilted his head higher to look Blueblood in the eyes. “What’s the meaning of this, Private Blueblood?”

“That’s Prince Blueblood to—”

“I don’t remember giving you permission to speak, Private Blueblood.” The guards could barely hold their snickers, but Firetrace remained stoic, baring his teeth at Blueblood’s response. “Answer the question,” he said, drawing the sentence out as Blueblood squirmed.

Blueblood blinked and swallowed. “These… are my possessions.”

“Did you read the terms of your agreement, Private Blueblood?”

“I… uh…”

Firetrace stamped his hoof on the ground with a slam, causing Blueblood to flinch. “Did you or did you not read the terms of your agreement, Private Blueblood? Should I send you off to the doctor to get your ears checked and tell my captain and the Princess that you’ve already failed before you even started?”

“No!” Blueblood said, eyes widening in fright when he realized his voice cracked. The other guards watched on, closing in behind Firetrace, pairs of eyes all watching and judging him. “I… I didn’t read the terms.”

“Strike one, Private,” Firetrace said. Without even breaking eye contact with Blueblood, he pointed a hoof at the bags. “No bags. You are now a member of the Equestrian Royal Guard, a protector of the crown and keeper of the peace. You are no longer Prince Blueblood, affluent noble, notable politician, philanderer, and a waste of air. Do I make myself clear?”

“Yes…” Blueblood croaked out. “Yes, Sergeant.”

“Good. The contents of these bags will be sent to headquarters where they’ll have much better use for it.” Firetrace turned around, staring down the other guards. “As you were.” They shifted away, giving glances over their shoulder at the sergeant and Blueblood as they returned to their normal activities. Blueblood exhaled in relief, only to have his breath catch in his throat when Firetrace whipped back to him. “The princess was being generous when she gave you this assignment. And you’re even luckier that I chose to take you on.”

“Sergeant…?” Blueblood seemed genuinely confused. He opened his mouth to protest against his bags being dragged away by a pair of guards, but held his tongue, keeping his full attention on Firetrace.

“Welcome to my squad, Private,” Firetrace pointed at a door to his left, situated right in the middle of the wall. Painted a simple red, it had a golden ‘3’ marked above it. “Welcome to 3rd Squad. Are you familiar with how many guards are in a squad, Private?”

“Four, Sergeant.”

“You’re getting better at this. Keep it up, Private, and maybe you won’t end up in the dungeon after this is all over.” Firetrace trotted away for the room. Blueblood followed, unwilling to suffer the consequence of ignoring his superior. “Don’t think we’re giving the entire company special treatment on your account. Physical training is going to be grueling from day one, Private, because you’re not starting out like a recruit. You’re starting it off our way, and that means you’re going to get wrung for every drop of soldier that you’re worth. When was the last time you exercised, Private? And, no, getting laid does not count.”

“Not… for a very long time, Sergeant,” Blueblood answered honestly.

“Too bad.” He opened the door and stood aside, nodding for Blueblood to enter first, following afterwards as Blueblood surveyed the room. “Skyway, Wood Grain,” Firetrace said, as two stallions hanging out in their bunks looked at him. “Give a warm welcome to our new squad member.”

“I don’t like him,” Skyway said, a gray pegasus with skyblue hair accentuated with streaks of white, eyes closed as he rested in bed. “Can’t we just kick his sorry flank into the dungeon already?”

“I’m not so sure, Skyway,” Wood Grain drawled, an earth pony of a light tan with an auburn mane. “He only just got here. Hasn’t even finished his basic yet. I say we give him a chance to shape up and see what he can make outta himself.”

“He won’t do anything rash,” Firetrace said, looking aside at Blueblood. “Right, Private?”

Blueblood alternated between Firetrace’s expectant expression and the scowls of the other two. “Yes… Sergeant. I won’t do anything… rash,” he said, though he let a hint of annoyance creep in behind the last word as he glanced at Skyway.

Skyway chuckled. “Oh, he’s mad.”

“Shut it, Skyway.” Firetrace placed himself between Blueblood and the rest of his squad, glaring at him. “Let’s just get this out in the open right now: I don’t want you here. My squad doesn’t want you here. The whole damn company doesn’t want you here. You don’t want to be here. But you’ve caused enough trouble for the Princess and we are going to make you useful, and since you won’t be useful in the castle sitting on your cozy flank, you will be useful on the battlefield fighting for our future.”

“We’ll make a soldier out of you,” Wood Grain said. “Those aliens—humans, they call ‘em—that fell out of the sky? Well, they ain’t the only ones. There’s others, the ones that dropped the damn crystal on Equis in the first place. They’re comin’, too, and the humans are goin’ to need help stoppin’ ‘em.” He grinned. “And guess which lucky company gets to help ‘em do it?”

“Um… us?” Blueblood gulped. “I still can’t believe that we’re actually going to fight with those things… er, humans. And against other aliens, of all things.”

“Terribly sorry if you thought that you might get by on a couple dozen guard shifts without breaking a sweat,” Firetrace said. “This isn’t community service. A good number of us lost loved ones to this crystal, so you can bet that we’re going to want some payback to the ones brought this on us.”

“Why bother explaining it to him?” Skyway said. “It’s not like he cares.”

“Because I’m trying to tell him why this whole business matters to us,” Firetrace replied, his tail swishing in annoyance. Blueblood stood idle as Firetrace paced around him. “Even if he’s a complete tool, now that he’s hit rock bottom, he might have the sense to actually pay attention. Private, you’re well-known around these parts for squandering rations, sucking away food that took weeks to grow in the span of a single night, throwing those disgusting parties, and getting too touchy with the castle maids. Believe me, there was nothing any of us wanted to do more than to smash the doors of that ballroom down and kick each and every one of you maggots out the city gates. But the Princess is nothing if not merciful. You might consider groveling before her after this mess is over.”

“Yeah,” Wood said, hopping out of bed, standing next to Firetrace as the sergeant came to a stop. “You know, I’m kinda wonderin’ why you did all that stuff, anyway. Can’t say that you nobleponies didn’t know that you were hurtin’ us all by stealin’ the food for yourselves.”

“He’s a jerk, plain and simple,” Skyway said. “That’s what he’s always been, and always will be.” He opened his eyes and stared at Blueblood. Firetrace and Wood Grain remained silent, letting the pegasus size up the unicorn, moments passing by until Skyway said, “You look even uglier up close.”

Blueblood’s face registered no emotion as Skyway stared him down. Firetrace and Wood Grain took Skyway’s comment neutrally, watching the unicorn to see if his immovable expression would crack. “Let’s hope his time in the service of the Princess will open his eyes up,” Firetrace finally said. “It’s only a shame that we have to train and get ready to integrate into the human forces. A couple of patrols through the sanctum would be pretty refreshing for him.”

“Permission to speak, Sergeant,” Blueblood said.

Firetrace paused and blinked. “Permission granted, Private.”

Blueblood looked at Skyway. “I don’t need to justify myself to you. The end of the world is upon us, and we’re all going to die anyway. What’s to lose from allowing the ponies who kept the economy of Equestria running from indulging a little? We deserve it.” He held his chin high, standing off against Skyway.

“Okay, I take that back.” Skyway sneered and scoffed. “He’s not a jerk. He is a complete and total fucking asshole. Indulge a little? You realize how much your little parties took off of our crops that we spend so much effort to grow in what’s left of the gardens? You took half of the entire share every single time. We barely had enough to feed everypony here, and whenever you got it into your dense skull that you wanted to throw another party, we never did have enough. Ponies died because of you, so let’s see how well things get put into perspective now that it’s your life on the line.”

“Enough, Skyway,” Firetrace said calmly, raising a hoof to gain his attention. “I think Private Blueblood gets the point.” He took off his helmet and set it on the chair next to him, letting his frayed mane fall around his head as Blueblood observed him out of uniform. “You’ll get your armor tomorrow morning when we start training. It’s one of our spares, unfortunately, since we don’t have the materials to forge you a new one.”

“It’s also got an enchantment that makes you blend in with the rest of us,” Wood said. “Y’know, white for the pegasi and the earth ponies, gray for the unicorns. You’ll get some leave to head into the city every now and then for stretchin’ room, but it’d probably be a good idea to stay in your armor ‘cause I’m pretty sure folks ain’t goin’ to take too kindly to seein’ you walkin’ in the streets.”

“I shouldn’t need the armor,” Blueblood muttered. “They should learn to respect their—”

“I ain’t tryin’ to mock you or anythin’ like that, but it’d be a mite bit wise to drop that line of thinkin’. You ain’t the better one anymore.” Wood huffed, blowing away a tuft of mane that covered his left eye. “You’re just like ‘em now, just another pony. If you had any respect with any of ‘em, you lost it a long time ago.”

“Yep, I’m done with this. See you colts at the mess hall.” He hopped off of his bunk and trotted to the door, stopping when he came next to Blueblood. “Except you. You might think you’re in the clear because you’re with us. You’d be right, because we have an obligation of treating you like a member of our company. The others, though… well, they don’t have that obligation.” He held his scowl, marching out the door when Blueblood blinked in their implied stare-off.

“You’re to be confined to this barracks until further notice,” Firetrace said, preempting any response Blueblood could conjure and set aside the rest of his armor on his bed. “Dinner will be brought to you later, and Wood Grain will be here to keep an eye on you. That fine with you, Wood?”

“S’fine with me,” Wood said with a shrug. “Prefer eatin’ when things are nice and quiet in the mess hall, anyway.”

“Good.” Firetrace nodded, patting himself down of dust and dirt. “I’ll be seeing the two of you later.”

Wood Grain shook his head once he heard Firetrace exit the barracks’ front doors. “You really think you’re that important, don’t’cha?”

“More important than most,” Blueblood grumbled. He found his bed and patted down the clean sheets with a hoof. “Spend so much time working and keeping the whole nation afloat that once you realize the end is coming for you, you see that you’ve spent your life doing nothing but work. Between the grand displays of wealth at the parties, most of us were quite engrossed in our work.”

“You didn’t strike many of us as the workin’ type,” Wood said. Blueblood paused, mind prying through the statement to discern Wood’s disposition. The earth pony was perfectly neutral to him, and strangely enough, that unsettled him more than his detractors. “But thank you for that answer.”

“The image is set when the only time ponies see you is when you’re not working,” Blueblood said. “And what do you mean by that last part?”

“It’s been nothin’ but rough times for ponies. Some of us rise up to answer the call of duty, like most of us here in the guard. The rest either just accept it, or for folks like yourself, they get scared. We all play our choices out differently. I ain’t gonna judge you for that, but… you gotta admit that it’s a bit of a stretch to try to get a piece of the Princess’s own student.”

“Better that I did,” Blueblood said. “She was cooped in the castle all the time. The maids that I… erm, slept with always kept telling me how overworked she seemed to be, that they were concerned about her, that she needed to unwind a little. So I figured, why not? Maybe give it a try once or twice, get a fling on with her, if only for a night, and forget about everything. She didn’t take well to it.”

“Wait.” Wood sounded genuinely surprised. “You mean the maids actually went with you on their own accord?”

“Yes. Why else would they sleep with me? It’s not like I could force them to. Aunt—the Princess would have me thrown into the dungeon otherwise with nary a thought to it.”

“But… we all just figured that you used you sneaky ways to get them into bed with you, like some slimy dirtbag always hankerin’ for a mare.” Wood popped his head around the wall and looked confusedly at him. He narrowed his eyes when realization dawned on him. “The chefs and ballroom staff always kept their mouths shut whenever somepony was talkin’ ‘bout you. What’s up with that?”

Blueblood paused and one of his ears twitched. “You know, Wood,” he said quietly. “I’m not even sure about myself anymore these days. Maybe Skyway is right.”

“‘Scuse me?”

“Nothing. I’m retiring to bed early. Don’t want to be left without rest when training begins tomorrow.” He slid into his sheets, turning away from the room and showing his back to Wood. “And to what you said earlier: yes, we were aware of what we were doing. Some ponies can be fickle when they’re scared, and they need someone to look up to. And that someone has to be willing to take the fall. Good night, Wood Grain.”

“Uh… g’night?” Wood Grain confusedly returned to his bed, making a note to inquire further with the castle’s staff about Blueblood nature. There was more than the unicorn let on, and he was determined to find out.

The core containment unit was a lonely place, a metal sphere of electronics and an empty floor consisting of a metal grating that encircled the gigantic sarcophagus that contained the local EVA unit. For one technician, however, it was as much a home as it could be, and his desk, situated right in front of the unit itself, was an self-organized mess of papers, memorabilia, and screens.

Masterson hummed to himself as data scrolled across the screen in front of him. “Again,” he said. “Play the information again.” The screen blanked and returned to scrolling data by him as he attempted to tear meaning from the sensor data before him. “Nothing in the whole sector. How did they get in?”

No signatures detected in the sector during the entire duration of the Scrin encounter,” EVA said. “The Methuselah’s detection suites have been confirmed to have been fully operational during the period. Likelihood of detecting Scrin forces was extremely high.

“But they got through, somehow.” He reclined into his chair, rubbing his chin in thought. “And they managed to sabotage our systems without a jammer. How, how, how. How the hell did they do it? They came in from orbit—looks like low orbit—but they didn’t come in through space? It doesn’t make any sense.”

Recent information has revealed that there are indigenous species working with the Scrin. It is possible that these creatures may have provided an advance position for the Scrin or shielded their entry from detection before our arrival. Due to the lack of retaliation, however, it is safe to assume that the current Scrin forces encountered planetside may only be a spearhead element.

“A small group, yeah.” The chair clanged against metal as he wheeled over to the other end of his desk, where a display of the region showed possible entrance directions for the drone ship. “They didn’t come from south, obviously. Too much ISDI presence to get through without us catching them. Not west, either, we had teams clearing out the fields there for Providence. Possibly east, or maybe north.”

Limited intelligence from pony accounts states that ground zero for Tiberium planetfall was due north, near one of their major population centers. The Scrin may have established their position where the Tiberium first made contact.

“The indigenous species that’s helping them… the shard… and now that new transmission from the commando talking about dragons, of all things, being involved. There’s no way that this could be a coincidence.” He zoomed out on the regional map and panned the feed north, watching the wireframe grid grow steadily more obfuscated by incomplete data until he was left staring at blank space. “North. That’s where Commander Redding’s forces are going to land.”

A beep sounded throughout the room, and the screen from which it originated began to flash a bright green. Masterson hurried to the screen sitting at its lonely corner, looking over the information gleaned from his routines. “That signature from the crystal… it’s new, definitely not Scrin. Huh, that’s interesting. The signature coming from the crystal produces an effect equivalent to the symptoms of a small scale ion storm, just like a jammer. I was right!”

The output of the crystal did not achieve the level of interference as shown by jammers used in the past. The energies produced by the crystal were electrical in nature, designed to tamper with systems, and its ionic storm properties were miniscule, only enough to affect the immediate area around it. The crystal therefore cannot have been the culprit of the total blackout during the Scrin attack.

“Yeah, but we know that the crystal is a conduit. Like what the mutant dog thing told us from that interrogation. It’s talking to them, somehow, but it’s only ever active when whoever is using it is doing so right at that moment. There has to be something else to it, though… there was more than just one drone ship in the area. More of them appeared afterwards to attack the mutant settlement, but those also got under our sensors, too.”

He flipped through his variables, checking the interference levels and natural cover to see if there was anything that could conclusively be proven as the direct cause for the Scrin’s infiltration of the area. The sky visibility was acceptable, enough to where any aircraft would be seen for a good number of miles around. EVA had the systems to identify any airborne threats, known or otherwise. He checked the logs again.

Hours of fatigue had taken their toll on him, and his eyes stung as his mind called him to sleep, but he was close, so close. Every image EVA had taken using those systems, from every angle, every second, he pored through, searching for discrepancies that could reveal the hole in their defense. But as he continued to cycle through the lineup, he grew frustrated at the lack of evidence.

“EVA, please tell me you have something more concrete to give me,” he said, rubbing his eyes. “If it’s not anything, it has to at least be a jammer. These things don’t just happen.” He checked the clock: only a mere two hours had passed since he began, and he felt like he’d suffered through an entire day without sleep.

I require further parameters for your search,” EVA said.

“It’s a jammer. A dragon? A crystal? A goddamn threshold tower? Just find me something, EVA, something that’s out of place. Something that shouldn’t be there,” he mumbled. His mind went into autopilot and he found himself scanning the flat skies in the pictures for anything he couldn’t tell from the ground. “That blackout caught us off guard. We can’t let that happen again.”

Searching…” EVA notified him.

As EVA culled the irrelevant data, the images grew increasingly blurry, with sections of the picture blurred or missing entirely, replaced with darkness as the blackout began to occur. Masterson blinked, and wiped his eyes. “What the…?” He stopped the cull and returned to the start, back to the beginning where the images began to cut out. “That’s not possible. EVA, were the cameras functioning during this period of time?”

Affirmative. All cameras had storm shielding and were fully functioning during this period.

“Then why is part of this image gone?”

Unknown. My systems were offline during this period.

“And these images were all taken and uploaded to your mainframe?” He opened a terminal up and dug into the meat of EVA’s databanks, and ran diagnostics on the camera branch that originated the images he was looking at: there weren’t any system shortages. Curious, he began to check the readings taken on the camera locations at the time of the event. The graphs spiked, and he smiled. “There.”

All images were uploaded to the mainframe as they were taken,” EVA said. “The missing data and energy readings indicates that the cameras may have been physically manipulated. Something attempted to obscure the cameras from taking pictures.

“I know. And that is what’s interesting, EVA. These energy readings are peculiar, identical to the ones that came from the crystal, yet small enough where it’d blend into the noise if no one was paying attention. Well, I was,” he said, smile growing wider. He saved the results and copied them into Alexandra’s intel folder with a note as a high priority file. “And now we have it. Whoever’s behind that crystal is the one causing this.” He yawned. “And I intend to find out who… after I take a nap.”

“There used to be a giant formation here on the road that prevented us from venturing downhill,” Celesia said, looking out the viewport of the transport as they approached Greenwood. The smoldering ruins where the first drone ship had landed caught her eye, with larger plumes in the distance from the ion cannon strikes, and she looked back to Alexandra with a raised brow. “And your weapons did that?”

“From orbit, yeah,” Alexandra said. “Useful for removing Tiberium and… other threats with minimal casualties. I doubt we’ll have the room to use it in the coming weeks, though. When the Scrin bring their fleet to fight ours, those guns will be busy in space. And that’s where the soldiers come in.”

Approaching Camp Greenwood now, Commander,” the pilot said. The ponies’ ears perked at the untranslated statement, though the feeling of descending was familiar to them all. “Captain Godric is waiting for you on the pad.

“Aerial transports for easy and quick travel,” Shining said, nodding as the hum of the engines came to a low groan before they touched down. “Impressive contraptions you humans have. And you say you have even bigger ones in space? The ones you used to get here?”

“Yeah, the starships.” The cabin experienced a gentle sway as the pilot flared the transport in for landing. “The results of reverse-engineering Scrin technology, for the most part. Before that, space travel was sloppy, unappealing, and prohibitively expensive. We’ve come a long way in a century.”

The transport touched down with a gentle tap, and the rear doors opened up to reveal a power suit colored black and with its red visors transparent to reveal the face of the man inside. “Commander,” Godric said. “A word with ye, please.”

Alexandra exited the craft, waiting as the upper doors of Greenwood’s underground landing facilities closed before motioning for the ponies to follow him out. “You have something to say about the crystal,” Alexandra said. Godric nodded with a stern face.

“That shard ain’t like any shard I’ve ever seen b’fore, Commander,” Godric said.

“Of course it isn’t. It’s infused with magic.”

“Magic, radiation, whatever ye want t’call it. The only thing that does matter is that thing is spookin’ my men. We convene for prayers and the only thing we hear is deafenin’ silence in our minds, and a voice callin’ to us. This isn’t any Scrin doin’, either. The voice doesn’t speak like they do. It’s different. It’s ancient, knowin’, pryin’. And it’s tryin’ to get in our heads for reasons I don’t want t’know.”

“Is there something wrong, Commander?” Celestia came to a stop as the two men turned to her. She tilted her head in question. “I apologize for interrupting. Should we continue without you?”

“No, you’re not interrupting. This’ll only take a minute.” Alexandra took Godric by the arm, facing them away as he barely caught the whispers of the ponies speaking to each other. “I can’t help you right now, Godric, but I will look into it as soon as I have a free moment. But for now, record anything that seems out of place, no matter how insignificant. Report the findings to me and InOps only.”

“You think it might be mind control, Marty?”

“I’m not placing a bet on it,” Alexandra said. “But I want to be ready, just in case. What about the security and staff in the containment facility? Are they okay?”

“They reported everything to be fine,” Godric said. He frowned and shook his head. “But it’s my own boys, I dunno, maybe it’s our reverence of the crystal that’s made us a target. Some o’ m’boys, they’re wary of the shard. They’re the ones who’re gettin’ the brunt o’ the voices. They can’t understand it, but it’s there, they say.”

“If they’re vulnerable, I want them as far away from the shard as possible.” Alexandra checked the feeds of the containment facility remotely; in the foyer, he caught a pair of Black Hand soldiers watching the camera feeds of the shard on the wall. “You have two soldiers in there right now.”

“That’d be Robin and Strauss, the sergeants of the two squads that first reported the strange happenings with the shard. They think it’s some sort of Scrin superweapon. I don’t particularly think they’d be too far off the mark since you’ve said the damn thing has magic in it. It might as well be a bomb sittin’ right in the heart of the base.”

“I’ll see to moving it to a secure offsite location as soon as possible. Until then, Godric, stay out of harm’s way. Do you want your unit transferred? To the pony city, or Providence?”

“We’ll stand our ground here.” Godric smiled and gave him a hard pat on the shoulder, chuckling. “Providence’s got enough guns as it is, though I’ll keep m’boys as far away from that damn thing as possible. Have to protect the small bases first, and the city should be fine since it’s up on the mountain. Have fun with your tour, Marty. I’ll see you later.”

“Later,” Alexandra said with a wave. He turned around to find the ponies silent and waiting. “Sorry about that. There was a bit of business to attend to.” He continued forward, letting the ponies trail next to him as they approached the elevators. Godric took one and left for topside, leaving the other for their use.

“Aren’t you worried about any contamination here?” Cadance asked. A pair of engineers strolled by levitating a deck of pre-fabs, giving cursory salutes to Alexandra as they let them pass. “And I’m actually surprised that you have all of this built underground. I thought your base camp was just something you had above.”

“We have speedy construction tools, and the indoor environment is monitored and sterilized at regular intervals. We’ve also built a shield outside that prevents the worst of it from getting in,” Alexandra said, keying the button as they reached the door. “This elevator will take us straight into the barracks. From there, we can access the medical facility and get back in touch with your friends.”

Uh… Commander?” Alexandra blinked. A new voice was on the line, and his HUD popped open the window; it was audio-only. “Is anybody there?

“You’re talking to him,” Alexandra said, cutting his output so the ponies couldn’t hear him. They didn’t seem to notice, preoccupied looking at the flashing numbers above the door as the elevator descended to their level. “Who is this?”

Uh, this is Harold, Harold Terrence, Doctor Wesley’s aide. I heard you were coming down from Canterlot with Princess Celestia and the others to visit us.” There was a minor crack of static as some voices began to pitch in, which Harold shooed away. “So, it’s Princess Celestia, and… who else?

“Princess Cadance and Captain Armor.”

Oh, more royalty.” His voice replied to someone in the background, faded and away from the microphone, and Alexandra heard cheering in the background as Harold laughed. “Well, that’s good news. The ponies are all waiting here. Second floor, the door with the guards. Impossible to miss.” Harold hung up after that, right as the elevator announced its arrival.

The trip up had caught them more than their fair share of curious glances, even more so at the princesses than anything else. The group paid them no mind, although Alexandra did have to redirect them down an alternate route when a shifty staff member hung around the elevator with a camera. The ponies were amused at the notion of paparazzi being identical between the two civilizations.

The door guards were present when they arrived, standing across from the entrance conversing with each other. The sergeant stiffened and bumped his companion on the shoulder as they both watched him advance down the hall with his guests. “Commander!” he said, as the two brought their arms up in salute. “We’ve been expecting you. They’re inside. I don’t know what’s stirred them up, but your trip here’s been creating a bit of a buzz with them.”

“It’s a meeting that’s been a long time coming,” Alexandra said. As the door opened, a series of pops caused them to duck as they were bombarded with a small shower of streamers.

“Surprise!” they all said. Harold righted his party cap and stood to shake Alexandra’s hand. “Greetings, Commander. I have to say that it’s an absolute pleasure to finally meet you.”

“Same to you,” Alexandra said. Harold pulled him aside to a corner where a pair of chairs sat. They took the seats and watched the ponies greet each other with smiles and hugs. “I see the operations were successful.”

“Oh, yeah, definitely,” Harold said. The two watched in silence as Celestia approached Luna’s bed.

“Luna…?” Celestia stopped halfway, stepping forward with nervous strides as her sister’s head rested on the pillow, eyes closed. “Luna? Are you awake?”

“With the noise that has just greeted my ears, planned by none other than Miss Pie, I am surprised that you haven’t thought otherwise.” Luna opened her eyes and smiled at Celestia, taking off the party hat that had been placed on her head for her by the others. “It is good to see you, my dear sister. I hope you didn’t have too much trouble in my absence.”

“Oh, Luna…” Celestia sat bedside and nuzzled her sister, who reciprocated in kind, and spread a comforting wing around her. “I feared the worst… that I lost you again. I am so gratefully, incredibly glad that it wasn’t the case. But your mane… and your tail! What happened to them?”

“Necessary casualties,” Luna said reassuringly, burying her face in Celestia’s shoulder. “And besides, they will grow back again! There is no need to worry, I will be able to join you again in the castle. Not now, but soon, I hope.”

“Yes,” Celestia said, basking in her embrace with Luna as her smile grew wider. “The both of us, back together again. I have no doubt that there will be many a celebration once the ponies learn of your return, and we can begin to rebuild. We can take back our world, wipe the planet clean of this emerald menace.”

“I only hope that there will be something left for us to save,” Luna said. She pawed at her bandages with an empty expression, and Celestia broke their hug to look at Luna with a perplexed face. “You know what I speak of. We have been incredibly fortunate, Tia. But the others…”

“They are not so lucky,” Celestia finished, nodding in agreement. “But it’s heartening to know that we can finally search for survivors now.”

“Uh, yeah, about that,” Alexandra interrupted. “We have found survivors, actually. A bunch of mutated ponies down near our primary base which took some fire from the Scrin during the first wave. They’re led by a unicorn named Trixie, and they’ve agreed to move out of their hovels and into our new base camp.”

“Trixie?” Celestia narrowed her eyes as she recalled a certain few letters Twilight had sent her. “Yes, I know of her. She was the abrasive individual at times, but it surprises me to find her leading the group, much less actually surviving out here. If they’re living out here, then from what you’ve said of mutants… my goodness, to be out here surviving in this wasteland, and I had thought them taken by the land.”

“The exposure has only strengthened their abilities. Our own forces during first contact with them took some rather substantial damage from them simply through the usage of magical bolts alone, so I’m sure that the mutation might have affected their magic, too. I’m afraid my knowledge is limited in that regard. Doctor Wesley would be better qualified to teach you about it; it’s his field of study.”

“But that means that there are survivors,” Luna said. “If they can survive, then it means that the others might have, too.”

“Hopeful.” Celestia smiled and bowed her head to Alexandra. “Thank you for this heartening bit of news, Commander.”

Then came a beep, bringing up a small red window that flashed in front of Alexandra’s face. Harold leaned over to see, but Alexandra pushed him away with a light hand, and Harold’s eyes turned to the ponies. He stood, whispering to the other ponies and moving them off to Pinkie’s corner of the room, leaving Celestia, Luna, Shining, and Cadance alone with Alexandra.

“That’s interesting,” Alexandra said. He expanded the window, seeing patchwork images and suspicious readings appear in new windows all around him. “There’s been a new development. Something concerning the Scrin attack.”

“Oh?” Shining asked. They all gathered closer to him as he flipped around the screens for them to view. The effect was lost on them, however, as they only stared at the information with blank expressions. “I… can’t really tell what we’re supposed to be looking at here.”

“We have surveillance systems surrounding Camp Greenwood, for protection and data gathering, mostly. During the initial Scrin attack, our systems suffered a complete blackout—something that only fully-entrenched Scrin forces utilized through massive jammers that were impossible to shield from detection due to their massive power signatures. But we had an exact same effect happen here, yet there wasn’t a single jammer found in the region.”

“And you believe that there is something more behind the blackout,” Celestia said. She frowned. “Could it possibly be the dragons?” she added, lowering her voice.

“That’s our hunch. The cameras are small, normally impossible to see unless you were standing right under them, but they were still manipulated during the attack, which means that no small amount of precision was taken into account. The cameras were still fully operational during the blackout, so the only reason why someone would go so far as to mess with a few tiny things like these means that there was someone around here, in visual sight, that didn’t want to be seen. And only the Scrin would be aware that we use that sort of surveillance at our bases.”

“And the missing parts in most of the images seem to be the skies,” Luna said, squinting until Alexandra hovered a set of them over to her. “And... there seems to be a pattern. The parts are always in the sky, and they proceeded toward and over the camera, and then it returned to normal after that.”

“Nobody was paying much attention to the sky during the attack,” Alexandra said. “And the clouds work all too well for Tiberium-based lifeforms to hide in, where the interference to our systems is the heaviest and prevent us from seeing them coming. The damn thing was right there and we didn’t even see it.”

“And if there’s one, there’s probably more of them,” Shining said. “Dragons tend to travel in groups, large groups, unless they’re one of the solitary ancients, which is what I’m betting we’re dealing with here due to the level of magical manipulation it used on the cameras.”

“And where do these dragons come from, exactly?”

“North,” Celestia said. “In the mountains, near where our farthest city sat, the capital of the Crystal Empire. Beyond the snow-swept valleys, the mountains that comprise most of the north are where the dragons call their home.”

“So there’s a whole nation full of them. Great.” He switched over to his command console and tapped EVA on a separate line. “EVA, what’s the status on Providence’s war factory? Have the heavy walker loading bays been completed?”

Affirmative. All facilities in the war factory are fully operational.

“Commence production of a Mastodon immediately. Notify Dagger that since he’s the only qualified operator here, he’s been volunteered to pilot it. Tell him that I expect trouble very soon. Have the Methuselah’s Firehawks been outfitted with the new storm shielding yet?”

Refit was completed eight hours ago following the production of the new shielding. Firehawks are ready to be scrambled and deployed planetside.

“Get the pilots on stand-by and arm the Firehawks with heavy anti-air ordnance. High penetration Tiberium-nullification warheads, and some HE for good measure. Make sure the Mastodon has fire-swarm and Tibseeker missiles, and arm it with twin railguns. Lastly, please notify Masterson that I want him to work on a triangulation routine for finding where the jammer source is coming from.”

Confirmed. Relaying orders now, Commander.

Alexandra closed the slew of windows around him, and stood. “Captain Shining, how well do you think you understand the lay of this land?”

“Now?” Shining shrugged. “Well, back then, yeah, I’d say I knew this entire valley in and out, since I am the Captain of the Guard for Canterlot, but now… well, the whole place is shaken up. I might be able to recognize a few features here and there, but it’s mostly all new to me.”

“Good enough. What about the area north of Canterlot?”

“Haven’t been around the block for quite a while, Commander,” he said with a chuckle. “But I traveled between Canterlot and north for quite a bit, so I’m probably better off helping you there.”

“What’s this about, anyway?” Cadance asked. “You’re planning to move out already? We haven’t even started working on suiting up our guards to help with your scouting operations.”

“That’s because we’re not scouting,” Alexandra said. “We’re going to see if we can find a dragon.”

Chapter 16: Obfuscation

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“Okay, okay, that’s enough. Seriously,” Harold said, ushering the ponies towards the door as the staff helped wheel Luna and Pinkie’s cart out behind him. “Pinkie, we got you your party, now just sit back and relax while we get the both of you to some proper facilities now, okay?” Pinkie smiled and nodded, calming down and reclining into her pillow, but her eyes darted between each of her friends as her contagious smile spread to them.

Medical staff shuffled the beds out, with a contingent of guards to accompany them. Harold and Alexandra followed, keeping close to Celestia, Cadance, and Shining as the five congregated at the elevator with the first trip down occupied by Pinkie and Luna, along with their friends.

“So, this dragon we’ll be hunting,” Shining said. “Just how exactly do you intend to find it?”

“We use the data we got from the attack,” Alexandra said, arms folded as he stared at the blinking numbers above the elevator entranceway. “Ignoring the finer details, we’re going to use traces of the dragon’s residual signature, coupled with the signature of its jamming ability, to find where he’s hiding, and take him down.”

“A bold task,” Celestia said. “Dragons are no fools in this business. It’s probably expecting you.”

“Well, it hasn’t seen just exactly what we’re capable of bringing to the table, Princess,” Harold answered with a shrug. “Though I can imagine the interest garnered at home when they learn that we’ve killed a dragon, of all things. We’ve… ah, well, dragons had a reputation of being the deadliest of foes to fight against in our tales of myth.”

“Similar to the reputation they have here, maybe?” Cadance said. “Ancient, powerful, wise with the knowledge accumulated through the centuries? They might have been myth for you humans, but they’re all too real for us… and dangerous.”

“Dragons at home, and dragons here. That’s uncanny.”

“I’m not sure if your weapons will be capable of standing up against a dragon, and an ancient one at that,” Celestia said. “In the days of old, even my sister and I had great difficulty facing off against even one. Their entire species corrupted: that’s the greatest threat we’ve faced for millenia.”

“That’s no skin off our backs,” Alexandra said. “So long as our manpower holds and the shields remain operational, we can win this through attrition. Time permitting, that is, since our reinforcements haven’t arrived yet, but I’m not willing to sit around and play a reactionary game. We strike first, and force them to engage on our terms.”

“And if that doesn’t work?”

“The ion cannon can finish what we couldn’t. It’ll be messy, but if push comes to shove, it doesn’t hurt to apply some overkill. The cannon also has a low-visibility function that prevents the charging beam from reaching the ground—you’ve seen how our cannon works, and it’s a lot harder to judge an attack if you don’t see it coming.”

“It’s not a sight that I’ll forget soon,” Celestia said. “When the skies opened up and the light came through, it caused more than a stir among the citizens of the outer city. You mean to say that the beam’s appearance before the subsequent destruction is merely a formality?”

“No,” Alexandra replied. The elevator returned, and the group filed inside as the doors opened. “To put it simply: the cannon charges the air in the vicinity it targets, making it highly combustible. When the beams fires, an explosion results as it ignites the entire space, and is effective against most targets due to the fact that the ignitable substance is the air itself, allowing the cannon to bypass armor and even shields. That’s the cannon’s general use, though. What we’re going to use against the dragon is the cannon’s secondary mode, an instantaneous strike intended to be used against fast-moving targets with enough energy to pierce through even the toughest armor in the Scrin arsenal.”

“So the beam can simply strike from the sky at any moment, with no warning?” Shining said, giving a low whistle. “And here I thought you humans already had enough to bring to the table…”

“We’ve got plenty more, I assure you. Keeping lots of tricks up our sleeves is how we keep our stubborn winning streak.” Lieutenant Viers’ call request appeared on his holographic projector, the screen taking up the view of the doorway as Alexandra answered. The commando’s face raised a brow at him from behind his transparent faceplate when he appeared, filtered blue from the Mastodon’s internal lighting. “Dagger. How goes things at Providence?”

As well as can be, sir.” Viers looked around him, dialing in a whole suite of buttons and equipment around him as the sound of deep rumbling, step by step, sounded off around him through the hull of the assault walker. “The Mastodon is up and running, just giving her a test run around Providence before we send her out. EVA says we’re going in with air support. I hope the dragon won’t be too much for the flyboys.

“We’re going off of what we know so far, and we think that it’s just one dragon. According to our friends here, there’s an entire civilization of them here, living in the far north. We’ll have to deal with them eventually, and I’d rather see what they’re capable of doing now rather than later. They’re already aware of our presence and were behind the blackout at Greenwood a while back.”

Damn. With all due respect, sir, don’t you think it’d be better to wait for the backup?

“Still several days out, and the choice is biting me twice in the ass since my command’s support crawler is with them, so the Methuselah’s Firehawks are all we have. The dragon’s leading the forces that attacked us a while back, and there’s no telling when it’ll be back to do it again—and with more numbers. Providence and Greenwood are all we have so far. Providence is still under construction, and Greenwood has only barebones fortifications. OP Castle near Canterlot is the only anti-orbital defense emplacement we have, and we don’t have enough support craft in our fleet to bring down to help us here unless we want to leave the Methuselah wide open.”

I understand, sir. Bring the fight to them before they bring it to us, huh? Ain’t the worst odds we’ve had, at least.

“We’re not bringing the fight to anyone. We’re finding the thorn in our side and pulling it out before the damage gets worse. Stay in touch.” He looked at Harold, then slowly turned his gaze to the ponies with them. “Only Captain Shining will be with me on this mission. Princesses, I’m afraid you’ll have to return to Canterlot. Safety precautions, you understand.”

Cadance nodded. “It’s fine. Just… make sure my husband stays safe.”

“You have my word. The Mastodon has a plethora of defense systems, and we’ll be outfitting your husband with his own power suit before we head out. The first prototype for ponies, to be exact.” At this, Shining fidgeted around in his hooves, lips pursed as he shared a glance with Cadance. The alicorn merely sighed and rolled her eyes at the sight of her husband’s barely-restrained grin. “It’ll be rough around the edges, probably a bit unruly and hard to move in, but we want you to get used to it first. The feedback we receive on this first model will be helpful in streamlining the design.”

“Are you sure he has to go with you?” Harold asked. He held up his PDA, gesturing to the unicorn and the earpiece he wore. “We can just wire him through comms, and he can just guide you from the intel we have on the region so far. Unless…”

“Beyond this region, the ion storms are still in full effect. We can’t rely on comms in this scenario, and we need his know-how to record locations for future reference: former settlements, geographical landmarks, and the like, as well as giving a keener eye on places a dragon might hide. The mutants might also have something to add. I’ll bring one of them, too. Dagger, you think Trixie’s in the mood for a walk?”

I think she’d be more than interested in this walk. I’ll go ask and see if she wants in. Dagger, out.

“If things go how I’m thinking it’ll go, the dragon will end up finding you first…” Harold muttered.

“You will be going as well, Commander?” Celestia asked, raising a brow. The elevator opened, and they entered the lobby of the hospital. The halls were devoid of activity, at least from normal staff—guards were patrolling down every length, and the staff member that was taking pictures of them earlier was embroiled in a heated conversation with a pair of guards. The medical staff exited the facility, entering the barracks through the hall that Alexandra and company had entered through.

“I will,” he replied. He brought them to the conjoining access hall to the barracks, and stopped them there. “Without any visual feed, I’d be directing the Mastodon on audio alone, and that does not make for effective commanding. With me at the helm, I can see what we’re going into, what we’re going up against, and coordinate our strike force’s movements without playing it by ear.”

“I hope the odds are in your favor,” she said. “If you get caught in the crossfire, then it wouldn’t do your compatriot any good if he has two bodies to protect instead of just one.”

“Princess, I have as much, if not more, training as Lieutenant Viers. I’m not sure what the position of a commander entails in your military, but in ours, a commander is not just another rank. We’re the backbone of the ISDI’s forces, and a lot goes into our training to ensure we don’t end up unprepared in the worst case scenarios.”

“Hopefully it’ll be enough should this attempt of yours fail,” she said. Throwing her look at the couple hugging next to her, she draped a protective wing around Cadance. “Cadance, we will leave now. And Captain Armor, aid these humans to the best of your capacity.”

Shining saluted. “Yes, Princess.”

Celestia nodded, beginning down the hall where Applejack and Rainbow Dash stood waiting for them at a half-opened door. When they had left, Alexandra turned to Harold, and the young man shrunk under his gaze. “Well?” Alexandra asked.

“W-Well… what?” Harold asked.

“You’re with them, aren’t you?” Alexandra tossed a thumb at the still-waiting ponies. Harold’s eyes widened and he hugged his PDA close to his chest, giving Alexandra and Shining a parting nod before scurrying off. “Captain, you’re with me,” Alexandra said. “We’re taking a different route. The engineering bay is where we’re going to have you suit up.”

“No weapons for now, I guess?”

“If things go south as has been repeatedly mentioned, then we’re probably better off running.” He brought up his holographic command console, sending off orders and marking off locations around the vicinity of Greenwood, and then marking down checkpoints for their journey up north: entrenchments for Hampton and Michelin, and a trail for Viers.

“I don’t have much experience fighting a dragon, but I don’t think running will help much.”

Alexandra threw Shining a dry look. “The running isn’t from the dragon. With a thing that big, there’s not a chance in hell we’re just going to poke it and decide on what to do next. We’re going to run because we don’t want to be around when the ion cannon fires.”

“Twilight, have you been up all this time?” Wesley stood bewildered at the entrance to his office in the Canterlot hospital, where a wide-eyed Twilight sat in front of his table with a wall of holograms in front of her. In front of her sat his mug and the pot from his coffee maker, but entirely devoid of their contents. “Oh, did you—Twilight, did you just drink all of my coffee?!”

“It was good,” she replied, her voice a flat drone as she stared at the screens, brimming with information, without a single blink. “Not good lukewarm, but I like it. Want to make more with the machine. Not sure how to do it, don’t know how to turn it on. I’ll ask later. Sorry for drinking it all.” Her helmet sat on a pile of books next to the foot of her chair, and her native tongue echoed as Wesley’s PDA translated the speech for him.

“Twilight, I’m not angry that you drank all of it. It’s a foreign substance, it could have serious repercussions! There is a slight possibility that you might die, Twilight, and not even getting into that, why are you even here?!” He groaned and folded his arms, looking back at the open doorway. “Besides that, you’ve been up for the longest time now, and you need sleep! And where are the guards?”

“I’m fine,” she snapped. “I don’t need sleep. Guards are on shift change. The ones before left right before you got here—they recognized me, so they let me wait outside until you sent word you were coming up.”

“You’re blazing through all that information. Can you remember it?” He waved a hand in front of her face and received no reaction. “Goodness, Twilight, are you trying to become a walking repository of knowledge?”

“Maybe. Not a lot to read here, though the translation program on the computer is doing a fine job. Mostly stuff on ISDI, simple stuff. But there’s also some other things, too, like the publicly released research on Tiberium.” She tapped her hoof when a button prompt appeared and several pictures of Tiberium appeared next to her. “There were also mentions of Tiberium mutation. I want to read about that.”

“In due time, Twilight… thank goodness for access clearances,” he said. He looked between all the screens that sat before them, shaking his head at the rate the information sped by him. “You can read all of this, Twilight? Is there anything you don’t know?”

“In order: yes, and how to use that coffee machine.”

“Did you even bother to consider the implications of ingesting a foreign substance?”

“I looked at it in the database. Essential ingredients to this drink known as ‘coffee’ in the human tongue seems to be ground coffee beans, a hefty dose of hot water, and added sugars and creams to fit the taste of the drinker. We have all of these things, too. I took a globule of the drink, isolated it in a magical containment bubble, and then ran a battery of tests on it. It came up as benign to a pony, so I drank it. It also helps that we ponies have a drink that’s exactly like this. Had it in Manehattan once.”

“Give me that.” Wesley snatched the cup from her hooves, placing it on the table and sitting down behind his desk before he slumped into his chair with an exasperated sigh. “That’s my cup… and those are my notes.”

“Yes. All on this Tiberium, I see.” She raised a hoof and paused the scrolling on a single screen, transfixed on the picture in front of her. “This. The mutation. Humans have seen it, experienced it.” She swallowed and looked at him with drooping eyes. “And after so much effort, you found a way to treat the poisoning first and then managed to find a way to stabilize the effects of the mutations entirely. And then there’s the Divination process used by the Brotherhood…”

“That’s quite the jump back into our history. I suppose this means you’ve read up on the Brotherhood’s history, then?”

“Yes. It was a… very dark time for mankind, wasn’t it? Yet the research into Tiberium produced two paths: Kane and his Divination to bring mankind into the next step of their evolution, and the mutant leader Tratos who tried to stabilize the mutation in the hopes that no one else would die from it. And I guess we can tell which one won out.”

“Tratos was killed before his research on his anti-mutagen was completed, and even then, it didn’t work. It did, however, give us a strong foundation which we built upon and perfected,” Wesley said. A grainy picture appeared, hovering next to them with a green border. Tratos’ bodily features were obscured at a distance, but his mutations were still visible on his face. “From what the accounts say, he was an incredibly intelligent man. His knowledge on Tiberium and its effects on human biology was unparalleled due to his position.”

“And then there was the Daedalus Team,” Twilight said. “He was helping the, uh… I believe it’s pronounced Gee-Dee-Eye?”

“Yes, the GDI,” Wesley said. “That stood for the Global Defense Initiative, back when we were confined to our home planet of Earth.”

“Tratos helped the GDI translate an alien data matrix called the Tacitus, and from there, they learned how to contain Tiberium using harmonic resonance and helped save Earth from being decimated by the Tiberium within a year of that finding. It also was the basis behind translating the Scrin language and information on the first iterations of Scrin technology, among other things. It sounds like an incredible object to research. I hope I can study it one day.”

Wesley responded to her aspiration with a shake of his head, and Twilight raised a brow at him. “Unfortunately,” he said, “ISDI Central Command has deemed extraterrestrial access to the Tacitus to be completely off-limits, even to our current allies. In its modern state, anyway, it’s long since deteriorated from its workable condition. It’s a glorified paperweight now.”

Twilight’s face held an expression of utter heartbreak, as her mouth dropped and her eyes glazed over with the traces of tears. Wesley’s only comfort to her was a sad smile. “I was hoping to at least have the chance to see what it looks like…”

“Not any time soon, I’m afraid,” he said with a shrug. “Aside from the anti-mutagen, the other biggest breakthrough from the Tacitus was indeed the introduction of harmonic resonance technology. It was originally used solely as an offensive weapon during the Second Tiberium War, when we didn’t know of the benefits it held against Tiberium. Following research gleaned from the Tacitus at the end of that war, however, stemmed the flow of Tiberium and saved us from extinction.”

“And you even used the technology to successfully convert a Tiberium-affected Yellow Zone back into a safe Blue Zone,” she said, nodding as a purple glow filled the room. A book and quill levitated off of the floor next to her seat, and she scribbled away with abandon. “That was the city of Munich, located in the Earth country of Germany in the Europe continent, and where—”

“The Scrin invaded us, yes. Just one of many places,” Wesley said. He looked into the cup and turned it upside-down and emptying out the droplets of coffee into a trash bin before putting it on the corner table behind him. “Sonic technology became weaponized, but was put on the sidelines during the Ascension Conflict. New technologies, like advanced starship engines, projected barrier shields, and a resurgence in beam weapon research ensured its relegation to sideline research, until we ran into the Scrin again when we expanded to the stars.” He reached across the desk and gathered all the displays up and did away with them all with a single swipe.

Twilight’s expression flashed for a brief moment with a hint of annoyance as he took the coffee pot away, but the fatigue fended off her discontent. “So interesting. I would have never thought about using sonic devices to try to repel the Tiberium. I don’t know of any case where ponies use anything like that in daily life. The closest thing I can think of would be Rainbow Dash and her sonic rainboom, but that’s about it, and certainly not a daily thing.” She laid her head down on the tabletop, her mane splayed across the cluttered top, and Wesley made a move to shift his ashtray away.

“Well, it has a very specific application, and—” Wesley stopped, mouth open as he tilted his head at her. “A… sonic rainboom?”

Twilight nodded. “Yes. It produces a prismatic explosion that can be seen for miles around. Rainbow herself also travels faster than the speed of sound, and visibly turns into a rainbow blur during the period. In such a state, she’s the fastest known living being in all of Equestria.”

“Interesting…” he said, nodding slowly as he looked into the lights above his table. “And you said that the explosion can be seen for miles… I estimate that puts good distance on the range of the sonic boom. And she is capable of producing this effect at will?”

“Yes. Any time she wants, though determination does play a huge factor in spurring the sonic rainboom to appear. I think Dash is over the worries of that, though. She performed it a couple of times already in the years leading up to the Tiberium landing on our world.” The scratching stopped as she held her quill in midair. “You aren’t thinking of using that to fight the Scrin… are you?”

“It’s a possibility, with permission given from your friend, of course. Further research is needed,” he said. He tilted his chin up and his countenance disappeared when a guard appeared at the doorway and gave a short knock on the wood with his knuckles. “Ah, the shift change. Yes, sergeant?”

“I’ve got something here, sir.” The guard reached into one of his rear pouches and withdrew a plain white envelope, holding it out for him to see. “It’s a letter.”

“Well… that’s strange. I don’t recall expecting any letters at all, actually. I thought we did everything through EVA now.”

“Well, sir,” the guard said, turning and extending the letter to Twilight. “It’s for her.”

The guard nearly jumped when a purple glow wrapped around the letter and pulled it from his grasp. Twilight brought it before her, setting down her book and quill on the table, looking at its unsealed back and then at the front, nearly dropping it as she saw the name. “Oh, my gosh!” she said, unfurling the envelope and pulling out the letter within.

“What is it?” Wesley asked. He shuffled closer on his chair, balancing his head his hand as he watched her skim over the contents. “I expect you’ve not received many letters in recent times?”

“No, it’s not that, it’s… it’s from Trixie!” A hoof reached up and touched her cheek as her bewilderment was shared by Wesley and the guard at the door. “And she wants me to help her with something!” A stream of mumbling followed as the letter grew closer and closer to her face, until by the end, she was an eyelash’s length away from the parchment. Then, she folded the paper four times, and neatly stuffed it away in the neckguard of her suit. “She proposes an alliance between Equestria and her… er, tribe.”

“Ah, those mutants,” Wesley said. “Lieutenant Viers made contact with them when we were scouting out locations to build Providence. We offered them our unanimous support, though, so it is a bit strange to see their leader reaching out to you, in particular, for aid.”

“She says that she wishes to see me as soon as possible, and I don’t intend to keep her waiting. Want to come along? The letter said that the mutants were all being relocated to Providence.”

“I’d love to, Twilight, but I already have my duties to attend to here at the hospital,” he said, gesturing to the pile of reports sitting in a tray marked ‘in’ at the corner of his desk. “And there are still many patients to attend to. In fact, I’m set on making a journey to the Canterlot sanctum soon to treat the less able there.”

“I understand.” Twilight hopped off of her seat, donning her helmet as the guard at the door stood aside. “Well, if you ever want to come join us, you’re free to. Trixie is probably still wary about cooperating with the ISDI, but I’ll see if I can’t convince her to at least accept your help along with mine.”

“That would be much appreciated, Twilight.” Wesley withdrew a new coffee mug and pot from a cardboard box on the table to his right, and then set them up in the machine as she watched. “And for future reference, dear…” He reached up to the machine’s side, a sleek surface of glossy black, and flipped open a panel that revealed a number of buttons. The first was keyed and the machine began to thrum with activity. “That’s how the coffee machine works.”

Ponies gasped as the Mastodon came to a stop, dropping their bags and belongings on the ground, much to the irritation of Trixie. From the refugee camp extended a long line, all mutants, with Otis rearing his bag-saddled form to let out a yawn in the distance. The first of the housing units near the camp’s entrance stood inhabited, with their lights on as the bulbous shapes of heads stared out the window at the machine.

“What are you all doing? I… oh, my.” Trixie tilted her hat back, arching her neck to stare at the underbelly of the Mastodon. “Of all the things you humans have in your arsenal, a giant… thing akin to an enormous metal pony was not what I had in mind.” The crowd gathered behind her murmured their agreements, until the approaching Viers grew near and they stopped their conversations to stare at him.

“You could say that it’s a… well, it’s called a Mastodon, and I guess that’s all you really need to know,” Viers said. The hulking Mastodon stood outside of Providence’s main gates, idling as its pilot strode forth through the closing gates.

“What are those giant metal rods on the side?” asked a member of the crowd.

“Those are guns.”

“The largest ones we’ve seen yet,” Trixie said. “I cannot imagine the sort of situation that would demand a weapon of such sizes. How long has the design of that metal monstrosity been around? It’s twice as large as Otis!”

“It’s a very old design,” Viers said, turning to look up at the machine himself. “Older than me, actually, and practically every human on this world. This is just the latest version, and it was originally designed to give an edge in any engagement, back when humans still fought each other over Tiberium on our homeworld. The war’s changed, though. Machines like this are par for the course in any planetary conflict.”

“And did you have a particular reason for creating such a war machine?” she asked. She turned to Viers, catching the sight of a weathered and unkempt unicorn gazing back at her on the ghostly green glass. “Never mind, what with the other aliens just falling out of the sky now. I suppose you’ve finally come to ask for my aid?”

“That’s correct.” Viers’ torso bobbed down, a shadow of a nod as he walked up to her. This close, Trixie gulped and stepped back a hoof as his apparent size was made clear, and a chill shook her body as her coat stood on end. “Okay…” Viers stopped just short of her, holding up his hands as he observed her expression. “Am I… scaring you?”

“Your size does not sit well with me, Lieutenant,” she replied. “Though I know better, I subconsciously still believe that you will end up crushing me in the case that you come too close. Tall, heavy, and made of metal—not a thing I’m rather used to, I’m afraid.”

“Sorry, I’ll keep my distance. Unless—” He kneeled down, left knee forward and with a metal hand perched upon the kneecap, chest bent low to match her eye level. His faceplate cleared and his curious expression, soft but concerned, lessened his fearful appearance. “—this will do better?”

“Ah, yes, that will do,” she said, stopping to clear her throat. “Very well. What is it that you require my aid for?” She looked over her shoulder, watching the growing crowd arriving from the distant refugee encampment with calculating eyes. “We’ve still much work to do in settling down in Providence, Lieutenant, and your arrival with this work of wonder is doing no favors for productivity.”

“Commander Alexandra has learned of the presence of a dragon in the region.”

Trixie blinked, and Viers stood stock-still as the air hung heavy with dread as she stood slack-jawed. “A… dragon?” were the words that broke the silence.

Viers nodded, visibly now with his head in view. “We figure you might have a greater knowledge of the land, better than our other advisor on the issue, a pony by the name of Shining Armor. You might know him—he’s Twilight Sparkle’s brother.”

“Yes, I know of him,” she snapped, in a tone wrought with anger. She caught herself, and blushed a deep red, staring down at the ground with an ashamed frown. “I apologize. The matter of this dragon does not allow Trix—me to act… sensibly. But if you require my help, then I will offer it. The old tribe leaders, myself included, did launch many an expedition north in hopes of finding new lands to build our own city. You know of the results.”

“So that’s what the scouting party was for… Well, our objective in this case is very much clear.” He stood, smiling at her, and pointed at the Mastodon. “As it is, our overarching objective is but one thing: to kill that dragon. Our secondary concerns are scouting out the northern lands and determining whether or not there are more of them hanging about.”

“Say no more. I accept.”

“Great. I’m sure you’ll be more than pleased to see those guns in action, especially against something as supposedly unkillable as a dragon,” he said. “Those things have a proven—”

He was cut off as an unfamiliar sound, close to a soft poof, aired behind them, and then the newest arrival announced her greeting. Viers reached for the cannon holstered on his back and already had it trained on the pony before the glow disappeared from her form, only to slacken his stance and lower the weapon as he recognized her.

“Hello?” Twilight asked, and her voice echoed through her helmet’s voice filter. She stood facing away, looking about the empty walls in front of her until she caught sight of the Mastodon, where she then stopped to gawk.

“Goddamn,” Viers said. “You ponies and your teleportation…”

Trixie gasped. “Is… is that Twilight? Twilight Sparkle?”

“Huh?” She turned to meet eyes with Trixie, and then galloped forward. “Trixie! I got your letter!” Viers stepped aside as she came to a halt, and then looked up at the human. “Oh, hello, Lieutenant Viers. How nice to meet you here. Did you come to talk to Trixie, too?”

“I was,” he said, then looked at Trixie. “Something else going on?”

“I sent a letter to Twilight before we began to relocate,” Trixie said. “I believe it has been far too long since we have interacted with our fellow ponies, and…” She sighed, smiling at Twilight. “It’s good to see a familiar face.”

“It’s good to see you, too,” Twilight said. Then she closed the distance between their faces, bumping into Trixie’s nose. “Oops! Sorry… I was just curious about the… do you have Tiberium growing on your face?”

“A side effect of the mutation,” she said. “And as if you’re one to talk about a change in appearance. You’re wearing more armor than a royal guard does!”

“Safety precaution,” she said, then pointed a hoof at her horn protruding through a hole in the helmet. “Well, except for that. Kind of need that, but otherwise, I can walk around Tiberium perfectly fine. I just have to avoid touching it with my horn, but enough of that. You want to propose an alliance with Equestria, and I’m here to let you know that it’s definitely on the table.”

“Really?” What began as a disbelieving chuckle gave way to grateful laughter as she rested upon her haunches. “Oh, thank Celestia… and thank you, Twilight. For the longest time, I thought that we would never be able to see our kind again, and to be doomed to exile in these lands. And…” She gulped, ensuring that none of her tribe was within earshot before she continued. “...and you wouldn’t believe how much of a drain it is on morale knowing that we willingly chose to stray from Celestia’s light.”

“You had your reasons,” Twilight said. “The problem with the ponies afflicted with the crystal was just another one of many problems we had ruling over what was left of us. But it’s all better now.” She put a hoof on Trixie’s shoulder. “You can come back. We have medical facilities, food, and with the help of the humans, better living spaces soon.”

“Well, we beat you to the punch on that,” Trixie said, chuckling as she nodded towards Providence. The tip of her hat flopped over and she caught it with a swift hoof before it fell off. “I’ll have you know, they have very fine accommodations.”

“Ladies, I’m sure you both have a lot of catching up to do, but we have a mission to complete,” he said, shaking his head. “You can gossip all you want later, but Trixie and I need to hightail it out of here soon and I’m not one to keep Commander Alexandra waiting. Every moment that passes is another moment the enemy has a chance to prepare.”

“Oh, you’re going somewhere?” Twilight asked. “Might I ask what you’re doing?”

“We’re going to hunt a dragon,” he said. “Our first serious operation since we’ve landed, and Trixie here has offered to be a guide for us, alongside Captain Shining Armor. We expect a serious fight—as if going up against a dragon means anything less—and we hope to remove its presence from the region before it becomes a major threat.”

“A dragon? Which way are you headed?”


Twilight stared at him, and then spoke icily. “Let me go with you.”

“I know Wesley says you’re okay, and I respect his opinion, but this mission is too dangerous to have you along. Your brother has a suit that’s better suited to the extreme conditions that we’ll be traveling through, and if things go badly, then we’ll be without that walker’s protection and caught out in the open.”

“If my brother is on this mission with you, then that only makes it doubly more important that I go. There’s a lot of questions that I want answered, and the dragons hold the answers to them.”

“Miss, we’re going to kill the thing, not have a chat with it.”

“Then I want to see what it looks like. I haven’t been north for a long time. Maybe I might be of help, too, if you’re scouting out the area—I have encyclopedic knowledge about Equestria’s northern territories. And it won’t be dangerous for me, I can assure you. If it doesn’t work out, I have more than enough magic to make my way back to Canterlot before night falls.”

“I can vouch for her talent,” Trixie said. “She is not a unicorn to be trifled with.”

“I’m not sure if—”

“I’m going. And that’s final.”

“How about no, and maybe you can have Trixie tell you what happens after she gets back. The last thing we need is for both you and Shining to end up getting killed, and that would be a huge blow to both your mentor and your brother’s wife. Not to mention that I would be dead, Commander Alexandra would be dead, and Trixie would be dead. That leaves everyone else in a pretty crappy spot, now doesn’t it?”

“You are Princess Celestia’s personal student,” Trixie said. “It would be a great blow to her and Princess Luna to lose you. Perhaps you should consider his advice and stay.”

“If the chances of failure are so high, then why would you commit to a military action like this?” Twilight asked. “I’m sure Commander Alexandra has something up his sleeve, and I’m sure we’ll be safe in that—” She pointed a hoof aside at the Mastodon. “—thing. Your possible deaths are also in question, as I haven’t seen any humans fight yet. But you fought off mutated wildlife, up to and including an Ursa Major in a situation where close contact would result in immediate and painful dismemberment!”

“You’re chancing a what-if here,” Viers said. “Just because we have the possibility of not dying doesn’t mean that it’s a surefire outcome that we’ll come out of this on top. Where we come from, we have a saying: no plan survives first contact with the enemy. That means that we are fully expecting everything to go wrong, and trust me, you don’t want to be there when it does. Between me and the commander, we can ensure the safety of two VIPs: one for each of us, but with you thrown into the mix, we’re going to have to juggle, and if we all get separated, having a third VIP to follow after instead of just grabbing the two and running will end up with all of us in some very hot water.”

“Twilight, we don’t want you to get hurt. You can understand that, can’t you?” Trixie asked. “And for me, this is personal. Before I came to accept my position, there used to be more ponies like me—leaders of the tribe. The dragons… changed all of that. I have to see this through, Twilight. Anything I can offer might be what tilts the odds in our favor.”

“This is personal for me, too, Trixie,” Twilight responded with gritted teeth. “The dragons are what caused all of this. They’re working with the enemy, they practically destroyed the Crystal Empire… and they took Spike away from me.” She stilled her breathing, and then repeated, “Let me go with you.”

Viers’ shoulders heaved with an annoyed shrug and he shook his head. “If we let everyone with a vendetta join in on this one, we’re going to have to bring the whole damn nation along. We’re burning daylight here, and the answer still stands: no. Trixie, if you’ve got anything you need to bring, grab it and meet me at the Mastodon.”

Trixie nodded, returning Twilight’s gesture, placing a hoof on her shoulder. “I’m sorry,” she said, before speeding off for the refugee camp. Twilight sat down, dejected but staring at Viers with pleading eyes.

“I don’t know who this ‘Spike’ is, Miss Sparkle,” he said, walking away. “But I’m sure you’d do him justice by staying alive instead of risking your life trying to get even. That’s what men like me are here for.”

“Then take me along as an advisor. I know everything there is to know about dragons,” she said. At that, Viers stopped, and slowly turned to face her. His boots thumped on the ground as her mouth hung open, and she continued. “Inside and out, I know everything about them. I’m a bookworm, you know, a rather dedicated one at that. There isn’t a book in all of Equestria that I haven’t read, and I’ve read all the works there are pertaining to dragons.” Her lips thinned into a stiff line as she stood, holding her chin high, and a small smile crossed her lips when he turned back to look at her.

“...I’ll have to talk with the commander on that one.” His faceplate fogged over again and he turned to obscure his front from her. His form bobbed with the signs of a conversation, and in sparse minutes, he returned to her. His faceplate cleared in time to show him scoffing. “You’re lucky this time. No one else has the knowledge you have. Commander Alexandra wants you to come along.”

“Good,” she said. “And I would like to thank—”

“But you’re not coming alone. We’re bringing along someone to keep an eye on you… on his orders.” Twilight heard the staccato thundering of boots approaching her direction, and then she found herself picked up and hugging the side of a zone trooper. Their armors clunked against each other as their forms collided, and she found herself hanging half the trooper’s height off the ground. “That was quick, a whole minute faster than I expected, Yankee.”

Yankee Lead laughed. “We don’t spend all of that time in basic twiddling our thumbs, sir. So, we keep an eye on this one. What’s the occasion?”

“You know I can just teleport out of your grip,” she said.

“But you won’t,” Viers said. “Because if you don’t play along, we’ll have you off of this mission faster than you can say ‘oops’.”

“Even when we’re going to be out in the wild?”

“I’ll have Yankee drag you back by foot to Canterlot if need be. You’d be surprised at how fast a zone trooper can cover ground. And if you want to stay alive out in the wild, Miss Twilight, you’d best follow my orders. Last I checked, you don’t have the clearance to operate firearms, and I’m sure your magic isn’t up to snuff when it comes to tearing angry mutant creatures a new one.”

Twilight groaned. “Okay, fine. Just let me sit next to my brother, okay?”

Mister Masterson, please wake up.

“But I don’t want to pick from three colors for my ending…”

Noncompliance detected. As per your preprogrammed protocol, I will apply a minor electric shock to an extremity of the body if you do not abide. Mister Masterson, please wake up.

“...Q for spot, idiot…”

The warning has been given. Shock will be applied in three… two… one…

“Hmm, I—yeowch!” Masterson jolted upright on his couch, looking around the room to see a metal appendage with a small apparatus at its end that beeped with a pinprick of electricity before it withdrew back into the body of the drone it was attached to. The drone beeped and then wheeled off to continue its maintenance duties, leaving Masterson sitting at the couch to nurse the sore on the back of his hand. “I was taking a nap…”

Correction, Mister Masterson: you were taking a nap.

“Oh, haha. We don’t even have you programmed for sarcasm but you still find ways to make it work. Fine,” Masterson said. His small living space, marked with a sizeable red tarp in the corner of EVA’s core room, was littered with various defunct appliances, books and comics, and memorabilia of pop culture. Kicking away the Nick Parker war novels strewn on the ground on the rug’s edge, he made his way back to the master computer and sat down with a groan. “I didn’t even sleep for an hour…”

Commander Alexandra has requested that you finish your work on the triangulation routine for the dragon’s signature as soon as possible,” EVA said. “A Mastodon, as per orders, has already been constructed and is en-route to Camp Greenwood to bring the commander and his pony guides onboard.

“Ugh, I thought he’d get to it tomorrow. It’s about to hit early evening, and while I can get the thing working by tomorrow, he wants it within the hour? I am so glad the pay is worth this.” He sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose. “Who’s hitching with him?” he asked, reaching for the mug in front of him and frowning at the lack of coffee within.

Captain Shining Armor of the Equestrian Royal Guard and the mutant tribe leader known as Trixie.” EVA brought up a chart detailing the level of energies detected during the course of the event, and another screen detailing similarities between the dragon’s energy and those that emanated from the crystal. “In addition, I have conducted a number of tests to ascertain the exact nature of the energy. The energy from the dragon and the crystal share a ninety-two percent similarity, with the remaining eight percent output differences. External variables include bleeding effect, intensity of output, and energy field localization.

“The crystal is safe for the moment, unless the dragon can alter the energy to work around our sonic containment frequencies, in which case, we have bigger things to worry about. Is there any variability in the dragon’s energy?”

No such alternations were present in the scans, although whether or not the dragon itself holds the ability to manipulate its energy is unknown. Upon further observation, the dragon’s energy signature is equivalent to that of a Scrin power plant reactor, which, in addition to mutations, may indicate a shift in biological energy storage and have altered the dragon’s capabilities from what it was originally suited for.

“Well, they had magic, and now there’s Tiberium thrown into the mix. Given how we’ve seen Scrin here already, it makes me wonder if the dragons were forced into evolving to cope with a Tiberium biology introduced by their new masters.”

While Tiberium mutation happens spontaneously within species upon incursion of a given world, the Scrin finding an advantage in directly affecting the mutation of a specifically powerful species like dragons would come as a change in standard Tiberium seeding doctrine. Given how Scrin harvesting techniques have not deviated beyond what the ISDI has learned from the Tacitus and recovered databanks from Scrin ships, CENTCOM should be notified immediately.

“Good idea, EVA. You’ve got the clearance when it comes to sending this information up the chain. Make sure Commander Alexandra learns about what we’ve found, and as per protocol, send it to General Hallman, just to be sure.” As EVA tabulated the information for him in preparation for their send-off, he brought up the incomplete triangulation routine, scanning over the code he had thus far. “Well, if the dragon’s broadcasting a signature similar to Scrin power plants, then it would be easy to just apply our current scan parameters to it.”

As he retooled the the older code, a transmission interrupted his thought process. Fingers still blazing away at his keyboard, he gave the name a glance before nodding aside, and EVA brought up the screen for him. “Masterson,” Alexandra said, helmet off as the shuffling of trio of ponies over his shoulders caught his attention, and he shooed them away. “I hear you’ve got something for me.

“That I do, Marty,” Masterson said. “Did you read the info-dump I sent you?”

Considering that I only received it one minute ago, no.” Alexandra frowned, and pointed off-screen. “There. Shining, Trixie, Twilight, what do you see here? We’re north of Canterlot, right here where these three hills meet. Looks like there used to be a road here.

Well, you’re right: there used to be a road here,” Shining said. “But if I’m guessing correctly, this is the one that leads straight north, with a branch that hangs a turn for the northeast. Continuing along the north road will take us to Stalliongrad, where the Tiberium first fell, and going the other way takes us to Manehattan and Baltimare.

He’s correct,” Trixie said. “I traveled these roads often during my time as an entertainer. There are a few towns along the north road that we should keep an eye out for. I’ve spent more than a few times at their inns, and if they’re still around, I can gauge the distance.

We don’t know the full extent of the seismic activity in this region, though,” Twilight said. “For all we know, the quaking could have moved entire roads away, and the tunneling caused by the wildlife might have submerged them entirely.

It’s mostly forest along those old routes, though,” Shining said. “Not really somewhere that a dragon could hide, but definitely somewhere that the mutated creatures can make their nests. Going off what Twilight told me, you encountered a large group of them hidden away underneath Ponyville with a gigantic shard of purple Tiberium underneath. There’s no telling how many more caves like that are around here.

And with the quakes that shook up the entire region, it wouldn’t have been hard for them to find new places to hide in,” Twilight added. “They might not even travel by the surface anymore, instead choosing to use tunnels, but the weight of this walker must be incredible. Seeing as we haven’t fallen into any tunnels yet, they must either not have the network I assume they have, or they’re buried deep beneath the earth. In any case, I suppose having a giant metal pony that we’re all sitting in really helps when it comes to walking across this nightmare of a landscape.

I know, this thing is enormous. Except I can see the problem here being that it can’t really look up,” Trixie said.

It doesn’t have to.” Viers’ voice was seeded with amusement, a faded laugh following as he sat in a chair distant from Alexandra’s. “The only things that need to point up are the guns, and they damn well certainly can. I hope the dragon isn’t naive enough to think that we’re an easy kill just because this Mastodon doesn’t have a neck.

“Uh, Marty?” Masterson waved at the camera. “Yeah, sorry to break your little conversation there, but I’m almost done with the triangulation routine. EVA says that the dragon itself has a signature same to that of a Scrin power plant reactor, which should make finding that sucker a cakewalk.”

A reactor?” Alexandra folded his arms, and looked over the screen. With his right hand, he dragged it across the camera and brought up his command console, a transparent overlay that hung in front of the screen. “Dagger, keep those sensors up, just in case we’re having the wool pulled over our eyes and the Scrin have something in store for us.

I’m not seeing any hexapods nearby, so I think we’re fine for the time being, sir,” Viers said, chuckling at the notion. “No motherships, Devastator warships, or planetary assault carriers, either.

We don’t know if we’re dealing with the Annihilator cult here, Lieutenant,” Alexandra said. “But we resort to experience on this one: you give an inch, and they will take the whole damn road. Expand the sensor radius, and redirect some power to the subterranean detection suites. The dragons might have given them some fresh ideas.

Yes, sir, on it.

Alexandra zoomed out of his command view, switching over to tab selection for his military units as the visual feed remained unusable. He opened a tab and ran his hand down the five groups that appeared. “Command to Falcon, do you copy?

This is Methuselah Wing, Falcon Squadron. We read you loud and clear, Command. We are maintaining holding pattern above OP Castle, ready to divert and engage when needed.” Alexandra selected each of the golden triangles, ordering all five of the five-fighter flights into a straight line advancing northwards to meet their advance. “Copy, Command, on our way. Accelerating to sound barrier... now.

Those little arrows can accelerate to the sound barrier?” Twilight asked. The blips followed the Mastodon’s trail at a blistering pace, with a timer set over their icons estimating a mere three minutes before they caught up. “Doctor Wesley said something about the ISDI weaponizing sonic technology against Tiberium. Is that what they’re doing here?

Not the case here,” Alexandra said. “The reasons are apparent once you apply them: first, they need to be extremely powerful sonic soundwaves just to stop the Tiberium from growing, much less destroying it, and second being that it needs to be focused. The aircraft that are joining us here don’t have Tiberium-stemming functionality themselves, but they do carry weapons able to track Tiberium-based targets, to be used on the dragon.

“EVA, make backups and redistribute the tracker across all of our systems. Make sure the Methuselah gets them,” Masterson said. The flurry of fingers upon his keyboard stopped, and he turned to bring up the local map on another screen. “Weather coverage looks a lot better down at Greenwood. EVA, how’s the north?”

Weather coverage remains at heavy cloud cover. Interference levels in this region remains at an all-time high. Mastodon communication clarity remains at thirty-two percent, dropping as the unit proceeds northward—transmission quality remains intact. Deployment of communications relay from Methuselah’s pod bays is recommended.

“Negative, EVA, no podding here. Maybe we can use the ion cannon to break the cloud cover for a bit.” Masterson’s computer chirped, and he turned to see the filled loading bar. Clapping his hands together in success, he looked back at Alexandra with a smile. “And there we go. Tracker’s being uploaded to every ISDI detection suite we’ve got in this sector.”

Wait, you have a way to find dragons in this endless waste?” Trixie let out a thankful sigh. “Thank Celestia. And here I was thinking we were going to comb the entire stretch from here to Baltimare to find it.

Still don’t see any dragon,” he heard Viers say. “And isn’t using the ion cannon to clear the clouds a bit overkill?

It is, and I don’t want the dragon to know about the cannon. Not until we can get it in a vulnerable position where we can put it down with one shot. That is, of course, hoping that everything plays out as planned,” Alexandra said. “We’ll have to run with the cloud cover as it is. The dragon might be using it to hide, but that’s a chance that we’ll have to take. The Methuselah’s atmospheric sensors will detect it if it tries to fly too high to avoid our detection.

The lead arrow in the Firehawk formation blinked yellow as the formation flew over the Mastodon. A cluster of red icons appeared at the periphery of their detection range, flashing bright red before fading back into the landscape. “Command, this is Falcon One-One. I’m getting some strange readings on my sensors. Crescent, Diamond, Harpy, and Spear squadrons to follow, but if the Scrin are getting the jump on us here, we need to hit first or we’ll be goners. The rest of Methuselah Wing will follow after.

Are you serious? You’re deploying all of the Methuselah’s Firehawks for this?” Viers asked.

Not all five hundred of them, just a quarter of that,” Alexandra replied. “Falcon, this is Command. Stand ready to break and engage hostiles, but remain ready to divert priorities if the target is among them. We don’t know if it can fake a signature, so play it safe.

Roger, Command, Falcon on stand-by.” The five arrows diverted, with two on each of the Mastodon’s flanks with the last spearheading their advance.

Clicking his tongue, Masterson watched the map grid as the hologram began to waver, and he looked to Alexandra to find the screen fuzzing with interference. “Well, Henry, looks like this is going to be it for now.” Alexandra’s voice was marred with pops and hiss of static.

Masterson laughed, and looked at the map. “That’s right: for now. Imagine the morale boost we’d get if we manage to down one of those things—and the response we’d get back home. Hell, you’ve got over a hundred Firehawks with you on this. Why not just deploy all five hundred?”

There’s—point when—numbers become—ineffective,” said Alexandra, whose form was no longer visible through the tearing on the screen. “Damn—can’t talk. Got to—xandra, out.

Warning: Mastodon transmission clarity now at seven percent,” EVA said, just as Alexandra killed the feed and left Masterson in the dark. “The remainder of Commander Alexandra’s requested Firehawk contingent is now en-route to his location. Sensor information from the Mastodon remains at twelve percent.

“Godspeed on their hunt,” Masterson said. Turning his attention back to the windows of data idling, he brought up the data gathered on the dragon again. EVA’s extrapolations from their short conversations provided him with models of how they assumed the dragon’s biology functioned when melded with Tiberium. “With a dragon as powerful as that, it should be absolutely huge. How the hell it can make its way around without being seen or heard for miles is beyond me…”

Alert: unknown enemy signatures detected.” The map was beyond conveying anything useful except for the Mastodon’s location, but the positions of the Firehawks around it were updated in sporadic bursts. The five original arrows were joined by others, increasing to ten, twenty, and more. “Alert: unknown enemy signatures detected.

“What the—” The flashes alternated, and as the Firehawks increased in number, they fanned out further. Not a single enemy signature was found. “EVA, do you still have a line open to the Mastodon’s systems?”

Affirmative. Uplink from the Mastodon is at three percent clarity. Transmissions are ruled out, but data transmission remains intact,” EVA said, but Masterson paid only the gist of her statement any attention. Flicking his wrist past screen after screen, he ripped lines from walls of code, slapping them all together as his eyes remained unblinking in the seamless act.

“Stupid me,” he muttered. “Always forgetting to add in the important stuff. EVA! Double-check this for me, ASAP.” He pushed the screen away, watching as EVA took control of the window and began to parse through his data. Folding his arms, he reclined into his chair and stared at the map as the signatures continued to show nothing but ISDI presence. “Come on, EVA, any day now…”

Code runthrough complete,” EVA said. “Commence upload?

“Do it,” he said. “How long will it take?”

Upload commencing. ETA: nine minutes.

“Better now than nothing,” he said. He grabbed the window, duplicated it with a drag of his hand and updated the map system with the new code. With a tap, the window was closed, and he sat back and watched the map return its pings with the new data. The first brought nothing, then the second repeated, then the third returned empty. “Come on…”

Then the beep rang true to his ears, and he smiled with smug satisfaction. “Goddamn, Marty, sometimes I wonder what you’d do without me and my magic fingers.” The smile soon disappeared as the beeps ceased, only to return with a piercing drone; the map began to fill with red signatures. First tens, then dozens as the Mastodon and its escorts approached a wall of opposition, with the crowning king of them all the massive red blip that flew over the Mastodon itself. “Son of a bitch.”

Enemy forces detected. Force projection estimates that the enemy will have double the ISDI attack force numbers in less than three minutes at continued reinforcement.” Masterson gritted his teeth, and he watched the space north of the Mastodon drowned in a sea of red. “Immediate reinforcement is recommended.

“Yeah, let’s get Hampton and Michelin on the line, see if we can’t—”

Attention: the rest of Methuselah’s Firehawk wing has launched. According to their launch vectors and movement commands given by Commander Alexandra, they are on an intercept course to enter due west of the Mastodon’s last known position.

“Why would he… oh.” Masterson clapped his hands and sat back. Hundreds of signatures descended from the Methuselah and began to break into the atmosphere, towards a flickering command triangle where the Mastodon was. “That’s Marty, alright. Lure the enemy out in a Mastodon with an escort of a hundred and twenty-five fighters, and then blow them all up when the other three hundred and seventy-five arrive to back him up.”

Should Commanders Hampton and Michelin be notified in case of emergency?

“I don’t want to take any chances, so I say go ahead. If anything, they’ll be amused at Marty’s definition of aerial superiority.” Sighing, he stood and made for his living spaces with a yawn. “EVA, I’m going to catch up on my beauty sleep now. Wake me up in…” He looked down at his wristwatch as he stepped over his possessions and settled down onto a couch. “...well, whenever something big happens. I expect that to be ten minutes, give or take a few. Let’s just hope Marty knows what he’s doing…”