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The Conversion Bureau: Conquer the Stars

Discussion in 'Creative Writing Archive' started by Dalek Ix, Dec 25, 2012.

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  1. Dalek Ix

    Dalek Ix Angry Mexican Dalek

    ====================
    TCB: Conquer the stars
    Chapter One.
    ====================
    I have sworn upon the altar of God, eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.

    -Thomas Jefferson
    ====================

    The day the Barrier appeared on Earth, everything changed. With first contact with Equestria we finally solved the one question that had plagued us since the dawn of the space age: We were not alone, we were not some lonely accident of evolution, some anomaly amongst the stars. These visitors from another universe shared our burden of sapience. Despite their equine forms, they were like us.

    So very much like us.

    We should have known what was coming, when our request for mutual cultural exchange was only partially fulfilled. We should have known when their highest-ranking diplomats tried so hard to show off their nation, but merely feigned interest when we talked of us. We should have known when they didn’t let a single human enter. We should have known when the Bureaus opened. We should have known long before Twilight Sparkle spoke on that infamous interview.

    But, as someone wiser once said, hindsight is always perfect.

    Our response was not swift enough. Millions suffered the loss of their homes, and continued to suffer in hastily erected refugee camps. South America responded harshly, interning the ponies into camps. The Ponification for Earth’s Rebirth came to be, intent on denying us of humanity. Seeds of what was to come were planted.

    We finally mobilized, as one. We broke the barrier, and reclaimed our lost land. We sent an ultimatum to Equestria, demanding their surrender.

    Equestria vanished, leaving nothing but those they had left behind.

    And then, everything changed again.

    Around the world, money was poured into building up the military. Immense amounts of effort were put into researching magic. Humans being unable to reliably grasp it, and lacking in unicorns specialized in it, it wouldn't be until the beginning of the twenty third century that we would have made significant progress.

    Space exploration enjoyed significant funding, beginning the Renaissance Age of Spaceflight.

    In South America, the acceptance of ponies would prove to be a long and trying ordeal.

    After years of build-up, a border conflict threatened to ignite a war between China and Japan. The UN was able to negotiate a peaceful solution.

    South Africa became a haven for the Human Liberation Front, which would eventually become powerful and influential enough to enact a successful coup. Namibia was next to follow, and the HLF's way of thinking slowly infested the southern half of Africa, becoming the Alliance of Human Supremacy.

    In the first of August of 2039, a border conflict quickly escalated into an attempt to forcefully annex Sudan and cleanse it of its equine population. The United Nations Security Council asked them to stop. They were ignored.

    And so began the Great African War. Much horror would be lived by those involved, but it was with this bloody conflict that friendship would be forged. For the first time, ponies and humans would fight side by side.

    The war ended in 2043, to the enjoyment of all.

    Time flew. We advanced in the knowledge of science. Our research into magic bore fruit. We wielded the power of the stars. We extended our reach through the solar system. Hyperspace tunneling was pioneered and developed.

    Ponies and humans, as friends and equals, reached across the void and touched new worlds. Exciting worlds. Magnificent worlds.

    And so, we conquered the stars.

    But there is one page left in this chapter, another act left in this play. The actors are getting ready, the stage is being set, and the theatre is filling with an audience to view this last performance.

    It is time for one last night at the opera.
    ====================

    From: Starwatch, the complete guide on starships, 2350 edition.
    "Class: Clarke.
    Length: 20km.
    Breadth: 6.6km.
    Type: Colony.
    Crew: 1000.
    Security complement: 1,000 (50,000 drones).
    Average population: 1,000,000.

    The Clarke-class colony ships are the pinnacle of Terran colonization technology. Each multi-kilometer long vessel is completely self-sufficient, with factories, mining facilities, and even station and ship-building capability. A Clarke is fully capable of starting a colony of up to a million on its lonesome, with numbers naturally being replenished during each trip by the civilian complement.

    A Clarke is composed of five sections. At the core lies the main habitation module, a hollow cylinder that rotates to provide artificial gravity. This is where the entire population of the ship lives and works, and effort has been made to make it resemble planet-side living as much as possible. Internal lighting structures follow a comfortable day-night pattern, and the internal surface can be built on, farmed on and can also even contain bodies of water. It is not uncommon for several cities and indeed, several cultures to spring up in a Clarke. They are each a nation, complete with an ecosystem.

    Surrounding the habitation module is the engineering section, composed of four beams that surround it, with bracing between them forming a sort of cage, thick axles connecting it to a cylindrical storage space which rotates in opposite direction to the habitation module, to which it is connected to on leading end. The habitation module spins relative to the engineering section, which means that, apart from the storage facilities, engineering does not enjoy artificial gravity. Engineering contains the ship's power supply -fusion reactors for interstellar travel, solar panels for the stay in orbit- fuel, maintenance robots, anti-debris shield, Bussard Ram collector, vacuum forges and factories. These last ones are composed of two structures, located on the ventral and dorsal beams which expand outwards during their operations.

    Next is the propulsion section, which is mounted on the port and starboard beams of engineering. It contains a pair of high-yield fusion torches for interplanetary travel, and two hyperspace tunnelers for interstellar travel, as well as maneuvering engines.

    On the bow and stern we have the Command and Security sections. They are two cylinders, the one on the bow being larger and housing an internal centrifuge for the crew and the one on the stern containing a DragonFyre Interstellar comms device and secondary bridge and quarters. From these, four spokes radiate outwards, those on the stern being shorter than those on the bow. The spokes carry a variety of equipment, from interplanetary communications arrays, telescopes, radar, LIDAR, thaumic sensory arrays and, of course, short range defensive equipment like terawatt lasers, gauss cannons and magic beam casters.

    On the stern we have the main docking spike, which carries the transports that will bring the colonists to the surface. Landing at a planet is a momentous occasion on a Clarke, preceded by celebrations. Each ship has its own traditions surrounding planetfall, and they can be incredibly intricate and elaborate.

    It should be noted that this is only the basic configuration of the Clarke-class; during its many years of service, Captains have been known to modify their ships to fit their tastes or different circumstances. Most common of these modifications is lengthening and strengthening the docking spike to carry a larger amount of vessels with it. Some ships have been known to carry entire fleets with them. Other popular modifications include lengthening the spokes on the bow, or adding more of them. Sometimes, they are lengthened and bent to surround the entire ship, and equipped with weaponry to provide a better defensive grid. More extreme but nonetheless popular modifications amongst Clarkes is doubling the number of factories, or adding additional engines. The most extreme documented example of modification was the Arkady, which added an entire second hull.

    The number of Clarke-class ships in service includes..."
    ====================

    Hyperspace is bizzare. Being a place that lies outside the normal laws of physics, this is to be expected. In order to use it, a ship has to create a “tunnel” of normal space that goes through it. Experiments had shown that, no matter which direction you took in this tunnel, you would always end at the opposite end.

    This was only the beginning of the long list of irregularities that plagued Hyperspace. Visible light observation showed an endless, black void devoid of anything. Radar would constantly detect false readings of objects accelerating and changing direction way too fast to be physically possible and which occasionally passed right through the ship, but always without any adverse effects at all. Not even a bump. Thaumic sensors went completely berserk, and it was best not to look at LIDAR readings too closely if one wanted to sleep afterwards. It was standard protocol in the Terran Alliance to simply turn off the external sensors during transit.

    It was also full of hydrogen, but this was a rather benign anomaly that ships were all too happy to exploit with Bussard Scoops.

    Thankfully, Hyperspace was uninhabited and had a natural tendency to keep to itself, only interacting with normal space when someone with the necessary means made it to.

    Somewhere above the elliptical plane of the Kepler-20 system the vacuum of space suffered a disturbance. In an instant, a tear was opened, and for a few minutes a shred of unreality could be seen through it, twisted, dark and wrong to the eye. Then the tear vanished, leaving behind a vacuum that was no longer empty, for from the tear an enormous vessel had emerged.

    From its flat bow to the tip of its long tail, it was a roughly twenty two kilometer long and six kilometer wide cathedral of nano machine-made monocrystaline metal-matrix composite dedicated to the conquest of space. It was a Clarke-class colonization ship, the largest class of ships of the Terran Alliance. It floated serenely, the great cylinders of its habitation module and stores spinning to provide its inhabitants with a gravity of one G. Eight spokes shot out from the Forward Command module, before curving towards the stern, bristling with sensors and weapons. The cage that was engineering was festooned with similarly equipped platforms.

    At the stern, the docking spike had been lengthened considerably, and in addition to the usual fleet of heavy duty shuttles, it also carried a small flotilla of 600 meter destroyers, no more than a dozen of them. They were long, slender vessels with counter rotating crew quarters for long journeys, and a long linear motor running nearly their entire length. More prominent was the heavy cruiser Hobbs, 1,200 meters long and more heavily armed, with a slightly larger crew quarter.

    On the colony ship’s flat bow, its name was inscribed:

    TACS Calvin.
    ====================

    Constellation Lyra.
    Kepler-20.
    Bridge, TACS Calvin.
    6th June, 2354. 0630 hours.


    The bridge was a wide room with doors at both short ends. The floor curved upwards slightly, and the place was arranged in three levels of consoles projecting illusory holograms, split by stairs, which a stallion prowled.

    "Hyperspace exit confirmed."

    "Undock riding destroyers, raise shields and scan the surroundings. Shoot anything that approaches."

    Commander Sunrise Glory, Commander of the Calvin’s Security Fleet felt the rest of the crew roll their eyes at his order, but they nevertheless complied, sending his commands towards their respective destinations. He was a thin, tall, lanky unicorn stallion of one hundred and sixteen years of age and four feet in height, with a light blue coat, star map cutie mark and a green mane and tail that were cut brutally short. He wore a pristine white uniform jacket, white cap and black hoof shoes. He walked up and down the bridge, his critical eye inspecting the crew as they did their work. His posture was stiff, tense, and ready to jump and order that the slightest hint of danger be absolutely destroyed.

    Up on the third level of the bridge, Major Firebird, Commander of the Calvin’s Security Forces, nearly rolled her eyes at Sunrise’s antics. Firebird was a pegasus mare with a red, not-quite-crimson coat and a bright orange and yellow mane and tail that was cut short in the front and long in the back, with dark grey irises on her eyes and a cutie mark of a pair of swords crossed over a shield. At fifty two, she was young for a pony, and at just over three feet tall she was of average height, and underneath the black bodysuit and coat of her uniform her body was muscled and lithe and full of the implants her job demanded, her legs from the heel down replaced with metal.

    She understood the reason why Sunrise was acting the way he was, but it still came of as a bit exaggerated. When the sensors officer, a woman with blonde hair and blue uniform, announced there was no danger and he almost sagged in relief, she was tempted to snark on it, but kept quiet.

    The man sitting on the Captain’s chair next to her had no such compulsions.

    “I think you can quit your worrying now.” Captain Salvador Rios, Captain of the Calvin and overall commander of her military, scowled only slightly at his subordinate’s antics. At one hundred and fifty years of age he was of what, according to some estimates, was now considered middle age and beginning to qualify for being called “old”, but only barely. For some reason known only to him, he had refused to let himself be cosmetically rejuvenated, even though he could afford it. As a result his face was wrinkled and rough-looking, his hair was white, and with his white uniform and cap he looked like the stereotypical salty sea captain of centuries past.

    “If you say so, sir.” Sunrise replied.

    “I know so, Commander.” Rios retorted, and Sunrise seemed about to resume his prowling, but instead went up to Rios’ side, opposite Firebird, and stood there, facing the rest of the bridge.

    “Sir,” he whispered, “do you think we’ll find someplace worthwhile?”

    Captain Rios frowned at the question as he considered it. The last time the Calvin had tried to colonize a system was fifty two years ago. They’d arrived, set down the colonists, and were gearing up for a massive population increase when pirates arrived. The attackers had been surprised by the unusually heavy defensive armament and fleet of the Calvin and had been slaughtered, but not before one of their ships managed to drop some sort of bioweapon onto the planet, forcing the Calvin to evacuate the colonists and leave. Sunrise, who had just been given his posting at the time, never quite forgave himself.

    Seeing the effects overpopulation had been having on the ship, it was easy to see why. Even with the population growth halted, providing for the masses had become a problem, stretching the resources and recyclers of the Calvin to their extreme. Food and space were now at a premium. The excess population had to be housed in “temporary” slums that had grown seedier and seedier over the years; something that Firebird was intimately aware of, having slipped through the cracks in child services after her parents had proved to be completely incapable of raising her. Civil unrest threatened to rear its ugly head.

    A habitable planet where they could offload the excess population into a colony would be a godsend.

    “Lord knows,” Rios said at last, speaking just as softly as Sunrise had, “we just might.”

    Facing the crew, he gave an order.

    “Begin long-range observation of the system.” The sensors officer acknowledged the order and, simultaneously hundreds of sensory equipment swiveled to train themselves on the still far off system. Everything from telescopes, radar and radio dishes, to more complex and exotic equipment like gamma ray and x-ray telescopes and thaumic sensors studied and observed and measured. Terabytes of data were fed into computers, which analyzed, sorted out, compared and compiled the raw data into useful information. Planets were analyzed for their composition and mass, radiation was monitored for hazards, and the most likely oases of life were singled out.

    This was all interrupted when one of the computers noticed something anomalous: A spike of thaumic energy that was slowly increasing in magnitude. An alert was reported back to the machine intelligence, and in nanoseconds additional sensory capacity was dedicated to studying this oddity. Radar indicated a planet of a size comparable to Terra, with an orbit just inside the star’s “Goldilocks zone”, the area where heat from the stellar body or its lack is not inimical to life. Spectrometry indicated a thin atmosphere -akin to standing at the top of the Terran Alps- composed of oxygen, nitrogen, CO2 and water vapor.

    An optical telescope detected a spot of light where, by all natural means, there shouldn’t be any.

    The spot of light, which was right on the planet’s equator and coming into view on the nocturnal side of the planet, was immediately compared to a vast database. Cities were immediately discarded, as the spot of light was too constant to be from illuminated buildings, and the environment was not one that called for a dome. Volcanoes were disregarded soon after, as was any natural cause. It was not until the computer searched through the historical archives that it found a match.

    The result made the sensors officer do a double take. She made the system double, triple and quadruple check the automated results and the algorithms that had produced them; finally becoming convinced that this wasn’t a malfunction when she physically compared the photograph that had been taken now with one made 236 years ago.

    With a sense of shock, she presented her findings for the bridge crew to see.

    The room full of professionals was shortly brought to silence. Mouths gaped open, in shock, a drink was sprayed over a thankfully water-resistant console. Captain Rios gave an accurate impersonation of a fish, Sunrise made an odd gurgling sound and Firebird’s wings suddenly snapped open, her face a mixture of glee, shock and rage.

    Just like it had on Terra 236 years ago, the night side of the barely habitable planet shone with the glowing dome of the Equestrian Barrier.

    “Holy shit.
    ====================

    “This… this is unprecedented.”

    “Madame President,” Captain Rios said, ““unprecedented” is an understatement if there ever was one. In the list of things I expected to find in my lifetime, Equestria was pretty much dead last, right after Space Whales.”

    They were in a white landscape, featureless except for the table where the four of them -Salvador, Firebird, Sunrise and the president- were sitting; a virtual meeting room. Even though the people present –or, more accurately, their digital avatars- were the highest ranking military and civilian personnel of the ship, they didn’t have much rank to them. Considering that the actual military complement of the Calvin (and any colony ship, for that matter) was relatively small, this made some sense.

    The president, a young blonde woman in a light grey suit with green eyes called Laura for whom Firebird could recall having voted for, raised an eyebrow, but ignored the Captain’s attitude. She crossed her arms in front of her and asked, “What do we know?”

    The Captain made a gesture, and a multitude of images sprang to life in front of her, and floated down onto the table. There were pictures, graphs, a floating lifelike model of the planet and scores and scores of numbers. Another gesture and the model ballooned into the size of a beach ball.

    “Well, we know the barrier’s there, on a planet that barely habitable, we know it’s glowing something fierce, we know it’s about the same size as it was when it came to Terra and we can infer that Equestria’s in it.” He said. “And that’s all we can tell. We’re too far away to get anything but general data and the obvious.” He pointed at the image of the planet, which immediately brightened, as if its entire surface was experiencing day at once. The surface texture was fuzzy and blurred, but one could see that it was a gleaming, snowy white. The Barrier could be discerned, with some difficulty.

    Firebird looked at the barrier, feeling something bitter in her mouth. She was a Terran pony, so it was pretty much expected of her to look at everything to do with Equestria with very unfriendly eyes, but her upbringing –if it could be called that- had given her even more reasons to hate it.

    She quickly snapped herself out of her musings before she went down memory lane, and went back to focusing on what was being said. Nevertheless, the thought of the Barrier, and what she knew lay inside of it, continued to haunt her mind.

    The president looked at the charts and graphs and piles of information, her own neural implant no doubt transferring the relevant information directly into her brain, and frowned, “It says here that the planet’s completely uninhabited. That here’s no one there?”

    Rios nodded. “Besides some bacteria, yes.”

    Laura looked at the image of the planet in thought. “Hmm…”

    “We’ll be able to get more reliable info once we get closer.” Firebird piped up.

    “-Which is something we’re not going to do,” Sunrise interrupted, much to Firebird’s annoyance, “not on the Calvin, at least. We use so much thaumic energy on a day-to-day basis that every unicorn on the planet is going to feel us there, if they don’t simply look into a telescope, and I’d rather not find out if the Princesses can get a hold on our ship. Instead, I’ll be sending a detachment of destroyers, with the Hobbs at the head, towards the planet.”

    “We, in the meantime, will be heading out towards the hot Jupiter we detected closer to the star.” The captain added, “The moons are completely uninhabitable, but we can use it as a base of operations.”

    “Good.” The president said, nodding, “now for what our expeditionary group will be planning on doing when they reach their target.”

    “That’s actually part of our designated mission.” Firebird chirped, and quoted, “Contingency Three: Should the Clarke-class long-range colonization vessel TAC-0015 Calvin of the Terran Alliance encounter the Equestrian Barrier at any point of her journey, they are to assume that there is a state of war against any and all individuals and organizations pertaining to the Equestrian Diarchy. What?” she added defensively, seeing how everyone was staring at her.

    Sunrise frowned. “That sounded like you had it memorized.” He said.

    “It came up in last week’s simulation and it stuck with me.” Firebird lied, and internally winced. She’d said that just a little too quickly.

    Because Sunrise had hit the nail on the head with his assumption: she did have that particular snippet memorized. Back when she was in training, they’d had to study quite a bit of information, from the basics of the law to several contingency plans. Somewhere along the way, the Designated Mission, the document that outlined everything that a Clarke-class ship was supposed to do, how much freedom they had to operate, and how they had to act under certain circumstances, had been brought up.

    Though she wouldn’t be quick to admit it, Contingency Three had been something of a security blanket to her. The knowledge that, should they ever come across the ponies responsible for everything from the horrors of the Great African War to her own childhood (or, rather, her lack thereof), they had the authorization –no, the gloriously explicit order to kick their sorry asses all the way to Hell had been something to cling to, even if that day never happened.

    But now, it had. The impossible had just happened and left the modern root of all evil right on their doorstep. And Firebird wanted nothing more than to make it very painfully dead.

    “…Anyways.” Sunrise continued, to Firebird’s relief, “I suggest that our forces execute a quick strike.”

    The image of the planet was joined by several contact icons representing the ships, which proceeded to illustrate the Commander’s words.

    “We’ll come in from above the elliptic. If we can time it correctly, we can perform orbital correction burns with the planet between the barrier and us, putting us into a Molniya orbit. Then, a strike force drops in from orbit, infiltrates Canterlot, neutralizes both Princesses and decapitates their command chain. After that, we send troops into mayor population centers and demand surrender, or we crack the Barrier open.”

    Captain Rios nodded in approval. “Minimal risk to our boys, zero risk to the Calvin and extremely high chances of success; I like it.”

    Firebird also nodded, and grinned, showing pointed ceramic teeth that had replaced her original set and which gave the impression that one of her parents had been a shark. She was quick to hide her enthusiasm, though, when she saw the President’s face grow sour.

    “Well, I don’t.” the President said. “First of all, why are we assuming that an immediate attack is mandatory?" She asked, and immediately added, "Besides the fact that the war never officially ended. It's been more than two hundred years; surely something has changed in the interim."

    Firebird shook her head, "Madame President, ponies live for a very, very long time, even without the technology we have.” she pointed out, careful to sound factual even though she could feel her anger bubbling in her chest, “For Equestria, two hundred years is nothing, and it’s even less for the Tyrant Sun.”

    She snorted, and continued to speak. This time, she couldn’t keep the anger out of her voice, “The rulers of Equestria may be freaks with delusions of godhood, but they’re powerful and very long-lived freaks with delusions of godhood, who are completely and permanently in control of the government, and who have no easy way of being deposed by their puppets. Make no mistake; if Equestria's there, she will be leading it, and she’ll let nothing change."

    "An interesting point," the President said, "but you've already presented evidence that something has changed."

    She gestured towards the slowly rotating image of the planet. "They came here, to this barely habitable world that has no sapient creatures for them to convert. Why would Celestia, as we know her, do such a thing? Absolutely nothing of what we know of her indicates that she would bring Equestria to a world such as this one, but here it is nonetheless."

    “Why are they there?” The president pressed on, “Why is Equestria on a world with no one to convert?”

    The president’s words made the other three people on the table pause. From the trueborn equestrians that had been left behind when Equestria had vanished, they knew that Celestia’s entire justification for appearing on Terra all those years ago had been to “help” humanity. This, like many other things the Tyrant Sun had said, was now of negligible veracity.

    But, here they were, with no one else in sight.

    "I'm not saying that Celestia has been deposed." Laura was quick to clarify; “You are right in that account, Major: she is way too powerful for her ponies to have ousted her, even more so if she has the Elements of Harmony on her side. Even if the potential rebels had her sister join them, it would been extremely difficult, if not impossible, for them to succeed, assuming these rebels existed at all."

    She leaned forward on the table; elbows resting on its surface and her chin propped up on her clasped hands, and continued to speak, "What I am saying is that there may have been some drastic change in the way things are in Equestria. There’s something going on down there,” Laura said, her eyes riveted on the fuzzy image of the Barrier, “something that has made Equestria appear out here, and I really want to know what that is. The world inside that bubble may not be the one that left Terra two centuries ago."

    Firebird fumed, trying to find a kink in the President’s logic but finding none. So, she worked around it. She treated it like one of the simulation she and her soldiers routinely made.

    If Sunrise could restrain himself from proposing they launch anti-matter at the barrier then, by God, she could approach this reasonably.

    "How about a scouting mission?" Firebird suggested, "A team sneaks in, gathers information, which can be as simple as simply getting a newspaper and reading it, and broadcasts it back on the DragonFyre. Then, once we know what's going on, we can act."

    “Are you sure your people are suited for this sort of infiltration?” Sunrise, in the great tradition of Navies everywhere, chose to rain on her parade. “This isn’t a supremacist gang; we’re talking of a completely different culture. Something that is completely normal here could be taboo over there.”

    Firebird smiled, she’d been expecting something like this, and had just the answer.

    “Which is why I’ll be recruiting an expert on Equestrian culture.” She said. “She’s as legit as you can get, and I can personally vouch for her.”

    “And who is this expert?” Sunrise asked, and Firebird told him.
    ====================
    Habitation module, TACS Calvin
    Sector 3, #9987 First Street.
    Apartment no. 53.
    6th June, 2354. 0700 hours.


    Evening Star was one of half a dozen “Ponies left Behind” aboard the Calvin. She’d come aboard about a year or so after it had been built, and was one of the few who could boast on having an age greater than the mobile nation they were a part of. It was a bizarre feeling, one that didn’t make itself known often.

    Her first century on Earth had been one filled with heartbreak, as her human friends died. That was before medical advancements made it possible for humans to match the longevity of the ponies, and even exceed it in some lucky cases. She’d been there when the Great African War began and ended explosively and when the Third Sino-Japanese war broke out and ended in peace.

    She’d been through more highs and more lows than she could even begin to count, every day on Earth seemed to be packed full of more change and happenings than a decade in Equestria. All in all, life had treated her well, she’d made a lot of great friends and life on Calvin was pretty good, after she got used to seeing the ground hanging from the sky. Not so much now, with the population problem, but she was an optimist, and convinced that someone would fix it soon enough.

    Right now she was sleeping peacefully in her bead, having a most… interesting dream involving a rather nice stallion she’d once seen a picture of and chocolate. This was rudely interrupted when her home computer sounded the tone for an incoming call.

    Grumbling, she lit her horn, powering the ring wound around its base and projecting a screen in front of her, nearly blinding her. Squinting, she saw that according to the clock, it was seven A.M.

    Who the hell calls at this hour?

    An illusory screen materialized in front of her eyes, showing a familiar face.

    Oh, right.

    “Firebird,” She grumbled, “you forgot that people need to sleep. Again.”

    Firebird, her face framed by a blank white background, looked confused, “But it’s oh-seven hundred.” She said, “I thought you’d be awake by now.”

    “It’s Sunday.” She complained. “It’s Sunday in the morning. No one is awake at this time. No one sane.”

    Firebird's ears drooped slightly. "Oops." she said, "But well... anyways, I was wondering if you were doing anything today."

    "No."

    Firebird grinned, and it was a testament to how tired Evening Star was and how familiar she was with that mare that she didn't even flinch at the sight. "Good! Can I come over in a bit?"

    "Yes." Evening Star moaned, "Anything, just let me sleep!"

    Firebird giggled. "You really need to cut down on your browsing habits. You're gonna get welded to the wireless at this rate!"

    Evening Star mumbled something vaguely unpleasant, which made Firebird giggle harder.

    If she didn't know better, Evening Star could've sworn that the mare fed on your misery.

    "Well, I'll be dropping in later. I have a billion files to go over right now" Firebird made a face -she loathed paperwork- but quickly regained her cheery mood.

    "Goodbye!" she chirped.

    The connection was cut, and Evening Star dimmed her horn.

    Slowly, she settled back into a comfortable sleep.
    ====================

    On a planet, time is a tricky matter. Very few worlds had twenty four hours to their day, and time varied from time zone to time zone.

    On a ship, there was none of those problems. Right now, the Calvin's day-night cycle was set to a comfortable 24 hour day, as it usually was while in transit. This held true for the entire vessel, even in the command sector, although the modifications made to the crew meant that they required little in the way of sleep.

    It was late in the morning when Evening Star was finally coaxed from her bed by her stomach. She stumbled into her kitchen, made herself a small bowl of oatmeal, her home computer reminding her that she should waste not, want not. Her apartment was quite nice, in spite of the building that housed it, with the walls, carpet and furnishings done in a variety of cheerful colors. Carefully guiding her bowl with her telekinesis, she opened the screen door and sat down to eat her breakfast at a small table on her terrace.

    Her apartment was on the fifty sixth floor of a habitation complex near the edge of the Calvin's housing strip. The rest of the city was at her back, towards the bow, and in front of her were the Great Plains. From here, one could comfortably take in the Calvin's size. Massive multileveled agricultural greenhouses were spread out in front of her, intermingling with the equally sized, square warehouses that held their produce and packed so tightly that you couldn't see anything else. If her gaze drifted towards the left or right enough, she would see the ground curve up to become the wall, then the ceiling, six kilometers above her. Small clouds, maintained by pegasi, drifted around the axis, with some occasionally being brought down to bring rain.

    Light from one of the two artificial "Suns" shone obliquely at her, and a gentle breeze tugged at her mane, and she could almost hear the singing of electric birds over the hustle and bustle of the city around her. On the axis, she could see the magnetic train tracks that ran the entire length of the habitation sector, and that would've have taken colonists to the waiting shuttles.

    She remembered how she'd reacted to the sheer scale of the ship when she first came here. The shuttle pilot, who probably didn't want his passengers to forget this flight had come from the bow of the Calvin and let them see its entire length, all twenty kilometers of it. That was five whole minutes of seeing nothing but metal and girders and terrifying defensive weaponry out of her viewport.

    And then she'd actually come inside.

    It was nothing short of a small world. She remembered watching plains and woods and small lakes dotting the landscape, the curving walls becoming a ceiling from which even more stuff seemed to hang. She remembered nearly fainting one day when she looked up and caught a glimpse of the skyscrapers of the city above.

    What a beautiful day, she told herself, and felt a bit sad. It used to be much more beautiful here. The ugly apartment block where she now lived had been built in what was once a field, and a few irregular blocks down the street, there had been a lake. A small wood had been right behind her, but it had been cut down, recycled, and replaced with another apartment block, the air now supplied by oxygen farms.

    The five sets of locks on her door spoke volumes of the sort of neighborhood this had turned into.

    She finished her breakfast, and was cleaning up when she heard a knock at her door.

    Knowing where she lived and not being stupid, she grabbed a big, heavy and slightly dented pan from her pantry with her telekinesis. "Who is it?" she asked, the intercom in her kitchen relaying her voice outside, as well as the response.

    “It’s me!”

    She recognized the voice as belonging to Firebird, and a quick look at the door’s camera confirmed it was her. The pegasus was out of uniform, and wearing a dull green sweater that clashed nicely with her coat, with a saddlebag worn over it. Evening was momentarily confused, before remembering that Firebird had woken her up mid-sleep to call in advance.

    Firebird gave a cheeky wave at the camera, smiling.

    “In a second Fibi!” Evening called, banishing the illusory screen and putting the pan back in its place. She went to the door, undid all the locks, and opened it.

    Firebird stepped inside. “Hi Evenin’!” she said, “How’s life?”

    “It’s been a bit slow.” Evening admitted, “But there’s a new movie that I think looks a bit promising.” She said and closed the door, locking it. “You?”

    “Well,” Firebird drawled, making a beeline for the living room, “I finally nailed that sniper that popped up last week, some retard thought that sneaking into the docks was a good idea and Milo’s calling me a psycho on the net again.” She said, spitting out the reporter’s name as if it were something very foul. A slender mechanical arm with three, pincer-like fingers came out of hiding in her tail and plucked the saddlebag off her back and dropped it onto the low table in the living room, before going back to hiding amongst her tail.

    She spread her wings and jumped onto the sofa, where she went on talking. “No bomb threats, no gang wars, no maniacs armed with memetic cognitohazards, no batshit crazy bastards trying to bring about the End of the Ship As We Know It, no gearhead gangs trying to take over the city and Eddy’s back to not calling me.”

    She laid down on the sofa and stretched lazily. “So yeah,” she said dejectedly, “it’s been slow for me too.”

    Evening rolled her eyes and followed her friend to the living room, laying down on one of the cushions on the floor.

    Seeing Firebird on the couch brought memories of the first time she’d met her, forty years ago. It was hard to believe, but Firebird used to be even more heavily augmented than she was now. She was more metal than flesh back then, a mass of prosthetics, robotic arms, tubes, wires and sharp implements grafted by back alley surgeons that didn’t even look like a pony. Evening had found her in an alley, twitching on the floor, something important having broken down inside of her.

    She’d called the emergency services, and had tried to comfort the misshapen thing until they arrived and hauled her off.

    It wouldn’t be until a year later that they would meet again. By that time, Firebird looked completely different; the more harmful and backfiring implants had been removed, and some of her skin could actually be seen. She’d shown up at her doorstep, saying –over the intercom, of course- that she just wanted to thank her for saving her life and talk.

    Evening had been apprehensive at first, but had finally let the strange mare in, careful to keep something very heavy at hoof in case things went badly.

    Thankfully, she never had to use it. Things started quite awkwardly, neither of them knowing what to say, but they eventually hit it off. Firebird, she’d learned, had belonged to one of the gangs that had started to infest the Calvin. She was a notorious berserker, having lost all of her limbs and several of her organs to injury or infection and replaced them with whatever the gang doctors could find that worked. This had finally backfired on her the day they’d met.

    At the hospital, she’d had plenty of time to give a good, long look at what her life had become. So, when the law had arrived and offered a lighter sentence in exchange for help in bringing the rest of her erstwhile companions to justice, she had no problem in agreeing.

    Their meeting was cut short when Firebird had to leave. She was still on parole.

    And so began a pretty bizarre friendship. It became common for Firebird to drop in, nearly always unannounced. Sometimes, it was just to talk, others, it was to ask for her advice, to vent the day’s frustrations, something that went both ways, or simply to lean on the other’s shoulders. Along the way, they got to know more and more of each other and started going places together, when Evening’s acting career and Firebird’s parole and, later, her own career in the security forces allowed them to.

    But even so, there were some things that neither were comfortable telling each other about. Evening had refrained from mentioning certain details of her life back on Terra, and had carefully skirted around her life before that, as a subject of Equestria.

    Likewise, Evening Star had no idea as to how the fiery mare had ended up in a gang in the first place. Anytime she’d asked about it, a very odd look had flashed over Firebird’s face, before laughing and giving her some absurd story, a different one each time. She’d stopped asking when she realized she was never going to get a straight answer from her in that regard.

    Despite this, theirs was a strong friendship.

    Evening Star noticed that Firebird was looking at her with some concern. “You okay?” she asked, “You spaced out for a bit there.”

    Evening waved off her concerns, “I’m sorry Fibi, I was just reminiscing a bit.” She said.

    Firebird looked at her with mock incredulity. “You were having flashbacks? Seriously? You sure the movies aren’t getting into your head?”

    The unicorn groaned. “For the last time,” she said, “they’re not “flashbacks” and the movies are not getting into my head!”

    “So I’m not going to wake up to a hyperspace monster on my bed?” Firebird teased, and Evening Star groaned louder and buried her face in her hooves. Once, she’d had the idea of taking Firebird to a horror movie she’d starred in, called Beyond the Void.

    The red mare had found it hilarious.

    “Why did I take you to that one?” She asked, miserably.

    “Because you thought I’d like it, and I did!” Firebird giggled, “Just not the way you thought I would.” She added, and was silenced by a cushion colliding with her face.

    The augmented mare shoved the cushion away and grinned impishly. Despite being one of, if not the best Commander of the Security Forces the Calvin ever had, Firebird could be such a child.

    Shaking her head, Evening turned her gaze towards the bag that Firebird had left on the table.

    “What’s this?” she asked.

    “Oh, that.” Firebird said, apparently remembering the saddlebag herself. She leaned half out of the sofa and held out her foreleg, the hoof suddenly extending. The metal (or whatever it was actually made of) leapt into action, hidden hinges, servos, pistons and ball and sockets separating the limb into a four-fingered hand with a flurry of clicks. The hand plunged into the plastic bag and, with a clink, emerged with a big, square, glass Scotch bottle held by its neck.

    Evening Star’s eyes boggled. “Where did you get that?” she asked, aghast. With actual food in a short supply, putting some aside to ferment into anything alcoholic had become less of a priority. In the Calvin, alcohol was expensive and fancy alcohol even more so.

    Firebird gave the smuggest-looking grin she could muster. “Rios gave it to me when I got promoted after the Black Mask case.” She explained, referring to the incident that had led to her becoming the Commander of the Security Force, “No idea where he got it, though.”

    Evening Star blinked, and looked at her in confusion, “What’s the occasion?” she asked.

    “No occasion.” Firebird said dismissively, and took a pair of insulated glasses from the bag and setting them on the table. “It’s just that this is the hardest stuff I have that your liver can take, and I think you’re really gonna be needing it in a bit.”

    Evening leaned closer. “What happened?” she asked, concerned.

    Firebird was silent, instead busying herself with unscrewing the bottle and pouring it into both glasses. For a moment, she simply stared at her own, before sighing and looking at her.

    “I think it would be easier if I just showed you.” She said, “Could you-?” she left the sentence hanging, instead making a vague gesture with a forelimb. Evening lit up her horn, and fed magic into the ring wound around its base. A connection between Firebird’s neural implants and her ring took only a brief second to make and soon an image was being projected onto the table.

    “As you know,” Firebird said, “we exited Hyperspace yesterday.” She gestured at the image with the arm in her tail, “This is the system we’re in now.”

    Evening looked at the diagram. It was a simplified diagram of a solar system, with planets represented as small dots, surrounded by numbers and codewords. It was slightly different from the versions that were released to the general public, but still relatively recognizable.

    It was then that she realized something.

    “Why hasn’t this been released?” she asked. “They usually have this for public viewing by now.”

    “Yeah… let me get to that.” The fiery mare replied, rubbing the back of her neck with a metallic hand. “We did a scan of the system, and this sucker popped up.”

    The map zoomed vertiginously towards a single white planet with two small moons. Evening gasped.

    “Is…is it habitable?” she asked and when Firebird nodded, immediately added, “But why haven’t they let this out?”

    Firebird bit her lip, looking very unsure of herself. Finally, she sighed and answered.

    “Because of this.”, and the image changed. The view of the planet shifted into night, revealing a glowing white dome.

    Evening Star stared at it in confusion for a moment before recognition kicked in.

    Equestria.

    Several things went through her head. The first was a paralyzing sense of shock that halted any other though she had at the moment. She was only dimly aware of her surroundings. After a brief moment, it passed, and was replaced with an avalanche. Things she had long ago dealt with and buried came surging back up, flooding her with their associated feelings.

    This is… this is…

    It was simply too much to make any sense of. The flood of emotions she was being subjected to effectively canceled each other out to the point that she had no idea what she was feeling, except for shock, which came back with a vengeance and left her feeling numb.

    Wordlessly, she took hold of her glass her telekinesis and drained it in a single gulp. Or, rather, she managed to down a mouthful before the burning sensation in her throat nearly made her choke.

    A one point Firebird had left her spot on the couch and now stood next to her, helpfully pounding her back with a wing while Evening's lungs made their irritation at her accidental inhalation of some of the Scotch known. "Yeah," she said, "that was our reaction too."

    The fiery mare waited until Evening's coughing fit had passed, and asked her, "You okay Evenin'?"

    "Yes," Evening said, even though she felt like she'd never be alright again, "it's just... This is... Overwhelming. Very overwhelming."

    Small wonder that they haven't published the maps yet, she thought, and shuddered at what she guessed would be the populace's reaction to hearing this sort of news.

    After a moment, Evening spoke up. "So... Uh, what are you going to do?" She asked. "Isn't there some sort of contingency plan for this, Fibi?"

    "Officially," Firebird said, carefully, "we are supposed to assume that the war never ended and attack immediately."

    Evening Star looked at the Pegasus questioningly. ""Supposed to"?" She asked.

    "Here's the thing... Could you-?" Once Evening Star lit the ring over her horn again, Firebird continued, "Okay, look at the planet. As far as we know, that mudball's cold. As in, "freeze my teats off and die horribly" cold. There's life alright, we picked up oxygen, methane, CO2 and the whole nine yards, but no advanced life that we can tell." As she spoke, the image of the planet became surrounded by a multitude of data related to what she was talking about.

    Seeing where her friend was getting at, Evening Star interrupted. "But then, why are they there?" She said, "why, if there's no one there to convert?”

    "That's what the President said." Firebird pointed out, "And you're both right. There's something screwy going on down there, and we've got to know what it is."

    "Which is where you come in."

    It took roughly five seconds for Evening to process Firebird's words, and when she did, it hit her like a rocket.

    "What!?" She cried, aghast, “I mean- Why me?” she asked, “Don’t you have people trained for this sort of thing?”

    “It’s not that simple.” Firebird said, “If I sent the greatest infiltrator ever into Equestria, they’d find them out because no one knows jack or shit about the place. All they’d have are a bunch of books on a country that disappeared before they got written, and by ponies who were going on memory. You on the other hand,” she put a hoof on her shoulder, “You’ve been there. You’ve lived there goddamnit! And with your talents this can be as easy as walking down the street.”

    “But, more importantly… I… I know you.” She said, “And I know that I can trust you with this. I don’t want to force you or anything, but you have to understand that the reason I’m asking you is because I think you’re the right mare for the job.”

    Evening was silent. She could hardly believe what she was hearing. Go back into Equestria?

    Do I even want to go back?

    On one hand, she’d built her entire life outside of Equestria. She didn’t feel the need to go back to what she had before. Besides, after three centuries, what did she have to back to?

    On the other hand… she had to know. Now that she had the chance, she had to know what had become of the friends and family she had been suddenly cut off from. Even though she knew they could be dead by now, the ponies of Equestria not having the benefit of life extension technology.

    And… well, now that Firebird had sprung this on her, she just had to help. She’d been an online activist during the Emergence, she’d done plays for soldiers and helped cook meals for displaced people in the Great African War, she’d helped raise money during the Storm Year and she’d given up her old home during the Calvin’s housing crisis. She just couldn’t see herself not doing this.

    “Will it be dangerous?” she asked.

    Firebird shook her head. “I won’t let it be.” She stated, “I’ve got Eddy lending me one of his boys to keep you company, and I’m putting together the most badass bunch of sneaky motherfuckers to keep the two of you safe.”

    Firebird gave a cocky grin, and chuckled. “And if that don’t work… well, I still haven’t met anything that could keep me down for long.”

    Evening took a moment to consider it further, before finally giving her answer.

    “When would we be leaving?” she asked.

    Firebird looked relieved, and told her, “In about six days. Would’ve been tomorrow, but a lot of our ground attack equipment is obsolete, broken, nicked or completely useless or a combination of that and we’ve got the fabricators running like crazy to make up for it.”

    Firebird snorted in annoyance, and went on talking, “I mean, just to give you an example, we’re missing half the ammunition for the Vanguard railguns for some reason… but we’ve got a Normandy suit. A freakin’ Normandy suit. I actually had to look it up to know what the hell that is, and it turns out it’s some sort of prototype power armor that turns pegasi into fighter jets.”

    She ran a metal limb through her mane and exclaimed, “That’s completely pointless! Why would anyone need that? We’ve got drones that do that, and a lot better too! And I’m not even going to try to figure out why the heck we even have one of those things because it probably involved the really terrifying kind of drugs… and you have no idea what I’m talking about.”

    Evening gave Firebird the third most deadpan look in her arsenal. “What do you think?” she said.

    Firebird sighed. “I’m sorry, it’s just…ugh!” she said, shaking her head, “A whole bunch of people have been fucking up underneath my nose, I don’t have the time to deal with them properly and it’s pissing me off.” She growled, and then reached forward, grabbing her own glass and taking a sip.

    “Wow, this tastes so weird.” She remarked, looking at the glass with some degree of confusion.

    She set the glass back on the table and leapt back onto what she had been saying. “So yeah, logistics dropped the ball right when time is really important. At least it gives Laura more time to figure out how she’s going to break this to the Senate without them freaking out.”

    Evening imagined the Senate hearing this particular bit of news and winced. “I don’t envy her.” She said, “Remember when they had that fistfight?”

    “Yeah.” Firebird said, almost wistfully, “That was awesome. Those old geezers should break out the ol’ one-two more often.”

    Evening Star groaned. “You are completely incorrigible Fibi.” She said.

    “Regardless of what you say, it was still awesome.” Firebird insisted, a mischievous look on her face, “I think all issues on the Senate should be solved in a boxing match. Way shorter that way, and I can win a lot of money by betting on whoever’s representing Sector 12.”

    Evening Star smacked a fetlock against her face and groaned again. “Okay, first off: No, just… No. And second, that would mean that Sector 12 would be the most powerful force in the ship and do you really want that?”

    Firebird visibly shivered, most likely from the thought of Sector 12, notorious for being a very bad place to live in, having complete control of the Calvin’s internal politics.

    They kept on talking, switching from one topic to another, until around ten in the morning, when Firebird had to leave to deal with matters that required her personal attention. She left the Scotch behind.

    Evening, meanwhile, resolved to continue living as normal until that day. There was no use in worrying about it, she’d made her decision, now all she had to do was wait.

    She could worry plenty then.
    ====================
    DRAGONFYRE MESSAGE BURST.
    BLACK-LEVEL ENCRYPTION, SUPER HIGH PRIORITY.
    TO: TERRAN ALLIANCE HIGH COMMAND.
    FROM: TERRAN ALLIANCE COLONY SHIP CALVIN (TAC-0015).
    ATTATCHMENT: 18994268.zed
    MESSAGE:

    We’ve found them. See file.

    As per the Designated Mission, we are proceeding on our initiative.

    Calvin out.

    DRAGONFYRE MESSAGE BURST.
    BLACK-LEVEL ENCRYPTION, SUPER HIGH PRIORITY.
    TO: TERRAN ALLIANCE COLONY SHIP CALVIN (TAC-0015).
    FROM: TERRAN ALLIANCE HIGH COMMAND.
    MESSAGE:

    Received and understood.

    Closest available Terran Alliance Navy Elements have an ETA of 6 years, 5 months, 7 days.

    We hope you succeed.

    Command out.
    ====================
    Image of President Laura Rose, dressed in a suit, sitting at a table, facing the camera. She is only visible from the bottom of her ribcage up, and her hands are being held together. She looks calm and collected.

    She starts to speak.

    “Citizens of this good ship, though you do not know of this, these past few days have been historic.

    “Six days ago, we exited hyperspace to find ourselves in another system, with hopes of finding a planet suitable for life. I do not need to remind you why finding such a world is of paramount importance.”

    Fuzzy image of an alien world, white with snow.

    “I am happy and honored to be the one to say to you that we have found a world capable of harboring a colony. It is cold and unkind, but with our technology we can make it into a home worth living in, for those who would chose to make it so.

    “But that is not the main purpose of this address. Something of far greater importance has been discovered; something that will change the course of history.

    “On the very same planet that we found our new home, our sensors detected a thaumic anomaly of massive proportion.”

    The image shifts to show the planet at night. A brilliant spot of light is now plainly visible.

    “While we cannot be entirely sure of it at the moment, we believe this to be the Equestrian barrier”

    The spot of light is magnified, and another image is shown next to it; an old photograph of the Barrier on Terra. Both images are eerily alike.

    Cut back to the President. Her demeanor remains the same.

    “Before we take further actions, more information is necessary. We are simply too far away to gain but the most general facts. But, assuming that the Blind Sun and her subjects are those hiding underneath that dome, we cannot risk this ship getting closer. The Calvin emits so much thaumic radiation that it would be trivial for them to detect us. We’ll be heading closer to the star, into orbit around a gas giant. There, the glare of the star and the planet’s bulk will hide us. In the meantime, a detachment of ships will approach the planet to investigate.”

    The President gives a slight, warm smile.

    “I know that your patience is tied, that our journey has not been kind to you and that you wish for this chapter of our history to end, but that is no reason to make rash decisions. More than at any other time, we must be careful. We must be cautious, lest we do something that we will regret later.

    “So please, all I ask of you is an additional measure of patience. It would not do to have everything fall down on our heads when we are so close

    “That will be all.”
    ====================

    Image of a man sitting at a news desk. He is young, with blonde hair, fair skin, blue eyes and wearing a blue, asymmetrical suit. He starts to speak, relevant images and text flashing on an illusory projector behind him.

    “Good morning, this is Milo Newsly with the news. Today’s announcement from the President has the ship in a state of shock. According to information now available, our most recent exit from hyperspace has landed us on a system with a planet that happens to contain the Equestrian Barrier.

    “Reactions have been mixed, with most of the senate agreeing with her course of action, while some, mostly the opposition, have called it lackluster and weak willed.

    “However, the most worrying aspect is not what the President’s plan is, but rather whom she is entrusting it to. I’m talking, of course, about our esteemed Head of internal security, Major Firebird de Coverley. In a mission that requires an extreme amount of discretion and care, Many think that the Major is severely lacking in those qualities.

    “An expert psychologist, who chose to remain anonymous, notes that “While Firebird’s expertise and competence are unquestionable, there is evidence that she has a violent temper, and can be very easy to provoke.”.

    “And this evidence abounds, as we have covered many of Firebird’s transgressions on this channel. More infamous examples include the collateral damage caused during her handling of the Black Mask, her relationship with the Nutritional Workers’ Syndicate, several dozen charges of Use of Excessive Force and the handling of the St. Vandenberg Street riots.

    “Furthermore, people who have seen the Major in action have described her as unsettlingly bloodthirsty, which does not bode well in a mission where stealth is key.

    “Up next: a panel of analysts will discuss the President’s course of action. But first, a word from our sponsors...”
    ====================​

    Docking Spike, TACS Calvin.
    12th June, 2354, 0900 hours.

    Evening Star had almost forgotten how much she hated zero-g. It made her mane go all fuzzy, her stomach do cartwheels and her sense of direction go completely kaput, amongst other things.

    She awkwardly stepped out of the heavy duty tram whose line ran through almost the entire axis of the ship, any dignity or grace completely erased by the mag-boots.

    *Clonk! Clonk! Clonk! Clonk! *

    The tram, just like the tunnel she was now in, was a set of five cylinders, nested inside each other, with all but the outermost one being made out of thick mesh, and the innermost one holding whatever machinery or paraphernalia was required. It was almost like the decks of an ocean-going ship, but curved around a central axis. Their size and spacing was such that people, even tall humans, could stand on the inside and outside surfaces without their heads touching. This allowed the tram to fit a greater number of people and in it, fully taking advantage of the lack of gravity. Rounded ramps, some of which also served as structural supports, allowed one to simply walk up and onto what a moment ago was the ceiling, or down to the other side of the floor.

    Around her, the crowds of moving ponies and humans went about on their business, causing a cacophony of noise as their magnetic foot/hoofwear interacted with the metal decks.

    To someone who usually telecommuted and never went far from home when she didn’t, this was all very confusing. Right now, Evening was standing on the inner surface of deck five of the Docking Spire. She was supposed to meet Firebird and Eddy on Dock 15A… wherever that was.

    She made sure nothing had floated out of her saddlebags (yet another thing she loathed about zero-g) and clonk-ed forward, towards the stern.

    It didn’t take long to find them. All she had to do was follow the crowd.

    Fibi was standing right besides what appeared to be a square hole in the ground, accompanied by a tall man, a unicorn and an earth pony with a light blue coat and yellow mane, and a magnifying glass cutie mark. The man, who she assumed was Chief of Police Edward Deckard, had a slightly rough-looking, middle-aged face, clean shaven and with a head full of short hair. He was wearing a dark vest over a light blue shirt with a black tie, along with grey pants and black shoes. A big, clunky gun was secured in a shoulder holster. Although his clothes looked tidy, they didn’t have an air of new-ness around them. They looked well worn.

    She recognized the unicorn as Sunrise Glory, wearing a brilliantly white uniform, and the earth pony, since he was dressed in a vest and shirt like Eddy was probably the covert escort Firebird had told her about.

    Firebird herself was wearing her black SecForce uniform. She also looked absolutely furious with… something. She didn’t seem to be looking at anything in particular.

    Evening gave a tired wave and approached the group. As she did, she caught wind of Firebird muttering something unpleasant under her breath.

    Oh dear.

    “Hello!” Eddy said once Evening got close enough. His voice was rather lively. “You must be Evening Star, the expert Firebird told us about.” He bent down and offered a hand, which Evening shook.

    “And you must be Chief Deckard, nice to meet you!” Evening said, and turned towards Sunrise Glory, greeting him as well. The stallion merely nodded in acknowledgement, before going back to eyeing the flow of crewmen and women marching straight down the hole in the ground and into the ship. Evening recalled Firebird telling her that the guy wasn’t very happy with having her onboard.

    Chief Deckard then introduced her to the pony that would be escorting her in Equestria, Steel Prism. He seemed like a nice guy.

    Evening spared a glance towards the very angry fiery mare and asked, “What’s going on?”

    “We’re just waiting for the last stragglers to get on boa- Oh you mean with her?” Eddy said, jerking her head towards Firebird, who was muttering very unpleasant-sounding things under her breath. “Well, from the number of times she’s said “lying motherfucker”, I’m guessing she’s watching Channel nine news.”

    Evening cocked her head, “Isn’t that the one with Milo…Ah.” she trailed off, realizing what she saying. Milo Newsly, for reasons known only to him, seemed to have an enormous chip in his shoulder for the Major. No doubt he’d be using this opportunity to rip into her.

    “Why does she even watch that?” Prism asked, “I mean if she knows it’s going to piss her off, why bother?”

    “Hell if I know.” Chief Deckard said, shrugging.

    “It’s so I know exactly what the bastard is saying.” Firebird said suddenly, making Evening jump a little. “If there’s a leak in the room, I want to know where it is.”

    She snorted with pent up frustration, and then turned her head to face Evening.

    “So,” she said, “You ready for this?”

    Evening gave a deep breath and steeled herself. “As much as I’ll ever be.” She said, looking at the hole in the ground with some apprehension.

    Firebird gave her a playful punch on the shoulder, “That’s my girl!” she said, grinning.

    Turning towards Sunrise, she said, “Now, Commander, we missing anyone else?”

    Sunrise waited until the last uniformed figure had disappeared into the hole before turning and answering. “No, we’ve got our full complement. All that’s missing is us.”

    Sunrise turned to address Deckard, craning his head to look at the human’s face. “Chief, I’m afraid that this is where we part.” He said, “Take care.” He added, and disappeared into the hole on the ground.

    “Not very talkative, is he?” Deckard remarked. “I’m pretty sure my owl’s more verbose than he is.”

    “That’s because of the enormous pipe he’s got shoved up his ass.” Firebird quipped, “And besides, that comparison’s hardly fair, your owl’s pretty much your damn secretary. Seriously, how did you get a vocabulary programmed into the thing?”

    Eddy gave a smile. “I’ll tell you when you get back. There’s a bit of a trick to it. Now, I should really be going, but first,” He now turned to look at Prism, and in a much more serious and formal tone, said, “as of this moment you, Sergeant Steel Prism of the Calvin Police Department, are now under the command of Major Firebird of the Calvin Security Force until your services are no longer required.” He gave him a crisp salute, and added, “Make us proud.”

    “Will do, Chief” The earth pony replied, returning the salute.

    “You bet your blue ass you will.” The Chief remarked. To the others, he said, “And now, I’ve got to get going. Goodbye, and good luck, to all of you.”

    Evening and the other two said their goodbyes and thank you’s to him and with that, he departed, strolling back towards the ship with casual ease, despite the magnetic boots.

    Without further ado, the three of them walked right into the hole in the ground. In a few steps, they went from walking down what the mind had labeled as a hole in the ground, to walking down what the mind now considered a long corridor.

    Scant minutes later, they were inside the ship and heading towards their respective quarters, the airtight doors were shut, locked and sealed, and the docking corridor was retracted.

    “This is Anvil actual, all ships report, over.”

    The expeditionary fleet was composed of Smart-D Class destroyers, a highly advanced development that heavily relied on automation. The ship’s AIs were the most advanced on the field, and a common joke amongst the other branches of the Terran Alliance armed forces was that the ships were now the Navy’s superior officers.

    “Hammer one, standing by, over.”

    “Hammer two, standing by, over.”

    They were sleek vessels, around 600 meters long. From the bow, they looked like a flattened (or squashed, depending on how you looked at it) diamond whose shorter axis became wider as you got closer to the stern, until you reached the 400 meter mark, where it flared into a square skirt. Past this were the crew quarters, the centrifuge and its counterweights for operating while not under acceleration -both buried beneath layers of armor-, the collapsible radiators, the stores and finally the high thrust fusion engines. A linear motor that fired projectiles weighing half a ton at 5% the speed of light ran the entire bow of the ship, and additional gauss cannons, fitted on turrets, lined the forward hull, and could be loaded with anything from solid rounds, to missiles, chaff and even drones. The ship was designed in such a way that all weapons could fire at the same target.

    “Hammer three, standing by, over.”

    “Hammer four, standing by, over.”

    With multiple high-efficiency thrusters and reaction wheels, the ships were quite nimble, and quick to adapt and maneuver to new positions. Their shields, monocrystaline metal-matrix composite armor and hulls granted immense protection

    However, they were not the centerpiece. A far greater machine would lead them: the Thunder Child Class Heavy cruiser Hobbs.

    “All Hammer units ready and willing. Calvin control, this is Anvil actual, requesting permission to undock, over.”

    “This is Calvin control to Anvil, you have permission to proceed, over.”

    The Thunder Child Class Heavy Cruiser’s design had caused controversy amongst traditionalists. There was no easily identifiable bow or stern, as the ship was a 1500 meter long hexagonal prism that narrowed by half at the ends. The stern was tipped by seven high-yield fusion torches which could, if necessary, be focused into an enormous cutting torch, hundreds of thousands of kilometers long. A linear motor ran nearly its entire length.

    The essential components were hidden away inside the center of the ship, and the reactors were housed within the bulges of additional armor and powerful shields provided an additional layer of defense. Like the destroyers, gauss turrets lined both ends of the hull, but it also featured more diverse weaponry, like drone bays and even armored hangars for Thor dropships and Firefly spaceplanes and other things.

    It was a flexible, remarkably agile ship, and perfectly suited for the unpredictable commander.

    “Final preparations complete. Prepare to launch at my mark... mark!”

    Magnetic clamps securing the ships to the latticework surrounding the docking spike disengaged, and maneuvering thrusters fired on a slow burn, gently nudging the vessels away from their home. Huge machines, tools of either destruction or salvation moved ever so slowly in the infinite void.

    “This is Anvil, launch successful, we are moving away from Calvin. Commencing final power up... reactors at twenty percent and rising… Hyper sleep pods for non-essential personnel are ready…weapons are on safety…waiting for minimum distance…”

    The ships couldn’t use their main engines so close to the Calvin. At this range, they could be weapons every bit as effective as their forward guns. A few minutes passed before they were far enough to maneuver with any degree of comfort.

    “Calvin control, this is Anvil actual, minimum distance has been reached, we are now underway, over.”

    “Anvil, this is Calvin Control, we wish you the best of luck. Control out.”

    The Hobbs opened up the throttle its main engines, starting to accelerate away from the Calvin. Behind her, the destroyers followed, careful not to accidentally fly into the exhaust of another ship.

    “Fleet, this is Anvil. Assume escort formation around flagship.”

    As one, the destroyers moved into their respective positions. One accelerated and shot off hundreds of thousands of kilometers into the distance, before applying retros to return to her previous acceleration. Another fired its retros and let the rest gain an equal amount of distance before accelerating again, while the remaining two settled at either side of the formation.

    “Anvil to fleet, minimize radio transmissions and burn only during the designated times. Fleet is now in condition three, I repeat, fleet is now in condition three, out.”

    Fusion torches flared to full power, casting white-hot trails into the void that stretched for kilometers. Inside the Hobbs, Evening Star and Steel Prism cursed loudly when they were suddenly thrown against a bulkhead, much to Firebird’s amusement.

    The fleet accelerated towards its rendezvous with the planet, two weeks away. While they traveled, its occupants would prepare themselves, training in simulated virtual environments that would accustom them to the idea of a world with no ceiling. All the while the fleet would gather information, which would become more accurate and expansive as they grew closer to their goal.

    But, meanwhile, far more interesting things are happening.
    ====================

    Equestrian Diarchy, World of New Harmony.
    District of Canterlot, Ponyville.
    Books and Branches Library
    1012 Y.S, 2052 Hours (Local)

    There were times when Twilight Sparkle wondered how so much could have gone wrong, how so many terrible things could have happened.

    When she and her friends brought Equestria back with the Elements of Harmony, she’d thought that it was all over, that that would be the end of it.

    Oh, how foolish she had been!

    They’d come back to find the other races waiting for them. They’d blamed Celestia and Luna for the human’s reactions, despite all the evidence the Princesses had given that they had done the right thing. For the second time, Equestria’s legendary diplomatic skills failed, and Twilight struggled to understand why. Why couldn’t they see that the humans couldn’t be allowed into Gaia? Why, when they’d explained, over and over again, how the human’s history of industrialized cruelty and barbaric intra-species war proved that contact with them could only lead to harm, did they blow them off or dismiss them?

    Twilight didn’t know. She didn’t know why they had said all those horrible, horrible things even when they had given them proof that they had been right in starting the Conversion Program.

    They’d cut off all diplomatic and economic ties with them. Her friends, particularly Pinkie Pie and Rainbow Dash, had treated this bit of news dismissively. It wasn’t until Twilight and Rarity explained just what this meant that they understood what this entailed. To keep Equestria pristine and beautiful, they couldn’t afford to extract anything from the ground except for basic foodstuffs, some wood and the gems that the magic in the ground made grow. There were few factories in Equestria, and they were small, discrete things that made finished products. Almost everything had to be imported; Steel and coal from the griffons; concrete, brick and machinery from the minotaurs, wood, paper and cloth from the elk, glass from the boars, chemicals, oil and sugar from the zebras… and those were only the major imports. The complete list went on and on and on.

    The effects were quickly felt. Pretty soon, there was a shortage of everything. Things she previously never even realized how badly she needed became rationed, scarce or non-existent.

    Equestria was forced to become self-sufficient. Old, abandoned mines struggled to reopen after centuries of abandonment. Clusters of ugly factories were erected, first in isolated regions, then around big cities like Manehattan, Fillydelphia and Hoofington. There were rumors that parts of the Everfree were being cut down to get at the metals, and she’d seen airships fly towards the mountain visible from town.

    She’d exchanged a constant stream of letters with Celestia and Luna through all this. One day, Luna had written to her that the ambassadors had returned, and that negotiations were starting again.

    Things seemed to go much better for the next five years. Everypony, most of all herself, breathed in relief when things went back to the way they were before. Then, on one Hearth’s Warming Eve, every nation on Equis declared war on Equestria.

    War did not do it justice. The Army on the border cities, Shining had told her from what he’d heard from his friends in the Guard, hadn’t so much been defeated as it had been annihilated. Celestia had personally gone to deal with the griffon airship armada over Manehattan, along with a fleet of her own.
    She’d returned with only a few stragglers. Against all odds, against the hopes of everypony in Equestria, Celestia had been defeated by the armada in a battle that had been seen by everypony in Manehattan. The next day, Celestia and Luna had pooled their powers and evacuated what remained of Equestria to this world.

    Now, though things were not getting much worse, they certainly weren’t getting any better. The world outside the barrier was cold, the air was thin, the sun was dim and it was full of things that made the creatures of the Everfree look cute. Life outside the barrier was impossible, and with much of Celestia’s efforts going into keeping what they had fit to live, whatever resources were outside were out of reach. Not that they minded; Equestria had enough problems inside the barrier. They didn’t need to bring more in.

    Everypony had lost friends and loved ones in the Severing. Hoofington was hit the worst; the city was still being fought over when the spell was cast, and had been cut nearly in two. What little news they could get was always bad, and it was always worse than the last. There were riots, demonstrations, marches and even whispered rumors of rebellion. The Guard stationed there could barely keep the city in order.

    Twilight finished writing her friendship report -on how in these hard times everypony had to depend on each other to see it through- rolled it up, tied it with a piece of reed string and handed it over for Spike to send. They were at the balcony, watching the alien sun set on the horizon behind the barrier. This was something that she’d been doing ever since they had come to this world. Celestia had no control over the sun, and Luna had very little over either moons or the stars. For some reason, the sun never seemed to set in time; Twilight had determined that the days here were one hour longer than what was natural.

    She caught a glimpse of something at the corner of her vision, a blue speck that rapidly grew into the distant form of Rainbow Dash returning from her search through the Everfree. Fluttershy had disappeared one day, her cottage empty and the animals that stayed there gone, leaving only a note behind, telling them that she no longer thought they had been right.

    Rainbow Dash in particular hadn’t taken it well. She’d been angry and hurt, and she still was. Every so often, she’d fly off towards the Everfree to look for her.

    Twilight watched as Rainbow Dash passed over her library and went right towards her own home, her eyes beholding what she could see of Ponyville. The rest of her friends weren’t faring much better, Rarity and Pinkie Pie especially wanted things to go back to the way they were before, the seamstress sometimes acting as if she had a veil over her head, and the pink party pony almost desperately trying to keep everyone happy. Applejack looked mostly unaffected on the outside, but you could tell she was hurt, if you looked closely enough. The Apple clan had lost a lot of ponies in the Severing; Appleoosa had been the first town to fall, to a horde of bison.

    Shining Armor was recovering in the Province of Bitaly, which had mostly escaped the war, with Cadence’s parents. However, even though he could barely walk with the prosthetics that had replaced his missing legs, he still tried to help in his own way, directing troops and signing orders from his wheelchair and, with not a small amount of help from his wife, galvanizing the nobles of Bitaly into lending their wealth in support.

    And as for herself...

    Twilight Sparkle knew this was all her fault. If only she had done things different, said something else during that interview, or said it in a different way, nothing of this would’ve happened. The Conversion Program would’ve been successful, there would’ve been no war and they wouldn’t be in this place. Shining Armor wouldn’t have lost his legs, Equestria wouldn’t be in turmoil, there wouldn’t be ponies saying those things about Princess Celestia and none of this would be happening!

    She was brought out her thoughts by the sensation of a claw resting on her shoulder. It was Spike, and he was looking at her with a measure of concern.

    “You okay Twi?” he asked.

    Twilight smiled, and nuzzled her dragon companion.

    “I’m fine Spike.” She said, “Really. I’m just… thinking.”

    Spike looked like he was going to say something, but instead kept his mouth shut and merely leaned closer to her.

    Twilight was thankful for her friends who, even in these trying and difficult times, didn’t blame her for everything that had happened, even though she knew that everypony else blamed her, and none more than herself. Nopony had done anything to her so far, but she could see the way they looked at her and hear what they whispered when they though nopony else was around. She rarely left the library these days; it was almost like she was back in Canterlot.

    But Twilight Sparkle knew that things were bound to get better. The Princesses would know what to do and fix this, they’d been leading them since time immemorial, and they’d never led them astray.

    They’d fix what her mistake had caused, all she had to do was trust them, and they’d do what was right.
    ====================

    Hoofington.

    Once upon a time, it was the third largest city in Equestria. A hub for trade coming in from the south and into the rest of the country, it had once boasted the largest non-equine population in the country.

    Historically, Hoofington was never in Canterlot’s good graces. It was often said that the city was far from Celestia’s light. The local Guard garrison served to partially alleviate the problem.

    For this reason, the city had held out for far longer than the other border cities, the allied army had been slowed down to a crawl in brutal urban warfare. While other cities had simply fallen, Hoofington had burned.

    As if to add insult to injury, the severing had left roughly 40% of the city behind, on what had once been their world. Many buildings had been cut in half and rendered useless, and Hoofington’s largest had spectacularly collased.

    The city was a wreck. Far away from the rest of Equestria, the rest of the country saw fit to ignore what to them was clearly an unsalvageable situation, instead focusing on their own issues. Considering what the state of the rest of Equestria was, they could hardly be blamed for it. Not that this excuse would satisfy Hoofington’s inhabitants. They were angry, and some were not afraid to show it. Every day was filled with protests, with calls for food and drink and with demands for help.

    The whispers of rebellion had begun to float through the wind, and in these times, Equestria couldn’t afford to have disunity. The Guard commander in charge understood this, and had taken matters into his own hooves. There would be no revolt on his watch.

    However, this would do nothing but give fuel to the coming inferno. Now, all it needed was a spark. An Uprising had come to town, and all it needed was an appropriate avatar to enact its will.
    ====================

    Former Southern District, Hoofington.
    Location unknown
    1012 Y.S, 2206 Hours (Local)

    Trixie ran.

    The cloak that she now wore, a dirty, ratty, stinky thing that even in its clean state was the color of mud was weighed down with cold water from being out in the rain, and it felt uncomfortable and disgusting against her coat. Normally, the showmare would’ve been complaining about this, but right now, Trixie had bigger problems than an uncomfortable piece of cloth.

    She ran, turned sharply around a corner, then turned again into an alley and jumped right into a rubbish container, opening the lid with her telekinesis a second before. She landed on the dirty wooden bottom with a thump, and stifled a curse.

    Who would’ve thought that, of all the things that had collapsed in the city, rubbish disposal wouldn’t be one of them? She stifled a curse towards the overly zealous mare or stallion responsible for her more recent collection of bruises and instead lit up her magic. An illusion was made, so that if anypony were to open the container, they would only see a pile of rubbish bags.

    Trixie’s ears were on a swivel, and for her there was no missing the sound of hooves passing right by the alley. She breathed a sigh of relief, but tensed up again when she heard hoofsteps doubling back and getting closer. She laid as still as possible, trying desperately not to make the slightest sound.

    She heard the lid open, and somepony half-heartedly poke around at the illusory bags, Trixie adding a tactile illusion to supplement the visual one. With a snort of disappointment, she heard him let the lid fall back down with a smack and leave.

    Trixie waited until the hoofsteps had left before she gasped for air. She was about to leave, when she recalled the last time this sort of situation had befallen her.

    A few moments later, a cloaked figure shot out of the alley and ran the way she had come, a stallion hot on her heels. Still inside the container, Trixie kept the illusion up for a few moments longer, before cutting it off, jumping out of her hiding spot and scurrying off through the empty streets, laughing and savoring the weight of the sack of bits on her saddlebags.

    Trixie might be destitute, homeless, hopelessly in debt (although just how much the term still applied after the bank in question had been bombed by a griffon airship was questionable) and lacking in anything even resembling an audience, but she was still superior to a mere, undeservedly snooty earth pony, who couldn’t recognize an illusion if it slapped him in the face.

    Although, to be fair to the dolt, Trixie’s illusions were excellent. Why, if she weren’t Trixie, she would fool even herself!

    Once she was far enough away and safe from the rain, under the protective cover of a café and huddled up in a booth in the corner, she started counting the bits she had nicked. The stallion was dressed very well, which bode well for her haul.

    She counted the golden coins, and so paranoid was she that she kept glancing up, even though the diner was empty. The pony in charge was even asleep over the counter, head buried in the crook of their forehooves.

    Trixie counted two hundred and fifty bits. She currently had no idea just how much that would buy her, but it was probably enough to buy her something to eat and she hadn’t eaten anything since the day before yesterday.

    She shoved the bits back into their place, raised a hoof and imperiously demanded, “Service!”

    There was no answer. The pony in charge (how did you call them again?) didn’t even budge. Trixie’s stomach growled, her hoof slammed the table and she insisted, louder this time, “Service!

    Once again, the pony at the counter didn’t move. Not a muscle. Trixie huffed in annoyance, left her seat and headed over there to give the attendant a piece of her mind, “Are you not listening? Trixie is talking to yo-“

    That’s when the smell hit her, a terrible stench of decay, with the burnt smell of an offensive spell lying underneath. She tiptoed closer to the pony at the register, and lifted their head -it was impossible to tell wherever or not it was a mare or a stallion from this angle- with her magic.

    Her telekinesis cut off abruptly, and the head fell back down with a smack. Trixie backpedaled until she felt something brush her hindquarters. Screaming, she bolted out the door, not even thinking of stopping until she was two blocks away from the body.

    Trixie felt ill. She was sure she would’ve emptied her stomach if there were anything in it. She stood in a daze, before the feeling of cold water dripping all over her brought her partially back and she numbly kept on walking.

    There had been no blood, the poor pony having been killed by a spell right to the brain. That didn’t make the pony –a stallion, she now recalled vividly, with a yellow mane and tan coat- any less dead, or any less disturbing a sight for it. The sight of his glassy empty eyes, and the carbonized patch of flesh on the forehead and the smell…

    Trixie shook her head, trying to banish the image from her head, with a moderate amount of success. She tried to distance herself from it, to treat it like something from a mystery novel.

    What had happened back there? Had it been a robbery? Trixie was sure it was (and the stolen bits in her saddle suddenly felt very heavy) although she couldn’t remember if the cash register had been opened and she wasn’t keen on going to check. Where were the other ponies that should’ve been there, the cook and the waiter? Had they not shown up at all? Were they also dead, stuffed into a freezer in the kitchen? Had they been the ones to do it, even?

    She shook her head again and swallowed the bile building up in her throat. She didn’t know, and she didn’t want to know. She mentally shoved the whole experience into the very dark corner of her mind and tried her best to forget about it.

    She put her cloak back on and trotted through the streets, keeping an eye out for anyplace that might be open, but everything seemed to be closed. Those who could afford to leave had done so before the army had cordoned off the city, leaving many businesses abandoned, or hiring ponies to guard them in their leave. The city looked empty, hollow even, and the distant glow of the Barrier provided a small amount of illumination, currently covered by the clouds above.

    Trixie wondered why the weather team had been stupid enough to leave the rainstorm up there. She wondered if there was a weather team anymore.

    While she pondered on the existence of the group of idiotic pegasi, the sound of hoof steps caught her ears. She rounded the next corner, and came across a peculiar sight.

    It was a herd of ponies, some old, some young. Most of them were wearing raincoats to ward off the rain, and a few clutched umbrellas in either their mouths or in telekinesis. A handful of pegasi fluttered overhead. Eerily, not one of them spoke, and if they weren't holding anything in their muzzles they had tape holding them shut. She hadn’t the foggiest idea of just how many there were, but they filled a street meant for four lanes of carriages from one side to another, and continued on past where she could see. Curious, and wishing to focus on something other than what she’d seen in that café, she hurried towards them and seamlessly joined the stream of ponies.

    Another mare, a unicorn with a golden aura to her magic and a saddlebag overflowing with signs pushed her way through the mass of moving bodies and handed her a roll of tape. Trixie held it in her telekinesis, confused.

    The other mare smiled, peeled off the tape from her own minty green muzzle and whispered, “The mayor says that protests disturb the peace with all the shouting.” With her magic, she hefted a big wood and cloth sign with the words “If the Princess is perfect, why can’t we speak against her?” painted on it and added, “So, we’re not going to shout.”

    Trixie very nearly turned around right then. She was pretty sure that this was considered treason or something like that. Then, she saw that one of the signs in the other’s saddlebag bore the words “Your words did this Twilight Sparkle!”

    Five seconds later, she had closed her own muzzle with tape and was proudly parading her new sign around.

    The silent procession went on, until they reached the Plaza where an amplified voice told them they could take off the tape. It was a large, open space, paved with stone. At the center, a tall column rose, with a golden statue of the Princess atop it. They were surrounded by apartment buildings, tall thing made from concrete and stone. Around the column, somepony had erected a platform with a podium on it.

    For a while, nothing happened, except for the hushed whispers around her. Craning her neck to look past everypony around her, she could see a small group of ponies atop it, one of them the unicorn that had given her the sign, struggling with an old projector.

    Impatient, and sick of being in the rain, Trixie pushed and shoved her way towards them, and demanded, “Trixie would very much like to know what the hay is going on!”

    One of them, an earth pony mare with a tan coat and a grey mane, with glasses perched on her nose looked at her and said, her voice strained, “Listen, unless you can make this thing work, I’d prefer if you waited like everypony else.”

    Trixie looked at the device with contempt and proclaimed, “The Great and Powerful Trixie can do this task much better than some mere contraption.”

    “Well why don’t you have a go, then?” The other mare snapped.

    With a smug smile, Trixie cast her spell, and soon a much larger than life image of the angry earth pony’s head and shoulders was hovering above them.

    The ponies on the platform blinked in momentary confusion, and then promptly abandoned the device. The green unicorn from before beckoned for her to join them and Trixie obliged, drinking in their admiring looks.

    “Thanks for that,” the green unicorn said, holding out a hoof, “I’m Lyra, Lyra Heartstrings by the way.”

    Trixie looked at the outstretched hoof and, deciding that she was in no condition to be picky about what her acquaintances were, shook it. “Trixie Lulamoon.” She introduced herself, “It was nothing, Trixie only did it because she was sick of waiting.”

    “Well so were we.” Lyra said, pointing a hoof towards the alleged projector, “Now all that’s left is the sound…” she lit her horn, furrowing her brown in concentration as she cast the spell, “And… there! Mare!” she called towards the mare at the podium, “You can start now!”

    Mare nodded, gulped, steeled herself and, facing her audience, which grew larger still as more ponies started to trickle in, started to speak.

    “My friends,” she started, her voice amplified by Lyra’s spell, “first of all, I’d like to thank you for coming with us. To be here is to defy the Princesses’ will, to speak out against those responsible for the tragedies that have befallen us. They thought they could silence us, round us up in twos and threes and fours and they can, but they cannot stop the voice of all of us. That is the reason why I’ve brought you all here, so that we may be safe as a whole where as individuals, we might be hunted.

    “And we are not alone in this. Last night, a news team was sneaked in, through the cordon, with radio equipment. They will be accompanying us every step of the way, and broadcasting constantly. If anything were to happen, everypony in Equestria will know.

    “Now all we have to do is-”

    Leave!

    Miss Mare was interrupted by a pegasus hurtling towards them, screaming his head off in terror and waving his forelegs about. “You have to leave! You have to leave now!

    Miss Mare was stunned into silence for a second, her face a portrait of perfect horror. Suddenly, she sprang into action calling out to the ponies assembled there.

    “It appears I’ve overestimated our enemy’s sense of decency. Today’s demonstration has been cancelled, I repeat, our demonstration has been cancelled! Everypony, scatter! Don’t go back to your homes, hide! Hide wherever you can, and may fortune smile upon you!”

    That’s when everything went straight to Tartarus.
    ====================
    To Commander Sparks Timber

    The reports thou hath sent Us regarding the Situation in the City of Hoofington are of much concern to Us. With the Nation in its current state, an Uprising will bring doom to the land, should it be allowed to succeed and spread. This cannot be allowed.

    For that reason We order thee to stop this Rebellion or, should it not be possible, contain It until it fades into nothings. By the powers conveyed to Us, We authorize thee, and thy ponies-at-arms, to do whatever is necessary to ensure that thine task is completed.

    Our sister knoweth not of this affair. She hath become softened through the ages of peaceful rule, and She hath forgotten how the land came to be. I fear that She can no longer stomach the giving of harsh orders, so unaccustomed is She. For that reason, We urge that thou keepest this secret, on the pain of terrible things.

    We wish thee luck and good fortune.

    Her Lunar Majesty Princess Luna
    ====================
    “Quick! Get in, get inside!”

    The dozen or so ponies nearly tripped over themselves getting into the apartment, the only one who dared to shelter them, in spite of their state. More than half of them bore one wound or another, from near misses or flesh wounds. Some limped; others were so badly hurt they had to be carried.

    Miss Mare was in this last category, a long, nasty patch of burnt fur and charred flesh on her chest. Lyra was the one carrying her on her back, in spite of her own wounds. She rushed right towards the sofa in the living room, which was where the front door opened to, the blood seeping from the cut on her face blinding her and nearly making the task impossible.

    The apartment was nice, homey even. The walls were wallpapered in cheerful colors, and a carpet was laid out in the center of the living room, with a table right atop it. Around it were a sofa and two chairs, with more furniture pressed against the walls. A middle aged –looking earth pony stallion with a blue moustache and mane and tan coat, with a balance sheet as his cutie mark lived there, and he quickly shut the door once everyone was inside.

    Trixie, who was woozy with exhaustion, noticed that that didn’t silence the sounds coming from outside. A spell shattered the window and scorched the roof. Everyone flinched at the sound. Somepony screamed.The world seemed to tilt, until another pony, a purple earth pony with a two-tone pink mane held her steady.

    The assembled ponies had scattered on Mare’s words, only to run right into Guards blockading the streets around the Plaza. They’d been herded, by guards on hoof or in flight and by armored carriages full of unicorns towards one narrow street. There, a shield was put around them, and the pony in charge told them that they were all under arrest for treason, and conspiracy against the crown.

    Then, everything really went to Tartarus.

    Trixie could only dimly recall what happened. She remembered a lot of screaming and kicking and flailing of spells. The shield went down, Mare tried to talk sense into the crowd.

    She was hit by a spell. She fell down to the ground like a puppet whose master had dropped. The crowd became furious. They charged the guard, the guard responded, and a demonstration became a full blown riot. She followed Lyra and the others, the only ones who seemed to have any sense remaining, besides herself. She’d cast an illusion spell over all of them, which was the only reason they made it this far.

    She just might have very slightly overestimated her own capacity, judging from the shaking of her hooves.

    “Does anypony have a first aid kit?! Somepony get me a first aid kit!”

    “I have some bandages!”

    “We need to get a doctor, Lyra!”

    “If we go to a hospital, they’ll find us there!”

    Trixie’s vision swam for a moment, before focusing. At one point, the other mare, the one who had caught her previously, had left her side and she had collapsed into the ground. Standing up on shaking hooves, she was about to give her a piece of her mind when she saw the scene in front of her.

    Lyra was crying, her face buried in the purple mare’s fur, her entire body quivering and shaking with her sobbing, her ears flush against her skull. The other mare was also crying, and the two held each other closely in their forehooves. Most had suddenly fallen quiet, although some were huddling each other, trembling.

    And Miss Mare was very, very still.

    Trixie felt her throat constrict. Her mouth felt as dry as desert sand. She backpedalled until her flank hit the wall, and she fell down to her haunches.

    She wondered just what she had fallen into.
     
  2. Dalek Ix

    Dalek Ix Angry Mexican Dalek

    ====================
    TCB: Conquer the Stars
    Chapter Two
    ====================


    Constellation Lyra
    Kepler 20-d, near orbit insertion point.
    Bridge, TASS Hobbes
    27th June, 2354. 0459 hours.

    “Commander on bridge!”

    Commander Sunrise glory floated into the bridge. The design was quite similar to the analogue on the Calvin, except it was arranged radially, around a dais where the Commander’s chair was placed, and lacked consoles. Instead, the bridge crew sat on acceleration couches, with neural uplink cables feeding them information. The level below had only a single occupant, Lieutenant Commander Marcus Maxwell, Sunrise’s Executive officer and Second-in-Command.

    Sunrise returned the salute the crew had given him, and floated towards his seat, his telekinesis making this a trivial task.

    He gave Marcus -a stout, strongly built fellow with a shaved head and dark skin- a nod before taking his place, the automatic harness strapping him in tightly.

    “Everything okay back there, sir?” Marcus asked, his voice deep and booming.

    Sunrise sighed, and held still as a robotic arm carefully parted the short hair on his mane and connected a neural interface. “A cargo container with a Normandy suit found its way in. A robot must’ve loaded it by accident. The Major was throwing a fit about it.”

    Marcus raised an eyebrow, “”Normandy” suit, sir?”

    “It turns the wearer, preferably a pegasus, into an Aerospace Fighter,” Sunrise explained, “watching” lines of text flash through his mind as his neural implant connected to the ship’s computer systems.

    Marcus took a moment to consider this, and promptly said:

    “That’s got to be the most retarded thing I’ve ever heard, sir.”

    Sunrise grunted in agreement. His neural implant now connected to the fleet’s network, he checked everyone else’s status, and gave a command.

    “Commence sync.”

    Immediately, his vision blacked out, and was replaced with that of the ship. A combination of different forms of imaging, from stereoscopic telescopes, to gamma ray detectors, infrared telescopes, thaumatic sensors, radar and LIDAR all combined to give him an extremely detailed view of the universe around him.

    He could see the planet “below” him, the sunward terminator shining a brilliant white from reflected sunlight. However, he could not reflect on its beauty. He had a job to do right now and there would be plenty of time for him to enjoy it.

    He saved a snapshot into his neural implant and focused on his current task.

    Hammer units,” he called over the ship-to-ship communications lasers, “this is Anvil. Insertion burn is in t-minus one hour. All units, report status, over.”

    In order, the other four ships of the fleet respond.

    “This is Hammer one, everything is Oh-kay, over.”

    “This is Hammer two, nothing to report, over.”

    “This is Hammer three, we are good to go, over.”

    “This is Hammer four, all systems are go, over.”

    Satisfied with the status of the fleet, he sent another order.

    “All ships, prepare for orbital insertion burn, over.”

    There was the distant feeling of his physical body being subjected to a sideways jerk of acceleration as the ship’s thrusters made them turn until their stern faced their direction of travel. Another burn stopped the turn and, almost simultaneously, he received reports from the flotilla that their own manuvers had been completed successfully.

    One hour later, right on schedule, five points of light, each as bright as the sun, flared into existence in the skies above the cold, icy planet. They burned for a few minutes, before they dimmed into nothingness.

    No one was there to see them.
    ====================
    Bridge, TASS Hobbes
    27th June, 2354. 0505 hours.

    Evening Star had never been in hypersleep before. It was a unique experience, and quite educational. For instance, it taught her that being brought out of hypersleep was the absolute worst fucking thing in the universe.

    Had she anything in her stomach, she probably would’ve thrown it up along with one lung. She felt nauseous, weak, and pasty, as if some sadistic, bastardly son of a bitch had taken the concept of a hangover and given it metaphorical super-steroids. Her eyesight and hearing left quite a few things to be desired; every loud sound felt like a jackhammer being driven into her skull, and even the paltriest source of light was like some overpowered laser blaster being shone right down her face.

    And no, she was not exaggerating. Much.

    She coughed, dry heaved, winced from the head-busting headache those actions produced and gave a feeble, painful whinny as she curled up into a small ball.

    “Help…me…”

    Someone took hold of Evening, the sensation feeling numbed to her, turned her around and pressed something to her mouth. She bit into it, discovered it was a straw and subsequently discovered the delicious orange-flavored nectar of life that it produced. Holding the plastic bag that contained it in her forehoves, the mere thought of performing magic in her state giving her migraine, she sucked on it greedily, the juice greatly helping her condition.

    “…You look disgustingly adorable,” Someone commented.

    Evening Star blinked the bleariness out of her eyes and distinguished a blurry shape in front of her. It was something very red.

    “Firebird,” she asked between slurps, “Is that you?”

    “No, I’m an enormous Firebird-shaped lizard with wings,” Came the deadpan reply from the now distinctly Firebird-shaped blob, “You okay there Evenin’? As adorable as you look holding that juice, you still look like shit.”

    “I feel like a rocket crashed on top of me,” Evening groaned, took a few more gulps of the strangely invigorating orange juice, and clarified, “like every hangover I ever had had come back to haunt me.”

    Firebird, who could now be seen distinctly, floating above her hypersleep pod in zero gravity, winced at that comparison. Three centuries’ worth of hangovers was not something to be sneezed at.

    Evening paused between gulps and looked at the transparent bag she was holding, which was distressingly close to being empty. “This juice’s got stuff in it, right?”

    Firebird nodded. “Yeah,” she said, “although normally, you should be fine by now.” She made a bizarre little gesture that could be best described as shrugging with her wings, and added, “You’ve probably got some sensitivity for hypersleep, I’ll have Doc take a look at that when we get to her, but another dose shouldn’t hurt.”

    Evening, who had now finished her juice, nodded feverishly.

    Firebird floated off, her wings pushing her through the air. In a moment she was back, another juicebag in her artificial grip. She handed it over, and Evening gladly took it. Between gulps, a single question occurred to her.

    “Fibi,” she asked, “Why orange juice?”

    The augmented pegasus shrugged. “Tradition,” was her reply. “Now, get outta bed, we’ve got a space plane waiting for us.”

    And with that, she flew off. Very gingerly, Evening tested her magic and undid the clasps holding her in place. They sprung open, and she floated herself out of the pod.

    She looked around. The rest of the hypersleep pods -long rounded-off things with a disturbing similarity to coffins- in the long, curving, medically white two-leveled room she was in were already open and empty. She seemed to be the last one out.

    Firebird was floating midway to the exit, looking at her expectantly. “Come on, hurry up!” she called.

    With her telekinesis, Evening Star quickly floated her way towards her friend, soothing the building headache with more delicious, medicine-infused juice. Now that she wasn’t feeling like death would be a relief, she took a closer look at Firebird. The pegasus, while definitely in a much better condition than she was, with her mane tied up and her tail done up in a neat braid, and the ever-present uniform on, she looked extremely weary, and rather ticked off about something.

    While they floated out of the room, Evening asked her if she felt alright. Firebird looked a bit confused by her question for a moment, but then laughed, and answered.

    “Ah, it’s… nothing important. One of the robots must’ve accidentally loaded the wrong container, and I’m trying to figure out what was supposed to go in there.” she furrowed her brow in and muttered, “It better not be the MRE’s that are actually tasty.”

    Evening giggled at Firebird’s expense. “Now I know the real reason you got those no-sleep mods. Not much of a morning person, are you?”

    “No.” Firebird said, “Sleeping I like, but waking up to this?” She screwed her face up in disgust, “No thanks. Oh, hi there Prism.”

    Steel Prism, who had been waiting right outside, returned the greeting with a cool salute. “Hello ma’am, Evening.”

    Evening waved at him, wondering how he had gotten there, being an earth pony and lacking a lot of the more common augmentations, Prism didn’t have much of in the way of getting around in zero gravity. Then, she noticed that he was wearing a heavy bracer on one of his front legs, with a five-fingered metal clamp sticking out of it on the end of a flat, telescoping arm.

    As they passed by, the clamp extended, then grabbed hold of a handhold on the wall and pulled the earth pony forward. Evening watched the entire procedure with not a small amount of curiosity.

    “What is that thing?” she asked.

    Steel Prism followed her gaze and waved the implement around, “Oh, this old thing? It’s a utility brace, and old model my grandpa used to use.” He looked at it fondly and propelled himself forward again. “I had a friend of mine bring it up to specs when I joined up and it’s been with me ever since. Really useful, if you don’t want to lose a limb to hold stuff,” he said. Remembering who was floating next to him, he immediately added, “No offense, ma’am.”

    “None taken,” Firebird said, easing her way forward with slow, easy strokes, more like a swimmer’s than a flier’s. “I honestly don’t think anyone can offend me with that anymore. There’s a point where being called a “Frankenstein” gets repetitive,” she added.

    Grinning, she held a metal limb out and made a knife, a long, pointy, narrow dull grey thing, pop out with a *snick!*. She retracted it, and made the hoof become a four fingered hand.

    “Besides, these things are a lot more useful,” she said, wiggling the metal fingers about, her face smug.

    Steel Prisim rolled his eyes. “If you say so, ma’am.”

    He turned to look at Evening. “Speaking of implant’s, how’s yours?”

    Evening shrugged, and tossed the now empty juice bag towards a passing trash bin. They’d added a neural implant to the base of her skull a week ago; she’d given consent for it before setting off. “I haven’t checked it out yet,” she admitted, which made Firebird sputter in mock shock.

    “What? You’ve spent ten whole minutes with that and you haven’t done any net bingeing? Who are you and what did you do to Evening?” she demanded, trying to keep the grin out of her face.

    Evening Star rolled her eyes. “I can live without an internet connection, you know,” she deadpanned, “And besides, there’s none here, I checked when we were still in the VR.”

    They made their way to the ship’s centrifuge, and climbed onto the elevator that would bring down to the gravity deck. While most of the ship was built in such a way that the thrust of the engines provided the necessary acceleration to simulate gravity, Evening remembered being told when they’d boarded two weeks ago, they still had these rotating sections for when they in orbit around a planet. It was there that they found the medical ward, and Doc.

    Mary “Doc” Thornton might have been someone’s grandma. Actually, she just might have been several somebodies great grandmother. Evening couldn’t tell how old she was, but with her wrinkled face, white hair, chalky skin, small yet bright blue eyes and bony hands, she looked very old.

    Although, there was the good chance that she might be younger than Evening, which gave the unicorn an unpleasant feeling.

    Not one to pursue existential crises at the drop of a hat, she abandoned that train of thought and greeted the old woman cheerfully, after Firebird introduced them and told Doc of Evening’s previous symptoms.

    The old lady smiled, “Well good morning to you too, dear.” She said –and yes, she sounded like she was everyone’s grandmother. “Now, if you could hop onto the examination table, we’ll give your new implants a look.”

    Evening Star obliged, hopping on to the table and laying down on her side. Maria did a quick examination with a handheld scanner, and determined that there was nothing wrong. “It’s just hypersleep sensitivity, dear.” Maria told her, “Nothing to be worried about, I have it too and it’s more annoying than harmful.”

    “Now, I’ll boot up your neural implants.” She continued, and Evening felt something clamp onto the back of her head, where the tiny connector was hidden amongst her mane. “Let me warn you, that this will take some getting used to, and it will feel very, very weird for some days.”

    Evening felt a pleasant tingling sensation run through the base of her neck, and then the world went crazy.

    //BOOTING UP.

    She didn’t hear or see the words, they were simply… there. They flashed through her mind briefly, before being replaced by more.

    //CHECKING FOR UPDATES… NO UPDATES REQUIRED.

    //LOADING KFNIOS-M V 9.81.1 …

    //WE HAVE DETECTED THAT YOU ARE A FIRST TIME USER OF THE KF NEURAL INTERFACE OPERATING SYSTEM. WE WILL NOW RUN THE INITIAL SET-UP TO ADJUST THE SETTINGS TO FIT YOU BIOMETRICS. SHOULD YOU WISH TO ADJUST THESE SETTINGS, PLEASE GO TO SETTINGS-BIOMETRICS. IF YOU HAVE YOUR BIOMETRIC DATA STORED ON A SEPARATE DEVICE, PLEASE CONNECT IT NOW.

    //”That would be my cue.”

    The sound of Mary’s voice inside her head made Evening jump half a meter into the air. She heard the doctor chuckle behind her. “Ah, that never gets old,” the old woman said, “I have your biometrics from when you were put into hypersleep, so I’ll just upload it to your implant to save us time.”

    “Uh, okay,” Evening blurted out. She felt another tingle through the base of her spine. More words came to her.

    //BIOMETRIC DATA RECEIVED. PLEASE WAIT WHILE WE LOAD THE TUTORIAL…
    ====================
    This is so weird.

    Even with the biometric data loaded, it had taken quite some fiddling with the settings in order to get the neural interface calibrated for her; the sheer amount of settings was unbelievable. There was even one for how hard you had to think of something for the NI to pick it up, which had taken some fine tuning. Having it too high could make it very hard to use, and having it too low meant that the slightest surface thought would deliver a terrifyingly overwhelming surge of information right into her brain.

    Because that’s what it did; deliver information right into her brain. She’d half expected it to be like in a video game or a movie, with some sort of overlay, but that wasn’t the case. Instead she just… knew.

    For example, she’d looked at Mary and instantly knew that she was born on the 31st of December 2042, as if that was something she’d been aware of all along. Also, apparently Firebird was listening to the eponymous suite by Stravinsky while she was waiting outside –much to her surprise- and if she wanted to, she could listen to it as well.

    It was actually a bit freaky.

    “This is so weird,” she said, this time out loud.

    Doc simply ruffled her mane. “You’ll get used to it dear,” she said, smiling. “One day, you’ll wonder how you ever got along without it.”

    Evening thought about it, and nodded. “I think I can see it already.”

    Not realizing the sort of monster she had unleashed, Mary smiled genially. “That’s the spirit!” she said, “Now, I’ll just update your medical record and I’ll send you off.”

    With not a small amount of hesitation, Evening spoke.

    “Actually… could I ask you something?”

    Mary blinked in surprise, but nonetheless sat down beside her.

    “What is it, dear?” she asked.

    Evening swallowed. This wasn’t something she broached easily, especially with someone she barely knew. But this woman was only –and how she boggled at how so big a number could be considered “only”- a hundred and twenty years her junior, and was the closest to her own age she’d known in quite some time.

    “I was just wondering… how did you do it? Not this,” she immediately added, tapping her head with one hoof, “but… I mean… Please don’t take this the wrong way, but you’re the oldest human I’ve ever met and I was wondering-”

    “-Why do I keep going?” the old woman finished for her, “Well, I have some theories. There might be certain genes that make the anti-aging treatments work better those who carry them- Speaking of which,” she said, suddenly changing subjects, “would you mind if I used some data I obtained from you for that? You’re the oldest pony in the ship, and it would help me in a small project of mine.”

    “Uh, sure, go ahead,” Evening said, “But that’s not what I was going to say. I meant… how. How did you keep going?”

    Maria looked thoughtful for a moment, and then she answered.

    “I just did. I kept moving around, going from one place to the next, as I imagine you did.”

    Evening nodded, and the old woman continued.

    “I was never one to get bogged up in something,” she said, “Always kept going forward. If something didn’t last, I looked for something else. If something hurt, I moved on. If it didn’t, if it felt like the opposite of hurt, I held on to it, until I had to let go. I don’t think people should feel bad about the road they left behind; they should feel happy for the road ahead.”

    “And… well, since we’re where we are and you’re going to do what you’re going to do, I’ll tell you that I think that’s the root of the whole mess with the princesses,” she said, “People who live as long as you or I or they should always keep moving. They should be out there in the streets, getting their hands -or their hooves- dirty, not on top of a throne. They should know the people around them and the world they live in, meeting regular, ordinary folk, not nobles and politicians who only want favors.”

    “But they didn’t do that,” Evening said, softly, “I was one of the ponies left behind, when Equestria left… and I remember when Celestia came to my hometown, Detrot. I was just a filly, but I remember all the fuss they made about it. They cleaned up the streets, they made everyone polish their windows… my sister said it was the only time that the city actually looked good to look at.”

    “And there you have it,” Mary said.

    The old woman smiled, the sort of smile that goes reaches the eyes. She reached into her pocket and drew out a bright red lollipop in a transparent plastic wrapper, which she gave to her.

    “And this is to help with that sad look on your face,” she said, “You seem like a good mare, and I know the people that will be going with you. If anyone can straighten this out, it’s you lot.”

    She gave Evening a heartfelt pat on her barrel and added, “Now hurry along, you’ve got a plane to catch.”
    ====================

    Firebird looked at the illusory projection of her ride to the stratosphere with a mild horror that was only partially an act, her face hidden by her armor’s helmet. “You sure this was made by Rockomax?” she asked the similarly dressed individual next to her, “The same Rockomax that makes surface-to-orbit missiles with disposable fusion drives? The same Rockomax that gave us the Pluto Missile? The same Rockomax that made an antimatter rocket and that Orion drive…” She made a vague gesture with one hoof, trying to find the appropriate word. She settled on, “thing?”

    The large earth pony wearing heavy armor and a heavy multibarrel pulse laser turret on his back nodded slowly. “Certainly looks like it, ma’am,” he said, his voice surprisingly soft, “I wonder what they told the designer to make for him to come up with something like that.”

    “Well, I know,” said a rather short unicorn mare, also in armor, with her helmet including a crest to both protect the horn and carry the thaumic suppressor emitters that would mask her magic, a laser rifle slung on her back, “They must have told them, “Hey, Steve, I’m so high I could be in, like fucking sub orbit man, and I want you to make the most completely fucking evil-looking space plane in the universe. Here, have a joint, it’ll help.””

    “And that’s another twenty credits for the swear jar, Sunny,” Firebird quipped, “Keep going like that and we’ll have enough to buy another cruiser soon.”

    The mare in question only made a groan of long suffering frustration.

    Secretly, the Major agreed with Sergeant. The SP-609 “Firefly” was one evil-looking space plane. It was sleek and long, and from this angle –top down, through a camera in the hangar- it had the profile similar to a sword blade. Firebird couldn’t see any blemishes, or bumps, or markings, the entire craft was smooth, and black as sin itself. The color was so uniform and so good at not reflecting any light at all that the craft looked like a hole in the universe.

    It was extremely disturbing.

    “Ain’t she a beaut,” said the flight-suited man floating behind them in zero g, sounding reverent, as if speaking of some holy thing, “the coating’s a metamaterial-impregnated ceramic that just soaks up nearly every source of electromagnetic radiation known to science. Shut down the engines, and she’s nearly invisible. Fast too; she’s got Rockomax’s engines.”

    “”She’s” also got Rockomax’s sense of subtlety,” the big earth pony commented dryly, “That thing makes Pluto Missiles look benign.”

    “Well she ain’t exactly carrying bunnies either,” Firebird said, grinning, “Speaking of which, are your boys and girls ready?”

    The earth pony, one Sergeant Rock Steady, nodded in response, “They’re already inside, ma’am.”

    “Ready to kick ass and take names, ma’am!” said the unicorn, Sergeant Sunny Disposition.

    Firebird nodded in approval; no doubt they had been organizing their squads through their neural interfaces while they’d been waiting. “Good,” she said, “now all we need is for those two to put their suits on so we can- Ah, here they are.” her NI informed them that Evening and Prism had just opened the hatch leading to the hangar. She turned herself around to look at them.

    Two figures floated into the hangar’s antechamber. Even though the spacesuits they now wore bore no markings and were all but identical, the implants allowed Firebird to instantly tell who was who. One of them, Evening, stopped moving to look at Firebird and the other SecForce officers intently.

    It suddenly occurred to Firebird that Evening had never personally seen her in armor before. The armor was certainly intimidating, it completely encased the body in plates made out of the same material the cruiser’s armor was, with a flexible nanotube weave underneath. Unlike power armor, theirs didn’t enhance their abilities. Rather, they contained a power supply in the back that allowed them to use their synthetic muscles at full capacity. As a result, they were sleek and slightly body fitting, hers even more so, to allow her to fly.

    The suits Evening and Steel prism wore couldn’t be more different. They hugged the body closely, but were puffed up, giving the wearer a slightly inflated appearance. The helmets were large, and rounded, rather than skull fitting and angular, with golden visors that could be flipped over the faceplate. Saddlebags with life support hung from their sides.

    “Well it’s about time you showed up,” Firebird called, “I thought the two of you had decided to share a spacesuit or something.”

    She waited just long enough for Evening to start sputtering in indignation before continuing very loudly, “Now, let’s get going, we’re taking off in thirty minutes and I’m gonna be pissed if we come all the way here and miss our chance just because someone forgot we’re on a time limit! Move it, both of you!”
    ====================

    //Operation: Woodpecker.
    //Pre-mission briefing.

    //All right people, this is it.

    //Down below us is the Equestrian barrier. Inside it are the biggest monsters in history. However, the President and I have reason to believe that there’s something very fishy going on inside that bubble. So, instead of having the fleet get all the fun, they’re sending us in to figure out what’s what.

    //Remember, this is a recon op. If we don’t have to shoot someone, we won’t. Don’t engage unless we or the VIPs are in immediate dangers; any other situation is no excuse. And, if you have to shoot a gun, make sure it’s the one that makes the least noise. Keep it quiet, let the VIPs do their thing, and nothing will go wrong.

    //Also, please be advised that we’ve been getting reports of subterranean megafauna, some kind of gigantic worm thing. We’ll only be there for a short time before we’re in the Barrier, but I’d prefer if we got there without getting eaten. Keep your eyes sharp at all times. This also holds true inside the Barrier. We’re going to be entering hostile and unknown territory, so assume everything is out to kill you unless proven otherwise.

    //Remember, this is the op everyone’s gonna be reading about on the history books. Do not screw this up, or I’ll have your asses.

    //Firebird out.

    //Primary mission objectives:
    //- Ensure safety of VIPs.
    //- Remain undetected.
    //- Obtain any and all information pertaining as to the current condition of the Equestrian Diarchy.
    ====================
    The SP-109 “Firefly” space plane by Rockomax is a marvel of aerospace engineering, designed to quickly and efficiently deliver harbingers of acute pain right under the enemy’s nose. Stealthy, fast and nimble, it was beloved by everyone who flew it, in spite –and occasionally because- of its sinister appearance.

    One example of this breed, affectionately called “Natie” by its pilot, eased out of the armored hangar of the Hobbes, before firing the pair of linear aerospike rocket engines seamlessly integrated into its wings and burning away. Once the pilot determined that its trajectory was correct, it burned retrograde for a few seconds to bring its path into the atmosphere. The atmosphere of this planet was very thin, so that meant that its pilot would have to bring his craft lower than he was entirely comfortable with. Still, he was confident in both his machine and his skills –which pilot wasn’t? -, and he figured he could pull it off, even if the worst came to happen.

    In the meantime, the space plane’s passengers would have to find ways to kill time within the confines of the passenger berth. Some read books downloaded into their minds or gave their orders one final review. Some played games, one quietly offered prayers. Most of them gave their weapons and equipment one final pass with the cleaning rag or checked them for faults. Some made jokes or chatted.

    One simply sat there, awkwardly silent.

    Firebird paused from giving her wing mounted laser’s focus lenses a visual inspection to tap Evening on shoulder with the mechanical arm on her tail. //“Everything okay?” she asked over the wireless, on a private channel, //”Because the conversation you’re making is riveting.

    //”It’s nothing,” Evening lied.

    //”No,” Firebird insisted, //“it ain’t. Spit it.”

    Evening was quiet for some time, before she answered.

    //”I’m… thinking,” she said, her voice halting, //”I just realized that… everyone I knew there is dead by now, probably. Mom, dad, my sister Venus Dawn, my old schoolmates… I’ve outlasted a lot of people, Fibi,” she said, and for once Firebird could actually sense the age in her friend, //“and it always hurt, and I always grieved… but I never did for them; my own family. It never even crossed my mind.”

    //”But now… this is going to sound stupid, but… if we get the chance, can I check up on them?” she asked.

    Firebird thought on that. It’s a stupid idea, she told herself, they’ll know who you are, wonder why you’re still springing around when you should be just as old and then they’ll start asking the sort of questions you can’t answer and which will end in me hiding bodies. You’ll get the info, get her and her soon-to-be boyfriend into orbit and then do… whatever it is you’ll end up doing here. Say no. Just say no.

    She looked at Evening and was about to tell her no and why she couldn’t. But then she caught the look on her friend’s face. She had the golden visor up, and in the lights of the slightly cramped passenger berth of the Firefly she could clearly see the look on her face, and it was one she’d rarely seen. Only on the rare occasions when something had bluntly reminded Evening of just how old she was had Firebird seen her like this.

    She looked tired.

    Firebird hesitated. Was she really that heartless? She had only the most general idea of what a normal family -like the one Evening must’ve had- should look like or what it would be to live in one. Her list of happy childhood moments quite literally ended the day she had gotten her cutie mark.

    That had not been a good day.

    Could she really just say no to her friend? Tell her that she’d have to wait until she could give her family the farewell she had never thought of giving them?

    //“Yes, you can,” she said, //“If we get the time and it’s not liable to screw us over, you can.”

    Evening gave a small smile.

    //”Thank you,” she said.

    ====================

    It was time.

    “Ladies and gentlemen, we are now in atmospheric entry.”

    The space plane screamed into the sky night sky, friction from the thin atmosphere heating its exterior until the air became a white hot plasma that blasted at its skin. The outer hull was more up to the task of resisting the heat, and an insulating layer kept the interior cool.

    It was still a ways away from the Barrier, plenty of time for it to slow down to a more sedate speed. Its pilot made the craft perform a series of S-turns, to lengthen the trajectory. A few minutes later, the plasma trail evaporated, and a few minutes after that, their destination came into view.

    “The Barrier is now in sight, please get ready for airdrop.”

    The silver of the glowing dome quickly grew to occupy most of the forward field of view, and the space plane descended until it reached an appropriate altitude, analogous to the lower stratosphere of Terra.

    “Commence drop, deploying escort!”

    First of all was a quintet of airborne combat drones, triangular things propelled by a variable thermal fusion jet. The miniature reactor could allow for weeks or even months of continuous operation for the machines, although it was not necessary at this moment. They dropped down from the cargo bay, then to either side, in an escort formation.

    The rest of the drones followed, loaded up into five large hexapod carriers who were in turn folded into stealthy aerodynamic fairings. They dropped like stones, and the squadron followed them, to provide support in case they were discovered.

    Following the drones were the SecForce soldiers that would direct them; two squads and an officer, Major Firebird, along Evening Star and Steel Prism, who were each connected to one of the soldier’s harnesses. Those not gifted with wings had donned a “Drop Harness”, the successor to the parachutes of old. They strapped to one’s back or attached to hardpoints on the armor, and clever design meant both humans and ponies could use them. They contained everything an airborne soldier would need, from drogue chutes, to a set of folding wings and jet engine, to flares, fire lighting equipment and radio beacons. Self-contained and reusable, they were extremely popular in the Alliance and a version sold well on the civilian market.

    “Insertion team is away. Good luck, people.”

    Its task complete, the space plane closed its cargo and passenger bays, ignited its aerospike engines, and began to climb back into orbit. From there, it would return to the Hobbes and wait until it was needed again.

    The team of ponies currently on their way to the ground was now alone. Until the fleet could get a satellite network running, they would only be able to contact them some of the time and even then, reinforcements could take hours to get there. They were about to enter the utterly unknown. Not even Evening could tell what they would find beneath the barrier.

    Silently, they hurtled down towards the ground.

    Even at terminal velocity, Firebird estimated that they wouldn’t be hitting the ground for at least a few minutes, so she had time to look at the sights. It was midnight where they were (she still couldn’t quite get around the idea of time being different in different locations) so the sky was dark, and if it weren’t for the glow of the Barrier, stars would be visible as plainly as the city above in the ship.

    There was a thrill in her bones she hadn’t felt before. The sight of the open sky had awakened some innate desire to flap her wings and soar endlessly. It almost reminded her of the day she’d first experienced what it was like to have her synthetic muscles at full power. She felt like she could do anything and everything.

    She pushed that instinct into a mental drawer. She knew better than to do that right now. She was not a greenhorn halfway through training, she was the Commander of the Calvin Security Force, and she was on a mission.

    She folded her wings slightly and dropped faster, until she was neck and neck with Sunny Disposition and Rock Steady. She felt Steel Prism, who was falling in tandem with her, stiffen at the acceleration.

    Poor guy, she thought, he’s really out of his element.

    She and her team continued to fall. About one thousand meters from the ground, the drone carriers that were leading them opened drogue chutes, then massive parachutes, with their flesh and blood masters following a similar procedure, spiraling down on wings, either natural ones or jet powered alternatives. The squadron of flying drones scanned the ground and airspace around them for anything that might be observing, but detected little more than small animals and tall plant things.

    Evening said that they looked like trees. More specifically, like a cross between something called a “banana tree” and a “fir”.

    Whatever those were.

    Drone Carrier Two was the first to touch down, crumpling the aeroshell beneath it. It cut its parachute, then triggered small explosive devices in its fairing, opening it like a flower. A quartet of multibarrel pulse lasers swept through the surroundings, but encountered nothing. It detached itself from the fairing and stretched its legs, rising to full height.

    A successor to a military research program in the ancient United States, the drone carrier was big, about the size of a bus. Ground combat drones were hung on the underside, in ten racks of five and additional racks were mounted on the dorsal area, in the middle, with space for five folded up airborne drones. Its six legs had four joints each, and two thick wheels were mounted on the second one.

    Drone Carrier Two lumbered forward, its brothers soon doing the same. Firebird and her two squads quickly followed, the non-pegasi hitting the ground hard, while their flying comrades alighted with a bit more grace.

    Firebird hovered above the ground for a second to detach Steel Prism from her person. The earth pony nearly sagged in relief at the feeling of the icy ground beneath his feet.

    Firebird landed on a small icy hill with a small crunch. She partially closed her wings, and engaged her armor’s “ground mode”.

    Terran pegasus armor was the most mechanically complex of the four. It had to protect two extra appendages, and make sure that its wearer was as effective in flight as they were on the ground. It had taken some time, and a lot of furious debate amongst designers, but it had been done. The armor covered the leading edge of the wings, with “feathers” protecting the three digitigrade feathers pegasus wings had. When closed or partially closed, those feathers unfolded to protect the rest of the wing.

    As for weapons, the armor included a pair of infrared pulse fiber lasers on each side, with attachments points for small rocket or missile launchers. While in the air, those lasers fired forwards, but when on the ground, the light was instead redirected through fiber optic cable through the armor on the wings and out of a focusing lens mounted on the wrist. This allowed the wearer to have the same freedom of aim as a human, and gave them the ability to quickly switch battlefields and roles.

    Firebird made her own sweep of the area, her enhanced senses missing nothing. Satisfied that her men hadn’t missed anything, she called out at them.

    “Allright!” she said, “Troops, get the Vanguards from the Carriers and form up on them, escort formation. Disposition,” she looked at the short unicorn, who was fiddling with her Drop Pack, “you’re point. Steady,” she looked at the large stallion, “you get the rear. I’ll keep the air drones on CAP. Evening, Steel, you’re with me. Anything goes wrong, you hide behind either me or one of the Carriers while we deal with it, got it?”

    Evening and Prism nodded and trotted towards her.

    “Okay then,” she said, tuning around and looking towards their destination. Even from this distance, a good twenty or so kilometers away, the Barrier dominated the landscape. It glowed softly, bathing everything in an eerie light that gave the tall plant things long, huge shadows and rendered everything in purples and pinks. It was only then that Firebird truly understood the sheer scale of what they were going to do.

    Pushing those thoughts out of her mind, she called out, “Let’s keep moving! The sooner we get there, the sooner we can show that shiny bitch what karma is!”

    And with that, they began their trek.
    ====================
    //”Holy motherfucking shit.”

    Firebird was about to reprimand Sunny Disposition, but held her tongue. This was one of those occasions where radio discipline flew straight out the airlock.

    After a long trek through a thick forest of tree things, they’d come out to a small plain that separated them from the forest. The formation had stopped right inside the tree line, its forward elements hidden behind the ice. Firebird had made the Drone Carriers crouch down into the ground, point-defense weaponry primed. Both squads had their Vanguard Over-The-Horizon Railguns out, and the airborne drones were providing targeting data for them.

    If anything tried to get near them, it would probably be torn into very tiny shreds before it even knew they were there.

    Firebird looked at the sight of the Barrier someone in her forward element was providing her and whistled, the sound never escaping her helmet. If it had been imposing twenty kilometers out, at this range it was positively monolithic. It completely swallowed up the landscape, dominating everything in rage.

    “I almost forgot how big this thing was,” Evening Star breathed, “And the feeling… it just glows with magic.”

    “I can see that.” Firebird quipped.

    //”No ma’am, you can’t,” Sunny Disposition retorted over the wireless, //”I think what Miss Star here is referring to is the thaumaturgical radiation- the actual magic of this fu- thing.” She said, biting down on the swearword.

    Firebird frowned at that, //”Just how much are we talking about here?” she asked, on another channel.

    //”It’s averaging at about five Tee-thees,” the unicorn answered. Prompted by the pointed and very annoyed silence Firebird managed to produce over the wireless, she clarified, //“Five Terathaums.”

    After more pointed silence, she clarified further //“That’s as if every thaumic caster on the Calvin targeted the same thing at the same time.”

    Now that was something Firebird could understand.

    //”Is it safe?” she asked.

    //“The thaumic energy itself? Shit yeah- I mean, yes! You’d have to go all the way up to fifty billion Tera-Thees for any noticeable effect on living tissue from exposure to pure thaumic energy. Of course, by then whatever you’re using to make that much magic would be giving off enough heat to light up like a motherfu-… I mean like a sun,” came the halting answer. Sunny Disposition might be a very unpleasant person to be around, have what Firebird suspected was a case of Tourette’s (or whatever you called uncontrollable swearing) and be completely spoiled rotten from Firebird’s point of view, but her education was extremely useful in situations like this.

    //”The thing I’m worried about is what they’re using all that for,” she continued, //”because, with that amount of energy, you can do a whole bunch of really nasty shi- I mean things on top of the main function of the barrier. You can have countermeasures, automatic surveillance, defense mechanisms and the whole shebang. And since we don’t know just how advanced Equestrian spell crafting is –remember that none of the ponies left behind were spell experts- we could, theoretically, be looking at something that scans your brain, summons an enormous metal spike and shove- I mean kills you with it.”

    //”Can you check it out from here?” Firebird asked.

    //”Yes, ma’am,” Sunny replied, //”I’ll do a full scan. Very carefully of course, don’t want to get killed by a cheap as-… booby trap.”

    After a few moments, Sunny Spoke again, //”Major…permission to speak freely?”

    Firebird raised an eyebrow, //”Permission granted.”

    //"Ma'am,” Sunny said, her voice over the wireless gaining a slightly disturbing amount of giddiness to it, //”this is the opportunity of a fucking lifetime. No one ever got to analyze the spell composition of the Equestrian barrier, since the bastards took the knowledge with them when they went away. We've guessed, and speculated, and filled a whole sewage tank with bullshit theories and wild-ass hypothesis and all sorts of hypothetical wankery, but we never had the real thing. Now though...”

    //“Get to the point,” Firebird very calmly stated.

    //“So,” Sunny was quick to say, //“hypothetically, if I were to make a paper on the spell structure of this sonovabitch, how long would it be classified? Because I'd like a Nobel in Thaumaturgical Sciences. I'll even put your names on it. Hell, I'll buy you every fucking drink to ever exist!"

    //”Hard to say,” The Major replied after a moment’s consideration, //probably as long as the rest this op is classified. Depends on what we end up doing. Now shut up and scan. By the way,” she added, “I’m calling off the swear jar until further notice.”

    Sergeant Sunny’s relief was almost palpable over the wireless. //“Yes ma’am! Thank you ma’am!” she said, and quickly got to work doing… whatever it was that figuring out the spell structure of anything involved. It was probably mind-numbingly complicated.

    “What’s going on?” Evening asked, “You got all quiet for a moment.”

    “Nothing,” she said, shrugging, “Sunny’s scanning the barrier so we don’t run into anything unexpected, like an enormous magical landmine.”

    Evening nodded in understanding, the big helmet of her suit making this action look rather awkward, and then she went back to looking at what could be seen of the Barrier through the treetops.

    Firebird couldn’t help but let her eyes wander in the same direction. There was something strangely magnetic about that glowing wall, something that just pulled.

    She shivered and stomped the feeling into the ground. That’s probably some sort of trap, she decided.

    //”What the actual fuck?” came Sunny’s eloquent report over the wireless.

    //”Sergeant, as much as I appreciate quick work, I’d like a more detailed report than that.” Firebird quipped.

    //”I know sir,” the unicorn replied, //”I’m just trying to make sense of what the fuck I’m getting. The framework’s different… in fact, it reminds me of… wait a minute… Ha! Got it! The structure uses a fucking analogue pattern as a base, just like basic telekinesis, not a digital one. Not surprising, bastards never had computers come into the very basic foundations of their spell work. No idea if they have any now, but if I see someone rocking a motherfucking tape computer, I think I’ll laugh forever.” By now, the unicorn’s voice was back to “unhealthily giddy”.

    //“This is probably another paper just waiting to be published-”

    //”Sunny,” the Major interrupted the now rambling mage, //”The point. When do we get to it?”

    //”Oh,” Sunny said, sounding almost embarrassed.

    Almost.

    //”Well, let’s see… Barrier’s surface doesn’t feel at all like our shield spells at all… it’s not ablative, redirecting, reactive or active… more like a big plane of reinforced glass, or ice, which coincides with old reports of people seeing it crack when they bombarded it in 2018, but feels very fluid when I poke at it… Still no sign of countermeasures, so I’m going to go a little deeper… it looks like it’s at least partially self-sustaining, drawing from ambient thaumaturgical energy… there’s a heating spell, but it looks like it was tacked on at the last minute and it radiates inwards at specific points, it’s also consuming a good chunk of the assload of energy this thing has but that’s understandable, looking at the size of this thing. It’s a pretty good piece of spellwork for something that looks pretty rushed. Now, where’s the rest of the energy going… Aha!” she exclaimed, //“got the fucker. It’s an Exclusion spell but I’ve never even heard of anyone getting one this huge and complex to work. Looks like this is where the most of the energy is going, the rest going to the heating spell. Someone really doesn’t want anything getting in. Let’s see… if anything that corresponds to a pony or anything that is being brought in willingly by a pony touches the Barrier; it will go right through it as if it weren’t solid… Unrefined metals get a pass as long as they’re below ground level… air doesn’t unless it’s surrounded by something that does get a pass, electromagnetic radiation gets a pass unless it’s intense or in the gammas and abso-fucking-lutely everything not in that list will just find a big wall. No surveillance or defenses, but there could be someone waiting on the other side.”

    Firebird grinned. //”Awesome. Good work Sargeant. All right boys and girls, get off your asses and activate the camo. We’re going in.”
    ====================


    Outside the Barrier.
    0220 hours

    To anyone watching this particular spot, it would’ve appeared that there was nothing there. A more detailed observation would’ve revealed a variety of hoof prints on the icy ground. Strangely enough, the ponies responsible for the making of such hoof prints were nowhere to be seen.

    Such was the miracle of metamaterials.

    It was unnerving, Evening Star decided, to not be able to see anyone –or rather, anypony; she had to remember to use the appropriate term now- around her, yet know exactly where they were. The NI had overlaid bright blue silhouettes where they would be as a helpful visual aid, with the weaponry outlined in red

    //”Anything on sensors?” she heard Firebird ask over the wireless.

    //”Negative on contacts, ma’am,” was the reply from a unicorn in Rock Steady’s squad, of the name Satellite Dish, //”We’re in the clear.”

    //”No patrols outside the Barrier,” Firebird mused, //”This is extremely suspicious and I don’t like any of it.”

    They were practically touching the Barrier now; they’d stopped only so that they could find a way to hitch the Drone Carriers to someone so they could be pulled through it. Otherwise, the robots would simply find a nigh-impenetrable wall.

    Judging from the amount of profanity Evening was hearing, they were having some problems.

    //”Goddamn cock-fucking son of a dick! How, in the name of all that’s good and holy, do these fucking things get tangled in storage!?”

    At this distance, the faint pull on the mind that the barrier had presented before was now impossible to ignore. Firebird had at one point stopped to ask Sunny to re-check for traps and had been told by the swear-happy unicorn that this pull was due to the nature of magic to attract magic. The Barrier simply had so much that it essentially acted like a “fucking pony magnet”.

    That didn’t make it any less creepy. In an effort to keep herself occupied, she’d started talking with Steel Prism. The police officer seemed like a nice guy, and she’d been surprised to know that he was a bit of a fan of hers, having watched several movies she’d starred in. He wasn’t an obsessive fan, like some she’d occasionally met. Rather, he was pretty laid back about it, and didn’t hesitate to talk about other actors or movies she had nothing to do with. He had pretty good taste too.

    What an incredibly suspicious coincidence, then, that he’d be her escort.

    //“Prism, don’t get me wrong,” she said in a private channel, //”but you’ve been set up.”

    //”… I’m sorry?” was the confused reply.

    //”You see,” she started to explain, //”well I’m… single, and I’ve been for that way for a pretty long time. For some reason, Firebird has taken it upon herself to be the one to remedy that.”

    //”What do you mean by-?” Prism started to say, but then the gears clicked inside his head.

    //”No way,” he said.

    //”Yep.”

    //”Seriously, Major Firebird de Coverley? Playing matchmaker? The same mare who thinks clearing a building full of terrorists is entertainment?”

    //”She likes knitting too,” Evening added for good measure, //”and cooking, but don’t try anything she makes. She also makes a surprisingly good babysitter.”

    //”I’d imagine,” Prisim said, and chuckled, //”Well I’ll be damned. I’d guessed that the Major had hobbies, but I didn’t think they’d be so… uh… girly.

    //”So what if it is?” came Firebird’s voice, which made them both jump, //”besides, knitting’s pretty useful. Especially the needles.”

    //“Major, I-!”

    //“Oh, shut up. It’s not like I even try to keep that a secret,” she said, and you could almost see her rolling her eyes, //“So what if the big, scary Major likes girly things from time to time? Guess what? I’m a girl! Who said I had to be a tomboy to kick ass, anyway?”

    //”Oh and, by the way,” she added, //”you are officially on the Christmas list Officer, and that means you get a nice, fluffy sweater this yea- what’s that noise?”

    Everyone fell silent, and Firebird, Steel Prism and the soldiers tensed up around her. She strained her ears, but couldn’t hear a thing. Not at first, at least.

    It took a few moments for her to finally hear it. It was a dull sound, one that she felt in her bones rather than hear through her ears. It sounded almost like a… like a…

    Like a train, she realized, remembering, but what coul-.

    All further thought was interrupted by the ground they had been traversing a quarter of an hour before erupting in a geyser of ice and permafrost. Rising from the plains in front of the Barrier was a Worm. It towered over the landscape, big as a building, its thick skin covered by motive appendages and swishing antennae, its head a gaping, four-jawed mouth. The glow of the barrier gave it a surreal, purplish hue.

    Holly shit!” someone screamed, and Evening couldn’t tell who it was.

    The Worm –and she couldn’t help but capitalize the word, it only seemed fair- hung still in the air. Then, with impossible slowness, it came crashing down, thankfully not in their direction, but instead landing on top the forest. The ground shook with the impact, and the Worm flattened itself with its own mass.

    For a few moments, Evening thought that it had died, but then she heard the unmistakable sounds of something eating.

    //“…Is that thing… eating the forest?” someone, a pegasus from Sunny’s squad with the name of Cloud Cover asked, incredulous.

    //”Sunny,” Firebird asked, her voice strangely calm, //“could you hurry up? Like now, for instance?”

    //“I’m trying, ma’am, I’m trying!” Sunny hissed, //“Fucking tow cable isn’t- Shit!“

    More worms, smaller ones, suddenly sprung up from the ground and latched themselves onto the larger one. The Worm howled, and then roared, a terrible, otherworldly noise unlike anything Evening had ever heard.

    //”Everyone, in the Barrier, now!” Firebird ordered, //“Forget the cable, just pull the damn thing!”

    Evening turned to run, Steel Prism by her side. They scarcely traversed more than a few meters before something grabbed her.

    It almost happened too quickly for her to process. One instant, she was galloping towards the Barrier. The next, she was hurtling forward, head over hooves, Steel Prism right behind her. They landed heavily on the ground, she on her back, and in the perfect position to see one of the smaller worms crash –likely after being flung by its much larger prey- right where she had been not a second before.

    The bus-sized beast squirmed and moaned in pain. Its head turned towards her for an instant.

    That was the last move it made.

    CRACK-BOOM!

    The worm exploded, it body torn to shreds from a cataclysmic blow, killing the unfortunate thing instantly. In front of it an armored figure materialized, the camouflage likely rendered temporarily useless by the discharge of the weapon it held, a long, two-pronged, unwieldy thing.

    It was a Pegasus mare, reared up on her hind legs, wings held out for balance and the long railgun held in mechanical forelimbs.

    She turned to look at them. The eyes she saw through the visor were grey with flecks of blue, and as cold as the deepest void of space.

    //”Get inside the Barrier,” Firebird told them, //“now.”

    The mare’s voice frightened Evening. It was not…human, for lack of a better word. It was something completely devoid of mercy or compassion, filled with an icy chill that sent shivers down her spine. It barely sounded like Firebird at all.

    Wordlessly, she and Prism got to their hooves and bolted towards the Barrier, Firebird’s cold, precise orders telling both Sergeants to send four soldiers with them while the rest stayed behind to move or protect the equipment.

    She only stopped running when she was quite some ways past the Barrier.
    ====================
    Location unknown, Equestrian Diarchy
    0300 hours.

    They marched on in silence, completely invisible to anyone –or rather, anypony- who might be patrolling the area. They’d launched reconnaissance drones, small things shaped to look like birds, the moment they were past. They flew around, reporting on anything that caught their electronic eyes and, if Firebird so wished, she could see what they saw.

    The Barrier was behind them now, and with it was that unnerving pulling sensation. Instead, it was replaced with a distant tingling through the bones and horns and wings of the infiltration team. It was the magic of Equestria, seeping into those who had spent their entire lives without it.

    The air was chilly, but not so much as the world outside, while the barrier’s glow was limited to its lowermost edges, the ceiling of it being almost completely transparent and letting the light of the stars in. Around them was a forest of trees –not tree things, but actual trees- with orange leaves.

    There was a… magic to it. Not in the literal sense, although that was there too, but rather, a sort of wonder. It felt as if they had fallen right into a children’s fairy tale.

    For someone like Firebird, who had grown up in the deep, crowded, cramped underbelly of the Calvin, who had never known anything about plains or forests or endless skies, it was beautiful. She was glad she didn’t have to sleep, unlike Evening and Prism, who had fallen into snores an hour and a half ago.

    Firebird couldn’t blame them. The day had been long and grueling, and that little incident with the worms hadn’t helped either. They were resting atop inflatable mattresses carrier by a Drone Carrier and covered in head to tail with camouflaged blankets.

    They were also lying quite close to each other, a fact that Firebird planned to attribute to the motion of the Drone Carrier.

    She smiled under her helmet. For someone who has more than three hundred years old, Evening was easy on the eyes. God knows why, but anti-aging treatments and restorative medicine worked especially well on her.

    And yet, the mare was still single. That didn’t strike Firebird as especially fair; Evening was way too good a person to spend her life alone. Hence, the matchmaking.

    Evening had been quiet after they’d gone into the Barrier. Considering what she must’ve seen, Firebird didn’t exactly blame her for it. That was a part of herself her friend had never seen before.

    But she’d get over it, Firebird knew. Evening had saved her life when she was a pile of metal with some flesh buried somewhere inside. She’d befriended her when she was still a convict on parole. She wasn’t worried.

    The image of her best friend looking at her in terror came to mind, much against her will.

    Okay, she admitted, I’m worried. Just a little.

    She was interrupted from her musings by one of the reconnaissance birds sending her an alert. Leaving aside the previous train of thought, she established a connection and saw what the artificial bird was showing her.

    It was her first look at Equestrian ponies. It was a good sized group of thirty, probably a patrol...

    Wait a second.

    Of the thirty ponies she could see, only five had proper armor on, and even so, the golden plates of the Guard looked pitted and roughly worn. The remainder wore a mishmash of thick clothing, half-rusted relics or planks of wood and sheets of metal hammered and nailed and fastened into improvised protection. Their weapons were similarly distributed, with sharpened sticks, clubs, knives and hammers outnumbering the swords and saddle mounted spears and held by ponies who looked like they scarcely knew what they were going to do with them.

    Militia, she realized, those are militia. The Guard is supposed to be career soldiers, with years of training apiece, but these guys look like they don’t even know what to do with a spear.

    //“Troops,” she said, forwarding the images, //“looks like things just got complicated.”
    ====================
    Location unknown, Equestrian Diarchy
    0600 hours.

    In the earliest days of the land of Gryphus, when the ancient kingdoms still made war against each other, it was tradition that the bearers of bad news be someone nobody would miss for very long. In those days of mad kings and power-mad warlords, it wasn’t rare for the unfortunate messenger to be decapitated at worst and thrown into the dungeons at best, often on the spot.

    Of course, that wasn’t the case anymore. Civilization had come to the griffins a long time ago, and with it came laws, rules, etiquette and decency.

    That didn’t make Hauptmann Fredrick Adler any less nervous. In fact, the very distant and nigh unthinkable prospect of being killed for what the young, dark brown griffon from the Eastern Kingdom was about to say had nothing to do with his nerves. No, the source of his torment was that the unthinkable had occurred; the unimaginable had come to pass. Some horrible, terrible thing that had shaken him to his very core had happened, and had taken the strongest liquor in his cabinet to overcome. It had filled him with a great shame that his commanding officer’s very kind words would never be able to erase. It made him feel unworthy of his uniform.

    Herr Vizeadmiral,” he said, the following words tasting like filth as they passed his beak, “the troops are getting restless. Today I have had to put five dummkopfen into the brig for improper behavior. If we do not do anything soon, I fear there will be,” and here he shivered at the thought, “mutiny, sir.”

    Vice Admiral Victor Skyfall, who was much older, slightly larger and of a lighter shade of brown with specks of white on his feathers, hailed from the Northern Kingdom. He, a changeling commander, and two more griffins, one of them a hen with no uniform and white head feathers, were at the map table, hunched over it and examining it as if the sheet of paper spread over it held the key to the universe.

    The Vizeadmiral straightened at his proclamation. He turned, the monocle over his right eye glinting with the light of the electric lamp above.

    “What sort of improper behavior, Adler?” he asked, “Tell me.”

    “They… were questioning the mission, sir. They… they were doubting your abilities as a leader, sir.”

    “Hmm…” the Vice Admiral mused, scratching his chin with a claw, “this most unfortunate. If your soldiers speak these things, ours must be speaking worse, surely.” He frowned, and Adler could almost see the gears turning inside his head.

    “Come,” he beckoned, “soon I’ll get the chance to provide proof of my leadership. But, first, we must plan and plot!”

    Adler walked over towards the table and reared up on his hind legs, resting his claws on the surface, careful not to damage the map. The largest sheet of paper depicted the entirety of Equestria, with a red crosses over the cities that hadn’t been included when the Princesses had made the country jump dimensions again. It was by the greatest of miracles –or the most disastrous of accidents- that they’d been pulled right along with them. Two Fast Carriers, three Battleships, five cruisers and a handful of Gunships. The lodestone-cored flying vessels might be the most advanced and powerful in the world, but cut off and surrounded, they could be in serious trouble. For now, they hid inside clouds over the wastes that the Equestrians couldn’t be bothered to patrol.

    Even so, despite the seriousness and bleakness of the situation, he couldn’t help but smile at the victory stamp over Manehattan. That had truly been the finest hour of the Royal Navy; they had challenged a goddess and, with Equestria’s largest city as a witness, they had won. They’d beaten the Immortal Sun, this very battleship had been the one to wound her and it was only with the narrowest of escapes that she had survived.

    They’d proven that Alicorns bleed. And if it bled, then the Royal Navy could kill it.

    Victor Skyfall snapped his head towards the changeling. “How accurate is your most recent intelligence?” he asked.

    “Very,” the insect buzzed, its wings fluttering in annoyance, “our agents are located in the messaging service of the Stallionguard garrison. They are receiving orders to relocate out over the country to fill gaps, as they were the few who were not decimated. In a few weeks, the garrison will be empty, save for a defensive force.”

    “And Staliongard itself?” Victor asked.

    “The city is loyal,” answered a third voice, belonging to the hen, “Like nothing else. They’ve got churches there, freaking churches.” The hen rolled her eyes, and added, “Dweebiest dweebs I’ve ever seen.”

    “Eet is ze history of the city, mon Vice-Admiral,” added the last griffin in the room, a tall, thin one with an eye patch and a rich golden color to his feathers and coat and a thick, Western Kingdom accent. His name was Captain Charles Berger. He continued, “once, there was a great famine, and the Princess led the relief efforts. Ze tale must have grown in the telling, monsieur.”

    Adler retrieved a map of the city in question from the compartment under the table and spread it out. Giving it a thorough look, he pointed towards a cluster of large building in the country surrounding the city.

    “What are these?” he asked, “they look like fortifications.”

    “They’re actually armored storage for food,” the hen said, “they’re pretty paranoid about ending up without supplies.”

    “Hmmm…” again, Adler could almost see the gears turning inside the Vice Admiral’s head. The griffin looked at the larger map intently, and then asked the hen a question, “What city, in your opinion, is the most likely to break their loyalty first?”

    “Hoofington,” the hen said, without a hint of hesitation, “there are zebras, griffins, Minotaurs… hell, I even saw an elk once. There are all sorts of people there, and the ponies there are our friends. The only problem is that the place was crawling with Guards when I got there.”

    “I thought the Zebricans were going to be attacking that city,” the Vice-Admiral recalled, “what is our Intel there?” he asked the changeling.

    The enormous insect buzzed its wings. “Nothing, there is no Intel. I am still trying to contact the Hives’ agents, and it is difficult. But something is happening there. The city has gone dark, there is no news coming from it.”

    “A quarantine,” Adler realized, “There must be some dissent, and they wish to contain it. But doesn’t that city get everything from trade?”

    Exactly,” Victor said, grinning, the light glinting off his monocle, “with no fields to get food from and their trading partners gone, what little arrives will be expensive, and it will be snapped up like a fish in a hatchery. They must be famished.”

    Vice Admiral Skyfall’s grin grew devious, and he clasped his claws together in front of him. “Captain Adler, I have a solution to our problems and a way to bring the Princess to her miserable knees. This is the plan…”
     
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