by Blue Legend/Thirdstring Overlord


1100 hours (16-hour clock)

It was a beautiful fall afternoon in Equestria. It also would have been quiet, had it not been for the Cutie Mark Crusaders. With a buzz that sounded like an enormous wasp, Scootaloo zoomed through the streets of Ponyville on her trademark scooter. Her fellow crusaders, towed in a wagon behind her, laughed and screamed through the whole trip.

To the Crusaders, it wasn't just a wild ride: it was a series of death-defying stunts. What looked to an outsider like the Crusaders missing a small stack of bricks by a few feet was "missing a huge pile of blocks by an inch!" according to Scootaloo. She'd only say this if she knew you wouldn't tell on her.

Apple Bloom and Sweetie Belle had lost count of all the times they "almost flew off a cliff" or "almost smashed into a cart of fireworks and blew up", and they were having the time of their lives. Still, the fun couldn't last forever. Eventually, Scootaloo slowed down about a bit.

"Man, that was awesome. Wanna take a break soon, guys?" she said, wiping her forehead.

"Hey, ah jus' had an idea!" Apple Bloom said as they turned onto the main street. "How 'bout we go to mah sister's stand and get some apple juice?"

"Sure!" Sweetie Belle said.

"Sounds great," Scootaloo agreed. Still keeping up a decent speed, she squinted down at the street. "Where is it, again?"

"Ah think you just go down this street a lil' bit, then to the left." Apple Bloom said. "No, wait," she added, scratching her mane. "Maybe it was to the right, then down that street. Or maybe-"

"Make up your mind!" Scootaloo pleaded, looking back at Apple Bloom.

"Ah can't help it!" Apple Bloom said. "Ah'm not good with mah lefts an' rights today!"

"Look, maybe we can-" Sweetie Belle started. Then she screeched, "LOOK OUT!"

Scootaloo had been too distracted by the argument to notice the huge hay wagon looming in front of her. She reacted fast enough to avoid hitting it, but not fast enough to stop the scooter. Wheels squealing, she swerved to the left. Fortunately, this did not smack her face-first into one of the many buildings on the main street. Unfortunately, it sent her and her friends zipping through an open doorway into somepony's house.

The house in question belonged to Windy Reed and her agreeable husband Coin Tosser. Their son Tough Fluff had just finished setting up another pillow fortress in the living room.

"Ha!" he cried. "Try to get past this, icky girls!"

Icky girls were his eternal enemies. Especially the ones like Dinky Doo, who was always dropping by with her mom to have some stupid muffins and tea.

Suddenly, a wave of force slammed into him. He didn't even have time to let out a yelp of surprise before he was thrown across the room, and the air was filled with feathers and cries of "Ouch!" When Tough Fluff shook all the funny stars out of his head, he was greatly annoyed to see three icky girls scattered throughout the room among the ruins of his pillow fortress.

"Fluff, the alfalfa alfredo is getting cold!" Windy Reed said, trotting into the room. "What—oh, my goodness! What happened here?"

"I told you they'd do it." Tough Fluff said coldly. "A full-scale invasion."

Warp's Bane, Vindicator-class freighter
1300 hours, Equestria clock

Dante Ferin couldn't hold back his smile as he sat in the captain's seat. The bridge of the ship, with its marble floor, murals, and high arched ceiling, was more reminiscent of a palace than a command center. He would have liked it much more had it not been for the damned Imperial icons in every corner.

In front of him was the captain's console, the runes displaying a constant stream of updates about the ship's status. All systems nominal, he noted. Yet another stroke of good luck.

Lilith entered through the door to his right. She looked up from her data-slate and shot him a playful glance. "Enjoying yourself, 'Captain Ferin'?"

He returned the look. "I like the sound of that. But it would be a dishonor to the illustrious forces of the Imperium, now, would it?"

She smirked as she set her data-slate down. "Fair enough. Ishmael, the crew is getting restless. What's our E.T.A to the Clearing?"

Ishmael sat in the Navigator's seat on the opposite side of the bridge, not moving an inch as he gazed into the Warp. "Only five minutes before we exit the Immaterium," he said quietly. "Then an hour of sub-light travel. However, we're coming up on an unstable corridor."

"Noted. Michael? Is the astropath doing all right?"

Michael was seated next to the lone astropath. The astropath was steadily chanting, his voice so low and inhuman that Dante had almost mistaken it for the sound for a cogitator humming. Like Ishmael, he was in a state of deep focus. Sweat had begun to bead on the telepath's gaunt face.

"He is nearing his limit," Michael said. "But I will ensure that he persists."

Dante chuckled. "You scare me sometimes."

Lilith considered the family crest that was proudly displayed on the room's back wall. For the hundredth time that voyage, she worried about House Lumina.

"Before we land, I want to know ... are you sure your contingency plan will work?"

Dante frowned. "I won't pretend it's foolproof, but I haven't thought of anything better."

"Everything has gone too well," Lilith said. "There's got to be a wrinkle somewhere, some sort of-"

She was cut off by Ishmael. "Warp fluctuation incoming. Grab on to something!" he shouted.

Figures. Lilith thought as she seized a rail. I guess the Warp has ears after all.

None of them, save for the tormented astropath, were prepared for what happened next. The cargo transport shook with a savage force that sent Lilith tumbling across the room, threw Dante and Ishmael off their seats, and smacked Michael into a control console. When this happened, Michael's psychic stranglehold over the astropath evaporated.

Silas Mercator, a gifted psyker of the Adeptus Astra Telepathica, had hoped for such an opportunity. A few seconds of distraction was all he needed.

Sweet Apple Acres
1301 hours

Many things were learned that evening. Scootaloo got a stern talking-to about safety and paying attention to the road. Apple Bloom learned about not distracting people who are doing important things, and Sweetie Belle learned that if your friends are doing something dangerous, you should stop them. Coin Tosser was treated to a ten minute speech by Windy Reed about the evils of leaving the front door open. Lastly, Tough Fluff learned that his defense plans needed a major overhaul if victory was to be his.

After "a million years" (according to Scootaloo) of scoldings, lectures, and apologies, the fillies were finally free for the rest of the evening. They spent it at the Apple family's orchard, Apple Bloom leading them to a hill with a good view of the horizon. The three friends watched the sun set and the stars come out, munching on apples while they talked to each other.

One of the things they talked about the most was the talent contest that would be coming next week. The Crusaders were still thinking that comedy was their best bet at getting cutie marks, and they were brainstorming ideas for a performance.

"Maybe we could do a play about the time Spring Twister put a dress on a cactus and danced
with it." Scootaloo suggested.

"Funny story, but I don't think Rarity would lend me a dress for that." Sweetie Belle said.

"Hmm. What about the time Dusty Lemon went to Canterlot and forgot Princess Celestia's name?" Scootaloo said.

"Cheerilee said it ain't nice to make fun of him for that." Apple Bloom chided.

"All right. Then, maybe the time I knocked over that weird glowing ... no, then we'd get in trouble for setting the stage on fire." Scootaloo sighed. "You know what? Sometimes, it stinks being a kid."

"But Rarity always says we get to have more fun." Sweetie Belle said.

"Yeah, Applejack said that too." Apple Bloom chimed in, laying down on the crisp grass.

"I know, I know. But the grown-ups always get mad whenever we don't listen to them, but they never listen to us. It's like they think kids never have good ideas."

No one could think of a response to that one. The fillies thought about it in between bites of their apples.

A look of thoughtfulness crossed Sweetie Belle's face. "That just gave me an idea! What if we did a show about a weird world where grown-ups had to listen to kids, and kids didn't need to listen to grown-ups?"

Scootaloo grinned. "That sounds really cool! But ... " her face fell. "I'm not sure how much people would laugh at it, though. It'd probably get the grown-ups all angry and stuff."

Apple Bloom looked up at the stars. "We could still do a show 'bout a weird world, though."

"What do you mean?" Scootaloo asked.

"Ever looked at all those stars an' thought there's other worlds out there? Like, what if there's a place where all the ponies look like apple trees, an' all the apple trees look like ponies?"

"That's crazy!" Sweetie Belle giggled.

Scootaloo laughed a bit too, but she didn't shoot it down. "Hey, you might be on to something."

Warp's Bane
1301 hours, Equestria clock

While Michael and his cohorts reeled about, Silas Mercator sprang off his seat and bolted out of the bridge. An explosive roar rattled the ship, nearly bursting his eardrums. The air burned with the acrid stench of an electrical fire. He shut all of his senses out except for his warp-sight, which had replaced his vision long ago.

He quickly realized that even his psychic vision was nearly overwhelmed. Strengthened by the disturbance they had just hit, the Warp tore at his mind like a swarm of vermin. Shockwaves of anger and surprise emanated from the bridge. If he didn't find an escape route soon, his captors would have a brutal revenge.

He considered his options. His first priority, far more than survival, was to encode and send a distress message. It would be a lengthy process, and he needed a safe place to do it. He could risk trying to steal a shuttle, or he could try to find some obscure nook of the ship and hide. The latter option initially seemed better, since it was possible that the shuttle had been disabled or jettisoned.

However, he knew that the ship had a bio-scanning system for detecting stowaways. If his captors knew how to use it, there would be no place to hide. Silas had learned quite painfully that they were quick learners.

He made his decision. Working from a combination of his memory and his psychic perceptions, he threw himself into a maintenance duct that would lead him near the shuttle bay. He crawled through the cramped passage, desperately trying to sense if there were any enemies who might see him through the vents. His captors had obviously brought enough allies to form a skeleton crew; otherwise the ship never would have gotten anywhere.

There were times when the physical and psychic exertion was so taxing that he had to stop and rest. When that happened, he couldn't shut out the image of his heat signature on the scanner's monitor, helpfully staying in one place while they hunted him down. He couldn't tell if that was just an unpleasant thought, or a premonition.

After a steep incline, the crawlspace branched off to the right. Three meters around the corner and he knew he was as close as he could get to the shuttle bay.

He was just about to kick the vent open when he sensed the presence of two people nearby, one pacing around under the duct. He froze and listened. The merchant vessel had not yet left the Warp, but the tumultuous noise had subsided enough for him to hear their conversation.

"Epsilon Zero, this is Epsilon 15," the pacing man spoke. "Epsilon Zero, do you copy? We still have negative contact with the reinforcement team. Epsilon Zero, come in!"

A wave of dread washed over Silas. Not only was the shuttle bay guarded, but they were about to get reinforcements. There was only one bit of consolation: if they were guarding the shuttle bay, they likely had not jettisoned the shuttle. But what if it was a trap?

It was too late for further consideration, he decided, and carefully opened the vent. No one noticed. "Epsilon Zero, your signal is weak." the guard said. "Requesting a scan of Deck Two, starboard side."

The man walked underneath the vent again.

May the Emperor guide me, Silas thought, and dropped out of the duct. His boots slammed into the man's shoulders. He heard a grunt of pain as the guard collapsed, spilling him onto the floor. He rolled with the impact and sprang to his feet.

"Stop right there!" the other guard shouted. "On the ground or I'll shoot!"

Silas complied, but gathered his energy as he did so. The guard clearly didn't know very much about psykers.

"Stay where you are! Epsilon Zero, I've captured the astropath!"

Suddenly his shotgun tore free of his grip, suspended in the air like it was held by an invisible man.

"What the-" The shotgun clubbed him, its heavy wooden stock making an almost comical thud against his forehead. He crumpled to the floor and joined the other guard in impact-induced sleep.

Silas stood up and staggered towards the shuttle airlock. His powers were considerable, but telekinesis definitely wasn't his specialty. He fought dizziness as he put his palm to airlock's gene-scanner. A second later, the door hissed open.

As he ran inside, he heard footsteps and felt the proximity of more guards. The reinforcements were close; a mere twenty meters away. Only after the door slammed shut did Silas allow himself a deep breath. He sensed the bitter tang of the guards' frustration as they pounded at the door, and a hint of a smile crossed his lips. He quickly banished it: now wasn't the time for self-congratulation.

The secondary door unsealed as the airlock completed its cycle. He exited the chamber and headed to the cockpit. The shuttle was much like an Arvus Lighter, but its hull was extended to fit an airlock and upgraded shielding systems. It was heavily cogitator-assisted, and all members of the Bane's crew had basic training on operating it.

Concentrating with all his might, he tried his best to "see" the control console and the various instruments on it. It was fuzzy, but between it and the instructions drilled into him, he was able to start the shuttle. All the while, the clanging and shouts from the other side of the airlock had intensified.

"Warning," the shuttle's cogitator announced. "Primary airlock door breached. Repairs required immediately. Override code required to continue sequence."

He cursed and frantically punched in the code to override the docking clamps.

"Warning: primary airlock door has not been repaired. Commence launch?"

Silas gave the confirmation, feeling his temper rising.

"Warning: freighter must exit Warp travel before shuttle can depart."

Silas would have detonated the cogitator with a psychic blast had it not abruptly said: "Warp travel has ceased. Launch sequence may proceed."

The astropath flicked the last few switches and felt the shuttle lift off the docking bay. He directed his craft to continue on a straight path away from the Warp's Bane. It was a miracle that the pirates hadn't changed the shuttle's access codes.

He let out a deep sigh of relief and walked out of the cockpit. Taking a long drink from the shuttle's water dispenser, Silas began to mentally encode the distress message. He didn't know what they had done to the Bane's original crew, but he assumed the worst. One couldn't expect mercy from pirates.

But there were many strange things about the ones who now held the Warp's Bane. They didn't seem to worship the Ruinous Powers, but they clearly were no friends of the Imperium. Where had they came from? The Warp's Bane had been traveling through a secure sector when they'd ambushed.

And what did they want with the Clearing, anyway? When Michael forced him to help them in their journey to the Clearing, he sensed that it was some sort of solar system accessible only within the Warp. Perhaps they wanted to use it as a hidden base for future raids.

There were other mysteries, too. What cargo was the Warp's Bane carrying? On many voyages, including the most recent one, the cargo was classified. It often delivered strategically important supplies and weapons. What role, if any, did the cargo play in the pirates' plans?

Silas was tempted to follow them to their destination. But for now, he had to wait. Attracting any more attention would be counterproductive. If the Imperium sent someone to investigate, it would be best if the pirates were as complacent as possible.

He scanned this new area, this "Clearing", and found that the closest celestial bodies were a sun, a terrestrial planet, and a large moon.

Spectral measurements showed that the planet, randomly christened "Graneus Prime" by the cogitator, was an inhabited world. The Warp's Bane was heading towards it.

The cogitator then reported that it had scanned the stars and located Orion, Sagittarius, and a host of other constellations that had once filled Holy Terra's night skies.

Silas' breath halted in his throat. Either the cogitator was malfunctioning, or there was much more to the Clearing than he'd thought. His mind racing, he worked with renewed vigor on encoding the message, giving as much information as possible about the fate of the Warp's Bane and the Clearing.

By the time he had finished the process, the freighter had entered Graneus Prime's orbit. He sent the message, praying to the Emperor that it would reach someone soon. Almost instantly afterward, exhaustion hit him full force. He had performed many psychic feats that day, many of which he was ill-suited for. He collapsed to the floor and drifted to a world of troubled dreams.

Vanguard-class landing vessel
1405 hours, Equestria clock

"How's our approach vector?" Dante called to Lilith.

Lilith studied the control console. "Still going fine. We're in for a smooth landing."

"Are there any updates on the shuttle?" Michael asked.

"You need to calm down. The mission is still viable." Dante said.

"I let him get away. If he hasn't already, he's probably sending a distress call as we speak. We risked enough by stealing this ship, but now the Imperials will have intel on our location and strength. I should bear the burden of-"

"There's nothing we can do," Dante said. "And consider this: what if his message never reaches them? Even if it does, it won't change much. We've prepared for this."

"They'll never let this theft go unpunished." Michael said, shaking his head. "Not with what we have on board."

"There's no point in dwelling on it." Lilith said. "Forgive yourself. There's no other option, short of hopping in a shuttle and crashing into him."

Michael was silent.

Dante sighed. "It was my fault, too. I should have given the engineers more time to change the codes for the shuttle. Instead, they spent all their time working in the cargo hold."

Michael still didn't say anything. Sensing the tension, Lilith spoke again.

"Listen to me." she said. "If you want to make up for what happened, you can't be weighed down with regrets. We need you at your best if this mission is going to succeed."

This seemed to satisfy Michael. "Very well." he said. "But a review of the contingency plan is in order. I must make some modifications."

1409 hours

Later that night, shortly after all the fillies had gone to sleep, a searingly bright streak tore across the night sky. Had the Cutie Mark Crusaders been awake, they would have called it the most amazing shooting star they had ever seen.

But it wasn't a shooting star.