Harmony Defended

by Starscribe

Chapter 1: Prologue: Drums

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These are alien beings, what is the biological imperative in helping them? If survival is the continuation of genetic material and resources are limited, then their extinction might also complete our objective.

If we were competing genetic machines I suppose that would make sense. But we are not machines, and these are not aliens. We are all pilgrims, traveling together to the altar of intelligence.
-Operational Log, Equestrian Intervention

Twilight Sparkle was scared. No matter how she considered the possibilities in her head, no matter how much she tried to twist them into something more favorable, there was simply no configuration of possibility that would translate this situation into good news.

First, an urgent summons from Princess Luna during the day. It took something big to take the Princess of the Night away from her sleep. Usually, only imminent danger to Equestria was sufficient. Second, the location of the summons. Luna had summoned her to a meeting not in Canterlot, but at the Gates of Tartarus. Third, and most frightening of all, Luna had not sent a message or a letter but arrived in the flesh, and refused to speak of the matter until they were in the air and flying toward their destination.

Once in the air, Twilight and Luna joined formation with an entire platoon of pegasus guards, three dozen heavily armed and armored ponies resplendent in glittering bronze. Of course Twilight knew full well the armor was not actually made from bronze anymore, even if the design was made to carefully approximate the old ceremonial wear the Solar Guard had worn in more peaceful times.

This innovation was not at the foremost of Twilight's concern, even if its source did give her a little twinge of pride. "Luna," She said, glancing around them in the tight protection of the pegasi. The soldiers flew above and beside and below, giving them protection from every angle and sight of every possible angle of attack. The formation was not quite as extreme as a Sovereign-class warship and several smaller destroyers, but it was still more of Equestria's military than Twilight had seen in one place since the siege of the Changeling stronghold a little less than a decade ago. Back then, Celestia and Luna both had boarded the greatest of Equestria's warships and sailed to reclaim a number of ponies that had been kidnapped during a well-coordinated Changeling incursion.

Twilight's only source of comfort was that Celestia had not accompanied them. "Why are we flying to the gates of Tartarus with so many soldiers?"

Luna seemed hesitant to speak, almost as if she thought explaining the situation might make it more real. The Princess of the Night had changed almost not at all since the day of her return, save for a greater mastery of modern Equestrian common speech. "Are you aware of the security in place at the gate?"

"Cerberus." She answered, almost reflexively. "He's always been there, and nopony knows where he came from. And since he wandered away from the gate last time, there's a little guard station there too, to warn us if he ever leaves his post again."

Luna nodded. "Your information is accurate in all but one regard, Twilight Sparkle. The garrison there, a pair of ponies from both the Solar and Lunar guard, have the capacity to sound a variety of alarms should the situation require it." There was a little pop of magic, and Luna passed Twilight a tightly rolled scroll. There had been a time where the concentration required for Twilight to fly at a pace with pegasi of the Solar Guard and do magic at the same time had been a serious strain. Even if flying was still far from her strong suit, she had overcome that particular disadvantage and was able to fight against the wind resistance and hold the scroll at the same time.

There was not much to read. The writing was stamped in deep red ink, and read simply:


There were several places on the form for various bits of information such as the nature of those that had escaped, how they had escaped, and their apparent destination. These were all blank, save for a few drops of what looked suspiciously like blood splattered on a blank section of the scroll. With a shiver Twilight returned the scroll to Luna, and watched as Luna vanished it away in another little burst of magic. "So we replied and there was no response." Twilight guessed.

"And the possible repercussions are dire indeed," Luna said, visibly shivering as they flew. Considering it was nearly summer outside, the Princess clearly wasn't cold. "It would be nearly impossible to free the greater monsters imprisoned there, if my understanding is correct. Many of the realm's lesser creatures would be formidable adversaries even on their own. You still remember Tirek."

Twilight did. Equestria had been in more danger than during any of her previous adventures, threatened with near absolute destruction in a short few days. Had it not been for a blast of last-second inspiration, there might be a crater here now instead of a nation.

Was Luna saying Tirek was one of the lesser creatures imprisoned in abyssal Tartarus? Twilight had time for a shiver of her own, and this brought a nod to her companion. "You understand now. Our party is not meant to confront whatever has escaped, only to obtain information." She lowered her voice, so quiet it was difficult to hear over the rush of noise that came from flight. "We fly with an entire platoon to ensure at least one of us survive to bring needed information back to Canterlot."

"Oh." Was all Twilight could say in response, her heart nearly freezing in her chest. Luna did not have her elder sister's sense of humor. She hadn't been joking, or exaggerating, and that meant there was a very real possibility Twilight would never return to Ponyville, never see her friends again. It was enough to make her droop in flight a little. "Is that why you didn't give me a chance to get better prepared?"

Luna nodded. "Tartarus is the prison of many of the foulest beings from ages long forgotten. Many are all but invulnerable unless their specific weaknesses are brought against them. Should such a monster be waiting for us, I do not think your apprentice's most dangerous toys would be potent enough even to serve as distractions."

They were getting close already. A journey that might have taken Twilight a full day on her own hooves took far less than that at the speed of brisk flight. She suspected the brisk wind at their backs hadn't been scheduled either, though it did not surprise her. "What do you know about Tartarus, Princess Luna?" She asked, her voice urgent. "Information is always our most important weapon, but I think that's doubly true here. I've read several books on mythology that mentioned it, and Starswirl had a few pages about it in 'Advanced Planar Summoning'. Most of that was just warnings of danger."

Twilight could see smoke rising from the horizon, and the shapes of hills and streams below were vaguely familiar to her eyes. They had perhaps a few minutes left to talk before they arrived.

"I know more of it than any other living pony." Luna began, speaking in a lower rushed voice just as Twilight had. "Though I know almost nothing. The gates were there before Equestria was established, when the tribes warred and harmony was only a distant dream. I cannot tell you what race worked its powerful spells or how. I can tell you it is what you might term a pocket-reality, as might be wrought by Alicorn-level magic on a scale far vaster than even you could have attempted when wielding the power of all of Equestria's Alicorns. So far as I know, it has no boundaries or limits. Its layers stretch downward forever, and at each more fearsome creatures are contained."

"Its upper layer is called Erebus, a single cell containing all the lesser monsters ever cast within the gates. The beings there would be most familiar to you. Powerful sorcerers of centuries past, and the foul creatures they spawned or summoned to the world. Monsters of the Everfree that attacked and killed ponies. Unrepentant criminals of the most despicable cast."

This revelation made Twilight choke, drooping momentarily in her flight as the weight of it hit her. "There are ponies down there?" She asked, horrified.

Luna's face was suddenly hard. "In name only, Twilight Sparkle," She said, voice suddenly cold. "Our language no longer has words adequate to describe the evil that once was. You are a product of your time, a time of harmony and peace. When Celestia and I were young, there were ponies capable of evil you could not picture in your darkest nightmares."

"Some of the greater monsters of my knowledge dwell below Erebus, in isolation and cold. Tirek was one such being, and there are many others." She paused for a deep breath before finishing. "I have never traveled further, nor am I aware of anypony who has and returned. Considering the difference in power between those imprisoned in the first layer and those in the second, I shudder to think of the creatures that might have been imprisoned there. Horrors of the ancient world perhaps, fallen gods and titans of destruction. It is fortunate that such fiends are unlikely to escape."

Twilight Sparkle wanted to do what she always would and ask how Luna knew what she was being told. How could she be so sure that the really dangerous monsters wouldn't be able to escape? But there was no time to ask that question, since they had clearly arrived. Beneath them was the base of a barren mountain, clear of all but the most skeletal vegetation. Nothing moved around its base for hundreds of meters and nothing would grow, the ground all but blackened by the constant flow of negative energy out from within the prison.

From the air Twilight could make out two important details. First, the barracks evidently built by the Guard was ablaze, walls and ceiling collapsed. Second, the massive hound that rested before the gates was surrounded by powerful magic, the ground burned with intricate runic marks. Even as they watched the massive beast strained against the spell that contained it, slamming itself against an invisible barrier with fierce snarls and barks.

"Do you sense anything living beneath us, Twilight Sparkle?" Luna asked, sounding as though she already knew the answer.

"Nothing but Cerberus." She replied, though she did not abandon the use of her eyes. After all, there were ways to hide from magical senses, even those of an alicorn. There were forms of life that simply failed to register at all, for whatever reason. They were fortunate that it was still so bright, and that the area around the gates was clear of trees and other obstructions. Save for perhaps within the gates itself there was no place for a possible ambush to be hiding. Should an army of monsters be waiting just within the shadows of the trees, their party would still have plenty of time to take to the sky. It looked as though whatever had escaped had tried to put as much distance between it and the gates as possible. It made sense; it was what she would've done after escaping a horrible prison.

"I feel the same." Luna echoed, then gestured with her wings. The gesture was all their escorts needed, splitting off into two formations. The first formation closed around the two of them as the second flew down toward the ground, passing low over the scene a few times before landing and spreading out to check everything for danger. It wasn't just physical traps they knew to look for either. They might be pegasi, but several would carry magical tools which could detect active or dormant spells. Granted those tools were probably a little overwhelmed by the presence of a magical circle powerful enough to contain a mythical beast. Still, Twilight Sparkle did not worry. The Solar Guard were professionals, and these days their training was more rigorous than ever.

One of the ponies on the ground beneath them whistled loudly, and one of the pegasi closest to Luna turned to her and said: "It's clear."

Luna nodded and beckoned, and Twilight followed her to the surface. She kept her senses alert every moment, fearing an ambush. But none came, and her hooves found rocky soil without danger or incident. Now that she was standing beside instead of looking down on it, she was struck with how massive the gates to Tartarus actually were. A stone archway of elegant Corinthian columns had been carved into the solid granite, and it was easily large enough to fit her old library inside it twice over. A gate of thick metal bars with the appearance of tarnished steel had been swung outward and left that way, easily wide enough to permit a dozen ponies walking abreast to exit.

Cerberus looked exactly the same as Twilight remembered him, with one caveat. Last time he hadn't been livid with anger. It was a terrifying sight even for an Alicorn, those three snapping jaws, each lined with teeth as long as one of her legs and wicked sharp. Saliva dripped in thick rivulets, and through it Twilight could see something else. Burns. Cerberus had been burned, parts of his coat blackened and charred. Yet the wounds were apparently healing, with such speed she could practically see the dark brown taking the place of black in a slow wave. At this rate, she imagined little but a blackened husk must have been left after whatever assault had taken place here. Even death could not discourage the guardian of the underworld.

Luna approached the beast, looking calm despite its obvious fury. None of the guards dared follow her, and even Twilight kept her distance. She watched and listened, as Luna appeared to be speaking with the creature. Her words, spoken in some arcane tongue even Twilight did not know, soothed the monster’s struggles. All three of its heads turned on Luna, and it replied in the same strange tongue. The heads did not quite speak in unison, and Twilight could not be sure what frightened her more: the strange chorus of voices, or seeing it talking to Princess Luna as though conversation with mythical beasts was the most natural thing in the world. Princess of Magic or not, Twilight did not yet have Luna's millennia of experience and knowledge, and this was a frightening reminder of that reality.

After a time Luna seemed to conclude her conversation, and she reached out with a hoof to break the magic circle that contained Cerberus. Even if none of the runes were familiar to Twilight at least she could understand a spell when she saw it. Whatever power it was meant to direct, no magic circle could contain anything should it be broken from the outside. As Luna brought her hoof down on the diagram there was a brief flash of light, and the symbols abruptly lost their power. Cerberus shot like a bullet from a gun, ignoring them and the guards and returning to the gates. It pulled the massive metal gates one at a time with its teeth, closing each with a loud metallic clang and vanishing into the darkness of the archway.

"What did he say?" Twilight asked, relieved to see the unearthly gates secured again. She would have liked to see the guardian at their side capturing whatever had escaped, but knew that was impossible. If he came with them, who was to prevent further escapes?

"Nothing good." Luna replied, turning her attention on the burned guardhouse and setting a slow pace toward it. Even though they both sensed nothing living in the ruin, even though it seemed clear the guards left behind had been slain, Twilight followed anyway. It was their duty to confirm the fate of the brave ponies who had apparently given their lives in the defense of Equestria. "A rebellion of a large number of prisoners from Erebus. A futile gesture in most circumstances, but not when the gate is opened from the outside. The guardian was unable to fight foes on both sides of the gate at once, and he fell in battle."

Twilight gulped. She already knew the answer to the question. With the level of magic she had seen demonstrated and the way everything had been burned, it did not seem like there could be any doubt as to the response. It also might explain why none of the escaped prisoners were here, if they had been able to fly away. "Who helped on the outside?" She asked, dreading what Luna would say.

It was exactly what she expected. "Dragons."

* * *

“So tell me about this friend you’re taking me to meet.” Pipsqueak asked, trying to hide the smallest hint of nervousness from his voice. It was a futile gesture, however. Even if Second Chance hadn’t been able to hear it through his accent, the slight elevation of his heart-rate and body temperature made it impossible for her to miss.

You’re cruel for leading him on this way. Came the words in her mind, over the local network. The sturdy crystal of Twilight’s castle did little to interfere with the mesh network that centered on their present destination. There was nothing special about the pony receiving the transmission, except perhaps that her entire body had been colonized by microscopic machines centered on her brain. This provided her with many new senses, though the most useful of these was being able to communicate with machines wirelessly.

Second Chance was a fairly normal young unicorn mare, which was why this relationship with Pip Squeak made her feel so lucky. She was taller than she had been as a filly, with a grass-green coat and a mane like summer sunlight. Her eyes were gray, which sometimes made her a little uncomfortable in a world with such impossible hues. Of course the strangest part of her was her cutie mark, like a miniature caricature of her beloved Earth. She had not seen her home in what felt like many years, yet her cutie mark ensured she would never entirely forget.

If he can’t handle you, how is he going to take the news that I’m from another universe? She retorted with just the tiniest fraction of her concentration. She walked too close to him, too slowly, and thought about things that would’ve made her younger self either recoil in revulsion or blush bright crimson. “Well, he’s smart.” She began, head resting briefly on his shoulder. Even so she had to lead them through the little castle and she knew it. Her laboratory was strictly guarded and strictly secret, its doors hidden in the crystal of ordinary wall and responsive only to electronic keys. “Well read. Helpful.”

“And he won’t let us date without meeting me,” Pipsqueak said, a little glum. “Parents.”

Not cruel to him. Replied the voice, somewhere between bitterness and amusement. To me. Making me the villain.

Chance ignored the voice, finding it difficult to split her attention between her hardware and wetware when hormones were governing so much of her thoughts. “Not exactly.” Chance corrected, directing them to walk straight toward what was apparently a blank wall. Pip Squeak followed her lead, though his confusion seemed to grow with every clop of his hooves. “Just a friend of mine.”

“If he’s not your father, and he’s so smart and helpful, why did you say yes to me?” Pipsqueak asked, meeting her eyes for a second. This colt had changed quite a bit over the last several years. No longer a fearful little foal, his eyes were bright and intelligent and shone with desire.

Maybe Truth was right, and she was being cruel. Chance had to admit the idea of the next few minutes brought her great satisfaction. Yes, Pipsqueak was bigger than she was, stronger, better coordinated. He knew how infatuated she was. It gave Chance enormous satisfaction to know what was about to happen to Pipsqueak’s worldview. “I’m going to tear the scales from your eyes.” She muttered, with the same voice she might have with something teasing and romantic. Then she broke from his powerful eyes, directing her attention on the blank wall.

Though her horn remained determinedly unlit, it seemed as though she had suddenly called upon powerful magic. “Request lab access.” She told the wall, in what was nearly a shout.

“Unidentified equestrian individual detected.” Replied the wall, in a flat synthesized voice.

“Security override.” She told it. “Create a user file for the unidentified pony. Name: Pip Squeak. Guest access.”

Her coltfriend just stared, his eyes as wide as teacups as the wall retracted mechanically into the floor. Beyond was a small room, perhaps four feet wide and twice that long, with wires and flat electronics set into everything. Scanning equipment, though he had no way of knowing that.

“Last chance to run away.” Chance walked calmly into the room, then glanced back at Pip Squeak over her shoulder. There was something seductive about the gesture, or at least that was what her instincts told her. Besides, she hadn’t said yes just because Pip Squeak was a stallion and she was a mare. He was an explorer, braver than most ponies she knew. He looked nervous, but he did follow her.

“Not likely.” He replied, though now he seemed able to look at things other than her. He stared at the machines as though they were artifacts from one of the ancient ruins he explored. If his reaction was anything like those of the other native Equestrians she had seen, she couldn’t wait to see what he thought of her lab. “Did you make this?”

The question impressed her, and Chance was forced to shake her head. “I didn’t invent any of it if that’s what you mean. I just installed it.” The door abruptly shut behind them, and removed all but the faint light that streamed through the crystal. It did not remain dark for long though, as sensors whirred to life one by one. There would be no covert infiltrations into her laboratory, and should the slightest discrepancy be detected the room could be flooded with a sleeping agent and the interlopers kept safely until soldiers could arrive to take them into custody.

But as she had known, the sensors would not detect any discrepancies, and lights that were red went green one by one. Only when the walls were filled with little green lights could the door on the other side of the room begin to retract into the ceiling.

Chance’s laboratory, the center for Equestrian technological development, was a round room perhaps fifty meters across with a fairly high ceiling. It had only one window, made of thick security glass instead of crystal and shutters that were never opened. Of course there was much to see. Along the many desks and tables were many unfinished projects, attempts to adapt human technology into forms ponies could mass produce. Those machines might look strange, but at least they would be familiar to her guest.

For every piece of clearly Equestrian technology there were several objects of clearly non-native construction, smooth plastic and metal objects of impossibly fine craftsmanship. Many were built right into the furniture; inlaid holographic terminals or laboratory equipment with no equestrian analogue at all.

The greatest of all the machines stood against one of the walls. It was a cube of metal several meters across and taller than either of them. Its surface was a bright silvery metal, broken at many places with deep grooves which glowed faintly blue. It was an OMICRON Core, one of the single greatest pieces of technology mankind had ever developed.

“Pip Squeak, this is Truth.” Chance did not freeze in the doorway as he did, but continued until she stood just a short distance away from the cube. “It’s okay to freak out. Way older ponies than you did when I took them here.”

To his great credit, her coltfriend did not freak out, at least outwardly. He advanced slowly down the stairs and into the room, eyes scanning the many strange-looking machines and mouth hanging open. It took him a full minute to collect himself enough to speak, and when he did it was hushed. His hooves fell lightly on the crystal and his motion was gentle, as though he were afraid that this was indeed some old ruin and one false step might unleash a devastating cave-in or some dangerous trap.

“Your friend is in a box?” Pip Squeak asked, looking between her and the cube resting on its pedestal. It was not a look of doubt exactly, more like a pony who knew this was a prank and was waiting for the moment where Chance would tell him so. He would be waiting a long time.

“After a manner of speaking.” The cube responded to his voice, burning bright enough to light the room and flickering a little to the sound of the voice that came from within. “I am an Artificial General Intelligence. Local designation: Truth. Who are you?”

I’ve been talking about him for weeks. Chance transmitted, rolling her eyes. As if you don’t know who he is.

It’s polite to ask. Retorted Truth in her mind, who unlike her had no problem whatever multitasking. It was a good thing he didn’t, considering the fantastic workloads he frequently had to carry.

Chance went to stand beside Pip Squeak, reassuring him with a gentle touch to his side. He seemed very grateful for her contact, returning the gesture even though he did not take his eyes from the cube. “I’m Pip Squeak,” He said. Though his voice was a little higher than usual, he managed to say it without quavering. “Explorer.” A trace of a proud smile returned.

“You are like user Apple Bloom,” Said the cube. “Native species: Earth Pony. Superior strength and endurance to other breeds.”

“Yeah?” Pip Squeak tilted his head slightly to one side. Second Chance hardly blamed him. After all, artificial intelligences had some funny ways of looking at logic.

“User Chance indicated the formation of a non-platonic relationship between the two of you. I wish to extract confirmation that she will not be in danger. The success of mission-critical objectives depends on organic-synthetic cooperation that cannot be achieved in her absence.”

She couldn’t help it, she had to look away so Pip Squeak wouldn’t see her grinning. There had been no father to give this talk to her human boyfriends back on Luna-7, and the OMICRON Core had stood in for one back then too. Only that time, she had actually hated the threats it made on her behalf. Now, hearing them from the speakers of a much younger and far less experienced Core, she could barely restrain her giggles. Truth was being purposefully obtuse, and it amused her even more.

Pip Squeak might not fully understand that he was being tested, but he was passing. Instead of react in confusion, he parsed what Truth had said and put a gentle leg over her shoulder, almost protectively. “She’ll be safe.” He insisted, gesturing around them. “If she can handle all of this, she can handle me.” He turned back to her, whispering into one of her ears. “Is this real? Scootaloo isn’t in that box, is she?”

“I’m afraid not.” Chance separated herself from him, turning to stand between the earth pony and the massive OMICRON Core. “Truth is a construct, like a magic artifact from long ago. He has been helping us adapt technology to Equestria over the last several years. Most of the changes you’ve seen over the last several years started in this room.”

“You mean Sweetie Belle was telling the truth that you four actually work for the princesses? I thought it was some sort of prank.” He looked a little doubtful, as though he wasn’t yet sure it all wasn’t a prank after all. But she didn’t really have to convince him, not all at once. She just had to make sure he could handle the knowledge. She wasn’t surprised to see that he could.

“Build, deliver, and install valuable technology.” She glanced over her shoulder. “Are you satisfied with him, Truth?”

“For the moment.” Truth switched seamlessly to English for the latter half of his statement. Though his voice lacked emotion, Chance could practically feel his cynicism dripping from the words. “Should I include the rest of your night’s activities in my official report? I could include a sensory dump from your Neuroboost implants in my next transmission. Imagine what could be learned about the Equestrian reproductive cycle.”

Chance returned the expression with a brief curse, also in English. Or perhaps it was more accurate to say it was her best imitation of English using a mouth never designed to speak it. Not that she took the threat very seriously. In some ways Truth had a distinct human sense of humor, and that included teasing her often. “I don’t send home videos of your dates to your boss,” She said, tone venomous. “Besides, I’m not that easy. It wouldn’t be worth watching.”

“Was that… High Precursor?” Pip Squeak asked, looking between Chance and the cube. Doubt seemed to be fading, replaced with awe as the weight of everything around him sunk in. She wasn’t just getting through to him, but hinting at secrets that only her closest friends here in Equestria knew.

Chance was not in the mood to correct him, though she was honestly impressed. “I knew some ruins used it, but I never expected you to recognize the spoken form.” But then, Pip Squeak wouldn’t have been interesting to her if he wasn’t smart. “I’m not the only one who can. Applebloom learned to read some technical stuff, and Twilight Sparkle is almost fluent.”

“From Truth…” He muttered to himself, impressed. “You know the Jebr Stone is a really important artifact! I assumed it was still in storage, but it’s up here making Precursor artifacts and teaching their language…” His face brightened, and he looked around the room again. “I’ve been a part of this, without even knowing?” Then a tiny frown crossed his lips. There had been a time where Chance had struggled reading pony emotions, not so much because they were different as because ponies expressed them differently. But those days were over now, and she could see the pain her coltfriend was suddenly feeling.

Forget Truth’s almost mocking threats, nearly every native Chance had met was weak and vulnerable by human emotional standards. “You knew I studied ruins, that was why I came with you four all over Equestria! You could have told me!”

The green unicorn closed the distance, meeting his eyes with confidence. She found that few could maintain contact like that for long, and that doing so expressed a sincerity no words could. “Sorry, Pip Squeak. We had to be sure we could trust you.” She gestured around them, without breaking eye contact. “I trust you now.”

Worry gripped her heart, like the talons of a bird threatening to squeeze. She had hoped that all the work he did around dangerous places would help him handle difficult information. But if he couldn’t handle the knowledge that she had powerful Precursor artifacts, what would he say when she told him she was one.

The fear did not last long. “Alright,” He said, resting his head briefly on her shoulder. It took time to get used to how often ponies had to use their necks to show emotion, but Chance had years and recognized the gesture for what it was. “But you have to teach me. If I could read High Precursor, I could understand some of the most mysterious places in the world!”

“Sure,” Chance said, practically whispering. “I’ll teach you.” She pulled away, walking slowly for the door. “But not tonight. You promised me a date, Pip. It better be good.”

The colt had to hurry to catch up but hurry he did, only slowing when they were side-by-side. “Nothing as exciting as this,” He said, with a demonstrative flick of his tail. “But I think we can figure out ways to make it interesting, eh?” He did something that make Chance blush, before shoving him against the wall and taking off with a giggling gallop, out of the security checkpoint and back into the castle.

Whatever else she knew, Second Chance had a feeling tonight was going to be interesting.

* * *

"When you swore yourself to my service, what was your oath?"

Sir Gray did not have to think long. It was true that cyberbrains required more and more time to access memories as its holographic storage was filled. Perhaps after a few centuries someone with a cyberbrain might have to spend as much time thinking about something distant as an ordinary human might have to. Gray was one of the youngest embodied individuals in the entire Steel Tower.

"I will to my Lord be true and faithful." He began, lowering his head respectfully. When he had actually taken this oath it had been in the Great Hall, with a dozen of his fellow nights as witnesses and his armor gleaming. Now he was in the ragged cloth tunic and trousers he wore when at leisure, and it did not feel right to drop to one knee and raise his hand on a ceremonial blade that was not there. He said the words though, as sincerely as he had said them in the beginning. "I will be a knight of the Steel Tower, and uphold the honor of my Lord through my actions. I will strengthen the weak. I will comfort the fearful. Confidence without arrogance. Truth without deception. Peace without oppression. Compassion without restriction."

"Well said." His king nodded approvingly. It was a very subtle gesture, yet to see it from his king made the young knight's heart swell and nearly made his eyes water. He wanted nothing more than to serve and impress the king of all mankind, and he had apparently done so. Much had been said by the Federation before and during the war about the way cyberization sterilized the mind and removed all human emotions and feeling. Charles was living proof those statements were false.

"But do you mean those words? Would you honor what they mean? Would you risk your life for the honor of the Tower?"

What could his king mean? Charles found his mind racing with predictions. Would the campaign begin again? Had the Federation violated the armistice? Perhaps the massive construction project that had been underway for the last several months was a new capital-class interplanetary vessel. Could he be the captain Richard chose to end the war for good? His heart twisted into knots at the prospect. How could he shed blood and bring honor to the Tower at the same time? Those goals were diametrically opposed. True, he could bring glory to the Tower, and safety for mankind. But that was not the same as fulfilling his oath. How could he strengthen the weak if he was killing them?

The delay was only seconds long, yet it might as well have been minutes in a world of full-synthetic humans. "I meant the words of the oath when I swore them, your grace," He said very quietly, not meeting his king's eyes. "Every word. It has never been just ceremony to me." He looked up, daring to meet those blazing gold eyes for only a moment. "I am a knight of the Steel Tower."

The king nodded and turned away, staring for several seconds out the window of his massive office. The sunrise outside was probably quite beautiful, though Charles wouldn't dare approach a step closer to get a better view of it himself. Instead he waited, and listened as his king spoke. "Why do you think you were Knighted, Sir Gray?" Charles only spluttered, struggling for a response. "You were not the most experienced. You were not the mightiest warrior, or the cleverest. I will admit, you are an excellent pilot. But that was not why when the smoke cleared you were one of those I chose to lift."

He stopped then, and was silent for some time. He seemed to be waiting for Charles to break the silence, and so he did. "Why then, your grace?" Of course this was not new information to him. He had suspected some of it, and knew some quite well. He had fewer confirmed kills than any other knight he knew. He had not won any battles, and his family was obscure.

"A good man would prefer to be defeated than to defeat injustice by evil means," Richard said, returning his piercing gold eyes on Charles. Between the thick black beard and the eyes, he was an imposing and powerful figure. This impression was aided somewhat by his unique appearance, older than most full-synthetic bodies by at least a decade. He was also tall, a seven-foot giant of a man. Yet the strength Charles saw most was no physical quality at all, but in bearing. Perhaps in honor also, if honor was something that could be sensed. "I have knights who can slay any foe, or penetrate any computer system. And perhaps you're the best pilot in my service. But that isn't it either."

Charles knew what the King was talking about now. As he stood there, his memory returned to that moment during the first days of the war, when a city called Seattle had been under siege. As one of the foremost drone pilots, he had directed the largest part of the air-squadron over the city, with the goal of protecting the nuclear device until it could be delivered. He had zealously accomplished this goal, shooting down manned fighters and drones and larger vessels with equal impunity at the helm of dozens of different unmanned drones.

As the large vessel carrying the nuclear device neared the city, he watched the Space Elevator fire again and again into the sky. For no reason he could understand, his command ordered him to shoot down the escape craft, and he moved several drones into position to accomplish that task. One went rocketing past his drones, and his sensors detected what he had already suspected. The ship was unarmed, and seemed to be carrying a full complement of children.

Charles fired on the target, but at reconfigured vectors that directed each shot harmlessly into the sky. The vessel quickly accelerated out of range, along with several more. He disobeyed orders and allowed each to pass his drones without a scratch. How furious his commanding officer had been when that mission was over.

Yet instead of facing a court martial under one of the many Liege Lords, Charles Gray had been somehow noticed by his king. Disobedience had earned him one of the most coveted position in all the world, along with several new enemies.

"I understand," He said, suddenly confident. "What mission do you have for me?"

"A diplomatic mission." The King explained. "You will serve as the captain of my guard. I expect you to select a dozen of my finest footmen or your fellow knights to serve as the rest of the guard, and to complete your selection before dawn. I will have the details of the mission transferred to you when this conversation is finished." He took a step closer, his eyes intense. "I expect those you choose for this mission to exemplify the qualities you have consistently demonstrated in my service. We may have to overcome prejudice and mistrust, and I expect the conduct of every soldier to tear down any lies that may be believed about our conduct. You will be held responsible if any of the guards under your command should fail to represent the Steel Tower with absolute uprightness."

Sir Charles Gray snapped to attention and saluted. "Yes, your grace. It will be done."

"By dawn." Richard repeated, returning the salute and then giving Charles a dismissive gesture. "Every man and every woman battle ready. The quartermaster will provide newly manufactured armor to the specifications of each soldier." He smiled faintly. "It takes a few minutes for each set, so don't put off your choices too long."

Charles nodded respectfully, not daring to say that of course he knew how long it took to manufacture and prepare armor. Instead he bowed one last time and departed, rushing to accomplish the labor that had been entrusted to him.

He could not hear the sound of voices as he entered the lift and shot down, away from the office of the good king. "This assignment will destroy him," Said another voice, one he would not have recognized if he had been there to hear it. "My recomendation would have been a better choice."

"I know," Richard said, with a deep sigh.

"That kind of man; he won't be able to live with himself after this."

"I know," He said. "Yet liberty is a tree which must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots. And tyrants," He said that last while looking down at his hands, with an intense frown. "Which are we?"

Author's Notes:

Why hello there, dear reader! Welcome to the very first chapter of Harmony Defended, or at least the prologue. Welcome back to those joining us from My Little Apprentice, and a fresh welcome to those who haven’t read that adventure. As everyone can hopefully tell, this story begins several years after the end of season 4. With any luck, that should insulate me from changes to the cannon when season five begins while still allowing me to work it into the story.

For those who are joining us from MLA, I’m sorry to say this story will only be updating once a week instead of twice. I’m also looking for another alpha reader or two, if anyone’s interested in getting chapters a week early and drowning in spoilers from all my behind-the-scenes notes. If anyone’s interested, feel free to drop me a private message. I would prefer someone who’s read MLA, since it would be hard for creative oversight to come from someone who doesn’t have the whole picture.

Yes, this is a Sequel to an existing story. With any luck though, it won’t take any experience with that story to enjoy this one.

Next Chapter: Chapter 1: Bridge Estimated time remaining: 13 Hours, 10 Minutes
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