February 22, 2014
Korangal Valley, Kunar Province, Northeast Afghanistan
US Army PFC Patrick Wilcox
The lonely, barren Afghanistan countryside seemed endless. A hasty line of armored all-terrain vehicles and small tanks kicked up dust from the Afghan desert. The 187th Infantry Regiment passed through it slowly. An M3A3 Bradley light-armored tank rolled ahead of an HMMWV Humvee. Private First Class Wilcox rode shotgun.
He kept his eyes peeled off into the countryside. There was nothing out here, a single dirt road. No villages, no trees. Just dirt, sand, rocks, canyons, and mountains.
PFC Wilcox wrapped his hands tightly around his Colt M4A1 carbine, his finger rested up against the trigger guard. The HMMWV jolted up and down, side to side. Each time they hit a bump, the PFC would bounce in the air for a moment, only to be restrained by his seatbelt.
The Private First Class turned around.
"It's gonna be a good day, I can feel it! Ha, ha!" the soldier, the name "Reyes" sewn onto his uniform, teased.
Patrick smiled, remembering the first time he'd heard his friend speak those words. They had both gotten wasted beyond all recognition, and woke up in their local police station handcuffed to each other. Reyes looked over at Patrick and smiled. "It's gonna be a good day."
The PFC turned back around. Ahead of them, the M3A3 Bradley slowed to a halt.
"Alpha, we've picked up possible IEDs ahead. Stand by," the operator of the M3A3 stated over the radio.
The driver of the Humvee pressed his foot to the brake, the convoy behind him doing the same.
Patrick didn't like this. They were in a canyon, closed in on all sides. They could easily be bombarded from above by gunfire, or worse.
"Keep an eye on them cliffs," a sergeant whispered over the radio. PFC Wilcox kept his rifle close, scanning the tops of the cliffs and ledges. The M3A3 Bradley tank operators probed the ground with a robotic arm. All was quiet and still for a few seconds.
"Shit! They're decoys, get the fuck out of he-" A glob of fire rained down from the top of the cliff. The M3A3 Bradley burst into flames. It was every soldier's nightmare: Ambush.
"Get out!" Reyes barked. "GO, GO GO!"
Patrick swung the door open, running as fast as his feet could carry him to any cover he could find. Moments later, the HMMWV he was sitting in shared the same fate as the M3A3, as did some of the other ones in the convoy. A rocket-propelled grenade tore into the Humvee, reducing it to a flaming pile of scrap metal.
Patrick stumbled to the ground after being hit with several shards of hot shrapnel, but his IOTV body armor remained true. Feeling a wave of heat run up his back, the Private First Class picked himself up and continued to flee from the blazing Humvee.
Cold-War era weaponry crackled off from the distance. PFC Wilcox watched in horror as his comrades, engulfed in flames, were set on fire themselves. They tried to roll around in the dirt, screaming in agony as they burned alive, but it wouldn’t snuff out the flames.
The survivors, as well as Wilcox, blind fired at their attackers in confusion. The Taliban insurgents used it to their advantage, randomly popping out to return fire.
PFC Wilcox dashed behind a pillar of rocks, his rifle spitting out a trail of spent 5.56mm shells. He put his back up against the rocks as cover, releasing his M4A1's empty magazine and slapping a new one in place. Frantic and pointless radio chatter made it so difficult to focus on the situation at hand, he had to mute his radio headset.
Wilcox grabbed his rifle, putting his eye up to the ACOG scope and aiming defensively. He was alone and separated from his convoy, there was no way to get to them without getting in the insurgents' line of fire. He poked his head out from behind the rock, and what he saw made his heart sink.
The soldiers in his Humvee lay burned and mangled, their eyes blankly staring ahead of them, their mouths wide open. Five corpses were scattered around and inside the still burning vehicles.
"No…" PFC Wilcox whispered to himself. He knew all of them. They were his friends. They had gone to school together, they had enlisted together. Most of them were barely nineteen or twenty years old, Wilcox himself was only nineteen. They had grown up together, fought together, trained together, laughed together.
And now, they died together.
It made the Private First Class sick to his stomach, feeling the contents of his stomach creep up his throat. He vomited a spray of half digested rations and foul liquid. The overwhelming scent of burnt human meat, as well as witnessing his best friends burn to death, was the most unspeakably revolting sensation he’d ever experienced.
"Wilcox, get your ass over here!" one of soldiers from his platoon screamed from their cover behind a still-burning Humvee.
Patrick flinched as bullets began to be sprayed in his direction, wiping leftover vomit off his lips. They impacted off the rock face behind him, spraying dust in his face. He withdrew his head back behind his cover.
"Wilcox, we'll cover you! You can make it, just go!" his convoy gave a steady stream of covering fire to the cliff tops.
"Wilcox, Now! GO!"
The PFC stood from his cover and fired his rifle. While the two sides exchanged fire, PFC Wilcox made a break for his convoy's cover. Halfway from his cover to his convoy, he felt a sharp pain in his shoulder. It knocked him to the ground, and rooted him to the spot. Face down in the dirt clutching his shoulder and his rifle, the world seemed to slow down, the beating of his heart speeding up. He had never been shot before, but it burned, it burned, it burned.
This was it. He was going to die here today. Patrick kept his head face down, eyes squeezed shut, waiting for more bullets to tear through his flesh.
They never did. The young soldier felt himself sliding against the desert sand. He looked up; the commanding officer, as well as another soldier from his convoy, were dragging him to safety as soviet-era 7.62mm rounds sunk into the ground mere feet from them. PFC Wilcox let out a cry of pain after they dragged him behind the cover of a damaged HMMWV.
"Are you good?" the commanding officer, an intimidating African American, said with concern. "Hey, you're still with us. Snap out of it!"
The man shook Patrick out of shell shock.
Patrick could not even speak. He simply nodded. He still had good enough use of his arms; he could still aim a rifle. He could still fight. Patrick fired on any insurgent dumb enough to poke his head up. His rifle's recoil stung the wound in his shoulder, but he persisted. His efforts did not go unrewarded.
A head, wrapped in a turban, popped out of cover to try and make a brief shot at any of the US troops. Patrick placed his illuminated crosshair on its forehead. He exhaled and pulled the trigger.
The bullet hit its mark, and the Taliban insurgent flew backwards with the force of the round, blood splattering the wall of the canyon behind him.
The Private First Class continued assisting the convoy in delivering suppressing fire, until what sounded like a supersonic eagle screeched overhead.
"Hooah!" chanted several service members, just before the bombs made contact with the ground.
Whatever was at the top of the cliffs perished in an all-encompassing cloud of fire. It sent a rush of hot air down through the canyon, felt by all.
"All targets eliminated. Merry Christmas, boys, we're peacin’ out," crackled Patrick's radio.
His comrades cheered and hollered, but PFC Wilcox lay still and quiet. The convoy's medic pressed a rag dampened with a medical fluid onto his wound.
The faces of his friends felt like a burning coal in the front of his head. Their blank stares, jaws open, some still even on fire. Bloodcurdling screams rang in his ears, as if he was wearing headphones and set it to repeat. Soon enough, the thrums of helicopter blades became louder and louder.
"Enjoy your Purple Heart, private," the commanding officer slapped him on his good shoulder.
Patrick's mind was elsewhere.
The rider took a deep breath. His eyes felt sticky, it stung slightly to open them. His pupils dilated, having not seen light for a time, making the rider have to squint until his eyes adjusted.
He was in a white-painted room, obviously some sort of medical facility. The only source of light was a few windows. The floor was a synthetic, white-blue tile. A few potted plants and small trees sat in the corners of the room and upon end tables, next to a row of beds lined up against the wall. The rider was in one of these beds, but it seemed like one had been placed in front of it to extend the length, like these beds were made for something smaller than he.
"Ugh, I need a cigarette." It felt like the understatement of the century.
Struck by lightning, attacked by a manticore, and now waking up in a hospital? It was definitely going to be one of those days. The rider thought back to his hallucination of the flying pony. Maybe she really did get him help in time.
"No, I've just got brain damage, that's all," the rider reassured himself. "I'm just going crazy, no big deal."
The rider examined himself. His head was resting comfortably against a pillow.
Someone had undressed him. All his gear and clothing had been removed, except for his tattered and blood stained pants. At least they gave him that much respect.
His chest was heavily bandaged in a toga style. His entire lower gut was wrapped, and a strip of medical cloth wrapped around his left shoulder under his arm.
His left arm seemed to be in a hard-cast, secured by a long strip of cloth tied tightly enough to keep it on. His arm didn't feel broken, but it felt like a swarm of fire ants were eating away at his skin. He carefully removed the wrapping and took off the hard-cast. His skin was red and dry, and stung to the touch. It was a second degree burn; nothing too serious, but painful as hell. The biker discarded the hard-cast, it restricted his arm too much. He tied the bandage back around his burn.
His left leg was exposed. A pants leg had been rolled up, his knee and leg had been wrapped in gauze.
His breathing was clear and steady. The rider gave a sigh of relief, and looked up at the ceiling. Whoever had patched him up seemed to know what they were doing. For that matter, where was the doctor?
The biker groaned as he sat up in the bed. The room was empty. It was silent, except for a ticking clock at the other side of the room. His body felt stiff, like he had been lying there for some time.
The rider rose to his wobbly feet, getting a head rush from standing up too quickly. He clutched his head, straining to regain his balance. His vision cleared, and he slowly put one foot in front of the other.
Very stiff, but he had surprisingly good mobility after just having that nasty accident. Maybe someone here could shed light on what happened. He shuffled to a window. What he saw made his eyes widen.
There was a street outside, but everything was unnecessarily colorful and bubbly. Ponies, shades of all colors, bustled around the town square. He could see a marketplace off in the distance, as well as various shops and boutiques. It looked like a cartoon.
"Yep, I'm crazy. But at least I'm sane enough to know it," the rider thought, expecting to wake up from this dream any second now.
But he was awake. If he were passed out in a coma, the pain he felt wouldn’t seem so real. It was obvious: whatever happened when he was struck by lightning had brought him here. Perhaps this was death? No, it wasn’t death. If it was, he wouldn’t be injured. Or maybe that’s not how it works… Of course, for all he knew, this could be the afterlife. However, he felt very much alive.
This place seemed familiarly human, minus the humans. The rider stared through the glass in disbelief, his hands shaking in nicotine withdrawal. Finding a cigarette was going to have to wait. First, he just needed to talk to someone. Anyone.
"Oh, you’re awake!" a female voice cried.
The rider spun around, looking down at a white pony with a pink mane, a medical tiara affixed to her head. A red cross was printed on her flank.
He slapped himself in the face, a tingling discomfort resonating in his skin. The injured biker had finally come to terms with the fact he was not hallucinating.
"Um, hello there," Nurse Redheart grinned nervously. She took a step back. The biker was speechless, he continued blankly looking down at the white earth pony.
"I'm sure you're very confused about what's going on, but you're safe here. My name is Nurse Redheart, what's yours?"
The biker simply stared, completely lost in thought as his mind raced. It’s not like he’s never seen a horse before, but they spoke English here?
Nurse Readheart gulped, suddenly feeling a pang of regret for taking on this patient. It stood much taller than her, and was nothing like she'd ever seen before. Even though it had been out for sometime, it was awake now. She was utterly at this thing’s mercy.
She swallowed her fear and cleared her throat.
"Can you understand what I'm saying?"
The rider cleared his throat.
"Yes," his voice sounded shriveled up from disuse. "Yes, I-I can."
"So, your name?"
"Uh," the biker broke eye contact for a moment. "Patrick."
She held out her hoof and smiled.
Struck by lightning, apparently thrust into a parallel universe, nearly eaten alive, almost bleeding to death, and now face to face with a talking pony. How was he supposed to react?
For a moment he just stared, and then shook his head.
“Just chill,” the rider thought. “At least I’m alive.”
It was probably for the best he just lighten up.
"Sorry, I don't mean to be rude," he smiled, and shook her hoof. "Pleasure to meet you."
"Of course, but you really shouldn't be standing right now. Your body is still recovering, you should rest."
Patrick sat back down on the bed, as Nurse Readheart went and fetched his things. She left his boots, jacket, gloves, helmet, and the contents of his pockets in a neat pile on a nightstand next to his bed.
The pack of cigarettes he had in his pocket was destroyed. Submerged by rain, burned, and blood soaked, in that order. His wallet was singed and bloodstained, but intact. All of his credit cards had melted, however, his driver’s license survived.
Sitting in a Nylon holster was his Glock 23. In a side pocket of the holster, one full magazine sat untouched.
His jacket was heavily burned, torn, and bloodstained. Whatever heat he'd been exposed to appeared to have been mostly absorbed into his jacket and helmet. Speaking of his helmet, some of the plastic had melted on one side. It featured scratches and dings Patrick hadn't seen before.
Nurse Redheart had even washed his t-shirt and sewn the rip from the gash on his chest. It was slightly discolored, but wearable.
"Ms. Redheart?" Patrick called to her as she carried a tray with a glass of water and a bowl of soup over to him.
"Listen, I just wanted to say thanks."
"Oh, dear, it's nothing at all, really," she set the tray down on the table.
"No, really, I appreciate everything. Thank you," he gave her the most sincere smile he could manage.
"It was nothing, really, happy to help," she bashfully replied. For some reason, it was always hard for her to accept credit when she actually deserved it, and so easy to accept it when she didn't. At least she wouldn't have to be afraid of this thing anymore.
"How long have I been out?" Patrick took a spoonful of soup.
"It's been about three days now," she replied.
"What?" Patrick sat up, flipping the tray over. The bowl of soup exploded into a mess of goop on the floor among broken shards of ceramic.
"Uh, sorry about that," Patrick shrugged.
Nurse Redheart simply smiled, and fetched a rag and broom. Patrick stood out of the short bed, and took the rag from her.
"Really, it's fine. Besides, you really shouldn't be standing, or bending-"
Patrick bent over to wipe up the mess and cringed. A wave of pain shot up from his chest, causing him to clutch the bandages wrapped around him and grit his teeth.
"-Over," Nurse Redheart finished her sentence.
Reluctantly, Patrick lay in the bed as he let the white earth pony clean up his mess and make him another bowl of soup. She set a tray with a bowl of identical substance down on his lap.
"Just," she paused. "Try to be more careful this time, okay?"
"I'll try," Patrick blew on a spoonful of hot soup. There was no meat to speak of, it was all vegan. He wasn't sure if he'd even had anything to eat at all over the past few days. Maybe they had force fed him or something while he was out, he sure didn't feel malnourished. But he was hungry at the moment, so he wolfed it down quick.
Nurse Readheart had left the room for a moment, and returned in another.
Patrick was going through his things, examining what survived and what didn’t. He took note of the damage caused to a peculiar, heart-shaped medal, tucking it back in his pocket. He remembered throwing his phone into the woods; probably not the best idea, even though it wasn’t working at the time.
"Yeah?" he sat up in the bed.
"I don't mean to interrupt anything, but you have some visitors."
"Visitors?" Patrick rose up in the bed. He thought back to lying on the ground in the Everfree forest in a crippled stupor. It was all a blur.
Six ponies piled into the long, spacious room. A purple unicorn, the same cyan-colored flying pony he had seen before, an orange earth pony, a yellow pegasus with folded wings and a pink mane, a white unicorn with a meticulously maintained purple mane, and a bubbly-looking pink pony with an equally pink curly mane and tail.
He was honestly a bit irritated at the moment, having not had a cigarette in days, and being through this entire ordeal. But, he should at least show them some gratitude.
It was quiet for a few seconds, until finally Rainbow Dash spoke up.
"So, um," she dug at the floor shyly with her hoof. "Doing any better?"
He stared again for a moment, still trying to process everything that was laid before him.
"Y-Yeah," he tried his best to smile the same smile he gave Nurse Redheart.
"Listen I," Patrick struggled for words. "I don't really know what to say. Just, thank you, for everything."
"Oh sugarcube, don't you worry about it none," Applejack came closer to the bed, after seeing he was friendly.
"No," it seemed like everyone was just trying to be modest in this universe. "Thank you, I really mean it. I should be dead right now. Listen, if there's anything I can ever-"
"Well, except for me, I wasn't there," Pinkie Pie interrupted, and started bouncing around the room, and glared at Twilight. "But sooomepony didn't feel like including me in on it!"
"We said we were sorry," Rarity huffed. "We didn't really have enough time to come get you, anyway."
"Poor dear," Rarity glanced towards Patrick.
"So, what's your name?" Twilight asked the alien creature lying in the hospital bed in front of her.
"Patrick," he smiled. "Pleasure to meet you all." He put on a happy face, but inside, he still had no idea what was going, or why he was here. And it was driving him absolutely nuts. He needed answers, and soon, or else he was afraid his head would explode.
"-And this is Fluttershy," Rainbow Dash pointed a hoof to the pegasus, shyly hiding behind Twilight. He must have spaced out while they were introducing themselves to him. Speaking of Twilight, she seemed to have a certain gaze, different from her friends’ in regards to Patrick. She appeared to be studying him.
"Is something wrong?" Patrick asked Twilight Sparkle.
"Hm?" she blinked. "No, nothing at all." Twilight was deep in thought. In all the books of legendary creatures she’d read, he resembled nothing she had ever read about in her studies. It was almost like he just didn't belong here.
"So, what are you, if you don't mind me asking?"
"I'm a human," Patrick said proudly.
"A what, now?" Applejack stared blankly.
"Oooh, nice headgear, Mr. Hyoo-Mann," Pinkie Pie made a series of funny faces into the reflection of the visor on his helmet.
"Blah-blah-blah-blah." She stuck her tongue out repeatedly and blew a raspberry.
"Where are you from?" Twilight asked.
"Atlanta," he replied nonchalantly.
"Where in Equestria is that?" Rarity questioned. All eyes were on Patrick now.
The only reason he replied "Atlanta" so quickly, was because it was just his instinctive reply that he'd answer whenever someone asked where he was from.
"It's uh," Patrick chose his words carefully. " A city. Very far away from here, probably."
"Probably? Do you even know where you are?" Twilight made eye contact with him.
"No…" he sighed.
"Have you ever seen a pony before?" Rainbow Dash raised.
"I have no idea what I'm doing here, or where I am," Patrick replied.
"So, y’all just burst out of a lightning bolt, and here you were?" Applejack raised an eyebrow suspiciously.
"I-" Patrick stuttered, feeling a bit intimidated by the way Applejack asked. "Listen, I don't know. It was storming really bad, I think I might have been struck by lightning. The next thing I knew, I was in some weird forest burnt to a crisp in a puddle of my own blood. I was just trying to ride away from- Wait, where's my bike?"
Patrick stood up out of the bed quickly, awkwardly slipping his shirt on over all his bandages. It was important to him to make sure his bike was okay. It was more important, because he had just bought a carton of cigarettes before riding that night and left them in the compartment under the seat. He tied a grocery bag around it, so they couldn't have gotten wet. Maybe they'd be okay.
"Woah there," Applejack stood in front of the doorway, suddenly noticing how tall he was.
Fluttershy squeaked and ducked behind Twilight and Rarity after seeing his height.
"How's the weather up there?" Pinkie Pie looked up at Patrick, his head less than a foot from the ceiling.
"I'm sorry," Patrick paid it no mind, his mind on popping off the passenger seat and retrieving his cancer sticks. "My bike, where is it?"
"Your what?" Twilight answered.
"My bike! I know it came here with me. The black thing, with two wheels. Does that ring any bells?"
"Oh, that!" Rarity stepped in.
"Yes, dear. Don't worry about a thing, we brought it into town with you."
"Thank god," Patrick sighed. "Where is it?"
"We left it outside. I really don't think you should go out there at the moment, though."
"Why not?" Patrick said.
"Well, we wouldn't really want you to cause an uproar, we have a feeling some ponies might be afraid of you," Twilight gestured to Fluttershy, who was still hiding behind Rarity.
"Patrick, I don't mean to be rude, but, um, well," Fluttershy tried to form a sentence. "Was it you that killed that manticore back in the Everfree Forest?"
He wasn't really prepared to answer that. All the ponies in the room looked at him questioningly. He wanted to lie, but what was he supposed to say?
"…Yes," he admitted. "But... I couldn't move. It was about to kill me, I had no choice."
"How in tarnation did you kill a manticore, if you were already hurt so bad from that lightning?" Applejack asked.
He carefully withdrew the Glock 23 from its holster, making sure the safety was on.
“This is a weapon from where I come from.”
Fluttershy took a few steps back, hiding behind Rarity again.
"Fluttershy, he's not going to hurt you," Rarity cooed.
Patrick could tell he was scaring her terribly. She tried to stand tall and look him in the eye, but she just couldn't. So he had to go to her.
Patrick set the Glock 23 back in the holster. He bent down, shrugging off a trickle of pain under his bandages, and held out his hand.
"I know I'm kind of scary looking," he joked. "But I'm not such a bad guy after you get to know me."
Fluttershy stared at his outstretched hand, and his seemingly sincere smile. She gently shook his hand, smiling a bit to her self, but unable to make eye contact.
Patrick sat on his hospital bed, bragging to Rainbow Dash about his bike. A fellow speed demon herself, she listened intently.
Nurse Redheart tapped Twilight's shoulder. "Twilight, a word?"
"What's going on, Nurse Redheart?" Twilight turned around.
"Well, I don't really know how to say this, but…" She said. "He can't really stay here forever. I'll make sure to check up on his health every now and then, but I have other patients I need to take care of, too."
"So, what are you saying?" Twilight looked on, as Rainbow Dash tried showing off her moves to Patrick in this small space, knocking a potted plant to the floor and smashing it.
"Sorry about that," Rainbow dash landed as Rarity and Applejack glared at her.
"Well, I think maybe you should find him another place to stay. He says he thinks he came from another universe. Maybe, until you can figure out how to send him back to where he came from, you should find him a place."
"But won't the other ponies be scared of him? Don't you remember how they reacted to Zecora?" Twilight whispered.
"They'll have to get used to him some time or another. Besides, he seems friendly."
Twilight guessed that Nurse Redheart was right. She had a lot of extra space in the library, she could find a place for him. It might even help having him around if she was going to try and find a way for him to get home.
"Patrick?" Twilight approached him.
"Hey, what's up?" Patrick responded.
"Would you like to stay with me, for as long as you're here? I live in the
Ponyville library. Maybe we can find a way to send you home.”
"Wow," Patrick was honestly touched at the offer, but felt a polite urge to decline. Still, where was he supposed to go?
"Sure, I’d be honored.”
"Hey, Patrick!" Pinkie Pie bounced up and down with a singsong voice. "Now that you're staying in Ponyville, why don't we have a 'Welcome to Ponyville' party for you?"
"Oh, Pinkie Pie, I really don't think-" Rarity trailed off.
"Um, I don't think that's really the best idea," Patrick searched for a reason why he could turn it down. "I mean, I still hurt from-"
"You silly filly, everyone loves a good party! In fact, I'm going to go plan it out right now, bye!" Pinkie pie zipped out of the nurse's office in a pink blur.
Patrick blinked, and nervously sighed.
"Wait, she wasn't serious, was she?"