I climb the last steps of the ladder. Now I am inside the tower. It’s a pretty thing made in red brick a few centuries back when this place used to be a monastery. It overlooks a crossroads and some grassy fields. The road is blocked by a checkpoint stocked with sandbags, barbed wire, and machine guns. This is what I am supposed to be providing overwatch for. Right at its base is the modern cemetery of Grazny. More than a dozen headstones stand before distinct brown patches. They clash violently with the otherwise vibrant green carpet. I call down the trapdoor to my comrade. She’s the other pony in this fire team. “Get up here, soldat!”
A squeak. “Yes, serzhant!” She tenuously, slowly, begins to climb the up the old wooden ladder rung by rung. Her hooves make a distinct -clop-clop-clop-clop- sound. I turn away to check our surroundings. I’m not in the mood to be shot by a sniper today; I don’t want to end up like Twiley. There is still no activity to be seen. The golden tall meadow grasses are undisturbed, gently undulating in the wind like an amber ocean. They are almost perfect- almost, for the usual trash weighs them down in some spots. In others, it blocks the view. Typical. All I hear is birdsong in the early spring morning and the sounds of my comrade slowly making it up the ladder. I snort and tap my hoof on the floor. A faint apology is heard and the clopping speeds up.
“It took you long enough,” I growl at the almost-fresh soldier with puffy red eyes. I don’t even bother with what's embroidered on her name tape. It's useless to me anyway, for I met her a few years ago when I married Cadence. She probably doesn't recall me acting like this. Of course, things were different then and we weren't in the middle of a warzone. Her origin patch indicates that she came from Ponyville. Her shoulder boards indicate that she’s a soldat- the lowest enlisted rank. Her lack of a telnyashka means that she’s nothing special and almost certainly a conscript. It’s most worrisome that she’s a pegasus and in neither aviation nor airborne. As for me, my red-striped telnyashka says it all.
She shuts the trapdoor before shrinking away to the other corner of the tower. There’s room enough for us each to be comfortable and even move a little bit. She turns around and like an idiot, smacks the front sight post of her rifle against the stone supports. Then, like an even greater fool, she flares her wings and smacks the bell overhead. My ears! Birds on the few remaining power lines in the fields two hundred meters distant startle and take flight. “S-sorry, sir.” She salutes feebly at me. I lunge at her, my hoof swatting hers out of the air.
“You idiot! I’m not an officer! Don’t salute! Are you trying to get me killed?” She curls up into a ball.
“S-s-sorry, serzhant Shining Armor!” My task complete, I back off.
“Much better, soldat. Now stand up.” She does, sniffling a little bit with her eyes even redder and puffier than before. Why out of all the ponies in this company was this the one that got assigned to my fire team at the observation post? At least it keeps me out of the frickin' nearly daily rain. The damn FNP can’t even keep her rifle properly slung against her back! Now she’s going to have to get the armorer to fix her zero again. I suddenly stop and catch her eye. She just won’t stop staring at me or the tank top I wear with the red and white stripes covering my chest. I really ought to just button up the top of the damn camo uniform I wear and save myself the headache. I snort. “Unsling your rifle, soldat, and rest it against the wall like mine,” I say, motioning to my AKM; it's not an AK-47, despite what the uninformed claim. I demonstrate how it’s done by levitating it with my horn.
She unslings her AK-74 and tries to imitate me. I’m glad that she chooses not to keep the bayonet attached. Mine always is. Miraculously, it doesn’t take her long at all. “Did I do well, serzhant?” She’s giving me that nervous look that’s just pleading for my approval.
I swallow my impulse to be nasty. “You did good, soldat.” Her wings flare again. Not another freaking squeak! What is it with FNP’s, especially the mares, and always trying to get my damn approval? What am I, their father? I am one, but not to any of them. I have a freaking wife! I turn away and look out over the crossroads. We are supposed to be keeping watch, after all. She wordlessly copies my lead and stands in the shadows, gazing out into the dark, overcast, day. She doesn’t freak out when she sees what are littering the fields. Perhaps she hasn’t noticed? It is a tad too dark for pegasus eyes Maybe she does, for her eyes moisten again. Pathetic.
Fortunately, she isn’t a talker. Unfortunately, she is a remarkable songstress and a literal animal magnet. Her voice is not the most beautiful thing I’ve ever heard. That would be the thunder of our company’s fifty caliber NSV heavy machine guns punctuated with the screams of zebra separatist fighters being mowed down like dominoes. Regardless, we soon have a small zoo of birds, mice, and other cute critters crowding around the tower. I don’t care as long I can do my job. She cracks a smile. I think that’s the first one she’s made ever since she arrived here in Chechneya a couple of weeks ago. I space out and go on autopilot, reacting only to motion. I wish that something would happen so that I’d get a chance to shoot somepony. Nothing happens for several hours. I pass the time by pulling my combat knife from its sheath and sharpening it. I also give my rifle its first cleaning in weeks and make sure that the sights are set for the correct range.
The rains come as usual. The one downside to taking up position in the tower is that it's always cool and drafty in here. It’s miserable when it rains. She hugs herself tightly, squeezes into the shelter of her corner, and tries to watch the crossroads. She did an okay job for the first few minutes until something in the road made her gasp and retreat into her corner. I expected her to cry, but all that happened was that water ran down her face. I was soaked too. I couldn’t tell whether it came from her eyes or from the clouds. I watched for several minutes more before I finally saw what had shaken her. The rain had acted like a reagent upon what was unmistakably blood on the road. Pegasi, being flyers, have unusually good detail vision and ability to detect colors. Nothing happens for even more hours, except for the rain stopping.
A low rumbling fills my ears. It's unmistakably from a diesel engine common to both Equestrian and Chechneyan military vehicles. At first, I worry and grab my rifle. She follows my lead, shaking visibly. I steal a look at her AK-74. The black duracoat only bears the faintest of scratches from the selector switch. My AKM has a wicked scar gouged into the blued steel. I bring my weapon up to my shoulder. I had chambered a round and set it to semiautomatic before I stepped outside the wire. She hastily bats her selector one notch down to automatic and then chambers a round. She just stands there, gun at her hip. At least she gives them somepony else to shoot at.
The vehicle appears with a roar and a cloud of black smoke. It’s just an ordinary Royal Equestian Army truck without a cover over the bed. It stops. I lower my weapon slightly, but it’s still ready to go. She, however, unloads it, clears the chamber, and turns the safety back on. I silently groan. She is still staring at the truck. It’s full of captured zebra insurgents with maybe a handful to a dozen civilians, so what’s the big deal? Maybe today won’t be too bad after all. I leer a little, but maintain a careful watch. You never know if the mules are going to try pulling something, or if we’ll just have to liquidate the stock. It’s not like there’s anything unusual about that. It’s what usually happens, given our kapitan’s reputation… Anyway, they’re being quiet and cooperative, which is a good sign. A runner is sent to go alert the kapitan that we’ve captured a fresh group.
I ask my comrade, “Soldat, do you see any shamans in that group?” Shamans have magical powers like unicorns, but they look just like ordinary zebras.
She shakes her head. “No, sergeant.” She gazes intently at them. One of them is looking up at us. He can probably see us, so I point my gun at him to remind him of exactly where he is and how things stand. He turns away and hunches lower into the truck. We’re all clothed from head to hoof, so we probably look just as anonymous and faceless to him as he does to us.
Many minutes pass with nothing happening. The clouds open up. For the first time in days, I can see the sun and feel its warmth. Interesting fact: pegasi are notoriously night blind. Now that my comrade can see properly, she promptly lets out a frightened squeak. “What’s the matter? Can’t handle a few dead bodies?” More like several are scattered throughout the field with a couple on the edge of the road. A burned-out truck is crashed in a ditch with the bullet-riddled corpse of the driver hanging limply from the shot-out windshield. His passenger had been ejected in the crash and had a bayonet gash in his neck. I like it when ponies admire my work.
“But there are so many ponies laying out in the open. Why?” Her eyes are pleading with me, brimming with tears.
“It’s not our problem. If you want to ask about volunteering as a gravedigger, then go ask the kapitan. Otherwise, shut up.”
“But they’re ponies, serzhant! Just like me and you!”
“We’re at war with them. And you know they do to our dead. They attacked us first and seceded without regard for our constitution. Four hundred of our innocent citizens were murdered by these vermin in the Autumn Equinox bombings. You know about the massacres where chechneyans round up every equestrian they can find and shoot them. They've killed ponies dear to both you and I. You know about the pogroms. You know how they refuse our offers of peace. We are here to protect our people and get justice. This is their reward. They don’t deserve mercy.”
“But still.. I, uhh- EEP!” The runner returns with an RPD over his shoulder and says something to the guys guarding the prisoners. Two of them walk around to the back of the truck and order everyone out before one of them waves over to the guys at the checkpoint sitting behind the NSV. “Um, serzhant? What’re they doing?”
The prisoners all look jumpy now. I consider firing. I turn my head just enough to reply in her direction. “What do you think?” She hides her face and turns away, sniffling. “Compose, yourself, soldat!” I snarl at her. She stands stock still and watches the macabre spectacle unfolding before her. I put my hoof on the sliding trigger plate located just fore of the stock of my assault rifle and aim down the sights.
I see the same zebra who had looked upon on earlier rocking back in forth, limbs crossed across his chest. He can’t be that much older than most of our guys. Hell, he’s probably a bit younger. His day must not be going well. The damned wretch was probably freaking out big time. He and a few others seem to understand what’s going on. They've done this. This is our retribution. The terror spreads when great belts of shiny fifty caliber ammunition are paraded up to the machine guns. The truth is finally dawning on them. They remind me of cattle I had once seen during a foalhood trip to a slaughterhouse. They are trapped. The gates open. The way is shut. This is the end.
The machine guns are loaded. The terror turns to panic as the sounds of metal contacting metal emanate from the machine guns. The panic comes to a boil. One zebra stands up and tries to bargain with us. To my faint surprise, the voice is that of an older mare. She argues so forcefully that all attention is focused on her, though I don’t know what she’s saying. On officer strides up to her and puts his pistol to her head. CRACK! Laughter resounds.
I suddenly see a shape make a break for it! It’s that same young zebra from earlier. He’s trying to use the dead truck to preserve his life. Nopony moves to stop him. It’s my perfect opportunity to avenge those they've taken from me, but I have a better idea. I turn to my comrade and hand her my avtomat.
“No…” She speaks in barely a horrified whisper. Her eyes have never been wider.
“Yes. Kill him.”
“I said no!”
I pull out my knife. “Okay, soldat. I’ll give you a choice. Either I kill you or you kill him. You can save him, if you so choose, but at the cost of your own life. Or you can kill him and I’ll spare you. It’s your decision. So, what’s it going to be, soldat? Your life or his?” It won't make a difference, but she doesn't know that. The zebra keeps running down the road as fast as his legs can carry him, his path taking him closer to us. He runs by one of our trucks parked on the shoulder. The guys in it just watch. I spur my comrade on. “Do it!”
She looks down at my gun for several seconds. The zebra tries to conceal himself behind some bushes not even one hundred and twenty meters away. He could make it! I look to her rifle. She slowly brings mine up to her shoulder, assuming a textbook firing stance. Her right hoof is in the plate socket. The plate slides a little. I hear a sniffle and then BOOM!
“AAAHHHHH! MAAAMMAAA!” The zebra stumbles out of the bushes, clutching at his abdomen.
“One more- give him one more!” BOOM! His clothes jump. He clutches at his chest, but he desperately tries to push on. Red soaks his white stripes as he begins to sway.
“I’m sorry…” She hesitates.
“Go on, shoot.” BOOM! His sides jump. With one last step, he collapses onto the ground. Red pools around him and then he moves no more.
“Serzhant, I …” Tears stain her lapels. I read her name tape once more and then embrace her. She heaves, but is drowned out by the most wonderful sound in the world. Her cries mingle in with the cacophony.
When it stops a few seconds later, I beam at her. “You did good, Fluttershy! Not bad for a conscript.”
"I'm not a conscript!" She looks at me, tears visibly streaming from her eyes. "I took my friends place."