Off The Grid

by MajorPaleFace

Call to Arms

After securing the captives, John had returned to the ambush site to update the Princess. Having recounted their find in detail, from the subterranean cave, the ambush and the ponies they’d discovered.

“You sustained no losses? Very well done, Commander.” The appraisal in her words evident.

“The female in the Royal Guard has a few scrapes, nothing fatal. She and the other Royal Guard did well, considering. They remained calm and professional despite being outnumbered.” John said, his head tilted in the barest sign of approval.

Luna smiled a little, “Excellent, Prepare for departure, I’ll relay our current condition to my sister – and we shall leave within the hour.”

Luna couldn’t discern the look he returned as he left, not quite a smile – in fact, his face – the few times she’d seen it – seemed to express very little, his blue eyes always retained the same coldness.

Luna summoned a little magic across her horn, willing it from deep within, she felt it flash to life as she conjured a magic-scroll spell, then wrote a brief summary and addressed it to her sister. Luna encapsulated a small vile of dragons’ breath in her magic from a recess in her chest armour, the scroll flashed away into green fire and smoke.

* * *

Following the humans return, Captain Ivory Sky summoned one of her senior NCOs (non-commissioned officer) “Sergeant White Flag,” she waited patiently for a few breaths as the stocky earth Stallion got to be within leg-length from her.

“You called, ma'am?”

White Flag was Ivory’s most experienced soldier, the only one in her unit truly deserving of the title. He’d served for 12 years as a Palace Guard, a slightly more elite group of the Royal Guard, they worked more closely with the royals and other ponies of interest. Their training was intense and specialized in surveillance and counter-surveillance, they also underwent extensive training in close quarters combat.

He’d battled against several assassins and bounty hunters in the capitols lower districts and had fought hard against the changeling invasion. Aside from the grizzled sergeant and herself, along with a select few others – notably the two she’d sent to help investigate along with the biped – they were the only Guards in the 7th who had shed another’s blood.

She wiped away a stray hair from her cheek and spoke in a hushed whisper, “have a squad escort the civilians to just outside of the crash site, and ensure they don’t stray too far and stumble across it.”

“You got it, boss,” he grumbled.

“Take leave of them and have Captain Stark Wing summon some transports, get them back home and safe, Sergeant. After that you’re to head south and deeper into this woodland,” she scowled uncharacteristically at the canopy overhead as the sound of the breeze rustled the branches. She looked back to the square-faced sergeant, “before you and your stallions depart – have a few of the captives questioned – we want to know where they came from and when they were taken."

“Aye, Aye,” he said in a regular-volume voice before shouting, “second squad – on your hooves!”

* * *

After a few more minutes, most of the gathered Guards had dispersed into the forest following several trails, like ants forging through the grass.

The assembly of pony captives were brought to the surface by the Lieutenant and the other four Guards, many of them crying – all of them looking absolutely miserable – John didn’t really understand, he’d be more upbeat if he’d been freed.

Nevertheless, Princess Luna moved toward them. Only once the first few ponies noticed their blue pariah, did they straighten up and crack off hastily performed bows, spitting out jubilant words of thanks for their saviour.

She spoke softly enough that John couldn’t hear their dialogue, his armour lay at the group’s rear. As a single short Guard made way for the crash site, John took steps toward his armour. Receiving several uncertain glances as he walked past and a small, wave-like gesture from the pony with the daisy chain mark.

He gave a little hand wave of his own, before entering his power armour. It hissed and clanked as the suit blossomed open – stepping inside, the reverse of the opening movements caused him to be swallowed up. Once again covered in hardened steel, John felt a slim sense of normalcy.

His suits systems were reporting nominal. The medical suite flashing a low-level alert – John’s ribs had taken a battering when he’d been tackled, a few stretches and in a few days’ time the doubtless large bruising would subside.

It had been some time since he’d eaten, over 50 hours, in fact, he’d had plenty to drink due to his suits waste-recycling system – the water always tasted a little chalky but it would keep him alive. He could “relieve” himself without exiting his armour, an experience he’d never truly gotten used to. Probably for the best, he thought.

He set his suits system to decant its waste as he stomped through some nearby shrubbery, he then walked over to the gathered ponies and once more excited his armour. Inside the large cylindrical canister attached to his lower back, he’d stored several litres of fresh water and many days’ worth of MREs (Meals, ready to eat). He quickly took a litre bottle and drank it in several seconds, his head tilting fully back as he did so.

A few ponies nearby seemed to study him intently, more so out of curiosity he thought. He then took a silver packet out, John read the words on the front out loud, “Meal Ready to Eat, black bean and chick-pea curry.”

Two young-faced mares glanced at each other, sat a couple body lengths away, one had a clump of hay in her pink magic, the other eating some ground up wet substance from some brown wrapping paper.

He pulled out a little heating unit, not much bigger than the palm of his hand – he pressed the twin pads against either side of the packet, activated the heating coils and set it on the ground, it would take but a few minutes.

“What is that?” The mare on the left asked, her voice slightly sultry, the other looked intrigued as well.

“Black bean and chick-pea curry,” John repeated immediately. He set about making sure his equipment was in proper working order, paying close attention to his side-arm as it was thrown to the ground.

Energy weapons were powerful. While they had undergone extensive improvements since their invention a few centuries prior, they still held delicate crystals inside that needed constant realignment.

The second mare hummed, “sounds nice,” her voice was higher in pitch and she sounded like a teenager to John, “better than the cold gruel we’re eating.”

After a few moments of tense silence, John took a couple of long strides to be face-to-face with the pair of horned Guards. He squatted so as to be at just about eye level with them.

“When mine’s done you can have a little taste each if you like, your Princess has assured me our internal organs work in much the same way, digestion-wise closest of all.

He was met with twin white smiles, “I think that’s the first good thing my ears have heard all day,” said the first mare.

“Ditto,” mirrored the other, “do you have a name?”

The older-sounding mare shoved a hoof into her partner’s side, getting a wince in response, “of course he has a name!”

They both then turned to John, the first with a slight frown and the other with an apologetic look.

“I am Commander John Maxon, of the Brotherhood of Steel,” he then leaned in with a little smile and extended a black-coated hand, “but you can call me John.”

The first slowly extended a foreleg and couldn’t hide her interest when John gave it a little squeeze and a couple of shakes.

“Rose Quartz,” she said as John released her leg and offered the same hand to the unnamed mare.

Oh,” she started as she pressed a leg into John’s waiting hand, “I’m Guard Berry Twist, but you can call me Twist,” she gave a slightly nervous laugh that sounded a little breathless as her pure white cheeks became tinted a little red.

“A pleasure,” John replied looking each in the eye in turn as he stood up and returned to his MRE. The silver pack had started to swell and condensation had built on the outside, John deactivated the heating coils and left the heating unit on the ground to cool down.

He picked up the hot packet and tore off a large piece of its corner. A small fork clutched in the other hand, he returned to the ponies and sat cross-legged in front of them.

They were sat on their rears, the tail of Twist swished back and forth a few times, her face had returned to its normal colour.

He took a forkful and offered it to Rose, who took the steaming food from the fork in pink magic, Twist doing the same with her light blue magic.

They sniffed it in Union before blowing on it slowly and even more slowly depositing it in their mouths. They chewed and their faces lit up in small smiles as their eyes brightened. They liked it John reckoned.

His hunger returning with an ever so slightly audible gurgle, he began eating his first meal in days – finishing the packet quickly, his hunger causing him to ignore the searing heat of the food. For a meal with no use-by date, it really was pretty good.

After John began eating his meal, Twist and Rose matched his eating speed, eating cold, brown gruel and a small selection of fruits and vegetables respectively.

Twist groaned, “this oatmeal tastes even worse after that stuff,” she flicked her head in the direction of John’s lap where the empty packet lay. The canister at his side, he'd retrieved a small blue toothbrush and had begun brushing his teeth with a small globule of toothpaste.

He gave a paste-coated grin and spoke in an unintelligible mumble, “what’d he say?” asked Rose.

“He said the black bean curry was his favourite,” Twist replied.

Rose looked unsure, “you understood that?”

“I’ve got five sisters, we used to mumble at each other all the time as fillies.”

Rose could only hum as they both tidied up their eating supplies at the command of a Lunar Guard.

John spat a torrent of white foam and washed his mouth with water, the chilled air that hit his teeth and gums feeling like pure cleanliness.

He rose and collected his rubbish, putting everything back into his supply canister, he hefted the cylinder onto his armours lower back. He performed a few last-minute checks and bid farewell to Twist and Rose as he was beckoned by the Princess.

After suiting up, he thundered toward Princess Luna. Stood with her were Captains Stark Wing and Ivory Sky, Lieutenant Midnight joined them shortly after Johns arrival.

“Commander,” the tabby-coloured Lieutenant welcomed. The blood and gore of her armour having been cleaned.

“Lieutenant,” John responded, his armours speakers tinting his voice with a mechanical and more nasally sound.

Ah, human – we will be leaving shortly, well done in helping to rescue some of my little ponies. You’re to be commended once we return to Canterlot.” John had a locker full of awards somewhere on the wreck of the Anlace.

“That’s hardly necessary, we had an agreement and I intend to hold up my end.” His voice held no emotion, killing was a business and if it secured him a chance at getting home, he’d take it.

The Princess tutted, “come now John Maxon, you’ve performed valiantly and I’d like to see that recognized,” she gave a sweeping gesture at the retreating forms of the civilians, “you helped to rescue our people, you fought off the second ambush since your arrival here yesterday and we truly believe that without your assistance we – I – could have been harmed or even killed.”

She had moved closer now, almost touching him as she looked up into his downturned helmet, “I never truly thanked you for that, so I’m saying it now – thank you – allow us to properly acknowledge your exploits with an official ceremony. Once we’ve finished our task-at-hoof, of course.”

She remained uncomfortably close for John’s liking and he suppressed the urge to step back, “think nothing of it, you don’t owe me anything, Princess. If pinning a medal on my chest will help ease your perceived debt – then I’ll agree to it.” He said, finally taking a step back.

“But you needn’t bring it up again until we’re back safe and sound,” he continued with a sense of finality, “But I accept your gratitude, unwarranted though it is.” He offered an armour covered arm, fingers splayed.

She didn’t smile but gave a look of appreciation, extending a silver clad hoof, they shook a few times without speaking. Blue eyes meeting John’s blank eye slits.

“Princess,” Captain Sharp Wing said, “we’re ready to leave. I’ve ordered 40 Guards to hold a defensive pocket here with Captain Ivory, while you, me,” he directed a queer look at John, “him, Lieutenant Midnight and a couple squads make to catch up with our forward units.”

Luna moved away from John as she nodded, “Captain – let’s begin.”

* * *

After three hours of marching, their small band had advanced about 25 kilometres across a large area covered chiefly in trees and undergrowth. Which had become less autumn-themed American woodland, growing in density – and more southeast Pacific jungle. John had seen many bizarre biomes back on Earth, but never a hybrid Greenland.

The sun had begun to set turning the sky a brilliant orange. The jungle still retained the same smoke and haziness to it – albeit leafier and with fewer woodland branches.

Following the tracks of their forward scouts had been easy, several pegasi scouts had relayed directional and intent changes every so often. They’d stopped once for twenty minutes before carrying on.

Now they’d reached a small clearing, the majority of their scouts had established a camp here with two small groups covering their western and eastern flanks.

John had spent most of the journey with a weapon in armoured hand, eyes watching for movement in the thicket line or for snipers in the trees. He’d chatted aimlessly with Princess Luna about the possible origin of those captives.

To which she’d responded, “Sergeant White Flag will be here by nightfall and update us, I’ve ordered the questioning of our citizens before they’re evacuated to Canterlot for medical treatment.

After arriving, John had helped to secure the perimeter from about a thousand meters from the temporary camp. Himself, along with Lieutenant Midnight, Dark Goldenrod and Guards Berry Twist and Inglewood had performed an oscillating patrol pattern. They had begun east of the encampment and worked in silence for the 45 minutes it took them to patrol south and then west, slightly back on themselves.

John had laid a few sensor bogies across the patrols arc if anything moved within 50 meters of one of them it would trigger an alarm in his suit.

With a scant few moments of waning twilight left, John and his patrol mates began setting up their own sleeping areas. The ponies segregating themselves by unit – John somewhere on the barely-perceivable edges of both groups.

Situated between Midnight and her squad and the Royal Guards from the cave ambush, John departed his armour and checked it and his weapons one last time as darkness encapsulated them. No open fires or light sources were permitted so as to not give away their position.

He chatted and shared another MRE with those ponies, tried some unappetizing gruel – Princess Luna joined them and offered some of her own, slightly nicer ration – they discussed matters of the universe, John tried to explain the basic principles that led to his displacement.

As many of the Guards retired for the night, heading for bedrolls and miniature tents, Sergeant White Flag entered the clearing with a dozen Guards in tow.

He spoke quietly to those with him and they headed for the Royal Guard cluster, the Sergeant manoeuvring for the Princess and John.

“Sergeant,” Lieutenant Midnight greeted quietly as he sat, she offered him a water bladder.

“My thanks,” he replied, greedily drinking without wasting a drop.

The three of them waited for the stocky stallion to finish before Luna asked, “We hope you are the bearer of good news.”

He tilted his head with his eyes cast downward, he looked dead-tired, “Unfortunately Princess, I am not.”

The blue Princess leaned forward, her eyes bearing an intenseness John hadn’t yet seen.

“Speak. Please do not tarry, sergeant.”

He sighed, “They come from a small mining settlement near Dodge Junction called Aylesbury. I have family that way, ma’am – its mostly workers and merchants with their families.” His face showed signs of dread. “The entire town was attacked, it was still ongoing when they were taken.”

Her voice was painted with compassion, “fear not, Sergeant – spread the word; five hours of rest – one hour on Guard and four to sleep. We shall withdraw under the shadow of darkness,” she levitated a small map out, John’s eyesight had been medically altered to allow pretty fair vision in pitch blackness.

Nevertheless, he had a small hand-held red torch and shone it on the parchment-like map, the ponies glancing at the light and then to him without mentioning it. “It won’t reveal our position,” John assured.

“This is where we are,” she gestured at a small circle that had been drawn. John could see the route they’d taken from the mountain range where the Anlace lay.

“This is Dodge Junction,” she traced a line south toward a symbol of an asterisk, “and here is this town, Aylesbury. Is that correct, Sergeant?” She asked, aiming the map at the stallion who twisted his head around to look.

After a beat, “Yes, that’s definitely it, Princess. I requested Captain Ivory to accompany me, she awaits slightly north of our position with her platoon.”

“As you say, Sergeant. Do as asked and then retire when you are able.”

“Gladly,” he snapped off a quick salute and trotted deeper into the maze of tents.

Luna looked sternly at them both, “ensure that you are well rested also, tomorrow I expect we will all need as much energy as possible. Farewell,” she said as she left for her own tent.

John offered a small nod, while Midnight lay down on the bedroll she had been sitting on. Her head resting on crossed forelegs, she had removed much of her armour and her furred ears swivelled as the sounds of the nighttime reached them. John could see the muscles visibly flex as she gave a slight yawn and a stretch, her amber eyes never left him.

“What?” She asked pointedly.

“Nothing,” John returned, laying on a bedroll of his own, he was flat on his back and stared at the sprinkled starlight visible through the leafy canopy overhead. As he took in the sounds and smells of the greenland, he closed his eyes and immediately fell asleep.

* * *

Dreaming, John was sure he was dreaming. He’d had this one several times before – the swirling smoke stretching into the sky, the sounds of laser and gunfire, the smell of scorched earth and of burned flesh; he saw his own hand tighten a dirty bandage around his forearm – a lucky escape from a potentially amputating laser strike.

He ignored the pain as his knuckles clicked signalling that he’d tightened the knot as much as he could. On a stretcher in front of him lay the lifeless corpse of Knight Huxley. She’d been a new transfer to his unit, her once bright green eyes stared coldly at an angle, John reached over and raised a woollen blanket over her face.

“Knight Maxon,” the smooth womanly voice of his Paladin said, “gather weapons and ammo, we move out in five.”

He glanced up at her face, pale skin from a lifetime in power armour, grey-blonde hair betraying her age, soft features marred with a few wispy scars at the corner of her thin lips. She studied him for what felt like an eternity, but John knew it was only a few heartbeats. He paid particular attention to her eyes, soft hazel and full of energy.

“I’ll be ready,” John affirmed, before beginning an inspection of his gear – the beige and orange bodysuit he wore covered in grime – he’d been living in it for months now. It had deep gouges across his right calf where a super mutant hound had managed to pierce his thick power armour.

A hound – like their formerly human masters – were wasteland dogs subjected to horrible mutation by exposure to FEV. Forced Evolutionary Virus. It took the average and altered its DNA, modifying humans into towering, grotesque, green-skinned monsters and dogs into stocky, stubby muscle-bound abominations. They were a plague.

He had seen the event unfold a thousand times; he wanted to scream – to call out – to grab her, but in this dreamscape, he could only watch now as he had then and every other time. As he had nearly lost an arm to a mutant counterattack, a second one began as a single high-velocity bullet passed through into the un-helmeted head of his Commanding Officer.

* * *

John awoke with a start, laser pistol in hand – he scanned the darkness around him, trailing his sights over the forms of sleeping ponies and tents. Eventually, the weapon pointed a few inches from the Lieutenants face.

She’d awoken to him sitting up, he looked at her large, alert yellow eyes and the half-drawn dagger from within her fur, before he lowered the weapon. His heart hammered in his ears but his breathing was steady due to a lifetime of battle.

“What is it?” She asked quietly.

“Nothing,” he replied as he exhaled through his nose, “just a bad dream.”

“Oh,” she said softly, the dagger clicked back into its sheath, “Feel like talking about it?”

He was lent back on his elbows, feet out with knees slightly bent. He made a circle gesture with his sidearm, “not particularly.”

John could see her head lay back on her forelegs, “it might help.”

Neither one said anything for a while, John simply watched the stars overhead, a damp sweat clung to his forehead.

Finally, he closed his eyes and began talking barely above a whisper, “I’ve had the same dream for years now. I don’t know why.” His eyes opened and he turned them on Midnight.

“Sounds more like a memory,” her eyes were a little unfocused.

“It is. I’m at peace with what happened – it happened; I can’t change that, so why keep dreaming about it?” He whispered a little angrily.

She shrugged in response, “so what happens in these dreams?”

John huffed a little sigh, before beginning a little unsurely, “Years ago, shortly after I was first promoted, my unit and I were part of a massive battle – almost half a million of us fought for about eight months against a march larger and more aggressive enemy.”

Her head raised at this, “more of your kind?”

“Not exactly,” Johns' eyes became a little diluted.

He began explaining to the Lieutenant. In central Asia, a place formally known as Tashkent – a Soviet-era city, had a post-war population of almost a million mutants. They had been capturing humans across Europe and Asia with the intent of reclaiming the world as the new dominant species. Not if the Brotherhood of Steel had anything to say about it.

John had been deployed for six months with the 30th Shock Battery, woven into the larger 2nd Mechanized Infantry division as part of the 8th Army. They’d been hammering away at the city’s defences with artillery, siege units and air strikes, to little avail. The mutants would have to be pulled out one-by-stinking-one on the backs of dead soldiers like Knight Huxley.

John and the 30th had pushed north through the southern reach of a town called Kursoy and were bottled into a concrete maze of a place named Balta, nothing but scorched concrete for mile after mile.

John’s memory of this time was a painful one, the nightmares had gotten a hold of him once he’d taken the mutant stronghold two months later. But not before 200,000 of his brothers and sisters had given their name in steel for the sake and safety of the European continent.

Lieutenant Midnight lay with her head up, listening intently the entire time – occasionally she would ask a question and John would supply her with meaning before continuing.

“Who was this other human?” She asked pensively, “were you married?”

John actually smiled a genuine smile for a moment before regaining the same blank look, “No.”

He scratched the back of his short-cropped hair, his laser pistol back in its holster, “I knew her during my training as a squire – a child ­­– we lost contact until I was promoted, where I learned she would be my squad leader. She was a fine soldier and a good friend,” his voice seemed to lose an octave or two but Midnight wasn’t certain she hadn’t imagined it.

She took a sip of her water bladder and offered it to John who took it with a brief smile of thanks, “How long before we need to tidy up camp and keep heading south?” He asked taking a sip of his own.

She glanced at the stars, her head swivelling at the neck, “perhaps less than an hour.”

John nodded, before laying back down, an arm behind his head, he didn’t sleep – but watched the night sky. He counted a few shooting stars and idly wished that he could have saved her, he couldn’t bring himself to tell anyone but he had been very fond of her, maybe even loved her.

He closed his eyes and allowed a small smile as his mind wondered, thoughts of his life drifted in and out, he saw her face, watched her smile and her eyes brighten when she looked at him. Then she was gone, replaced with others – many of them dead.

“Form up!” The harsh whisper of a nearby Guard broke John from his thoughts. it was still pitch black, his natural eyesight could see quite well despite the darkness. He packed away his bedroll and made for his power armour.

Not more than fifteen minutes had passed before the ponies and John had cleared up their camp and were moving again – this time in several larger groups spread out over a kilometre.

The frosted ground crunched underneath Johns power armour, they’d been walking for a few hours now and according to Luna, they would emerge from the treeline soon.

“From there Aylesbury should be visible, we will have our Lunar Guards and some pegasi screen the town from the air,” she began as her, John, the Lieutenant, Sergeant White Flag and Captains Sharp Wing and Ivory were gathered around her scribble laden map.

“We shall approach the town in three groups,” she added markers to her map, “ourselves and John will take group centre and head straight for the town. Lieutenant,” she began.

“Yes, ma’am?” Lieutenant Midnight was back in her armour and looked fresh.

“We want you to perform aerial recon. If a changeling presence is confirmed you’re to act on initiative and attack where possible.”

“Captain Ivory, you and Sergeant White Flag lead your platoon and a squad of my Guards around the village and attack it from the rear.”

Princess Luna then looked lengthways at Captain Sharp Wing, “Captain, take half of the 1st and a few platoons from the 7th. We’ll meet in a pincer move at the towns west side.”

“You all have your tasks – we’ve still a half an hour of darkness left before the assault begins. If there are any civilians left; keep them safe above all else – understood?” Her harsh glare swept across all faces present.

She was met with a chorus of “Yes, ma’am!” and “Aye, Aye!”

As the gathered ponies disbanded to carry out their tasks, John and Luna remained together as she checked her map for a few moments more.

“Commander,” she was still looking at the map, “stay close to us and do what you do best should we encounter any threats.”

“It could have been days or weeks since the attack, what makes you think there are any left alive?” He asked.

Finally, she looked at him with resolve, “Call it a hunch, John Maxon.”

* * *

They hid, quaking and sweating with fear as the Changeling Hooves creaked the floorboards overhead. As the children huddled with their father, the mother clamped her foreleg over the baby’s mouth. Tears streamed silently down her face as the baby turned blue and then limp.

She mouthed the words, “No, no, no, no, no!” She desperately shook her baby’s body, in the distance, a piercing scream echoed into the room above. The changelings screeched and hissed in response, leaving rapidly as furniture was overturned and glass shattered.

Her husband crept over as their other two daughters held each other, faces matted with tears. He put his ear to their youngest’s chest before opening her small, blue-tinted mouth and forced a small breath into her. Her chest rose and he pressed gently on her small body to exhale the air.

The mother allowed a small sob to escape her as she held her limp child in her forelegs, her husband kept breathing into their daughter and then pressing her chest, again and again.

She’d just about given up hope when their youngest started to hack and cough as she shuddered with her own breathing.

“Oh!” The mother cried gleefully as her and her family hugged one another, a miracle she thought.

Just then a bright orange glow made itself known, as flames trickled through the floorboards in the corner of their basement, “They must have knocked over the oil lamp!” She exclaimed in a harsh whisper.

Her husband made for the hatch to their living room, they weren’t magic users and he had to resort to brute strength to try to bust the trap door open.

He huffed with the effort as the door wouldn’t budge, something must have fallen onto it – “Help me!”

She tried, their three daughters cuddling together as the flames splashed down in a torrent now, the two parents grunted and shouted in anger as their only means of escape was left sealed.

“Damn it!” Her husband shouted in frustration.

As the flames had started to rage more glass could be heard breaking upstairs, “Mommy!”

* * *

They had gathered on the edge of the treeline, the ground dropped away from them and spread out across a large, barren plateau. On the other side rested the small town of Aylesbury. It had perhaps a few hundred buildings, John estimated the town could have held a few thousand ponies. Using the extreme magnification that his Heads-Up Display allowed, he could see a large open-air market, shapes moved around the town and in the sky; smoke drifted from a dozen points.

“Changelings,” The Princess growled, sourly. John had to agree.

She looked at John as he readied his laser rifle, an assortment of plasma and fragmentation grenades magnetized onto his torso like baubles on a Christmas tree.

Stretched into four groups of varying size, Luna had over four hundred Guards at her disposal. She and John would move straight for the town with two mixed-unit companies, under aerial escort by a further platoon-sized Lunar Guard flight, led by Lieutenant Midnight.

Captain Ivory was a few hundred meters to the Princess’s left flank with a platoon of the 7th Auxiliary and a squad of her personal Lunar Guard.

To her right flank, Captain Sharp Wing would take the remaining company and carve around to the west. Attacking along with the centre group in a pincer move, joining within the town.

A Pegasus and a Bat-Pony arrived with much speed behind them, landing in front of the Lunar monarch, “Report!” She shouted, in full-on military mode.

The pair snapped off quick salutes and confirmed their unit’s readiness, “Tell your commanders to attack at once.”

They scurried off, leaving plumes of dust as they flew away at great speed.

“Lieutenant! Begin your attacking run!” Luna called to an armoured bat-pony, three dozen equally armoured thestrals arrayed around her. They took off fast with chittering yells and whoops. They arrayed into rough V formations and flew for the town.

Luna drew her twin curved sabres and took the lead, John following at her side. They moved quickly – the three platoons behind them coming after with weapons of their own.

The bat-ponies moved with purpose, speed and strength despite their heavier armour, while the all-white Royal Guards moved in looser, less organised patterns.

Off to their left and right, John could see the other two groups heading for the town. Ahead of them the Lieutenant and her unit had been engaged by black bug-horses. Several changeling bodies dropped from the sky as steel wing-blades met chitinous armour.

They were a hundred meters from the town and closing fast, swarms in the dozens left the rooftops to climb toward the Thestral threat. They bobbed and weaved as both groups performed aerial combat.

Many larger, wingless changelings stormed out of the town’s narrow streets and alleys toward the Princess’s group – an armoured Lunar Guard fell from flight with two Changelings attached.

“Form up! Defensive column around the Princess!” A toneless female voice shouted and the Guards all acted as one.

A circular formation arrayed around John and Princess Luna, they were tightly pressed together, a mix of silver-grey and gold armour jockeying for position.

Johns entire upper body was above the pony line, he came up with a plan. “Advance!”

A few ponies swivelled their heads to give questioning glances at the Princess, “do it!” She said without hesitation.

The centre group had formed into three wedge-shaped columns. The Princess and John situated in the middle group surrounded by Lunar Guard.

At the command of a front-facing Guards voice, “Company! Push forward!”

The three wedges took off at a light trot, John began firing over the heads of the ponies. Laser bolts flashed across the open ground to meet charcoal, Changeling hide. Several went down, John not relenting.

Many of the laser strikes passed through flesh and cauterised bone before burrowing into the creatures behind.

The Lunar Guard and some members of the Royal Guard used wings and magic to propel an array of throwing weapons, mostly short spears. The Princess used her magic to lift a large portion of dirt and mud, before launching it at the Changeling horde. It crashed into their centre formation and crushed a dozen of them.

The Lieutenant had lost a few of her ponies to Changeling interceptors. But as their aerial numbers diminished and they saw the losses they had sustained on the ground, many sought to dive-bomb the Princess and John with magic attacks and themselves as they rocketed toward them on kamikaze runs.

Many of the ponies catapulted spears and daggers, a few magical blasts shooting out to pluck the closing Changelings from the sky.

John reloaded again and lobbed a pair of fragmentation grenades in a high arc over the Changeling hordes heads. They were cluster-bomb variants, twin sparks and wisps of smoke denoted the discharge of a dozen bomblets.

The Changeling swarm, originally numbering almost a hundred had shed its numbers, the multitude of small explosions wracking the remainder and sending them into a frenzy. John then depleted his entire Microfusion cell by firing a continuous, long burst of laser fire at the Changeling mass.

Despite the noise of battle, Johns amplified hearing could detect the sound of Sergeant White Flags voice carrying on the wind, “Steady!”

Two dozen remaining Changelings on the ground bid a hasty retreat, the air battle had been won and the surviving Lunar Guards flew through into the town’s airspace.

“Guard Maelstrom, take a squad of thestrals and reinforce the Lieutenant!”

“Yes, ma’am!” Responded a gruff male voice.

Several armoured thestrals shot off and headed toward the skyline above the rooftops.

They had begun walking over the remains of the Changelings, the few survivors quickly being dispatched. A handful of living Thestrals lay with cuts and stab wounds from the air battle, some with broken bones or twisted wings from the fall back to the ground.

“Guards Twist, Inglewood, get these wounded on their hoofs and take shelter in that building,” she gestured at a limestone cottage, “Commander – clear it out. The rest of you, form up and move down this road here, “she indicated with an up-and-down motion of her leg.

As John thundered toward the dressed-down cottage, he could hear shouts and sounds of battle carry on the wind. His steel-clad back slammed against the wall next to the door.

He peered through the portal and listened; inside he heard chittering speech, he burst through the opening to see two large Changelings – one applying some kind of salve to shrapnel wounds on the other.

Upon seeing John, they both drew chitinous blades in sickly green magic, one fired a bolt of energy at John – he sidestepped – it splashed onto the wall where he had just been, blackening it. John fired two quick burst, one stream of laser fire into each of them.

Their charred and scorched body’s danced in death as one launched over a table and the other was sent clattering into the wall. Smoke and embers sizzled from their black flesh, John swept the one-level building, leading with a stubby laser weapon.

“Clear!” He bellowed, before returning to the entrance. As he stuck his head out a massive green energy lance whipped across the street over the heads of the ponies straight at John. He dived for the floor, stumbling half out of the building down its two stone steps.

The energy beam passed through the open doorway and blasted a hole a meter across in the opposite wall. John took a minute to abate his surprise, he leapt to his feet and adopted a square stance, knees slightly bent.

Across the street, in the window of an identical stone building, he could make out the serpentine form of what he thought of as a Changeling officer. He extended his weapon and sent an answering volley of red bolts which blasted through the open window just below where the Changelings curved horn had been.

He leant back against the wall out of habit, less obvious for snipers in a built-up area, not that this was. The forms of a few Guards supporting injured thestrals made their way into the cleared building. He moved up the street, past huddled-down Guards as they scanned the rooftops and windows.

Overhead several Changeling and Thestrals shot past, John immediately fired a few bolts into the bug-horse formation, loosing a few of them from the wind.

He quickly crossed the street to the building where the energy beam had come from. Two Royal Guards led by a Thestral pushed through the open door with John right behind.

The room had been upturned, furniture and personal belonging scattered everywhere. The slumped-over corpse of a long, slender changeling lay – its maw frozen open in its last death cry. One of the Royal Guards thrust a spear into its chest for good measure, the tip emerging coated in green blood.

Two other bodies lay against the far wall, they looked like ponies, their fur was grey-white, skin and muscles all shrivelled up like a raisin. They’d had the life sucked out of them.

The three ponies looked angrily at the two bodies, “Clear,” the Thestral grunted. John would enquire later.

He and the other Guards worked together to clear the stone houses one by one, most were empty save for the occasional withered corpse.

Eventually, John caught up with Princess Luna, her and Lieutenant Midnight were stood between a large stone building and a smaller one on the edge of a ring road that ran around a large, ornate building at the towns centre.

The pair finished talking as he approached, both looking him over, John returned the inspection. Luna looked as flawless as ever, nary a speck of dirt or grime on her. The Thestral was covered in dirt and blood, her armour covered in fresh scratches and dings – a particularly large one had just missed her neck, the thick crease it had left in her upper chest armour evident of fierce fighting.



The now standard exchange in the greeting of armoured human and tabby Thestral calming the gathered ponies nearby. The fighting along this road had been minimal, several squads had peeled off along the branching alleys.

A single Pegasus mare landed skilfully in the narrow divide, she looked a little fearfully in the direction she’d come from.

“Princess, its Captain Sharp Wing, ma’am – he’s missing and our units pinned down in an old schoolhouse just inside the boundaries of the town.”

“By our sisters’ sun, we shall locate him. Commander, go with her and continue the assault,” she peered around the corner at the central building, “we’ll relocate our wounded into that building, it looks defensible.

“Link up with Captain Sharp Wing if you can, but we need to keep moving. We fear our enemy’s numbers here are too great, we shall have word sent to Captain Stark Wing at the crash site and request reinforcements. For now, keep up the good work, human.”

“You’re the boss, boss. Come on pony, you can take point.” Johns mechanical voice very obviously unnerved the small Pegasus, but she led him away after a dismissing salute from the Princess was given.

They moved west, first crossing the end of the street they had been on. Then weaving through twisting alleys and small side-roads.

“Damn, it all looks the same from down here,” she looked skyward, “hold up, I can get a better sense from the air,” a Changeling rushed overhead followed closely by a pair of Thestrals. The Guard leapt with a single flap of her wings landed on the slanted, tiled roof above them.

She scanned around her before looking down, “okay, keep heading that way”– she was cut off, she tried to evade but not quickly enough, a large speeding Changeling careened straight into her, sending them both through shattering tiles.

The sounds of a scuffle could be heard emanating through the hole in the roof, “hang on!” John shouted.

He spun to his right and unleashed a powerful, servo-assisted kick – his armoured leg punched cleanly through the white-wall of its outside border. He then tore a large hole with his free hand, brandishing his laser weapon in the other.

Entering the lower level, aside from the debris from Johns entrance – the cosy come was otherwise tidy and undamaged.

He heard scurrying and blade strikes followed by a bone-chilling scream emanate from above him. John charged up a flight of switchback stairs; his armoured bulk damaging the walls and ceiling of the stairwell in his ascent.

As he crested the final stair, he had to stoop to fit inside the smaller upper level. The slumped forms of the Pegasus mare and a large Changeling could be easily seen. John hurried over, the floor creaked and groaned in protest but didn’t collapse.

He inspected the Changeling first, multiple stab and cut wounds disgorging fresh green fluid, it lay still with a pair of small blades protruding from its gore splattered neck. He relaxed a little and turned on the spot to look at the mare, who hadn’t suffered much better.

The mares’ helmet had been lost in the skirmish, whatever spell gifting them all with the same appearance had dissipated, leaving a pale brown pony with light orange eyes and matching mane and tail.

Her breathing came in shuddering, shallow gasps – a partially amputated foreleg clamped in some cloth with her other frontal leg.

Despite her efforts, large volumes of blood had soaked herself and saturated the wooden planks of the floor. A small puncture in her armour at chest-level slowly pumped out more deep red blood.

John crouched next to her, he began to administer first aid.

“No!” He stilled himself, looking into fear-filled eyes, “There isn’t time, you’re nearly there, in the building over,” she chocked out and gestured to the wall opposite from which John had entered.

“Just make it count,” she released the badly made tourniquet and grasped inside her chest plate as more blood began to flow uninterrupted.

She removed a coloured photograph of a pony with steel-grey fur and blue eyes, her swirled black and gold mane stretching above the picture.

She thrust it at John, “tell her I’m sorry – her names Fair Blossom, she owns a flower shop in Cloudsdale,” she grimaced and coughed, blood peppered Johns armour and hand as he relinquished the picture from her, “tell her I never stopped thinking about her.”

She sniffed some blood back into her flaring nostrils, “Celestia I don’t want to die here.”

Johns' lips fell in empathy as she cried a little, “she’ll know… she’ll know.”

John remained silent.

Her eyes glassed over and her chest became still, nostrils unable to prevent blood from trickling out. John stood and headed back downstairs. He scanned the picture one last time before tucking it behind his ammunition belt.

He continued through the winding ally, his heavy exoskeleton echoing his steps back at him in an eerie melody. Finally, he broke out of the labyrinth, his helmet turning to look up-and-down the wide street that housed the trapped unit.

Inside John could see flashes of gold armour as the occasional energy bolt or speer danced through a window. Changelings swarmed over the roof, few brave enough to die at the hooves of the cornered Guards.

John sprayed laser fire up at those he could see, he swept his weapon side-to-side and up-and-down, effectively scouring the roof of charcoal-coated vermin. Survivors scurried off and were chased down by fast-moving Thestrals.

The coast seeming clear; the ponies peering around the double-door entrance leapt back in surprise as he burst through the timber frame.

“I got your messenger, what’s your status, where is your commander?” He addressed to a nearby squad of spear-wielding Royal Guards.

A boxy stallion with a black eye and a long, thin cut that had been hastily field-stitched stepped forward, “I’m Senior Guard Summersglide, we made the push to here with heavy casualties.”

He beckoned John to join him near a poorly blockaded hole in the wall, “I’ve got ponies spread out all over our approach, half of them in poor medical condition.”

He frowned up at John, “Captain Sharp Wing led a squad south-east toward group centre to try and break through the Changelings. That was half an hour ago,” he glanced at a small jewel on his foreleg.

He looked back up at John with a look of realisation, “Where’s the Guard I sent?”

John unfurled the blood-splattered picture and held it out for the Senior Guard to inspect, “She didn’t make it. She asked me to give this to the pony in the picture, a mare in Cloudsdale.”

The Guard seemed to tire at the news, “damn it. You hang on to that, understand?” His voice brokering no disagreement.

John only nodding in response to his demand, “I’ll head out and find your Captain. The Princess wants you to regroup and relocate your wounded – those you can – to a central building in the towns centre.”

John gestured back through the well-guarded doors, “head south for ten minutes and then east for a few and you should stumble right into it. You’re in charge now, Senior Guard.”

John spoke ahead of himself as he began to leave, “continue the attack.”

After securing the street with a few fresh-faced Royal Guard, John departed alone after the hoof-steps of the wayward Captain.

He followed through more winding alleyways and wide roads, passing through a small residential building. Inside lay the shrivelled remains of several dozen ponies. Some small enough that John assumed they hadn’t been adults when killed.

He coldly scanned the room for any threats, before continuing on the trail of Captain Steel Wing.

Not ten minutes since leaving the residential building in his wake, John came across the scene of a small battle.

A dozen black-armoured Changelings lay, cast around with green stab wounds, missing and twisted limbs and one with an ornate sword emerging from its chest.

Four Royal Guard also lay still, two mares and a small-framed stallion – signs of extreme blood loss being the cause of death.

The Captain, however, was not present. John looked around, examining the carnage for clues, at the far end of the drying blood stains, blood and dirt had been disturbed in what looked like drag marks.

John moved as respectfully as possible over the forms of the dead ponies. He studied the drag marks, before following their trail. They headed south – past the egress point of the church-like building at the towns centre.

He followed it for a time, him becoming warier as the sounds of battle faded. But the marks ended abruptly on a road that exited from the town, he double checked around the finish line of a trail. It was like the Captain had just vanished.

John assumed an air extraction had taken him away, he represented a sizable security breach. John spoke soft words in his helmet, wishing the lost Guard a quick death before he ran back toward Princess Luna and the quietening battle sounds with his discovery.

* * *

‘Ow my head,’ his internal voice murmured. He was being dragged along a dimly-lit corridor made from a dark, softish substance. He groggily glanced around him at the natural contours and curves of the swirling tunnel. Arrayed next to him were black coated forelegs that rapidly marched in unison, carrying him ever closer to some unknown goal.

His eyes felt heavy and he fought the urge to fall back to unconsciousness. It was like a dream; every blink altering his surroundings more and more, he felt his ears pop from the gradually increasing pressure, he swallowed dryly to return his hearing to normal levels.

The sound of a million chittering voices in a language he didn’t understand reached his bloodied ears, a slight throbbing made itself known around his forehead, between them.

His senses were submerged in numbness and his usually excellent peripheral vision had been reduced to a dark, dim tunnel. On and on he was dragged and sometimes carried, his vision started to clear a little bit. ‘Where was he? “who” was he?’ He decided he didn’t care to know right then. He hoped the lingering sense of pain and terror was only his imagination filling in the blanks.

The dim lime lighting eventually blossomed into a much harsher, more piercing emerald brilliance. His eyes blurred and watered, he blinked to try and accommodate the new illumination.

He and the others, “they”, he decided, were in a cavernous room. It had the same natural, insect-like feel to it but with more ornate decoration on the walls and ceilings. Arches and support columns adorned the outer wall, a multitude of large recesses hidden in shadow, covered by silk web.

He was brought to one of these openings and hoisted into it – he felt light – he could have sworn he had been wearing something heavy before. His mind a jumbled mess, panic started to wash over him as he was pressed into a recess by black, blurry shapes.

He tried to speak but his mouth wouldn’t cooperate, like it had been glued shut, he wiggled ineffectively as he was enveloped by a white, silky net – his vision began to darken and his thoughts became quiet – the earlier fear being replaced with a warm sense of safety.

* * *