“Know that so long as you wield these, you will face no greater enemy than the darkness in your heart.”
--Inscription found within a vault beneath Canterlot, attributed to Clover the Clever.
19:39, 10/31/2015, CANTERLOT WAR ROOM
The glowing illusionary image of a planet now hovered over the table that Matt had seen during his first appearance in the War Room. Three red dots slowly descended upon an icon that was most certainly Canterlot. The image zoomed in and small lines appeared for the ships’ projected paths which placed all three around the capital at nearly equal intervals on each side. “Could they be attempting to surround Canterlot and lay siege?” One advisor asked and all eyes turned to the Princess.
She looks worn out, Matt couldn’t help but think as Shining Armor came to stand beside Luna. While still having enough presence to seemingly fill the entire room, her expression would lose focus before snapping to attention to answer a question or issue an order.
“No, that is not the case,” Luna stated as she closed her eyes for just a moment. “These ships are small and each contains no more than a dozen creatures each. I have no doubt that we could repel these attackers should they attack here, though I fear for the settlements outside the walls. Should they linger there then the cost in lives would be far too great for us to simply cower and wait behind our walls.”
“It’s a trap,” Fujikawa said to herself as much as to the rest of the room, and when all eyes turned to her, she cleared her throat. “They’re trying to draw forces away from `Canterlot to defend the outer villages. I’d bet my salary that there’s a few larger ships hiding nearby, waiting to strike the moment they sense an opportunity.”
Luna cast a hateful glare at the trio of dots even as they continued their descent. “I agree with your assessment though if they are truly as clever as your experience tells you then they no doubt chose this target deliberately.” The image zoomed in to a bird’s eye view over Canterlot and its surrounding communities, and a flashing light marked the small village to the south. “The Element Bearers, Twilight’s friends, are all here. The damage to morale within Equestria would be considerable if they were lost, and they are all dear to me.” Luna’s eyes narrowed as she looked from Canterlot to the small village she had indicated.
I don’t envy her position, having to weigh the lives of friends against the tens of thousands in Canterlot, Matt thought before an idea struck him. “Major, what’s the status on our kit?” He quietly asked Fujikawa, and she gave a short nod as she caught on to Matt’s train of thought.
“If those numbers are accurate, then the ground force those ships deploy will be no more than eight aliens each. I’m confident my Strike teams can handle them, which will allow you to consolidate your forces here. If this does end up being a trap then you’ll be prepared to defend against it.” Fujikawa volunteered.
Several moments passed as Luna weighed her options before closing her eyes. “Make it so, major. May the tides be in your favor.”
The human staging area was in utter chaos as Fujikawa, Matt and Lana arrived. Strike team operators worked shoulder to shoulder with the engineers to get the crates unpacked in record time. The chief engineer, Hamil, spotted the new arrivals and rushed over.
“Major, captain,” he addressed them and made a point of establishing eye contact through the electronic display built into his protective glasses. “Most of the gear is unpacked but we’ve encountered a problem.”
Fujikawa came to an abrupt stop and turned to face the engineer. “What problem?” She asked carefully.
“The Titan armor systems are refusing to start up and their power systems short out almost instantly. The Chameleon, Rho Aias and the PSI modules are also failing. Plasma and LANC weapons are about fifty-fifty for failure rate but the lasers we brought have had no problems. We haven’t test-fired the projectile weapons but we don’t anticipate any problems with those,” Hamil explained quickly.
Fujikawa closed her eyes and clenched her jaw as she drew a long breath and let it out slowly. “We’re committed at this point. We can’t go back and say ‘tough luck but we can’t help because our toys aren’t working.’ How many working weapons do we have?”
“About two dozen, not including sidearms,” Hamil answered after closing his eyes for just a moment.
“What about the Kevlar security vests? I know we packed at least a few, right?” Matt asked. “We did fight the aliens in those before Titan armor, and it’s better than nothing.”
“Good. We can make this work,” Fujikawa muttered before turning to Matt. “I want three teams prepared to deploy to the possible landing sites. I’ll be coordinating with the Princess and her forces here and send reinforcements if the trap is sprung. I’ll see you when the dust settles, Captain.” The two officers saluted and went their separate ways.
“Hamil, wait!” Matt shouted to get the engineer’s attention. “I know you said the PSI modules weren’t working, but do you think that’s because of the Titan power system problems rather than a problem with the module itself?” When Hamil gave Matt a ‘do I tell you how to shoot things’ look, he continued. “Could you rig up a PSI module with spare power cells from the LANC weapons?”
Hamil’s eyes drifted for just a moment to the electronic display over his eyes before locking on to Matt again. “I can do it. Give me ten minutes and I’ll get something working if you don’t mind bailing wire and duct tape. I don’t know how useful it would be if you don’t have the heads-up display to assist with targeting, though.” The engineer blinked as he took off his headset then looked up again. “Nevermind, I’ve got a workaround.”
“Get on it, then get me when you’re done,” Matt waved the engineer away and turned to the Strike operators bustling about the room and shouted, “Strike teams! Alien contacts are inbound on civilian targets around our current location. Current force estimates are one scout ship and six to eight aliens per location, which is about par for the course for us.” The tension eased somewhat as a few nervous grins spread among the humans. “Strike commanders will coordinate three teams to engage the enemy and Mente Materia specialists will assist. We’re moving out in ten minutes.”
The Strike operators broke off from their current tasks as Matt met up with his own people. “Titan armor and PSI systems are not going to be available for this deployment. If you don’t think you can control your powers in the field then keep your Rule Breakers on,” he explained quickly, and he wasn’t surprised by the reactions he got. “Lana and I will go with the first team out. Jack and Victor will go with the second team. Zhang and Durand will go with the third team. Any questions?”
“How are we going to fight without Titan armor?” Annette asked with a note of disbelief. “One shot and we’re goners, plus without the added strength—“
“I was fighting these things in Kevlar and I got along just fine,” Matt explained patiently. “Just stick to Zhang and your Strike team and you’ll do fine.”
“But these things are heavy, you know,” Annette muttered under her breath as she looked doubtfully at the unboxed weapons and Kevlar armor, and Matt chose to ignore her response.
Any further conversation was unnecessary as the group began to gather their gear. Matt slipped his uniform jacket off and tossed it aside before slipping a blue Kevlar vest over his dress shirt. Just as he turned back to his jacket to retrieve his beaten cap, he heard Lana swear under her breath. “What’s wrong?” He asked as he noticed the uncertain expression on her face.
“Take a look around, Matt. See anything disturbing?” Lana asked as she waved to the rest of the Strike operators. “Armored vests over dress shirts and slacks? All we’d need is a dash of orange and we’d look like—“
“Don’t say it,” Matt cut her off, and was only slightly relieved to note that she didn’t press the issue. XCOM and humanity’s dark little secret, he thought grimly. Thankfully they will never show up here. We’ve got more important things to worry about though. Any further thoughts on that subject were banished as he pocketed two clips for his pistol before moving on to one of the LANC rifles. He slid the power cell into place and gave the display a rap with his knuckle when it didn’t immediately light up. Why are there so many malfunctions now? None of this happened back on Earth. Of course, I’m no engineer. Maybe they always malfunctioned and they were always fixed before we used them. Rather than dwell on that disturbing thought, Matt made his way over to the radio gear before heading back to his discarded suit coat to retrieve his old hat. He was securing his throat mics and headset when Hamil came running over to him with a bundle of wires and other things in his arms.
“I think it is working, Captain Harris, but I’ll need you to test it first,” Hamil said as he laid out the components in his arms. The first was the left gauntlet from one of the Mente Materia specialists’ armor, and the glitter of elerium circuitry could be seen beneath the ventilation mesh on its exterior casing. The second component was what appeared to be a jury-rigged armband with a pack of three LANC power cells wired into it. The last component was Hamil’s electronic glasses display. “Functionality should be the same as when it’s integrated with the Titan armor systems but it will only boost your Gift control and power only for so long,” the engineer finished.
“It’ll work,” Matt said as he slipped the gauntlet over his left hand and tightened the armband to keep the power cells firmly in place. The electronic glasses were last, but a familiar interface appeared as the systems booted up. Now all I have to do is test it, he thought as he retrieved several tungsten balls from the ammunition table. Each one was highlighted by the glasses and—
Kill them all.
-rose into the air before dropping back into Matt’s hand. He blinked as he looked to his sides before turning back to the triumphant Hamil. “Did you hear that?” Matt asked.
“Hear what?” The engineer asked and a note of concern entered his tone. “Are you picking up some sort of interference in your headset? No one else has reported any radio problems but with the way everything’s going haywire I wouldn’t be surprised. If I had more time I’d try and isolate the problem but I suspect time isn’t something we have.”
“Captain Harris?” Shining Armor’s voice called out to Matt as the unicorn weaved his way through the humans as they prepared for deployment with Lana following. “I know time is of the essence but the Princess wishes to speak with you before you go.” Something in Shining’s tone set off a small warning bell in Matt’s mind but given the situation they were all in, he simply pushed those concerns aside.
“Do what you can to get as much working as possible, Hamil,” Matt dismissed the engineer and turned to follow Shining Armor. Rather than retrace their steps back to the war room, they swung into a series of deserted side rooms that branched from the main corridor. A small glance to Lana was returned with a shrug until they finally reached their destination. A pegasi guard opened the door to allow them to continue without stopping and it quickly closed behind them as soon as they stepped through.
The room was sparingly furnished with only a few chairs and a sofa that Matt barely noticed as he caught sight of the room’s only other occupant. Twilight Sparkle cowered in the corner, her head being the only part of her body visible outside of the blanket that wrapped around her. Shining Armor remained by the door with a tortured expression as both Lana and Matt approached her.
“Matt, Lana,” Twilight started as she looked up at both of them with wide eyes that were long past the ability to cry. “You have to save my friends, save everypony you can. This is all my fault and I can’t—“ Her voice cracked and was unable to finish her sentence.
Matt knelt beside her and tried to put on a comforting smile but the comforting words he was going to say died in his throat. The rag doll that she carried tightly in her forelegs and wings was a simple thing and clearly well loved by its owner. The thought of Twilight having such a comfort item might have even been cute were it not for the fact that it had a disturbing resemblance to an XCOM Strike operator in casual uniform.
“We’ll take care of everything, Twilight. Don’t you worry,” Matt said as he pointedly avoided looking at the rag doll while rubbing one of his temples. When his fingers came into contact with his old hat, Matt took it off and put it on Twilight. “We’ve got to go now, but I’ll be back for that hat,” He said with as much cheer as he could force. Matt gave her a gentle pat on the head and waited for her to nod before he rose to leave with Lana in tow. Shining remained in the room and disappeared from sight when the door closed behind them.
“I’m surprised you haven’t made a joke yet, Lana,” Matt said with an acidic tone that even surprised him. What happened to Twily was horrible but you need to get your head on straight. Distractions get people killed, he mentally reprimanded himself as the pair retraced their steps and reentered the human staging area.
Lana’s response came just before they merged with Strike One’s group and was barely loud enough for Matt to hear. “Why would I make a joke? There wasn’t anything funny about that.”
Lieutenant Carlock was absent but Sachs’s gravelly voice was easily heard over the babble that filled the staging area. Matt recognized Alan Scott next to the Australian sergeant, plus two faces he didn’t recognize as they had been recruited after the formation of the Mente Materia division. All of them had the slimmed down Mark 2 laser rifles except for Sachs, who continued to sport his old G36. Come to think of it, Lana’s got a laser too. Were there really that many malfunctions? Matt couldn’t help but wonder. The group’s attention turned from Sachs as Matt approached and asked, “Where’s Lieutenant Carlock?”
“Pat’s coordinating with the Equestrians for second wave reinforcements. Tactical command of Strike One is in your hands, Captain Harris,” Sachs reported formally as he filled every conceivable pouch and pocket with clips of ammunition for both his pistol and rifle.
A soft sigh escaped Matt as he put the pieces together. Ah, Patrick. Don’t want to feel like you’re stepping on my toes? “Understood, sergeant,” he said as he retrieved a small tablet computer from Sachs. “Our area of operation is a village south of our current location where several VIPs are located. These six are to be protected at all costs or evacuated if possible.” A few deft taps had retrieved the images Twilight herself had drawn before Matt turned the tablet around to face the other soldiers. They were easily identified by the names beneath them and the title ‘Element Bearer’ while the sixth pictured a tiny dragon named ‘Spike’. “Other civilians will likely be present so check your targets and do everything you can to contain the aliens. Six to eight are predicted and their ship will likely be on overwatch so don’t dawdle out in the open. Any questions?”
“I have one,” Lana asked, and all eyes moved to her. “How are we going to get there? Last I checked we didn’t stuff a Skyranger in one of the boxes.”
As if to answer her question specifically, Shining Armor’s shout could be heard from the front doors of the barracks. “Estimated arrival time for the aliens is five minutes! Transports are ready to take you to the field immediately!”
Matt and the rest of Strike One rose and joined the flow of Strike operators as they followed Shining Armor to a courtyard nearby their staging area. Guardsponies of every race were forming up and the Equestrian volunteers that had returned from earth were clearly identifiable by their black plated carapace armor over form-fitting undersuits, and they shouted orders and advice to each of their guardspony squads as the humans jogged past. On the far side of the courtyard, a trio of what appeared to be large chariots hooked up to muscular pegasi waited for them.
“Oh you have got to be kidding me,” Lana muttered as the three teams boarded the transports and they lifted into the sky.
18:00, 10/31/2015 EVERFREE OUTSKIRTS
“Well now, I gotta say this was a pretty clever idea, Pinkie Pie,” Applejack said with as much of a smile as she could manage. “Holding a Nightmare Night party for the whole town right near Everfree certainly adds to the holiday theme you’re aiming for. Heck, you even managed to convince the guard captain to send some of his colts to ‘watch out for things coming out of Everfree.’ You just wanted more ponies for the party, right?”
For the slightest of moments, Pinkie Pie’s expression fractured before returning to its normal bubbly self. “That’s exactly right, AJ!” She lied cheerfully. Before the orange earth pony could question that answer, the party mare continued, “I know things aren’t exactly ideal this year but having the party lets all the foals have some fun! Plus I know all the travelers are really tired and they could certainly use some fun and some sweets to brighten their day!”
Why is she lying? Applejack asked herself and as much as she hated to doubt a friend, her keen instincts were telling her that Pinkie Pie was holding something back. It was the truth that Ponyville now housed hundreds of out of town travelers, though the term ‘refugees’ might be more fitting. The dispersal of Cloudsdale was known to anypony that looked to the northwestern skies but the only things the pegasi refugees remembered from that terrible night were the screams. She does have a point, they all need some time to simply relax and enjoy some good food. I just can’t shake the feeling that she’s lying about the reason for the party.
The party itself was a contrast in opposites. The foals all dressed up and rejoiced in the apparent opportunity to adventure in the Everfree forest, albeit under the careful and strict supervision of the adults or the guards. For the adults, though, there was tension tinged with relief. Everypony knew that something terrible had happened in Cloudsdale at the same time as an attack on Canterlot itself but absolutely nopony knew what had perpetrated the attack. Nothing had happened in the hoofful of days since, thank Celestia, but that fear of the unknown remained.
The relief that everypony felt came from the neighbors and communities that opened up their homes to help anypony displaced in the disaster. The moment the first of the dazed survivors had wandered into the Apple orchards, they were treated just like family. The rest of Ponyville had followed suit without a moment of hesitation. Applejack’s reflection on events was interrupted with the arrival of Fluttershy and Rarity. The latter was wrapped in a luxurious purple scarf with embroidery to match her cutie mark perfectly. A pair of half-empty saddlebags rested against her flanks that were stuffed with warm caps and scarves. The former wore a matching cap and scarf and a worried expression.
“Darling, I really appreciate the effort you put into these events but I think that this might have been more comfortable back in town. It’s unseasonably cold what with… well, it’s a bit too chilly for everypony to be out here this late in my book,” Rarity said as she offered Applejack a hat and scarf, which she refused.
“The animals in the forest are also a bit scared, too,” Fluttershy added, though she quickly waffled in an effort not to sound accusing. “They’re just losing a bit of their beauty sleep and I’ve made certain any of the mean ones know they shouldn’t come by or they’ll get hurt. It’s just a little bit of inconvenience for them, is all.”
When Pinkie Pie continued her work without so much as looking back at the new arrivals, Applejack stepped forward and placed a hoof on her friend’s shoulder. “I can’t please everypony, you know.” Applejack withdrew her hoof in surprise at the amount of venom in the statement. “Everypony thinks that I know everything that’s going to happen and that I can stop it if I put my mind to it, but I can’t. Sometimes I know I need to do something. Sometimes I know where somepony is going to be at a given time. And sometimes I know that something horrible is going to happen and everypony is going to be hurt unless I throw a stupid party out on the outskirts of the Everfree Forest.”
“Pinkie Pie, what’s wrong?” Applejack asked, and she couldn’t deny the apprehension that gripped her as her friend’s tone went from venomous to nearly sobbing. “What’s going to happen?” Rarity and Fluttershy came to stand beside Applejack as Pinkie Pie slowly turned and pointed into the cloudy sky.
“I can’t say for certain but it probably has something to do with that.”
All eyes turned to the direction indicated to see a dark circular shape descend from the clouds to hover serenely over Ponyville before gliding towards the squat stone walls that the Princesses had constructed to imprison Discord all those months ago after Twilight had disappeared. Faint shouts could be heard cutting through the night and a bright line of a magical spell launched upward to illuminate the sky. The floating shape retaliated with a stuttering hail of green fire that leveled the keep in seconds.
A terrified scream cut through the party as panic swept through everypony like wildfire. Adults quickly swept up their confused foals and fled to the cover of the Everfree Forest. The guards rallied together before rushing towards the town and the now burning keep. To the Element Bearers, their first concerns were for their families.
“Applebloom! Applebloom, where are you!?” Applejack screamed as she fought against the tide of ponies looking to escape whatever had just attacked the keep. Rarity and Fluttershy also tried but failed to search and were swept into the forest by the fleeing ponies. She caught sight of Pinkie Pie sitting on the table near the edge of where the party had been. “Pinkie, where’s Applebloom and her friends? They aren’t here!”
The pink party mare turned and looked at Applejack with an expression devoid of any emotion. “You know where she’s at, Applejack.”
Applejack considered herself a restrained pony who was slow to anger but by the Sun it was Applebloom who was in danger. An angry snarl threatened to escape her but stopped when she realized that Pinkie was right. Without another word she turned and galloped straight towards Ponyville and the school on the far side.
Cadet Rainbow Dash,
By order of Princess Luna, all Wonderbolt Cadets are summoned forthwith to Canterlot for emergency deployment--
The letter had come with both the seal of the Wonderbolts as well as Luna’s own mark, and it gave Rainbow Dash everything that she said she wanted. No more a reservist, no more a cadet or junior member. The Wonderbolts wanted her and her specifically to serve alongside them. Rainbow Dash’s skills in the sky had finally paid off.
And it didn’t matter one bucking bit.
She crumpled the letter up and tossed it into the corner of her bedroom before turning back to stare at the wall of pictures and trophies that adorned the living room of her cloud home. A picture of her on top of her dad’s shoulders during an Equestria Games years past sat next to the picture of her dad holding up Rainbow’s Wonderbolt uniform and academy acceptance letter. Still others held pictures of some childhood friends or family acquaintances she had grown up with. As Rainbow looked at every picture she couldn’t help but ask the same terrible question every time.
Are they all dead?
Rainbow Dash hadn’t been in Cloudsdale at the time of the attack but the vast majority of the ponies she grew up with had been, including her father. The first day had seen hundreds of refugees enter Ponyville seeking shelter and Rainbow had gone to each group looking for someone, anyone who had seen her childhood acquaintances. The second day brought reports of the thousands of burned corpses that littered the fields where Cloudsdale had once floated as well as reports of ponies being consumed whole by bolts of green fire. The third day had seen the last of the refugees enter Ponyville, and nopony knew what had happened to her father. On the fourth day, the letter had come and Rainbow Dash just couldn’t bring herself to care.
He’s dead. They’re all dead, she finally told herself and she couldn’t stop a sob from escaping her attempts at control. The Wonderbolts were at Cloudsdale and they couldn’t save him or the thousands of other ponies that died. What’s the point of being a Wonderbolt if I can’t save anypony? What’s the point!?
Rainbow Dash had reached the precipice of despair and threatened to fall into it when a BOOM unlike any thunderclap she had ever heard passed over her home. She trotted over to one of her windows to see the keep outside Ponyville in flames. Green flames.
The slow acidic burn of doubt was consumed by a very different emotion. Rainbow Dash’s jaw clenched as rage filled her every muscle and sinew and she launched herself with all her might at the alien shape hovering over the devastation. Half of her cloud home exploded and dispersed from the force of her launch but she didn’t care one bit.
Despite the all-consuming rage that suffused her, she still listened to and obeyed her flying instincts. She pulled a nearly ninety degree turn and just barely avoided a blast of green fire that shot towards her. The blast missed completely but even in passing the heat was almost unbearable for Rainbow Dash. Two more shots lashed out at her before the enemy ship had its attention diverted elsewhere.
The guards that had attended Pinkie Pie’s Nightmare Night party opened fire against the underbelly of the ship, including a unicorn that launched a lamppost with telekinesis. The impromptu spear, through skill or good fortune struck a glowing spot on the lower portion of the hull which caused it to wobble slightly before stabilizing. The unicorn guard tried to repeat the feat but vanished in a ball of green flame launched by the ship. The rest of the guards scattered and the ship began to systematically bombard every hiding place that they could hide in.
Rainbow Dash turned to charge the ship now that its attention was diverted but was thwarted by a trio of fliers that emerged from the glowing sections of the ship. They immediately opened fire and charged the Pegasus as the ship continued its bombardment.
Fine by me, Rainbow Dash thought as she abandoned her run on the ship in favor of the smaller enemies. While their weapons could fire far faster than the ship, their blasts weren’t nearly as large or hot, which made it a rather simple thing for her to close and engage. A corkscrewing barrel roll was the only maneuver she needed to bring her front hooves in contact with the ugly monster’s face. The monster’s screaming abruptly stopped, and the two jets of flame spitting from its torso flared wildly as the thing lost control and careened into the night. The second enemy proved to be no more of a challenge as she dove underneath it with such speed that it couldn’t track even as she pulled up from the dive, ascended and struck it from behind.
The third enemy didn’t even shoot as it pulled a teardrop-shaped tool from somewhere and charged straight at her. Her danger sense flared and she tried to pull out of her attack run. The alien grenade detonated first and the world went dark for Rainbow Dash.
I know I shouldn’t feel nostalgic, but if we added some rotor noise this would feel just like riding on the benches of an MH-6, Matt thought as he looked up over the rim of the chariot and got a blast of wind in the face for it. He crouched back down and looked over the rest of Strike One. Sachs was the epitome of easy-going calm. Alan kept trying to sight over the edge of the chariot but the wind forced him back down. The two rookies, Vincent and Louis, were a study in carefully controlled nerves. Last but not least, Matt’s eyes fell on Lana. Aside from Matt, she was the most veteran of the XCOM operatives in this deployment and he was counting on her skills to win this fight.
At the moment, however, she was cowering behind the edge of the chariot and her left hand gripped the railing tight enough to leave indentations in the metal.
“Lana, are… are you afraid of heights?” Matt asked incredulously as he reviewed every deployment he had undertaken beside her. She’s done fast rope insertions via Skyranger right beside me and didn’t show a moment’s hesitation. Why in God’s name is she freezing up now?
“Ha ha ha fuck you,” Lana spat, and the two rookies arched an eyebrow at the answer. “I’m not afraid of heights, I’m afraid of this thing we’re in. Put me in a helicopter, Skyranger or a goddamn wingsuit and I’m fine. This-this thing? It should not be flying. It should be scattering our asses all over the countryside. How does it fly? It makes no sense. It’s a deathtrap is what it is.”
Lana’s muttering continued for several more moments before the radio crackled in Matt’s ear. “Strike One Actual, Command. We’ve got good news and bad news. We were right and the aliens had ships in reserve. Bad news is that they are inbound on your location. Princess Luna believes their objectives are to capture or kill the VIPs there so the Equestrians are going to come in heavy with everything they’ve got,” Fujikawa summarized quickly.
“Strike One copies, Command. ETA for hostile and friendly reinforcements?” Matt asked, though he suspected the answer would fall into the ‘too damn late’ category.
“Hostile reinforcements will be entering the area the same time as you. Equestrian anti-air will be at your location in fifteen minutes and ground forces in twenty.” The voices became briefly indistinct before Fujikawa spoke again. “Based on the numbers the princess has projected, it looks the hostile reinforcements are two scouts and a raider. I’d recommend you get the VIPs to a safe location until the cavalry can get there.”
Matt crunched the numbers in his head and didn’t like the odds. Bloody hell, we could be facing five to one odds, and at least a third of the enemies could be Mutons. All we’ve got are lasers and one LANC rifle. “Copy that, Command. Strike One, out,” Matt said grimly before turning to the Strike team. “The odds don’t look good, but there’s nothing new there.” Sachs’ coarse laughter diffused a bit of the tension but Matt could see the comprehension in his eyes. “Cavalry’s coming but we can’t stay. We’ve got to get our objectives out of there as soon as possible. Any questions?”
When none were asked, Matt braved the wind to address the pegasus pulling the chariot. He was larger than the average Equestrian and his black armor marked him as an Earth veteran, which Matt took as a good sign. Shouting into the wind isn’t going to be very productive, especially when he’s got a radio too, Matt nearly facepalmed at the thought as he used his eyewear’s IFF to contact the Pegasus directly. “This is Captain Harris back in the passenger seats. Who’s the pilot?” Matt asked.
“Big Sky, sir,” The Pegasus answered without looking back.
The ghost of a grin crept onto Matt’s face as he gave his orders, “Once you’re done dropping everyone off, I want you to detach from the chariot and provide overwatch for us on the ground. Without you, we won’t be able to find the Element Bearers quickly or evade the enemy reinforcements. Can you do that?”
A moment passed and Matt thought the Pegasus might try and argue the point before the answer came. “Solid copy, Captain Harris. I’ll assume overwatch once you are all deployed. I can see the ships over Ponyville now. I see a sheltered position we can set down at, landing in fifteen seconds.”
“Fifteen seconds!” Matt shouted as he shuffled his way to the open back of the chariot. When the trees disappeared to reveal rolling fields, he looked back to the rest of the Strike Team and shouted. “I’ll see you all on the other side!” Without further explanation he leapt off the back of the chariot and plummeted towards the ground. Matt’s mind easily tapped one of the tricks he had perfected—
Kill them all.
-And instead of a bone-breaking tumble he touched down lightly in the soft grass. “Radio discipline! Save your chatter for the end of the mission,” Matt grumbled into the radio as he sprinted towards the town, and he was too annoyed to register the confused replies that answered him through the radio.
“Why are we missing Pinkie Pie’s Nightmare Night party again?” Spike asked the three fillies at the head of the empty classroom. By either conspiracy or coincidence Applebloom, Scootaloo and Sweetie Belle had all chosen their Nightmare Night costumes to be ‘teachers’, which meant they tried their best to look like Cheerilee.
Sweetie Belle certainly got an A for effort when she had emptied several containers of fabric dye into Rarity’s bathtub to turn her coat the right shade though she was entirely that shade now. According to Rarity, after recovering from a fainting spell upon discovering what had happened, it would be a long time before the dye would wash out unless she used magic. Scootaloo had the opposite problem as she tried to match Cherilee’s mane colors but ended up staining her coat in the same shades. Applebloom was the closest match in Spike’s opinion, not that he’d ever share it with the three fillies. They were just having too much fun.
“If you learn something, Spike, then we might get teacher cutie marks!” Sweetie Belle explained enthusiastically before turning around to face the dragon with a big grin. “So, have you learned anything yet?” All three were now staring at him with the same soul wrenching hopeful smiles and doe eyes that was capable of bending most adults to their will.
“The only thing I’ve learned so far is that if I had to choose between a party and school, I think the party would win,” Spike said as he picked at one of his teeth and looked absently at his other claw more to show that he was immune to their wiles.
Sweetie Belle’s temperament flipped faster than even Discord could manage. “Oh come ON!” She yelled out of frustration. “We’ve been doing this for like an hour. Are you telling us that you’ve really learned nothing?” Any answer Spike might have offered was lost as a boom rattled the window panes of the school classroom.
“Is Pinkie using fireworks now? I think we really should go to the party, girls,” Spike said as he stood and walked over to the exit. He opened the door and took precisely one step out before hopping back into the classroom. “Girls! Hide! Now!” Spike shouted as he pushed a desk in front of the door. It wasn’t the order so much as the level of fear in Spike’s voice that forced the trio of fillies to comply and he could feel their scared eyes on him even as he piled up more things in front of the door.
Twilight doesn’t think I know about the monsters, Spike fought to control his own emotions as he pushed another desk into place. What she doesn’t know is that she talks in her sleep and what I’ve heard so far is enough to give anypony nightmares. When the sounds of fighting could be heard seemingly outside of the school, Spike abandoned his efforts to fortify the front door and ran for cover. All three fillies had chosen to hide in the nearby closet and the door swung closed as he dove inside.
Despite his fear, or perhaps because of it, Spike didn’t allow the door to fully close. The crack in the doorway allowed him to see the majority of the classroom as well as the battered and bloody form of one of the garrison guards dive through one of the windows. He was badly injured and a horrid burn had rendered one of his rear legs useless. Despite those injuries he tried to run to the windows on the far wall of the class room. His retreat was cut short as a green projectile slammed into the back of his head and reduced it to nothing more than ash.
All three of the fillies let out a gasp of fear as something entered the school through the window the guard had just passed through. Soulless black eyes scanned the empty room before finally settling on the corpse of the guard. It raised one of its flimsy-limbs and pointed a green-glowing device, which promptly spat two more bolts of green fire into the corpse. Apparently satisfied that its target was dead, it stalked forward to look down upon its prey.
One of the fillies, Spike didn’t know which, began to sob and the smallest of sounds escaped her mouth before she could stop it. Despite its lack of volume it was still enough to alert the monster in the room. It spun in place and fired wildly in the direction the noise came from. Each shot punched holes in the walls which slowly began to burn. The wildly inaccurate fire stopped just as quickly as it had started and the monster began to creep towards the door with its weapon pointed towards them.
The monster had closed to within two body lengths of the door when Spike steeled himself. Just a little closer and I can tackle the thing so the girls can escape. My scales might protect me long enough, Spike thought as he spread his feet and prepared to burst through the door. His moment of heroism wasn’t meant to be as another pony entered the classroom.
Applejack crashed through another window and charged straight at the monster. It squealed like a sickly bird and fired wildly at the mare but the panicked shots went wide. She closed quickly and pivoted on her front legs to plant her rear hooves squarely in the monster’s featureless face. It flew across the room before colliding with the far wall with a wet smack. It left a bloody smear along the wall as it sank to the ground and didn’t get up. “Applebloom? Where are ya?” Applejack asked with a hint of desperation as she looked under the desks and tables in the classroom.
“AJ!” Applebloom and her friends yelled as they burst out of the closet with Spike in tow, and relief could clearly be seen on Applejack’s face as she spotted her younger sister. Any relief that might have been felt by the ponies was lost when the fillies skidded to a stop and screamed, “Behind you!”
Applejack’s first instinct was to whirl around to face whatever was behind her, and the quick reaction saved her life. A shot aimed at the back of her head instead connected with her hat which disappeared in a puff of flame that singed her ears and mane in the process. A second shot aimed dead center at her barrel barely missed but came close enough to vaporize the coat on her right flank and severely burn the flesh beneath it. With one of her legs no longer able to sustain her weight, Applejack’s dodge became a stumble and she fell to the ground. “Run, girls! Run!” She screamed as she tried to rise.
Two more of the monsters crawled into the room even as Spike and the fillies tried to run for the back door. A desk beside the retreating younglings exploded as a green bolt crashed into it. So close, so close! They were just a body length from the door when it flew open with enough force to hang limply from one twisted hinge and something else filled the doorway to cut off their retreat. A bright red beam shot out from the weapon it carried in its hands before it charged and leapt over Spike and the terrified fillies.
One of the monsters was dead, with little more than a smoking crater where most of its head used to be while the other was trying to drag a struggling Applejack towards the windows. The newest arrival launched a kick with one of its long legs that connected with the monster and launched it across the room. It struggled to rise before the new arrival planted one boot on its chest to hold it in place. A red bolt of energy point blank ended its struggles.
“Clear!” it shouted in Equestrian before it turned back to Applejack, Spike and the three fillies. Blue eyes looked over the group and Spike would have sworn he saw a flicker of recognition when its gaze lingered on them. “Harris, Jenkins. I’ve got Applejack and Spike along with children at the school. I’m going to get them out of here,” it said as it brought up a finger to tap something that hung from the side of its face. Its weapon was raised but not pointing at any of them as it approached slowly. “I’ve come from Canterlot, Luna’s sent my friends and I to get you out safely. My name is—“
“Lana Jenkins!” Spike blurted out as he finally connected the dots. “Twilight talks about you and her human friends a lot, and I remember you now from her wall of drawings.”
A disturbingly Pinkie-like grin slowly crept onto Lana’s face but it vanished as the door that Spike barricaded buckled and bulged inward. “Out the back door! Go!” Lana shouted as she pointed the weapon in her hands at the door while backpedaling towards. “Command, Jenkins! Confirmed Mutons on my loca—“ Anything else that might have been said was drowned out as Spike and the Cutie Mark Crusaders fled while Applejack followed as best she could. One of Lana’s friends appeared and waved the group behind him before he raised his weapon and fired. The situation repeated itself again and again as Lana and her friends fired at whatever was chasing them.
The early evening sky lit up as one of the airships hovering over Ponyville exploded suddenly, and Lana’s friends gave a cheer. “Harris, Jenkins. Pursuit is breaking off, our objectives are secure,” Lana said into the device on her ear. A moment passed before she tapped her ear and spoke again. “Harris, do you copy?” She looked up and her eyes went wide at something Spike couldn’t see and screamed, “Jesus Christ, what are you doing!?”
Matt’s IFF marked Big Sky’s landing one as well as the rest of Strike One as they entered the combat zone. Blood-red markers clearly identified the alien ships even in the gloomy night and he made sure to stay out of their lines of sight as much as possible. Smaller red icons began to appear as Big Sky rose above the town.
“Captain Harris, this is Big Sky,” The Pegasus spoke into the radio and Matt was quick to note the urgency in his voice. “I’ve spotted Rainbow Dash near your position but she’s wounded and three aliens are advancing on her position.”
“Solid copy, Big Sky! Any sign of other objectives?” Matt asked as he turned and sprinted towards the newly added objective marker on his HUD.
“There appears to be a gathering near the forest edge but the streets are deserted… strike that, I see Applejack headed towards the school near the landing site. Guard survivors appear to be rallying near there and a significant amount of aliens are converging on the area.”
“This is Jenkins! We’re on our way to the school now. Need any help, boss?”
“Negative, Jenkins. I’ll take care of the aliens on my side and secure Rainbow Dash. Assist the Guard survivors if you can but your first objective is Applejack and any other VIPs in the area,” Matt said with a grimace. I hate weighing the respective values of lives, but it just can’t be helped, he thought as he fished out the tungsten projectiles from his pockets. Each was highlighted by his HUD—
Kill them all.
—And rose to hover near their traditional place above his left shoulder and slightly behind him. Goddamn Hamil and his piece of shit hardware, Matt thought venomously. The moment I get back I’m going to kill him for saddling me with this buggy radio. Any further plans involving the engineer were pushed aside as Matt finally caught sight of his objective.
Rainbow Dash was propped up against a building in a bloody and scorched heap. A sticky trail of blood could be seen along the wall that kept her vertical, and it amazed Matt that she was still conscious despite the grievous nature of her injuries. When she spotted Matt, Rainbow Dash tried to push away from the wall and spread her wings as a threat display but only succeeded in tumbling to the ground.
“Stay down, I’m here to help. I’m one of Twilight’s friends,” Matt said as he knelt down beside her. My kingdom for a medkit, or at least one of those healing crystals the Dusk Guard use, he couldn’t help but think as the extent of her injuries became more apparent. “Big Sky, Harris. I’m at Rainbow Dash’s current position. Do you have any healing supplies with you? We need to stabilize her as soon as possible.”
A moment passed before Big Sky replied, “There should be some back at the chariot. I’ll double time to your location. Big Sky, out.”
Matt nodded and started to offer some words of comfort or reassurance to the wounded Pegasus, but the building next to where they were standing shuddered before the wall exploded outward as a Berserker and two Elites appeared in the gap. Matt sprang to his feet and assigned targets for all six of his tungsten projectiles—
Kill them all.
--before adding Big Sky to his ‘to kill’ list. It might have been nice to know the aliens approaching Rainbow Dash were GODDAMN MUTONS, Matt screamed inwardly as all six projectiles accelerated past the speed of sound instantly and punched holes in all three Mutons in the center of their chests. With their redundant organs and unrivaled pain tolerance, the attack did little more than slow the burly aliens down. Up went Matt’s LANC rifle to hopefully peg the Berserker in the face and give him time to find cover but the shot went wide.
The LANC rifle shot, normally no larger in diameter than a quarter, connected with the Berserker’s shoulder and removed a basketball-sized chunk of flesh and armor from the rampaging alien. The LANC rifle itself quickly began to hiss and glow as the Elerium circuitry and power cell overheated. With no more options available, Matt tossed the malfunctioning weapon in the air and telekinetically shoved it straight at the Muton. It exploded in a spectacular ball of lavender fire that the soldier simply didn’t have the time to appreciate as he drew his sidearm and prepared to do little more than annoy the Muton Elites behind the Berserker.
Kill them all.
Except… he did have the time to appreciate the Berserker being immolated by a purple fireball. The flames were frozen in place as though the entire scene were simply a picture of the battle. The Muton Elites had their heavy plasma weapons leveled towards Matt but didn’t move a single inch. Even Rainbow Dash’s horrified and fearful expression was perfectly still. The flow of time had completely stopped.
Except Matt found that he was no longer restricted by such petty considerations as obeying the laws the rest of the world had to follow. It felt like moving through water but he was able to bring his pistol up for a headshot on one of the Elites. The sound of the gunshot was muffled and both the bullet and the spent shell casing froze when they had travelled a few feet from Matt’s pistol. He fired again, and again, and again until the clip was dry. Matt then highlighted every one of the bullets and the shell casings for good measure, and pushed.
Kill them all.
Both Elite Mutons crumpled to the ground as their heads were pulverized as surely as a piece of fruit would be when hit by a shotgun while the burning Berserker thrashed on the ground before going still. Despite the seriousness of the situation, the dark chuckle crawled up Matt’s throat as he looked down at the PSI gauntlet on his left hand. The Elerium sizzled with power and a wavering heat haze hovered around the cooling grates as he brought his hand up to the sky.
The alien raider class ship dwarfed the smaller scout ships as it hovered over the town, looking for helpless targets to vaporize. Matt slowly brought his gauntleted hand up and cupped his fingers around the ship much like he used to try and grab the moon as a child. He could feel every contour of its hull, the resistance of its engines as it maintained its station keeping position and even the number of aliens on the ship. A feral grin grew on Matt’s face, and he clenched his fist.
Kill them all.
The raider imploded like an empty beer can before exploding into a million pieces, and it took every ounce of willpower Matt could muster to not burst out laughing. He closed his eyes and knew where every alien was in the town, and that they were all converging on Lana’s position as she tried to escape the battlefield with her objectives in tow. There was no question as to what Matt was going to do next.
He was going to kill them all.
When Matt opened his eyes he was no longer standing beside Rainbow Dash or over the corpses of three dead Mutons. Instead he was on the outskirts of the town beside the school, where several Mutons and Sectoids eagerly pursued the fleeing humans. A pair of Mutons opened fire on Matt as he stood out in the open, then five, then all of them, then the ships attempted to bombard him with their plasma cannons. Every attack simply vanished before it could strike him.
Matt simply couldn’t contain his laughter as he raised his left hand and pointed skyward. Dozens, then hundreds of portals opened above him and a wall of plasma bolts flew back at the aliens. The low stone walls and buildings the aliens were using for cover simply evaporated as the bombardment covered every square inch of ground the aliens occupied. Two of the alien ships lost propulsion and fell from the sky from the onslaught and even the Mutons began to break and run.
One Muton in particular caught Matt’s eye. Its armor was reinforced and covered every inch of its body, and was completely white, and it turned without a moment’s hesitation and fired even as Matt teleported behind him. A wave of Matt’s hand sent the plasma bolt flying wildly into the sky, and the Muton used the moment’s distraction to flee in the direction of the last scout ship. The ship hovered near the white-armored Muton before splitting in two as Matt chopped his hand through the air.
With all hope of escape lost, the Muton turned and tried to fire at Matt, but its right arm flew from its body and took the plasma rifle with it. It reached for its plasma pistol with its left arm only for that limb to bend completely around its body with a crackle of breaking bones and armor. The Muton tried to charge but any further resistance was abruptly ended as its armor cracked and collapsed as though gripped by a giant vise. The now bloody heap of broken armor and flesh collapsed to the ground, and Matt couldn’t help but find it hilarious. Knocking the alien ships out of the sky, Mutons fleeing from him and the smell of burning flesh simply made the moment more glorious.
With this power, I can kill them all. The fabric of reality is mine to shape to my liking, nothing can touch me now. The aliens are just the start. Al’Massani’s head on a pike and his entire country burned to the ground for allowing him to exist. The Army Brass are next for feeling I was a ‘liability to the organiation’s image’, and my father can join them for being so damned critical about everything. Shining Armor needs to suffer for being such an asshole all this time, and Lana… Matt slowly turned towards his subordinate and raised his left hand, and froze.
His left hand was gone, and in its place was the painfully bright glow of Elerium and a jet of black flame that was melting what remained of his arm.
Reason reasserted itself in Matt’s mind, and he screamed.