• Published 20th Nov 2013
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FoE: Snippet Story - Windrunner

Set at various points in the Fallout: Equestria universe. Each chapter is intended to be a unique story unto itself. So many references, both ludicrously obscure and blatantly obvious. Even the title. No, not that. You will never figure them all out.

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The Fifteenth Squadron


What small sparks it takes to ignite a raging fire. All that's necessary is the right fuel to start a blaze that sweeps onward like an ever-spreading wave. The ponies of Equestria thought themselves finally able to contain whatever gave rise to the stoked angered passions that lead to all-out war and begin the long transition to peace once more. The war was over. It must be. The soldiers still fighting, some still falling in the endless battles, may have held a different view. Pain was the order of the day. Pain they were finally inflicting on the enemy. Were they even the enemy anymore? What would they shortly become once total victory was achieved?

Ponies were indeed winning, at the cost of losing themselves and the very things they imagined themselves to be fighting for. Slaughtering the enemy is just how wars are won, isn't it? How much more would it cost? If they'd known the true price they would pay in the fullness of time, they would surely have all packed up and gone home. Instead, anger and the fighting it breeds would rage on until the very last instant. About to lose their world and none the wiser for all they already endured. Perhaps it simply could not be helped. Some still fought for the right reasons. Many did not. Sometimes it is difficult to know where right and truth lie.

Zebra forces were taxed well beyond their limits and about to fall completely apart. On both sides a growing apprehension was filling their hearts and minds. In some way they may have known what was coming. One cornered meek animal can turn brutally vicious. An entire race was about to be cornered. In war, some care only for victory. For those, defeat is an unbearable thought too humiliating to contemplate or consider, pushing it far from their thoughts. It would mean all they stood for did not have the strength to endure. Peace is an ideal which can only stand when all parties are given a fair chance to have it.

Too often, those standing victorious in the end finally feel the weight of what their victory cost. Victory this day, was going to cost far too much. Like it had since the beginning, things were only getting worse. Perhaps for once fearful and desperate, zebra forces were doing everything possible to harass and damage. They were very good at it. Too good. Now, on the verge of collapse they fought ever harder, not even paralleled by any previous actions. To imagine this is difficult. Day by day, hour by hour, second by second their intensity increased. Though dwindling in number their resolve to fight never truly wavered. As their formerly nearly invincible army crumbled, the desperation to hold onto this resolve grew.

This much hopelessness can only give way to hurriedly executed plans only vaguely considered in their entirety and scope. Fate is a fickle companion whose whims change directions as randomly as a hurricanes winds. The pegasi took pride in their heritage. Their very roots as warriors still held in highest regard. For the duration of this war it served them well. Air superiority wins battles. Countering flight is no simple matter. Plans to do so were drawn up ever since the beginning. There are few greater threats than a pegasus popping up from cover only to drop and disappear an instant later with no chance of shooting them down.

If they knew the extent of the enemies respect for this threat they would have taken even more pride. Dragon mercenaries, called on to fight this very threat were more common in the mix earlier, now few and far between. Taken down at a very high cost. One or two occasionally still dared to make an appearance, but were relegated to harrying and intimidation runs more than anything. Head-on encounters were by now nonexistent. The fact they were no longer a real threat was attributed solely to pegasi tactics and bravery in the face of truly daunting opponents. Those battles were by no means forgotten.

Losses that heavy do not go unremembered and these memories pushed flight teams to fight with even more vigor as the war was clearly drawing to a close. Their losses might go unpunished and that was unacceptable. Now was the last chance to hit them across the board, forcing their remnants in one region into the badlands and a more submissive stance should peace finally be broached. One last great offensive to break them. What was forgotten in all this is that deeply held hatreds only call for more of the same, and on it would go until the very last second before life could take no more and be stilled.

49 hours to war end:

"Command! Twelfth squadron actual.. We need immediate..." The radio operator jumped at the sudden burst from the secondary radio. It was only for monitoring generally unused frequencies in case enemy forces decided to risk employing such a thing, it was usually just dead air. He hurriedly summoned a flag officer over to listen. Something was wrong about this broadcast. For one, it was on an open frequency unused by the equestrian military, which immediately drew a red flag. Radio equipment was not exactly new by this late period of the long war, but it still suffered from occasional serious deficiencies.

Lack of transmission range was sometimes one of them. Whatever was being sent was seriously garbled and hard to filter through the static. There should be no urgent transmissions now anyway, the war was surely almost over, and especially not on open air. Victory was a certainty. There was nothing else to hear for a moment besides strangely worrying static. The wording of the transmission was perplexing and not in proper order either. It was possible the one sending it just made a mistake, but this possibility made it even more concerning. Why would they be using an open frequency? The operator fiddled with knobs and dials, trying to clear up the signal with little success.

The interference was the worst he'd ever heard. It could not possibly be random noise. The radio static burst again. It was almost impossible to hear what was being repeated until it at last cleared for a few seconds once more.

"Fifteenth squadron actual, radio .... all going down! Hit us with... 43 b...." The radio operator turned to his superior who was staring wide-eyed at the now silent radio. It took a moment for either of them to get thinking again. This was unexpected and very serious indeed.

"Sir? What should we do?" They were both in a slight state of shock.

If the radio message was to be believed something terrible just happened to no less than 48 pegasi. Maybe more.

"We do nothing." The officer stated coolly. Before this could be questioned he continued.

"The fifteenth are some of our best fliers and fighters. They are surpassed only by the Shadowbolts and.." They did not like to talk about what happened to some of their best. They all knew who he meant.

"If anypony has a chance of getting them out of whatever mess they're in, it is their captain. Keep trying to raise them at half-hour intervals. Inform the closest tactical group north of their last known position to post a watch for any of them and monitor radio traffic. Keep it quiet." Were his only orders.

"Yes..sir." The operator performed his duty, but was clearly distraught they were not doing more.

"One of your relatives is in the fifteenth, right?" The operator was caught off-guard at being asked.

"Uh, yes. My cousin. I hope he's okay." He was rather worried about them now.

The pegasus officer placed a hoof over his shoulder. This was surprising. He looked back to see him smiling.

"My son is with that squadron, and I know he will do everything possible to help them come back alive. Barring that, I know he will give our enemies the worst bloody nose they have ever been graced with. Trust your cousin to do the same, he would not be in that outfit if he wasn't one of the very best." With that the officer returned to his usual rigid demeanor and went back to whatever other business was in need of his attention. The reassurance was strange, but it was nice to know how highly regarded the squadron truly was. The squadron was indeed amongst the best, now just short of being deemed elite and they all knew it. They'd worked very hard to get that recognition.

This also meant taking on one tough mission after another, always just slightly overshadowed. In the field, things were not going according to plan today. Somewhere behind enemy lines they were on the ground. This is not a place a pegasus should be during a war.

"Sparks! Tell me what happened to us, where we are, and what happened to twelfth spec ops attachment?" Their captain and the two with him were alright, some were not so lucky and landed very hard.

"I don't entirely know sir. Those of us with the advanced flak suits got attacked and downed by our own self-defense systems. They all shorted out partway I think. At the same time a kind of biological contact agent was spread via some type of air dispersal bombs and locked our wings in whatever position they were in at the time. It didn't fully work is the only reason any of us managed to glide at all. I'm guessing. No sign of the twelfth. We are around 43 miles behind the lines from glide lock. Obscure B3." Sparks took a deep breath. This was very bad. They were not really equipped for ground warfare and could not fly out of here. Their wings were finally retracted, but hurting very badly.

"Can any of you move your wings or fly?" He asked of the small group standing around. There were only four of them together, more must be somewhere close by. They all shook their heads in resignation. It was just too painful to extend them now.

"Why do I feel embarrassed? Ahem, and the radios? Anypony get a message off?" The captain looked a little shaken, they'd never seen him that way before.

"Sorry sir. Helmet radios and the big one are still working fine, their shielding held. There has to be a kind of severe radio interference coming from somewhere. Tried all channels, even open. I can't tell if command got it." Sparks looked pretty worried too. He was a fine technician, but support was usually their only role. The captain hesitated for a second, looking at the mic on the hefty piece of equipment before depressing the clip.

"Fifteenth squadron actual. Code free. 5 through 24, sound off status and obscured position immediately. Hurry." The static was extreme but a moment later there was definitely some barely audible chatter.

Nothing from members 5 and 6. Bad news.

"7 through 9 together, alright. South 40 1R from stage." Two miles north, not bad. More silence from 10 and 11. That was not so good.

"12 through 14 here. Pretty banged up, but still kicking! South 35 L2 from stage." A lot further away.

"15 and 17. Hurt pretty bad. Don't know what happened to 16. We cannot find them, sir. South 28 L6 from stage." They were scattered over a very wide area and miles apart.

Regrouping would not normally be so difficult for those able to soar the skies.

"18 through 24, sound off now, or I'll kick your flanks all the way to Tartarus myself!" The captain making a threat like that would always get them moving, because he meant it and would find a way to do it, too. Only an eerie silence punctuated by static was heard for a moment. A meek sounding voice finally popped on, that was not like how any of them usually acted.

"19.. I.. I... Th...think they're all dead, sir. I.. help me.." Was that a bang? It went silent.

There was nothing more from them.

"19, your position? 19? Respond!" The captain was tough and sometimes abrupt, but this was clearly an unusual position to be in. Holding a hoof to his head where he took a bit of a bump on landing, he took a deep breath. 18 through 24 simply weren't answering anymore. Could they really all be gone? Not good. He pressed the send clip again.

"Listen up all. If any teams can hear me, but cannot respond. Your orders are to destroy all damaged flak suits. They're useless on the ground without their defense systems, ditch them. Take any functional small weapons and beeline towards our original staging area as fast as you reasonably can. We will form up as we move. Do not stop. Avoid the enemy at all costs. If you cannot move, assume a defensive position and hunker down. I think we are the farthest south and should come across your beacons. Hold tight." It was time to get moving. Staying in any one position was dangerous. The fate of 16, and 19 through 24 was of great concern. All the rest seemed to have landed alright.

It was easy enough to destroy the suits, there were means of doing so built right into them. This was going to be hard slog through enemy territory. They were almost bound to run into them somewhere. Most pegasi only ever saw how the war looked from above.

"We are a long way behind enemy lines. You all know this is clearly a trap. They absolutely know we are here somewhere, so spread out and keep pace. Cloud Reaper, guess who just joined the ground-pounders? Point. Hard Charger, rear guard." The captain knew every one of them well, and usually referred to each by a well-earned nickname instead.

If there ever was a time to be a little closer and more assuring, this was it.

"Yes, sir." They both replied as Reaper took lead up ahead. He was perhaps the most rough and tumble of them all, and carried a few too many scars from being a bit too daring. He wore them well though. By earth pony standards he would be on the large side, by pegasus standards he was nearly colossal. The rest fell in and took to a fast walk. A faster pace would only serve to needlessly fatigue them. Still, they needed to move quickly. They all possessed a few small guns, the heavier ones were simply too large to detach and carry, so were destroyed along with the suits.

Giving up anything to the enemy was unthinkable. The suits themselves might be useless to the stripes, but the weapons were certainly a commodity. In general the ponies did have superior firepower to some degree. If nothing else, weapons of pony make were somewhat more reliable than those of zebra manufacture. It was not as pronounced of a difference now, but it still gave them an advantage.

"Sparks, switch to private channel 1 for a moment." The captain would not normally have bothered to keep anything private, so this was a bit odd. After doing so he continued and spoke quietly.

"I know you are aware, we're in trouble. Don't let it slip. They may not realize it, but there is no way we can just walk out of this. Without being able to call for rescue we are in deep." This was pretty blunt of him to state, but it was true. 43 miles behind enemy lines is a very very long walk. Even if they were all together it would be all but impossible to survive this trek.

"Captain, we all swore the same oaths, and knew there were risks. We have all lost somepony we cared about. Let's show the enemy what we're really made of and make it very hard for them to swallow what they've bitten off." Sparks reply was heartfelt.

"And here I was getting worried. I always liked a challenge. Alright." The captain sounded more confident already. He was always a solid individual before, and could be forgiven a shaky moment after being downed like this. All of them were pretty rattled. 45 minutes passed in quiet. They'd made about four miles already. A good pace, maybe they did have a chance after all. Ahead, Reaper cautiously peered over a small rise and motioned for all to get down. Pegasi hearing and sight range are tremendously good, as they must be. Even unassisted they can catch the slightest movement. The captain slipped up to the rise to be informed that a zebra patrol was just out in front of them, they'd nearly walked right into them.

If not for the little rise they would now be under fire. All they could do was wait and hope they passed by. The feeling of waiting when a threat to survival is right around the corner is a wearing experience. Few of the squadrons number ever needed to deal with this in reality. They were trained well and battle-hardened, but that was all in a standup fight. Waiting like this was interminable and felt like forever. In truth it was a mere few moments. It felt like hours. Eventually the patrol passed far enough out of sight for them to get moving again. A couple more miles down and still nothing from their beacon locators. All wore one strapped to a leg. The range was very limited, but they should have some indication of others by now.

It was perhaps not too unusual given the interference, and that the rest should be moving as well. To their right in the distance they were passing by a large towering column of rock. Such a thing would be an impressive sight to most, but merely a ground feature to them. Mere height is not something which impresses a pegasus very much. What was perhaps more impressing were the odd markings on the base of the tower. Just looking at them gave an odd sensation of foreboding. It was a bad feeling shared by all. The locators did not have a great range to begin with. It was almost certainly being cut further by whatever was sending up so much interference across all channels.

Once again they were signaled to stop. Something was odd ahead. As the captain approached he was puzzled at not really seeing anything.

"What is.." He went to ask as Reaper pointed over around the bend. Peering around the corner of the huge stone column very slowly gave a view of what appeared to be one of the flak suits. As still as a statue. A sixteen was emblazoned across the flank. It seemed to be just standing there motionless against an outcropping. Somehow he'd ended up here all alone, but why wasn't he moving at all? How did he even get here?

The damaged suits were dead weight and useless, not capable of standing on their own. Something was truly wrong about this. None of his subordinates would disobey orders. There was no time to wonder about this, a decision must be made immediately. He decided to step out and confront the pegasus inside.

"Comet Trail.. Hey, Comet.. you alright buddy?" He tried to keep his voice down. It could easily echo here. As he moved closer he could see there was blood running down from a puncture in the suit. Had he been shot? If so why hadn't they taken his suit and weapons?

"Comet? Comet, come on. We have to go." Comet was a friend to most in the squadron and well-liked. This was not like him at all.

"Stay back!" Comet practically growled as he began smashing his helmeted head into the rock repeatedly, causing more blood to gush forth from the suit.

"Comet! What the hay!? You're killing yourself! Stop!" The captain hissed, but it was having no effect as he continued to ram and smash his head into the rock harder and harder repeatedly.

Before the captain could reach him he placed a gun pointed into the punctured suit and pressed it up against the outcropping, ready to fire.

"Comet, no!" The captain went to dash at him, but it was too late.

"I'm sorry, sir. I can't stop it." With that Comet placed a hoof against the mouth trigger and flicked it. The other three came running around the corner at the shot, but the captain put a hoof straight out out to stop them going farther and shook his head. The look on his face told them not to push past. Comet slumped forward and slid to the ground hard.

He was surely dead. Why. Why did he do it?

"We have to move, now. That shot could easily have been overheard. Get moving. Move! I'll be there in a moment." The rest continued on, somewhat shocked at this and the order. The captain moved towards his fallen subordinate. Never in a million years could he have imagined this pony doing such a thing to himself. Tears fell as he gathered up the small weapons and his tags, setting the fallen suit to destroy itself along with Comet. There was no time to do anything else. He huffed, and nearly choked.

"I know you didn't want to do this to yourself, Comet. I don't know what happened to you. I will tell them you fought hard. Somehow, I think that is the truth." At least, he would if they got out of here. He sniffled and brushed the tears away before catching up to the others.

"Captain, what..." Reaper went to ask, but the stony look on his superiors face told him not to. Another hour of hard walking passed in silence, and another. Finally one of the beacons registered on Sparks locator. Still 33 miles from safety. At least they might have more support now. 7, 8, and 9. They managed to catch their attention before moving in.

Accidentally shooting each other would make this mess very complete. The three were moving very slowly. They'd clearly landed hard at too steep of an angle much too fast, and were bleeding from numerous cuts. Each was bruised in several places. At least they'd finally picked up some of the missing members. This seemed to raise the captains spirit.

"Captain, are we ever glad to see you guys. We have a bit of a problem. Spectrum Bustle cannot walk at any good pace or fight. His right foreleg is pretty twisted, and his right hind leg is even worse. He slammed down pretty hard, sir." Straight Arrow informed them.

"That's just great. Couldn't you have landed on your head instead, Bustle? We all know how hard it is." The captain said, drawing light laughter from the group, and a bit of a blush on the targets muzzle. A bit of levity in a situation like this was probably a good thing.

"Okay, keep it down. We have a long way to go, and if I'm not mistaken, only a few hours before Celestia sets the sun. I don't really want to try camping out here and be set upon by the stripes in the dark. Pair up, we will take turns helping carry him along. You know the drill, fifteen minutes each." The pace was grueling, but there wasn't much choice.

Keeping the stripes off them for an entire night would likely prove to be impossible without support. As it stood, they were short enough on ammo for the small snub pistols they carried. The weapons were only intended to give a downed pegasi a quick and reliable secondary means of defense until rescue could move in. This situation was certainly never thought of. There was no way to tell if their radio messages were reaching anypony but themselves. Sparks could not assist carrying the injured due to the hefty dual antenna radio he lugged along, strapped to his back. The square bulky radios transmission strength was tremendous, surely at least a little got back to friendly lines?

If it did, they were not receiving any responses even as they closed the gap.

"Arrow, did any of you get a radio message off before going down, or see what happened to 19 through 24?" The captain asked.

"I think we all tried, but no answers. It happened so fast. I think I saw 23 going down short and west of here at a steep glide, but nothing so bad as us. Should've run into her by now, sir." Was his unhappy reply.

"We are spread out over way too much area. We could be trotting right past each other and never even see one another in this place. How do the stripes maneuver so easily around here? Anyway, we can only hope to pick up more as we move." The captain was definitely worried about this. The closer they got to what could loosely be deemed the front lines these days, the more likely they would run into more trouble. He was doing his best not to let whatever happened to drive Comet into committing suicide without so much as a word of explanation be the foremost thing on his mind. Lack of clarity here would definitely prove deadly. Still, the entire incident made his blood run cold, and left him on edge.

The worry was simple enough. Whatever happened to the poor flier could happen to another. If it did, what would happen, what would they do? Just what he needed. The possibility of more of them acting crazy. Hopefully, that would not come to be. Losing any of their number was painful. Each was a valued companion and an excellent fighter or they wouldn't be here. Losing even one that miserable way just did not sit right. Going out fighting was one thing. In some instances it could almost be celebrated, as painful as it was. Taking yourself out was an entirely different matter.

"Captain." Their superior jolted out of his thoughts at being spoken to. Sparks was asking him a question.

He really was on edge.

"Sorry, captain. Are you alright? You've looked a little pale ever since.. and, we all landed very hard. You sure you're not hurt? I know it's your job to be all tough and everything, sir." Sparks really was a good sort. They'd been through a lot together.

"I'm alright. I just never thought.. Never mind. Just keep at your radio and locator. We need help. Help from anywhere. The closest ground unit I'm aware of was several miles west of stage, so they're even further away." It was a heavy burden, leading these pegasi to fight and die, but it was never like this.

Each of them was a trusted stalwart, more than worthy of fighting alongside the best. Most of those in the fifteenth were true veterans of the long and bitter struggle. Only a couple were really young now, but all still saw enough action to merit deep respect. They looked aged far beyond their years. The rest served even longer. He'd lost others before, it was true, but it never felt anything like this. There were stories of the wicked and twisted things enemy forces threw at them before, but a pegasus fights from above. Away from it all, detached from the carnage on the ground. The sky is where they are truly most comfortable. Being forced onto the ground like this was a painful blow in itself, humiliating.

It would not be said aloud, but they all felt that way. How dare the stripes inflict such embarrassment on them? For the captain, going down having been shot out of the sky while fighting, would easily have been considered a far better fate than this. This was wrong. An affront to their honor and pride. This was eating at each of them. About two miles east of their position a terrifically green flare went sailing into the sky and burst. It could only have been fired off by 12, 13, or 14. On the particular mission they were engaged in before being knocked out of the sky, that particular color meant under fire. This was terrible. Worse, there was nothing they could do but evade and leave them to face their end alone.

"Captain, shouldn't we go help them?" They'd all halted at the sight. This was not going to be easy in any way.

"No. Keep moving, and before any of you get the wrong idea, that flare is not them calling for help. They're just saying goodbye and good luck, we'll keep them busy. See ya later, boys. Now, salute them and move on. You know that's what they want." The captain was clearly holding back years worth of tears. Each turned a smart salute in their direction and forlornly went on with the knowledge their longtime friends were giving them all they were worth and then some. May their enemies choke on it.

"I hope you take a whole battalion worth with you. Knowing you three, you might even manage that." The captain mumbled to himself inaudibly. He'd considered asking about resigning before. His time was already served twice over and he'd just about had enough. Maybe he should've got out while his luck still held? The thought felt empty. This was what he knew. What would he do when the war was over? Just go back to the quiet and fairly unremarkable existence that was his lot before all this? He'd never been very ambitious before joining up. Seeing ponies he knew personally being killed in droves is what pushed him to do better, fight harder to protect others until he was deemed an ace.

This designation certainly raised up his own pride in himself. He was just old enough to sign on when it started. Seeing so many dear friends leave and never return was a burning pain inside that practically guaranteed he would. The first time he joined actual combat was the most exciting, and most fearful moment of his entire life. He proved to quickly master the tactics necessary for survival during the brutal sortie. Some did not come back that time, just some added fuel to his anger and pain. Fear is a necessity. Without it one could easily make terrible mistakes. Those who claim to have absolutely none are either out of their minds or lying to themselves.

None of those within the ranks of the fifteenth were the sort to delude themselves. They were here to fight to the end. This intense drive to fight and protect others is what inevitably steered him into leading the squadron. Few would consider themselves peers to their celebrated captain in battle. This situation was wearing and intolerable. What would his life have been like if the war never happened? He would certainly not be who he was now. Formerly a slightly shy but still outgoing individual back then, he imagined it could have been a happy enough existence. At least, his friends would still be around. Instead, many of them lay strewn wherever they may have fallen. Some were known to be dead, but never found.

The destruction of battle forever obscuring their final fate. For some reason, those losses hurt the most. 27 miles to go. Things were certainly going to get more interesting as they got closer to the front. Just ahead another beacon finally showed up, they'd finally run across 7, 8, and 9. They weren't moving very fast either.

"Whistle Stop, report." The captain ordered. As per usual they caught their attention carefully first.

"Everything was going fine. We were sweeping probable enemy positions and then something went off and hurt our wings and we all did our best to land and we lost sight of everypony else because we went down too fast and we all got dinged up when we hit the ground and Gust Gale hit his head pretty hard and Twister Breaker hurt his hoof and we all thought were going to die on impact and that would have sucked. Do you know what happened to us? It hurts so much to move our wings and.." She stopped her almost impossible to follow fast chattering at seeing the captain hold up a hoof.

"Whistle Stop, I said report, not give us your life history." That drew a good laugh. They needed it.

Now they were at least a decent sized force and might be able to punch through whatever might be in their way if they were judicious about their use of ammo.

"Sorry. We are all able to move, but we all took a pretty hard tumble as you can see. I think I saw 15 and 17 ditch about half a mile on from right about here. They shouldn't be too hard to catch up with. You look a bit banged up yourself, sir." Whistle Stop might talk incomprehensibly fast sometimes, but she could also fly like the wind itself. An admirable trait to have and very applicable to warfare. There were a few better, but not many. She knew it, and they knew it.

Every single pegasus here felt they deserved to feel as prideful as they did. Each and every one suffered greatly through many battles. It was hard earned. They were making good time for the condition they were all in, but it was not fast enough. At the pace they were able to keep it would still be dark before they made it to relative safety. It would only be possible to make a few more miles at this rate. Ahead to the west a little was a tremendously high and wide column of rock with a vague spiral to the shape in places. All this walking was wearing. Even when near the ground pegasi would prefer to hover a bit above as they moved along. All this walking was nearly unbearable.

Of course they were in shape for it, hard training and endless years of deployments ensured they were. This was just not fair. Gazing through a pair of binoculars somepony managed to hang onto, the captain spotted 10, 15 and 17 huddled up against the edge of this gigantically tall rock formation. No sign of 11. Using a little signal mirror to bounce what little light was left of the day at them got their attention. After getting close enough to see them properly it was obvious they'd landed the hardest out of any survivors thus far. They must have practically crawled to get here.

"Are we ever glad to see you guys. We're in really rough shape, sir." Wild Eyes, a demolitions expert, gave a quick summary of their injuries. Both suffered several cracked ribs and torn muscles in various places. Not quite bad enough to stop them from moving, but they were very slow. That either of them were able to move at all showed just how willful and determined an injured pegasus can be. This was more bad news. They were already moving much too slowly. There was no possible way to cover another 25 miles with all three of the injured ponies before the sun dropped below the horizon, and where in the world did 23 wind up? There was no sign of her.

Even a dead body would be something, there was not so much as a hoofprint. Without any indication where the rest landed at all, they might never be found in this disorienting desert of a place. There was no choice but to try and find a defensible spot where they might escape detection for the night.

"There's a little cave entrance or something just around the other side about two hundred meters from here. We both saw it before we slammed down. Almost crashed right into it before we went sailing past. We umm, didn't quite feel like trying to go back and check it out, sir." The pair of injured pegasi informed them. A hidden cave?

It might be just what they needed, but it seemed unlikely they would just happen to find a safe haven so readily. With the radio still giving no reply but heavy static they could only hope it was undiscovered and unoccupied.

"I trust anything in this place about as far as I can spit. Alright, we'll check it out. I see you've still got a couple smoke grenades. Hoof'em over. You three injured sit tight." The captain was all business now. They knew this side of him rather well. The rest would go.

"You all better remember your close ground assault training. I will not die just because one of you forgets to check a corner, got it? Get in position. Go, go, go." He would be taking up his own position as they moved in on the entrance. Moving in around the sides of the little entrance proved there would be just enough for two ponies to enter side by side. They would only enter single file to fan out. Moving in together would be something they'd been drilled never to do. One must take the risk of entering first and calling in the next. The captain pointed Reaper to sweep left and Arrow to take right as they formed up quietly alongside the rocky entrance. It was dark inside.

After throwing one of the few marker flares in their kits deep inside to see. Reaper moved in checking left and right, and motioned the rest in one after another to rapidly move forward and check out the entire space. It proved to be a much larger cavern than expected with several unused looking passageways riddling the place, all going downwards at various angles.

"All clear!" Was finally called out by Whistle Stop after every nook and cranny of the large space was thoroughly examined for traps or hidden enemies. The passages proved to be a different matter.

They were dim, too small to stand side by side in and scattered off in multiple directions. Most were dusty and appeared very unused. One showed what might be signs of more recent use, but it was very difficult to tell. In all there were six. Another passage looked to have collapsed in on itself at some point. In all it appeared to be a very well hidden and defensible place. They might be able to spend the night here in relative safety.

"Something about this place doesn't sit right with me. I don't like it, sir. It is really hot in here." Sparks said in a matter of fact fashion to the captain after they'd helped move the injured inside the surprisingly large cavern.

The six dark passages lining the walls at odd intervals made for an eerie feeling by themselves.

"Forgive me, let me just ask Her Highness if she could kindly turn down the sun. What's to like, Sparks? Excepting the wounded we will take three hour watches covering the entrance and the passages. Nopony is to go wandering off. Stay in teams of at least three at all times, is that clear?" The captain was very intent on at least dying out in open air if it must come to that.

"Who would want to go wandering around what is very likely some old forgotten zebra haunt anyway? I agree though. Don't you feel it? This place definitely has a weird vibe about it. Won't they be sending rescue by now, sir?" Bustle chimed in. They'd done their best to make them all as comfortable as possible, but there was not very much they could do. Real medical attention was back at stage. Normally they would have airlifted the wounded off for attention. A practice they'd become very accustomed to. It saved a lot of lives over time, not only those of downed fliers. They'd perhaps become too used to being able to almost move freely as enemy resistance everywhere began to dwindle in number.

"All this place needs to complete the wonderful ambience and atmosphere is a mirror and someone chanting 'Bloody Mare!'" Wild Eyes quipped.

"Can it, Wild Eyes. Like anypony ever believed that nonsense anyway." The captain was obviously poking fun a little. Now, there was going to be a bit of a problem. In their pain, none of the squadron members they picked up on the way here asked about 16 or the others yet. They were bound to do so quite soon. What was he going to tell them?

He might get away with informing Comet's family and others that he went down fighting, but these fine companions he'd come to rely on would know better and see right through any lie about it. It was going to be a tense night. Providing they even survived it. Zebra patrols absolutely would be sweeping the area intensely for now. By only sheer luck and a little skill did they all avoid getting mowed down thus far.

"All of you, listen up." the captain clapped his hooves together to emphasize this was rather important and stood looking over the exhausted ponies under his command.

He could not have asked or hoped for better friends to live, and perhaps die alongside. Now was as good a time as any.

"I know most of you are wondering what happened to the rest. First, think about it, Bustle. A whole squadron went missing and they have no idea why, air support will not be coming, and a ground column cannot risk looking for us. We're on our own. I don't want to add to your burdens, but we may have another serious problem. I will tell you all what I know. Nothing from the twelfth. 12 through 14 are dead. They saved all our lives just a couple hours ago. 18 through 24 are either completely out of action or gone. All we got was a broken message from 19 that cut off. 23 might still be around here somewhere, but we cannot find her, and it gets worse." He hadn't mentioned 16 yet. This was so hard to tell them.

As Whistle Stop went to ask he held up his hoof and looked down.

"I want all of you to consider not telling this to anypony else why out of respect for all their time served with us but, Comet Trail is also dead. He said something strange, and shot himself before I could stop him." Saying this aloud hurt the captain to the core. The three with him were maybe a little surprised he chose to share this so openly. The rest looked on in stunned silence. How could one of their most confident and skillful have done such a thing? Whistle Stop looked the most shaken.

"Captain, it can't be. He wouldn't have..He wouldn't." She was trembling and tears were welling up. They all knew those two may have been striking up a relationship that might have been heading towards marriage. It wasn't a good idea to have such thoughts during the vast war, but it was so very nearly over. Why would he choose to hurt her like this? The captain spoke carefully.

"Whistle Stop..Whistler, look at me. Look. Listen." She looked up and peered at him through heavy tears. It was hard to see her this way.

"I do not believe for the slightest instant he wanted to do it. Something is really wrong with all of this, and we all need to be extremely cautious. Keep an eye out for each other. Do not start getting paranoid out here, but watch each others behavior, alright? Stick together. I mean it." He didn't want to discourage or cause them to turn on one another for no reason, but he simply couldn't choose not to warn them. Not a single one of them deserved to be taken unaware of what might be coming.

"Thank you for telling us, sir. I can see in your face all that must have been hard to say. We understand." Gust ventured to salute the captain, and the rest did the same.

"If only 23 were with us. Her knowledge of chemistry might prove useful right about now." Sparks stated lightly. Unusually for a pegasus, she was an expert on magically enhanced chemical warfare, and that was all they could imagine caused whatever happened. Where could she be? The sun finally went down below the horizon. The one duty that Celestia seemed to have kept after her sudden departure from the throne so long ago. She didn't have to do that either, others could very well have taken over in her place. Perhaps she took solace in seeing that much-celebrated orb still bring some measure of confidence and hope to her beloved ponies. At least one thing that could still be trusted.

She might even return to the throne after the war ended. That would truly signal that hostilities were over. That could not be hoped for, not quite yet. That would be something later, a great and happy moment. For now, the enemy was still defiant, practically to the point of insanity. Their very motivations to this point still mostly a mystery.

"Three hour rotations. Keep it sharp and your wits about you." The captain himself desperately needed some rest. He'd been hustling most of them along for almost half a day now and it was showing. The single dim flare they'd tossed would last for several hours at least. It would only provide a modicum of light.

Leaving flickering shadows and minds to jump at nothing. There were only three of them left, just enough to last the night. Even if command had some idea where they were, help would not be coming from the air. Not without knowing what brought them down. Perhaps by tomorrow enough ground force might be pulled together to push a column this deep into enemy territory to assist. That was a possibility that could not be counted on.

"Captain, before you get some rest, do you really think 18 through 24 are gone?" Reaper asked quietly. It was uncharacteristic of him to even bother asking such questions. The captain took a deep breath and sighed heavily.

"What 19 said... I could hear it in his voice. Something really terrible happened to those guys. Whatever it was, I don't want it happening to us." The tinge of sadness to the captains voice lately was not something any of them were used to hearing. The war had already taken more lives than any would care to count. In a way the horror of it all was about to end. Not knowing how close they were to witnessing the very end of Equestria along with it, both sides were still losing valued friends and members of their respective societies. The pain of losing so many kindred to what felt like no real reason at all is what hurt the most.

From above the captain watched many of them fall from the very sky which was their home, and saw those on the ground taking on even more brutal losses. He never let another see it, but sometimes he shook when nopony was looking. In his most private moments he trembled terribly, remembering it all. If his superiors ever saw it they would have removed him from duty immediately. He really should have quit, but that burning desire to protect others was still there. It was the one defining trait he ever truly felt anything about. If he could no longer do that one thing, what good was he? He quickly fell into a deep and dreamless slumber.

As the first watch shifted positions a few hours later, they let the captain continue to sleep instead of waking him. In that time all seemed well enough. As the first flare stuttered and began to fade another was about to be lit by Whistle Stop. At this instant a sharp scream rang out followed by a heavy thud. As she struck the end against a rock to light it, the just lit flare went flying out of her muzzle as she was dragged into one of the passages. The rest went to shoot at whatever it was, but it was already too late. She was gone. At the same time as her echoing scream faded into the deep, Reaper was struck in the back of the head by something and fell, possibly dead.

The sound of gunfire echoed terribly in the cavern as they shot into the passageways blindly. Being picked off in the dark was causing them to panic.

"Sparks, I can't see anything in here. Cease fire! Celestia damn it. Cease fire!" The captain was yelling from the ground of this dimly lit cave. It finally got through. They'd wasted far too many rounds aimlessly in the dark.

"Well this is a fine mess. Each of you check how many rounds you have left and stop firing at shadows! You know better. No target, no shot. We do not have enough ammo for suppressing fire. Somepony check Reaper." There was no point being angry at them. Something unseen picked off two of their number in the dark. Seeing the lifeless form of Reaper laying there sent chills down his spine. Breaker knelt in close to place an ear against his chest, then hammered about the area around his heart with a hoof. A moment later he stood and shook his head slowly. Whatever struck Reaper was not apparent.

"He's gone, sir." Was all he could barely manage to say. Sparks spoke up.

"What do we do about Whistle Stop? She was definitely not dead." This drew the same question from the others.

"We will put it to a vote. Consider carefully for a moment. If we go down there, it might well be the end of us all." The captain did not want to blindly lead them to their deaths, at least not one in some dark pit in the ground. After a brief pause he asked.

"All for?" Everyone raised a hoof.

"We never leave anypony behind. Not the fifteenth, sir. After we rescue Whistler, we'll go find the others, too." Charger made it sound like there was nothing else to consider. They were all very likely going to die here anyway. Might as well go out hard.

"Well, there's no arguing with that, is there? Can't say I ever fancied going spelunking. Alright, form up. Sparks, you, Arrow, Breaker and Rooks will stay here with the injured. Remain in the center of the cave and well away from the passages. We will take the last flare. If we are not back before this flare dies out, get them out of here. Drag them all the way home if you have to. No arguments." The captain knew this was something they must do.

Whistler might well still be alive, lost in the dark. Leaving her to face the enemy by herself was not an option. What happened to 12, 13, and 14 came to mind, but they went down fighting and knowing they were not alone or abandoned. This was something altogether different.

"Marbles, point. Pin Strike, Rear guard. Get that cannon of yours ready. Spectre, with me. All of you watch your steps, and do not lose that flare under any circumstances. Without it we could be lost forever." An admonishment they likely did not need, but it was better to reinforce how important it was. Marbles was just a little crazy, in a good way.

Pin Strike had the best eyes, and was the most precise shooter the captain ever saw. He'd proven to be a superb shot on many occasions. The ever-present lightweight mini-PSS close-combat sniper rifle strapped to his back was a familiar sight as he unslung it and popped in the 20 round cartridge, then pulled back the mouth charger slide. It was a very advanced weapon, few of which were in service yet. Designed to be as easy to use as possible and made of odd materials, he was so good that he'd been one of the rare ponies chosen to receive one for field testing. For two years now, it proved to be an amazing rifle. Anything within 300 meters would be an easy hit for him.

He was the only one that did not waste any rounds in the short scuffle. This left him with the most bullets. These specific armor piercing rounds were not common yet either, packing an extremely heavy punch into a very small package. Spectre might as well have been a ghost for all he spoke.

"Solid targets only. Most of us have about half a clip or less, that's not so good. Move out." They set off into the darkness of the path where Whistler was taken. There was clear indication someone was being dragged.

About ten minutes along in their awkward trek into the dark the passage opened out slightly into a smaller cavern with a couple of branching hallways chiseled into the rock. They looked ancient and unused as the rest of the place. It took a few minutes to spot a few drops of blood looking to be leading into the leftmost hall.

"Scrape a mark into the edge there. Getting lost in here on top of everything else is not my idea of a good time." The captain ordered. How he yearned for the open skies above. He knew they all held similar feelings, but he felt so confined in here it was getting on his nerves. At least none of them were claustrophobic.

All they could do was follow the trail and hope Whistle Stop wasn't hurt too badly. Partway along the trail Marbles looked at a little indent along the rock wall.

"Hey, what's this?" He said as he pushed on what could possibly be a little button.

"No, don't!" They all said in unison. Too late as a large chunk of the wall swung around, swallowing Marbles whole.

"Marbles! Can you hear us!?" It was no use. The false wall, looking exactly like the rock was simply too thick. There did not appear to be any sort of mechanism on this side to open it again.

"Damn yer hide, Marbles! Keep moving, maybe we can go around and link back up with him down further somewhere. Sky Skimmer, take point. Spectre Flight, in front of me." This was already not going well. Now, there were only four of them. Out of all of them Spectre was probably most used to being on the ground, having served with second battalion as close support during some of the worst fighting of the entire war.

"Nopony touch nothin!" The captain was pretty irritated Marbles did this. Sometimes he was just a little too reckless. More often than not it was more of a facade, but sometimes it got him in real trouble. Nothing this bad before, though.

Distressed, they walked on down the narrow winding corridors. What was this place? Everything about it was strange and felt off somehow, in a way none of them could quite fathom. The very angles of the thin corridors felt a bit strange in some way. The entire place almost seemed designed to be disorienting, but who would build something that way on purpose? It was probably just their imaginations getting carried away in a terrible situation. The passageway always going downwards finally widened gradually until two ponies could stand side by side, continuing to do so until they stepped out into an immense room. It was an actual room.

Covered top to bottom in cobwebs and dust were a couple huge tables that must have once sat at least a hundred. A few ancient oil lanterns left unlit for decades or longer were arranged about the tables. At one time this room must have served some kind of royalty, perhaps. If they were new it would be an impressive sight. Disused and apparently undisturbed for ages rot and grime settled on everything.

"Check those lanterns. Be careful, I said check them. The last thing we need is something blowing up in our faces." The captain knew this was a bit risky. Lighting something so old could prove very dangerous. Two turned out to be serviceable.

Between the two there was enough oil remaining to fill one to capacity, with just a little left over for the other. It should last several hours. More than enough. They all carried a packet of matches in their small kits. It was standard issue. You never know when you might need to set something ablaze. Using them was not the easiest thing in the world to do, after a few misfires the lantern burst to life in fits and starts for a moment. A good hour and a half must have passed since Marbles went missing. With the lantern casting far more light, the sheer size of this old room impressed itself. It was at least three stories high. At one time it must have been truly spectacular.

Why would a place this grand have been abandoned to dust and decay? The great meetings once held in this grandiose hall by firelight could almost be imagined. Grand feasts consisting of all manner of delicacies were surely served here long ago.

"Captain. Call me crazy, but I think these long serving trays under all the cobwebs might be made of pure platinum. Just one of these is probably worth thirty thousand bits, sir. Why would they just leave this stuff here for the spiders?" Sky remarked. As he looked up, he found out why.

The captain was pointing to the other end of the room they could now see with the improved light from the old lantern.

"Because they never left either." He said gravely, gazing at a pile of zebra skeletons thrown everywhere in a tangle.

"Oh dear Luna, what happened here?" Pin Strike didn't look so good.

"This place is a tomb, and I don't want to know what happened. Some kind of weapon or experiment, or worse, got out of control here. Forget the trays. You know the rules. We do not loot. Besides, we need to find Marbles and Whistler real quick and get out of here, now. Let's move." The captain didn't really look too good himself. There was only about two more hours before Sparks and the others left without them. Sky looked at the buried trays wistfully, and turned to follow.

"Oh well. I didn't join up to get rich anyway. I'm just here to fight." Sky mumbled a little halfheartedly. Fighting was something they'd all known for a very long time. Something they might be doing again very shortly.

Some unknown killed every zebra here. No wonder it was abandoned. Every corner and turn felt dangerous before seeing all this. Now, they felt positively menacing. Quite logically they'd assumed whoever dragged off Whistler was just another zebra. If there was something else in here, perhaps even more dangerous, they could very well all be in extreme peril.

"You've been awfully quiet, Charger." Sky inquired of him. He hadn't said so much as a single word since they were forced to land.

"Like Sky said, we're here to fight. I want to be fighting, not hiding or running away. " His voice was very deep, and held an almost forlorn quality, perhaps echoing all the hard years of service they'd endured. Several other chiseled tunnels branched off from this enormous room, leading to the assumption there must be many more miles of tunnels beneath the place. Clearly intended to be a hidden meeting place, perhaps it was created by zebra outlaws at some point in the past. Did they even have outlaws or some equivalent? It might never be known. Turning to follow another path that looked like it might head towards where Whistle Stop was continued downwards. How deep was this place?

A few drops of blood here and there were not reassuring, but did gave a clue to the right path. Stepping downwards ever further into the dark, the oppressive atmosphere did nothing to lighten their spirits. After finding their way down to what appeared to be some kind of ancient storage room coated in dust, there was little muffled sound which caused Sky to halt and point ahead to another opening. After quickly positioning themselves they rushed into the room to find Whistle Stop laying on the floor in a pool of blood, gurgling, choking and gagging. There was a slightly deep cut on her throat too.

"Whistler!" Sky knelt beside her and tried to staunch the bleeding from a large gash across her midsection.

The others fanned out in a defensive circle, staring intently off into the flickering shadows for any sign of her kidnapper.

"Give me the flare, quick." Sky told Spectre who passed it over.

"Whistle Stop. Listen to me, keep your eyes open. Can you hear me? You are going into shock. Stay with me now. Eyes up flier! I have to cause you more pain, understand? Do you understand me?" Sky kept asking until she shook her head in understanding. With that Sky torched her wound closed as her muffled agonizing scream caused them all to wince.

It took several moments for her to stop sobbing. Tears welled in both their eyes.

"I'm so sorry Whistler. I'm sorry, there was no choice. You were bleeding out." Sky was shivering over what he'd just done.

She rubbed his foreleg gently. She understood. The cut on her throat was making it difficult for her to speak and tell what happened. The captain stepped in.

"I hate to break this to you, but we need to move. This is going to keep hurting, Whistle Stop. We cannot remain here. Charger, carry her." He ordered. After helping lift her onto Charger's back as she groaned in pain, they began walking back the way they'd come down. It was even slower than before. Each light but jarring step was clearly agony for her, draped as she was over him. From behind there was a sudden bang as Pin Strike fired off a round which ricocheted back down the tunnel.

"Pin Strike, Report!" The Captain whirled as he said it, just in time to see something duck down some previous unseen side passage. He never missed before. It was difficult to make out and fast.

"Something is stalking us. Couldn't hit it. Sorry, sir." He looked terribly annoyed at missing.

"Sharp eye you've got there, Pins. Keep it up and we might even make it out of here." Was all the captain said as he noticed Whistle Stop' terrified expression. Cautiously they crept back towards the large room. Once in it, there was still the matter of locating Marbles.

The decision was made to follow another path that looked like it may lead to where he might have wound up. Marbles did not have any light at all, and could not have moved. Hopefully he'd kept quiet after they were separated and knew to stay still. Carrying Whistler like this was making every step slow and tiring. By this time there was only an hour or so left before the others tried to make a run for home. Home, the word sounded distant and nearly forgotten down here. The sound of their hoof-steps echoing on the rock was not helping matters any. It gave a menacing feeling of giving them away with every strike. Hearts pounding every time they turned a corner was a terrible strain.

The dark ever pressing in and hiding who knows what in its cloak, easily gives rise to apprehension and fear. Here, this fear was justified. Some terrible thing was loosed in these dim halls long ago. Was it because of some act of zebra audacity and impudence? Did they think themselves able to do absolutely anything they felt like with impunity? In this case they clearly paid dearly for their arrogance. Unfortunately the lesson was lost on them. Whatever happened here was certainly long forgotten by zebra kind, buried. Instead of owning up to their error in judgement it was simply pushed out of the collective consciousness. This forgotten pit probably no longer even a passing memory.

Why did they ever have to wind up in this awful place? On into the dark they marched, sidelong glances around confirming all they needed to know. This place was dead, as was everything and everyone which ever strode within it. The very dark felt dangerous, almost a living thing unto itself. Finally, ahead they could see Marbles. Slumped back against the wall, dead. All manner of scrapes and bruises covered his body at every which angle, an empty clip lay on the ground. He was trying to reload. The bit-catch firing mechanism still hanging awkwardly from the side of his shattered muzzle. One of his eyes slightly hung askew from his head. Whatever did that was immensely strong.

Blood which did not seem to be entirely his own was spread everywhere. The captain could not help but let slip a few tears.

"Oh, Marbles. I see you gave them a terrible thrashing. A good fight. You sure earned your rest. May we all go down so hard. See you later, buddy." He brushed the tears away and gave a smart salute, they all did as they walked past. There was no time for more. Grieving was a thing of luxury on the battlefield. It would have to wait for later. If that later would ever come was another matter.

Pin Strike truly did have the best vision of them all. This is saying a lot for a pegasus. If he could barely catch sight of whatever was hunting them down here, the rest would stand little chance without him. Each step into uncertainty another which may be bringing them ever closer to their doom. If they continued to lose ponies at this rate, there would be nothing left of the squadron, to report back on this or anything else. With every furtive glace, this place looked and felt for lack of better terms, evil and dead. The quiet desperate march to escape these depths hopefully went unnoticed. Perhaps Marbles heroic stand against the hunter harmed it seriously enough to stop it coming after them? It might be wishful thinking.

A thought which crossed all their minds as they sought upward paths, paths which were beginning to thin once more. This was going to be a serious problem. The other unspoken problem which plagued them, there may be more than one. Inching their way forward along the terribly thin tunnels finally let them exit out into the cavern once more. Their sighs of relief were short-lived as they announced their return to find only silence and the dying embers of the flare on the ground. The injured were still here. Each with a bullet to their head.

"What in the.." The captain stopped short at seeing Sparks, draped over his radio and torn up badly.

Evidently, he was the one which fired on them. What could have happened here? Sparks wings were definitely being used defensively. It wouldn't have done much good. Only a desperate pegasus would even think to try shielding themselves with their wings. Two of the wounded appeared to have been crawling towards him. The other fell where he'd been shot. Each held a strangely glossy expression. Their guns were dry. Every bullet spent. Where were the other three? Lifting Sparks head up slightly, he surprisingly proved to still be alive despite massive blood-loss. He would bleed out soon. It was already too late to save him.

"Sparks. Sparks, what happened!?" The captain could see in his eyes that something was more wrong than just this. As he sputtered and coughed up blood, he was clearly dying, struggling to speak slowly. The light in his eyes was fading away as he coughed and sputtered. He was barely clinging to life. Blood from multiple parties was here, making it difficult to tell if it was just from these four.

"Captain, you made it. Kind of figured you would, you're just like that. Arrow went crazy out of nowhere. He got this funny look and just snapped. Started...started shooting at everything. Breaker tried to hold him down. They fought. He was crazed, broke loose. Breaker and the rookie went out after him. He didn't care, sir." Sparks was fading away quickly. "As soon as they left, something jumped me. I couldn't get it off. It hurts so much, sir." He heaved and shook violently.

"Sparks! Sparks, come on. Just hold on a little longer. What about the rest? Why did you shoot them?" The captain was badly torn about all this.

His squadron, his friends that depended on him to see them through the war, were dying all around him.

"When I woke up a while ago it was gone. Guess they got it off me, or thought it killed me. I tried to call for help. What I got was..them. They all were acting strange, like they couldn't understand me. They bit me. I was hurt. I had to. I didn't wa.." Gagging, he spat blood on the ground and shivered heavily.

"Easy. It's alright, Sparks. We all understand. You did just fine. Why don't you have yourself a good rest? You're..dismissed." The captain was trying not to let even more tears flow.

Sparks actually smiled and very shakily went to salute as his eyes closed, a final twitch left him still. The captain looked at his longtime second for a brief moment. The others were staring blankly. This was wrong. Everything about it was.

"Spectre, check Wild Eyes kit, see if there are any explosives left." Was the only order he felt like giving anymore. Spectre did as he was told, rifling through the kit for a moment.

"Whoa. How did he get clearance for this!? I mean I knew he was a little crazy but, there is uh, one Octanite cap and timer detonator, sir. Why did he have this? How did he even get it? Was he planning on taking out the entire stripe army by himself? This thing is enough to blow up a whole mountain. There's nothing else." Spectre was not generally a talkative sort, but friendly enough. Like the rest, he was a superb flier who put his life on the line more than once. The rest were just as shocked at finding out Wild Eyes was lugging around a type of experimental explosive. The tiny cap was twenty times more powerful than anything else in the military arsenal.

"It doesn't matter and I don't care how he got it. We need to get gone. The sun will be up in just a few minutes, and we need to report back about this insanity. Everypony outside, now. I will set the cap on a five minute timer and knock this place on top of that..thing, or things. Letting them get out of here would be a real bad idea. Sorry Whistler, we have to move fast." He knew this would hurt her side more. She groaned in response, but knew there was no choice.

"Strap on that radio and clip, Spectre. Signal red distress every ten minutes on all channels. You know what that means. We must get a message back to command." The captain was looking very angry.

This was a look few ponies ever actually saw on his face. Usually it was carried inside. Once all outside he placed the advanced cap and attached the detonator with two unusual looking wires to two clips on either side. There was one more order to give. There was nothing to do for these four. At least, he could give them a truly spectacular burial. He looked at their lifeless forms, taking in all they'd been through together. A moment later he turned to the others.

"This may turn out to be my final order. Once I hit this switch it cannot be stopped, everypony go for home. There are about twenty-three miles between us and safety, and each and every stripe for fifty miles in every direction is probably going to see this. Breaker and the kid will see it too, hopefully they can catch up. No matter what happens or what we encounter, keep moving. Try to stay together. If any of us takes a hit at any point, do not assist. Do not turn back. I have lost enough friends today, but this is more important than any of us, they need to know what downed the squadron and what we found in there." He reached up to tap the enable switch. Once armed they left at as rapid a pace as could be managed.

Five minutes later a rumbling was more felt than heard before a huge concussive wave swept outwards in a circle from the mountainous column of rock. They weren't kidding about how powerful an explosive it was. Even at this distance they felt it push them as they turned to look. The one entire side of the column was collapsing straight downwards as the rest tumbled in atop uncountable tons of rock. Whatever horrible thing was in there would surely have no means of escape now. If the falling rubble did not kill it, it would contain it.

"Pin Strike, keep your eyes glued forward. Charger, Whistler, give me your magazines. I will provide cover if needed." He emptied both and combined them into a full one. All that was left, plus one each for... The ground defense pistols held a surprising 19 rounds when full. Most of the ammo was wasted in the dark. As dawn finally broke the horizon on that final day unknowing, as happy as and welcome as it ever was, this little band ventured forward. Mile after mile they marched at a hard pace. Whistle Stop needed proper medical attention soon. Cresting a gentle hill Pin Strike stopped. So many hours march brought them within six miles of home only to find a horrific sight. The remains of 19 and his flak suit.

"What? It looks like he was split in half by one of our own suit guns, sir." He gasped as he looked around and took in the true scope of this. All but 23 were here, all having crashed practically straight down beside a tall, but not nearly as impressive pile of rock as the last. The attachment from 12th spec ops was not with them. Something was off about this. An odd sound was heard.

"Get down!" Hard Charger yelled and shoved him aside only to have a round pass straight through him, resulting in a fine spray splashing across the others.

As they all hit the ground a damaged flak suit marked 23 could be seen standing and firing the dual guns from above on a ledge with reckless abandon.

"No, Charger! Armor Heart, not you too. It's us, stop shooting! Stop it!" All of them yelling was not doing any good. If this wasn't attracting other attention they would be lucky. They were only able to keep from being hit by squeezing against the bottom of the rock. The suit guns could not be trained downwards any further, having been designed to be used in a slight dive from above.

"Armor Heart, snap out of it!" They kept pleading, but she must be out of her mind.

"Well this is just great. Charger, can you hear me? Say something." Pin Strike called out. Charger wasn't moving. He could not get a bead on the crazed pony above. All the sporadic firing was keeping them pinned. The suit was unlikely to run out of ammo anytime soon. The guns suddenly fell silent as a strange bang rang out. A few seconds later the suit and the pony inside came tumbling down off the ledge to land against the rocks, shattered. A bullet hole was straight through the back of the neck. Looking up, they could just make out the form of Breaker.

"Sorry I'm late, sir." Breaker hobbled down the other side. He looked beaten and battered. Nopony else was with him.

"Where are.." They all went to ask as he shook his head. Great. They'd all been marching for almost twelve hours without any sign of the enemy, only to run across this horror. Where were they all? This area should be crawling with enemy forces. They could not possibly have simply given up? Whistle Stop was in even worse shape, having been tossed aside when they were fired upon.

"Oh for.. Isn't there anything on that radio yet?" The captain looked to Spectre who'd banged into the rocks with the radio when they all dove for cover. It was just dented a little. The radio looked like it'd been through a war by itself. The worn dual whip antennas almost seemed to have a forlorn look of their own. A look that spoke of giving up. The same dense static as before for a moment as he fiddled with settings and tuners. Finally, a dull message punctuated by an odd beep once in a while. A concerning note.

"No. no. We are right there. It's right there! It was all for nothing. All of it." The captain was shaking and threw his gun on the ground.

"Captain? What is it?" The few of them remaining asked.

"Just look up at the sky, and listen. Just listen." Was all he said. The sky did look odd. The radio sometimes cut in with a nearly dead sounding voice repeating and then the odd creepy tone once more. Some missiles could occasionally be seen passing back and forth, leaving trails. They might be out of range here. They might not.

It would be an impressive sight if it didn't mean it was all over.

"C A1 C2 M A L. All pony forces, seek nearest base, shelter or stable immediately. Multiple warhead exchange confirmed. Message repeats..." The captain dropped on his side and started crying and sobbing.

"What have they done!? I couldn't protect them. I couldn't protect anypony. They're all dead. All of them. My squadron, everypony else. Home is gone. Everything is. Forgive me." He shook and moaned. The shock of it was too much to bear. Whistle Stop managed to speak in a wheeze.

"It's not your fault, sir. You did your best. It is too big. There is nothing to forgive, and with all due respect, sir. We are more than happy to die with somepony like you, here at the end." They looked on as the world burned.

- - -

Sometimes you just can't win for trying. Do you think the bombs or something else got them?

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