• Published 17th Apr 2012
  • 14,085 Views, 904 Comments

Falling Stars - Rokas

A cosmic accident has brought two 31st-century mercenary units to Equestria. Any hope for peace is destroyed as greed flares and battle lines are drawn, and the ponies find themselves thrust into the horrors of war. Will they rise to the challenge?

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Chapter 11 - Endurance

Mercenary DropShip Heart of Steel
Sweet Apple Acres, Ponyville, Equestria
September 17th AD 3070/1023 RC

“Ahh,” Mei Nguyen sighed as she sat back in her command chair, holding a cup of tea she had just poured for herself. Although well known to her friends and colleagues as a serious, no-nonsense ship officer, the diminutive woman still allowed herself some human foibles. Amongst them was her post-landing tea, which she had just ordered from the galley only a few minutes ago and was now finally sitting to relax with while the two other officers in the room worked their consoles, though even they were relaxed as well as nothing hostile appeared on their sensor readouts and they had assurances that the locals were pleasant and friendly. All in all, a nice way to earn pay while sitting on your rear, the Steel's captain mused, with a mirthful grin that she hid behind her teacup. Not that I'll tell Jim that. Better he thinks me as irreplaceable than just another office worker. She had little fear of that, though, since she knew the commander well after years of playing chauffeur for his unit. Some merc leaders just want warm bodies, others want laser precision even if you're going to the restroom. It's nice to work for an officer who's more in the middle.

A sudden noise impinged itself upon her relaxation then, and Nguyen blinked out of her reverie to glance around. “Is that the atmosphere alarm?” She asked of the two officers sitting watch with her.

“It sounds too high-pitched for that,” the man of the pair replied.

“And it's getting louder,” the woman added. Then her eyes went wide as she turned to work her sensor console. “It might be incoming artillery!”

Nguyen felt a spike of icy fear stab through her belly at that, and she was about to move a hand to her master console and signal an alert before the noise suddenly became very loud and familiar. “What the- Who's screaming?”

She needn't have asked, as up through the hatch leading below came three small figures who immediately started running about in chaotic patterns, screaming as they went. “It's gonna eat uusss!” One of them said, interjecting a brief moment of lucidity in an otherwise perfect conflagration of chaos.

Nguyen stared at the scene in complete surprise and shock, even as she brought up her hands to cover her ears against the racket. “Stop it!” She yelled, as her temper flared at this unexpected inconvenience.

The three tiny figures all froze in place and fell silent for a moment at the sudden bellow. Before Nguyen could follow up on this, however, the three tiny ponies dashed over to the captain's command console and abruptly ducked into the leg well underneath it. “Ya gotta help us, miss!” The red-haired filly of the group pleaded from the shady area as Nguyen lowered her hands and bent down to incredulously inspect the invidiously irritating invasive fillies. “There's a monster below and it wants to eat us!”

Mei stood there for a moment, confused at the events of the past few moments. She looked up and met the gazes of her two fellow officers on the bridge and found them as equally confounded as she was. “What the Samuel Helsinki are you talking about?” She asked, looking back down at the trio of tiny ponies. “And why are you on my bridge?”

“The monster was gonna eat us!” The white-coated unicorn of the group reiterated.

“And getting up high is always a good way to hide!” The orange, winged one added in.

“Ya only say that 'cuz you're a pegasus!” The red-haired filly sniped.

“I didn't see you complaining at the time!”

“Quiet!” Nguyen snapped, her tone surprisingly deep for a small woman. The practiced command voice silenced the trio of arguing ponies, who then looked to the human in shock. Nguyen, for her part, took the moment of silence to close her eyes and then breathe in deep for a moment. “Now, who are you, why are you on my ship, and what's this about a monster?” She asked, as she opened her eyes to take in the three frightened fillies.

“That would be David's fault,” a familiar voice said from the entry hatch, and everyone on the bridge turned to see James McKenna climbing up the steep but serviceable stairs from the deck below. “He decided to play a joke on them.”

“A joke?” The orange pegasus filly asked, her countenance askew in surprise and confusion. “B-but we saw it reach for us!”

“You saw a man with a poor sense of humor making a bad joke,” James replied. He didn't get a chance to add anything else, though, as Applejack climbed up into the bridge, prompting the fillies to run over to her. They bumped Nguyen on the way, and despite her innate agility from decades of spacer work, she fell to the decking and let out a mild grunt of pain as she landed on her rear.

“Now lookit what ya done,” Applejack immediately chided the three fillies, the harsh words brining them to a stop in front of the orange earth pony. “First y'all go runnin' off, then ya race around like foals on Nightmare Night, and now ya dun knocked that poor lady on the floor!”

“Oh,” the yellow-coated filly said, while she and her friends blushed. “Oops?”

“Ah'll dun “oops” y'all if'n ya don't apologize right now,” Applejack said, a hard look on her face.

Applebloom grimaced at that, knowing full well her sister meant it, and she lead her friends in turning around to face the woman who was even now regaining her footing. “We're sorry miss,” the yellow filly said, her voice low.

“Yeah, we were just scared and all,” Sweetie Belle said.

“And we didn't mean to cause trouble,” Scootaloo added.

Nguyen gave the fillies a long look before she turned her gaze to James and Applejack. “I take it these three are kids?”

“Children, yes,” James replied, and Applejack nodded after his clarification.

Mei sighed, and then turned to nod to the fillies. “Alright, girls, I forgive you,” she said with a voice that told of great patience.

“Yay!” The trio of fillies cheered, causing the adults in the compartment to wince.

“But from now on,” Nguyen continued, her voice raised a bit to ensure that the youngsters would listen. “This bridge and all other sensitive compartments aboard the Heart of Steel are off-limits to you unless you have an adult human with you who can give you permission. Understood?” She asked, giving the trio a hard stare.

“Y-yes ma'am,” Applebloom answered for her friends, as they all cowered back a bit from the captain's glare.

“Good, now that's settled,” Applejack interjected. “Y'all come with me, Applebloom, Scootaloo, Sweetie Belle. Y'all have dun 'nuff ta bother th' human folk, an' ya went back on your word ta be on yer best behavior.” The orange mare gave the children another hard look. “An' in case y'all forgot, runnin' off ain't good behavior.”

The fillies made a series of disappointed sounds, but they followed Applejack's directions and slowly walked to the hatch leading out of the room. The earth pony watched them like a hawk, only taking a moment to shoot an apologetic smile to Nguyen and tip her hat at James before she turned and followed the trio of fillies out.

“Well, that was interesting,” Nguyen dryly commented. “I certainly hope every day won't be like this, Jim?”

“I don't think so,” James replied, and then shook his head. “They're sweet kids, and not that dumb. But I'm glad you came down on them; they kind of don't pay attention too well.”

“Sounds like your brood,” Nguyen said, a smirk on her face. “Besides, it seems David needs a bit of a lesson himself.”

“Indeed,” James said, a smirk growing on his face. “Now if you'll excuse me, I've got a 'MechWarrior to reassign to latrine duty.”

“C'mon, c'mon,” Rainbow Dash said as she trotted in place, waiting for Twilight Sparkle to catch up on the road to Sweet Apple Acres. “I thought you came in fifth during the Running of the Leaves?”

“I did,” Twilight said with a sigh as she reached Rainbow's position and continued on without stopping. Dash didn't mind, of course, and just quickly ran up to join the purple unicorn. “But I did it by pacing myself, not by running ahead heedlessly like you keep doing.”

“But we've taken so long already!” Dash complained.

Twilight smirked at that. “Yes, and which pony was it who didn't want to stop reading about fightercraft?”

Rainbow blushed at that, and then glanced aside. “It's not my fault,” she protested weakly. “They have a bunch of pictures, and moving pictures showing that stuff with the writing.”

“So you decided you wanted to just stare at pictures of sonic booms all day?” Twilight teased.

“Maybe,” Dash replied, blushing again. However, her face changed as the pair of ponies crested a final ridge line and then paused. “Wow, that just looks cool,” the pegasus said.

Twilight merely nodded in agreement as she looked over the spheroid dropship sitting to the north of the Apple family's main house and barn. It was different in the Everfree Forest. Out there, one always expects strange sights. But that ship sitting just outside of Ponyville just looks so alien and different from normal. Even those war machines the humans use are made small by its appearance.

“Well, come on,” Rainbow Dash said as she started off in a trot again, prompting Twilight to follow.

“If you're so eager, Dash, why didn't you fly back out?” The purple unicorn curiously asked.

The cyan pegasus froze at that for a moment, though she quickly regained herself and resumed her position besides Twilight. “My back still kinda hurts,” Dash admitted, her voice low. “I think I overdid the flying yesterday and today.”

“When's the last time you had a doctor check on the wounds?” Twilight asked, suddenly concerned.

Dash shrugged, and then winced. “It's okay, really,” she said dismissively. “I can handle it.”

“Rainbow, you know that wounds can get infected, right?” Twilight pressed her friend. “You don't want to be permanently grounded because you let them get that way, right?”

The mention of being grounded froze Dash up again, and Twilight came to a stop to face the motionless pony. “Y-you don't think that can really happen?” Rainbow asked, her confidence replaced by a tinge of fear.

Twilight felt her face twist a bit as she regretted posing her last question. “Er, well, it's possible,” she said, and then hastened to add “but I'm sure if you get a doctor to check it out then it will be fine.” An idea hit the unicorn just then, and she managed a small smile towards her friend. “In fact, why don't you let the human doctor check you out?” She asked. “McKenna said they had one on their staff.”

“Really?” Dash asked, sounding hopeful. “You think that they could help?”

“It's worth a try,” Twilight said with a shrug. “Come on, let's go,” she added, and then turned and trotted off, leaving Rainbow to catch up. The pair made their way along the road and up to the gated entrance to the Apple Family farm before taking the turn to the north and following a well worn path through the orchards until they reached the empty northern fields. They paused upon leaving the trees behind as they could now see the activity at the base of the dropship.

The Ferret helicopter that had so interested Dash had been moved out, and beside it the ship's crew and several from the mercenary company were working to set up a series of large tents. They seemed to pay no attention as a massive, bird-legged war machine prowled out from the belly of the ship and down a large ramp to the ground. Twilight and Rainbow, however, watched in curious fascination as the mechanical war avatar carefully picked its footing with a precision that told of great skill, both in the machine's manufacture and in the piloting, before it cleared the humans and then turned to accelerate to a ground-pounding speed that both ponies marveled at seeing in such a large device.

“I don't think I'll ever get used to that,” Dash said, to which Twilight could only nod her head. Both ponies then continued on in silence towards the Steel, sparing long looks towards the humans working just outside.

Goodness, those hands must be terribly useful, Twilight Sparkle thought as she saw the various methods and tools used by the bipedal sapients. Sure, setting up a tent isn't that hard, but they make it look easier than having to mess with hooves and horns. I suppose nature had to compensate them somehow for the lack of magic. The unicorn thought about it some more, and then grimaced slightly. Then again, I sure wish I could just reach up and grab something so easily at times.

Twilight and Dash reached the base of the ramp a few minutes later, and then started to climb up it. At the top, however, they were met by a rather imposing looking woman who wore clothing that looked altogether too think for the warm weather, and a helmet that had a visor which covered the top half of her face. “May I help you?” This human asked, as she shifted the large firearm she carried in both hands.

“Uh,” Twilight said, and then shared a confused look with Rainbow Dash. “We kind of wanted to meet with the commander,” the unicorn said.

“Yeah. We're the only reason anypony listens to him,” Dash added, smugly, and Twilight fought an urge to facehoof. “So we wanna talk to him.”

Despite the lack of a full face to read, Twilight easily could see that the woman was not amused. However, the human stared at the two ponies for a moment and then nodded. “Oh yeah, you two were there when we landed,” she said, her voice lightening a bit. Then she brought a hand off of her gun and pointed it towards Twilight. “You're the one that “hired” us.”

Twilight could hear the quotation marks in the human's voice, and she frowned a bit. “Why do you say it like that?” She asked. “Isn't that what happened?”

“Well, yeah...” The human woman said, and then shrugged. “The thing of it is, the commander was more or less saying that for the sake of formality. You know, honor and all that. In reality you wouldn't be able to afford our services with pocket change.”

“What, we're not good enough for you then?” Dash shot out, not quite grasping the situation.

The human sighed at that. “That's not what I meant,” she said in a huff. “We normally get contracts that pay us millions of C-bills just for showing up. More for combat pay. Plus expenses.”

“That sounds like a lot,” Twilight said, though she frowned as she spoke. “But how much is a C-bill worth?”

The human thought on that for a moment. “Well, how much does, oh, say one of those apples over there cost?” She asked, pointing to the orchards in the distance.

“Those?” Twilight asked back, and then thought for a moment. “Applejack sells them at market for ten to a bit. A dozen if it's right after applebucking season.”

“Okay then,” the guard said with a nod, and chose to ignore the local cultural reference. “A bundle of ten good apples like that on a class-A agriculture planet – which is what I'd peg this place at – would cost about one tenth of a C-bill. So I'd say that it'd take ten of your “bits” would be worth one C-bill.”

Twilight blinked hard at that, and even Rainbow Dash remained silent as the implications sunk into her brain. “So, how much would, er, a “job” like this cost?” The purple unicorn asked.

“Lessee, overwhelming odds, strange and unknown terrain, no intelligence, no support, no backup, possibly suicidal...” The human muttered, and then fell silent for a moment as she thought. “About ten million C-bills. Something like that.”

A moment of silence passed as the two ponies chewed on that information. “A hundred-million bits,” Dash said, quietly. “Even I know that's a big number. How the hay can anypony pay you that?”

“The governments back home have a lot of wealth lying around,” the guard said with another shrug. “Twelve hundred years of industrialized civilization and galactic expansion will do that. That and having a population base of over a hundred planets and hundreds of billions of humans per nation helps.”

Both ponies balked at that, despite Dash's usual ignorance of numbers and Twilight's late night skimming of the humans' library. It really drives home just what these people have done, and can do, Twilight thought in silent awe. That they can afford to spend so much on something as frivolous and petty as war, and not even a major part of war at that. According to that recent history book I read they've had armies of hundreds of thousands of these machines marching around and shooting one another, millions of soldiers moving and fighting and dying. Despite the terror Twilight felt all too clearly at the very notion of combat, the mere idea of such a grand movement of soldiers and material sent a thrill down her spine. The organization required for it must have been phenomenal, the planning intricate, and the execution performed with mathematical precision. I organized Winter Wrap-Up so it could be finished in a single day, but what these people do, what they've done, makes what I've done look like the scribblings of a child.

A voice startled Twilight out of her reverie, and she blushed as she found both the human guard and Dash looking at her with concern on their faces. Well, I'm guessing that with the human, the unicorn thought as she cleared her throat. “Sorry, I was just thinking,” she explained. “You were saying?”

“I was saying that I called up to the bridge and got a hold of the commander,” the guard said. “You two can go in,” she added, and then gestured to the side to indicate which way the ponies should go.

Twilight and Rainbow both said their thanks to the human, but before they could move past they saw a line of familiar ponies walking towards the ramp from within the darkened bowels of the ship. “Applejack, hello!” Twilight friendlily called out, waving a hoof towards the orange earth pony.

“Well, howdy there Twilight,” Applejack replied, a smile on her face as she led the three fillies behind her to a stop. “And ta you too, Dash,” she added with a nod to the pegasus. “How's th' bandages holdin' up?”

Dash blushed a bit at the question before she replied. “They're... fine,” she said, quietly.

Applejack frowned. “That don't sound fine ta me. Y'okay?”

A small gasp echoed from behind the farm mare. “Is there something wrong, Dash?” Scootaloo said as she darted out from her friends to stand in front of her heroine.

Rainbow leaned back a bit at the sudden intrusion into her personal space. “Yeah, I'm fine Scoot,” she said with a smile. “You know me, I always bounce back,” the cyan pegasus added, and then puffed out her chest. Then she winced in pain as this pulled at her back.

“Uh-huh,” Applejack said in a sardonic tone that told anyone listening that she wasn't buying it. “Well, if'n ya don't mind, Ah'll be off ta escort these lil' varmints,” she added, and then gave another pointed look towards the fillies, who lowered their heads in shame. “They dun caused some trouble again.”

“But it weren't our fault this time!” Applebloom protested. “You an' mister McKenna both said we had a joke played on us!”

“Which wouldn't a happened if'n ya stayed with me an' mister McKenna like ya were s'posed to, like ya promised ta do,” Applejack replied, her voice firm and unyielding. “An' then ya disturbed that lady who was nice to ya even after y'all dumped her on her backside. Now do y'all really think that's th' right way ta act?”

The three fillies turned their gazes downward. “No ma'am,” Sweetie Belle and Scootaloo said, while Applebloom said “no sis.”

“Ah'm glad y'all know that much,” Applejack said, and then turned to face her two friends again. “So Ah'm takin' these troublemakers off here 'fore they do somethin' else. Like blow up the durn thing.”

The human guard chuckled at that, garnering the six ponies' attentions. “I've heard stories from the old timers about how that nearly happened once,” she said mirthfully. “Seems one of the commander's kids was playing with firecrackers a bit too close to one of the LRM ammo bays. They say “Ol' Steeljaw” McCoy went gray after that.”

The ponies all gave the human odd looks, and the guard stopped chuckling and then shrugged. “Sorry,” she said. “I guess you have to-”

“You!” Applejack interrupted, pointing a foreleg at the guard, who seemed as shocked as the other ponies at the sudden movement. “Ah knew Ah heard yer voice b'fore! Yer that varmint who knocked me down in th' forest yesterday!”

“Oh, uh, you remember that?” The guard said, a blush showing on the part of her face that wasn't covered by the helmet or its visor. “I did say I was sorry. Those suits we wear aren't as agile as an unarmored person.”

Applejack blew air through her nose in a very equine manner, and then turned and motioned for the fillies to follow her again as she set off down the ramp in silence. The three females remaining at the top of the ramp watched her go for a bit before the two ponies turned towards the human. “You knocked her down?” Twilight asked, curious.

The guard sighed. “Look, I was in my powered armor, and I took a step too far to the right as my squad ran by her and I bumped the wagon with a hip. I didn't know she'd fall right over or that she couldn't get herself up again.”

Dash chortled at that. “Oh, I would have loved to have seen her face!” She managed to get out between cackles.

“Anyway,” Twilight said, her tone just on the soft side of irritated. “We should get going, Dash.”

“Yeah yeah,” Rainbow said dismissively, but she turned and started to move off anyway.

Twilight made to follow her, but then paused by the human. “By the way, thank you miss-?”

“Lewis,” the woman said. “April Lewis.”

“Thank you, miss Lewis,” Twilight said, and then nodded to the human, who nodded back. Then the unicorn turned and trotted off to rejoin Dash, who was already deep into the 'Mech bay, staring up at the various accoutrements of mechanized warefare.

“Wow,” Dash muttered as Twilight caught up. “Look at all of this... this... stuff!”

“It is impressive to say the least,” Twilight replied, feeling a bit awestruck herself. “And to think, all of this moves around on its own, from planet to planet, from star to star.”

“What th' bloody Hell!” A harsh voice snapped, causing both ponies to startle and spin about in place to face the speaker. A gangly old human with white hair and a matching beard stormed over towards them. “More bloody ponies! Get out of me work zone!”

“Uh, we're sorry, sir,” Twilight haltingly said. “We were just-”

“Are ye daft? I've got a Firestarter and an Assassin comin' in for work an' yer just standin' there like a pair o' Tharkad poofers after payday?” The crotchety human asked in a demanding voice. Then he raised an arm and pointed towards the side of the 'mech bay with his hand. “Get tae the lift and run it up 'fore ye get squished! Go!”

A set of ominous thuds sounded from outside just then, as if summoned to punctuate the human's words. Twilight and Rainbow glanced at one another, and then turned and sprinted off in the direction the old man pointed them. They quickly reached the inside wall of the 'mech bay and found what their accoster had been referring to. As they walked towards it, however, the ground quaking thumping increased in volume and the decking beneath them shook a bit, and both ponies turned to see Schneider's Firestarter ascending the embarkation ramp. Again Twilight felt a reluctant admiration growing within her for the humans, whose ingenuity and skill produced such tools. Even if it is made for killing things, the unicorn thought with a shudder.

Both Rainbow Dash and Twilight Sparkle watched in quiet interest as the 45-ton war machine slowly moved into the bay, guided by a man on the deck waving a pair of lighted sticks. The guide's direction helped Schneider maneuver the medium 'mech around so he could back it into one of the large cradles that lined most of the ship's inner walls, whereupon the 'mechwarrior locked his machine down. A few moments later, a gantry moved over to the back of the Firestarter's head, and a little after that the familiar lanky figure of Schneider appeared, dressed in nothing more than a cooling vest, and a pair each of shorts and boots. The curious ponies watched him descend the stairs on the gantry and come down to talk with the human workers who were even now wheeling tools and machinery and carts loaded with long tubes that had fins at one end and a point at the other. Twilight recognized them as the basic shape of rocket-propelled projectiles, and she remembered reading about how humans had been using such things for thousands of years.

“So,” Dash said, interrupting their silence and drawing Twilight's attention to her friend. “We're supposed to use this thing?” The cyan pegasus asked, as she gestured with her head towards the lift cage.

“It seems so,” Twilight said, as she and Rainbow Dash both turned to face the gate and the controls. “It looks like it's been enclosed for safety reasons, to keep po- er, people from falling out,” she quickly amended her language, realizing now how much she needed to adjust her vocabulary. “I think those are the controls,” Sparkle added, and then walked forward until she could look at the unmarked panel. “But there's nothing to tell me which button calls the lift down.”

“Who makes something that doesn't have directions?” Dash asked in a huff.

“It had directions, once,” a voice said from behind them, and both Twilight and Rainbow startled a bit, though less strenuously than before as they were almost expecting surprises by now. They both glanced back and saw that Schneider had walked over, and the human gave them a small smile as he walked around them to reach the panel. “When the ship was new, it would have had a properly labeled panel,” he continued, even as he stopped by the lift and pressed a large button. “But a few centuries of use means that the original was long ago replaced, and when it was the crew simply remembered which buttons were which and then passed that information down through the years.”

“This ship is that old?” Twilight asked, a bit of awe in her voice.

Schneider nodded in reply. “How much history did you read last night, miss Sparkle?” He asked the purple pony.

“Uhm, not a lot,” she said, blushing a bit. “There's just so much of it!”

The mechwarrior chuckled at that. “That there is,” he said in an agreeing tone, and then glanced up as his peripheral vision caught the lift descending from the decks above. “But did you at least skim the last thousand years or so?”

Twilight nodded, even as her countenance dimmed. “Yes,” she said, her voice barely audible over the noise of the technicians starting their work on the Firestarter. “I did notice that your people had some... bad times recently.”

“A galaxy-wide dark age is a bit more than just some “bad times”,” Schneider dourly observed. “We lost a lot of knowledge for a while, amongst that the ability to build ships like this one,” he added, and then gestured around them as the lift reached the main deck. He paused then to open the lift gate, and then waved the two ponies in before he moved in himself. “The Heart of Steel was built just over three hundred years ago for the Star League Defense Force, and she's remained in commission ever since simply because she was too rare to replace.” Schneider pressed a control on the lift's interior panel, and then smirked as the elevator started to rise. “Admittedly, though, it's sometimes nice to ride in a piece of living history,” he continued. “The Steel was part of the invasion force that liberated Terra from the Usurper, you know?”

Twilight tilted her head inquisitively at that, but before she could say anything, Dash yawned. “Man, you guys like talking about this stuff a lot, don't you?” She asked, somewhat impatiently.

Schneider chuckled at that, but then shook his head reproachfully. “Now miss Dash, we have a saying: “Those who don't learn from history are condemned to repeat it.” It pays to know where you've been, because it helps you decide where to go.”

“A wise saying,” Twilight said with a nod. “I think I'm going to have to look more into your history soon.”

“Just be careful you remember to keep things in context,” Schneider advised. “Sometimes things that seem barbaric to us now were just the way things were done in the past. It's not always entertaining, but it is always enlightening.”

The purple unicorn nodded. “I'll try to remember that,” she said, as the lift carried them past the upper 'mech bay level and thence into the crew oriented areas of the ship, and then stopped.

“So, where are you ladies heading?” Schneider asked as he pulled the lift gate open and then led the two ponies out from the conveyance.

“Well, we were going to speak with commander McKenna,” Twilight said, and then glanced to Rainbow Dash. “But we were also hoping that you could get a doctor to look at Dash's wounds?”

“Oh?” Schneider asked as he looked to the cyan pegasus.

“Er, yeah,” Dash said, a blush on her face. “It kinda started hurting worse after all the flying I did yesterday.”

A look of concern came over Schneider's face. “In that case you should definitely have it looked at,” he stated. “Come on, I'll take you to sickbay and we'll see if Doctor Ferrell can do anything for you,” he said, and then turned to walk down the corridors of the ship.

The two ponies followed quickly enough, though for once Dash seemed to hang back a bit and nervously glanced around. “You guys don't have a lot of windows on this thing, do ya?” She asked.

“On a spaceship?” Schneider asked, and laughed briefly. “Windows are weak points on a ship's hull, and since the Steel was made to go into combat she has precious few. Only the bridge and the two fighter bay control booths have windows, reinforced as they are.”

“Oh,” Dash said, a small frown on her muzzle. “So I guess flying out through a window isn't an option then?”

“Nervous?” Schneider asked with a glance behind him.

“N-no, of course not!” Rainbow said, though her stutter announced otherwise. “I- I just like having my options open, that's all,” she added, and then glanced around again.

“Uh-huh,” Schneider said, disbelief in his tone. “You don't have to worry,” he said as he led them around a corner and towards a large door that was open further down the corridor. “Doctor Farrell is a good guy, really professional, and-”

The sound of something slamming down startled the three persons, and they stood still as a voice rang out. “Dammit Jim! I'm a doctor, not a veterinarian!”

Surprised at this, Schneider and the two ponies accompanying him quickly moved forward and around the doorframe to see James standing next to captain Starbuck, their backs to the door as they faced another, middle-aged human across a desk. The second man had both of his hands balled into fists and down on the desk, and his face was contorted in anger.

After a moment, James dipped his head and then rubbed a hand over his face as he grumbled. “How long have you been waiting to use that line?” He tiredly asked.

The man across from him broke into a wide grin as he stood upright again. “Ever since I saw the camera feeds yesterday,” he said with a chuckle. “You have to admit, commander, it's not every day I get to quote that old show back at you.”

James grumbled again, but despite that he soon chuckled as well, albeit ruefully. “Alright, fair enough doc,” he said. “But seriously?”

“Seriously, I will of course see what I can do,” the other man said. Then he blinked as he realized that others had come into the small sickbay, and he turned to regard them. “Looks like a full house today,” he said.

James and Starbuck turned around and looked at the new arrivals in surprise. “Well, the gang's all here,” James said in a playful tone.

“Something like that,” Schneider said, and then cocked his head. “Did I just hear doc Farrell steal a pop culture march on you?” He asked with a grin.

“Maybe,” James replied, his tone annoyed as he squinted a single eye at the younger mechwarrior. “I take it McCoy's working on your 'mech?”

“Yes, sir,” Schneider replied, only slightly professional as he remained smiling at his friend and commander. “Should be a quick turnaround on it, since all they have to do is reload the rocket launchers and slap a new coat of grease on the joints, or whatever it is the tech-heads do.”

“Good,” James said with a nod. “So what are y'all doing here then?”

Schneider gave James a look at the odd contraction, but then shook himself very slightly. “Miss Dash apparently is having some issues with her wounds,” the younger man said. “We were hoping doctor Farrell could take a look?”

“Ah, what a coincidence,” James said, and then glanced to his side where Starbuck was blushing slightly. “I managed to talk the captain here into a check up as well.”

“Two for the price of one, then,” doctor Farrell gaily said, drawing everyone's attention to him. “This will be interesting, seeing I really don't have any veterinary experience. So who's first?”

“Excuse me,” Starbuck said, his face showing some irritation. “But would you stop using that term? Vets are for animals, not ponies.”

“Where we come from ponies are animals,” Farrell replied, still good-natured despite the caustic tone in Starbuck's voice. “As such doctors like myself aren't trained to treat them. Since you are much more closely equinomorph than anthropomorph I would say that places your taxonomy firmly in the realm of veterinary medicine, at least as it is practiced by humans.”

“Even so, doctor,” James said, holding up a hand to forestall any reply from Starbuck or Twilight, who looked equally ready to speak out. “These ponies are very much people, and so repeating that term might be a bit offensive.”

“Well, alright,” Farrell said, a light blush running over his face. “Forget it then. So, I still need to know who wants to go first?”

“I think you should take a look at miss Dash first,” Starbuck interjected, waving his uninjured wing towards the surprised pegasus. “My injury is but a scratch, albeit a nasty one. She, however, suffered severe burns on her back, and our doctors were clear that she should have them checked regularly.”

“I see,” Farrell said, and then looked over at the blushing rainbow-maned pony. “Well miss, Dash was it?” He asked, and then received a nod. “Would you like some privacy? I can tell your people aren't exactly big on modesty, but patients have the right to be treated in private whenever possible, and the others can wait outside until we're done.”

Rainbow blinked at the question, and then looked around the compartment. It wasn't very large, scarcely deep enough to allow the group of ponies and humans to stand in the reception area in front of Farrell's desk, and wide enough to have room off to the left for two beds and some lockers for storing equipment and supplies. All in all it looked fine, but nevertheless Dash had a sudden feeling of claustrophobia at the idea of Twilight and Starbuck leaving her alone. “Uh, no,” she said, and then looked back to the doctor with a sheepish look on her face. “I don't want- I mean, I don't mind if everyone stays here,” she added the last with a bit of hastily built, false bravado.

“Okay then,” Farrell said, and then moved out from behind his desk. “Just get up on one of the beds and I'll take a look at those wounds of yours,” he added as he walked over towards a zero-g sink set up in the corner of the room.

Dash glanced around to look at the two other ponies in the room, and she drew strength from their calm demeanor. Nevertheless, she had to gulp down a bit of her nervousness before she trotted over to a bed and then flapped her wings a bit to land on top of it, wincing the entire time she flew.

Farrell turned back in time to see her land, and his eyes bugged a bit at having seen the pony in flight. “Well, I don't think I'll ever get tired of that,” he said as he dried his hands, and then went to one of the lockers on the side of the room and retrieved a simple medical kit. “Alright, lets get those bandages off,” he said, and then took out a small pair of scissors from his kit. “I'm going to cut them off, so try not to move miss Dash.”

Rainbow glanced back at the doctor with some concern on her face, but she nodded her understanding before she faced forward again and then held perfectly still as Farrell cut apart the old bandages and removed them. Once he had, he let his practiced eye train over the scarred back of the pony for a few moments. “Does it hurt when I do this?” He asked, as he very lightly tapped a finger on one of the worst spots.

“Hrng,” Dash groaned, and then turned her head around again to give the human a hard stare. “Yeah, it does!” She snapped. “What was that for?”

“To make sure that you still had feeling,” Farrell replied nonchalantly, before he turned to dig in his kit. “If it didn't hurt then that means that the nerve endings had been fried, and you'd need skin grafts. As it is, the burns are nasty, but shouldn't be too bad with proper care.” He took a bottle out from the box and then gave the pony a sympathetic look. “I'm going to spray you with this topical anesthetic to numb the pain while I clean out the wounds. It may sting a bit but it will be quick.”

“Wait, clean out?” Dash asked, her voice quavering with worry. “I didn't take those bandages off at all, there shouldn't be any dirt in them.”

“Not dirt, miss Dash,” Farrell replied, and then sprayed the bottle's contents over the wounds on Rainbow's back. The cyan pegasus sucked in air through clenched teeth, but she remained still, which garnered a nod from the human doctor. “Your doctors did a good job, but it appears they need a few lessons in burn treatment,” Farrell said in a conversational tone. “Burns this bad tend to scar; I don't think that's preventable at this stage, but we can reduce the scarring that will occur by cleaning out old scab material and using butterfly bandages to close the wounds more tightly before applying the gauze. If I left it as it was, you would have probably lost some flexibility and muscle use. This way you should make a complete recovery, save for some minor surface scarring, of course.”

Farrell worked as he spoke, and he did as he said, using various tools to cut or scrape away dead skin and scabs from Rainbow's injured back. The pegasus endured the mild, numbed pain of the procedure stoically, especially once she heard that it would ensure that she would be as agile as she had been before.

Meanwhile, the others in the room watched with a sense of morbid curiosity. Twilight Sparkle and Starbuck were especially keen on observing, partially out of understandably lingering mistrust, but partly to see how human doctors were different from their pony counterparts. The two humans looked on with more detached expressions, though deep down they knew that one day it might be them on the table, and so they watched the procedure with some interest.

Eventually, though, James lightly cleared his throat. “Well captain, Hermes,” he said, nodding towards the pegasus commander and the human mechwarrior respectively. “Seems providence might have brought us all here, as I have been meaning to discuss with you both my ideas for taking the fight to O'Connell and his men.”

Starbuck turned to the commander and gave him an inquisitive look. “We were speaking of defensive measures, yesterday,” he said, ruminatively.

“Yes sir,” James said with a nod. “But while I understand war seems to be out of style with your people, surely you have some histories that tell you what happens to an army that stays only on the defense?”

“Indeed,” Starbuck reluctantly replied, with a nod of his own. “But I am curious on how you can speak of going on the offensive so soon?”

“Because the best defense is a good offense,” Schneider added in. “Having a good plan for defense makes sense, and the planning we did yesterday was worth the time. But Jim's right about going to offensive operations. We need to seize the initiative from O'Connell, force him to react to our moves, to dance to our tune.”

“I see,” the pegasus commander said, after a moment of thought. “I presume that the fact you waited until I was with you to make these plans means you have some role in mind for us ponies?”

“Indeed I do, sir,” James said with a nod. “It's going to require cooperation from more forces than you have with you here in Ponyville, so we'll probably have to meet this princess of yours to get official help. But I think we can combine your people's unique skills and abilities with out concepts of mechanized and asymmetrical warfare to create an attack plan that O'Connell won't see coming.”

Starbuck thought on this, and then nodded. “Color me intrigued. Please, tell me more.”

And so he did.

Nighttime fell upon Equestria softly, bringing with it a calm that relaxed most ponies, save those who had duties to perform.

Such as it felt to Rarity as she walked uneasily in a group with Pinkie Pie, Rainbow Dash, and the humans Ivan and James. They had met at Pinkie's insistence, with the pink party pony persistently positing that the larger of the two humans could help with Fluttershy. How, I wouldn't even begin to guess, the white unicorn thought as she walked alongside Dash, who was surprisingly quiet and calm this evening. Such brutish creatures, these “men,” who fight for pay and seem to not even think twice of killing somepony else. How could these soldiers know anything of the softer, finer things in life? How could they even begin to help poor, delicate Fluttershy?

“So, Pinkie Pie,” Dash said, nearly startling Rarity with her sudden speech. “Where were you today?”

“Ooh!” The pink pony replied, bouncing into the air as she did. “I took Ivan over to Sugarcube Corner and I made some waffles and then we ate them and after that we made some cupcakes then ate them too and then we went out to the ship and Ivan showed me how to make a “sandvich” and he said it was really good but he wouldn't let me try a piece because he said it had something called ham and baloney on it and I have no idea what those things are but he said that it wasn't for ponies so he made me a lettuce and tomato and celery sandvich with mayonnaise and lots and lots of ketchup!”

Rarity, Dash, and even James just gave Pinkie a long look of befuddlement upon the conclusion of her rant. Ivan, though, laughed briefly. “Is true! Pink pony lady loves ketchup almost as much as Ivan!”

“Nu-uh, I like it more!” Pinkie teasingly said, turning her head in mid-hop to silently razz the large human.

Again, Ivan laughed. “Silly pony! Tomorrow, Ivan show you! Tomorrow, we make fried potato pieces!”

“French fries,” James interjected. “They're called french fries, Ivan.”

“Who fry French?” Ivan asked in a confused tone. “French is nice man! Ivan find man who fry French and then BAM!” One meaty hand, tightened into a fist, slammed into the palm of the other to emphasize. “Ivan pound frying man into the fire!”

James paused in his walking at that, and then groaned as the others stopped to look back at him. “For Helsinki's sake, Ivan, that was terrible!”

The larger human laughed heartily, throwing back his head at that. Pinkie Pie joined in as well, though she simply giggled maniacally. “Good one, Ivan!” The pink earth pony said, a wide grin on her muzzle. “But next time, work fire into the joke sooner.”

“Ivan remember, pink lady pony,” the infantryman said, as the group started moving again along the path towards Fluttershy's cottage.

Dash chuckled at the antics of the two fast friends, and then glanced to the side to see that her unicorn friend was still facing forward, as if to ignore the others behind her. “Aw, lighten up, Rarity,” Rainbow whispered near the other mare's ear. “They're not so bad.”

The fashionista turned her muzzle up at that and made a very ladylike humph noise at the same time. “I'll believe that when I see it,” Rarity whispered back. “So far all they've done is fight with the other ruffians. Now, don't get me wrong, I'm happy they helped you with your injuries, but doctor Suture at Ponyville Hospital could have done that.”

“Not the way these guys did,” Dash replied, and then fell silent as she shuffled her wings a bit. Unlike before, the movement didn't cause a significant amount of pain, as doctor Farrell had not only cleaned the wounds well, but also had closed them up and slathered a gel of some sort that soothed and comforted the pegasus' back. He even said it would keep the wounds from getting infected and help them heal faster, Rainbow remembered.

“Even so, you needn't have availed yourself of their help when there are plenty of ponies to assist you,” Rarity countered. “There was no good reason for you to risk their brutish ways.”

Rainbow gave her unicorn friend a dumbfounded look, but chose not to reply. It's so unlike her, the cyan pegasus marveled silently. But then, I guess Fluttershy being so freaked out isn't like her, either. Well, it is, but it's the way she's freaked out. Dash shook her head slowly as she walked with the others. Everypony is being changed. Hay, even I'm acting different, thinking so much and being... what's that word Twilight said? “Intospector?” Nah, that's not it. Something like that, though.

“We're here,” Rarity said aloud as the group came to a stop. Dash looked up in surprise as she realized that her thoughts had kept her so occupied that she hadn't noticed their approach to Fluttershy's cottage. I think I'm starting to understand Twilight a bit better, now, the pegasus mused as Rarity turned to face the others. “Well then, mister McKenna, mister Ivan, you are the supposed experts. How do you wish to proceed?”

James raised an eyebrow at the white unicorn's haughty airs, but he ignored it and instead turned to give his infantry commander a look. Ivan returned it steadily, all of his usual gregariousness and joy gone, and he simply gave a small nod to the commander before he turned away from the group and then crossed his arms.

“Ladies,” James said, interjecting the word before the confused ponies could say anything. “Let me have a word with you all, if you would,” he said, and then waved towards the bridge the group had used to walk over the stream in front of Fluttershy's cottage and walked towards it. Perplexed, the three ponies gave another look towards Ivan, who stood steadily and silently, before they went to join the commander on the other side of the stream.

“What's this about, mister McKenna?” Pinkie asked as she and her pony friends reached the waiting human.

“Yeah, what gives?” Dash added in a confused tone.

James took a moment to think, and then drew in a deep breath to steady his nerves. “I'm going to be forward and truthful with you all,” he said quietly, yet with a tone of solid determination. “What you're going to hear won't be pretty, and it won't be easy to watch,” he said carefully, as he made eye contact with each of the ponies standing in front of him. “People who suffer from mental trauma sometimes get lost within their own pain and sorrow. Sometimes you can talk them out peacefully. Sometimes, however...” He let his voice trail off at that, and then took another deep breath. “Sometimes you need to be harsh with them. And sometimes that means that it may come to blows.”

Both Rarity and Pinkie Pie gasped at this, and while Dash remained silent her eyes nevertheless bugged out a bit. “You aren't going to lay a hoof on her!” Rarity said, her voice suddenly low and threatening.

“I don't intend to use any part of myself against her,” James replied, his voice equally forceful. “But as you told us earlier, your friend nearly attacked you yesterday. She may have calmed down since then, but Ivan and myself are humans, and she's bound to feel threatened. Especially if, as you've said, she views our species as the source of her terror. If she lashes out at us, we may have to reply with just enough force to keep her from harming us or herself.

“If that happens, I want you to know two things,” James continued, and then held up a loose fist and then extended his index finger. “Firstly, you need to stay out of the way. Both Ivan and I are trained in non-lethal combat and restraint. Though the forms were made for use against humans we're confident we can adapt well enough to your shape. But we won't be able to do so safely if you're in the way, and so we need you to stay clear so no one gets hurt.

“And secondly,” his middle finger joined the index. “You have my word, as an officer and a gentleman, that we will do everything in our power to avoid hurting your friend. Some of the restraint moves we have may cause temporary pain, and she might scream, but I assure you that we will do no lasting damage.” So long as nothing goes horribly, horribly wrong, James thought as he lowered his hand. Please, God, don't let it get that bad.

Rarity frowned and gave the commander a harsh look as she gathered up her thoughts. As she opened her mouth to reply, however, Pinkie Pie reached out a hoof and lightly pressed it against the unicorn's side. Silenced by the surprising move, Rarity turned and saw something that she seldom had chance to witness: a look of utter seriousness on Pinkie's face. “Rarity, I know you girls don't always understand me,” the pink pony said, her voice quiet yet clear. “But please, could you trust me this once when I tell you that I know Ivan and James are good and honest? Just a teensy weensy bit?” She asked, a bit of her normal personality leaking back into her tone. “They totally know what they're doing.”

Rarity found herself speechless, unsure of what to say. Yet Pinkie's eyes were wide and open, as if pouring her understanding out for all to see, and slowly the white unicorn closed her own eyes and then nodded. “Alright, Pinkie,” she said, and then opened her eyes again and looked at James. “We'll do what you ask. But I promise you,” she continued, her voice again dropping into an aggressive tone. “If I see you truly hurting Fluttershy, I will break you.”

James smiled a grim, lifeless smile at that. “My lady, I would have it no other way,” he said, and then let the rictus grin fade from his features. “Now, let's get this show on the road.”

She heard the voices outside, both familiar and not, and the presence of the latter made her heart beat fast. Fluttershy glanced around her living room frantically, searching for a place to hide, or some way to bar the door. As she did, though, her gaze swept over a white rabbit whose beady eyes caught her own. Her pet, friend, and companion stared her down in a way that few could ever have hoped to do, and Flutershy felt a blush rise on her face as the rabbit tapped his foot. “A-Angle Bunny,” the yellow pegasus whispered, leaning down to match her height to his. “You need to help me. They're outside, and they're going to want to come in.”

The rabbit simply shook his head at her, and then pointed towards the door.

“N-no, I can't let them in!” Fluttershy replied to his silent request. “They- they'll want me to stop hiding in here, to come out with them. But I can't do that, Angel, I just can't!”

“Fluttershy?” Rarity's voice sounded from the other side of the timid pegasus' door, startling the pink-maned pony. “We're coming in.”

“NO VISITORS!” Fluttershy yelled, her voice as shrill and unwelcoming as it was on Nightmare Night. Despite her refusal, the door lever started twisting, and to the yellow pony's horror she realized that it wasn't locked. A quick glance downward showed the pegasus that Angel held a key in his forepaws that she hadn't noticed before in her panic.

Fluttershy yelped as that panic rose again, and she turned and darted back to the corner of the main room that she had hidden in the last time unwanted visitors had come calling. She barely made it before the door opened, and then curled up into a tight ball again as hoofsteps announced the arrival of her impromptu guests. Wait, two of them are bipedal, she realized, having learned to understand the different gait from her time with the many animals in and around Ponyville. No, no! Not them! Anything but them!

“Fluttershy?” Rarity spoke again, her voice gentle. “We brought some... friends for you to talk to,” the unicorn added, her voice hitching ever so slightly on the word “friends”.

“G-go away!” Fluttershy replied, her voice as shrill as before. “I don't want to talk!”

Silence answered her, much to the pegasus' surprise. Yet she heard no steps of the others leaving the cottage, and so she remained huddled in the corner. Then, a set of steps started up, and from the sound alone Fluttershy could tell it was one of them, and it was huge. She shivered, even as part of her screamed to run, the rest felt too terrified to move, even as the footfalls came closer.

Then the steps stopped, and she heard the figure turn and then slowly sit on the couch that sat next to her; its obfuscating bulk part of the reason she hid in the corner. She heard the couch strain as it bore the weight of the being, and then a moment later recognized the sound of the interloper's breathing. Strangely, she heard nothing but calmness in the steady rhythm, and a wave of confusion washed over the pegasus. Uncertainty and a bit of morbid curiosity overcame some of her terror, and so Fluttershy very slowly, very carefully lifted her head just a bit so she could peer upward with the corner of one eye.

She immediately recognized the figure as a male, as even his alien physiology displayed lines that could only belong to the rougher of the two sexes. A shock of short brown hair sat atop his head, and a pair of beady eyes, not unlike Angel's, looked out from a scarred, weatherbeaten face, though Fluttershy couldn't see much as the figure simply stared straight ahead from where he sat, leaving only the right side of his head visible to the frightened pegasus.

They sat like this in silence for what felt like an hour, before the figure started to move. Fluttershy immediately ducked her head back into the tight ball of her posture the instant she saw even a hint of motion, and she shivered again in fear. Yet no attack came, and instead Fluttershy heard the couch groan as the figure shifted on it, and the sound of fabric against some other, hard material. A second later, a light clicking noise sounded on the floor a few inches away from the pegasus, sending another convulsion of fear through her, but again nothing came of the noise. Fluttershy felt her curiosity rise again after nothing continued to happen, and she again raised her head just a slight bit, this time turning it so she could eye whatever the being had set down.

Surprise moved through the pegasus as her gaze alighted upon a small hinged case, rectangular in shape, and the two photographs held within. The picture on the left showed a family of five humans, two adults and three children, and the one on the right showed only a single human that Fluttershy recognized as female, so different did it look from the being that sat next to her. Yet her eyes detected a startling similarity, as well.

“Is my family,” the huge being next to her suddenly said, his deep voice low, almost a whisper. Fluttershy flinched at the sudden noise, but the lack of movement and the quiet tone let her keep her head up to look at the pictures as the man spoke. “My parents, my sister, my brother, and myself,” he continued in a sad tone, and the pegasus instantly recognized the eldest of the children in the left-hand photo as the younger version of the being she had glimpsed moments ago. More confused than ever, Fluttershy remained silent and waited for the big man to expand upon his words.

Ivan, though, remained silent. The quiet stretched and grew oppressive as the minutes dragged on, and finally the yellow pegasus felt an urge to break it. “W-why?” She asked, her voice so tiny as to render the adjective “whisper” an understatement. “Why show this to me?” She added, lifting her head up a bit more to take in the human's face in her peripheral vision.

The man tilted his head slightly, bringing the pegasus' face into his peripheral vision as well, she noticed. “Once upon a time, on faraway planet,” he began, as if telling a fairy tale. “Myself, Ivan, grew up on farm. Ivan knew not terror of war, of mortal fear and death. Ivan only knew of simple life, of growing things, of living and warmth.” He paused, and then nodded his head. “Ivan was happy, content. Life was happy, and hopeful.

“Then one day, war came,” he continued, his voice dropping into a near growl. “Cappellan soldiers land on Second Try, Ivan's planet, to reclaim it for House Liao. They crush defenders, and take planet for chancellor. Ivan and family not care, though. Battles fought far away, and what matters whose face on money, or which man pay taxes to?” The big man paused the to shake his head. “Family not care. We stay on farm, go to town much like Ponyville. We stay happy.

“Then things change,” Ivan said, and then fell silent for a long moment. “Soldiers come by farm. Davion soldiers, same ones defeated by Liao troops. Only a few of them, ten or so. They hurt, hungry, and tired. Their leader, lieutenant Hyazuki, come to ask to buy food.” The large human paused again, this time to close his eyes. “Papa good man, a kind man. He see they hurt, are hungry. He tells them, they must stay and rest. Hyazuki refused at first, said that they not want to put us in danger. Papa and mama insist, though. What else would they do, when they see such pain, such suffering and can do something to stop it? Lieutenant finally accepts. Soldiers stay, to rest and eat and heal. One man almost dead, but comes back and looks better every day.” The big man smiled at this, his eyes still closed. “They tell Ivan and brother Grisha stories, “tales of the bold” they called them. Soldiers stayed a week, and then go. Papa gives them maps, mama gives them food, sister Svetlanya gives them friendly kiss, and they disappear.

“Two weeks later, Cappellans come.” The human's hands - visible now in Fluttershy's vision as she turned her head to face the man - balled into huge fists at this, and his voice again turned into a growl. “They come in 'mechs, carrying dead bodies in hands. They found Davion soldiers, and killed them. No mercy, no offer of surrender, just death. They find maps on bodies, and follow them back to family's home.

“Ivan was in fields,” the large man said, his voice cracking ever so slightly, and a tear dripped out of his closed, right eye. “Helping Svetlanya with tractor repair on south fields. Grisha was home, mama tutoring him while papa worked in house. Ivan and Svetlanya go to house when we heard angry man over 'mech speakers, but we hid in corn fields to not be seen. We watch...” Ivan's voice trailed off at that, and he brought up a hand to rub his face. “Cappellans make example,” he finally added through gritted teeth. “Everything... everyone... gone.”

Flutteshy sniffed, the pain in the man's voice too much for her to bear in silence, even as her own memories brought up a similar 'example' from her recent experiences. Terror came with it, but was quickly subdued by a growing sense of empathy and sympathy that filled her with sorrow instead. “What...” she began, her voice so soft that she barely heard herself. Fluttershy gulped down some of her fear and hurt, and then tried again. “What did you do then?”

“Ran,” Ivan answered, a hint of shame coloring the otherwise pained response. “Unarmed farmers against BattleMechs? Less painful ways to commit suicide,” he added bitterly. “So we ran. We ran far and fast and hid when Cappies look for us.

“Was dark time,” he continued, his voice losing some of its harsh tone to replace it with sadness. “Ivan and Svetlanya had no money, no jobs, could not go to extended family, wanted to keep them safe. Hope fades, world grows dark, and fear always present.” He opened his eyes then, yet Fluttershy saw that his stare was unfocused, distant, as if he were looking at something that wasn't quite there. “We eventually get to city, join refugee camps there. We spent long time, eating poor rations from Liao's shallow, half-hearted largesse. We figure out soldiers no longer looking for us, if they ever had been, but it not helps much. Dreams plague Ivan at night, watching it all happen again, and again, and again. It got so bad, Ivan not wanted to go on,” the large man said, his voice soft and quiet. “Life was empty, cold, without reason, without hope.

“Svetlanya, though, was different.” Ivan paused then, and he closed his eyes again and let a small smile grace his features. “She was always strong, always hopeful, always caring. She talk to Ivan, say the right things, and we kept going. Ivan kept going.” He paused then to sigh, and then shook his head. “She was kind. Helped other refugees too, spoke to many, and helped them with many things.”

Fluttershy lowered her head a bit as Ivan's words dredged up feelings from deep within her. “She... she sounds like a good po- person,” the yellow pegasus said, looking down at the floor.

“She is,” Ivan agreed. Then he opened his eyes, and for the first time shifted around on the couch to look directly at Fluttershy. The timid pony looked back up at the noise and then tensed automatically, yet remained still as her eyes met the human's, and to her surprise Fluttershy saw a deep well of emotions stirring within. Pain, sadness, hope, joy, and concern seemed to pour out and towards the little pony sitting on the floor. “She helped Ivan so much,” the large man spoke, “that Ivan decide to do same. To keep others from feeling what he felt by using her words to help them.

“Do you want to know what she said to Ivan, little pony?” Ivan asked, staring intently into Fluttershy's eyes. The yellow pegasus felt tears start to form as her emotions ran higher and higher, each one fighting with the other for dominance, and part of her wanted to run again; to run and not look back, to flee the words she knew would break the deadlock in her mind between her terror and her kindness. Yet, she could not look away, and briefly she realized that she understood how animals felt when she used her Stare.

All of these thoughts and emotions raged on in silence for a few moments that seemed like eternity to the pegasus. Finally, though, Fluttershy gulped and then nodded. “P-please,” she said, the one word all she could manage.

Ivan didn't reply right away, but instead slowly brought up a large hand and slowly reached it out towards Fluttershy. The pegasus sucked in a breath, but she held herself still as the meaty appendage was laid upon her head with featherlight touch. Tenuous though it was, Fluttershy felt a strong warmth spread from the gentle contact, and she felt her fear subside.
“She told me, that this life is not always good to us,” Ivan began, and gave a brief, sad shake of his head. “Terrible things can happen to us all, whether rich or poor, wise or foolish, noble or commoner, there will sorrow and pain. Sometimes, it will feel like you cannot handle it, that you are being eaten from the inside and nothing can stop it. It will feel that nobody can help you, and that all hope is lost.

“But hope is never lost,” Ivan continued, and gave a light, quick pat on the pegasus' head. “The dark times are but a night we must endure until the dawn comes and drives away the pain. And we will endure. Because it is what we have always done; We endure for the lost ones, to keep their memory alive. We endure for our friends and family, who would suffer from our loss should we surrender to despair. And we endure for ourselves, because our lives have meaning beyond what we can fathom. Each of us touches thousands of other lives in our time, shaping them as ours is shaped, and we will endure for them, because without us their world is dimmed, and the darkness we so fear is made ever closer to their hearts.

“So we survive, we endure, and we live. Not in fear of death, for it comes to us all eventually. Not in fear of pain, for to know pain is to know you are alive. No, we live to serve, to be there for others when they need us, and to take their help when we need it ourselves. In being kind to them, we are kind to ourselves, and in receiving their kindness, we reflect it back upon them. Such is good. Such is life.”

Fluttershy let out a tiny, squeaky sob as Ivan paused for a moment, and she felt tears start to run down her face as the human started to lightly pet her head and mane with a gentle hand. “Your friends say you are scared to leave here. To go out and live. Ivan say to you, Fluttershy, that you must endure, and you will endure. Because you mean so much to so many, because you can and will do so much good for others, and because your life is yours. It does not belong to to the fear, it does not belong to the darkness, and it does not belong to the evil men and women of the world. Your life is precious beyond measure, a treasure that you can share with others, or hide it away in some dark hole. It will be safer in the hole, but it is out in the world where it will really shine. Where you will shine, and bring light and hope to your friends.”

A moment of silence, too brief to measure yet too long to ignore, washed over the room. Then Fluttershy's sobs started again, and then became louder and more frequent, until she lowered her head to the floor, covered it with her hooves, and started bawling. The pegasus lost herself to the storm of emotions that battered and broke the terror that had been consuming her for over a week, and she felt it dissolve into a sea of regret at the actions she had taken since that dark day. So lost she was that Fluttershy didn't even flinch or move as she felt large, strong hands reach down and grab under her forelegs where they reached her chest and then lifted her up and over until she was lying on what a distant part of her recognized as Ivan's lap. The distraught pegasus seized on this by turning her head and burying it in the huge infantryman's chest even as she continued to bawl. Those same strong arms held her lightly as the hurt poured out, and for once in her life Fluttershy didn't worry about anyone else as she let her universe implode until it was just her, Ivan, and the pain and joy of living.

Four figures quietly extricated themselves from Fluttershy's cottage in the night. They closed the door behind them and then silently walked together until they crossed the bridge in front of the yellow pegasus' house. Once there, the sole human turned to face three tearful ponies. “I think your friend is going to be okay,” James said, keeping his voice low to avoid disturbing the pair in the cottage. And to keep it from cracking, the mercenary thought as he absentmindedly rubbed a hand against his wetted eyes.

The unicorn of the three nodded her head at that. “Th-thank you,” Rarity said, her own voice barely under control. She sniffed briefly and then continued. “I... I had no idea your kind could be so deep.”

“We often surprise ourselves with it,” James half joked in reply, and then let out a very brief chuckle. Then he took a moment to look up at the cottage before returning his gaze to the ponies with him. “It might be best if you all just went home for the night. Even after she's done crying, Fluttershy will be very tired, and a good night's sleep will start her off on the right track to recovery.”

Rarity nodded to the commander at the suggestion. “I think that is a very wise idea,” she said, and then bowed slightly. “Goodnight, mister McKenna. And... thank you again.”

James smiled as the other two ponies echoed their friend's sentiment, and then waved as they turned and walked off. The smile widened into a grin as he heard Pinkie Pie say “See? I told you Ivan would help,” followed by the sound of groans.

James looked up as the door to Fluttershy's cottage opened an hour later, and Ivan stepped out. The burly man closed the door and then stood still as his eyes adjusted to the lower light around him, but soon enough he saw the commander sitting patiently on one of the stone walls that lined the path leading away from the pegasus' home. A few moments' walk was all it took for the infantryman to reunite with his employer and friend, who stood up as Ivan approached. “Thank you, Ivan,” James said, his voice respectful in tone. “I know that wasn't easy for you.”

Ivan nodded, and then gestured for James to lead them off. “Ivan happy to help,” the larger man said as the two began to walk back towards where the Heart of Steel rested. “Pinkie Pie tell Ivan all about Fluttershy. Fluttershy is good pony, and strong. Stronger than she knows.” The normally outgoing man fell silent in contemplation then, and James let the silence grow as he knew that his friend was deep in thought.

Then suddenly, Ivan stopped walking. James did as well, and then turned to face the large infantryman. “One thing you should know, commander,” Ivan said as he gave James a steady, piercing look. “Bad men made Fluttershy cry,” he added, his voice dripping with malice. “For that, we make them pay.”

James could only nod at that.