• Published 17th Apr 2012
  • 14,089 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?

  • ...

Chapter 7 - Getting to Know You

Everfree Forest
2km West of Ponyville. Equestria
September 16th

The procession ponies and humans was quiet as they marched through the forest at a sedate pace, set for the benefit of the latter group. Most of the ponies who had come with Twilight and her friends had gone back ahead of them to carry the news to Ponyville that they would have visitors, leaving only Twilight Sparkle, Pinkie Pie, Applejack and Rainbow Dash to match James, Schneider, and the ever-gregarious Ivan, though even the giant of a man felt the need to observe silence.

Nice place, James thought as the group passed through a copse of dense willows. I wonder why the locals are all fidgety though? He knew it wasn't entirely from the presence of the humans, as the worried looks the ponies sometimes cast were always aimed outward, towards the trees lining the path. “Is there something to be worried about?” He asked after finally becoming concerned.

The ponies all started a bit, but they settled down quickly enough, though the blue one with the bandages on her back winced a bit. “Er, maybe,” Twilight admitted as the group resumed their movement. “This is the Everfree Forest, after all.”

“Nice name,” Schneider observed. “Sounds very enchanting.”

“Are y'all crazy?” The orange pony interjected. “It's a dangerous place full of nasty critters and plants that take care of themselves.”

James and Schneider both shared a confused look at that, while Ivan simply started to hum a vague tune to himself. “Yes, that's what plants and animals do,” Schneider added. “If they didn't take care of themselves, who would?”

“Ponies, of course!” Pinkie Pie replied for her friends. “Why in Equestria we take care of all the cute little animals and grow all the plants even the ones that I wouldn't think were useful like roses what's up with them they have thorns and all so they're hard to eat even if the petals are really tasty and make a good flavor for all sorts of baked treats and pancakes too I love a good rose pancake even if daises are cheaper to buy and even oatmeal tastes better with roses but I only tried that once because oatmeal's not my favorite and it doesn't taste as good as peanut butter cupcakes with chocolate cotton candy ooh you should totally try that when you have time!”

The humans wisely waited for Pinkie's rant to wind down before anyone said more. “What do you mean, you take care of the animals?” James asked, hoping to move the conversation away from the outburst.

“Well shoot,” Applejack said. “That's what we do, we take care of the animals and plants in Equestria so that everything runs okay.”

“Applejack's right,” Twilight added. “By working with the plants and animals we can keep nature in a proper balance so that no species is forced to disturb another.”

“You... Control nature?” Schneider asked, frowning.

“Er, not directly,” Twilight replied. “We work with the plants and animals, and control the weather so that nature itself does the rest without causing problems for anypony.”

“You control the weather?” James asked, sounding shocked.3

“Well duh,” Rainbow Dash spoke up, and despite the mild pain of her injuries she flapped her wings and floated in front of the group, drifting backwards at their pace. “If we didn't there'd be all kinds of nasty storms and uncontrolled droughts. How could anypony live like that?”

Again, James and Schneider shared a look, and even Ivan cast a curious eye over their four-legged companions. “We live like that all the time,” James began. “Back home no one has ever developed a way to directly control the weather, just ways to influence the general environment.”

The ponies all stopped for a moment to look back at the tall bipeds following them. “Dash said it best: how in tarnation can y'all live like that?” Applejack asked disbelievingly.

James shrugged as he waved the group to continue. “We construct buildings that keep out wind, rain, snow, sun, and anything else that can cause problems, and make and wear clothes that protect us from the worst the elements can throw at us. And of course, we just adapt, get used to whatever the weather in a spot is like and soon enough that seems normal to us.”

The ponies spared another glance back at the humans, but they continued moving. Twilight felt her interest piqued, however, and she let her pace drop momentarily so she could walk next to the mercenary commander. “How can a people like yours make so many clever things but never get a handle on controlling weather?”

“Well, no one's found a good way to exert control over the innumerable molecules and particulates that form an atmosphere,” Schneider explained. “It would require some kind of mass manipulation that is just plain impossible where we come from.”

“So, you guys can't even control when it rains?” Rainbow asked, and waited until Schneider shook his head. “Pfft, lame.”

“As I said, we adapt,” James countered. “That adaptability is why I can talk to you now even though frankly, a flying blue pegasus is something that I'd normally consider a hallucination.”

Dash opened her mouth to retort but she was cut off by Twilight. “You know Dash is a pegasus?” She asked.

“Well, it was a guess,” James replied with a shrug. “Pegasus was a creature of ancient Greek myth, and he's had a strong influence on symbology and naming for millennia. Only those uneducated in mythology wouldn't recognize a version of it when it's floating in front of you.”

“Really?” Rainbow asked, sounding interested all of a sudden. “What kind of influence did it have?”

James thought for a moment before he replied. “Well, where we come from horses don't talk. No animal talks, actually, except humans, so we used them – horses that is – as a form of transportation, riding on their backs from one place to another. Pegasus was an outgrowth of humans' desire to fly like the birds in the sky, and the idea of being able to ride a winged mount like Pegasus was inspiring. So throughout history the name “Pegasus” has been used to christen anything that is meant to share in that myth's abilities, namely speed and flight.”

“Speed?” Dash asked, drawing closer to the commander. “You mean he was fast?”

“Well, the myth said so,” James added, feeling a bit uncomfortable as the flying pony drifted close enough to his face that her huge eyes and inquisitive expression gave him an impulsive urge to reach out and hug the insufferably cute thing. Fortunately, he restrained himself and shrugged again. “And that's all it really was, a myth. But we did name a lot of fast stuff after it.”

“Yeah, like the first JumpShip that could go further than 15 light-years in a single jump,” Schneider interjected.

“Ivan remember Pegasus Lines,” the two-meter tall man added. “Expensive passenger transports. Get you from Tikonov to Galatea in half the normal time, though.”

James blinked at that, and he turned to give his infantry combat expert a look. “You never told me you were on Galatea?”

“Ivan not like that place,” Ivan replied, his gaze shifting off to the side. “Too many bad men.” His expression suddenly brightened as he turned his sight back to McKenna and slapped the older man on the back. “Not like commander, though! Good man, pays well, doesn't send into fray without backup.”

“Nice to know I'm appreciated,” James replied, amused.

“Getting back to the topic at hand, though,” Schneider began. “How do you control the weather?” He asked, looking pointedly at Rainbow Dash.

The pegasus pony practically preened herself in pride. “It's all in the wings,” she said, flapping hers a bit extra to show them off.

“And the inherent magic that pegasi have,” Twilight interjected, garnering a sour look from her flying filly friend.

“Magic?” Schneider asked, sounding skeptical. “You'll forgive me if I don't find that a good enough answer.”

“Why not?” Rainbow asked, moving to get into the lanky human's face now. “You said yourself you can't do squat to the weather with your toys.”

“Dash!” Twilight interjected. “Remember, they're from a reality where there is no magic. They might find it hard to believe.”

“Indeed,” James added. “Our people used to believe in magic long ago, before we discovered a way to observe the world around us in a rational way. Eventually we learned that "magic" is simply something you don't understand yet. I suppose that would make it a good word to describe any abilities you might have that we cannot replicate.”

“Well, true,” Twilight said. “But in this case it really is magic.”

“Yeah, and Twilight's the absolutely positively the bestest at magic there is!” Pinkie added. “She once put an ursa minor to sleep!”

“A what?” Schneider asked.

“An ursa minor,” Twilight replied. “It's a very large creature, very strong. Fortunately that one was just cranky and needed a nap.”

“I see,” Schneider said, and then took a long look around them. “Should we worry about one attacking us in here?”

“Probably not,” Twilight answered. “They keep to themselves, usually, only really come out when they're bothered from their lairs.”

“Well, that's a relief,” James said. “I try to keep the number of things attempting to kill me down to a short list.”

The humans chuckled at that, and even the ponies joined in after they realized it was a joke. As they settled down, Schneider cleared his throat to speak again. “That does raise the question, though, of how you knew we were from a reality that doesn't have this so-called "magic"?”

“That same “so-called magic”,” Twilight replied, laying a bit of sarcasm on the quoted phrase. “You're not like the other beings here. You're not really connected into the magical energy system, so it makes sense that you lack such a connection where you come from.”

Schneider opened his mouth to speak again, but he refrained when McKenna held up a hand. “I think that's enough, Hermes,” he said, using the other mechwarrior's nickname. “We're talking to pastel ponies, after all, and one of them is flying. I think we can suspend our disbelief just a bit.”

Johannes thought about that for a moment before he sheepishly smiled. “Ah, true Jim. I suppose I'll have to wait to see this "magic" in action.”

“I can show you right now, if you'd like?” Twilight asked. When Schneider nodded, she came to a stop, and the others did as well around her. The lavender unicorn looked around a bit before she saw a branch that had fallen to the forest floor, and she pointed it out with a hoof. “Okay, I'll lift up that branch there and bring it here,” she said, and then narrowed her eyes in concentration. After a moment, her horn lit up with a purple glow, and a matching glow enveloped the branch, which then levitated and flew gently through the air until it hovered in front of Twilight. Satisfied at the demonstration, she released the branch and let it drop the ground.

The humans were silent for a good while as they absorbed the spectacle into their reshaped worldview. Finally though, Ivan took a step forward until he was next to Twilight. “Twilight is good pony,” he said, and then lightly patted her on the head.

“Er, thanks,” the unicorn replied as she sidestepped to avoid the tall human's attentions.

“Alright, you don't see that every day,” Schneider admitted with a bit of admiration in his voice.

“What? You can see Ivan being Ivan any day of the week,” James asked flippantly.

“Amusing, James,” Schneider replied sarcastically. Then he turned to give the ponies with them a fresh look. “If you ponies can do things like that, then how could you not stop O'Connell?” He asked, confused.

The ponies faces darkened as they remembered the recent past. “We didn't fight him,” Rainbow Dash said as she settled down to stand on her hooves. “Princess Celestia did.”

“Just one of you against a whole battalion of 'mechs?” Schneider asked in surprise. “Is she really good, or really stupid?”

“Hey!” Applejack snapped, and then stomped over to stand right in front of the lanky human and shoot him an evil eye that was only slightly less effective due to her lower height. “Th' princess did what she could!”

“Yeah, she fought like crazy!” Dash added. “Just, those things of yours...”

“BattleMechs,” James said. “The walking machines are called BattleMechs.”

“Yeah, those things,” Dash added with an angry look. “They just kept attacking and attacking and she couldn't hold up forever.”

“How long did she last?” Schneider asked.

“About five, maybe ten minutes,” Twilight replied.

“Sweet mother of God,” the lanky human breathed. “A single being up against a full battalion for ten minutes? Did she have any sort of mechanical help?”

“No, just an armor laced with defense spells,” Twilight answered. “They... failed under constant attack.”

“Still!” Schneider exclaimed. “A battalion of BattleMechs has enough firepower to level a city in ten minutes. They could lay waste to a continent of cities in a few days.” He looked down at the unicorn and Twilight was startled to see a bit of awe in his expression. “Your princess must have been a fantastic being.”

“She still is,” Applejack replied. “She lost, but thanks to Dash here she lived.”

Rainbow Dash blushed at the praise, but she didn't let it keep her from joining in. “Yeah, and when she recovers she's going to give that O'Connell guy the buck!”

“Still alive after facing a 'mech battalion and losing?” Schneider asked, his tone rhetorical. He then turned to look over at McKenna. “Commander, are you sure we're needed here?”

“Celestia is rather unique,” Twilight interjected. “She's one of our two ruling princesses. They're both alicorns, having aspects of all three normal pony types and possessing tremendous magic.” Twilight cast her gaze down then as she continued. “She was our best, and she was defeated. I don't know how anypony, even her younger sister Luna, can do any better.”

“I see,” James said after a long, uncomfortable silence. “How about you tell us about that battle as we continue on towards your town?”

Occupied Zone
Manehattan, Equestria
September 16th

Gregory Kilroy stared over the three quadrupeds standing in the tent that had been set up as the Desperadoes' “field office.” Sometimes, Garth, I want to strangle you, he thought wryly as he paced back and forth in front of the three ponies.

His commander had spent some time questioning their labor captives more intensely than the initial interrogations, seeking to erase gaps in their knowledge of this strange world they found themselves on. The Desperadoes' second in command admitted that it had helped to understand just what they had stuck their foot in, and it had assuaged his peace of mind to find out that the creature that had fought them on the first day was almost one-of-a-kind, and certainly the more powerful of the two “royal sisters” that controlled this kingdom. The idea of facing another one - even a younger, less powerful version - did not meet his fancy, but Kilroy was at least confident that the battalion could beat it if necessary and still win.

What had started the irrational urge to choke the life out of O'Connell, though, wasn't related to the super-powered royalty at all. Apparently, one of the males had been far easier to talk to than the others, much to the chagrin and anger of his fellows. It had come to blows between the talker and another of the ponies – I hate using that word, but it's the only one that fits, Kilroy thought – but O'Connell had ended that with a single warning shot. Further questioning had revealed that although most of the locals were happy, there was a small smattering of those who either felt stifled, or controlled, or just simply didn't like they way things were. O'Connell in one of his better moments set the talkative pony free to send him to get word to these underground elements in or even outside of the city and let them know that times were changing, and they could help.

Thus, Kilroy found himself in charge of the first of the locals who had willingly volunteered their services to the invading mercenaries. It figures that we'd get one of each to start, Greg darkly mused as he continued to pace and observe these ponies in quiet scorn. He doubted that they would prove worth his time, but his commander had ordered, and so he would obey. Besides, if Garth's thinking what I'm thinking, then being the second to a king wouldn't be a bad thing, no matter what I have to put up with. Still, I'd rather be going out with that light lance he sent to reconnoiter near the locals' capitol.

Finally, Kilroy made himself stop, and he moved to stand a meter or so away from the short line of locals. “Alright. As you might be able to tell, I'm not particularly happy you're here,” he said, figuring honesty was the proper way to go. “However, my commander, Garth O'Connell, has decided to see if any of you little ponies are worthy to be part of the new order. So despite my misgivings I will do my best to figure out how we can use you.

“So I'll start with you,” he said, looking at the same purple, brown-maned earth pony that had been sent out, only to return willingly. “Tell me your name and what you're good at.”

“I'm called Stronghoof,” the particularly bulky looking pony with a horseshoe cutie mark replied. “Since you're honest with us, I'll be honest with you: I'm not the smartest pony you'll find, but I'm one of the strongest with the best stamina.”

“Doesn't sound like you made a good decision then,” Kilroy observed as he leaned back on his heels a bit. “Strong muscles and backs are good to have, but you'll be doing the same work you were when we were holding you. That doesn't sound like an improvement to me.”

“True, but I'm not that dumb,” Stronghoof said, grinning mischievously. “Unlike you humans, I know what ponies can and can't do, especially when it comes to hard work. I'll also know when they're slacking or trying something sneaky. Put me in charge of those guys you make work for you, and I'll get things done a lot faster.”

Kilroy brought up a hand to his chin and rubbed it as he considered. “Not bad,” he said. “Why work for us, though?”

Stronghoof shrugged. “You took down Celestia. I may not be the smartest, but I can see who's going to be the new bosses around.”

Greg nodded and then thought for a moment longer. “Alright, we'll give that a try,” he said, and then pointed to the entrance to the tent. “Go outside and find the old stockade we had you in. Private Valentine should be standing guard. Tell him I sent you, and that the password for today is Kurita Hotel, so he'll know you're telling the truth. He'll help you keep the others in line while you get them to work leveling that copse of trees for the new runway.”

“Sure thing, boss,” Stronghoof said, and then started to turn to walk away.

Kilroy raised his hand at that, and bade the stallion to halt. “A note: we use military ranks here. You will learn and use them, as they are the proper way to address others. For instance, from now on you call me captain Kilroy, or captain.”

Stronghoof nodded at that. “Yes sir, captain Kilroy,” he said, and after Greg nodded back the pony turned and walked out.

Kilroy next turned to look at the forest green pegasus mare that was next. “And you?”

“I'm Seabreeze,” the pony replied and then tossed her long, dark blue mane. “I'm good at making and using lightning,” she said, shifting her hips a bit to show off her cutie mark; an anvilhead storm cloud with multiple lightning bolts stabbing downwards from it. “Nopony in Equestria likes lightning as much as I do, so I almost never get to practice. Especially since I like to hit hard moving targets, like other clouds, birds, squirrels...” Her voice trailed off as she briefly glanced to the unicorn on her left and displayed a skewed smile. “That sort of thing.”

“Interesting,” Kilroy said without emotion, though inwardly he felt more than a little skeptical. Still, our questioning tells us that the locals are all convinced these 'pegasi' control the weather. The least I can do is let her have a chance to show it. If she can't deliver, well, corporal Colbert always enjoys a lively sport of "shoot the running civilian." “We'll see just what you can do in a bit. For the moment, go wait outside the tent until I'm done with the last one here,” he said, and waved at the unicorn. “I'll collect you afterward and we'll go see what our air support squadron leader can think of to test you.”

Seabreeze nodded at that. “Yes, captain,” she said, remembering the earlier admonishment, and then turned and walked out of the tent.

Kilroy nodded, and then alighted his gaze upon the light blue unicorn. “Well, you know the drill. What's your name and what do you do?”

“I am the great and powerful Trixie,” the mare replied pompously. “And my magic is the talk of Manehattan, Fillydelphia, and even Hoofington,” she declared.

“Uh-huh,” Kilroy said, sounding unconvinced. “And just what does that mean in simple terms?”

Trixie sniffed derisively. “You expect the great and powerful Trixie to just condense her vast abilities down into a few words?” She asked, sounding put out.

“Either that, or I decide you're trying to mess around with me,” Kilroy said, letting a growl inflect his voice. “In which case the battalion will be eating pony stew tonight.”

Trixie blanched and took a step backwards. “You... You can't mean that?” She asked in wide-eyed horror.

“Try me,” Greg replied, and then smiled wide to make sure she could see his canine teeth. He even parted his jaw a bit and licked the tip of one of the pointed teeth with his tongue. “We could use the fresh meat.”

“IcanlevitatelightobjectsbetterthanalmosteveryotherunicornandIamverygoodinmisdirectionandturningotherspellsagainsttheirusers,” the unicorn mare spouted out rapid-fire, and then paused to take in a deep breath to replace the air her lungs no longer had. “I have better fine control than other ponies with my telekinesis and I can use my spells with great versatility despite their original function.”

Kilroy took a moment to think and pick his way through the light blue mare's outburst. I still don't believe this magic junk, but what the frack. “Alright,” he said, and then turned around to grab a small white object off the the table behind him. “Catch,” he added even as he tossed it at Trixie.

The unicorn startled but she reacted almost instantly, and a glow enveloped her horn and the baseball, stopping it in mid-air just a few millimeters from her nose.

“Nice,” Kilroy admitted with only mild enthusiasm. Inside though, he was boggling. I know I saw that white one do stuff like this, but I didn't think I'd see it again, or up close. Naturally, he was an excellent poker player, and he kept his face static as he nodded to the unicorn. “Now toss it back to me. Miss and you'll be soup yet.”

Trixie didn't reply verbally. Instead she nodded and then with a flick of her head, she flung the ball through the air towards the human.

Kilroy, though, sidestepped and watched it sail right past him, a smirk on his face. That smirk died though as the glow returned almost instantly and the object turned in mid-air to head directly towards his head. A smack told of the impact, and the human dropped on his rear end and clasped his hands over his forehead in pain. “Sweet mother of f-”

“I'm so sorry!” Trixie blurted out in fright. “Please I didn't mean it don't eat meeeee!”

“Shut up!” Kilroy yelled. The unicorn fell silent immediately, for which Greg was grateful as he rubbed where the baseball had smacked him good. After a few moments he felt a welt growing, and he stood slowly in anger. However, it soon gave way to a rueful chuckle, and he turned to face the pony. “Alright, I deserved that,” he said. “I just wanted to see what you could do. Nice job.”

“Then you won't eat me?” Trixie hopefully asked.

Kilroy shook his head as he regained his normally cool demeanor. “No, I don't think so.” I don't think I could even if you ticked me off; talking food reminds me of cannibalism. “I also think I know where you can be of help. However, it will be tough work, and you seem rather used to being pampered from your earlier attitude. If you don't want to sweat, you might as well leave now.”

Trixie stood in silent contemplation for a bit, and a few emotions ran over her face as well. Finally, she sighed and then cast her eyes down. “The great and- I mean,” she interrupted herself when she saw the human's face darken at the beginning of her usual spiel. “I will take any work. I lost all of my belongings last year along with the magic show that kept me fed. Most ponies around here don't care for an out of work entertainer; we're a bit a dozen.”

Kilroy looked over the mare at that, and he admitted that she seemed rather lean compared to some other examples he could remember. Definitely more so than that pegasus, and she's supposed to be light enough to fly. “Alright, if you're willing to sweat, then you can assist the battalion technical staff,” Kilroy said to announce his decision. “I'll take you to chief tech Newman after you've had something to eat from the commissary tent next door. He'll figure out what he can use you for, though since you'll be just an assistant he'll be giving you all sorts of terrible jobs. Be prepared to endure a lot of browbeating and heavy work.”

Despite his warnings, Trixie looked up at him with a faint look of hope. “Of course, captain,” she said.

“Just one more thing, though,” Kilroy added, and then waited until the mare gave him her full attention. “Out of curiosity, why join up with us?”

“Aside from the food and a roof over my head?” Her face darkened at the end of the rhetorical question, and her eyes became distant. “I'm hoping that when you're rampaging across Equestria, you'll take time to smash the nasty little town I lost everything in.”

Kilroy nodded at that, and despite himself he smiled. Finally, one of them talks like a human. Maybe not rationally, but like a human. “Well, if you work hard enough you might just get to see that soon enough.”

Trixie's answering smile would have chilled the blood of most ponies had they seen it.

Outskirts of Ponyville
September 16th AD 3070/1023 RC

The small group paused as they left the forest behind, mainly to let their eyes readjust to the brighter sunlight, but also to regain their bearings. For the humans, it also provided their first view of the town, albeit at a distance. James noted that Ponyville – dear God that name is so cutesy it's a borderline atrocity – looked much like a storybook village, with thatched roofs and homes done in the Medieval European style that had just come back into vogue again on the more affluent worlds of the Inner Sphere. A few buildings he noted seemed even more fantastical, though he couldn't yet tell finer details at the current distance.

“Well, I suppose I should welcome you to Ponyville,” Twilight Sparkle said, sounding unsure. “Although I can't say the others in town won't be a little suspicious of you. Especially since some of the refugees from Manehattan have camped outside the eastern town limits.”

James shrugged at the little pony. “We've come a bit far to worry about that now; let's go,” he said and waved a hand onward.

The group moved off then and their conversation resumed with Schneider leading the way. “So, this general Stonewall-”

“I love that name,” James interrupted.

“-Has been working at fighting O'Connell's men,” Schneider continued, as if nothing happened. “What's he been up to, specifically?”

“Minor nuisance work only, it seems,” Twilight replied with a hint of discouragement in her voice. “They've been shoving rubble and other debris into streets whenever they can to try and keep the enemy contained, but the invaders have been using work crews made from captured ponies to clear them right back up again. I know that the general has tried having volunteers bucking stones at the Desperadoes, as you call them, but that didn't work so well.”

“That would be an understatement,” Rainbow Dash elaborated.

“I can imagine,” James said, scratching his chin. The group fell silent at that as the ponies didn't know what else to say, while two of the humans knew to keep quiet while their commander pondered the situation. For his part, James just looked around and studied the local environment, and while doing so something caught his eye. “Now that's a nice house,” he casually said, pointing to a cottage built like a small hill, its roof covered in grass and numerous bird houses and small mammal habitats clustered around it.

“Looks like a fairytale,” Schneider observed, his tone impressed.

“Ivan like stream,” the tall human said.

“Yeah, it's a nice place alright,” Applejack said, though her voice seemed halting.

She and the other ponies also averted their eyes, and this piqued James' interest. “What's the matter, don't like the per- er, pony that lives there?”

“What!” The four ponies exclaimed in surprise. “Oh, no, of course we love Fluttershy,” Twilight continued for the others. “It's just that, well, she was with us in Manehattan.”

“She's a very kind pony,” Pinkie Pie added.

“And even on a good day she's afraid of her own shadow. Literally,” Applejack said. “So when she saw those ponies... Well, killed, she kinda-”

“She snapped,” Rainbow Dash impatiently spouted, and then sighed in frustration. “She froze up completely and they had to carry her off. Since then she's just stayed in her cottage and won't leave for anything or anypony.”

“It's really sad,” Pinkie Pie added as the group resumed walking. “She's always so nice and kind, and she took care of the animals around here and made them feel all happy and warm but now she won't even leave to visit or take care of them and I think some of them might be feeling a little down but since I don't have an animal talent and they don't eat cupcakes so I don't know what to do with the whole situation because it makes me feel sad.”

“Sounds like post-traumatic shock syndrome,” Schneider said. “It's common enough with most people who are not acclimated to the terrors of combat. Heck, even most soldiers who are acclimated can go catatonic or have nightmares at times from especially bad experiences. What your friend needs is some time and therapy.”

“Well, our friend Rarity has been visiting her regularly, trying to get her to talk about the whole situation,” Twilight said, and then sighed. “But Fluttershy is so frightened she can't even think about what she saw without going back into a catatonic state.”

The group fell silent at that as every person and pony mulled over the situation. James flicked his eyes to Ivan, where the latter met them and nodded very slightly. “Well, maybe we can help sometime if you want,” James said, returning his gaze to the lavender unicorn. “Being mercenaries we've seen some of the worst parts of war. If one of us talks with her about it he might bring her around.”

“Maybe later, after we know you better,” Twilight allowed, and then turned to trot and start the group moving again. “In the meantime, let's go to the town hall and see if we can't have that more elaborate chat about why you're here.”


Up close, the town appeared as much as a storybook as Fluttershy's cottage, James noted. If not more so. Cobblestone streets, open marketplace, this looks like some place you'd find in old Switzerland or in some Omniss communities in the Outworlds Alliance. He revised his latter opinion soon enough as they passed a pink bakery that was modeled to look like the cakes it sold. Nevermind, the Omniss are too dour to build something like that.

The local population, he noticed, were out in force, though most cowered back and squeezed themselves against the buildings on either side of the street in a bid to avoid becoming the focus of attention. The mercenaries also noted that there was an appreciable difference between males and females, and there seemed to be an abundance of the latter. “Have your authorities started conscription?” James asked out of curiosity.

“No,” Twilight replied, having naturally become the main liaison with the humans. “Although if the army doesn't get enough volunteers it may be enforced. Why do you ask?”

“You just seem to have an awful high female-to-male ration,” James observed. “With humans it's about fifty-fifty, but here you seem to be more on the lined of seventy-thirty.”

“Sixty-nine point three to thirty point seven, actually,” Schneider replied, and then grinned sheepishly when McKenna gave him a look. “I've been counting,” he explained.

“Well, Ponyville is a bit odd like that.” Twilight paused and thought for a moment. “But now that you mention it, even in Equestria as a whole there is a definite balance towards females, though it's closer to that fifty-fifty you mentioned.”

“Just so long as they don't match cycles,” Schneider muttered under his breath.

This time it was James who did the elbowing as the ponies glanced back, having heard the lanky mechwarrior speak. “What Hermes means to say is that it an interesting datum, as it shows an additional difference between our two species that might explain our differing social constructs,” James said, and then glanced a warning at his subordinate. “Quiaff?”

“Yes. Now stop using clannerisms.” Schneider shuddered a bit. “You know that really creeps me out when you do that.”

“You should have been with us on Sigurd,” James countered. “It's a lot worse when you're sitting in a cell after they've shot you out of your 'mech.”

“I was fourteen at the time, so I doubt you would have signed me on.”

“Ahem,” Twilight interrupted as she brought the group to a stop. “We're here,” she said and then pointed out a large circular building with an upraised foreleg. “That's town hall. It should be roomy enough inside, even for you guys.”

“Good, we can get your local government involved immediately,” James said with a nod as he surveyed the public square. “Does the hall have any rapid communications devices?”

“Er, not as such,” Twilight replied. “We rely on mail mostly, though my assistant-” The unicorn paused as she remembered her friend. “Oh, of course! Dash, could you go grab Spike and get him to come meet us? I'm sure princess Luna will want to be informed right away.”

“Sure thing,” Dash said with a nod. Before she flew off, however, she turned and gave the humans an evil eye. “Don't you do anything dumb while I'm gone,” she warned.

“Perish the thought,” James replied. The pegasus looked at him for a moment as if deciding whether he was sarcastic or not, and then shrugged and flew off. “She doesn't like us very much, does she?” The commander asked, as he looked over at the remaining ponies in the group.

“She's just a bit concerned, is all,” Applejack replied. “Can't say Ah blame her, what with all we've seen.”

“Fair enough.” James then nodded to the lavender unicorn. “So, shall we?”

Twilight merely nodded and then turned to trot across the square, followed by the others. The humans glanced around as casually as they could, despite the fact that there were a number of ponies who were standing on the edge of the square and more seemed to be coming to join the growing throng. I wonder how much damage they could do in a riot? James mused. Hopefully it won't come to that, but if it does I'm glad we have a size advantage.

He banished such thoughts as they reached the town hall and began to ascend the steps, the humans taking the stairs cautiously. As they reached the top a brown coated mare trotted out and blanched at the new arrivals. “Twilight Sparkle, are those what I think they are?” She asked in shock.

“Yes mayor,” Twilight replied. “Though these humans say they want to help. I was hoping we could have our discussions inside the town hall so we can talk in a civilized manner.”

“But...” The brown earth pony said, and then glanced to the side as another, familiar pony, this one in armor, walked out. He had a fierce look on his face as he stared up at the humans while the mayor continued. “Er, this is captain Starbuck, Twilight. He is the commander of the advanced army detachment princess Luna sent.”

“It's good to meet you again, captain,” Twilight said, preempting the pegasus as he opened his mouth. “I'm also glad to see you're healing nicely,” she added, nodding to his bandaged wing.

“Twilight Sparkle,” Starbuck said, making it both an acknowledgment and the beginning of a challenge at the same time. “Is there some reason you brought enemies of Equestria into Ponyville?”

“Now hang on there, cap'n,” Applejack interjected. “Ah may not trust these boys right now, but even Ah got ta admit that they don't act like O'Connell's men.”

“She's right,” Twilight added, again interrupting Starbuck before he could speak. “They could have attacked or captured us, but instead only want to talk.”

“Plus they're really neato super friendly!” Pinkie Pie exclaimed, hopping up and down as she rapidly spoke. “I was all 'do you like cupcakes' and Ivan said he loves them and we started talking and turns out they're nice people but not like ponies and kind of violent and dark but they mean really well and nopony's perfect and I'm the one to ask believe me since I keep talking and nopony seems to keep up with me except Ivan and he talks funny about guys he's punched and his gun I think he calls it Sasha and it's really neat I saw it on his armor back in the clearing and he could have used it but he didn't because he's a nice man and so are the others in that ship that just landed and most of them just want to go home but they don't want to leave a mess behind them so they want to help.”

“Enough!” Starbuck exclaimed, silencing the three mares in front of him. The steel blue pegasus eyed them briefly before he returned a critical gaze to the humans standing over him. “I don't know if you realize it or not, but these mares are special,” he said, addressing the humans.

“I'd like to think everyone is special, in their own way,” James said. “Although I hasten to add that I don't care for PSF syndrome.”

Starbuck didn't recognize the reference, so he ignored it instead. “These three and the three that are absent are even more special than most,” he clarified. “They are the bearers of the Elements of Harmony, some of the most powerful magic in the world.”

“You'll forgive us if we express skepticism at any claims of magic until we see it for ourselves,” James stated evenly. “We don't have such abilities where we come from.”

“So the princesses said,” Starbuck agreed with a nod. “I'm simply stating for the record that I wouldn't even be talking to you if they weren't here with you. And the fact that they do have some sort of trust towards you, albeit small, is the only reason I'm willing to speak with you further.”

“Fair enough,” James said with a nod of his own. “I can understand your hesitation in dealing with us given what O'Connell and his men did when they landed. I believe if you'll sit down and let us explain ourselves, though, you'll see we're not entirely like those people, and we intend to help.”

“We'll see,” Starbuck said, and then gestured behind him with a shake of his head. “Let's go in and talk and hear what you have to say.”