• Published 2nd May 2012
  • 5,108 Views, 250 Comments

Homebound - Retsamoreh



A space military captain, who believes that Equestria resides on the legendary, long-lost planet of Earth, attempts to save Twilight and her friends from an incoming invasion that threatens both Equestria and the galaxy while keeping them all sane.

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(22) Bullets and Blades - Part One

-Gantoris Towers, Ophelius, Gantoris.
-Official recorded beginning of the Octavian Conquest War.
-Courtyard Defense Perimeter.
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I never thought I would see the day when an army marched on Gantoris. Ours was considered one of the best defensive forces in the galaxy - not winning by numbers, but with far more experience, skill, and cooperation. You didn’t need numbers when one of you could take on fifteen of them, without so much as a bruise, just using a sword, and throwing a gun into the mix didn’t help their chances.

So, like many, I watched dumbfounded as fire rained from the sky, spilling forth from twisted black and green hunks of metal. Anything that wasn’t falling was busy getting ripped apart by streaking bolts of plasma or anti-air ordnance. Whatever was left shot at us.

“We need air support now! Uske, get your squadrons up and flying ASAP,” Clover shouted over the explosions, tearing the assault rifle from his back and pointing it in the general direction of the incoming invasion force. “Keep firing! Do not let them set foot on this planet!”

A crippled, wretched body of a fighter streaked down from the swarm, exploding in a cloud of smoke and green fire at the bottom of the last tear. Soldiers shouted in warning, and a piece of the wreckage flew over our heads at mind-boggling speed, landing on the far side of the courtyard where we couldn’t see. I took a step back, everything in my mind screaming for me to abandon my promise to the girls, pick up a gun, and defend the people I had spent almost half my life protecting.

But I didn’t. I made a promise. I turned to the girls, and I gave them the order I barely ever made.

“Run. Ensigns, cover us!”

“Yes sir,” Roland said from behind me, smirking as he and Dylan raised their rifles.

One of the fighters broke off from the main escort group, angling itself to point right at the officer’s mobile command station, and more importantly, at seven brightly colored targets contrasting against the grey. It fired, we ran.

The ground tore itself up behind us, but we continued running for all it was worth, aiming for the doors. I could hear the grinding and melting of reinforced concrete as each shot blasted debris into the air with, half-molten pebbles digging into the back of my pants like hot knives, rocks pelting my jacket and head. I was at the back of the group - I had slowed down for them, just in case. It was an instinct that might’ve saved their lives. That, or the pilot was a terrible shot, but I took the credit anyways.

Closing behind us with a high-pitched hiss, the doors muffled the sounds outside to mere echoes of screams and gunfire. Through a window down the hallway I could see the green-tinted clouds beyond, lit up with tracer fire coming from the city’s defenses. I swallowed numbly, leaning against the wall while my legs continued to burn from the molten debris.

“Who are these soldiers?” Twilight gasped, her eyes following mine. “I-I don’t understand....”

“It- it’s alright,” I tried to sputter, my vision warping out of focus. I stepped back from the group, unable to focus as each of them spoke. Nopony looked at me.

Fluttershy moaned pathetically, holding her hooves over her head. The girls had bunched up together, either staring at me, the window, or frantically looking around to stare at something else that didn’t remind them they were just shot at. Rarity wrapped a leg around her neck, whispering something into her ear.

“Why is everypony shooting at each other?” Rainbow bellowed, gesturing wildly to the door with her hoof. “I don’t remember much about that stuff in history class but I know nothing like that happened!”

“Those aren’t anything like the fireworks back home...” Pinkie grumbled, standing next to Twilight. “These ones are mean looking.”

“It’s because they’re not fireworks, Pinkie. It’s like the cannons the Royal Guard uses back in Equestria, only a lot bigger and... and something - more advanced.”

“Will y’all be quiet?” Applejack hissed, moving in to stand over Fluttershy and Rarity. “Fluttershy’s plum scared out of her wits!” I staggered backward, stopping at the wall. The back of my legs felt like they were melting into the fabric of my pants. I wasn’t going to be of use if I sank any lower.

Spike rushed past me, going to each pony and desperately prodding them and sputtering out questions. “Nothing hurt you, right? Rarity? Everypony’s okay, right?” He wobbled past me on his legs again, this time heading for Twilight, and I took another step back.

Everything was happening too fast. The pain had spread from just my legs, drilling into the rest of my body, just as the rocks had dug into my skin like hot bullets. To me, it was like each pony was speaking at the same time.

“There, there, dear Fluttershy, it’s all over. We are safe now, right, Jackson?” Rarity asked, her usually pristine hair ruffled from the escape. She gently looked up at me, fear burrowed in her eyes like a frightened animal. I gritted my teeth, but at least one of them had noticed I had completely sunk down to the floor. “...Jackson?”

Slowly, Twilight and Rainbow Dash looked at me, taking in my strained posture and pained expression. I didn’t want to think about what they saw, so I searched for a way to get them to move on. They needed to get to safety.

“The code to the armory is seven-seven-five-oh-nine,” I said quickly, panting. I slid into a more comfortable position against the wall - or at least as comfortable as being in burning pain would allow me. “I’ll try and catch up. If I don’t, tell AIA to contact Aaro, or one of the available captains. They’ll keep you safe.”

“Jackson, what’s wrong?” Twilight asked, taking a cautious step forward. “Why can’t you take us?”

“My legs are injured,” I said. “I’m out for this one until a medic comes around..”

“Your legs are fine,” Rainbow yelled, holding her hooves out dramatically. “Seriously! Nothing’s wrong with them! How could you even be shot when nopony out there actually shot at us? I mean, sure, your guys were shooting at them, and they were shooting back, but when did they go for us? Why were you shooting in the first place?”

“What are you...?” I swallowed a lump in my throat, but it didn’t go away. My legs were fine. They were okay. Nothing was wrong, except for the fact that as the phantom pain in my legs faded, it was replaced by a crushing fear in my chest. I did my best to ignore it, struggling to my feet as slowly as I could, just incase they were wrong. “I could have sworn...”

“Jackson, I don’t mean to be pushy, but can we please talk about what in the hay that was another time?” Twilight blurted out, eyes bulging. She and Rainbow had turned their attentions back to the window, and I walked over to them without hesitation. Through the blue-tinted thick monstrosities lining the hallway, I could clearly see the initial swarm of landing craft tapering off, focusing on zipping through the towers of the city rather than the well defended capitol building. Off to one side of the city buildings I could see the tell-tale bulge of a cannon pointed at the sky. One of the GOD cannons.

It burned, and crumbled before our eyes, falling into itself from the pressure of the fighters barraging it.

“Right. We need to hurry. Everyone, get to the elevator, now,” I said, waving at the closed elevator doors down the hall. Three awkward, deep breaths later, nopony had moved, instead looking at Fluttershy. She hadn’t stopped shivering, but at least she was no longer whimpering to herself. “Fluttershy. We can’t really go anywhere if you stay there. We need to keep moving.” Or we’re probably all going to die. I bit my tongue at the last second, kneeling down next to her. “It’s going to be scary, maybe, but life can be scary sometimes. Let’s go.”

“A-are you s-sure we’ll be... safe?” she asked softly, her voice standing out against the muffled cannon retorts and explosions from outside.

I nodded, catching myself at the last minute and whispering back, “I promised you’ll be safe. I just...” I sighed, standing up. Intense pain, the previous feelings that had shot up and down my legs dulled down to a numb tingling, a slight reminder that everything could go wrong at any moment, and next time I might really lose my legs. What had I been thinking, telling them to go on like that?

“Just be brave for me. We need to get your girls geared up,” I repeated, failing to swallow down the lump once again. Like a slow-moving caterpillar crawling along a leaf, we all seemed to turn in the same direction: the elevator.

~=V=~

-ERROR CODE 20-8-5-18-5 9-19
-PLAYBACK ERROR 1 4-5-19-20-9-14-25
-HOMEBOUND DATA OPENED 20-8-1-20 13-21-19-20
-ENCRYPTED FILES TRANSFERRED 2-5
-
-LET IT BEGIN 6-21-12-6-9-12-12-5-4

“I assume... ah... you’re going to kill me.”

“You assume too many things, Admiral Amber. I believe it is a fault we both share.”

“Well why don’t you? Everyone else is dead. The system is yours. I... hhhng... stand before you unarmed, injured- hrrrg… and stranded. End it all. You win.”

“Because... I don’t want to, at least not yet. I suppose in killing you, I rid myself of the challenge of killing you... if that makes any sense. Plus, there’s something I want you to see.”

“It... doesn’t.”

“No matter, my friend.... Look! The surface of your beloved planet burns. It looks beautiful from up here.”

~=V=~

There wasn’t a window in this elevator. I was thankful for that.

“This isn’t standard wartime invasion procedures,” Twilight muttered, somehow managing to pace in the small cabin. “Just to be sure, nobody was hurt, right? Everyone has one of those VALK things?”

“Correct,” I said numbly, looking at the space where the window would be if it weren’t covered by a sheet of blast protection. “Chances are not a single person on either side, despite what’s happening out there, has been killed or injured at all. And, er, our ‘standard procedures’ are a lot different than yours, apparently.”

“No, no, even if nopony is dying, there’s no reason to cause so much property damage and chaos... There’s no point in harming the other side when the victor can simply take them over and utilize them for their own needs. Why... kill an enemy when you can conquer them and force them to work for you as a vassal or a slave?”

“Twilight!” Rarity exclaimed, holding a hoof to her mouth is horror. The others had similar reactions.

“I’m just trying to figure out the logic behind it all. It doesn’t make any sense! Conquerors and warlords in Equestrian history have never... massacred a populace, just simply taken them over.”

“A lot of things won’t make sense to you out here, Twilight. I’m fully willing to explain them later, but what do you think would happen if you were to lead an army, take over another nation, and do what you just suggested? You’ve won for the time being, but the enemy leaders still exist and most likely can still build up a resistance against you. Without... removing the enemy force, they will just continue opposing you. Bad or good, people will often fight to the death for their country and king. Removing them by force is necessary to establish peace over a conquered territory, because it usually removes hope.”

“But removing hope isn’t possible!” Pinkie said, smiling proudly for once, she was about to contribute. “I’d know! Sometimes, when things look bleak and hopeless, ponies will always find hope. I know that if some big meanie managed to take over Equestria and locked the princesses away forever, I wouldn’t lose hope, I’d just be fighting harder to make sure there was peace and everypony was happy!” She sat down on her haunches, still smiling brightly. Ponies, dragon, and man alike all stared blankly at her with deadpan expressions.

“How did you just make sense?” I asked, leaning up against the wall. “Whatever, but even if you can’t stamp out hope, it would still be illogical to leave an enemy leader in a position of power within a conquered area. They can’t be allowed to have the resources to defeat those conquering them.”

“But by ‘removing enemy leaders’ you mean killing them. Disregarding the fact that it’s completely monstrous in the first place, it makes them martyrs and icons for the ponies conquered to look up to and emulate. If you remove a leader, all it will do is create a new one.”

“I don’t really mean to interrupt ‘yer nice little, er, frankly disturbing debate, but we’re currently trying to run for our lives, right?” Applejack asked, motioning toward the door with her head. On cue, it slid open to reveal the familiar hallway leading to the armory.

I huffed. “Correct. Let’s go, girls. We need to get you suited up.”

“Hoo-boy, things don’t look too peachy down there,” Applejack said, taking an audible gulp. We passed over one of the glass pathways, but when I looked down, I was momentarily happy to see that everything was obscured by black smoke; the only sign that anything was moving down there were flashes of grenades and guns.

The enemy had landed at some point, and had either taken the city already, or were going for the capitol first. I wasn’t sure whether to be angry I couldn’t see past the smoke, or happy that the ponies couldn’t, and I did my best to ignore the quickened breathing of each pony as they looked down to the swirling mass of destruction below.

Part of me paid attention to what the ponies were doing, and all of the other parts worked on planning our escape. The admirals knew I had a job to do, and they trusted me. I was going to do it.

“It doesn’t look like anything at all. Jackson, what do you think is happening?” Twilight asked, gulping. She looked up at me, eyebrows scrunched up in contemplation.

“What we’re good at. Defending what we promised to defend. Reinforcements should be arriving soon. This skirmish won’t last longer than an hour and everything should be over pretty quickly,” I rattled off almost automatically. We were getting closer to the armory, at least, but one step at a time felt too slow, each one sounding like gong echoing through the metal hallways. “Now, as soon as we-”

“Jackson!” a familiar voice called. The others and I spun around to see Lilian jogging down the hallway behind us, one whole side of her jacket uniform dirtied by black smoke and her face red. Each movement was sluggish, and she stumbled to a stop when she caught up to us, panting. One hand was glued to her burned side, hiding whatever lay beneath the middle of the black splotch. “I.... Jackson, there you are. Lost you in the first fighter run.”

“Where is everyone else?” I asked, sliding over to her side. I wrapped an arm under her shoulder and hoisted her up, eliciting a grunt of pain from the engineer. Taking a shuddering breath, she accepting the support and let me lead her down the hall. The ponies followed, looking on with mixed expressions of horror and pity.

“We had to scatter, after we covered your retreat. Most of us tried to get into the Towers, but... the fighting started up big time. Roland and Dylan stayed behind to make sure we could escape. Aran went for you, and Evo and I tried to make it to the Homebound.”

“Where’s Ensign Evo now, then? Is he injured?” I asked as we continued our slog through the hallway. A rumble sounded under the tower, and a shining bout of green fire erupted from the smoke.

“He’s fine. He sent me a ‘pad message a moment ago. Said he’s in the Homebound and ready to fire up the engines on your command.”

“And the others?”

“Aran disappeared in the smoke before we could do anything. No idea where she went. Roland and Dylan are still down there, last I checked, but their communications are down, so your best bet would be contacting someone else about that. It... might be a problem, though. I barely managed to get out before the fighting started up on the ground.”

“Did they take the city?” I asked, casting a look out to the spires beyond the tower’s courtyard.

“N-no. They just landed in the middle of it and are headed straight for the Towers. Gah... I need some bio-mend on this dang burn. Can we get a move on?”

“Right, right. Girls, you know where it is. Get a move on. We’ll catch up,” I said to the others. Everypony except Fluttershy and Rarity burst into a frightened, tense gallop, the remaining two looking uncertainly up at me.

“Are y-you sure, Jackson?” Fluttershy stammered, eyes flickering to the billowing smoke over a thousand feet below us. She gulped. “I r-really don’t think we should split up...”

“I’m inclined to agree with Fluttershy, Captain Amber. This doesn’t seem to be the type of situation where splitting up would be the best course of action,” Rarity added, giving, curiously enough, a look of compassion toward Lilian.

“It’s not splitting up if you’re just going ahead. Wait at the door to the armory and we’ll be there soon,” I said. “Don’t worry. You girls are strong enough to handle yourselves unattended for thirty seconds.”

“Alright. Very well then. Come on, Fluttershy. We can’t let the others worry, now can we?” Rarity called, breaking into a quick canter. Fluttershy nervously looked between her friend and I, opting to spread her wings and glide after Rarity a second later.

Lilian chuckled dryly, and stumbled. We weren’t going very fast as it was, but I slowed down anyways. “Good job getting rid of them. What did you want to know, Captain?”

“Did you get any idea what the casualties have been so far? Have we lost anyone? Locations?” I whispered, keeping a close eye on the retreating forms of the ponies.

“Leader Dylan and half of the College got taken out in one of the runs. They VALKed to a secure location nearby, as far as I know. Comm-chatter started tapering off after that. Is yours broken or something?”

“No, just haven’t bothered listening in,” I muttered. I looked down at my datapad’s messages, where I knew the verbal communications would be typing themselves down incase I lost my headset. I could still hear it crackling in my right ear, but I ignored it. “I was too busy dealing with the girls. What about our fighters?”

“San used his VALK to get to them, I presume. Shouldn’t you know these things?”

“I do know them. I just wanted to double-check if they actually happened,” I said, swallowing at the lump in my throat for the hundredth time. It didn’t budge. “I just need someone to talk to. Answer me honestly. Do you think we have a clear shot for the Homebound once we’re done here?”

“No, sir. Not on foot.”

“Good. I’ve got a plan to get there that should be safe. After that, we’re getting these girls back to their planet. We’ll make the first jump to Kelta, get an escort there, and be dropping them off in Equestria before tomorrow ends.”

We turned the corner and got a full view of the girls lined up patiently by the door, speaking to each other in hushed, conspiratory voices. Spike had, apparently, leapt up onto Twilight’s back at some point, and seemed to be resting there for the time being. Applejack and Rainbow had taken the lead, or at least the silent charge of being the group’s protectors while I was away. They stood on either side - Rainbow flying, of course - and offered a mean glance to any suspicious dust particle that floated their way. Other than us, the hallway was deserted.

Lilian and I shared a humorless chuckle, speeding up our shambling walk and stopping at the door. The girls parted, letting us through, and I let Lilian prop herself up against the side of the wall, giving my arms plenty of space to gracelessly jab the code in.

“We’ll go over the plan when we get you girls geared up,” I started, the door swishing open. “Make sure you do it- gurrchk!” I slammed into the metal threshold of the door, a grey, clawed hand wrapped around my throat. My head spun from the impact, and it felt like my brain completely turned off for a moment.

“Aran!” Lilian barked, limping closer to intervene. The hand left me, and I clutched at my sore, exposed neck. “What are you doing?”

“I’m sorry, but last I heard on the comms, soldiers entered through the top of the Towers. I-I didn’t realize...” Aran sputtered, backing up. Behind her, their angular KaidenTech rifles rigidly aimed at my head, stood three Tower guards, helmets covering their expressions. “Stand down.”

“Yes ma’am,” one said, all of them lowering their weapons at once. He nodded toward me, but I could tell he was looking at the ponies gathered behind me. “Good to have you here, sir. We’re getting reports of enemies already bleeding into the other tower. We were ordered to guard here.”

I swallowed, rubbing my throat again, and walked into the armory. Everything was as it should’ve been, except for the battle outside, and I detected nothing out of place. We would be safe here. Aran followed me as I walked over to the gear locker. “Sorry again, sir.”

“I’ve had worse,” I mumbled, fiddling with the lock. The door swung aside to reveal the life-saving gear completely untouched and waiting to gather dust. Filing in behind me, the girls silently looked at their gifts from the Wing. Twilight stepped forward, and I held her pair out to her. “Can you help them put this on, Twilight? I need to get something.”

“Alright, Captain, but I really need to talk to you after this,” Twilight replied, frowning. Nevertheless, she levitated the gear from my hands and attempted to wrap them around her legs. It took two seconds before they were hopelessly tangled. “These things are really hard to put on with levitation, you know.”

“Why?” I asked, backing away from the locker and the ponies by a few steps.

She sighed, removing the mess from her leg and starting over. “Lots of little bits to control and move around. Levitation is a lot easier if it’s just one or two objects, especially smaller ones.”

I sighed, glancing at the ground for a minute. “I’ll be right back if you still need help, but for now, just do what you can. And make sure you turn them on like I showed you.” She nodded, her tongue sticking out of the side of her mouth, and kept trying to fit it onto her leg. Biting my lower lip, I spun around and made my way to the opposite, far end of the armory, taking quick, decisive steps that retorted loudly against the metal floor.

Stopping at one of the lockers - my locker - I rolled my shoulders back and grunted. The locker opened at my, and only my, touch, because engraved on a small, unimpressive rectangle stamped to the front of it was Admiral Jackson Amber. I never bothered to have it changed, mostly because I hardly ever used the locker itself. I opened it and looked inside.

I had only opened it last month, before the Homebound left on its suicide mission, and before that, once five years before. How it had managed to survive the years, especially with Brown running the place, I’d never know.

A personalized helmet, which I used in place of the typical EPA suits’ or armored helmets, hung from the top shelf, a thin, wiry headset next to it. Below them was a formal uniform that wore a coat of dust and probably would for a long, long time. At the bottom was a gun, a holster, and a Valkyrie device; it was an officer’s pistol of my own design, heavy in class and close to my heart, and the other thing was something I’d taken to wearing on a bad day.

Most of the College, and quite a few members of the Wing itself had their own unique weapons to suit their own needs and fighting styles. Aaro had his overcharged pistol with explosive rounds. San had his personalized and heavily modified Raptor Fighter. Grezz had his fists. I just carried a big gun.

In the corner was a discarded rank pip. I ignored it and grabbed the pistol, holster, and VALK. The door slammed shut, nudged by my hand, and I slowly leaned forward until the tip of my forehead touched the locker door. Everything, besides the dull thumping of explosions and gunfire, and the strained sounds of annoyance from Twilight and her friends, was silent.

“I hate this, you know,” a heavily armored man said from the shadows. I recognized him instantly, but I didn’t move. “It’s stupid.”

“I know, Mercer,” I said. “I hate it too.”

“We could easily just bombarded them from orbit. Hell, we could just land a few squads in and take them out with those. Why didn’t we take it by force?”

“What?” I started, looking up.

A tall armored figure came out from the corner, armor clinking with each step. Even in the light, it felt like I was looking at a shadow. Mercer was as old and scarred as the non-Wing armor he wore, the golden diamond-and-wings painted haphazardly on the shoulder guard. The blue-skinned man snorted, towering over me. “Earth. We could have it by now. I... read the reports. Most of us did. Something as monumental as the Sol system will not be kept secret for long. All it would’ve taken was for you to simply claim it as ours, and it would be ours.”

“We do not want a repeat of Draxis Ferys, Commander,” I retorted, staring indifferently up at the soldier. “We are not murderers or conquerors. We are peacekeepers.”

“We are also delusional, apparently. The Wing is never at peace, just in smaller conflicts than others. If those so-called ambassadors of yours decide they don’t like us, we lose any chance we had at peacefully occupying Sol. It will be on your shoulders.”

“Quite frankly, I have enough on my shoulders as it is, so what’s one more thing?” I sighed, closing my eyes to gather my thoughts. “I... realize the political importance of Sol, Mercer. I know why we need Earth, but the fact is that conquering them through force is a last-resort. Peace must be attempted first, and it must be tried long and hard before any violent action is taken. These are a peaceful people and they will not want to fight us,” I hissed, pointing over to Twilight. The group chattered restlessly amongst themselves, only three of them sporting the leg-bound devices given to them. “And I will make sure we do not fight them, either.”

“I realize this, but they are not us. They are not as desperate as we are-”

“Desperate? We are not desperate,” I interrupted, jabbing my forefinger finger into his chestplate. “You are desperate! We will not betray innocents and allies just because somebody declared it necessary.”

“Have you not looked outside that door?” Mercer scolded, pointing in the direction of the exit. “An army is here, trapping us, killing us! Some time ago we could easily have fended this attack off, but look at us now. Do we not seem desperate? Are you going to deny the fact that we must fight? Why are you not out there fighting alongside our brothers instead of running away?”

“You don’t think I want to fight?” I hissed, my eyes wide. “I want to be down there so bad, fighting for what I swore to protect just as you did! But I have a job to do, so I’m going to do it. If you’re so bloodthirsty, then why are you here?”

“Doing my job,” he sighed. “Either way, we must fight. You of all people know this.”

“Then we will fight,” I shot back. “We’ll fight the people shooting at us, not the people needing our protection. I don’t care what we could gain, but we are not turning against them now. If we are ever pushed to fight them... if we really start losing that badly that our minds are clouded by fear, I’m going to fight tooth and nail to stop you.”

“I...” he sighed, backing up a step. “Very well. I do not wish to take Earth by force, but it is the only logical solution I can think of if this plan fails. Until then, we must fight the current battle and keep our promises. I have sworn an oath to protect them, and I shall do so until I can no longer.”

“Good, glad we’re-”

Jaaaccckksoon!” Twilight screamed from the other end of the armory. Leaving Mercer behind, I walked over to find her fuming over another tangled mess of a VALK. “These things are impossible for me to put on.”

“Why didn’t any of you help her, then?” I asked, folding my arms. The three guards from earlier, standing next to the door, shrugged in unison. “None of you, really? Gah. Where’s the ensigns?”

“Went for some privacy, I think. Teryn’s patching ‘er up.” One of them lazily waved in the direction of another door. My eye twitched.

“Jackson?” Twilight called.

“Coming, coming,” I hissed through clenched teeth, one hand zipping up to my nearly forgotten headset. I jogged over to the ponies, aiming for Rarity, one of the three ponies without their gear. Halfway there I fell into a kneeling position, sliding the rest of the way and nabbing the levitating VALK from the air. “Let’s get this over with. Aran, can you hear me?”

“Loud and clear, sir. Lilian’s almost good to go.”

“Right. You two, your job is to locate Roland and Dylan, and send them a message to get to the ship ASAP. Girls?” I asked, looking over the group while my hands did the rest of the work on Rarity’s leg. “Everypony okay? I need you girls listening, and you need to be ready for it.”

“As nice as you have been to us, dear Captain, I really am at loss for words, considering what’s happening,” Rarity said, balancing on three legs so I could do my work unhindered. “Ooh, this is all so horrible!

“Rarity, this ain’t the time for any drama,” Applejack said, moving beside me and frowning. “As for myself, Captain, I... well I have no idea what’s going on, but I’m with you if you need me.”

I nodded, putting the datapad on Rarity’s other leg, and grinned at Applejack. “Unless you count as a soldier over in Equestria, I’m afraid over here you’re all just civilians to us. Asking you to do anything but sit and watch or run and hide might make things more complicated than they have to be.” I paused, slowly wrapping the last strap on until it clicked into place, and then I let out a breath. Looking at Applejack with forlorn eyes, I shook my head solemnly. “I couldn’t ask you to fight on our behalf, either. We’re supposed to be protecting you, and showing you we’re worth the alliance, not making you soldiers.”

“New pair, Twilight?” I called. She levitated them over, dissipating her spell when I snatched them from the air. She looked down at the ground for a moment, before approaching me from Applejack’s side. I ignored her, putting the farm mare’s gear on and giving Twilight time to find the right words, for whatever she had to say.

“I’m - we all, actually - are going to need information after we leave, Captain. I don’t like any of this. But until then... I guess we’ll do anything you need us to. Right, girls?” She looked behind her to the rest of the motley group, the corners of her mouth gently tugging upwards. A breath caught in my throat at the chorus of affirmatives, and I quickly finished my job.

“Alright. The plan is pretty simple, really,” I said, moving on to Spike, who helpfully held his arms out to either side so I could wrap the backpack-like device around his small body. “With the VALKs on, you’re all capable of teleporting to certain areas. In this case, the Homebound. If Evo is already there, then you should be extra safe with him in case you need to fly out of there. Either way, I’m sending Lilian and Aran with you girls, but unless they walk out of there and give me good news, I’m staying behind.”

“Wait, what?” Spike suddenly asked, raising an eyebrow at me. “Weren’t you super big about sticking together?”

I ruffled the spines on his head, and gently pushed him in Twilight’s direction so I could turn to Fluttershy. “Yeah, I guess so, but I still need to find Dylan and Roland. And, well...” I sighed, looking directly at the ground to avoid their eyes. “I don’t want to leave my friends behind like this. They’ll probably be fine without me, but I still need to help them.”

“T-that’s very brave of you, Jackson,” Fluttershy mumbled, lifting up one hoof so I could slip the device over it.

“Bravery is only possible when you’re scared in the first place,” I said, chuckling dryly. I carefully wrapped the straps around her other leg, and looked her in the eyes. “This is my job. You girls are the ones that need to be brave, okay?”

“Um, okay. Thank you,” she whispered, backing up when I finished. I laid one arm on my knee, quickly surveying the ponies. All of them except for Pinkie Pie had their VALK and datapad on..

I walked over to her, snatching the awaiting VALK from the air. Moving to put it on, I knelt down in front of her. “I have absolutely no idea what to say to you, though. You’ve been pretty quiet this whole time. Anything wrong?”

“Oh, psssh, I talk all the time and you act annoyed, but as soon as I stop you start to get concerned?” Pinkie laughed, hopping over to wrap her other foreleg around me while, somehow managing to keep her other foreleg where it was just so I could finish putting the VALK on. “Make up your mind already, Cappy! Sure, ponies are fighting out there, and even I know it’s time to get our serious-faces on, but I’m definitely still me!” She paused, holding a hoof to her face. “Or am I? What if I’ve actually been a changeling this whole time? Gasp! What if we’re all changelings!?”

This time, I actually laughed, and the others joined in as well. “Well alright. Now about that plan, girls. Since I’m not walking you through a battlefield, you’ll all just have to use your VALKs to get there. Have any of you ever teleported before?”

“Yes,” they all replied in unison. I choked on the explanation I had prepared, my eyes widening.

“They’ve all helped me practice my spells at some point or another,” Twilight quickly explained, smiling innocently. “But yeah, we should all know what teleporting feels like; me more than anypony else. But I think it might be best to warn us anyways. There are lots of different kinds of teleporting. For instance, Blinking-”

“While I’m sure it’s all very fascinating, Miss Sparkle, we don’t have five hours to spare,” I interrupted, holding up one hand. “But basically, teleporting with a VALK can make you extremely dizzy and nauseous, especially for beginners. We don’t have any bags on hand, so I’m just going to ask you to please not throw up in my ship. Does everypony, and you too, Spike, understand that one simple rule?”

“You seem to have a lot of simple rules,” Rainbow quipped, hovering over to me and crossing her VALK-laden forelegs. “But I think we can all manage. Celestia knows we’re used to crazy-insane stuff happening by now.”

I snorted. “Well, now that you’re in space, it’s likely to get a whole lot weirder for the lot of us,” I said, two more chuckles forcing themselves out of my throat before I could reach up to my headset. “Lilian, Aran, what’s your status?”

“Right behind you,” a voice echoed through my earpiece and the armory. I turned around to see the two ensigns slowly making their way out of a small side door. Aran smirked, patting her comrade on the back. “She’s tough, and she’ll be fine just as long as she doesn’t strain herself too much until we can get her some real medical aid.”

“I can still operate turret controls, and that’s what I plan on doing,” Lilian said, grinning ear-to-ear and rubbing the blackened, charred side of her uniform with her opposite hand.

“Well if you two have the time, I need you to calibrate the girls’ VALKs so they’ll end up at the Homebound. Lilian, that means communicating with Evo to get the coordinates for them. Are you in contact with him?”

“He messaged me over the datapad stream with that information a while ago, like I told you. The ship’s safe and he’s holding his own out in the shipyards, waiting,” she replied, the smile wiped off her face in an instant. “Sir, we got a lot of reports about soldiers in the Towers, and it’s been confirmed they’re making their way through this one from the top-down.”

“And we happen to be near the top. Yes, I get it, and no I haven’t been listening,” I retorted, sighing inwardly. The reason I hadn’t turned on my headset was obvious. Nobody wanted to listen to their friends getting massacred while they ran in the opposite direction. “Just hurry up and do it, then. I’m going to find Roland and Dylan, and unless I order you to do anything otherwise, I want you waiting at the ship for us.”

The engineer nodded, giving a quick salute and kneeling down next to Rarity, who happened to be the closest pony to the engineer. Fingers worked like a whirlwind on the bulky rectangular screen. I turned around, walking closer to the door and the three guards, and fiddled with the side of my headset.

“Aaro, you there?”

“Jack- Ah! Where the hell are you?” came the hazy reply, gunshots in the hundreds screaming in the background.

“No time for small talk, man. Where’s Roland and Dylan?” I asked, leaning into the door. I could hear the bursts of explosions from his end matching the faint ones outside the armory walls. The gunfire must’ve been thick as rain down there.

“Who?”

“My ensigns, Aaro, where are they? They were down there with you, last I checked. Send them up to the armory.”

“Those two? They’re down here fight- Did you just say armory?” he replied, an uncharacteristic dread filling his voice.

I swallowed, grasping for the words. “Yes, yes I did. That’s where we all are.”

“No. No no no. Get out right now, Jackson. There’s a group on that floor and- incoming, get down!” he screamed, his voice suddenly obscured by a static-filled explosion. Wherever he was, he’d been VALKed out.

That wasn’t what I was listening to, though; I was honed in on the footsteps I could clearly hear outside, tromping down the hallway en masse. I couldn’t pick out an individual pair there were so many.

“Hostiles!” I shouted, the three guards instantly raising their bulky rifles to their shoulders and taking aim. Stepping back from the door, I latched onto my pistol and tore it from its holster. “Hold here! Lilian, get those sodding coordinates in! We’ll hold them off!”

“Jackson, what’s going on?” Twilight called from the collection of ponies. They were angled behind the lockers, so I couldn’t see them, and they couldn’t see me. Good, because I didn’t want them seeing what was about to happen.

Something behind the door made an obnoxious beeping noise.

“Fire at will!” I exclaimed to nobody in particular. Taking a deep breath, I raised the pistol with my right arm.

The door exploded.