• Published 2nd May 2012
  • 5,107 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.

  • ...
15
 250
 5,107

(23) Bullets and Blades - Part Two

-Ophelius, Gantoris, Orion System.
-Official recorded beginning of the Octavian Conquest War.
-Gantoris Towers Main Armory.
-
-
-
-
-
-
-

Dance like water, hit like a boulder. This paraphrasing of my chosen and practiced style rarely has failed me.

The first soldier stomped through the doorway, his beetle-shell, insectoid battle-armor slicing through the smoke like a demon straight from the darkest depths of your imagination, where even you don’t dare to visit. He raised a jagged gun coated in the same reflective black as his armor and surely created to look as menacing as possible; made so that when someone saw it, they knew they were going to die. I shot first.

Half of my arm jerked backward from the impressive recoil, time slowing as foul-smelling smoke spilled out from the gun’s vent and into the air. The plasma-coated, miniscule projectile would have not only piercing effects on my enemy’s armor, but it would charr and burn on the way through his skull. He was lucky to be wearing a VALK, because otherwise his brains would be cooked medium-well and splattered against the helmets of his buddies.

Unfortunately, he did have a VALK, but no shields. The shot went straight through where his skull would’ve been half a nanosecond earlier and was absorbed into the shields of the soldier behind him. Left behind was a puff of dust and errant energy in his vague form, collapsing in on itself a moment later. It all happened in the span of a second.

I got my next two shots off, and this time I was joined by a chorus of similar retorts. There was nothing special about shooting poor fools going through a door in single file. The problem was that they knew what they were doing, and they were getting shot on purpose. I got my answer moments later, when in the heat of things, I hadn’t noticed how hot my gun had become. Auto-triggering the safety, like it was programmed to, the weapon suddenly became useless in my hands until the excess heat had vented. Enough pressure, and I’d fired off too many shots too quickly.

The simultaneous hiss of three more vent systems got my attention, and I realized how much trouble we were in. I was unarmed, and they knew it.

I walked forward, and the next one to rush into the room - gun drawn and teeth snarling - got a face full of the burning hot end of my pistol. I calmly kept the hot metal pressed against his face, and more of the black-clad soldiers stepped in the room to support him with the best of their capabilities. He wasn’t reassured, and screamed anyways. They shot him in the back, leaving me plenty of opportunity to grapple with another who had strayed too close.

Using up what strength I could muster, I yanked his gun aside and pulled him close, spinning him sideways so his shields caught the volleys of deadly green spikes meant for me. This one, also without a helmet, breathed heavily from behind his respirator mask and stared at me with dull, shining grey eyes.

Him and his ilk all bore the hated characteristics of their race, which could be summed up as describing them as having green, barbed skin, and everything else looking far too much like a regular human variant to be comfortable.

I cracked the pistol’s grip against his face, part of me grinning at the satisfying crunch. Another shot from my gun went into the growing crowd, zipping through two VALK shadows before it impacted a shield. Ten soldiers had made it into the room, including the unconscious one. Three fell to timely shots, and I turned to see the other Tower guards calmly staring down the hologram sights of their weaponry.

Snarling, two of the soldiers nearest to me reached behind their armor, pulling out a sword made in the same style as their weaponry: black, green, and designed specifically to let the galaxy know it was something to be feared when seen. Metallic clicks signalled the guns sealing into their armor, and they each took a careful step toward me, thick blades at the ready.

I considered shooting them. It would be easy, after all. They were stupid enough to try and beat me in combat I was unprepared for, but they were also smart enough to recognize my advantageous position and call upon an almost sacred code of honor on the battlefield: If a man draws a blade, fight him with one.

Sound faded into the background, and I sucked in a deep breath of clinically cold air. Sweat and the stench of ejected steam floated around the room, and I stared my targets down with narrowed eyes. They moved first.

At the last second before we collided I bent my knees and skidded under the pointed end of a sword aimed for my throat. The moment his arm passed over me, my right arm jerked up and cracked the butt of the pistol into his face, made worse by the still-overheated pistol pressed against it. He screamed in agony, stuttering to a stop a few feet away.

Another sword came for my chest, swung in a long arc. I spun to meet it, the pistol flipping carefully in my hand until the top side of it came in contact with the blade’s edge. An ear-splitting clang filled my skull. He stared dumbfounded at the carefully-position pistol blocking what should have been a lethal blow from a blade designed to cut through steel.

I grinned, and rattled off, “It’s my gun. I made it out of the same stuff we armor our ships with.” Blinking stupidly, he looked between me, the deadlock, and then my fist approaching his face at dangerously high speeds.

Soldier number two had a loving first date with the floor, just in time for me to narrowly dodge a swing from number one. He howled in rage, swinging wildly. A third soldier approached, sword in hand, only to vanish from an awry attack. Each time he swung, I dodged, until my back hit the wall and the smile fell off my face.

“Stay still!” he barked in rage, cringing at the movement of his burned face. He stabbed uselessly at the point where I had been on the wall, sliding by with the skin of my boots barely intact. I wrapped the crook of my elbow around his face and leapt, forcing us both to the ground. Projectiles slammed into the ground around us, but I rolled to the side. The heat from the shots coated my back, and I barely had time to even think about standing when a boot slammed into my chest.

I cried out, skidding across the floor and rolling to a stop a foot away. Blue beams crossed above me, and the Tower Guards lit the offender up. I stood up in the midst of his VALK shadow, the particles swirling in agitation as I walked through them. Five more had entered the room, and two were keeping by the blast door for cover, taking potshots at the guards hiding on either side of the locker.

I casually swung out of the way of an incoming armored fist. My own fist supplanted his ugly face, which was an improvement on his looks as far as I was concerned. Sliding my fingers under his breathing filter as he reeled back, I tore it from his face and walked on. Guttural screams filled the hallway behind me as the other two rushed forward. Walls and other sights faded away. There were only my enemies, and my self.

The closest one became nothing but a shadow and the fizzling remains of a plasma-coated bullet trail. Left alone and only holding a rifle, the other swung at me with the butt of his gun. I wasn’t fast enough, and the hard metal impacted into my face. The crack wasn’t so much a sound as it was a state of being that rocked up and down my body and sent me stumbling backwards.

My vision came back to me just in time to let me dodge the second swing of the gun, this time accompanied by a slick grey bayonet that mechanically slid into place. It whistled past me once, then twice, and each time I ducked. The third time he connected, but not with the bayonet. With the gun sitting stupidly at my side, I latched my arm around it and wrenched it free from the soldier’s grasp. Part of an enraged scream poured through his lips before I shot him.

More were coming into the room. I couldn’t count them, but I could still fight them. Three more ran at me, guns at the ready. I shot them, and then I shot two more. The room was getting full and it felt like there was something pressing on in my brain from all sides. I never once thought it, but I knew something was wrong; it was just hard to figure out what kind of something it was, since the room was filled to the brim with wrongness.

I launched into a grapple with another soldier, holding his sword at bay while he tried to point my pistol in any direction other than his face. From the corner of my eye, I could tell that the guards were going to be overrun any minute if I didn’t start pulling my weight in the fight. Someone screamed, and then I saw him.

He stood inside the destroyed blast door, taking up the space like a whale. What little armor he did wear was only covering the vulnerable areas on his body, and was as pitch black as the shell-like armor that made up the rest of his skin, if you could call it that. Scorch marks and ancient scars permeated the outside of the living tank, and I recognized them all; I’d caused a lot of them.

Intelligent, rage-filled black eyes glared at me from inside the plated, angular head protection that had earned the race their nickname, “wedgeheads”. I could hear what he said through the cacophony of shots and screams, and I could taste every drop of malice and hatred he dumped into the last word. It was palpable disgust.

“If it ain’t the ‘ero.”

It distracted me just long enough for an armored fist to jab me in the stomach. I lurched forward, and the soldier laid one powerful punch into my bandaged arm. My officer’s pistol clattered to the ground somewhere, and I caught a glimpse of it moments before another punch hit me in the gut. I swung my arm in a long arc, smashing into the soldier’s helmeted faceplate and sending him spiraling to the ground in a mist of broken glass. Fist throbbing and tucked under my other arm, I desperately dodged out of the way of another soldier, eyes glued to the ground where I thought my pistol was. I saw it, limped forward to grab it, and bumped into a wall that shouldn’t have been there.

The orglockian’s black eyes stared into mine, and a sinister grin crossed his face. Molten words dribbled from his lips. “‘Allo there, ‘ero.”

Don’t ever get punched into a wall by a living tank, if you can help it. It does nothing good for you and will probably smash your spine if it isn’t enhanced. I could feel two of my ribs crack anyways, and searing pain rushed into my chest. Nevertheless, I felt obligated to squeak out a, “hello to you too.”

The guard next to me didn’t help me up, but he still looked surprised at my state and stared for a moment. His reward was a shot in the arm, and all I saw was his surprised expression before another shot went through where his head should’ve been. I limped forward as fast as I could, away from the battle, and shouted in a hoarse voice, “Aran!”

Bright orange teryn eyes came into view, followed by the dinner-plate pony eyes. I tried to say something, but only my mouth moved for a few seconds, as if my voice was lagging behind. “We need to get them out of here. Do they all have the coordinates...?”

“Not all of them. We’ve still got Rainbow, Twilight, and Applejack to do. Lilian’s working on Fluttershy right now,” the ensign said, eyes suddenly drawn to something behind me. Twilight and Rarity looked like they were about to say something, but Aran’s hand zipped forward, sending an oddly shaped cylinder in my direction before they could say anything. They didn’t need to.

I caught the device and pressed the singular, unobtrusive button on one side. My body swung round, arm outstretched. Gentle metallic sounds cut through the air, and where there was air, there was now blade. The soldier had no time to react before I cut between his head and neck.

His VALK, however, did. The portable katana stuck into a locker’s metal side, a clear line removed from the wafting dust shadow. I breathed heavily, and flinched from the pain. “I’ll hold them off as long as I can,” I said, using both hands to tear the sword free.

“There’s got to be twenty of them back there, and we’ve only got you and those three guards. You won’t last a minute, and I need more than that,” Lilian called, viciously inputting numbers into Fluttershy’s datapad. The pegasus shivered uncontrollably, and looked over at me.

“You’ll be okay, right, Jackson?” asked Fluttershy.

“Probably,” I said, shrugging. “I do this for a living, and sometimes as a hobby.”

“Oh,” she whispered, looking down. “Alright.”

“Any other questions, queries?” I said, one ear tilted to the sound of approaching footsteps. Lots of them. “I’m sort’a cramped for time.” I turned around just in time to see another guard get pummeled into the wall, and swarmed by a flurry of punches from the orglockian. Eventually his fist passed through the VALK shadow and slammed into the wall, and then he turned to me.

“Jackson?” Twilight asked. I turned to face her.

“Yeah?” I asked.

She glanced at the ground for a moment, a worried look filling her expression. When her eyes met mine again, they looked different. Full of something I didn’t expect. Admiration. “Thank you.”

“Uh, sure, Miss Sparkle. Like I said, this is my job,” I muttered in answer, drawing my sword into a ready stance. Two black-clad soldiers had made their way down the row of lockers, and I could hear more coming. The armory was filled with their echoing footsteps clacking against the metal ground, and the sulfuric smell of vented plasma permeated the air. Sulfur was better than death, in my opinion.

I took a few steps forward, blocking the girls off from my view, and glowered at the charging soldiers with the katana at the ready. They lunged, their broad swords gleaming in the mechanical light, and screamed.

“Real scary,” I grunted mid-swing, shoving the first sword away and plunging mine into where the man’s chest would be. I was prepared for that, and I slid through the shadow and out the other side. The particles burst outward like a balloon popping in slow-motion, the tip of my blade paving the way.

I brought my sword up to block the strike I knew would come, and metal rang against metal. Flinching from the surge of agony in my chest, I pushed out of the lock, spun in the blink of an eye, and cut diagonally into what should’ve been a soldier. I took a deep, agonizing breath, and heard Aran cry out.

Then I remembered there were two lanes. The other guard had obviously gone down. Boots barely touching the floor, I ran back to see the first soldier pop out from the other side, his gun pointed directly into the grouped up ponies. Aran grabbed for her sidearm, but it was too late.

I charged, spanning the meters in what felt like seconds. My blade plunged into the gun, sending the shots wide and a chunk of it flying. Scorched holes peppered the opposite wall, right next to Aran. Growling venomously, I shook the destroyed rifle off of my sword and plunged it through the soldier’s chest in one swift motion.

He disappeared in less than a blink of the eye, and the tip of my weapon collided against whatever was behind him with a dull thicking noise. The sapient wall’s bulky fingers wrapped around the metal blade stuck in its armor like a insignificant needle, and then he chuckled. “Got me,” the orglockian said, crushing the metal in his grip.

“Bugger,” I managed to croak out before it punched me in the face.

“Ya ‘onestly thought you could escape, didjanow?” I vaguely heard him say from my uncomfortable position on the ground.

“Jackson!” Twilight screamed. I could hear Rainbow flap her wings.

“Oi, no. Bad ‘orsey. If any of ya move ‘n inch, yer all dead,” the orglockian barked. “S’right. Back on the ground with ya.” A giant hand gripped the back of my jacket and hoisted me up. Colors swam in front of my vision, and if there was anything pressing in on my mind before, it was crushing it now.

“You won’t touch them,” I rasped out, eyes barely focusing on the ugly face in front of me. A moment later I figured out it was a locker.

“Me sword’ll do all the touching for me, really.” The hand let me go, and I wobbled on my legs just long enough for a fist to lay into my stomach. Gasping, I sunk to my knees. Warbling shapes entered and danced in my eyes. Soldiers had surrounded us.

“Was a pretty short fight, really. You not sick, are ya, Jackson?”

“Something like that,” I hissed, eyes clenched shut as another wave of molten pain cascaded down upon me.

“Ah. Shame. You’re much more fun to fight on even ground.”

“If you wait a week or two we can redo all of this, if you’d like. I’ll be better by then.”

He chuckled, and turned to look at the ponies with one hand on my shoulder. “Nah. We’ve got you all now, so there isn’t really any point in dragging it out. I ‘preciate your concern, though.”

“No problem.”

He shoved back on my shoulder, slamming my head against the locker. The girls had tucked themselves in a tight circle - so tight that it was impossible to tell if any one of them was in the center, or if they were all just piled on top of one another. Each one looked around them with terror sitting in their eyes like ice.

Aran and Lilian stood on either side of the circle, arms clenched into fists. The orglockian grabbed Aran by her slender neck, and yanked her forward. “Never did like you ‘ousecats. We’ll do you first. S’been a long time since I’ve got me ‘ands on one of you.”

“Let her go,” I barked weakly, taking another shuddering, painful breath. “You and I know full well you’re here for me.”

A dull thud marked the teryn’s body dropping to the floor, followed by her gasps for air. The soldier turned toward me, grinning sadistically. “Actually this’s probably the first time you’re dead wrong on that, Admiral Amber. Raise ‘m up, boys,” he chuckled, striding toward me. Two of the other soldiers jumped into the clearing, grabbing both of my arms and yanking me upright. They balanced me against the lockers, and one of the door handles dug into my back.

“It’s Captain Amber now, and you’re here for me. There’s no other possible reason.”

“Ya assume things far too often, Captain. So, er, ya into the ‘ousecats now? Or ya just want me to punch ya instead of it?”

“I’d prefer you keep your ugly face away from all of them, actually,” I grunted, struggling weakly against my captives. I briefly met Twilight’s horrified eye, but I tore my gaze away before she could get attached. If I couldn’t see them, they couldn’t see me.

I didn’t want them to see what I knew was coming next.

“Right, see,” the pile of armor muttered, “it’ll be fair, then. One for each. This one’s for the teryn.” His arm reeled back, and then barreled into my stomach at the speed of light.

Twilight screamed and Rainbow yelled and Fluttershy cried and Aran shouted and Lilian was hit and they pointed guns and the lights flashed then the darkness laughed and the demons danced at my eyes which looked to the stars and wished for something better but the world burned and the people screamed and I wanted to fly and the sun came down and lifted me up to the stars where the gods made me them and we drank and danced and sang and protected our people who cried out in the flames that burned and etched across my vision each passing moment and everyday that I stayed and fought and died and loved and lost and I hated the worlds that burned and the gods said it was good and hunted me and killed me and I killed them and they fought and I returned to save them so we could drink and dance and sing once more but the blood spilled from my mouth and the blackness laughed.

He pulled his fist back. I heaved, trying to push any amount of air through to my throbbing lungs.

“Take ‘em out into the hallway, but you two stay with me. Amber’s got quite a few crimes to answer to.”

I tried to say something incredibly inappropriate and vulgar, but all that came out was a gurgle and a few drops of blood.

“Shut up, you. This one’s for assuming we were here for you, you arrogant-”

He hit my chest and the world exploded.

~=V=~

-CODE ENCRYPTING 23-5 1-18-5
-CHANCE OF SUCCESS LOW 1-12-12 4-21-19-20
-ENCRYPTION UNSUCCESSFUL 23-5 1-18-5
-
-MANUAL CODE REQUIRED 1-12-12 1-19-8

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

“I can see that just... hf-... fine, Sorlor. It’s not beloved, anyhow.”

“Yes, yes. I can tell. You are, after all, the one burning it.”

“I didn’t give that order... Falceon did. You, however, are the one that caused it. Again: why haven’t you killed me?”

“Simple question, complex answer, little hero. It’s not just the challenge. I want to keep you here, and I want you to be kept alive for a long, long time.”

“Oh? Go on.”

“We’re a lot alike, you and I. We’re both ruthless pieces of scum that will do anything and kill anyone to make sure we stay on top. Isn’t that right?”

“Sounds.... How-”

“Did I know about it? Your bridges have windows, you know. It isn’t too hard to see you shot one of your own crew. Now shut up and let me finish, m’kay? We’re a lot alike, but we’ve got two differences. One of them is that you abide by strict rules and moral code, and I don’t, but we both do the same evil things. So while I get off scott free, you’re the one that needs to answer for your crimes.”

“And?”

“And that’s why I’m going to make you watch the worlds you swore to protect, burn.”

~=V=~

“Jackson?” an angel asked.

“Yes, what is it?” I replied, only it came out as an elongated groan. Somebody beside me shifted.

“He’s awake!” another exclaimed.

Something touched my chest and stabbed into me. “Sorry, Amber,” God said.

I opened my eyes just in time to see one of the charred soldiers smack Aran’s hand away, the medical shot of Bio-Mend and stimulants chucked across the floor.

“Which idiot searched her?” he barked back to the other waiting troops. They shifted, but none volunteered an answer.

“It’s perfectly fine. Good work, Admiral, on getting them all alive and well. You even managed to not kill the Hero,” a muffled voice said, malice, hatred, and disgust dripping from his tone.

I gasped for air, the world still swirling into focus. Somebody moved me up on my knees.

“An easy task, Fleet Marshal sir. The Hero and I had a jolly ‘ol moment ‘ta catch up on old times.”

“Is that so?” My eyes focused suddenly, and unfortunately, on a lightly armored man standing in front of me. On my knees, barely capable of thought, I had to look up to see the rest of him. A dark mask covered all of his face, and it was topped off by what he probably thought was a fashionable navy cap. A cape sat on his shoulders and flowed down to the floor like a waterfall of blood. “Was it really jolly, Hero?”

“Go jump off a building,” I spat. I could feel his grin emanated from behind the black glass.

“Maybe later. Anyways, allow me to introduce myself. I am the Octavian Fleet Marshal B’wor King, and you are all our prisoners-of-war. For now, however, we are merely awaiting an extraction team. I’ll let you say some last words to your friends before that happens. Pilot, what is the ETA?”

“Five minutes, sir. Depends on them fighters outside.”

“Make sure it gets here. N- don’t touch that! Here, let me go do it,” he snarled, stomping off through a group of soldiers that parted before him like cowardly butter to a knife.

I shuffled around, the pain in my chest nearly unbearable. Our entire group, or what was left of it, had either been forced to their butts or knees in the hallway outside of the armory. Below us, and then below the pitch smoke, I could see glowing blue lines trace across the courtyard battlefield. For every blue or red line, there were three of the green.

Twilight and the girls sat in a group, half-huddled up to each other and all too terrified to speak. Aran was closest to me, with Lilian behind her. They all looked at me.

“I’m sorry,” I whispered, finding no reason to say anything else. There was nothing I could say that would matter, now.

“Jackson...” Twilight said, taking one look at the mass of guards behind me and gulping. “It wasn’t your fault. Nopony in the universe could’ve predicted this. But what they did to you-”

“Doesn’t mean it’s not my fault,” I interrupted, holding a hand up to wave her off. “I should’ve ordered you all to VALK out as soon as things started going south. They automatically lock on to the nearest friendly VALK frequency, so... I...” I trailed off, taking a rasping breath. Something felt like it was crawling throughout my chest; the Bio-Mend was doing its job, but it didn’t make it any less a disturbing feeling.

“Jackson, what they did to y-you,” Twilight blubbered. If her voice had been shaky before, it was suffering a massive earthquake now. “It was so horrible.”

“He just hit you over and over,” Rainbow muttered from her spot on the ground, sniffling into one of her forelegs. “You couldn’t even say anything.”

I traced my eyes over the rest of the ponies, and the two soldiers I had left. Something sparked. “Look,” I commanded through my ragged breaths, “whatever you saw, ignore it for right now, because I’m going to get you out of this soon. I’m going to be fine, and you’re going to be fine. That’s what’s going to happen.”

“And ya wanna know just how fine yer gonna be?” the orglockian growled from behind me. I swiveled to look at him.

“Right as rain, you ugly behemoth.” I smirked.

Evidently it was the wrong answer, the hard slap I received told me. I grinned inwardly, knowing full well that for his species, it was a light tap. “You stupid horse things wanna know ‘ow fine it’ll be? Take a looksie,” he said, turning me around and pushing my head forward. He grabbed onto the mess of what was once my finely gelled-back hair and pulled it away from my forehead.

“Ya see the scars there, eh? Well they aren’t scars, unfortunately. That’s what we call a Hero’s Brand. Cause, ya see, we don’t kill ‘eroes, we just let ‘em know they failed. No point in making martyrs, heh.” He shoved my head downward further, and closer to the ponies. “But this one! Hahaha, this one ‘ere’s special. It says The Hero. It’s only been given once. To this fine chap right here!”

“Oh Celestia,” Twilight whimpered. “None of us-”

“He didn’t tell you how ‘e got it, did ‘e? He got it because e’s a coward.”

“Don’t go and try tah make him feel guilty,” Applejack said, getting to her hooves. The soldiers near here shuffled uncomfortably, hands tightening around their guns. “He told Twi’ and RD, and they told us.”

“Indeed! Jackson is a good man. Not perfect, but good. I know he trusts us, and he certainly is no coward,” Rarity said, standing beside Applejack and looking defiantly at the orglockian. “Who may I ask are you, to say these things about him?”

A low, rumbling chuckle seeped out from the alien’s faceplate, his eyes closed tightly. He brought his hand back - making me flinch instinctively - and brought out an ancient, thick broadsword. The rectangular blade, colored blood red alien markings, was as wide as two of my arms put side-by-side, and instead of ending in a tip, ended in a flat edge. It was as if the designer had started out with a sword and mid-way through decided to make it a war hammer.

He slammed it into the glass in front of me, and leaned on it with what was a cheerful smile to him, and a malicious sneer to everyone else. I looked at the blade from the hilt down, taking in the ancient text coating the side. It ended at the glass, a spiderweb of thin cracks threading out from where it hit. I looked back up, repressing a grin.

“Fleet Admiral Sorlor. Pleasure t’meetcha,” he said, staring at Twilight.

She recoiled as if he’d punched her. The others followed her lead. “S-sorlor? The Sorlor?”

‘ero here tell you all about me, then?”

“A bit,” she said, gulping. “Enough. I thought you were an emperor, though.”

“Was, and I have the right to claim the title of Orglockian Emperor anytime I wish,” he spat, standing back up.

I snorted. “Except that you’d be an emperor without an army or land. The real Empire is just fine with you gone, and last we saw, you were desperately trying to get a foothold with whatever was left of your old army, trying to seize power under the title of emperor. Got demoted, did we?”

“Well last I saw, you were an Advanced Admiral, leading the forces of the Wing to glory or justice or whatever you call it. Peace Through Power, right?” he chuckled aimlessly, waving his hand through the air. “I couldn’t care less. Time changes some things, right?”

Quirking an eyebrow, I hazarded a glance into his eyes. “You also sound stupid, but I guess that’s just the translator ring’s fault.”

He blinked, taken aback. “The what? Whaddya mean-...” he trailed off, gripping the sword’s hilt tightly and looking off into the distance. “A’right, got it, sir. I’ll be right there,” he said, nodding down to me. “Ya stay put, got it?”

“Go eat a flechette grenade,” I snarled, my statement awarded with another slap to the face. He stomped off.

“What a jerk,” Rainbow Dash said, now sitting on her flank and glaring at the departing soldier. “And you guys knew each other once?”

“Unfortunately, we did.” I said, sitting down on my legs and sighing. “Never in the friendly sense, of course, but it should say a lot about him that neither of us have ever managed to destroy the other. I really don’t want to know what he’s planning if he’s in with E, though. Are you girls still okay?”

“Well they sure didn’t hit any of us, if that’s what you’re asking, but those meanies scared poor Fluttershy! Look, she even cried!” Pinkie exclaimed, moving over to hug the catatonic pegasus. “They wouldn’t even let me hug her until now!”

“You weren’t out for very long, Jackson,” Rarity explained. “They forced us all out here before that, while that brute....” She closed her eyes, facing the glass floor. “I don’t even want to think about it.”

“You don’t have to. You’ll all be fine. I have a plan,” I whispered, glancing sideways at one of the soldiers posted at what remained of the armory door. I couldn’t see past his faceplate. I turned my gaze toward Lilian, who had so far been silent. “Sort of. How far did you get on those VALKs, Lilian?”

“All but Rainbow Dash, Applejack, and Twilight,” she replied instantly, still staring at the floor. “Aran and I also have the coordinates plugged in. Unless you did yours on your own, you don’t.”

“Alright. Were they disabled?”

“I don’t think so. Must’ve slipped their minds,” she muttered. I mentally slapped myself as the nearest soldier perked up, and stepped forward toward me. This one didn’t have a full faceplate, and I could see the sickly green, barbed skin face from behind the breather.

I glared laser beams at him. “I’m Jackson Amber. Don’t even think what you’re about to do isn’t a mistake. I’ve bombed planets for less. Whine to your superior when they get back.”

He stopped, the cylinders in his brain firing at top speed, and looked between the ponies and I. Eventually, he took a few steps back, and stayed still.

Looking back to the girls, I sighed. “Alright then. What’s about to happen is going to be pretty scary, but I promise you, it’ll be fine. Just make sure to hold your breath when I tell you to.”

“Aye aye, captain!” Spike said, saluting. Pinkie followed suit. He lowered his arm, suddenly looking confused. “Er, what exactly is the plan, again?”

“It’s a surprise. Anyways, all your VALKs and whatnot are turned on?” I asked, hastily looking over the group. I could hear the steady thumping footsteps of two people approaching down the hallway.

I received a chorus of nods and silent yes’s, but my heart stopped. Rainbow was still frantically inspecting hers. “Uh,” she muttered after a moment. “Is the light not supposed to be on? Because my screen thingy is totally black.”

“What?” I hissed, groaning in frustration. “Alright, Aran, can you please help her? She-” I stopped myself cold, shuffling on my knees to witness B’wor and Sorlor emerge from the line of soldiers down the hall. They strode with purpose, and I was probably the only person who knew what it was. They always did this. Every single time.

“Well, Jackson,” B’wor said in a smug voice, puffing his chest out. “We have-”

“Did you know that the primanzoa wolf, one of the rarest species of giant wolf in the galaxy, has actually been known to be led by queens instead of alpha male pack leaders?” I took a breath, tilting my head. “Oh, er, wait, am I interrupting? I just thought it was an interesting fact.” I grinned innocently at their surprised stances. They looked at each other, wordless anger burning. I risked a glance over to the door, where I saw exactly what I was hoping for. “Please, continue gloating.”

“I am not gloating,” he huffed. “I am merely informing you, of your inevitable demise, in an honorable fashion. Surely you understand the difference.”

“Oh, well when you put it like that it makes loads more sense,” I replied. Far too much effort was put into forcing my eyes not to roll.

“Thank you. Now, as I was saying: soon you will be-”

“Did you know you’re ugly by not just my species’ standards, but your own?” I said, a wicked grin spreading across my face. This was the part where my heart started beating faster and faster. It threatened to shake my entire body, and the adrenaline was getting ready to course through my body at top speed. My arm tensed.

The look on B’wor’s face would have been priceless, if I could’ve seen it. He recoiled as if I’d punched him. Shock quickly turned into rage, and he strode forward. “How dare you speak to your greater that way. I am a thousand times better, in every single possible way imaginable, than you.”

“Well, there is one difference,” I said, unflinching. “Two, actually. Firstly, I’m not as quick to anger. Secondly, you can’t even count.”

“What?” he asked.

On cue, two armored figures strode out of the armory doorway, the guard posted there long gone. They leveled their weapons, and the taller one grinned. “Sorry I’m late. I wanted a shotgun,” Mercer said, tossing something at me. My hands zipped up to catch it, and my officer’s pistol fell into my grip as if by magnetism.

Fire!” B’wor screeched, yanking at the sword around his belt. Several things happened at once.

Mercer poured two batteries worth of D-Tech laser weaponry into Sorlor’s face. The last Tower guard fired wildly above our heads into the soldiers guarding us. I grinned sadistically.

“That’s exactly what I was thinking!” I said to B’wor, who looked at where I was aiming with the blank expression his visor forced him into. I would’ve paid a thousand tungsten coins to see his expression. “Everybody close your eyes!”

I fired once with an echoing retort and flash of plasma, and suddenly a grand array of spider-webbing cracks and crevices appeared underneath us. I pulled the trigger again, smiling. B’wor scrambled to cross the few meters to safety, cape billowing out behind him. Lasers flew overhead. Rarity screamed.

Where there had been solid ground underneath me, there was now open air. Miniscule glass bits plastered against my face and swirled in my weightless hair. The previously muffled sounds of battle suddenly blared: rockets exploded, plasma seared the ground, and soldiers shouted below.

The reasons for calling it “below” were disappearing by the meter. I squinted my eyes into the dreadful fire below, and it turned and grinned.

“Jackson!” Twilight screamed, barreling into me. I caught hold of her, the momentum carrying us in a circle. Spike was glued to her back, wrapping his arms around her side and clenching his eyes shut. The unicorn peeked out at me, the glass having dissipated for the most part. “We’re falling!”

“You think?” I yelled through an explosion far away. “Listen, keep your mouth shut, alright? I don’t want you swallowing any glass.” One hand holding onto her shoulder, I swung us in a circle and reached for Spike. “Listen, kid, let go right now! You can’t be holding onto her when you’re about to hit the ground.”

“We’re going to hit the ground?!” he screamed, hugging tighter.

“No! It’s complicated, but just trust me. I’ve kept you guys safe so far, right?”

“Yes! No? I think?” He opened his eyes a crack, looking from me to Twilight and then the fast-approaching billowing smoke that marked the ground. Cringing, he slowly let go and floated a few inches away.

I gave him the thumbs up. “I need to go make sure Dash has her VALK on. It’s just one button push, and we’ve got... twenty or so seconds. Plenty of time.” Spinning around, I took note of where the other ponies were. Manes billowing out behind them, the initial drop hadn’t done them any good, but at least I couldn’t see any enemy soldiers mingling with them. Farther down, I could see Aran and Lilian, pointed like pencils and racing toward the bottom. Applejack was closest, and I spread my arms to navigate past her.

“Ah hope you know I’m sick and tired of fall’n, Jackson,” she called when I zoomed past, one hoof holding her hat in place. I rolled over to look her in the eye.

“You girls do it often?” I replied, unsure of whether or not she heard me. If she didn’t, the next pony, Pinkie, definitely did. The ball of energy somehow managed to spring from her area in space and launch into me, spiraling us both out of control.

“Yup, and it gets more fun every time we do it! The first time was-”

“Kind of busy, Pinkie,” I snapped, wrenching her off of me and holding her out at arm’s length. I glanced over at the others, and I could only just see Rarity and Rainbow Dash a little ways away and below us, with a cowering and wing-locked Fluttershy in between. I yelled, “Rainbow Dash! Rarity! I’m coming over there! Is her thing online?”

“She’s unconscious and won’t wake up!” Rarity screeched, arching her neck to face me. I opened my eyes a scratch more, and it finally dawned on me that Rarity wasn’t just near Dash, she was desperately holding onto her. I looked down. Ten seconds left.

“But is the-”

“Aiiieeee!” she shrieked, pointing toward where we had fallen from. I glanced up, Pinkie following my line of sight, and gulped.

A dark blot, previously unnoticed, now bore a sea of rippling blood behind it, and it was flying straight toward the unconscious pony and her rather useless guardian. Green and black sword pointed forward, B’wor had locked himself as straight as possible. He was going to act like a spear, and even if Rarity would survive, Dash would be quite a bit less fortunate. I wouldn’t be there in time.

I frowned at Pinkie. “Toss me.”

I expected some sort of confusion or maybe a funny face, but possible the last thing I expected was her to agree instantly.

My muscles were slack and I had a retort on my lips, ready to reaffirm my request the moment she protested. The words she said, though, were so foreign to my expectations that it actually took a moment to realize what had just happened.

“Oki-dokie-loki!”

“Wait wha-” I started, interrupted by my change in direction and speed. Mere meters separated my quarry and I. My jacket uniform flapped madly against my torso like a flag on a coffin, and my hair gave up being gelled to my head and tried to escape. We came closer.

There was a veritable sonic boom when we smacked together, or at least there should’ve been. In reality, I slammed into the armored man with a dull and uninspiring thunk. I managed to shove his arms out of the way with my side, his sword twirling off into nowhere, and grabbed onto his shoulder plate with one hand.

My momentum spun us both off-course, and we fell past the unconscious Rainbow Dash and frantic Rarity without much thought. We stabilized in a moment, and I used what little surprise I had left to swing him around to face me.

He wrenched his right arm back to punch me, cape swirling around us. I swatted his arm away, grunting at the pain that coursed through the bandaged part. “You have already failed, Hero!” he screamed.

“I’m Jackson Amber, and I never fail. I just run into setbacks,” I retorted, tearing B’wor’s mask off with my free hand. His fist pummeled my side like a battering ram, and the earthquake it caused in my ribcage rattled me. Nevertheless, I stayed stiff and stared him right in his beady, hate-filled red eyes. “Those little ponies are mine, and if you touch them, I will destroy you. Have a good day.”

Snapping my neck back in one fluid, rage-induced motion, I smashed my forehead against his face; an echoing crack burst through the air around us, and I pushed B’wor’s stunned body away from me with my legs, silently watching him flail closer to the tower’s blurred wall until, without a sound, he was nothing more than a shadow.

I looked down, and what I saw came to me as instinct instead of thought. There was no time for thinking. Three seconds.

“Dash!” I bellowed, stretching my arms out to catch the air. All the VALK needed to be was online. It wouldn’t care if she was unconscious or not. She would be fine.

Wind and smoke obscured my vision for two miniscule measurements of time. On the second, the smallest of sensations passed over my fingertips. It was metallic, and it was a button.

I closed my eyes. Dying never got old.

~=V=~

-MANUAL NUMERICAL CODE ACCEPTED 1-19-8-5-19 20-15
-APPLYING NUMERICAL CODE 1-19-8-5-19
-CHANCE OF SUCCESS HIGH 4-21-19-20 20-15
-
-CODE ENCRYPTION SUCCESSFUL 4-21-19-20

“And that’s why I’m going to make you watch the worlds you swore to protect, burn.”

“I....”

“I win.”

“B-”

“You failed.”

“No.”

“Indeed. From what I know of you, you have a spotless record, too. Only a... few of them are a bit odd. Lots of minor setbacks, according to your reports. This will be just another one of them, I presume?”

“I didn’t fail.”

“Lots of people are still down there, incinerating by the second. They are all minor setbacks to you?”

“I can prove I didn’t.”

~=V=~

The easiest way to describe what has been coined by scientists and engineers as The Valkyrie Effect, is that it’s a lot like when you press your hand up against a cleaner’s vacuum and you feel it sucking your skin, except it’s happening on your insides, everywhere. Air itself displaces around you, drawing in a shadow that takes your shape and marks your escape. You are not destroyed, but you are moved, and with that comes the increasingly nauseating feeling of being in a place you shouldn’t be.

Most people - and ponies slash dragons, from the retching sounds I could hear around me - didn’t take well to the disturbing feeling. It says quite a bit about myself that I was fine; I’d built up an immunity over the years.

Swirling textures, shapes, and colors reformed in my vision when I opened my eyes, and after a few moments the aftershock left me. The dizziness from the built-in inertial dampeners stayed behind, however, and decided it would be a good time for tea.

Someone put a hand on my shoulder and yelled at me. “Captain Amber! We heard you’d left planet with the civs. What the hell happened?”

“Got ambushed in the Towers. Whole place is swamped,” I sputtered, leaning against the closest stable surface. I focused on the helmet-wearing Wingman’s reflective black faceplate, taking in the world around us. The VALK point had been set up on the topmost tier in the courtyard, just beyond the edge of the railing. Flashes of green arced over our head, and staggered at the railing were billowing energy shields, fluctuating each time an errant bolt smacked into it. Each one was manned by a soldier, who would peek out and fire a few shots off into the fray every other second.

Thick smoke blanketed the sky above us, and above that, I knew there would be only more dark clouds. The light was dim with the onset of the evening and shadows of the clouds only made it worse. Sulfur clogged my nostrils, and burned at my eyes, but I was used to it by now.

I turned to look at the ponies, or at least the ones that came with me. Applejack and Twilight shakily stood next to the generator-like VALK point. A moment passed, and they staggered away from the unfavorable mess they’d ejected. They shook their heads, and when I looked into their plate-sized eyes, I could tell they were unfocused.

More importantly, I also saw Rainbow Dash. I called out to her, hustling to kneel down at her prone form. She shifted in response, groaning unintelligibly.

“Rainbow Dash, if you can hear me, say something,” I ordered, quickly placing my hand under her head and lifting it up.

“Bhrg,” she said.

“Good enough,” I replied. I set her head back down and backed off a bit.

“Jackson, Rainbow Dash!” Twilight exclaimed, cantering toward us. Rainbow opened her eyes immediately, focusing on the unicorn. “I’m so glad you two are okay.”

“Y’all had us worried for a moment there,” Applejack added, tailing her friend.

Twilight lunged, scooping up Rainbow in a tight hug. “Gah!” Rainbow yelped, eyes widening to twice their size. Applejack joined in a second later, and the three embraced with silly grins plastered on their faces. “What happened?” she asked as the three pulled away, looking around us in a confused state. “One minute you guys were busting us out, and the next I’m waking up in... where they hay are we?”

“Courtyard, bottom of the towers,” I rattled off, checking over my shoulder. The soldier that had pulled me aside stood at the ready, visor staring blankly at me. “Listen, Miss Dash, are you a hundred percent alright? You blacked out for a little bit, and we’re going to have to get moving pretty soon. It’s not safe here.”

“Well, er, yeah. I’m cool,” Rainbow breathed, flapping her wings to test. She grinned wryly. “Yup. Ready for action, Captain. What do you mean it’s not safe?”

Emphasizing my point, two soldiers came into existence a few feet away. An echoing, airy fizzled sound heralded their arrival, and they both stumbled in place. After a second, they glared at each other.

“You moron, why’d you try to throw a grenade back?” the first scolded, automatically shouldering his grey rifle and letting the heat vent eject some steam.

The second one shrugged helplessly. “I didn’t know it would stick to my hand, okay? Now hurry up, let’s get moving before they take that position,” he retorted, and the two jogged off toward the down ramp.

I looked back to the girls, who seemed to have just noticed they were in the middle of a warzone. A bullet splashed against the wall above our heads, leaving a scorch mark among hundreds. They looked back to me, their jaws slack.

“Oh dear, this isn’t good,” Twilight muttered anxiously, the three already edging closer to me.

“Right. Huge, epic battle going on,” Rainbow said, arching her back and stretching her legs out. “What’s the plan, Jackson? Now that we’ve got these VALK things on, we can’t be, uh, killed, right?”

“Not killed, but injured quite a bit, yes. If you get hit somewhere that’s not lethal,” I started, glancing awkwardly at the soldier who was still staring at us. I shook my head and gestured out toward the battle. “Like, for instance, a shot glances your wing, and your VALK won't activate unless the wound would be fatal. Get what I’m getting?”

“Ooohh...” she trailed off, a look of comprehension crossing her face. “That would be bad.”

“Really bad,” I muttered, finally turning to the silent watcher. “Excuse me, is there a problem? You kind of have a job to do.”

“Err, sorry, sir. Just never seen talking horse thingies before,” he replied, giving a crisp salute. “I’ll be on my way unless you need help escorting the civs, sir.”

“Nothing you need to.... Actually, there is. Do you know if the trams to the shipyards and docks are still working?” I asked, narrowing my eyebrows. A burst of blue plasma fire sailed far over our heads and into the smoke above, and the ponies instinctively flinched.

“Ah, those. Last I checked, they’d managed to sabotage the one in the back, since they’ve surrounded the Towers, but the one near the front entrance is in workable condition, unless they’ve blown it up already. Might be a slight problem with that, though, sir...”

“Let me guess,” I hazarded, crossing my arms. “They own the front entrance and have completely locked it down, and there’s absolutely no way we could possibly sneak past and get it for ourselves without being noticed.”

“That’s correct, sir. We’ve been trying to take it back for the last five minutes, so they’ve redirected a lot of soldiers there. I’ve just been assigned to help guard the VALK point.”

I nodded, promptly turning toward the ponies. “Right then, the plan’s simple... or it will be when I think of it. We could probably walk there without much trouble, but it could take hours. Let me...” I trailed off, patting my ear. The soft padded exterior of my headset was nowhere to be found, and I silently swore at myself for not noticing it was gone sooner. “Nevermind. Communications are gone. Follow me, girls,” I said, scratching the back of my head aimlessly.

Turning toward a long expanse of metal flooring curving around the nearest tower’s base and to the back, I walked off at a steady pace. Scrambling to their hooves, the remaining ponies followed after me at a brisk trot, slowing down when they leveled out on either side of me. I managed to keep us far away from the ledge, where singular soldiers would often be leaning behind a piece of cover or an energy shield.

“Wait!” a voice called out behind us, barely audible over the din. We craned our necks in unison to observe the soldier jogging behind us, one finger pressed hard against a button on the side of his helmet, near where his ear would be.

He skidded to a stop behind us, waiting for me to face him. “How many of those horse things should you have with you, again, sir?”

“Ponies,” Twilight corrected. He ignored her.

“Just the three are with me. Four more should be at the docks right now.” I paused, thinking rapidly about what bad news was going to come next. “Why?”

“Because I just heard them talking about one on the comms.” He took his hand off of his helmet, letting it fall down to his side in a rigid position. “Sir, they found one near the base of the second tower, opposite of this one. A few of them are trying to evac it to a safe zone, but they’re facing heavy opposition. Just thought you’d want to know.”

My face paled, and I glanced down to see the others weren’t faring much better. “Did they, er,” I started, swallowing a lump in my throat. “Did they say what this pony looked like.”

“Yellow, sir. Pink hair, sir,” he rattled off, saluting. Bringing his hand down and out, he pointed off into the battle below. “Should be in that direction, sir.”

“Fluttershy,” Twilight whispered in horror, eyes bulging. “Jackson, we need to do something.”

“That poor gal, out there,” Applejack seethed, settling her hat on her head. “If’n y’all don’t figure out something quick, I’m gonna go get her myself.”

“Right. Soldier, what’s your name and rank?”

“Ensign Noah, sir.”

“Ensign, may I commandeer your assault rifle?” I asked, a hint of a grin tugging at the corner of my lip.

“Absolutely, sir,” he replied, immediately tearing the slim body of a rifle I knew from the inside-out off his back. He handed it to me, and I inspected the glowing edges, running my hands along its surface like a long-lost friend. It’d been far too long since I’d gotten to use one of these. “MPB-Three, sir. Never could switch to the upgraded model, sir,” he sounded off when he noticed my inspection of the older KaidenTech model. I grinned deviously, wrapping the strap around my shoulder, gripping the handle, and then I turning to the ponies in a sweeping dramatic spin.

“Don’t worry about Miss Fluttershy, we’re going to get her,” I said, lacing my tone with such finality that the Reaper himself would’ve been proud. “She’s going to be safe. I promised she would be. Rainbow Dash, you wanted to know what the plan was?”

“Uh, totally!” she replied, flying up to my height. “It’s going to be awesome, right? I get to play a part in it, right?”

“Yup, you all do,” I said, nodding at the ensign who had sacrificed his excellent weapon for me. He saluted one last time, then jogged off to his post. “We’re going to go in guns blazing, get Fluttershy, get the tram, and then you girls are going home. It’ll be a piece of cake, I promise. Just follow my lead and keep your heads down.”

“Just a second ago you were ready to walk the whole way there. What changed?” Twilight asked quickly, looking between me and her friends.

I gripped the sleek grey weapon in my hands, winking. “I got a gun,” I said, turning to the ledge. A number of meters away there was a breaking in the railing, signalling the off ramp. A stout soldier crouched near it, peeking the barrel of his gun over the edge, then jerking back from the recoil. I tossed a glance to the ponies. ‘Keep your eyes on me, and keep up.”




“Okay, but I- wait, Jackson!” Twilight called, her words bouncing off my ears and falling to the wayside. I jogged on, the three taking a moment to catch up. Their hooves clapped loudly against the ground, and our party continued on to the battle in a grim, tense silence almost as thick as the smell of sulfur.

“Pardon my asking, but I’ve been getting some real awful mixed signals over here,” Applejack started as we approached the entrance to hell. “But I thought you were against us getting into anything nasty like this here fight.”

“I was, but do you really want to wait here while I go get your best friend, or do you want to be by her side when the cavalry charges in to rescue her?” I replied hastily, swallowing. We walked forward, and the courtyard and entryway to the Towers slowly appeared from behind the ledge, rising up like a graveyard. “Because she’s going to need her friends after being in this middle of this...”

Keeping my gaze steady, I didn’t need to listen to the pinpoint sharp gasps to know their mouths were hanging open. That didn’t stop them from stabbing at my heart and making me swallow at the lump in my throat again. Sometimes, I knew, you had to make a gamble, and right now I was rolling the dice.

The full length of the Towers’ courtyard, from the highest tier to the city entrance itself was laid out at around a hundred meters. The courtyard’s metal ground stopped around halfway, giving way to soft grass and only interrupted by a wide road connecting the highway and the Towers.

Arced over the ground and leaving a black shadow underneath it, towering over the roadway and standing as the only separation between the Towers and the rest of the city, was a grand metallic archway, and on one side, rambling off into a tunnel, was a pair of tram cars.

Barely any of it was visible amidst the flying neon colors, scorch marks, and rubble. Twisted and smoldering remains of metal ships, so blackened and destroyed that they were no longer identifiable, scattered across the once cheerful grass. Melted lines streaked over the courtyard grounds, smattered with smaller tufts of debris.

Grey crates and machinery had toppled and splattered across the grounds, and where there wasn’t a portable energy shield, someone had dragged a crate over for cover.

And it was filled to the brim with soldiers and swords; bullets and blades that clashed against one another in a symphony of violence and desperation. Explosions as percussion, smattering against the sky in great bouts of flak. Hoarse, bellowed orders merged into one chorus with one voice. Each slide of one sword against another coalesced into a grand orchestra of strings, and the soldiers twirled with them, performing a sacred dance we had studied and practiced for generations.

“This isn’t at all like the changeling invasion,” Twilight whispered. I could only just hear it above the roar of an overhead fighter.

“And Fluttershy’s in that?” Rainbow Dash exclaimed, holding her front hooves out in disbelief. “What are we sitting here for, then? Let’s go!”

“You’re right. Follow me, and keep your eyes on me, not them,” I barked, smoothly stepping down the long ramp. The second tier down wasn’t as well defended as the third, but here and there a soldier would stare at me with either a blank visor or expressions of awe, which I’d like to think were also behind the visors.

Every other second, two or three bolts of green would smash into the wall above us, and the ponies would rush behind the nearest piece of cover, whether it be solid metal railing lined with metal plates, or an activated, pulsating blue field of energy. Whenever they did, a soldier would always gladly step out of the way for them, and by the time we’d reached the ending platform, five of them had lined up and saluted, their eyes full of cold-steel respect.

They stood rigid as tombstones, not even glancing at the gawking ponies when we passed. I walked down the ramp, leading the ponies down, and silently listened to the scurrying of feat and passing of hushed words. I knew what they were saying, though. It was going around the comms, and it was likely that by the time we’d gotten to Fluttershy, they’d be serving tea just to impress me.

Jackson Amber had arrived on the field.

“You two, with me,” I ordered, jabbing a finger toward two errant soldiers who were moving around a crate to face the oncoming fire. They snapped off a salute so fast the clink of gloves hitting glass was audible over the gunfire. We were on level with the bulk of the firefight, now, and

“Yessir. Cadets Fen’r and Alco, here. What do you need us to do?” one of them asked in a feminine voice, gripping her rifle tightly. The other one stood silently next to her, visor pointed toward the girls.

I waved at the ponies next to me, who grinned innocently at my chosen guards. “Cover them while they follow me, and their safety is considered prioritized above your own, understood?”

“Understood,” they both said at once, readying their weapons.

“I assume you’re looking for the other horse thing they found near the west side, Captain Amber?” the previously silent one spoke up, surprising me with a light, airy male voice. The kind that sounded it belonged in a library rather than a warzone.

“Correct. Do you have her ex- down, now!” I jerked under the lip of the crate, reaching out to yank Twilight behind the crates. She yelped in surprise, ears flattening as several streaks of green flew overhead, splashing uselessly against one of the shields. “Exact location?” I finished from my low position.

The second soldier nodded, both of them following my lead and crouching below the deep grey crate. Around us, more soldiers had done the same, and the clusters of improvised cover only increased the closer to the ground level ramp they were. The ramp itself was blocked by a battered, scorched tank.

Tanks had little to no use in the Wing, up to this point. Older models were constantly used if a situation called for one, but largely, it had been years since they had any major usage. I stared at the crippled form blankly, the front end mangled and melted, the rest colored black from all of the incoming fire. The sleek rectangular barrel half-heartedly pointed in the vague direction of the enemy, pointed limply down.

A hatch had been torn out of the rear end of the turret’s head, wires trailing down to a pair of soldiers, one without a helmet. They had huddled around something, hands moving furiously about a device so cluttered with wires I couldn’t even pretend to know what it was for.

“Alright. We’ve got to go down that last ramp to the field, then I’m counting on you to point me in the direction you heard they found her, cadet,” I said, jabbing my gun in the direction of the nullified tank. More shots flew overhead, one smashing into the crate and jolting us back.

“West side, sir, near the bottom of the tower. Probably some rubble in the way, but it’s a straight shot at the moment. Could get hairy if they try to assault it,” the female said quickly, peeking over the crate for a moment. “On your command, sir.”

“Right, girls?” I asked, looking the three square in the face.

“Yeah, Jackson?” Twilight asked, her ears flattened. “Are we really going to have to go out there?”

“Don’t worry, we’ll be protecting you. But first, we’re going to rush over to that thing over there, okay?” I said, waving my weapon in the direction of the tank.

“Got it,” Applejack replied, grinning hopefully. “We’ll be right behind ‘ya, Captain.”

“Right. On my mark,” I muttered, leaning on my right leg with my arm. Lightning pain struck where it was bandaged, and unlike last time, it lingered like a kick to the head. I swiveled my head around, getting a good look at the best path, and lunged into a sprint.

If the sounds of battle weren’t already loud, they became like deafening hammer-blows to the ears nearer to the final ramp. It was a short drop; only a foot laid between the metal ground and the grass - or at least what was left of the grass. The only green that had survived did so in patches scattered near the edges of the field, where the lines of green and blue streaked across only every other minute.

We skidded to a stop behind the tank, a hail of fire pattering against the other end like perturbed raindrops. I looked down to the two busy soldiers, opening my mouth to ask what in the blazes they were trying to do.

“Ensign Pidd, sir. Trying to rig the targeting,” the helmeted one said, glancing up from the pile of wires and electronics. “It’s still got some juice in it, but the controls are fried from the inside. We get this working and we’ve got some real artillery on our side.”

“Where’s your air support?” I asked instead, drawing my eyes to the sky. It was impossible to tell what was up there, between the smoke and the dark clouds, but I imagined I could vaguely see wisps of black and grey dancing across the sky, firing at each other.

“Busy trying to take theirs out, I think,” the cadet on his left said. “Anyways. We’ll have this up in a mome-...” he paused, tilting his head at me. “Are you Captain Amber? I-I’d heard you were on the field but-”

“Save it,” I growled, peeking around the less-destroyed part of the tank. The western field, or left from where we were facing, was coated with enemies, and all along the sides and arced out like spiderwebs were more piles of makeshift cover. Soldiers, grey and black alike fired from them.

It wasn’t hard to spot where Fluttershy was.

What looked to be at least eight or ten Wing soldiers had formed a ring near the base of the second tower, the inner ranks standing stock still with their rifles poised while the outer had drawn their swords for battle. Those unable to join in the circle had hidden about the area, kneeling behind crates or obliterated debris and constantly taking potshots at the relentless black-clad soldiers.

Around them, shifting in the battle like a sea of ants, were E’s men. They blanketed the ground in waning numbers clashing against the few forces that had dug in. Dark green broadswords jabbed and hacked, countered only by the Wingmen who danced around them with ease.

“Objective spotted. Girls, get ready to run as fast as you can. If you see green coming your way, you drop to the ground and don’t do anything until we’ve handled it, alright?” I stretched my shoulders back, then peered into the hologram sights. Spaced out amongst the flat blue hologram, surrounding the blue reticle, were constantly moving, transparent red dots. Each one had been overlaid where an enemy had been marked.

These kinds of hologram sights hadn’t even come out when the gun had been produced. I made a mental note not to lose the thing.

“We’re ready, Jackson,” Twilight said, nodding.

As one, we ran. Blood pumped into my head, mixing with adrenaline and rushing through my body like a warm shower against my skin. Wind rushed into my ears, but I didn’t hear it. Sound faded and images blurred. The world faded from my waking mind and I entered a dreamstate filled only with instinct.

Instinct is what you act on when there’s no time to think, often misinterpreted as a different form of thinking altogether. If you have ever been intoxicated, then you know exactly the opposite feeling of what that instinct is, while the rest of your life is lived in someplace between the two. Reality becomes more real; shapes, colors, and sounds are not perceived. They just are. You lose the ability to make moral or complicated decisions in favor of the ones that immediately grant you what you need, and not what you want.

It’s a feeling I thrived on.

The girls caught up to me within the first few seconds, the six in our group bull-rushing the battlefield at an angle. We were brightly colored targets in the gloom of the storm, and our entrance to hell didn’t go unnoticed. A hailstorm of green flames descended upon our forms, crashing in waves against what cover we put between ourselves and them.

Allies rose from the ashen grey debris, countering with their own flood of blue bursts and red beams. I could feel them stealing glances at me, trying to protect a protector. In front of us, amidst gleaming swords and lightning flashes of green, blue, and red, was our destination. All I had to do was clear a path.

“Fire at will!” I bellowed, the cadets on either side of our group stabilizing their rifles and spraying in the general direction of the enemy. The blaring sound tore at my ears, and a quick glance to my sides filled me with jealousy. I’d give my left arm to be able to fold my ears back like that.

I raised my gun to my shoulder, ignoring the flashing red dots within the hologram. If the whining, crackling sound of the other weaponry hurt my ears, then they burst at the destructive sound of the weapon I carried.

It kicked back into my arms at lightspeed, hungrily eating up valuable energy and pain tolerance just keeping the barrel pointing in the correct direction. Lightning energy arced out from the tip of the gun, swirling in the triangular multiplier responsible for giving the kick.

Five soldiers disintegrated in front of us, not even knowing we were there. Two more managed to turn around, and horror considered appearing on their faces moments before their demise.

The MPB-Three didn’t do the same damage as my heavy officer’s pistol, which sat comfortably in my belt holster, but it felt like shooting a freight train out of my arm and acted just the same.

We came closer and closer to the circle of Wingmen, stragglers turning into the organized force I’d been expecting. There were only a few meters between us and the first part of the circle, and it was here our enemies were ready.

I swung the blaster, smashing the stock into the nearest soldier like a battering ram. An errant sword swung over my head, grazing the tops of my hair. The man responsible snarled in rage from behind his breather. The brutish green blade swiveled in the air, coming at me vertically.

It caught on the side of my gun, bouncing off without so much as a dent. Blue energy crackled around the barrel, and I could feel the overcharged shot building up like a hyperactive child trapped inside a crib. Shoving the sword off to the side, I leveled it at him.

“Don’t take a sword to a gunfight,” I hissed, firing a beam thick as my arm into his chest. The gun flew back in an admirable attempt to take my arm off, and I felt the trigger lock up. Largely, the problem with guns was that they needed reloading at the worst possible times. Like when you’re in the middle of a fight with no cover.

That’s why the sidearm was invented. I let the blaster fall to my side, dangling by the shoulder strap, and yanked the bulky officer’s pistol out of its holster. I could feel the ponies huddled close behind me, our sprint now reduced to a treacherous crawl through the battlefield. Each cadet had taken up places on either side, surrounding the girls from all but the back, and woe is the man who offers his backside to the enemy. So we just made sure to shoot anything that wasn’t us.

I reached my arm out and pulled the trigger twice, one bullet tracing through a VALK shadow and smashing against another soldier’s shields. The other missed his head by an inch, whizzing off into the dark sky and probably destroying some poor bloke’s window.

There were only a few soldiers between us and the protective circle, and they were all engaged in a dance of swords with the outermost Wingmen. I swiveled around, taking one out in a burst of blue plasma, then aimed for the one directly in front of me.

It was the last moment I expected to be tackled. Turning into wet soap, my gun was launched out of my hand, and the brutish soldier that had targeted me from the side brought us both to the ground. He wasted no time in landing on top of me, metal elbow plates jabbing into my stomach.

“Jackson!” Twilight screamed, the three cantering closer to provide assistance. Hissing sounds being the only thing capable of coming from my mouth, I held up my right hand to stop them. Meanwhile, my left grappled with the soldier’s faceplate, desperate to latch onto anything that looked like a release button.

He swatted my arm away, and I quickly moved both hands to his chestplate, pushing him up and off of me. Rolling to the side, both of us worked our way to our feet. I could still hear the rabid fizzling of the useless blaster hanging behind me, and I had no idea where the pistol had gone. I wearily glanced beside me, studying the two cadets. Both of them had switched to their katana-like swords, parrying and striking with strained motions.

Something clicked in my memory. Maybe it was looking at the swords flashing in the dim light of battle, or the panicked searching for a solution made worse by the ponies standing beside me, fear flashing across their face. Either way, it didn’t matter, because I had a sword in my pocket.

I pulled it out, moving it about in my right hand and feeling the grip like one would the hand of an old friend. Settling my glare at the other soldier, I set my face into a grim expression, and nodded. “Duel,” I said simply, holding my blade out.

He nodded back, one hand reaching up to his faceplate, and the other to his back to unsheath his own sword. Black glass slid to the side, providing a thin window into the man’s helmet. His face, green and barbed with sickly colored spikes, could be considered handsome on any other species, and his eyes shown with a fierce intelligence. It was like looking into the departing engines of a battlecruiser.

“Duel,” he confirmed, gripping his sword with both hands. I took the moment of peace to study his armor closely, looking for any sort of screen that marked where his VALK would be. Every faction tended to put it in different places, but they had to be easily accessible by the wearer. Mine was obvious, but the datapad on my other arm looked similar to it in every way. His eyes bounced between the two uneasily, giving me more time to observe.

On his right thigh, almost hidden by the armor, I could see a hint of a covered screen behind a removable panel, and wires that trailed up to his back, where I could imagine the rough outline of the rest of the device. It had lasted only five seconds, but I’d figured him out first. That meant I made my move.

I jerked forward, feigning a slash and bringing my sword in close to parry a panicked attack I knew would come. Halfway through, I could see the plates in his black armor shift to compensate for his impromptu strike, silently betraying him in a way he’d never notice.

Jarring pain swept through my arms, our swords colliding with the force of dynamite and bouncing back. I clenched my teeth, swinging again, only to be met with an expert parry. Instead of letting him counter, I attacked again. And again. Each time my sword would’ve hit him, had his own blade not been in the way. Then, it was his turn.

The art of the blade is just that: an artform. You learn it, or you die, and after you learn it, you practice for months on end to make sure you’re at the top of your game. I observed his reactions, timing them against my own and searching for any window to peek inside of, where I would record any information with a camera and notepad, and then proceed to end him. Where I struck, he was waiting, and every time he swung, it felt like I was only just able to block it in time. Suffice to say, he was on top of his game.

I wasn’t.

The fighting had, at the very least, begun to die off, and only a few stragglers remained to harass the circle. None of my comrades focused on our duel, and those who did respectfully stayed back. There was an unwritten code of honor for duels, and one of them was that you didn’t let your ally shoot your opponent in the back, no matter how tempting. It was a stupid rule, to be honest, but I didn’t exactly have a gun I could whip out in time to off him.

“You can do it, Jackson! Show ‘em who’s boss!” Rainbow shouted from what constituted as the sidelines. The words filtered through my brain and landed in the pit overflowing with the rest of my pride, some of the bits dripping off into the other sections. Like competency.

“Technically, he isn’t my subordinate,” I called back, ducking under a vertical slash that desperately tried to snag a few stray hairs as a souvenir. “Maybe in rank comparison, but I’m not about to order him to back off. What rank are you, even?”

“Pilot, second mark,” he rasped conversationally, leaping back to dodge my counter. I took a step in the opposite direction, taking a deep breath and nodding knowingly. His shoulders bobbed up and down, wheezing breaths hissing out of the breather in his helmet.

“Ah, well, captain, here. Ex-admiral and advanced admiral, third-in-command at one point,” I rattled off, taking my own gasping breaths and tensing my muscles. Pain still flared in my arms, but it went away with my attention. He did the same, holding his sword out.

“Your reputation precedes you, Amber.” He struck out, contacting my blade inches from my face, the vibration ringing like a bell and jarring my arms like electricity. We both drew back, and the cycle of strike-strike-parry began anew.

“I’m that good at sword-fighting that I have a reputation now?” I joked, the beat of my heart synchronizing with the rhythm of his strikes and dodges. I let my eyes disconnect from his armor and blade for just long enough to look into his hyper-intelligent, orange eyes. I could swear they flickered in joy, but before I could register the emotion of worry, he struck.

“No, you fall into patterns often,” he said, moving like lightning. A force like a gale crashed into my arm, wrenching the sword from my grip and sending it away in the direction of my pistol - which was anywhere and nowhere I knew.

“Oh,” I said dumbly, glancing down at my hands like they’d suddenly turned into hooves. The ponies gasped behind me. “Sodding hell, that was a good one. Best two out of three?”

Another blink of the eye, and his broadsword was at my throat, hovering gently only a millimeter from my flesh. His eyes darted from each of my arms, which I cautiously raised outward, palms open in surrender. “Sorry, but I won’t take that chance.”

“Jackson...” Twilight whispered behind me. I looked down, resting my chin on the flat of the sword. She had stepped forward, standing beside me on quivering legs and looking into my eyes with fear. Looking between the other soldier and I, she opened her mouth to speak. I did first.

“Everything is going to be just fine, Twilight,” I muttered, looking back into the storm-cloud eyes of the duel winner. “Always remember that when you’re uncertain about something.”

Two things happened at once. Having studied the nearly identical devices on my arm for a long enough time to figure out which one would get me killed faster, the pilot lashed out, swiping his green blade to my left.

Secondly, someone shouted at me, “Amber, catch!”

I caught. Instinct burst through the doorway and kicked everything else out, taking the wheel of my body and spinning it around before I felt the sword in my grip, fumbled and caught backwards during the twirl. Twilight had to leap out of the way, passing my legs by a hair.

Blade hit blade, mine winning over his and tossing it off to the side. I jabbed at his thigh blindly, grim satisfaction falling upon my expression in place of a smile. The electrical discharge was palpable, and, when I readjusted the sword into its proper grip and plunged it into the pilot’s chest within a second, it seemed to course through us. The black blade I held slipped through the plates in his armor and out the back like butter.

Unlike all of the others, he didn’t disappear, leaving only a shadow to show he had ever been there in the first place. It was a difference that cost him his life.

“Name,” I ordered bluntly, using my free hand to grab his back. Sputtering behind the breather, the black-clad soldier’s legs steadily morphed into limp, useless appendages. Sounds morphed into the background; the thumps of gunfire mixing together to create a haunting waltz reeking of death and sulfur. I kneeled down with him. Somebody ushered the girls away - the coast was clear, and the circle had disbanded to form a protective line. I could still feel eyes on me from every angle.

I could see the clouded fire reflected in the man’s eyes fading, both of his hands using what instinct his brain could still use to grip the blade jutting from his chest. Blood redder than my own splattered against the plastic inside of the breather that enclosed his lips. He muttered, like a practiced drill, “Dirk... Wade. Fifty... third squadron.... Pilot... mark...”

“Good fight, Dirk,” I droned, purposefully removing any sense of emotion, slowly removing the sword from him with a drawn-out slurping sound. “Should’ve taken my offer, though.”

The clouds stayed; the burning fire that gave his eyes their yellow and orange coloring seemed to slow to a desperate last crawl. The pits of darkness they surrounded focusing and unfocusing on the dark sky behind me, until it was clear they wouldn’t be focusing on anything after this.

“Had me worried there for a moment,” a jovial voice called behind me. The juxtaposition of it all crushed my head and heart in its grip, sending me to a place between consciousness and a dream for the briefest of seconds. I let Dirk’s helmeted head fall to the ground with the most unceremonious thunk the universe could conjure up.

I said nothing. The long shadow, faded in the gloom, of the closest thing I had to a best friend fell over me, and I wordlessly stood up.

“Oh,” Aaro said, all of the joy dropping out of his voice like a lead weight. “You never seemed one to mourn over an enemy, Amber.”

“I’m not.” I juggled the pure-black blade in my hand, eyeing the faded white and red streaks that coiled themselves along the blade like snakes. Red gems gorged into the hilt and grip pulsated with an unknown source of energy. If anything, I’d always thought, the draxians certainly knew how to make an expensive looking sword.

“Right. War’s war, and all. You should- ah, thank you kindly.” He paused just long enough to wipe the flat of the shortsword along his left arm, a smattering of blood collecting on his uniform, then sheath it, completing the dual set he wore on either thigh. “It’s what we do, and stuff, and sitting in the middle of a battle offering a prayer to the soldier you just killed definitely isn’t in your character, heh.”

“No, no,” I said, waving him off. “I just... killed him in front of the girls. War might be war for us, but for them, I don’t...” I trailed off, swallowing at the lump in my throat that refused to go away. I turned around, ignoring the scattered gunfire that flew over our heads.

A pile of scorched metal crates and an empty shell of a truck was all that stood between the girls and the rest of the universe. Two or three Wing soldiers, scarred and barely standing, knelt on either side, firing off into the smoggy distance. It rank of promises of protection fueled by ego, but I wasn’t finished yet.

“Fluttershy, are you okay? Did they hurt you?” Twilight asked, hugging the shivering form of her friend close. “We were so worried.”

None of them looked at me. Maybe I was lucky. Perhaps there had been a collision of fate and luck, forcing the ponies to shove off the shock of death at least for a few moments to comfort their friend. A million masks I could chose flooded my mind almost instinctually - although something in the back of it timidly muttered that things might work out better if I stopped running on instinct.

“I-I tried to fall b-but the ground was so close and, and my w-wings opened,” the pegasus blubbered, the rest of her words muffled by the group-hug that had been silently and unanimously voted on by the other three.

“It’s okay. I’m sure it was scary, Fluttershy, but you know we’d never abandon you. And you’re safe, and we’re safe, and we’re here...” Twilight rambled on, holding onto her friends like a cliff face.

I sighed, looking back to Aaro. “I’ll deal with it. My headset got lost after the ambush up in the armory. Two VALK-casualties on our side, at least, before we sort of fell. Long story.”

“I can tell.” We let our shoulders droop simultaneously, taking slow steps toward the cover and watching the far-off enemies disappear behind the crates. “But we’ll have plenty of time later, I guess.”

“Yeah. Like I was saying, my comms are gone. What’s been happening?” I asked, frowning at the ragtag group of survivors we had with us. The majority didn’t even have helmets, broken and discarded ones laid across the ground like fallen ornaments.

“Whole place nearly got VALKed in the first run. After that, the Council scattered over the city to control as many groups as possible. Uske in the sky, Clover going off to oversee everything from some bunker. I think Grezz and Zal went out to the shipyards to get a few of our docked ships into orbit.”

“What’s the overall plan, then?” I asked, eyes gazing over the skyline, or at least the parts that weren’t smouldering and shrouded in smoke. The downed GOD cannon, once a proud bastion of might and power, stood out amongst them. A fear sat in my chest telling me that others the city over were seeing the same thing.

The red-skinned draxian nodded in the direction I was facing, his lips pursed tight. “I was left to push forward and retake the area surrounding the Towers. Uske’s doing his best to shoot up the fighters and dropships that managed to slip through, now that most of our anti-air is, er, well, torn into tiny pieces. Ganymede is rallying what militia the city can spare to lead an assault on two of the GOD cannons. Apparently they were both hijacked, but the good news is that they’re too stupid to hack into the targeting systems for now.”

“And the situation in orbit?” I asked tentatively, looking up into the dark clouds hanging above the city. “It sounded pretty bad when it started.”

“A couple frigates got dusted in the first few minutes - everyone on them VALKed back to the Aegis. Other than that, I think a cruiser and a destroyer went down after the line broke. It’s a siege, not a battle, up there.” He groaned, rubbing his temples. “But it’s a siege we’re going to lose. Reinforcements can’t break through the shield. As soon as we get the GOD cannons online, we can dust the ship powering it.”

“Well that’s nice and all, and you’ll have to do that if the Homebound has any chance of getting out of this mess. I’ve still got to get them to that.” I spun around, waving a hand in the direction of the tram station. I could faintly see it hiding amongst the clouds and debris. “And that means we’ve got to take the tram station.”

Aaro followed my gaze, furrowing his brow in concentration. “Why don’t you just VALK them all there?”

“That’d work if I had the exact coordinates,” I snapped, grimacing. “I wasn’t given a lot of time to memorize them before we got ambushed by So-, by them. I didn’t put them in my datapad either, before you ask.”

Shutting his mouth, opened to probably ask that same question, the Premier sighed. “Well. I guess I can do what I can to get us to that tram station, but we don’t have any artillery, San’s busy playing golf in the clouds, and...” he subtly nodded his head at the beaten up crew left to man the debris we called a defense. “These guys aren’t in good shape, to be honest. It took a lot out of them to suddenly move up just to defend a fuzzy yellow alien.”

“Artillery?” I said, a sly grin tugging at the corner of my mouth. “Why don’t you ask for an Ensign, um, Pidds, or something, over the comms. Work something out with him. Tell me when you’re ready to make the charge.”

He shrugged, stepping back to offer some space. “You better have got something good, because otherwise that charge won’t ever happen. Go do your thing and try not to explode. Oh, hey, and I found this.” He grinned, winking. A moment later, a recognizable firearm flew through the air, followed by a small cylindrical device.

I caught them with either hand, and in a swift motion had stuck one in its holster and the other in my pocket. “Yeah, you too,” I said softly, taking a deep breath and staring at my boots. In the calm before the storm, the only thing I could do was think about the pain in my arms and the stress I was about to go through in explaining myself to the girls. There wasn’t any amount of preparing I could do, I thought, and the pit in my stomach agreed.

When in doubt, they said, Wing it.

I opened my mouth to speak, the words stopping just short of my vocal cords. Fluttershy, Twilight, Rainbow, and Applejack had at last removed themselves from each other’s grips, and if tears had been shed, then they’d long dried. Instead I got a kick to the gut from guilt; having to look into the red-circled eyes of a pony is the worst thing. Period.

“Twilight, girls, I-” was all I managed to get out when I kneeled down in front of them, expression solid as a rock.

“You said nobody got hurt,” Twilight said, gulping. “That people didn’t die in your wars.”

“He would’ve done the same to me,” I blurted out. I blinked stupidly for a moment, then looked at the ground in what I hoped looked like shame. “I know what I said, and I still stand by it. He went for my VALK, so I went for his. I can’t justify ending a life, but...”

“But what? You just said it yourself: you can’t justify it,” Rainbow butted in, rage filling her eyes and pouring out. “How could any of you end another life, even if they’re evil, and then act like nothing happened so easily?”

I stared for a moment, my mouth working up and down like a dying fish. In the distance, the sounds of battle intensified as if they were trying to speak for me. Even it could’ve been more diplomatic than I was. I took a breath and tried to answer anyways.

“Because he has to,” Fluttershy muttered from the back of the group, the only one of them not to be staring red-hot daggers into me. “It’s what he said he’d do to protect us.”

“F-Fluttershy, you seriously can’t be saying killing another living creature is cool,” Rainbow sputtered, eyes bulging. “That’s totally unlike you!”

She closed her eyes, taking a calming breath I could barely hear over the sounds of battle. “It’s like a mommy bear protecting cubs. Death in nature happens all the time, and it isn’t uncommon for... predators... to- to kill other animals. I-I have to fish sometimes to feed the otters in the river....”

“That might make sense in nature with bears and other predators, Fluttershy,” Twilight said, looking between us. “But a sapient creature was just outright murdered by another sapient creature.”

“Momma bear?” Applejack mouthed to herself, brow furrowed at the ground.

“Um... bears are sapient too. Most animals are. They’re just, um, not as sophisticated as ponies,” Fluttershy muttered, looking at the ground.

“That- that’s not the point!” Twilight scrunched her face up in a mixture of confusion and rage,clenching her eyes. She faced away from me, instead trying to find solace in the ground. “The point is that you killed someone.”

“And the point is that I had to.” I reached outward, placing a hand gently on Twilight’s back. She made no move to stop me, but seemed to slump her shoulders even more. “I know you don’t want to think about it, but that soldier worked for one of the cruelest, most disgusting warlords in the galaxy. He would’ve killed me, and then he would’ve... well he might’ve killed you too. He wouldn’t hesitate to kill an unarmed civilian and he’d happily execute a prisoner on the spot. He. Was. Evil.” I sighed, drooping my head and letting my hand fall down. “I don’t pretend to like killing, but sometimes it’s what I have to do to fulfill the promise I made to protect. Sometimes the only way you can bring justice is through might.”

I stood up, dusting some of the soot off of my knees with one hand. “For what it’s worth. I’m sorry I had to do it. Death is something you shouldn’t have to deal with.”

“I... I’m sorry you had to do it too, Jackson.” Rainbow rubbed a hoof behind her head in shame, ruffling her wings. “I-I guess it’s something you have to do a lot of, right? I mean, you’re like the Royal Guard back in Equestria.”

“Thanks. I think. Didn’t those guys get completely wiped out by the, uh, changeling invasion you mentioned?” I asked, raising an eyebrow and letting the corners of my mouth tug upwards in a smirk.

“Oh. Um... right. Then I guess I hope you’re not like them. Because you’re kind of getting invaded right now.”

“And you folks getting wiped out would probably be pretty bad for us,” Applejack added, nodding sagely. “Anyhow, what’s the plan, captain?”

“My brother happened to be Captain of the Royal Guard at the time,” Twilight interrupted, turning sharply. She glared at her friends. “And he’s the one who oversaw their training!”

“So you’re brother is responsible for the guards getting completely wiped out? What?” I asked, taken aback. I put my hands on my hips and pursed my lips off to the side. “Are they really that poorly trained?”

“It wasn’t his fault! He was brainwashed by the changeling queen when the invasion started.”

“So what? It wasn’t like he started training them after being brainwashed, right?” Rainbow pestered, a smug grin resting on her face. Twilight snorted in indignation, preparing for a lecture to spew from her lips.

“About that plan,” I started, my tone weaker than I’d intended.

Girls.” Applejack stomped her hoof into the ground, particles of soot and burnt grass puffing up and staining her fur all the way up to her barrel. The datapad wrapped around her foreleg fared no better, the dim blue screen blurred and dirtied. The heads snapped to attention, eyes drawn toward Applejack’s leg. Whatever they saw in it, their trance was shattered like dropped glass. Finally their ears tilted at the sound of raining gunfire, and they warily looked toward the sky for a moment.

“Never forget where you are,” I ordered bluntly, gathering their attention. “The plan, girls, is for you to follow me and keep out of trouble. A ways ahead there’s a tram that can take us to the ship. By the time we’re inside, the Wing will have full defensive capability up and running, and we’ll be blasting down the shield keeping us locked in. After that happens, all we need to do is fly the ship out of range, and we’re home free.”

“And then what?” Twilight asked. “And aren’t the bad guys in that direction.”

“Er, yes,” I said, raising my eyebrows and shrugging. “They might be there for now, but we’ll shoot them until they’re not there anymore. Pretty simple strategy, but it gets the job done. Explosives may or may not be involved.”

I wrapped my arm behind my back, procuring the until-then forgotten MPB-Three faithfully strapped around my neck. I held it sideways for a moment, staring at the side-display. It was green across the board - or blue, in this case, but my mind was on what I had to say next.

“And then you girls are going home for good.”

Twilight’s eyes widened, quickly followed by similar reactions from the rest of her friends. Rainbow scrunched her face up, exclaiming, “Wha-”

Assaaauuult! Incoming forward line, twenty and counting! Prepare to return fire on my mark.” a voice bellowed next to us. The battle-scarred Wingmen moved at once, sticking their weaponry out of cover and taking gulping breaths of the polluted air. Lightning struck above us, the sky crackling with violent energy.

“Thirty and counting. Fire at will!”

I ducked down just as the hail of green plasma bolted over the cover, smashing into the Towers behind us at sickening speeds. The cadets I commandeered to guard the ponies followed my lead, firing their assault rifles blindly over the crates. “Sir, there’s too many of them,” the female said. “We won’t be able to push through with just three people. We’d need a whole platoon just to take the place, let alone hold it.”

“Luckily for you guys,” I said, shifting my gun into a more comfortable position. “We happen to be sitting in the middle of a platoon, and I’ve got an Admiral who owes me one.”

“You mean the ‘one’ I paid back with that mission on Feros Tyr?” Aaro said from behind me, stepping to my side in a low crouch. “Because that giant wolf thing was going to eat you, and I totally killed it before it did.”

“Technically, it did eat me, and I was the one that had to gorge myself out of its stomach with a broken vibro-blade,” I grumbled, looking away.

Fluttershy’s eyes rolled into the back of her head, Applejack managing to catch her before she hit the ground.

Aaro raised his hands in mock surrender. “Okay, okay, you got me. What’s your plan?”

“We charge, head on, and we don’t turn back until everything up until the highway is ours. Girls stay back here, and when it’s clear, they’ll advance. We take the tram to our ship, and bippity bop, we’re out of here and you’ve got some free air-artillery support.”

He blinked, the words smacking him in the face and refusing to go into his ears. His mouth opened once, then shut, before he figured out how to speak again. “Into that? Everyone would get destroyed in the first wave, and then they’d be able to take this forward position by the time we’d come back from the VALK point. We’d need air support if we wanted to do it.”

“Or artillery, and it just so happens we’ve got a tank.” I smirked.

Shaking his head slowly, he slightly nodded back in the direction of the desolate tank. The light panels along its sides glowed, at least, but the turret showed no signs of movement. “They’ve got it working, and theoretically it can aim with a bit of help, but...”

“Could I help?” Twilight asked, stepped next to me and smiling curiously. “I happen to know quite a few spells that do all sorts of tricks.”

“No,” we said in unison, glaring at her. I continued, “I’m sorry, Twilight, but as soon as you girls show active participation in this fight rather than just observing as a civilian, things might get bad. They’ll treat you as the enemy, and a high-priority one if you use psy- er, magic.”

“There wouldn’t be much you could do. Amber?” He smirked.

“Castlor?” I raised an eyebrow.

“If we charge, with the artillery, and don’t make it, I’m painting your shipyards pink.”

“And if we do make it intact, you paint your arm pink.”

“Deal,” I said, shaking the whirring mechanical hand with a smirk plastered on my face.

“Just... one last problem,” he said slowly, wiping the grin off my face. “If we do manage to clear it, by then, we’d only have a little bit of time to do anything before the VALKed troops charge us again, and it won’t be enough time for these ponies to cross the distance between here and the tram. If we’re going to charge, they need to come with - out of the way and near the back, maybe, but it’s-”

“No. There’s no way I’m letting them run with an infantry charge,” I snapped, scowling. “I’ve already forced them to run through the remnants of a battle, and that was as close as I want to cut it. I’m not putting them in any more danger.”

He sighed, shaking his head. “If you want them to get to the tram before the counter-attack, they need to be accompanying the charge. There’s no other way to do it that I can think of right now. We’ve got the tank, they can stay near the back, and if it goes badly their VALKs should be recharged. I’m not going to argue it, so consider it an order.”

“I...” I hissed, choking back my next set of choice words and looking forlornly at the ground. “Yes, sir. I’ll keep them near the back.”

“I’m sorry, but they need to get out of here, and if you’re right, the tram is the best bet.” Aaro matched the look, standing up and shouldering the purple and deep-grey assault rifle that stood as the signature DragonTech design. More specifically, it looked ugly.

“And you can add my pistol into the list of perks, right above the artillery. I’ll be sure to stick with you guys, though, just to make sure everything in front of us doesn’t last too long.”

“Just... go get the others prepped for the attack,” I said darkly, casually prodding the draxian in the shoulder. He chuckled, slinking off and muttering into his headset. More than once I could see a soldier stare at him oddly, hastily muttering to a comrade after.

“Right. Erm. First, is Fluttershy okay?” I asked, waddling sideways to face the ponies.

“Ain’t a thing. I reckon we’re ready to go when you are, Captain.” Applejack adjusted her hat, smiling to the friends surrounding her. Fluttershy wobbled on her hooves, nonetheless managing to stand. Green had tinted her cheeks, though. “It’s fine, ‘bout the whole charge thing. Wouldn’t be the first time we’ve run head-first into danger. We’ll be right behind you.”

“And little bit above you, too.” Rainbow puffed out her wings, grinning boastfully. “I’ve really gotta stretch out my wings.”

I glared. “You’re grounded, Rainbow Dash.” Taking a moment to drop my gun to my side, I pointed over at the green bolts flying overhead. “You go up there, and you’ll only be an easier target to hit. As your guardian, I specifically order you to keep those wings to your side unless it’s absolutely necessary to fly.”

Moments ticked by, Dash’s face slowly pulling back from a disgruntled grimace. She nodded, and seeing the gears rumbling in her head, I added, “and ‘necessary’ is up to my discretion, not yours.”

Fine,” she shot back like a bullet, her wings snapping to her sides at supersonic speeds. “But you owe me.”

I shook my head, glancing over the meager defense, looking for a red face amongst the crowd of black visors. “I don’t see how saving your life means I owe you one,” I muttered offhandedly, “but sure.”

“Second wave. Forty up and charging!” one of the soldiers near us screamed, firing wildly into the gloom with wide eyes. Instant self-preserving actions swept through the ranks, everyone with a gun firing off in bolts of blue and streams of red. I couldn’t see what was beyond

I motioned for the two cadets I had dragged into this mess, and they waddled over on the toes of their boots. “Sir, they’re getting ready to charge on the comms,” the first one barked over the noise that pressed into our skulls. Twilight lowered her head, ears flat.
“I know, and we’re going to join them. I want you two behind the girls here, keep ‘em safe. The Premier and I will be in the front. As for you,” I ordered, looking toward the ponies. “Keep your heads down and follow me. If I VALK out, you run back. And above all, stay safe.”

“Got it, Jackson. Anything to get out of here,” Twilight said, her voice muted by battle. I nodded solemnly.

Aaro crouched next to me, this time not managing to get past my mental defenses - I hated surprises. He still held his bulky, ugly gun, but I could also see he’d opened a thick holster on his left side, right above the second sword sheath. I recognized the round, disfigured shape of the pistol, a small red-colored cylinder attached to it. I had unfortunately seen it in action a few times.

He looked blankly at me, eyes full of determination and a drop of wit. “All men on the A-Seven defense line, prepare to charge. We’ve had a long day so far, and they’ve taken the tram station leading to the shipyards, choking us. It’s time we take it back - and with it, the city. I want you to run and gun and don’t stop until we’re holding the highway.” He puffed his chest out, standing up. I grit my teeth and followed suit. “This is the Wing they’re messing with; so, let’s show them how stupid an idea that is! Charge!”

Our eyes met, and the fires of companionship ignited. I’d stayed a captain, and he’d stayed humble. The burning souls of warriors ran around us, firing into a murky darkness that we knew not what hid within. Months of personalized training entered my mind like a tsunami. We had trained for this.

We ran, the barrels of our guns burning bright with light. An infinite line of black-clad soldiers ran before us, poison-tipped swords glowing in the smoke like fangs.

“That’s a lot of bad guys, Jackson!” Twilight shouted, barely touching my ears. The ponies moved their legs as quick as lightning, scuttling under fire that zipped past us with ease. Large portions of the fire directed at torso-height, and rarely would one plunge into the ground near them.

I ducked under an incoming bolt, a grin slowly sprouting on my lips. “Heck yeah it is,” I called back. I fired my blaster, the gun bucking back into my arm with each shot. The blue bolts slammed into the line of soldiers rushing us, four of them flying straight through shadows, while the others exploded against shields.

“For the Wing!” a man screamed. It rippled throughout the those that had followed us, muffled voices behind black visors bellowing and adding to a cry much louder than the shots of their guns.

I held the trigger down like a cat in a bath, eyes focused on what was coming straight at us. It ripped my arm back, the bandages wrapped around them and the Bio-Mend I had been given earlier not standing in the way of a fresh bout of pain. It pushed up into my head, where the sound of the gunshots was already squeezing and molding grey matter like a battering ram.

The gun hissed, steam ejecting out of one side, and I let it go, swinging the weapon onto my back as I brought out my other two, trusted weapons without a single thought. If battle was the name of the game, then I’d expect my trophy delivered on monday.

Telescoping outward, I pointed my sword forward and readied my pistol. Black, twin blades blurred through the air in Aaro’s hands. Short, incomprehensible gasps of air slipped in and out of the mouths of the ponies Twilight, leading the group, closed her eyes, turning her face away.

“Don’t stop for anything.” The words escaped my mouth as an order, slipping to those nearby, even if it was meant for the girls. “We’ll protect you. We’re born for this.”

Armies collided. Black and grey made blue, green, and red. Individual sounds did not separate and instead coalesced back into the symphony of war. I didn’t need to understand what was around me; it simply was, and I simply did. I joined in the dance of blades, firing the pistol whenever a sword couldn’t do the job.

I ducked under a blade, uppercutting with my own. His sword bounced back and left him open for the split second it took for the tip of my weapon to pass through his shadow. The one behind him parried my sword away, only to meet the dangerous end of my pistol.

It might’ve taken minutes, or it might’ve taken seconds, but no matter what, we were going to come out of the gloom on the other side, coated in the dust remains of our enemies. The sun didn’t shine through the clouds, coating us in light, and we were our own cavalry coming over the hill. And the last thing we would do was stop.

The muted greens of the grassy field, peppered in black and brown ash, stopped beyond us, the short wall to the highway marking our destination. The simple tram station, spartan in style, stood in stark contrast to the obliterated wreck of a starfighter generously splayed across the ground in smouldering chunks. Crates and other debris - crates, of course, being the most prominent, as they tended to be dredged up from every nook and cranny whenever a fight was about - had been piled up as a defense just as makeshift as ours.

Five seconds passed, the ground a speeding by in a blur. I aimed. They fired.

A blue bolt the size of my arm zipped from my gun, turning one side of a crate into black mush. The soldier nearest jerked back, leaning forward slightly to assess the damage. My next shot didn’t miss.

Neon green and glowing, a tidal wave of deadly energy flowed toward us in retaliation for cutting through their charge. I spread my awareness out, moving in front of the girls as neon hell fell upon us all.

Two shots went wide, the third blasting a soldier backward and into the air. Comrades-in-arms slowly turned their heads to see the small line I had cleared, their faceplates expressionless.. I turned my head to the side, grinning at Aaro, both swords gripped tight in each of his hands. “Your turn.”

He looked back with a curiously blank expression, casually sliding one sword into its sheath and procuring the ugly, stubby little pistol he always carried around. Still looking at me, he raised his arm and pointed the barrel vaguely in the direction of the enemy line. A red light flashed, and the gun made a whoop sound.

Everything exploded. Unnaturally red, billowing flames erupted into being, consuming everything in a seventeen meter radius and introducing anything closer to the sky. I shielded my eyes with my pistol arm, and looking back to Aaro, I grimaced. “Showoff, cheater, overcompensator. There’s so many words and so little time.”

“What was that? I can’t hear you over the sound of my technologically-inferior sidearm!” he shouted back, laughing. Cocking his head for the briefest of moments, he smiled even wider at the news from his earpiece. “And here’s the tank. Everybody, might want to duck.”

“Tank?” Twilight called, eyes wide.

I spun toward them, launching my torso at the ground. “Get down, now!” The impact from the ground yanked the air from my lungs, , leaving me helpless to provide any more instruction in the split second I had left. Aaro and the other soldiers around us dropped simultaneously, guns, swords, and arms spread in front of them.

Eyes growing even further, there was a sharp intake of air from Twilight, and the four ponies dropped immediately, hugging the ground. I opened my mouth, sucking in a breath like a fish out of water.

Pure white light, blue tendrils splaying into the air around it, rippled over our heads. There wasn’t a roar, or a shot that came with it, but a teeth-rattling hum. It pulsed once, and I rolled over to see the spot where twenty soldiers were hiding, dissolve into a dirt crater with naught but a puff of white light. The beam of death moved to the side, taking out their entire line of barricades in ten seconds flat.

I exhaled, and for what seemed like the first time in a long time, I could hear myself breathing.

“That was awesome,” Rainbow Dash whispered, ears pointed forward.

“Actually it’s pretty inefficient as a weapon,” Aaro said, already pushing himself off the ground and patting down his uniform jacket with a free hand. “We only have them in the city for show - the model itself was decommissioned not too long ago, without seeing a lot of action.”

“Hard to aim, and laps up power like a thirsty hound,” I added, dusting off my own jacket.

“Also, the only efficient ones have red beams.”

“Shut up,” I snapped.

The muted sounds of the battle in the city continued, pressing at my ears insistently. I heard a soldier shout near us, followed by rifle fire. The rest of the soldiers, only around thirty strong now, dredged themselves up through the deep scar in the hill, casually firing at the staggered few enemies that were left. “It was still cool to look at, though.”

“Yup.... I never said it wasn’t awesome,” Aaro corrected, absent-mindedly fingering at his sword sheaths. He grinned. “I’ll get the pink paint later, Captain. Right now let’s get you to that tram station.” Puffing out his chest and rolling his shoulders back, he flashed a wink at me and jogged off. I turned around, stepping backwards and keeping an eye on the girls.

Twilight and the others had staggered to their hooves, fixing their manes and shaking their heads. The unicorn took a deep breath, leading the group to follow me, and walked by my side. “I won’t lie, that was... well, it’s not over yet, so I probably shouldn’t say anything.”

“Good idea,” I replied, facing in the direction Aaro had ran off in. We clamored our way over the blackened crater, sooty dirt staining our legs before we were done. The two cadets, one of them removing their dented faceplate to reveal a young teryn male, followed faithfully, eyes scanning the dark cityscape around us.

The soldiers had pushed themselves alongside the highway divider, peering over to take potshots at anything stupid enough to exist and or look remotely dangerous. Tucked in the corner like a forgotten toy was the tram station, its almost magically floating cables strung out over the road. Two of them sat patiently in the station, with Aaro and a few other soldiers in plain view.

“No sign of the enemy VALK point,” he called when we got closer. “They think it’s in between a few buildings not too far away, just on the off chance we did take this back. So... maybe you were right, I guess. These ponies probably didn’t have to come with the charge.”

“All’s forgiven, Premier Admiral,” I said casually, shrugging. “It’s in the past, and no pony got hurt. I’d shoot you, otherwise.”

“Ha. Ha. Ha. Demoted for insubordination,” joked Aaro, bearing a toothy, predatory grin at me and holding his hand up. I gave in, indulging in the high-five as we met. Two soldiers saluted, their eyes staring forward. It was the same tram we had taken here, or at least the same type, with the only difference being a lack of windows and sparse seating. Aaro confirmed my suspicions, saying, “it’s a cargo tram, fortunately. Anything else would just weigh you down.”

“Not by much. Both kinds go sodding fast and really sodding fast,” I muttered, raising my arm and wrapping my tired fingers around a ceiling handlehold. “Is it manual, though?”

“Wouldn’t give you any other kind,” Aaro winked, turning around to talk with another soldier.

“Right. One of you cadets,” I said, “come here.”

The teryn approached, swallowing. “Cadet Fen’r here, sir.”

I gestured to the control panel at the front of the rectangular boxy craft. It glowed a dim blue color, not spouting the intricate holographic controls the civilian transport tram would be equipped with. I sucked in a breath, recalling the information to the front of my head in an instant. “Docking port A-Eleven-Alpha is our destination. When we get there I want you to VALK back to the Towers and continue your duties. You, I want at the rear, scouting for anyone that might be following us.”

“Aye, sir,” Fen’r said, snapping off a salute and rushing for the controls. The other silently moved to the back, emotionless faceplate swiveling in the direction of the soldiers at the highway.

“Well,” I said, finally looking at the girls. “It’s just about over. We’ll be at the Homebound in no-time at all, and then you’re going straight back to Equestria.”

Dash sputtered, blinking at me. “Whoa-ho-hoo no. That wasn’t part of the deal. I thought you were going to give us a tour of the galaxy and stuff, not just drop us off at home as soon as anything dangerous happens.”

“If you’re calling a large-scale invasion ‘dangerous’ then yes, I’m going to fly you back home as soon as possible. I promised I’d protect you, and the best way to do that is not put you in any situations that call for protecting,” I deadpanned, holding my palm to my forehead.

Her eye twitched, and she hovered to eye-level, her muzzle scrunching up. “Are you implying I can’t handle myself?”

“No,” I corrected, putting my hand down and frowning. “I’m saying it specifically. You might think you’re good because back home you managed to scare off an army of wimpy bugs, but out here, that’s not going to fly. I know this because I’ve lived this life for nineteen years. You can’t be put in danger, and I’m not going to let it happen.”

“Yeah, you say that right after you led us to the middle of a gigantic battle and made us sit back and watch you fight,” Rainbow said. “Real good job, Captain.”

Twilight’s eyes bulged. “Rainbow Dash! He had no clue that a bad guy would try to invade while we were here. You can’t hold him responsible for that.”

“Well I know it wasn’t his fault, but he’s the one who had the brilliant plan to lead us right to the bad guys and then yell at me for being stressed,” Rainbow replied, dropped to the ground with a clop. She faced the unicorn, breathing heavily. “I’m sorry, but I have no clue what he’s trying to do! One minute he says they’ve got an invincible army, planet, thing, and that he’ll protect Equestria, and then suddenly some random evil freak shows up, trashes the place, and he makes us run through a fight that could kill us!”

I sighed, sinking to one knee. The pegasus turned to me, her eyes still narrowed in distrust. “I’m sorry,” I muttered. “I know it’s been stressful, and it’s not entirely over yet, but as soon as we get to the Homebound, I’m getting you off planet, and back to Equestria. It’s because I don’t want you to get hurt, or be in danger. Do you really want to stay and have that stress the whole time, knowing that at any moment a squad or even a strike fleet could appear and blast you and your friends away?”

“No, of course not. I’m just....” She trailed off, lowering her ears and head. “I don’t know. I just can’t trust you. You nearly got Fluttershy... hurt.”

Choking back my next set of words, I turned my head to look at Fluttershy. The cream colored coat had been marred with streaks of black soot and dirt, and her mane had none of the perkiness it usually had, laying flat across her back. She cowered behind Applejack, looking away as my gaze settled on her.

“It’s okay, Jackson,” Twilight said, hazarding a soft smile. “Nopony got hurt, and we don’t blame you. It was tense, stressful, exhilarating, and a little bit scary-”

“A lot!” Fluttershy squeaked.

“Okay, a lot scary,” said Twilight, nodding at her friend. “But the point is that even if some things have happened, I still trust you to lead us out of here.”

“You can count me in there with Twi,” Applejack said, winking. “I ain’t fond of this whole thing, but I reckon you’re trying your darndest to keep us safe.”

“And those nice soldiers did save me, and then you came...” Fluttershy muttered. “Even if it was scary, I trusted you.”

Dash sighed, scuffing at the floor of the tram with one hoof. “Well... fine. If you girls trust him, then I’ll trust him.” She looked up, eyes as cold as death. “But if any of them get hurt, you’re gonna pay.”

A new voice chuckled, and a red hand clapped me on the shoulder. “Don’t worry,” Aaro said, grinning. “If any of you get seriously injured, we’ll strip him of his rank and hand him over to Celestia so she can dish out her own punishment. That kind of screw-up is grounds of immediate exile.”

“Which won’t happen, because we’re getting out of here as soon as possible,” I said, turning to him. “Speaking of which, when are we leaving? Why are we stopped?”

“Ah. Some sort of bug in the brake system, I think. One of the guys just fixed it and I came to tell you.” He pointed outside, where a dirty uniformed soldier waved. A bright green light impacted the back of his head, piercing through the cloud his VALK-shadow left, and stopping when it reached us.

Aaro buckled, eyes wide, and fell into my arms like a limp sack of flour. He’d been unfortunate enough to do the stopping.

“Admiral!” I bellowed, dragging the Premier’s body through the tram entryway. I knelt down, lowering Aaro to the floor. A deep burn scar centered on the middle of his good arm, the VALK attached to it reduced to nothing but a mess of tangled wires and melted metal. The soldiers outside raised their weapons, and their arms buckled with each shot. “Cadet, get us the hell out of here,” I ordered.

Fen’r, a visible gulp showing on his long neck, sped his gloved fingers across the screen. The tram lurched, the top motors humming to life, and started to slog its way forward. We moved up, and the girls dug their hooves in. Below us was the highway, and saying it was in a state of disarray was the understatement of the century. Melted cars had been abandoned, toppled on each other like children’s toys, and the red metal dividers between each lane were burnt black and cracked. The soldiers, likely the same ones we had obliterated in our charge, clamored over each wreck.

“Get down,” I snapped. Two green bolts slammed into the ceiling, a few more pelting the underside of the car. For a split second, we passed through a tunnel, and after that the wind started to pick up.

“Ohmygoodness, is he okay?” Fluttershy stammered, somehow the only one of the group capable of finding words. I grabbed at his other arm, flicking a single button on the side of the datapad.

A small holographic display appeared a few inches above it. Letters and fluctuating numbers surrounded a three-dimensional view of his body in hologram form, arms outspread. I gazed at it for a split second, and then shook my head. “His arm’s wounded and he’s likely lost use of it until we can get him some Bio-Mend to reconstruct the damaged muscles and tendons, as well as the bone, but... that doesn’t explain why he’s knocked out.”

“Shock?” Twilight offered, swallowing. “I mean, that looks really, really bad.”

“Don’t look at it,” I barked. “I don’t want you throwing up on the wound or anything. I’m having the datapad run a basic diagnostic scan on-”

“Too late,” a voice said behind me. Applejack held her hoof to her mouth, eyes bulging, and departed to the opposite side of the car. Twilight and Rainbow Dash immediately looked away, ears flattening. I glared at Fluttershy.

“Um... I’m not really a licensed veterinarian, but I’ve taken care of lots of injured animals before. I don’t really get queasy,” she whispered, slinking back a little and looking at the ground. I shrugged.

“Right... well, someone or somepony get me cloth - just anything to dress this thing after I take the VALK off,” I said, moving my attention back to his unconscious body. None of the metal or plastic had melted onto his skin, thankfully, but it was hard to see where the device ended and body began. More disturbing was the gaping hole where I knew there should be flesh.

Taking a deep breath, I quickly tapped one of the wires that was sticking out. I wasn’t in severe pain, so going further was probably safe. Putting one thumb underneath the edge of the device on the other side of his arm, I cautiously began to peel it off.

Captain!” the second cadet called from the back, the words muted from the wind and my own blunt concentration. Burned skin peeled back, some patches sliding off with the rest of the armbound device, and I grit my teeth. With my other hand, I carefully removed the other half, then slid the entire mess off his arm. I glanced up to see a white cloth hovering mid-air, Twilight’s magical aura surrounding it.

A sickly red pool of blood grew under us, and I tossed the useless VALK off to the side with one hand, and snagged the cloth with the other. “Where’d you get this?” I muttered, folding the cloth in half and scrutinizing the wound - measuring it with my eyes as they traced up and down it.

Like firecrackers, two green bolts slammed into the back of the car. I winced, turning my head sideways to stare at the cadet. She shrugged. “I tried to warn you, sir. They must’ve gotten to the other tram.”

“How the heck are they catching up, then?” I snapped, whipping around to face the pilot. “Are you actually going the speed limit?”

The teryn gulped, looking from me to the fast-approaching tram of baddies with saucer-eyes. “Uh. Bad habit, sir. I’ll speed up, then?”

He disappeared, his shadow torn into wispy tendrils that faded away a second later by a stream of green energy. Bolt after bolt smashed into the hull or sailed over our heads, like a deadly time-keeping metronome. I dropped to the floor, squirming around to get a look at Fluttershy. “Everyone get down. Cadet, go to the controls. Fluttershy, dress his wound.”

“W-why me?” she stammered, pointing a hoof at herself. The four ponies crouched low, just as a second set of shots flew past. She sucked in, breathing heavily, and stared at me with wide eyes.

“You said you had experience with this kind of thing. At least more experience than these three.”

“But t-that’s with animals!” Her eyes wandered over to the prone figure, bulging. “I’ve n-never had to- to heal an alien before.”

I raised an eyebrow, slinging the rifle around my waist and latching onto the grip. “Would you rather shoot the gun?” I deadpanned, holding out the cloth with my other hand.

“Come on, ‘Shy, you can totally handle this,” Rainbow hissed from the other side of the car, smiling. The cream mare looked to her other friends to support, ears flattened. They nodded earnestly - each decidedly still not looking at the body.

“Well if you don’t do it, he’ll probably die from blood loss,” I said, dropping the cloth at her hooves. “I’ve got a mission, and that’s to protect you.”

“O-okay,” whispered Fluttershy, silently snatching the dressing into her mouth and moving to Aaro.

I closed my eyes in a long blink, letting the wind buffet my face for a few seconds. A plasma shot passed by my head, green light and searing heat crossing over for a split second. I took a deep breath and spun around, readying my rifle and setting my sights on whatever was stupid enough to come up behind us.

We were well into the docking ports by now, a great metal and concrete sea of grid-like walls and massive hangars. All of it some shade of grey, and most of them the same. Bridges or the hint of a ship’s top deck could be seen peeking over each dock, passing us by at abominable speeds. The tram system was set up in a grid-like pattern, just like the dock, and the most important ones were straight ahead.

Behind us was a different story. To my right and our car’s left, I could see the hijacked tram inching its way forward, black shapes huddled together and peering through the openings.

I pursed my lips, and peered down the sights of my gun. “I’m sick and tired of shooting you guys into dust.”

My ears rang and my arms felt like I’d dipped them in boiling water and then proceeded to dribble hot glue along the undersides. My first two shots left me dazed, but each punched ghastly holes into the front end of the enemy tram.

“Is he going to be alright?” a voice asked at my side. Twin trails of hot steam ejected from either side of my weapon, procuring a low hissing sound.

I looked down to see Twilight sitting on her haunch and ducking just under the window. I shuffled to the side, frowning. “Two days in recovery at worst, and that’s just for the pain. Trust me when I say he’s gone through worse, and I’ve gone through much, much worse.”

“Flutters-” Twilight started, whatever else she was going to say drowned in a torrent of fire from my gun. The front of the other tram was nothing more than a few strands of metal now, half-melted from the heat, and ragged from the projectiles. In response, they fired back.

I ducked. “Their shots are too weak to pierce the wall. That’s hilarious.” I grinned weakly. “Go on.”

“Fluttershy’s fine. She just... she doesn’t do well under pressure,” Twilight said, eyes drawn to the floor. “But... she did what you asked, though.”

“That’s nice. Why are you telling me this here?” I said through my teeth, peeking over the ledge. “They’re gaining on us big-time.”

“Do you need any help?” Twilight asked, grinning warily. “I might have a spell that can do some good.”

“Do you have any shield spells?” I asked half-heartedly, taking a two more potshots at the other car. It was only twenty meters behind us, now, and the shots came down like rain. I ducked just as a bolt passed overhead, the heat causing me to instinctively flinch.

After a moment, I looked back to see her still sitting there, and when my ears had stopped ringing, she replied in an overly helpful tone, with a smile ear to ear, “Yes.”

“Oh...” I muttered, swallowing. “Erm. Right. Well, how long does it take to shoot, cast, or whatever you do with it?”

“A few seconds at most, and then I can continually feed magic into it to keep it stable. Theoretically, it can stand up to thirty sticks of dynamite at close range before it breaks, and that’s without the extra boost. I’ve never tested the theory with actual dynamite, though. ”

“Well with our luck, you’ll be testing that real soon, and with something a bit different than dynamite,” I muttered, gritting my teeth. Carefully, I unshouldered the rifle and laid it aside to cool off, my fingers searching my belt until they rested on the heavy pistol. Steady pounding pressed on my head, compressing my thoughts into the singular desire to get away at any cost. “I’m through playing games, and I’m sick of running and getting chased.”

Lips tugged down into a dark scowl, I stood up and took aim, squeezing the trigger. “And I bloody hate neon green!”

Like a poor argument at a diplomatic meeting full of politicians and media cameras, the complicated series of magnetic clamps holding the front half of the other car exploded in a flurry of angry sparks. It wobbled, dipping forward precariously on the two arm-thick cables holding it up. A black blob fell from the front, chucked body-first at the supply highway below. I couldn’t be sure if it was screaming or not through the ringing and wailing wind, but I hoped it was.

“And another thing!” I bellowed, squinting my eyes and judging the coup-de-grâs. “I. Hate.:

“Captain!” Alco interrupted from the front. Spinning around, I left my mouth half open in disgusted awe at his poor timing. I mentally prepared the cruelest, rudest thing I could possibly let loose, and then immediately forgot why.

Two immense black transports, twisted spikes protruding from their sides and engines, laced with bands of glowing green; the creator of the ships wanted whoever would see them to either be filled with pride or the subtle horror that they were about to die in some sort of terrible way.

They sat patiently around a thousand meters away on either side of the line, turrets spinning and directed at where we’d be in the next twenty seconds or so.

“Stop,” I wanted to say, my free hand gripping tight on the dented side. We wouldn’t stop on time, or we would, and then we’d be dead.

Instead I looked down, a warbled grin plastered on my face like the dead man I was. “Twilight,” I said calmly. “Now.”

“I can’t do it on a moving object like this,” she replied, eyes wide. Gulping, she lowered her ears and warily smiled up at me. “Sorry?”

My smile vanished, and I slowly lowered my arm. “Whelp. We are all going to-”

Bright blue passed over my eyes. Solid beams of energy descended from the heavens, and gently caressed the first ship at twelve hundred kilometers per hour. The first shot dissipated against the hull, and the second made the hull implode. Four more impacted, adding insult to injury. Cloaked in black smoke, its engines sputtered in a feeble attempt to stay aloft, and then it fell. There were no screams.

The second dropship spun to face the aerial attacker, mounted plasma repeater sputtering. I cringed, shrapnel-filled smoke from the previous wreckage flying overhead. “Took them long enough,” I said under my breath, turning to observe the cavalry.

A sound akin to the hum of a fighter’s engines escaped my mouth, now laid agape, and the sound grew to consume the area as one of our own came to our rescue, its sleek wedge-shaped chassis twirling in the wind and making it look like the enemy was missing on purpose.

Suffice to say, there was good reason some men skipped through the ranks.

“Heyo!” San Uske called from atop his fighter, the thick cockpit hatch nothing but a smouldering memory at this point, and likely ejected to the winds long ago. He grinned ear-to-ear, one hand lifting a cheap plastic soda cup to his lips, and then he took a long, blissful sip before releasing his grip and leaving the rest up to the wind. “I figured something was wrong when there were some dropships that weren’t dead!”

A green barrage passed him, one shot nicking the front of the ancient raptor fighter. He frowned, smashing one foot on the control panel of the craft. Two blue beams shot out from the craft and smashed directly into one of the bulky twin engines of the aggressor. Without much objection, the engine promptly exploded, forcing the ship into an upward spiral.

“Right. This one’s spent anyways,” San declared, maneuvering the speeding fighter closer. The stubby wings seemed all too eager to meet with our car; Twilight and Applejack seemed to share my look of abject terror, while Dash just stared with an open mouth. “Just a second,” he muttered, standing up and stretching his arms in either direction.

Shaking his head vigorously, he grinned and stepped onto the wing of the Raptor, grabbing on to the door opening of our car the second the fighter decided it no longer had a pilot, tilted dangerously upwards, and spun out of control.

And then it hit the dropship. Both exploded.

“Awesome,” he and Rainbow Dash said in unison. They shared a look between each other - wide eyes and wide grins spreading across both their gleeful faces.

“But I could totally do that myself,” Rainbow added.

“Could not,” he retorted instantly. The last flecks of shrapnel and smoke disintegrated in the blue-green explosion, now behind us. A few soft clunks against the top of the car indicated more had survived.

San turned to survey the damage, everypony continuing to stare at him. “Right. We’ve got our second-in-command down, our first-in-command missing from action at the moment. We’re surrounded by the enemy who have superior numbers and really big guns, and trapped in a single - large, but single - city. Our leaders are scattered and communications are slowly being taken out. Also, most of our current air support is gone and who knows what’s going on in orbit.” He took a deep breath, and then added, “good job on that wound, Shyflutter or whatever. You know your stuff.”

“Um, thanks,” Fluttershy said, backing away from the prone body of the person that was supposed to be leading us at the moment. “I-I’m not too sure about his vitals, but he is breathing. I think.”

“Excellent. Anyways, at the moment, we are absolutely outgunned, out-”

“And it’s Fluttershy,” the pegasus murmured.

“... out-fightered, and, er, some other fifth thing.”

“Well as long as we can stick together and figure something out,” I said, standing up straight and putting on a brave face for the girls. “Then... then we can do anything. We’ll get out of this mess, I promise.”

“Ah-ah-ah!” San exclaimed, putting his hands behind his back and marching to the front of the car with the resolve of a hero and mindset of a madman. “No need for any of the figuring stuff out part. I have a plan.”

Absolutely nobody moved. Wind whistled. Explosions rocked in the far distance of the inner city. Applejack opened and shut her mouth like she wanted to say something but couldn’t find the words.

“Oh my God, we’re all going to die,” I said.

Author's Note:

(And now for something completely different.)

New Lore Entries Unlocked:

(Lore Entry: The DragonTech Killblaster)
The Killblaster makes a very satisfying "whoop" sound, much like the sound made during victory dances. This, of course, is often overshadowed by the sound of complete destruction and immolation of whatever the Killblaster's business end was formerly focused on. By DragonTech guarantee, whatever is in front of the Killblaster before the trigger is pulled will be gone by the time the trigger is released.

(Lore Entry: Wing Cadets)
Wing cadets are considered one of the most powerful forces behind the Wing's combat engine.

This is because they provide substantial mobile cover for the actual most powerful force: the higher ranks.

On the day of the Gantoris invasion, Cadet Fen'r became the first cadet ever to survive an infantry charge. This is likely because the charge included three high ranks: Premier Castlor and Captain Amber leading the charge, and Admiral Uske, who, between dodging a homing missile and spilling his carbonated beverage on his pants, cursed and made an errant twitch, firing off from the fourth forward cannon out of seven on his Raptor, a plasma bolt which flew down into the battlefield and hit the artillery shot, correcting the rounding error made by Ensign Pidd, which would have placed the artillery shot directly in the center of Amber and Castlor's platoon.

Cadet Fen'r was given a shiny chrome medal, which reads, "The .00000000000000001 Percent."

(Lore Entry: Aaro Castlor's Arm, The Last Talon)
After Castlor's first tour of service -- which landed him in an admiral's seat through a set of unexpected killings of which Castlor had no control over -- his left arm became something of legend, rumored to be completely indestructible.

Unfortunately, this led many to assess his right arm as his weak point. To this day, his right arm has been injured a total of 61 times by various mercenaries, assassins, grunts, and heedless door-slamming secretaries. Statistically, this is 60 more times than his left arm has been injured, if the Last Talon's biological predecessor is included in the count. Fortunately for Castlor, this has led many foes to aim for his right arm, rather than other, more logical targets such as the chest or head.

When asked why he had not replaced his right arm on these 61 occasions, Castlor answered, "Long story short, I haven't found a marauder fond enough of the idea." No logical interpretations of the reply have yet been invented.

(Lore Entry: Cadet Alco)
Directly after Cadet Fen'r's acknowledgment of "first cadet ever to survive an infantry charge," many remembered that one other cadet had been in the party, and asked if he should be rewarded the same medal.

The issue was solved within the day, as various footage salvaged from every active camera in Gantoris revealed that Alco had, in fact, survived the charge. This was thought to be a shining moment for Alco, before an Ur'luk statician asked, "But was he the first?"

The footage was rewound to the moment the cadets arrived on the objective: the cable car platform. It was shown that Fen'r arrived on the platform approximately 253 nanoseconds before Alco. Alco was subsequently given a neon pink plastic medallion which read, "The Marginal Error."

(Lore Entry: San Uske's Raptor)
Many argue against the legend that San has used the same Raptor fighter since his induction into the Wing, due to its many crashes and explosive landings. However, in an odd set of coincidences involving a crashlanding into the Dragon's Maw forge on Draxis Ferys, The fighter's hull was simultaneously supercompressed as well as amalgamated with a century's worth of ceremonial Draxian steel. The newly-christened fighter was identified to be San's, and its hull appraised on several occasions to be harder than diamond, and more force-resistant than any reflective hull plating invented to date.

Should Admiral San Uske die, Wing Captain Jackson Amber holds claim to inspect and analyze the fighter's phenomenal alloy, "Before that damned rose-face Castlor can get his filthy hands on it!"

To date, Uske's Raptor has crashed a total of 343 times. Carbon scoring and the original alloying have left its hull almost entirely black.