• Published 28th Mar 2018
  • 2,670 Views, 101 Comments

Off The Grid - MajorPaleFace

Commander John Maxon unexpectedly arrives in orbit above Equestria after a 90 year interstellar journey to Proxima Centauri in Cryostasis. John must learn to survive and inspire in an strange new world.

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Heart Of The Enemy

“Do you want to say something?”


John stood in between the first row of headstones and the gathered guards. They were all dirt-covered from the arduous task of grave digging.

Thirty-two markers spanned in four sections of eight, they ran parallel to each other, in a sort of crescent shape. The plan was for an engineer and a gardener to come and build some decorations around it, maybe a power-armoured statue and a brotherhood flag.

“Firstly, I wanted to thank you for assisting with my fallen comrades. I find solace in the fact that I am not alone, and I find hope in the eyes of you all.

“The crew of my ship are not interred here for the glorification of war over peace or one nation, or one species above another. My people have lost thirty-two of its finest men and women, along with all the love of our world and their hope and energy.

“They enabled me, they would have done so for you, too. They would have fought for you, for your freedoms and your country. I don’t wish to do them a disservice by leaving them here, they deserve to be home – and yet this is the best I can do.”

He turned and saluted the graves, “Ad Victoriam! On to victory – in the next life, my brothers and sisters.”

His fist was clenched over his chest, he could feel the thrum of his strong heart. He extended his arm into a wave, swiping it from left-to-right in a final farewell.

He faced the guards, some had their heads bowed, others mumbled to themselves.

“Thank you again, rest for now. But I’m afraid I will require you shortly.”

Lieutenant Hayseed took a step to Johns side, they surveyed the cemetery.

“What need?” He asked.

John turned, “using their magic, I’ll need every unicorn to take a hold of the Anlace. I’ll be monitoring the ship's status. I’ll use some of the gravimetric stabilisers and gyroscopes to lessen the load on your soldiers, but it will probably still be quite taxing.”

His face became gaunt, “you want us to lift it?”

“Lift it the right way up, or just pull it onto its bottom – whatever works best once you’re ready, I’ll be in the reactor bay.”k

* * *

He didn’t have to wait long, Hayseed and the Guardsmare with the chalk – Guard Leeksby, had stumbled into the reactor room. Still sideways, the floor and walls had been largely repaired, sealed bulkheads and newly laid-down floors. He planned to use the piles of debris from outside to repair the exterior while cannibalising the interior for internal fixtures.

He waited outside, unable to do much. He’d set a gravitational field inside the reactor bay and configured the gyroscopes so that very little in the way of a physical disturbance could interfere with the guts of the ship.

Thirty or so unicorns were arrayed in a loose semi-circular pattern on the inside of the camouflage barrier. Their horns were pulsing, Hayseed had described the display like filling a glass with water. They were pouring magic into a pre-scripted spell that once fed enough magic, would perform a set of instructions to a decree that wouldn’t be possible using simple point-and-enchant spells.

They had been at it for a while, rain clouds threatened overhead, blocking out much of the pre-evening star-speckle. A rumble of thunder built up the tension to gargantuan levels.

John had returned all maintenance bots to protective and immoveable bays. Should the worst occur, (he hadn’t yet figured out what that could be) at least his robots would be secure.

Hayseed himself was wingless and didn’t possess a horn, so he’d been relegated to the spectator-duty where John now stood. At the sound of thunder, forks of lightning speared the air like reverse-demon tridents.

The spell activated, the unicorns all slumping in exhaustion. A large circle etched into the ground around the craft lit up a brilliant red, hues of pulsing amber and cherry-coloured energy poured out and over the ship.

It was a thunderous, earth-shaking and starship-moving spectacle. John’s eyes widened as the energy enveloped the Anlace and rotated it ninety degrees, the motion was smooth and clean, far from what he had pictured in his mind’s eye.

The ship was held in place a few meters above the ground, where it hovered perfectly still.

“That’s amazing! Our scientists would love to poke and prod one of your unicorns if we could somehow give my species the ability to use magic…” he trailed off, realising he might sound more like the alien-monster he’d suspected the ponies would think him to be when he had first crash-landed.

“And we would sure like to know something – or anything about your ship, maybe we could trade?” Hayseed looked up in a manner a cat or a dog might just before dinnertime. A unicorn for a hundred-billion-cap ship? He doubted any negotiator would set that up as a fair trade.

“We’ll talk about it. I’m sure your people’s scribes would kill for a chance to get a hold of some of my peoples' tech. Unfortunately, there are rules about sharing any advanced technology.”

Hayseed remained quiet.

“How long will it hold the ship?”

Hayseed shrugged, “an hour or two maybe.”

John did the math, “okay, keep your guards away – I’m going to have my maintenance bots come out to make some landing skids with the scrap piles your soldiers collected.”

“Okay, lunch is on soon – so come back through the field once it’s fully dark.”

John glanced skyward. Soon then, he reckoned.

He trotted back to his ship as the first signs of rain began to paint the ground.

The downpour had been ongoing in earnest for several minutes now, almost thirty since he’d boarded the Anlace.

He stood in the bridge on the topside, situated atop the jagged hull across the severed bow. A trio of maintenance bots had strung up plastic sheets over the honey-combed structure of the command deck.

A series of hexagonal-shaped viewports, each two meters across. They were interconnected to form the main viewscreen.

A single one in the front had a huge decompression crack, with one at the upper-most ledge having been explosively decompressed and likely shot out into space. The lower rim had been torn away when the frontal-most part of the craft had been vaporised.

That had led to the venting of the control room. The floor had been cleared of all the damaged terminals and debris, now the three maintenance bots were ferrying spare steel beams and plate armour from one of the storage bays.

He looked up from the only operational terminal as one fired its booster at maximum, lifting it to the six-meter ceiling and out through the rain-tarp.

Water began to gush in as the flap was whipped around by the wind. His suit was temperature-controlled, so he only felt the stinging chill on his exposed head. His gut rumbled though, so he turned away from his endless scrolling, and walked toward the reactor.

The bay had been fully refurbished, you couldn’t tell that the ship had been in a terrible, cascade-failure of a decent and subsequent horrific impact.

The room was spotless, all dirt, grime and even his fingerprints had been removed. Mr Handy’s were jokingly called cleaners foremost, as despite any task you assigned them with – they would relentlessly tidy and polish at every opportunity.

The pair of spires sat in front of him, one hummed a gentle cool blue. Simple lights to indicate that all-systems were nominal.

The other had been stripped for spare parts, the housing had been removed and the delicate internal components rehomed in a closet somewhere. The Mr Handy’s had patched the deck, the one remaining spire sat to one-side of the room, slightly off-centre.

Power had been steadily flowing through the Anlace’s conduits. The ships on-board back-up computer intelligence had assigned two pairs of Mr Handy’s to intra-ship repair duty. John returned to the reactor bay’s observation blister and monitored their progress from one of the terminals.

They had swept over only a few of the corridors, it would take many days at this rate. Several holes in the exterior still needed to be patched, the final three maintenance bots were hot on it. After fashioning some makeshift landing struts – they had begun to suture the underside of the crafts hull.

The computer was relatively self-capable, once it realised it had enough power it activated and began dishing out orders of its own accord. The dozen Assaultrons had been ferried outside, keeping a watch on the perimeter.

With the sentry bots in low-power mode so as not to waste resources, yet they would surely rush to meet any incursion. He’d entered his data compilation. Since he had arrived John had scanned and made entries on just about everything, he made certain that the computer wouldn’t terminate any curious ponies should they approach the craft.

Assaultrons were humanoid, vaguely woman-esq looking battle droids. Their chassis was heavily modifiable, able to tote a host of deadly death-dealers – lead spitters, energy blasters and tungsten-carbide coated blades.

Sentry bots had been the heavy-hitters in the Brotherhoods automated arsenal for the last two centuries, they were large squat, armoured beasts. A torso-piece sat above the three-pronged support wheels, short arms held a large weapon on either side with launchers mounted on the back, just below the grill-filled head.

The MK IV b upgraded versions sported hydraulic frames around their ceramic-uranium composite armour, permitting the use of super-heavy ordinance. Gatling lasers, ballistic 20mm autocannons, missile launchers, mortars and fat-man catapults. They could also fire a ring of air-burst anti-personal mines in the event a foe gets too close.

The repairs would be completed relatively fast. An estimated two days of round-the-clock welding to make the craft air-tight. One more to double and triple check every flight-critical component was functioning as it should.

The main issue would be the materials. The Anlace had been loaded with enough supplies for an extended mission. The hydroponic lab had been lost with the forward section, so he couldn’t grow food. Although he could easily get some from the equestrians. He also had a cargo hold filled with MRE’s and pre-ready meals.

He’d need to use the spare thrust and engine components, along with the automated workshop to produce some more manoeuvring thrusters. Although with the frontal third of the ship gone, the thrust-to-weight ratio would be greatly increased even with partially functioning boosters.

But the fact remained the same; he would need raw materials from the Equestrians to finish the job. Primarily he needed fuel for the reactor, he had a breeder on-board. As well as scientific equipment to produce hydrogen from seawater. But thanks to the powerful display, he knew that thirty average Unicorns could levitate a roughly fifty-thousand-ton ship. And that was worth more than something.

His gut rumbled once again. ‘Stupid biological needs,’ he thought.

He accepted that the computer had things under control. And he headed back to the pony tent-system for some well-deserved sustenance.

Day three, West sector,
Somewhere near Butterfly ridge,
Sierra San-Pony mountains.

Private Amber Leaf was on the front with the rest of the 8th Mountain Regiment. The last few days had revealed horrors the likes of which he doubted he could ever forget. He had made few friends while being a part of the guard, the two he had made had just yesterday been taken from him.

The Changeling’s had bombarded his position, Private Reed Stem had been on watch-duty when the first plasma volley had struck. Amber Leaf had raised his head from his position cowering in a half-dug foxhole to see his short-lived friend with smouldering stumps for legs.

Fortunately, or not, this sectors medic had been a unicorn and had managed to cauterise the wounds, Private Reed Stem had been sent home as a quadruple amputee. His life forever altered.

Later that evening a single enemy artillery shot had whistled down amongst a half-dozen of them. Leaf had taken to the ground as quickly as he could; a piece of shrapnel had gotten in between his other friend Corporal Hazelblossom’s armour segments. You wouldn’t have known he was hit had he not collapsed and started screaming.

Another nearby soldier had run for a medic, but they were stretched thin all across this violent clash. The troopers had to rely on the medical training they had received in basic – Amber Leaf told the Corporal he would be okay. He had been lying through his teeth, Hazelblossom’s sense of humour had provided the only joy in each of their long and treacherous days.

But as his screams and grunts succumbed to wheezing wet breathing, Leaf knew the medic wouldn’t be needed.

“It was a probing shot,” their Sergeant had said, “they were testing our lines. Keep your eyes peeled for infiltrators, tomorrow we take back Butterfly ridge!”

The 8th Mountain had originally been a relatively small group of “elevation combat specialists.” They maintained a high readiness state to deploy into mountainous zones and had been comprised mostly of Earth Ponies – Golden Leaf was one of the few Pegasi, he was used by his squad leader as a scout and a lookout.

The unit’s numbers had been swelled with fresh troops from all corners of the nation; he didn’t know where they were all coming from. Mostly fresh-faced and inexperienced recruits, led by a hoof-full of veterans who had gotten on the wrong side of their superior officers.

The 8th’s task at hoof was to take back Butterfly ridge. A barren and inhospitable line across the lower portion of the San-Pony mountain range. It had been named for its butterfly-like shape when viewed from the valley floor during the spring flowering.

It was the height of summer, and a bad one too. In the shade, it was reaching highs of 60 degrees Celsius (or 140 Fahrenheit.) There wasn’t another life form alive in the furnace of a mountainside, aside from them and the Changelings. All the plants had burst into flames and died, hibernating underneath the scorching earth.

They were having issues getting supplies and adequate water up into the high altitude of the southern-most contiguous equestrian mountain. At some 15,000 feet (4,700m) they were exposed to blisteringly hot weather, bug artillery fire and skirmish attacks. With little water or food, they were shedding their numbers at an alarming rate.

It was early morning now, cold enough that he could see his foggy breath hang in the air. Did he mention that Equestrian nights were often sub-zero? No one said the nation was a comfortable place to live.

He had written his mother a letter, eaten a few stale jam-less crackers. Without water as he’d save the few precious sips he had for when it was too hot to be in direct sunlight. Now he waited in the second rank of what would be the first wave in a massed attack.

He could hear the whumf, boom of short-range catapult-launched explosives, they were softening up the enemy, his Sergeant had said – his face crinkled with worry. He didn’t believe him, but Amber Leaf was no coward, he’d face his enemy. If the 8th mountain didn’t prevail here, then the route directly to Las Pegasus city would be free for the bugs to stampede toward.

The whistle sounded, then several bleats came from a formation horn, this was it. The first wave scrambled up over the craggy berm they had been using to shield themselves from sight with the enemy.

He heard the strange popping and whizzing sounds of Changeling magic attacks. Combined with more explosions from his own sides counter-battery fire. Another series of whistles, he saw his hooves pulling at the rope-ladder, using his wings to propel himself up onto the berm.

He paused to help the soldier behind him, a skeletal mare with soft green eyes. Together they advanced under-fire, the Changelings didn’t appear any the softer. He took cover behind an outcropping of pointy rocks; the barrier was cut away in chips as the enemy poured energy-fire at him.

“Come on, come on!” He beckoned the mare behind him onward.

She was just outside the safety of the outcropping when a green bolt seemed to curve over the rock and was deflected off of her side armour. It left a blackened cleft in her flank, but she seemed unfazed as she reached him.

She carried a bundle of lightweight throwing spears, she hefted one at the enemy, Amber Leaf darted around and towards them using short wing beats to get close. In a few seconds, he had burst into a gaggle of the black beasts. He whirled and felt a chitinous blade bounce over his shoulder, he rotated and kicked with both hind legs, sending the blade wielder away.

A spear sailed wide around the other three, who all moved toward him at once. He darted up and away, now airborne – only two of the four gained flight with him. He circled low, avoiding a pair of jagged boulders. His heart leapt into his throat as a burst of fast-moving energy bolts whisked up the ground underneath him, he could feel the heat as superheated stone shards bounced off his underside.

Amber Leaf brought his pursuers around in a looping turn, aiming for the divot where the spear-thrower had been. He overshot her, two spears up – catching one as the other dived for her.

He came back around, leading a dive-bomb attack into the unprotected backside of the beastly Changeling shock-troop. It reared and made to dislodge him; Amber Leaf tried to slash its throat but the blade was not able to pierce the tough chitin that covered it from angular head to thick hoof.

His world became black – his head spun, the aftermath of a headbutt from the bronco he’d been riding. It charged for the mare – she didn’t pose much of a challenge and she was soon killed, one of her spears cut in half and thrust through a gap in her chest armour.

Blue-green magic enveloped her. And the final ounces of life was drained out of her in the Changelings horrid feeding process. He felt the earth around him dislodge as the remaining two bug-ponies came down either side of him, Amber Leaf’s sword was tossed outside of the divot, along with his wing-blades. They hefted him up, and they began to feed.

Dearest mother,

Worry not for me as I march on this glorious crusade to prevent unspeakable machinations from being carried out. I have many friends within the 8th, all of us are in this together and we share a tight bond. These are my brothers and sisters now, as much as little Apex, I bet she is big by now! Tell her a bedtime story, and kiss her goodnight – from her big brother.

My unit and I have just set up camp near a place called Butterfly ridge, it is beautiful here – flowers that contain every colour of the rainbow. We have all just had a fresh meal, we even have chefs up here with us, can you believe it?

I must say farewell, for now, shortly we will be called to fight; I take no pride nor joy in this battle we must surely win. Our Sergeant is a good stallion, he is fair and brave – under his guidance, I am certain we will prevail.

Keep well, and be safe, with all my love,

Your son,

Private Amber Leaf

It had been a long night for John. It was the usual, he couldn’t sleep so he had kept himself busy, mainly in overseeing the refurbishment of the Anlace. Over the past two days he had constructed a short, angled bow to seal-off the ship from the vacuum of space. Although he didn’t know if the ship would survive re-entering orbit if he could even manage to get it out of the atmosphere.

The bots had also been hard at work, they’d repaired the newly named bridge. The door had been dissected and taken outside to make the frontal-most landing skid. An extension to the frame had been built and they had fixed in a makeshift, sealable hinged door. He could probably just squeeze through it in power armour, but at the least, he could manually seal the corridor against any decompressions.

They’d also scoured the ship, replacing or patching the internal conduits, gravitational systems, oxygen recycling and waste management systems. After three showers he still couldn’t get the farm-like smell out of his hair, a result from a waste spill that had covered him in an awful, foul, and slightly toxic substance that was used to eat away human waste.

He had shaved his head and his short beard. The black hair was disappearing down the drain – he was now looking at his reflection in the mirror. A thin, years-old scar ran parallel to his nose, a small clipping of flesh at the edge of his left nostril was missing, the side of his neck (and most of his back) was slightly discoloured from the multiple skin grafts he’d had that time he’d been immolated. He had bags under his eyes and his skin was pale. His ice-blue eyes were the same as always, cold.

He was ready to go. As he stepped away from the mirror his quite pale, broad-shouldered and muscular body came into view. Years of combat, fighting and training, genetic altering and a strict protein-rich diet had led him to be somewhat large and yet quite lean.

He had five and a half abdominal muscles, part of one next to a large patch of scar tissue where he’d taken a shotgun blast point-blank and then kept going. But otherwise, he was in tip-top physical condition.

He put on an all-black officers’ bodysuit. His laser sidearm was attached to his hip, the light faded from the room as he left – autonomous lighting kept power usage to a minimum.

He made it to the armour bay, deciding on taking a new set of armour with him. He stepped into the cradle. A series of pre-set motions were carried out, he was rotated as multiple overlapping segments of armour were built around a hydraulic, fusion-powered exoskeleton.

The brand-new rubberised boots made no sound as he moved across the bay. A new set of lockers and racks had been installed at his direction, he took a laser carbine, several Microfusion cells and a small bandolier of supplies. Food, water and medicine.

Today was the day he would return to the camp, along with lots of shiny, high tech weapons. His pip-boy bleated an intruder tone, like a squelch. John looked at his forearm, a poly-morphic display showed a camera feed from the underside of the hull. Two Assaultrons stood vigil as a single pony approached.

He ordered them to stand-down. Making his way to the promenade deck to greet the chalk-user, Guard Leeksby. The ramp to the primary deck descended and she stepped back with a meep as the hydraulic system hissed and chugged.

He stood at the top, backed by harsh white light. It was still pre-dawn, yet the Mare looked fresh and alert. He waved her forward. To her credit, she approached without hesitation.

“Captain Stark Wing sent me. He received a letter from the Princess!”

A little satchel at her side opened, her muzzle poked inside – rustling for something. In her mouth, she held an intricate-looking blue-adorned roll. He took it tentatively and opened it, the artistic swirly language the Equestrians used was certainly nice looking – but meaningless to John.

He held it open for her, “read,” his instruction was tinged mechanically.

She cleared her throat, “Dear Commander Maxon, please return to us at our main bastion. The Changelings are about to breakthrough into the San-Palomino desert. From there, they would be able to reach Las Pegasus, a city with over three million ponies. We do not wish to endanger you once again. But we are afraid that is what we must ask of you: we once again apologise for any inconvenience this may cause. Prepare yourself for a difficult battle – a chariot has been sent to retrieve you, post-haste.”

Her meek face looked up at him as the letter was lowered, “your friend, Princess Luna.”

He was thinking. He noticed the mares studious gaze track over his armoured self, her eyes were slightly slanted, like an Asian human. He realised he’d made no move or sound.

“Alright, when will the Chariot be here?”

She lifted one shoulder, “soon. You better get ready, sir.”

He nodded in agreement and walked past her.

“How long?!” John had to shout to be heard.

“We’re coming up on it now, sir – keep your head down, we’re gonna hit the ground hard!”

The air temperature was hot, such that the gully they were concealing themselves in flashed past in a heat-blurred mirage-like haze. He and three Chariots of equal size were ascending the rear of the rock-strewn basin towards the base of the mountain.

The 40-strong strike force would land amongst a rear-guard of hostile Changeling forces, and then ascend by fighting through the Changelings positions to carve a path towards the stranded 8th Mountain regiment. All contact had been lost due to the inhospitable climate and fierce fighting. With the inferior mirage caused by the heat shimmer, mount San-Pony looked like an orange-tan blur and nothing more.

Turbulence buffeted their ride. He had braced himself in the cart by attaching a sling to either side and holding them with his armoured gauntlets. His grip was clamp-like and would last longer than the tensile strength of the harnesses. If anything was going to break, it would not be his hands.

They would probably come-in under fire, he eagerly awaited the Drop Zone. The four-guard pulling team were jostled and banged into one another, struggling to keep their craft from crashing before the DZ.

Changelings!” Lieutenant McKenna squealed, she looked especially uncomfortable. Thestrals were not at all suited to the heat.

As the call went out, a squadron of aerial bugs lifted out of the turquoise and mint coloured soup, catching up to them – they began firing at the formation, singeing the already super-heated air.

The pilots could do nothing except stay the course; any weaving attempts at this stage of their run would ground them permanently.

John clenched the grips even harder, wishing he could shoot back. They were moving too fast and under too much turbulence for him to hit anything. He resigned to letting events unfold naturally. His suit reminded him that during a combat-drop, nine times out of ten it was the lead cart that didn’t make it.

Thirty seconds!” The pilot screamed back.

Thirty seconds!” McKenna parroted.

A timer appeared across his Heads-Up Display. He kept his eyes glued to it. His muscles were bunched underneath his bodysuit. He was coiled and wound up, ready to release.

They were moving at some serious velocity. The pilots were giving it all they had. Not so much that medical attention would be required, but right up to the ragged edge of that threshold.

The rattling vibrations coursed across his forearms, the fourteen Thestrals in his cart were pressed together. Heads down and muttering prayers.

The pilots put their wings up and out, slowing them considerably. Their speed would take most of the thirty seconds to bleed off, his suit ran the numbers, they would need to decelerate from their impossible speed very quickly or they’d be pasted over the Landing Zone.

The G-force reached a crescendo, and just before the chariot fell apart an opening in the mountainside appeared. The cart kept moving still at high speed, as they slammed on the anchors the cart turned vertical.

The changeling interceptors sailed past them as they failed to slow down fast enough, to his left he could see one of the carts dived as it received a direct hit.


He leapt at the order, hot air rustled past him and his stomach rose.

He landed with a hefty thunk. Dust denoted his impact and already a Changeling position was squirting magic blasts at him. Like a swarm of high-velocity hornets, they buzzed around him, he was moving fast – laser carbine clutched in his armoured hands.

He took up a position 15 meters from the weapons pit, palming a fragmentation grenade – his suit projected an arc which would see it land nice and snug dead-centre of the bugs.

He leaned back and heaved it, it sailed away and he chased after it, following its trajectory. His timer read negative six seconds. The damaged cart was a hundred meters behind his as it reached the landing zone, once his time reached negative ten seconds, he was 5 meters from the pit as the grenade detonated in a large plume of dirt.

The carts occupants who could get out did so. Many of the non-aerial soldiers being scooped up from certain death by Thestral and Pegasi fliers, others landing and not moving. The Pilots flopped around in their harnesses, the G force likely breaking necks and twisting spines.

It impacted the ground as it was repeatedly struck with magic and ignited in a large Changeling-type explosion. A huge green swirling mass rose in a mushroom shape, the cart spun end over end like a flaming-green pinwheel. His cart and the other pulled away. The pilots would dump supplies over the 8th’s last known position, then head for home.

He stormed the aftermath of his grenade strike, chunks of charcoal bodies lay around, a single heavily wounded bug limped away pathetically. John fired into it and it dropped.

Two more weapon pits were streaming fire down on the two dozen advancing equestrians. They had made a hard drop and would need time to adjust to the heat.

Unfortunately for the enemy, John needed no such time. He stormed onward, over the Changeling body and towards a winding bottlenecked crevice, flanked by the pits. The teams of hissing and snarling bugs took notice, shifting most of the deadly downpour toward him.

He dropped to his knees and skidded a few meters, softly making contact with the edge of a breast-shaped hill. He shouldered his weapon and fired up at them. Most of his shots soared past and over them, but it kept them in check.

With the majority of the enemy fire abated, McKenna gathered her troops and led them up from Johns right. They had a tiered path-like approach, the Unicorns indispensable as they used energy shields and fired back sizzling blue bolts of their own.

John reloaded. The Microfusion cell clicked into place, under a second and he had the suppressing fire back on them. One tripped up as it tried to ward him off, a half-dozen shots sent it shuddering backwards.

A team of ponies were near the pit, so he began moving up, letting off the occasional burst to let the bugs know he was coming for them.

On his feet now, he charged up the soft terrain. His boots sank and he lost purchase – flailing for a second, before regaining his footing and continuing. As he aimed, four light-black bug-horses looked up almost fearfully. A pair of Royal Guard, well-built earth ponies – charged into the hole.

They headbutted, kicked and stomped and stabbed with short swords. The first two died while their attention was on John, he reckoned the last two would meet a similar fate and shifted his attention to the other crew. One took off as five more formed into a file and blasted a hail of bolts at him.

His shields came up, deflecting most. Then strained and burst into a static-like field, crisscrossing gold sparks pulsed around him while his shields recharged. He hit the deck and landed belly-side down on top of the final bug, crushing it to death. While he and the two guards huddled under the relentless rain of energy fire.

The sounds of combat continued, the whip-like crackling of changeling attacks, pulsing blasts from the ponies as orders were screamed to one another. Just then an artillery barrage began beating the hillside.

His shield came online, the gentle hum inside his helmet barely audible over the artillery blasts. He got up and fired at the opposite pit as soon as his weapons emitter was over the rim of his dugout.

The changeling fireteam was not prepared for the onslaught, he raked his red bolt stream left to right. They all crumpled, smouldering smoke and the smell of ozone in the air.

He grabbed each pony, his rifle caught on a small sling as he stood and charged out of the pit, carrying them to the edge of a berm where the survivors of the strike force had gathered.

Most sported cuts and scrapes, some had bleeding wounds and burns – their comrades patching them up, ready for the next engagement.

All around shoots of mud rose into the air. Earth-quaking booms and blasts reshaped the DZ into a dirty souffle.

Lieutenant McKenna was at the helm of this train, and there were not any stops.

“We keep going – we take this ridge! If its black swiss cheese – kill it!”

Ah hoo, ah hoo, ah hoo!” The grunting call of the unit sent adrenalin-fuelled shivers across his back and spine. John had spent years as a shock-trooper, he lived for missions like this. Him against a thousand black devils, arty raining down – this is what he was made for.

“You are all champions, Equestrias mightiest – now follow me!”

He took after her, McKenna’s wiry frame was a deception to her strength and stamina. She bounded up the rockfaces like a mountain goat, John kept pace. Alternating and staggering his approach so they wouldn’t both be killed should an artillery strike hit them.

They skipped over a path, no surprises or enemy forces awaited them here. But he could see a ridgeline coming up, about one-seventy-five meters above them.

Changelings were swarming it – their giant beetle artillery was up there, moving around and skittering like Corvega-sized cockroaches. The strike platoon was now under defilade from the artillery, so the bugs resorted to rolling basketball-sized rocks and firing down at them.

He fired back, catching a few of the unluckier vermin. McKenna huddled down, as the rest of the unit caught up, spread along a fifty-meter crevice. They were bunched up near the obvious, albeit ancient, rain channels. The easiest paths up, given the terrain, but the bugs would know that and concentrate their fire. Or at least John would have, he supposed they might not think like him and if he kept trying to anticipate them – he might make a critical error.

The L-T’s ruby eyes were calculating, they whirled on John and the pure detest could melt steel.

“We’ll move up with four squads, have them line up along each of the four crevices. Unicorns lead the way with shields and return fire. Ponies and fliers at the back, once the unicorns hit the ridge, we break out and storm it. She pointed to his belt of explosives – you’re on demo duty, but I need you to do your best to keep as many alive as you can.”

He charged his carbine with a fresh cell, “yes, ma’am.”

A sound plan, John watched as a pair of Non-Commissioned Officers scrabbled to arrange the troops into formation. A few small-scale detonations dashed the area around them, John took off toward the ridge. Firing on the move, he cut down a dozen and squirted a long, trailing line along the edge of the rim. The debris and bursting mud clods sent up sprays of dirt, providing cover for the pony assault.

He reloaded, allowing his weapon to droop on its sling as he hocked a grenade, then a second and a third. The first two were fragmentation-airburst. The rising black smoke following the pair of thud-thuds and chittering screams signalled the incapacitation of many of the defending bug-horses.

He reached the top, the long fuse of the third explosive sent a shockwave that cleared the suppressing-fire cloud away. A trio of bugs lay immediately to his right, not wounded – they sprung their ambush.

They came up, the first sent a wide lance of green magic aimed for John's legs, the other two zig-zagged at him with frightening speed.

He aimed and fired. But the spell must have been badass-seeking because it nonetheless wrapped around his leg and pulled him down before it dissipated. Much like its castor’s chest cavity.

The first thrust a thin chiton dagger under his armpit. The reactive nano-laminate under-armour hardened, his right arm was locked up but it had saved his life and subsequently trapped the blade.

John kicked once and sent the bug hurtling back, right into the waiting embrace of a pair of blood-frenzied Thestrals. One dismembered the helpless bug, the second wielded a short-staffed hammer and crushed its head like a peanut.

All-around as the Thestrals and Pegasi took to the air to hunt the bugs down, the ground-focused fighters clashed with a line of chitinous bug-horses. The Changelings hissed and screeched while the ponies shouted and whooped.

The second bug came upon him, his forearm lifted, the opposing strike was blunted by his hardened armour. John sat up and headbutted the bug down, he awkwardly forward-rolled onto it, his weapon bounced in its sling – the pistol-grip tantalisingly close to his left off-hand.

He pushed the emitter against its torso and depressed the trigger. The two blasts blew big, fat holes into it. He got up, sending a neural command to his suit to bleed pressure from his right armpit.

Smoke and debris ran around them, he rushed forward. The Changeling line was being routed from above, the larger Thestral fliers killing great swathes of the black demons with cunning skill and artful guile. The violence was almost over, but the defence was just a diversion. John spotted a Changeling squad near the back, against the opposite side of the ridge.

They were herding four enormous beetle-like siege units over the edge. They chirped and whistled. John suspected they were more akin to brahmin than intelligent creatures, not seeming too pleased with being shoved into a retreat.

He skirted around the clash of fighters, a four-bug team got in his way and he rolled over them. Firing from the hip as he ran, three came apart – limbs and heads falling unattached. The last got its shields up just in time to be rammed by a half-ton human.

It fell under him, he brought a foot down and crushed the bug into the dirt, its carapace split as its magical barrier evaporated. The bug screeched one last defiant hiss as John raked laser-fire across its unprotected head.

He dashed away from the spilt green brains and onward for the ridgeline, over the side the last beetle was ushered. It was then John saw it, the blackwater commando. Unmistakably alien, a grotesque and large creature. It was both elegant and strong looking. A fierce ballerina of a warrior.

It had scars that crisscrossed its face and neck, reminders of the explosion during the battle at the hive as John had fought with the monstrosity.

It hissed once; the message uncertain. John fired at it and threw a grenade, a short-fused concussion explosive. The belt of laser bolts largely missed the commando, he was running more than fifty kilometres an hour. The few that hit were glancing blows at best, superficial – the grenade sailed near and the super-bug swatted it.

The unnatural motion caused the grenades safety measure to detonate. A precaution to prevent having them thrown back at you. The detonation hit the bug with a hundred pepper-spray pellets and a flash of light bright enough to temporarily blind a person.

The blast wave cushioned his speed and sent the commando clear over the edge, he fell after it. The drop was sheer. It was only now he could see the artillery beetles and Changeling drones falling in a controlled descent. Using giant fly wings, the deep bladder-bladder sound was like a Vertibird rotor.

He fell fast, the Commando hadn’t corrected its decent, seemingly stunned. He aimed for it, automatically spreading his arms and legs, although he still fell like a piano made of solid lead.

The air rushed past, the fifteen-meter drop was over in a flash, his armours thrusters automatically fired to stabilising and turn him. He slammed feet-first into the Changelings back, the blow was crushing. Deadly. Not survivable.

He fired one-handed at the bugs near him, they skittered and clambered to escape. Red laser blasts tracked them down and cut them apart or cauterised large holes into them.

They were all dead, save for the beetles which had scuttled away from his impact and were busy balancing precariously in single-file along a small path. A wall with no hand-holds on one side and a sheer hundred-meter fall on the other.

He fired at them, the last of his clip sizzled and spat at it connected with the rear beetle. It howled but caught up to the one in front, and then promptly vanished around a blind bend.

He connected with the wall and rolled toward the ground. As chunks of rock fell around him, he saw the singeing burns and swirling green magic trace back to the commando, how was this thing still going?

His suit blipped a servo-warning at him, he needed a field repair and a reload and this nightmare was rising to finish him off.

He grunted, limp-surging toward the bug with his rifle held by the emitter. He swatted the stock across its check, and it swayed downward. The thing sent a strike his way, and he deflected it. He was in better condition than the last time they had danced, and he regretted that whole “it’s a capable warrior, it deserves to live,” crap. He must have been high on the painkiller.

Its follow-up jab connected with his midsection with a clank, he took possession of the dark limb and spun around, using a hip-throw to slam the bug into the ground. He pressed down on the winded bug with one foot and widened his stance, he still held the foreleg in his vice-like paws. He pulled up, twisting and wrenching the limb. The bug screeched as he tore the leg from its body.

He battered it with its leg uselessly, foregoing the limb as the creature kicked and scrabbled out from his stomp. It rose, he drew his sidearm and fired, aiming for its head.

A bolt slashed a big divot into its upper skull, a second caught it in the mouth – blowing off its jaw. His weapon seized, not enjoying the blistering heat that permeated everything exterior to his armour.

With cobra-like speed, he swept up a chiton-coated blade and thrust it deep into its chest. Dark green blood poured out of every orifice and then it fell back and away. John watched it sail downward – losing sight as it careened into the mirage-reminiscent soup of the lower basin.

After the climb, John was met with a wall of sabres and short-swords, he rolled over the edge and the weapons were lowered. Some slower than others.

John was helped up, although he didn’t need it. He took a long drag of chalky recycled water.

“Did you get the artillery?” McKenna was sweating profusely. They all were.

“I regret to say that I was not able to, they got away while I fought a brutally tough commando.”

She snorted, “you killed a commando one-on-one?! Impressive.”

“Affirmative. What now, Lieutenant?”

Her eyes rolled and reopened with her usual hardened edge, “We push up to the next ridge. We control the vermin, then we prepare for a second wave of chariots to drop us supplies and more troops.”

“Roger that, let’s move.”

Author's Note:

The chapter before this was mostly written a few months ago. I was struggling to write it but managed to finish it up. Inspired by the idea I had for this chapter, I honestly love writing war and tragedy. It is just so good.

I think I can finally end this story within another chapter or two. For a long time, I did not have a direction - and certainly no finish-line - in mind. Well, now I do. It's a hazy, uncertain and likely forgettable ending, but it will at least wrap up this beast of a tale. Hard to believe it has been almost two years since I first started writing.

I have come a long way and greatly improved on the aspects of my writing, for which the purpose of this fic was created under. I am glad and a little humbled at the good feedback, both on this site and amongst my RL friends and family. If anyone, anyone has a character they want me to add - just DM me. I might make them die in a horrific, fire-related death. Or maybe not.

It has been nine (9) years since I first watched MLP. I've been an avid reader on this site for seven years, seven good years. I must admit I stopped watching the show a long time ago. It probably isn't anything like what I have set in my mind (not my story ofc). I've been following the threads and episode discussions nonetheless.

My one regret? Not being more active with the others on this site, and not starting my writing journey sooner. As the show winds down, I am afraid for the future of this site. But I really hope it continues. You all keep reading and writing. You all keep doing that and this site will never die.

Paleface signing off, for now.

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