• Published 28th Mar 2018
  • 2,684 Views, 104 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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The Gilded Circuit

Lieutenant McKenna dragged a wounded royal guard stallion underneath a small natural arch, adjacent to a curvature set into the hillside. He had terrible burns over his face and forelegs, he trembled and gasped – but didn’t scream. All-around on the dusty mesa, hordes of Changelings waged murderous warfare against her strike force.

The sun was sapping the life out of all of them. The temperature was barely survivable – they’d all had to carry additional water rations to hold them over until the next drop could be completed. The extra weight had slowed them down; so many had ditched their equipment in order to move faster.

They were outnumbered. The Changelings were dying by the dozen – their pool of infantry seemed limitless. The Equestrians were struggling to break through this part of the mesa, so she had sent the human on a flanking run. Even now she could hear his strange magic emitter firing as explosive detonations thundered across the mountainside.

Another guard jumped into the archway, framed by a near-miss that blasted the nearby crevice into chunks. He was the only surviving medic, the others had either been killed on the way in – or during the perilous, tooth-and-hoof fighting that had ensued.

Celestia. Hold on, soldier!”

He immediately set to work – igniting his horn and using a mixture of salves. The wounded guard hissed as they worked to sooth his mangled flesh.

She kept low as she exited the safety of the arch, hugging the curve in the strata. And using her receptive bat-senses to quickly locate a nearby Non-Commissioned Officer. Sergeant Lamina was a brute of a Thestral. Bulging in a too-small battle harness, with icky green blood matted to her fur.

“Shrug it off, Apollo – we’re all hit – so take a number! Round up whoever you can and press onwards up the left side!”

Senior Guard Apollo was otherwise average looking, one eye was bandaged and weeping – his face scrunched in anger and pain.

“Yes, Sergeant!” He catapulted off and away. Moments thereafter the sound of Changeling weapons-fire picked up, then calmed.

A thinly-built Pegasus Mare was looking over the flat-top at the enemy through a monoscope. Calling out their locations and speaking into a communications gem. It glowed red as a warbled voice spoke through it.

Just in-sight a team of Royal Guard rushed from their positions belly-down in the dirt. McKenna could see them approaching a decent-size group of bugs.

Blinding golden light cascaded down from above. White-hot stone and sand undermined their ascent. McKenna knew the ramifications of not securing the Landing Zone for the second wave.

Her strike platoon had been halved and they were all on the verge of overheating. The Changeling defence along this flattop was particularly well organised in addition to being fanatic and unrelenting. While the heavy artillery had abated, sorties of streamlined fast and deadly Changelings were strafing her position.

There existed a dead ground between them and the bugs. They were taking cover from the air attacks in a series of overlapping arches and natural bridges across an old stream bed.

Screeches and chitters were coming from amongst a rocky forest, concealing the shape-shifters behind thick outcroppings and crumbling chalky mounds.

The only saving grace had been the human. While she had privately worried about the alien’s intentions, he had displayed many times a wilfulness to protect her fellow ponies by placing their safety above his own.

He didn’t seem to fatigue or tire; a being of incomparable will. Occasionally, a burst of his weapons-fire would rise above the din of battle. He would provide the respite they so desperately needed. She was awaiting that moment, only then they would take the high ground.

“Sergeant Lamina!”


“Organise attack teams. We’re taking the ridge.”

“Already on it. But first, we need those air attacks to stop.”

“Agreed. Send Senior Guard Corsair into the blue to lure them over this position. I’ll take a pair of Unicorns and set an ambush.”

A deadly glint shone in the older mares dark Dijon eyes, and she smiled like a predator.

“Aye, aye.”

Senior Guard Corsair always got used as bait. He had at one time been a tri-seasonal-games flying champion. He had set and broken record times around the Gilded Circuit. A legendary Griffon racing course designed to be almost impossible to complete. Which meant that enticing bugs to come and kill him was easy by comparison.

They flew over+, barely audible as they were incredibly fast-moving. The squad rushed overhead, he leapt up and took flight. A noise like a rushing waterfall caught up to his ears as they passed him. He chopped his sabre across the air as one of them fell apart across his weapon.

It screeched a horrid scream that hurt his eardrums. The others must have seen because their already distant forms were looping around for a second shot.

He gained some altitude with a few hard beats of his leathery wings. Once high enough he dived ground-ward to build up speed – and weaved across the zone between the two sides.

The Changelings must have thought he was a scout because they tried to ground him by firing random bolts across his trajectory. He was too fast to hit. Streaking through the blue-green energy shards like an arrow through horizontal rain.

They were coming up on his 7-o’clock. Their approach offset unknowingly perfect. As they fired bolts towards him. He turned suddenly and sharply ninety degrees left, forcing them to slow in order to intercept.

He bobbed and weaved. Correctly anticipating their pre-fire sites – passing across the gully before the ambush. He brought both wings up wide as he leant back - halting so quickly the force caused his ears to pop. He used his final ounces of momentum to slip low and into cover.

They were on course to intercept and overshoot. The surface and adjacent trench-line were raked with explosions. Large chunks of rock bursting into high-speed shards.

“Fire!” McKenna screamed the order.

A pair of Unicorns filled the air above them with ethereal fire and ice. Crystalline shards and blasts of molten rock cut the Changeling air-wing to ribbons. Steam and flash-boiled blood created an enormous cloud of organic matter that swirled and eddied, evaporating as suddenly as it had appeared.

Both unicorns winced as their horns rapidly shifted in temperature.

“Good shooting ace,” McKenna said.

She hopped up to the top of the crevice, fluttering across the dead-ground and pressing herself against a pillar of granite.

Sergeant Lamina had taken to the skies; leading two groups of six across and over the gully that pierced into the stone forest.

The unicorn duo was coming up to her. Three Royal Guard keeping an eye on everything as they herded the mages across.

She told them, “the bipeds either dead or still on their flank. Either way, we need to find him. Cut into these rocks and we’ll handle clearing out the bugs.”

Spells burst apart the brittle spires. Breaking a path through the several body-lengths worth. McKenna led the way, amber and teal fields crisscrossing around her as they practically walked through the natural barrier.

They broke into a sandy clearing, bugs were waiting all around and rushed to stem the Equestrians flow.

McKenna severed the foreleg and then the head of a drone, its assault followed by three more.

A beam of magical magenta energy melted all three. The smell of ozone stung her nostrils and burned her eyes. But Lieutenant McKenna fought on.

John was hot. He’d been hot before, but nothing like this. As he’d stomped through a stalagmite-like rocky undergrowth – a large Changeling, not a commando – more like a walking tank had sprung its trap.

It careened down on him, causing a big piece of a stalagmite to break off – John quickly used it to impale the witless creature through the abdomen. It growled as it attempted to free itself, John blasted its head into pieces using a burst of laser fire.

This side of the Mesa was difficult to traverse. It had slopped high-top’s backed by sheer ledges. Every other piece of non-elevated ground was coated with chalky spikey rocks. Each as tall as he was.

He’d moved away from the sound of battle in an attempt to loop around undetected and then turn back on himself to attack the enemy from the rear.

John had been unable to find a clear path that fed into the enemies hold-out. They were at a higher altitude, his topography LiDAR detected what seemed to be a large clearing, or a natural compound – surrounded by the stalagmites.

He kept patrolling the perimeter – trying to seek out a way in. He’d brought a few goodies with him, in addition to a dozen mixed-variety grenades he also carried an L50 grenade launcher and two sets of shells. It had a cylindrical revolver-style magazine that could chamber eight 40mm grenades. They could be smart-linked to his HUD and detonated remotely in the air, on impact or after they’d punched through a wall.

He slung his laser rifle. The AER drooped against his thigh from its two-point sling. The L50 was small and compact, robust and able to fire 20 shells a minute. As long as you didn’t run out of ammo – you could play all day.

His new suit of T-series armour had the usual set of microfusion boosters. He had exhaust nodes in his calves, elbows and across his back and chest. He could jump a height of ten meters, before drawing a charge from his armours fusion core.

John had a charge ready and braced himself to boost.

Flames burst from his chest downwards, encompassing him in a white fume that sent him jolting off the ground. A sheer rock-face whizzed past his field of view as he neared a small ledge.

He stuck one arm out and dug his servo-assisted fingers into a fissure. Looking back down he could see endless trails through the crisscrossing and ever-thickening fields of chalky spires and sun-blasted sands.

A two-second tone inside his helmet denoted a ready charge. His HUD gave him a rough vector for the next and final ledge. Just below the rim of the Changeling compound.

He squatted and propelled himself upwards in a powerful jump. A spurt from his propulsion system carried him the remaining distance.

As he stood atop a small Mesa, the surrounding plateau was raked with green blasts. The defending bugs battered the landscape and vaporised much of the potential cover, leaving him partially exposed.

He lay on his stomach, hoping to avoid a direct hit. A half-dozen more explosions wracked the ground, he could feel the concussion waves thundering into him. And then it stopped.

John was up, running at a full sprint across a mass of crushed rock and earth. The glass-like craters crunched underfoot at he sped across the dusty climb, not too far from the enemy now.

Small bleats and whistles from the Changelings magic attacks were answered with an Equestrian war-cry.

“Ah hoo!”

He poured his last reserves of stamina into his sprint, sweat ran across the inside of his bodysuit – his legs, arms and back all burned and ached. Just begging him to stop.

He leapt over a mound and landed among a bug weapons pit. His impact trapped one under his boot, so he stepped down and felt his boot connect with the ground in a messy squelch. He fired his L50 one-handed, the grenade blasted a baseball-sized hole through the head of one, exploding against the ground and shredding the remaining combatants with ball bearings.

The subsequent particulate cloud provided him with cover, those that had seen his assault blindly fired into the cloud. Blue-green energy bolts sliced through the air, tracers that illuminated the pale dust cloud.

He erupted from the dust, L50 in his right hand and AER in his left. Across the clearing he could see McKenna burst through a rocky wall, cutting down one bug as a unicorn behind her killed three more.

He fired left at anther crew, his laser-fire surprised them and killed some. A clank sounded as a beam of magic passed through his shields and glanced across his chest and helmet. Leaving his armours nano-laminate skin bubbling and warping.

He ducked down, firing three air-burst grenades over that section of the clearing. He didn’t want to accidentally maim any ponies, so he stowed the launcher.

McKenna came near, her sabre drawn and eyes alert. Her unit spread out, checking all ends of the oval-shaped depression.


“All clear!”

A pair of voices announced, John remained cautious.

His shields had not activated, so he ran a system analysis to discover if there was a fault. It came back negative, although the algorithms for his suits on-board computer alerted him to a heat warning. His armour systems were not nominal due to the high temperatures.


McKenna looked worn-out. Her mane and fur were plastered with sweat. Her face blushed with the heat, her eyes were bloodshot and she had a small amount of foam at the edge of her mouth.

“Lieutenant. Status?”


“Affirmative. Our next objective is to greet the second inbound wave of ponies, correct?”

“Members of 3rd Battalion should be making a hot-drop within ten minutes.” She glanced skywards and at a small gem-like bracelet she wore on a forelimb.

The summit they were on now was one of the three that existed across the Sierra San-Pony mountains. They were angled from each other in a manner that had created a high-altitude valley out of an old inert caldera. Waterways that had not been quenched in centuries now acted like a maze of trench-like crevices across the marred terrain.

The 8th Mountain Regiment had deployed on the western-most peak, attacking a large ridge-line before contact had been lost. In the distance, he could see smoke columns and small shockwaves from artillery blasts. The enemies or the Equestrians, John was not sure.

“Roger that. Advise you to hold here for five, rest and marshal your forces. I’ll head towards the valley floor and secure the Landing Zone for 3rd Battalion.”

She actually frowned, “no way – we’re going, you take point – we’ll be on your six-o-clock.”

John peeled some of the crusty metal that had melted along the edge of his visor, “I’ll clear a path.”

He turned and thundered away, he cradled his AER – the weapon’s cell at half-charge, so he swapped it for a full one.

He had ten minutes to run two miles. Normally not an issue, but he was moving across arduous ground and he soon expected to come under-fire.

As he wound down the hillside, he passed old bug positions. The dark wax-like substance was all over, winding across the earth like some kind of tumour. He could see pony remains entwined with the unnatural material. The bodies twisted and convoluted, their faces were frozen in agony. They had died in excruciating pain.

The crisscrossing rocky and chalky outcroppings succumbed to another flat area. A handful of bug-pits had been left empty. They were large – big enough for the Corvega-sized beetles they used as siege units.

He stopped. Scanning the perimeter and the edges of each hole. He didn’t see anything – his suits infrared optics were too heat-stressed to function and his own augmented eyesight couldn’t pierce the mirage that existed opposite.

Cautiously he entered the dead-ground. Something didn’t feel right, John could feel it. Malicious energy.

A hail of energy-bolts careened across towards him, kicking up dirt and blasting big divots into the ground wherever they struck. John took four large leap-steps to his right and jumped feet-first into one of the bug-pits.

A pair of Changeling warriors seemed surprised to see him, yet attacked without provocation. His weapon was not in position – unable to fire, he booted one in its angular head, concussing it.

The other was bearing down on his midsection with a chitinous spear. The weapon scratched his abdominal armour but didn’t penetrate. John clasped the bugs head in his left hand, pressing his AER’s emitter against its throat. The shot severed its head, its body thrashed and twitched – John ignored it at he prepared to counter-attack.

He had four 40mm shells in his L50, with eight more across his waist. He allowed his AER to dangle by its sling as a new wave of blasts and rapid-fire machinegun-like bolts churned up the earth around the pit.

He set the four shells to air-burst and aimed out of the pit. From his angle, he’d be able to pepper much of the adjacent rock-line. Using the attack to conceal his approach.

He fired each shot, aiming at different degrees of his approach. The shrapnel shredded the rock-line, kicking up sand and rock-chips. John thumbed the release button of the revolver-style magazine, quickly emptying the shells and inserting eight more.

He stuck the weapon across his lower back and leapt out and into a fast run. His AER led the way. It was twenty meters until the rock-line and he could see the silhouettes of many bugs. Some writhed while others prepared to fend John off.

A few errant strings of energy rushed his way, but the bugs were struggling to find their target through the dust. John ran in a serpentine pattern to lesson the risk of being hit.

He bounded across a crater three meters wide, spinning around to bash the end of his rifle across a Changelings chitinous head. The bug hissed and folded over, blood ejecting from its jagged maw.

He maintained a low stance, scanning for more hostiles. The dust was settling. On this side of the valley, the Changelings had dug themselves into a slanted hillside like ticks on a brahmin. Although he had scattered the roaches they now came forward in reckless abandon.

John fired a long trailing burst at the first willowy figures to emerge from the dust screen and then ran ten meters to his right. He stopped and fired again, depleting his cell.

He reloaded on the move, this time aiming to jump into another crater. Just before the leap – he could see a beetle-like beast emerging from the hole. It had a brilliant saffron colour across its back, which was bulging with an oozing blue gel-like substance.

He halted, taking a knee and firing at a squad of Changelings that had taken up position opposite. He palmed a fragmentation grenade, primed it – and rolled the cylindrical explosive under the somewhat docile creature.

Taking off again left a dust devil in his wake. The detonation very nearly blew him off his feet, he stumbled in large wavering strides as he tried to maintain his pace.

More and more Changelings were emerging from the other side of an irregular slope. Speeding over the top of the rocky dune and raining down magic blasts. Larger meaner looking bugs raced ahead while the sharpshooters kept him on his armoured toes.

He reached the second pit, the lumbering back of a beetle just about visible – he tossed a grenade in and doubled his speed. Within six strides and twenty near-misses, the second blast sent him sprawling.

The freshly disturbed dust and debris helped to conceal him. A band of large Changelings had incorrectly guessed his last position, passing a few meters between him and the next pit.

John swiped his discarded AER and rushed forward. His whirring servo motors and earth-shuddering footsteps alerted them – five stretched into a line, a few sent magical blasts at him.

He ducked low, scrabbled on two legs and a hand – raised to his full height and fired at them. Vicious and intense – the automatic laser-fire lit them up, illuminating their thick bodies and chitinous limbs.

All five dropped in an instant, John carried onward. His HUD was giving him a northernly route for the next hole.

He sped up, weaving to avoid the intense return-fire the bug sharpshooters were pouring in. They couldn’t see him, he reckoned but were nonetheless attempting to score a hit through sheer volume of fire.

The next beetle-containing crater rushed to meet his feet, he leapt over the three-meter pore and deposited an active grenade into it.

He surged to his right, continuing west for the final artillery site. The explosion was violent, a thundering crack followed by rushing wind. Intense heat and light, it blocked out all other sensation.

He stumbled only a little – charging onwards. A few rag-tag streams of energy-fire were chasing him, so he maintained his serpentine approach. Altering his vector every few meters. He didn’t even look into the fourth hole as his quarry was on the move and making a run for it.

Although they looked ungainly, their peculiar scuttling gait made them quite agile. John bounded over the crater, aiming and slowing – he fired a few shots at the creature’s legs and it collapsed.

He was breathing heavily. He cradled his AER low and ready – a grenade in his left hand held along his leg.

As he approached the beast whistled and whooped, attempting to slither away on blackened and broken legs. John’s suit was struggling to filter all the particles with the amount of oxygen his tired lungs were demanding. He armed the grenade and set its fuse to sixty seconds, reaching underneath he could feel a chitinous hole. He implanted the grenade, and quickly departed at a fast jog.

He stumbled out of the swirling smog. He breathed easier, but his body ached from the hard run – his muscles cramped a little along his back – his suits auto-doc injected him with a stimulant and almost immediately he felt a surge of revitalisation.

Turning around he could see the forms of a few bugs heading his way. The snipers along the far bank were scanning for him – the closest screeched once and all the others moved as if controlled by one mind.

He fired a few blasts up at the bugs on the dune, turning and running across the last embankment. His heavy armoured legs sank into the soft sand which was ever-shifting.

The goldfish-coloured sandhills were blazingly hot. Reflecting the scorching sun which loomed above, taunting him with the threat of inevitable demise.

A volley of magical projectiles melted the sand, the superheated impacts ripping up the dune and creating scores out of glass. One lanced across his back, narrowly missing his fusion pack – the ceramic and steel composite shell deflected the blow.

He reached the top, rotated and began firing down at the bugs. He lay on his stomach to offer a smaller target, shooting and reloading. The wind had evaporated much of the settling smog – providing a clear view of the area.

It was a bottle-necked entrance to the valley-proper. His prone feet in the direction of the westerly 8th armoured while the Changelings had their back to the advancing strike force across three large black craters.

The sharpshooters were firing at him from a long spine-like sand dune which mated with his to his right. To his left lay another impassable stalagmite-esq forest.

Fifty or so of them had clustered around the wounded beetle, which had remained stationary. His HUD counted from five seconds.

The blast was sudden. The eruption covered a ten-meter diameter, drowning them all in a sea of blazing flame and sun-blushed sand.

The snipers had stopped momentarily, as the detonation had consumed eighty per cent of their numbers.

John rolled to his right and rushed out-of-sight to outflank the shooters. In a few heartbeats, he had run unevenly around the right side, below the line of the dune. He brandished his AER 17 Laser Rifle in one hand and his L50 grenade launcher in the other.

His route snaked left, at the bottom were more chalky mounds – he peaked up and over a quasi-dune in the middle of the slope between him and the bugs. A couple waited while the others attempted to slink away into the rocky cover.

They fired a few poorly-aimed missiles, Johns return fire decimated their retreat. Three airburst grenades and sustained depletion of his AER’s Microfusion cell allowed for no survivors. They lay twisted and mutilated – as he returned his L50 to his back-mount and reloaded his AER, he scanned for any remaining Changelings. There were none and all was quiet.

He turned and headed westward for the 8th Regiment’s last-known location. And towards the smoke pillars that ruined the otherwise pleasant view.

After a ten-minute and mostly uneventful five-kilometre run – he paused to suck in some much needed, albeit turgid, chalky recycled fluid. It was like drinking seawater. A result of the added vitamins, stamina-assisting minerals and critical salts and sugars.

He slapped his dry lips together and wettened them. He was currently squatting in a small depression in the bottom of a creek-bed. His mission brief had denoted that this would be the secondary waves landing zone.

More like crash-zone,’ he thought unamused.

It had been more like twenty minutes and still no sign of 3rd Battalions drop-carts. They would come in fast and low to avoid the guaranteed interception by bug forces.

He didn’t see any signs of Changeling activity, but that didn’t mean the critters weren’t in hiding. Just about visible were the tops of wooden structures. Homes and workshops. Warehouses and shops. Apparently, the temporary settlement Uberburu had been a nice place to live before the war. Its inhabitants likely all slaughtered once the bugs had arrived. The black abominations had started digging, looking for something – or mining.

Therefore, the Equestrian military had set a precedent to eliminate any Changeling operations that could be identified.

Uberburu actually translates as ‘mountain of treasure,’ the treasures being precious stones. Artisanal gem mines, (where the word ‘artisanal’ roughly equates to ‘suicidally unsafe’) lie in the outer hilltops, yielding amethyst, peridot, blue zircon, black opal.

But the wildlife seems to have got in on the act as well. If you’re an insect, you’re nothing without a metallic sheen – copper-coloured beetles, opalescent obsidian dragonflies, black velvet butterflies with sprayed-on iridescent blue highlights.

It’s as if the essence of the jewels in the geosphere had leeched into the biosphere, and often been absorbed into the wildlife. Although many of the creatures were hiding from the suns scorching heat, occasionally another bug – not a changeling – would reveal itself.

As John had squatted down, he’d surprised a treefrog who had leapt away and tumbled into a ditch. As he leaned over to see if he was alright, John couldn’t help but notice he was unmistakeably wearing bronze eye-shadow. The amphibian hopped away from him, unimpressed at being startled.

His muscles began to stiffen with lactic acid, a by-product of intense physical exertion. He flexed and unflexed his body while mentally instructing his power armour to remain motionless.

Behind him, on the horizon, a horn blew a three-note tune. Lieutenant McKenna and the survivors from their initial attack would still be a few kilometres distant, but the call meant that 3rd Battalion was on-approach.

Small dots blossomed into long cerulean blue-green streaks. Six carriages – four with six-pony teams and two with eight. Possibly close to a hundred Thestrals were going to deploy in one pass.

He could make out pinpricks of light passing between them and something behind. Sleek and stealthy bug-interceptors were right on their tail, attempting to shoot them down as the carriages slowed to provide a survivable hot-drop.

John moved into position. He had four 40mm shells snug in the L50, a dozen Microfusion cells and four multipurpose hand grenades. He was squatting between a pair of stone pillars.

He placed his AER on the ground and shouldered the L50. He had to be precise; the bugs would only be within range for a few breaths. John also didn’t want to be involved in a friendly-fire incident.

They were a hundred meters away, swooping low and passing along the riverbed just above the adjacent rock formations. They were two-abreast, the eight-pony transports in the lead.

The bugs once again failed to reduce their speed to an acceptable level. They began to overshoot, their course ferrying them towards him as he waited patiently.

They were about twenty meters ahead of the aerial convoy when they reached a parallel with John. At that passing John fired all four 40mm air-burst grenades across a ten-meter spread. Four cracks sounded as the air filled with puffs of white and black smoke.

Multiple aerodynamic bodies dropped or careened downward, many passed on – but it looked like he had killed over half.

He dropped the L50, replacing it with his AER and fired a volley across their trajectory. He scored one more kill. The survivors evaded – before reassembling and carrying onward. John doubted he’d seen the last of them.

The carts passed by, low and relatively slow. The Thestral complement bailed out, gliding down and taking up positions either-side of the creek bed. After their deployment, eight canisters were thrown from the carts, before accelerating away. They would drop supplies over the 8th Mountain Regiments position and return to base.

John stowed the L50 – without ammo, it was essentially useless. But he didn’t want it to fall into enemy hands – or hooves, or whatever.

He jumped down from his elevated perch, landing amongst scraggly weeds and old mud. He walked easily toward the first group of Thestrals, they greeted him with drawn weapons and cautionary stares.

A young Thestral mare came forward. Like many of them she wore a lightly armoured harness. And a type of Boonie hat with a single gold pip on it in place of a curved helm.

“Lieutenant,” John greeted – sure of the rank but not the bearer.

“Stand down, this is the human we were briefed about.”

The bat-ponies behind her relaxed. The company’s worth of troops – about one hundred – moved along the bed in the direction of the smoke pillars, they would help reinforce the members of the 8th Mountain Regiment.

She came closer, “Lieutenant Meridian, at your service.”

“Where’s your commanding officer?” He asked.

“Leading from the front, as usual. Major Bleak-Berry is in charge. Come on, I’ll take you to him.”

They walked together, surpassing the staggered formation of Thestrals. Eventually, they reached a pair of officers. He had met them shortly before the evacuation of Camp Saddle Pad.

“Major. The human is here to help, sir.”

Bleak-Berry turned his head and looked John up and down. He didn’t seem too impressed and faced forward again.

The second officer was Captain Eclipse. She smiled warmly as she greeted him, “Welcome, Commander. Did you have any success assaulting your objectives?”

“Plenty. We came in under-fire, took the Landing Zone, passed through a Changeling stronghold and then I alone came down to liaise with you. En route I was able to eliminate a company-strong bug complement and their beetle artillery battery.”

Bleak-Berry spoke next, “where’s the rest of your platoon?”

“The heat was affecting them greatly. They’re on their way here now.”

He looked at Lieutenant Meridian. “Take a squad, a few of our medics and wait for them with water and food. And use those tarps we brought, set up some shade.”

“Yes, sir. Commander – what condition are they in?”

“Not great. Captain White Spruce’s cart took two in the nose and dropped into the canyon.”

“Who was first contact?”

“1st out of Camp Saddle pad. Don’t expect a warm welcome, Changelings wiped most of them out before they hit the ground.”

She fell behind, and John carried on with the commanding officers of 3rd Battalion.

John paved the way, leading 3rd Battalions scouting party. They had wound along another two kilometres of the riverbed, and they now waited at its end. The river opened into an old lake. It was wide – its edges blurred by the heat-shimmer.

The smoke mounds were rising from the far hillside. The sounds of battle were being carried on the wind, blasts of earth and screams of the wounded broken by the occasional Equestrian unit horn. The ponies were still in the fight, exhausted probably – they needed relieving and soon.

Lieutenant Gibbons was a stocky mare with a somewhat chiselled jawline. Her shaggy grey-black fur had a mackerel-striped pattern which was free to the air as she wore very little in the way of uniform.

“Gibbons, I’ll take half of your team and make contact with the 8th Mountain, helping out until Major Beak comes to the rescue.”

“Alright. See you real soon.”

He took off at a run, half a dozen non-designated Thestrals volunteered and automatically took flight to keep up. The ground was brittle and was hiding a soft muddy under-surface. John had to slow a little.

He hadn’t mentioned it, but he planned on the remains of the Changeling air complement to ambush them once they were in the open. He wasn’t surprised to see a tight-knit group of flecks come out of the sun towards them.

“Spread-out – and stay low. Stay low!” The Thestrals scattered, getting prone – coiled to pounce and engage.

He kept his jog, reaching another ten meters away from the bat-ponies and between the bugs as he awaited their strafe. Perhaps eight aerial shape-shifters were fast on-approach towards him. He took aim with his AER and waited until they were close.

He began firing. Short and tightly-grouped bursts struck a few of them, they answered with a volley of high-explosive and high-velocity bolts which cut the earth and blasted huge chunks in the mud.

Passing overhead, they were set upon by an equal amount of Thestrals. John turned and reloaded, awaiting the Ponies to clear the skyline – and then fired at the final pair of bugs. He got both, they flailed and landed with a pair of thuds in the near-distance.

“I got one!” One of the guards celebrated for himself.

“We keep moving – we must get to the 8th before they’re wiped out.”

John led the way, establishing a fast pace. They’d reach the hillside, aide the 8th Mountain Regiment – kill all the bugs and then assemble with 3rd Battalion and McKenna’s strike team to take the final summit.

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