• 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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Intrepid Alloy

“Over here, Commander.” His aerial ride off of the mountain had barely expelled John into a bare-bones Equestrian camp before the husky voice of a small Thestral called to him.

He approached. The mares head barely up to his armoured waist. “Identify.”

She had a well-worn, if clean, set of Thestral armour. Formed from a shell of dull-grey plates and a small cluster of chainmail at each of the segment’s seams. She wore no helmet on her curiously tilted head.

“Guard Moonshot, sir. Colonel Kodiak is waiting for you. I’ll show you where to go.”

She led a verbally reserved John across a thirty-meter flat ground toward a small collection of tents. A few wooden sheds were interspersed amongst the cloth domiciles.

“Where are we?” John asked, desperately hoping they had showering facilities.

Her head remained fixed forward, “this is Outpost STALLION. It’s an aid and resupply station for our patrols and forward units.” She explained.

They passed a dreary team of Royal Guard. Many sported bandaged wounds, one limped from the side of a bed-ridden pony toward an outhouse set between two structures. He hobbled on three legs – one rear limb dangled and the end was wrapped in a brown-stained material.

The place was a mess. Black and grey viscera stained patches of the open dirt or was flecked against the canvas tents. Bands of mean-looking Thestrals stalked the place. Switching between suspiciously eyeing every shadowed crevice and scanning the skyline.

“Sorry about the mess, bugs got into the camp and made a real meal of our request that they not be. After that, we took on some of the first stragglers from the fighting across the mountain,” Moonshot offered in explanation.

John opted not to say anything. The ponies had fought well – he had immediately seen confidence and capability in every Thestral he’d so far met, yet many of the regular pony soldiers had not been tested in battle, and that would mean a lot of chaff would have to be cut from the wheat.

A trio of broad-shouldered bat-ponies stood vigil over an unassuming carrot-coloured tent. Two glared menacingly at any who came near. The last plodded around the entrance in some kind of animalistic posturing.

The door-guards didn’t even acknowledge him or the young Thestral. John absently wondered if he had come across them before.

Moonshot lifted the flap, this tent was as tall as the others – with enough headroom for him to strut around in his power armour. His leg muscles had started to numb from the continued use and lack of sleep, the on-board computer shot him with a fast-releasing caffeinated protein that would give him the kick up the ass needed to keep going until nightfall.

His eyes widened almost as if by themselves, his skin became taut and a persistent heat rushed through his body. Instantly the slight grogginess and fatigue were lifted.

“Thank you Moonshot, you’re dismissed.” Colonel Kodiak’s hulking, light-absorbing visage was looking straight at John as she spoke.

“Aye, aye,” Moonshot said and smartly saluted. Her exit from the tent was followed by a pair of luminous orange eyes. And then they were on John.

“What’s the news?” He asked.

Her face muscles contorted so fiercely that her usually unreadable jet-black appearance was betrayed by the expression.

“Bad and worse,” she growled. “Colonel Amethyst has disappeared from the capitol. No fucker can find her – so tactical authority falls on Colonel Whitebow.”

John's eyebrows rose inside his helmet at her words. “So?”

She fixed him with a glare, “so, Whitebow marched half of her brigade into enemy-occupied land, attempting to seize points across the territory. Naturally, I objected, she forced my hoof – and I hate that.

She exhaled heavily, “I sent one of my five Battalions – hoping to understaff her would make her opt to abandon such a reckless action. While you were rounding up the survivors of another one of her botched operations, my Thestrals and I were struggling to hold onto this sector. They overran the forward bases, barrelled through our perimeter and only by this morning had we managed to evict them.”

In a flash she had scooped up a pile of papers that lay scattered on the desk between them, “reports are coming in – seventy, eighty – and a hundred per cent loss rates among some units. It’s a fucking disaster! And I know it won’t be my head on the chopping block.”

“Princess Luna has been pulled back to Canterlot for her wellbeing, a sentiment I can get behind yet I’m left with few friends of any political merit.”

Her saffron-yellow eyes twitched up from glowering at the desk as she slammed her hoof down on it, instead boring into John. He winced. The T-series armour had bullet-proof eye slits – yet her gaze passed through effortlessly.

“You promised me weapons to end this: can you deliver?” A cold question. Not threatening or malicious. A commander wanting to know the resources she could muster.

He took a moment. He considered explaining the fine details, then reconsidered a short version. Finally, he settled on the idea that Kodiak was a pony of certainty. He either could or he couldn’t, and indicating he might only try would probably serve to earn her ire, something he did not wish.

“Yes.” He said firmly.

“Get me back to the Anlace and I can launch by the end of the day.”

Kodiak nodded once, “I’m glad to hear that.”

She sat at her desk. “There is a silver lining.” And continued at his silence, “my niece – Lieutenant Midnight, has come out of her coma.”

“Everything still alright up top?” He elaborated by twirling an index finger in a circle around the side of his helmet.

Her head tilted a degree, “apparently she will make a full recovery.”

John hummed, “that’s good.”

They stared at one another for a full minute, evidently out of things to say.

As John turned to leave Kodiak addressed his back, “I’d like to thank you again, for keeping her alive.”

He looked back over his shoulder and they shared a nod.

She added as he pulled up the tent-flap, “Don’t wander too far. Buggers are still out there, and we’ll be on the next outbound carriage.”

He turned, “I’ll be ready.”

Cut to carriage ride, he thought. John’s life at the moment seemed to hinge on one journey to the next. Equestrian terrain slowly flowed underneath, their cart rode above the thickening cloud layer as they drew closer to the heart of Equestria.

They weren’t alone in the air, over the thirty-minute trip several squadrons of both pony and Thestral screened the carriage, before returning to their circuit.

The carriage didn’t level out and slowly descend, instead it switched from level flying to hurtling downward like a meteor. John didn’t scream verbally but his mind was awash with the feeling of imminent death as his stomach tried to depart through his throat.

The flight team pulled up and landed in a gravity and physics-defying manoeuvre that would have cut any human craft in two.

He practically fell out of the cart, his heart hammered hard in his ears. He was joined on his side of the transport by Kodiak, four thickly-armoured Thestrals and a crate of her job-related office materials.

On the opposite side, a worry-stricken NCO was herding a platoons-worth of Royal Guard into the cramped carriage.

The ride lifted up and accelerated away, blasting up a shower of dirt and grass. This more temperate and less Saharan part of Equestria was more to his liking. Comfortably hot but you wouldn’t die of exposure, just right in his opinion.

Two sets of six gold-bedecked guards were strapped into a pair of Identical-looking carriages. One was being filled with crates marked with symbols that John could identify as being water, food and medicine.

“The empty one is ours.” Kodiak interrupted his inspection, heaving the crate onto her back before her Thestral body-guards could even blink.

She rocked a little, straightened and walked to the side of the passenger-less cart. John neared, exiting his armour as Kodiak wobbled ineffectively to topple her crate into the carts load-bin.

Even out of his suit John was a large man, the spitting image of his father. By 16 he’d reached an impressive 6’8 – just over two meters and hadn’t grown even a little bit since. However, in twenty years he had beefed-up considerably eating the type of food and portions only the military serves up.

After hopping from his armours’ confines, John effortlessly unburdened her of the coarse-edged box and used his long limbs to gently place it in the centre of the cart – leaning over the dark Thestral.

She watched impassively; wide slit-pupiled eyes arced up to meet Johns. She grunted. Kodiak then walked out from under him and he followed.

“Wait here,” Kodiak instructed her security team. If they wanted to argue they held their tongue. John wouldn’t have bothered either.

She set a ground-eating pace that had John half-skipping to keep up, once further into camp they paused at an intersection. She looked around. John brought up his pip-boy.

“This way,” he said – leading Kodiak out of her stalled stance.

She caught up and he could see her looking at him from the corner of his eye.

“What?” He asked at last.

“How do you know where we’re going?”

He shook his pip-boy adorned arm, “this thing has a map on it.”

Her eyes narrowed and her ears drew back in what he thought of as a disbelieving expression.

“How does that work? Magic?”

He snorted. The specifics weren’t fully known to John’s mind – yet he’d once read a pre-war manual about a dead-end line of tech that the brotherhood had picked up.

He looked at her as they made a left turn through the maze of tents. “Not magic. It’s called a global-positioning-system. My ship on the way in lost a lot of stuff, most of it burned up in the atmosphere. One of the things that didn’t – conveniently, was a GPS satellite.”

“It's experimental,” he explained, “but the idea is for the ship to scan the ground with lidar and radar, and then pump that mapping data into a net of satellites. Far as I can tell – just the one is operational, the ships probe-launch-and-retravel-bay were toast as the ship lost altitude.”

He shrugged as he got off-topic, “anyway – the point is I can get real-time info on the ground, record it and create a three-dimensional map.”

She faced forward again, “sounds like magic to me.”

He acknowledged with a nod. “True enough,” he said.

Another line of off-white canvas tents later and he recognised the flat-topped and wide entrance of the medical centre. By the entrance there was a young pony with no rear legs and rheumy-coloured eyes, he sat upright in a type of wheel-chair.

He had terrible burns that oozed through the ineffective greyish coverings that swaddled him. In his front hooves, he held a water bladder and was struggling to get the stopper open.

Kodiak half-crouched by his side, gently speaking, “okay, soldier.” As she unscrewed the stopper and held the bladder for him to drink. He licked his chalky lips and drank in greedy, gulping mouthfuls.

She lifted the neck carefully away from his mouth, “is that enough?”

He nodded rapidly while probing the air with an unbandaged forelimb. It brushed across Kodiaks neck, and she lifted it – holding his hoof in hers.

“Thank you,” he rasped.

“No,” she said, “thank you.”

Kodiak looked at the guard. Seeming to force herself to take in all of it, and then breezed inside the tent.

Barely inside, and she was back to her usual self. It must have been visiting hour because many of the occupied beds had one or more guards stationed around. Not all of them had stood to face Kodiak to stand at attention.

“Colonel,” John recognised Major Dahlia.

“Major.” She said flatly, “is the stallion by the door well enough to be on his own?”

A short-lived frown crossed the surgeon's flawless face, “I was about to check upon him. He asked to be outside.” She seemed irritated that a patient of hers would be anything other than well-cared for, and whisked between Kodiak and John with a brief, “excuse me.”

John looked at the dark Thestral, her teeth were quite clearly clenched. “Come on – let's go and see Midnight.” That snapped her out of her funk and he could hear her right behind him.

The little medicinal smelling room contained a half dozen cots. All empty. Save for one that had disturbed sheets with slight tea-coloured marks, and another that housed a rising striped Thestral.

Kodiak very obviously couldn’t contain the relief of seeing her family member conscious and gave the younger mare a constricting one-legged hug. He pretended not to notice but the pair shared a quick nuzzle as Kodiak pulled away.

Midnight sniffed. If he thought it was an emotional response, he was proven wrong as her nose wrinkled in mild disgust. As she spoke she displayed vaguely normal white teeth flanked by four fangs, “you both stink!”

Kodiaks head swayed side-to-side as a negative, “I showered thank you, Lieutenant. It’s this one.”

Her obsidian coat revealed little, but he was sure he could see the tiniest of smiles.

“How are you feeling?” He asked seriously.

“Better,” her golden yolky eyes were a thin almond-shape, and pleasing to look at.

Square that shit away. “Good,” he allowed. “Ready to get back to work?”

Midnight nodded enthusiastically, then looked at Kodiak. “I need your help with that.”

“What do you need?” Kodiak asked instantly.

“Major Dahlia won’t sign my release papers. I was going to go Absent Without Leave, but now that you’re here – I won’t have to!”

Midnight.” Kodiaks tone was scalding.

The mackerel-patterned Thestral offered a fang-filled, sheepish grin. Kodiak looked between each of Midnight's innocent eyes and pulled back reluctantly.

Kodiaks face scrunched up and she nodded once. Turning to exit without speaking, and leaving John and Midnight alone.

John folded his arms and leaned against a support pole. It bowed a little under his weight but held. “I didn’t think you’d make it, Lieutenant. I’m glad to be wrong.” He smiled.

Midnight was sat upright in a vaguely human sitting position that looked neither comfortable nor natural. Her rear legs were under a thin white sheet, an IV stand sat next to the cot with a clipboard attached to the frame of the cot. John swiped it and had a nose.

“I wasn’t sure that I would be either, Major Dahlia was worried about the drugs you gave me. She says it’s given me liver and kidney damage.”

His smile fell from his mouth.

Kodiak didn’t return for a few minutes. Midnight explained that the damage to her body was conventionally irreversible. Rumours of a renal specialist hidden in the Crystal Empire were discussed, but the price would be too much for Midnight or her family. Magical scans showed prominent grape-sized growths across her liver, kidneys and some smaller ones sprouting on her ovaries.

Johns offer of help in the Anlace’s automated medical suite was answered with a shrug, “if it gets desperate, I just might.”

She asked about his exploits while she’d been out of commission and he glossed over the last few days. How he’d begun to repair his vessel and the assault and rescue across butterfly ridge. They talked about the possible motives of the Changeling force.

“In a day, it won’t matter. Because I’m going to kill them all.” John said in a manner so final.

She nodded slowly, “and then what will you do?”

“I don’t think I can go back to where I came from. I’ll have to make-do here amongst your kind. I’m getting too old for this life. I probably wouldn’t have ever retired back home. Coming out here was supposed to be a lazy adventure. Full of new sights, I was going to build a house across a tropical beach, pick out a soft woman from the crew – or not – and eat and drink every day until I was jolly.”

She pulled back in a strange manner. Obviously, his reply hadn’t been what she was expecting. “you don’t look that old – how old do humans live for?”

He shrugged again, “I’m thirty-seven. Reaching seventy’s pretty good. I had a great-uncle who lived to over one-hundred – but he was elder by forty and had a pretty comfortable life after that. I’ve broken my back every day for the last twenty-seven years.”

They shared a short silence. Then she barked laughter, “you’re never going to stop being a soldier. You love it. Me too.” Unfortunately, she was probably right.

“What about you?” He asked. This the most the extra-fluffy Thestral had spoken since they’d met. Other than shouted orders during battle. But John wasn’t much of a conversationalist himself and so that suited him.

She smiled wistfully, images of her past likely circling over her eyes. “I’m twenty-five. I was born in a desert-dwelling village on the edge of the Irrebidian peninsula. My mother smuggled me into an Equestrian town and I grew up with her sisters family in North Aurora – the largest Thestral city.”

“I joined my local reserve force, I fought raiders and bandits. When I was eighteen, I went back to school to study. I went to St. Nocturn university and enlisted with the Lunar Guard. After two years I was invited to attend Black Oak military academy – skip a few years as a junior officer doing peacetime stuff and I met you, and fought with the 1st across Equestria.” She finished proudly.

“Oh, and by the way, that medal ceremony is happening later. Soon, actually.” She added.

Lieutenant Colonel Kodiak materialised from thin air behind him, somehow avoiding his senses – her voice made him jump, but he’d take that to his grave.

“Medal and hoof-shakes, Commander. Half hour. Try and wear something nice.” She sniffed the air dramatically. “Definitely have a shower.”

John turned and her all-black and impassive face peered up at him. The joke was deadpan and she revealed no smile.

“Roger,” he said.

John gritted his teeth, his shoulders bunched up. He was currently sat lengthways on a bench he had dragged onto the slats that made up the floor of the shower cubicle.

Almost unbearably freezing water tricked and then flowed from the multiple holes of the bucket overhead. After requesting guidance toward the cleaning area, he hadn’t been shocked to find out the method.

A large tin tub with holes drilled in the bottom was to be quickly filled and strung up before most of the fluid would drain from it. John had found said tub, walked the two minutes to the water collection point, filled it up and then had fast-marched back.

As the final few litres dribbled out, he hurried to rinse off the last of the suds. He resisted the urge to shiver. For in this camp there existed only one temperature: cold. He got dressed and made for the structure in the middle of the camp.

He stood at attention. It had been a long time since he had, he realised. Yet the statuesque nature of the position remained comfortable from years of practice. He stood on a raised platform, wearing a pair of plain grey combats, laced and polished boots with a white T-shirt. He was at the left amongst two dozen enlisted soldiers.

Two bands of six officers stood in formations off to his left and he could spy a certain mackerel-coated Thestral third along. They had come dressed to impress. The Royal Guards sporting white tunics with gold inlays and identifying patches of each soldier’s unit. Their Lunar-counterparts wore light grey blouses with a deep blue sash and small black berets.

The sky was a brilliant blue, and a high-altitude wind traced patterns in a swell of ice-white clouds that mixed the palette of colours together like shades of paint.

The ceremony had been dragging on for several minutes, a couple of hundred guards stood at attention in formation behind a row of seated civilian-looking ponies.

As each guard was called to Major Kodiaks side by a microphone, they would be presented with a medal for acts of heroism – or some other occurrence.

He didn’t know all of the pony’s present, only recognising a handful of the selected soldiers. Dark Goldenrod limped over on crutches to have a medal called the ‘gold leaf medal’ pinned on her dress-uniform.

She saluted and returned to formation. Next came a pudding of a mare who swelled in her uniform. At least John presumed it was a mare from the way her hips sashayed as she walked.

Christ. I don’t want to look. He found a spot off to the right and focused intently on it until the plump guard returned behind a row of others.

So, it went, several more ponies being awarded and congratulated before he was. Lieutenant Midnight had her turn, the citation Kodiak read aloud was decidedly condensed.

“For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of her life above and beyond the call of duty while serving with the 1st battalion, 10th regiment, 1st Lunar Guards, in action against enemy changeling forces in the battle of Camp Saddle Pad on the 30th day in the month of harvest, second millennium. Lieutenant Midnight is awarded the Celestial Star, Equestrias highest military decoration.”

“While under intense enemy bombardment, Lieutenant Midnight led a counter-battery offensive to eliminate enemy siege artillery. Her platoon, having been cut off from friendly forces – had been instructed to hold position while Lieutenant Midnight travelled alone with great swiftness. After securing mercenary reinforcements, Lieutenant Midnight returned to attack the enemy along with her platoon. Together they destroyed seven enemy artillery units, and was directly responsible for killing over four-hundred enemies.”

Kodiak tied the clasp of the blue ribbon around Midnights bowed neck. The five-sided stellated gold award as big as Johns' palm. The star held the visage of its namesake, Princess Celestia’s head wearing a laurel wreath clutching a sword in one hoof and a scroll in the opposite. The ribbon connected to the medal via the image of a stalwart pegasi with wings spread clutching crossed spears. The emblem of each monarch etched into them.

“During their subsequent reinforcement, Lieutenant Midnight along with her first platoon held their position and fought valiantly against fierce enemy opposition. The task force that had been sent to aid in the Lieutenants fight arrived, yet she refused the greatly needed relive. Instead fighting for the remaining day against a numerically superior foe.”

Kodiak turned and the guards arranged behind the civilians’ stance became ridged. “During the task force’s evacuation, and having sustained life-threatening wounds – Lieutenant Midnight again refused the greatly needed medical attention, volunteering to help defend the soon-to-be overrun Camp Saddle Pad.”

“After learning of a captured Equestrian civilian, Lieutenant Midnight mounted a rescue mission. She evaded enemy detection, flying dangerously low, using the hilly terrain around the camp to conceal herself as she located and promptly freed the imprisoned Equestrian. After treacherous close-quarters fighting, Lieutenant Midnight killed a Changeling Commando and a dozen others. She eventually succumbed to her wounds, losing consciousness at the last possible second.”

“Her personal valour and exceptional spirit of courage in the face of almost certain death are in keeping with the highest traditions of the Equestrian Guard service.”

Kodiak turned and saluted. Offering a hidden wink at her niece. The guard formations saluted as did Midnight. They stood like that for several seconds, the guards and Midnight returning to at-ease as Kodiak once again turned to award the next soldier. Midnight returned to her formation. A distant look in her eye.

After all that, and multiple long-winded expressions of heroism and valour. It was Johns time in the spotlight. He had been secretly dreading the experience. A number of the civilian attendees were members of the press and would no-doubt bring his existence into the public eye for the first time. His ship and the nature of his arrival were to remain secret for now, Kodiak introducing him as, “a warrior from another land.”

He quick-marched at her calling, standing at attention in front of her he towered overhead. He saw the looks of amazement, study and suspicion directed his way from the civilians as they furiously wrote everything down.

“For the continual assistance of Equestrian military efforts, at great risk to his life in the face of perilous danger, during acts of valour in actions against Changeling forces, Commander John Maxon is to be awarded the Royal Medal of Harmony.”

Kodiak was taller than most ponies, and so was able to fasten the medal around John's neck without too much difficulty. It was near-identical to Midnights Celestial Star, with a different mix of colours. Blue and white with a gold bar fastened across a lower-hanging ribbon. The image on this decoration was both princesses surrounded by several others he didn’t recognise. Each princess horn was alighted with a symbol of half-moon half-sun that rose above them.

“This is the highest civilian award that Equestria can bestow upon you.” She said, not loud enough for anyone else to hear.

As she backed away, a grubby stallion smoking a pipe had set up an old-style camera. It was stood on a tripod, as he covered himself in a black cloak, another, equally filthy pony held a lightbulb up.

The lightbulb sparked and flashed as the camera clicked loudly. They were arranged several times, John and Midnight, and then with Kodiak. All of them together. The ceremony finished with a speech over the bravery and single-minded dedication of those who had walked the valley and not returned. Ending after a two-minute silence.

John had returned from the ceremony to his tent. Beside which lay a disturbed patch from where Princess Lunas tent had once been. He looked blandly at it and entered his temporary abode.

His armour bay was dead-middle. His armour slung into it, tools and diagnostic equipment surrounded it. He removed the medal and looked at it, he ran his thumb along its features and edges, before placing it in a small box he’d been given for just that purpose.

He secured several easy-to-reach weapons nearby his bed, semi-covered behind a chest and entered an immediate dreamless sleep.

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