• Published 28th Mar 2018
  • 2,887 Views, 109 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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Luna winced. “We shall have quite the headache in the morning.”

John pressed a small straw into an energised drink, the beverage was contained in a silver plastic packet. Celestia already clutching another in her hoof. They appeared truly exhausted as they sat slightly slumped, opting not to use magic.

“May I?” John asked.

Luna warily tracked his incoming hand as it neared her scalp. Gently yet firmly he used his index and middle finger to lightly massage the area around the blue rulers spiralled horn. The horn itself was hot to the touch, a sort of lingering warmth radiated from it and she felt as though she had a fever.

“Will you be alright?” He asked.

She nodded as she sucked the last of the juice, inhaling a large lungful of air after, “yes. We shall be fine; we simply need rest.”

“You can use the command deck, settle in.”

She looked reluctant, her sister speaking, “there is much to be done.”

“You’ve done plenty,” he stopped massaging and gestured at the several dozen pony-suitable powered suits. He was impressed with the rate they had been able to make them. Luna claimed with the help of other powerful unicorns they could create a technically unlimited amount. The only snag had been recreating a Microfusion Core – a type of portable Fusion Micro-Reactor. They had devised a way to use magic to power the suits instead, in doing so they had drastically lowered the size of the back-mounted core and streamlined the suit as a whole.

“Our elite Guard should be here soon. Commander, they shall need an area for ingress.”

“How many will there be?” He asked. The Anlace didn’t have a lot of room left.

“They number a total of 400. Only about 80 will be joining us, I wished to equip them with the new weapons and armour – and try to drive the enemy back with the remaining unit acting as our air support.”

She continued, “you’ve taught the Lieutenant and her Thestrals about your weaponry, we hope?”

He nodded that he had, “Lieutenant Midnight and Guards Starchaser, Moonshot and Goldenrod are in the shooting range now – going over the basic assembly and disassembly practice they’ll need before I let them shoot a thing. While energy weapons are powerful, they can be dangerous. Human soldiers train for months or even years, before seeing any combat – but we don’t have the time.”

“Indeed.” She said, with a tired blink.

“Look, you’re exhausted. Get some rest in the bridge. Just an hour – or until your guards get here – whichever’s soonest. I’ll prepare for their arrival, we’ll get them equipped, get them to understand the basics and go from there.”

Luna frowned suddenly.

“What?” He asked.

She glanced at her sister. “We could speed up the training. Make all of them as well-versed in the use of your weapons as you are.”

But?” He asked, leaning in.

“It would require us to look through your memories. We would see virtually every part of your life, from birth until now. Every moment of glee and hurt. Every sight and smell, in a few moments we would experience your entire life. And know you as well as you know yourself. It would be a deeply personal and somewhat jarring journey for both of us, for you would see many parts of our life as a consequence.”

He didn’t say anything immediately. He wasn’t particularly bothered about privacy, he had nothing to hide, no shame really in anything he’d ever done. He wasn’t perfect, and greatly disliked parts about himself and his life. But he had the wisdom afforded by years of brutal combat and sheer survival to accept the things he could not change. Even the demons that plagued him.

“You’re not going to like what you see.” He warned. Slowly realising that while possibly uncomfortable, having better training would give the soldiers of Luna’s personal guard a greater chance of survival.

Although tired, she set her features into one of determination, “unfortunately, John Maxon, neither shall you.”

They sat opposite each other on the bridge, large comfortable cushions underneath them. Her eyes were closed, and for a moment she looked to be sleeping. Her eyes opened. Fierce blue orbs filled with magical energy.

“What about your horn?” He asked, the long, spiralled appendage already pulsing with cerulean luminescence.

“We are prepared if thou are.”

“I am,” he said, dropping the unanswered question.

Her eyes shut, she breathed heavily from her nose. The swirling magic turned into a pinprick at the tip of her horn, stretching out toward his head. He flinched instinctively, yet found himself floating in a featureless void. Black and blue as far as he could see, shapes – people and mysterious objects faded in and out.

His uncles' soybean farm fluctuated into a writhing mass of super mutants. A pang of colour the shade of blood-red shot across the golden grains’ underneath, careening into the centre of a Brotherhood airship. It blossomed into a big explosive blast that cratered the floor, cracked the edges of this new reality and buffeted the imaginary atmosphere above it.

Through the middle emerged an enormous mutated beast, part bat and part prehistoric creature. The vaguely dragon-esq monster swooped around him.

Scorgebeast!” A gravelly male voice exclaimed as barrages of missiles and energy projectiles lashed the aerial horror – dismembering its limbs. A final terrifying screech its last impact on this proto-physical world.

The landscape around shifted from blackish blues to lighter greys and whites. Ponies rushed overhead like flying ants. Swarming another kind of quadruped, one he’d never seen. They were taller and somehow airer – carrying themselves into this shard of historical combat with the grace of ballerinas.

The roar of combat and the rattle of medieval weapons clashing felt as though a thousand rusty cans had been dropped on him. The formations of old-world armies broke apart, decaying and fragmenting like many constructions made of soap bars into a fire.

That rattle-rattle changed its tune, sounding more and more like heavy rainfall. A crack of thunder bellowed its ancient song, all rhythm and bass like a jazz singer. The world shook, clear forms of Thestrals fought over scraps of the Equestrian continent amongst the other sub-types of Pony.

Princess Luna was there, the matriarchal mother to an army a million strong. She duelled with an alabaster winged unicorn, two ethereal spirits that shook the earth as they clashed. The two armies ceasing their brutal collision to watch the spectacle.

As the darker angel swooped in for the kill, the white one ensnared her in a multicoloured beam of light. With a drawn-out exclamation of “NO!” She swirled into dust and echoes – shooting into the air, her face forever imprinted on the Lunar surface. He felt it, her pain, her anger, her hurt, her sorrow. Every mistake and accumulating wrong manifesting in his heart and mind like an awful mix of magma and ice. The feeling was decidedly self-destructive, his blood boiled and the sensation filled him with hate and a desire for violence.

And then, he was back on the bridge. The memories and psychedelic nightmare fading as a terribly frightening dream would. He was sweating, his hair damp and exposed neck semi-frozen.

Luna looked as bad as he felt. Mane and fur bristled in a cat-like display of fright and hostility, her pupils were enormous, almost filling her sockets with inky black.

As the rollercoaster that was a life-worth of knowledge flooded through him again and again like a never-ending stream of cold water, he so desperately wanted a shower. And maybe another drink.

“I need to be alone.” He said.

After standing, he turned to watch her contemplative features, clearly thinking about the human world – and maybe her own relived nightmares.

“Did you get what you need?” He asked.

“Yes. Very much so,” she said finally.

“Are you O–” he started to ask, her horn flashed once and she had regained her usual regal appearance.

“There is no need for concern, Commander.” She said, looking up guardedly.

John left for the shower block without another word. It was a couple of sections along, near the cryo bay. The ship had been designed with a handful of principles in mind; one of them was for the crew to exit their pods, shower and eat and then gear-up. And so, the armour bay, showers and canteen were all near the pod room.

Usually, water usage was a massive luxury, but he had plenty to spare being on this world. He entered one of a dozen self-contained pods, after stripping, his bodysuit entered one bin, pants and socks in another. His laser side-arm was waterproof and so he brought it in. Keeping his face to the sealed shower entrance, reliving parts of his life had set him on edge. Hopefully, that lingering fear and caution would fade.

He was quick, no more than two minutes by his estimation, redressing in a fresh set of underpants, socks and a dark-grey bodysuit with gold ‘Paladin Commander’ tabs on the shoulders.

His laser pistol was stuck against his right leg, he added a few cells to his waist pouches and took off for the cook-nook. Once there, he sat alone and had his second rum and cola of the day. He wasn’t much of a drinker, but he could get used to having a few drinks more regularly.

The fresh feeling of being clean, coupled with the warmth and light buzz of the rum just seemed to sap away the negativity. He breathed deeply. Walking toward the weapons bay. The doors remained open, above him along the catwalk and sectioned upper level stood rows of four-legged armoured suits. The multiples of them awaiting soldiers to use them.

He breezed through the security gate to the rear area and followed into a second room that had been armoured from the inside. The shooting gallery had enough room for six power-armoured humans to fire into as many lanes, automated holographic targets could pop up in a variety of ways. Creating a mixture of shooting opportunities.

Midnight, Moonshot, Starchaser and Goldenrod sat in a circle, they each held a body-length AER model laser weapon. The weapons were in pieces as they studied the manuals John had provided.

Goldenrod fumbled with the emitter, cursing at her clumsiness. Moonshot and Starchaser compared their partly-assembled weapons like bower birds showing off their elaborate structures to attract a mate. Midnight had this little smile, two snake-eyes and two fangs the first thing he noticed as she faced him. In her hooves, she held a complete weapon, minus the ammunition fusion cell.

He swiped it out of her legs, in imitation of a crabby gunnery sergeant. He searched it for errors, opened the emitter end and swabbed his finger along the crystals. It came away clean, but he tutted for dramatic display. Finally, he reassembled it in a blur that would make any illusionist jealous.

He inserted a cell, turned and shouldered the energy rifle. Autonomous sensors detected his movement and a neon blue target appeared, the torso of a human complete with arms and a small head. He fired a three-shot burst, and they struck perfectly centre-mass.

“Good job, Lieutenant. We’ll make a Knight out of you yet.” She was clearly confused at the title but displayed pride at his congratulations.

“Bring these three up to speed, any moment now eighty of your species best fighters are gonna be here and you’ll be showing them how it’s done.” He unloaded, made safe and returned the weapon to her.

She nodded in acceptance of her lot in life, shuffling to sit between Moonshot and Starchaser. At her presence, their no-touch flirting stopped. He walked around and crouched next to Goldenrod. The mare had displayed both courage and skill, her being one of the first Thestrals he’d encountered since arriving here.

She had tawny-coloured fur with faded golden highlights, her eyes were a light green and flecked with gold. A deep lustrous yellow at the iris edges framing her thick slit pupil.

She’d misaligned the interior array, an easy mistake but if you tried to close the emitter too harshly you could crack the crystals as a result. He slowly disassembled his own shooter, her luminous eyes tracking his deft hands as they flexed.

Once at the same stage of disassembly as her weapon, he rotated the array and showed her why it wouldn’t work, “you can break the crystals,” he cautioned.

“Make sure the grooves run along the left side and you’ll be alright.” He flipped the array and she mimicked, both weapons clicking shut together.

“Thanks,” she said. Automatically disassembling her weapon and reassembling it much faster. This time without error.

It wasn’t too long, multiple circuits of stripping rifles and reassembly. Finally, they were permitted to shoot.

They held the weapons a little awkwardly, but overall the shape designed for human hands didn’t affect them too much. The strange magic they had in their limbs which enabled them to manipulate objects in a way clunky-looking hooves should not. And allowed them to pull the triggers and operate the charging levers.

Johns pip-boy bleeped. More visitors, he thought.

“Stay here,” he said.

John back-tracked through the corridors, passing through an access hatch into a slanted ramp that led into the makeshift hangar corridor. The grey metal walls that contained the royal transport were dull, he opened the outer bay doors, the harsh wind blew and spitting rain entered but he’d fared worse.

He turned back, searching along the hall to find a sealed door into the temporary Unicorn quarters. He knocked once and entered. Inside were the same unit of magic-users. Some played cards, others talked quietly.

“I need four volunteers for a Changeling check.” As they were shouted at by a blustery sergeant, John quietly instructed a pair of Assaultrons to converge on the hangar, just in case.

A trio of larger carriages came into being, passing through a dark cloudbank opposite. Once closed, they didn’t immediately alter their course to match the Anlace. Instead, one made a short pass, he could see dark-armoured Thestrals glaring at him from inside.

The remaining two carriages slowly banked, complementing each other with synchronised flying as they approached the bay. Behind them, a flash of close-proximity lightning raised the tension.

The carts glided into the bay rapidly, before they’d even touched-down dozens of meaty bat-ponies were being disgorged and sweeping toward them to create a wall. They levelled as much suspicion his way as he did at them.

He rested his hand on his sidearm, already nailing locations for him to dive to for cover if the shit hit the fan.

“Identify,” a voice made itself known. It was calm, yet the veiled threat of violence lingered in its tone if John did not comply.

“Commander John Maxon,” he answered. “You’re Princess Lunas personal guard?” He asked.

He spotted the speaker, a well-sized Thestral male, darker greyish-black plate hung from his large form. His eyes shone like fireflies in the relative dimness. All of their eyes did.

“That we are. Where is she?”

She? He thought. “Sleeping.”

“You won’t mind if these unicorns scan you?” John asked.

He didn’t get a reply. Instead, a stone with etched markings was tossed toward him. It missed John, skipping once and resting against the bulkhead. It flashed; a fast-moving wave of blue light pulsated throughout the ship.

The Assaultrons tracked the stone, aiming arm-mounted short-barrelled laser weapons at the Thestrals.

“What was that?” John said, hand drawing his weapon instinctually.

Another voice said, “they’re clean.” All Equestrian weapons and ponies poised for attack simultaneously relaxed.

The leader of the pack turned, walked to the bay door and waved into the air. After maybe ten seconds the remaining troop transport circled from above, coming in slow and landing in between the two other craft. Many more Thestrals got out, they didn’t form into columns or ranks like he’d seen with most other Equestrian units, they all just stood like a crowd – weapons still drawn.

A pair of big Thestrals approached, one with black fur mottled with brown, the other with silver officer rank slides had a hazel finish to his likewise obsidian coat, most of which was hidden behind his dark armour.

“I’m Group Captain Guderian. This band of killers are my Onyx Guard. ‘If you think you’re safe, watch out!’ That’s our motto.”

The ‘Onyx Guard’ as Guderian had called them showed a wide variety of colours, of what John could see through the gaps in their armour. From light tan and tabby orange speckled with blues, purples, golds and reds and white to olive-brown or sooty grey. The majority seemed to be male, their larger bulkier forms possibly providing them with an edge in heavy stampede-and-slash fighting.

They had black and dulled silver armour, heavily interlinked using chainmail and overlapping plate to almost completely cover them. The myriad of unconventional warfighting weapons made him sneer a little, he had always believed uniformity in a militaries arms was a key factor in their capability to fight effectively. Although, they would soon be traded in for laser weapons and that made him hide a smile. The sight of power-armoured laser-toting ponies flooding over the Changelings would be an almost immortalised one to be sure.

Guderian,” John said at length, “welcome aboard. We’ve got work to do. To save space and time, I need you and your troops to disarm and remove your armour – and then we can leave for the armoury.”

Ha!” Guderian held his sabre menacingly, “there’s more chance of me laying with the Changeling Queen!”

In a flash, Princess Luna materialised. It was eerie. Not the teleportation – John had become accustomed to it moments after his first witnessed teleport. No, what was offsetting was the way all of the Thestrals became almost mesmerised with her arrival, the slight slackness to them. Like moths to a flame, they gathered up and bowed in a single unspoken movement.

Gone was the hostility from their coveted leader, Guderian approached with a lazy lilt like a lovestruck child. He packed away his weapon and kneeled.

“Princess. The stallions were beginning to have doubts about our involvement in this time of conflict,” Guderian looked up.

She tutted in false reprisal, “you should know that we could not win this without you.”

Her gaze held his for a breath, “rise.”

He did. “If you shall allow me to inform your Guards of what need we have of them.”

He stepped back, and retained a stutter, “their ears are your ears, your voice their direction.”

They all rose as she instructed them, “Thestrals. Equestria has need of you, it bleeds for you. We have need of you. You are about to undergo a magical imbuement that will bestow you with advanced combat techniques hither-to unknown to pony-kind.”

“You have been called upon to serve. You will defend Equestria and her colonies. We shall make you the best you can be, provide the best armour and weapons. This shall be your salvation and your damnation. You shall be thrust upon the enemy, unleashed with all the anger and hate that you can muster. Because you love your country and its citizens. Because you love Me.

It was morose. Bizarre and frankly alien. It was bushidoism at its finest. “Glory to the Princess! Glory to Equestria!” They shouted together, as if one voice said “unite” and hijacked the vocal cords of the Thestral force.

“And glory to us all,” she said in return.

She turned to face him, “Commander they are ready. Prepare for their arrival at the armoury, we shall send them at the instant the memories are transcribed. Is that acceptable?”

He watched her, carefully. Behind her eighty sets of eyes drilled into him for a reaction. He didn’t agree with this – a sort of mind control? Or manipulation? If they wanted this, he could look past it. For now.

“Yes,” he said, turning and leaving for armoury B/2/1.

It was almost an hour before the first dozen Thestrals showed up, eyes slightly unfocused as if they were sleep-walking.

John was leaning against the bulkheads threshold as they wordlessly passed him, “I thought you weren’t coming.” They didn’t respond. In fact, they were pretty untalkative for the entire training period.

He had rows of user manuals arrayed alongside armament in the form of AER 15 rifles. They were two feet long and weighed 4.5kg unloaded, the ammo cell only several dozen grams depleted or fully charged.

It was immediately apparent that manually training Midnight and her team had been a waste of time. The new arrivals set to stripping and rebuilding the weapons in record time, as proficiently – possibly more so – than John.

Midnight, therefore, led Goldenrod, Starchaser and Moonshot away to the upper level where the pony-suitable armour awaited.

Soon after, the Onyx Guard members began funnelling into the weapon room after their departing allies had moved onto the armour bay above. John could hear the clanking and hissing of the pony-modified armour as they tested out the suits.

As the last Thestral exited, Guderian drifted in. “The Princess is resting. You know that took quite a toll on her, first the armour and then giving my stallions false memories of your knowledge.

“I thought they were her stallions,” John countered.

The Thestral nodded, “you pay attention. Good, gear up and join us in the landing bay, we leave in five minutes, with or without you.” As Guderian spoke, he swiped a longer support-variant of laser weapon off the wall and departed for the upper level at his final syllable.

Once equipped they had met in the bay, where they would split. All Thestrals would depart with John, Luna, Midnight and her squad. While Celestia and the unicorns would take samples of the human weaponry and a quick magical-transfer from her sister to Fillydelphia. Pony-kind would mass-produce power armour, energy weapons and have the capability to provide months or years’ worth of training and experience in a spell that would be over within seconds.

The sisters' bid farewell by connecting foreheads, angled slightly so as not to spear each other with their horns. On the outbound ride toward what could only be described as hell on earth, Princess Luna's eyes remained fixed on the fading white spot that John knew to be Princess Celestia.

The journey to the Everfree was a strange one. It was surreal and felt drug-induced, thick stacks of belching ash rose into the atmosphere from the burning and battle-damaged forests that skirted the Canterlot mountain ranges. The remaining battalion of the Onyx Guard lay in a hastily created and cut-out base on one of the lower peaks of Foal Mountain. The same summit that the Anlace had crash-landed at.

The four carts, containing Guderian and his 80-strong mechanised infantry platoons, Luna, John, Goldenrod, Starchaser and Moonshot also in armour, landed at the camp.

As soon as they touched down it began. In the distance, the earth burned, the sky awash with specks of Changelings and Equestrians – both swarms attempting to out-luck the variety of projectiles that each side were firing on one another.

A Thestral mare approached, black armour over black fur and eyes as dark as coal. “Sir!” She saluted the dismounting Group Captain, somehow knowing despite his armour which of them he was.

He didn’t waste any time, “Commander Maxon this is Major Chironax – Major, Commander.” He introduced them both to one another quickly, “Chiro, take these crates, they hold explosives. Guard Goldenrod can show you how to use them, but we have little time. I want us on the move in twenty.”

“Sir!” She joined side-by-side with a power-armoured Goldenrod, together they began ferrying crates of grenades and mini-nukes toward the banded Thestrals of Onyx.

Almost exactly twenty minutes later and they had abandoned the camp and were descending toward the ravaged valley underneath the mountain. Not too far away John could see clashing ground-based forces of both sides. Energy blasts and an echoing clash of steel and voices crawled over the clouds toward them.

The Onyx Guards had been labelled as Onyx Battalion, and the word seemed to have a superfluous meaning for the group as a whole. They were actually a fairly large force. It had been restructured slightly at Johns advising. With what he called a reinforced mechanised company split into two assault platoons of 42 power armoured and energy equipped Thestrals, the first under Major Chironax on the left flank. While John escorted Midnight and Goldenrod down the right-most hillside.

The remaining seven-hundred had been split into four companies, two on the flanks and a rear-facing headquarters company. The flanks had a reconnaissance platoon, an assault platoon and an air-group each. HQ Company had a security platoon, two air-groups that would act as runners, aerial observation and communications handlers. And their main role would be to ferry the ordinance needed for the mechanised company to operate. Establishing and protecting a supply chain while simultaneously providing close-air-support (or CAS.)

Messengers had been dispatched to Canterlot Command, requesting urgent bombardment of all enemy positions. John planned to test an old military style of warfare called Blitzkrieg. Combined pre-coordinated attack from the air and artillery would soften up a position ready for the arrival of the mechanised infantry.

In the chaos of the defence is was difficult for accurate killed, wounded or missing in action figures to reach command. And they had bigger problems like a three million-strong horde of life-sucking monsters breathing down their necks.

The still-burning Everfree was churning thousands of tons of ash into the air – blotting out the sun and creating a drizzle of soot and particulates. The scorched earth was covered in powdery residual embers, slumped forms marking the fallen soldiers of 4th Battalion.

The air coordinator confidently led the air wing through the ash-clouds, enchanted gemstones cast shimmering barriers between them and the toxic air. They toted human-made explosives, grenades and mines attached to parachutes.

They were easily spotted and subsequently fired upon by Changelings that were swarming the ground below.

A cluster of grenades streak down, detonating mid-air and creating massive causalities to the Changelings. A pair of crew-served bug weapons that operated from a series of sunken craters plastered blueish energy fire at the advancing mechanised platoon.

John ran across the crest of a hill, fat man nuclear catapult cradled across his shoulder while firing his AER from the hip in his off-hand.

He paused, aiming the launcher, a heaving crunch denoted the departure of the 15kg warhead. It’s attached Jericho siren causing all fighters on both sides to pause and dance for cover.

It impacted at the heart of the enemy position, a rising plume of radioactivity flourished and degenerated the atmosphere and was only broken by the following shockwave. A smoking, fire-streaming ruin now dominated the core of the enemy defensive line.

More bugs disgorge from recessed holes and dugouts, determined to extinguish this attack from the ponies. John knew the score. They have to keep up their momentum.

He took cover to face a power armoured Midnight, his hand chopping the air in reinforcement. “We have to keep moving. Attack, attack, attack. We break through their lines and create a wedge in their formation.”

He stowed the catapult across his back, two nukes remaining in hip-mounted canisters.

“Signal the air-wings, have them keep making passes around the enemy's most heavily concentrated positions. Strike paths, convoys, supplies. We’ll break their chitinous bodies under our constant push.”

“Gladly,” he couldn’t see her face but could hear the wicked smile.

A stray string of hostile energy bolts peppered the ground, causing him to leap from his perch into a small pit while Midnight scattered. From here he could see the enemy as they approached a moment before they could see him.

As the shadowy figures started cresting the terrain and coming into view, he began firing at them. Dropping them one by one.

Beside and behind him he could hear the servo-assisted hiss-clank of Thestrals moving into the defilade. The stubby laser weapons they had allowed them to blanket-fire the bugs as they appeared, not as accurate but with the air filled with laser shards many of the Changelings collapsed after a hit.

The wind shifted and the ash began howling across them, the smoke and energy in the air gave everything a kind of a calefactory feel.

Even in his climate-controlled power armour, John began to sweat a little as the humidity levels soared. He ducked down to reload, almost blind now due to the thickening caustic clouds that coated his and the Equestrians position.

The dimness was briefly illuminated by the back and forth crimson and cerulean beams. His actuarial thinking was stopped with the sound of a thunk and a scream muffled through power armour.

Over the berm, an overlap of small explosions thundered in his chest. More ordnance dropped by the Thestral air wings.

Midnights whooping war cry carried through the clouds and John began running forward, he activated his torch – for all the help it was. Not ten strides later and he almost fell over a bug-pony, it swiped for his head, seemingly unbothered by the unbreathable air. John halted suddenly before the blow could connect and shot the bug in the head, it was thrown back as its exoskeleton blew apart.

He moved abreast in a long line with a dozen armoured ponies, they absorbed blasts from the enemy and returned fire unscathed. John had seen a few of the Thestrals go down after an unlucky shot penetrated a weak point in the armour. But for the most part, they were taking ground

Tens of thick-bodied Changelings and wicked-looking streamlined horrors emerged seemingly without end. A pair of bugs clung onto a Thestral in mid-reload, their power-armoured weight prevented the bugs from dragging them down into a crater for a likely gruesome death.

Another Thestral stepped up and promptly shot both aggressors off of their comrade. The training had taken – because both reloaded in a controlled and deft manner. They leapt over the crater and pushed onward.

John was moving fast, stopping to fire and then continuing. The clouds of ash at ground level had begun to thin out yet were still as thick as ever higher up. The scorched earth contained no pony remains like before, John suspected they simply hadn’t managed to advance this deep into the wood.

As they emerged like banshees out of the mist the Thestrals carried on with their crusade. They didn’t falter and didn’t waiver. Bands of Changelings reacted to their presence like wasps to an attack, honing in on them. The Thestrals grouped into small teams behind fallen fire-damaged trees and collapsed root segments that created rib-like structures throughout the landscape.

On long legs John ran, his elbows and shoulders rotating in time with each stride, nearby a miniature subatomic detonation. The already red and orange tint in the ashen clouds of the forest fire rose into harsh white light, John entered a crater and discovered he was on the peak of an underground hill that sloped downwards into the darkness farther than his helmet torch would pierce.

What he could see chilled him, a thousand blue-grey eyes all opened and began approaching. Their constant hiss-screech winding up like an air raid siren. Until it was too loud to think. He fired in a circle, a long-drawn-out burst of laser-fire that failed to slow the oncoming mass of black flesh.

Trading his AER for the Fat Man, the bulky design made reloading difficult and that was doubled with his blocky armoured hands.

The nuke slotted into place, he cocked the catapult arms and at his neural command, his armours thrust module fired him out of the crater like a bottle top off of a Nuka bottle. As he rose to around twenty meters near the thick clouds the propulsion unit petered and died.

Falling downward, he very carefully aimed and fired the nuke. Hoping that he wasn’t about to incinerate half of Onyx company.

The whistle sounded and its pitch lowered as it fell, he kept an eye on his jet-pack meter as its charge gradually rose. The glare and harshness of the nuke detonating made him reflexively clench his eyes shut. Even through his polarised eye slits and bunched-up eyelids, John could see shapes and images of the battle below. It looked like a direct hit as mechanised Thestrals held position behind and around the crater. Many Changelings paused as well despite their usually unshakable nature.

Within the last four meters, he ignited his jet-pack. He hit the ground hard, tucking his legs and rolling as he tossed the catapult away. He came up to his feet, behind him the rising mushroom cloud swirled and eddied the ash smog like a disturbance in inky water.

Several Thestrals led by Midnight approached and passed him, he turned and grabbed his catapult on the way; no sense in leaving it. No sense in stopping to take in the view.

And what a view it is. John thought.

Onyx Company, John and Midnight crashed with the Changelings in brutal close-range fighting. A dozen bugs for every armoured Thestral, yet they melted away before the onslaught the human technology afforded the mechanised ponies.

They came as a rampaging beast distributed over multiple bodies, John fired and reloaded with such ferocity and speed that his AER began to glow and bleed smoke from the heat. The detritus from the black corpses began to build and he had to push out over them to continue killing. His weapon clicked – it was out – and he smashed the buttstock across the next bugs face. It spat green blood, and John kicked it like a football into a pair of Changelings that collapsed under it.

The ponies were holding-up well, advancing slowly over fields of dead bugs and cruising toward the next group like a fleet of battleships in an obsidian sea. The Changelings for their part continued throwing themselves at the ponies until their last.

Approaching the back of the cloudbank now, John squashed a Changeling underneath his armoured boot, its hefty weight began to crush it to death. John reloaded – inserting his last cell and shot once into its scalp. It destroyed the top of its head and greenish-grey brains and other indescribable gore-splattered out.

John turned as one armoured Thestral approached, looking identical to the others save for a black ‘M’ scrawled across her forehead.

“Lieutenant, get a count of your dead and wounded, signal for resupply.”

In the near-distance, the clashing of other Equestrian units – probably their flanking protection – with Changeling hordes could be heard. Accompanied by the occasional series of explosions from their air-cover.

“On it,” she moved toward the rear. The remaining seventy-odd Thestrals halted near to him, in loose and scattered formations. They sported minor signs of battle damage, were coated in gore and dirt yet most of the two platoons had come through and were ready for the next engagement.

Another separated themselves and stood beside him, two more joining them, “why don’t they give up?” It sounded like Dark Goldenrod.

John couldn’t say.

“I hope they don’t,” one of the new arrivals said. Their voice tinted with hate, “hope we have to kill them one-by-one until there ain’t none of em’ left,”

Midnight had returned with a group of non-power-armoured Thestrals who carried with them spare munitions, mostly energy cells and a few explosives. For the second attack, the assault company would have grenades to break up clusters of Changelings.

A message from Group Captain Guderian stated that to the west – along the Equestrian-Changeling front, were two cut-off companies of the Legions 20th from the VIII Guard Group.

“The letter reads,” Midnight said for the benefit of everyone, “locate the VIII Guard Group under Major Opaline and cut-off the advancing enemy units at Ponyville.”

She stowed the scroll, “we’ll find them and lead them, our flanking companies will both occupy our left side to clear-out any remaining hostiles. Move it out!” She said this and whirled a hoof before moving away from them, the guards had all rearmed and were chomping at the bit for more action.

A break in the cloud above allowed them to see blue sky, a group of Thestrals in a V formation released a swarm of dark blobs as they faded from view with Changeling interceptors hot on their heels.

“That’s it,” one of the Guards uttered, “keep poundin’ em’.”

The scattered whoomphs of explosions carried over to them as the smog began to thin. They’d taken three dead and four wounded; they had been marked for retrieval by a chariot with heavy lift-gear as soon as visibility would permit.

Over the next two hours, they moved unopposed, light skirmishes could be heard – the visibility over the already destroyed ground afforded them views both spectacular and horrific. Signs of previous engagements were evident. The bodies of both sides lay where they had fallen as the grass began to return on terrain not yet touched by the raging firestorm.

They had spread out a little more, using his magnified vision John could see the flanking protection from many Thestrals. The air attacks had largely halted, but this freed up the airspace for Changeling air wings. From its perch Canterlot shone in the midday sun like a white jewel, a pinkish energy barrier protected it from the constant bombardment from beetle-artillery. Snippets and volleys of magical energy rushed out like anti-air fire to harass the enemy in the sky, projectile and magical-based siege-machines could be heard pounding and snapping as they released their payloads.

The ever-present trail of the fighting created a path for them to follow, eventually stumbling into the ruins of a mostly flattened town.

John had never visited, but he could imagine it. The chaos and hubbub of the marketplace, and smells from the different food stalls. Ponies just like people going about their normal daily lives.

Now dozens of homes lay smashed and burned, the earth blackened to a pitch. Ash blanketed everything like a grey fuzz. He didn’t want to waste his closed-air circulation and regretted it. The smell of smoke and fire underlined with the ominous stench of half-buried corpses made his gut clench.

Bodies were scattered around the broken landscape near a crater big enough to conceal a house halfway into the ruin that looked to have been part of the town square. A crumbling clocktower lilted uncertainly, as if it couldn’t decide if it wanted to collapse or not.

Gold-armoured ponies lay in hastily created defensive posts, the scenes depicted the kind of fierce and desperate fighting that only happened during a final stand. Banners arrayed around the various sub-positions had the image of a unicorn and a bull with eight stars around it.

Under grey sky filled with black soot clouds, dozens of power-armoured quadrupeds march in silence. This place had been transformed into a graveyard, and they didn’t intend to offer disrespect. They cleared each part piece-by-piece as organised teams swept north towards Canterlot.

“John?” Midnight caught his attention from a barbequed body trapped under a fallen chimney stack.

He banished the images from his mind and tried to remain professional. He answered by turning his head to look down at her. She nudged a dirty pink baseball cap. It was child-sized and rotten looking.

“How old were you when your head was that small?” Anger or despair in her voice, he couldn’t tell.

“My sister has that exact hat, little league,” Moonshot added sadly from the doorframe of a flattened house.

A series of laser-shots sounded from the front of the formation. John began sprinting forward as did his Thestral companions.

But after ten seconds it was over before they arrived, the circular plaza was filled with bodies. Piled high, but not mortally killed with vicious wounds.

Fuckers!” One of the guards spat, his weapon smoked slightly and he fired again into the several dead Changeling fighters who he’d just killed.

“Is this Major Opaline?” The same guard nudged one of the dead officers who was slumped against a sandbag wall.

Midnight lowered herself to look, but after a few seconds said, “no. It isn’t.”

Above the cloud cover, vicious pulses of amber and emerald lit up the clashing aerial forces of both pony-kind and Changeling aggressor.

“They’ve been fed on.” Midnight said, “they’re doing this all over the sector. If they get inside the capital it’s the same fate for those within the city.”

“We know the score, Lieutenant, but what’s the plan?”

She thought for a moment. She looked up at John, “we attack.”

He nodded in agreement, “what are you thinking?”

“Major Chironax will be here soon and reinforce us with both companies of the 4th and her own Mechanised Company. If we split into two, we can push for Canterlot up the pass and attack from them from the rear, they’ll be pinned in between the Canterlot defence and us and we’ll crush them.”

“Who’s doing what?” He asked.

“We’ll take both companies of Mechanised while the flanking companies settle in here, they can rebuild the defences and keep an eye on the route up the pass. If trouble comes knocking, they can send a runner and we’ll know to watch our backs.”

His lips were pursed, but he couldn’t think of anything seriously wrong with it. “What about your orders to hold here with Opaline?”

“We don’t know where she is, and battlefield doctrine states the leading officer can overrule prior orders as circumstances shift. Which they have. There could be a thousand dead guards here, and we might never find her, or she might not be here. We’ll see what Chironax thinks, but I’ve heard about her – I think she’ll like it.”

An angled stream of battered Armoured Thestrals meandered into the town, both flanking groups and the second Mechanised company. Chironax came from the air, followed by a dozen supply Guards. They distributed the ammo. Each wore a simple harness and helmet with a satchel bulging with grenades at their side.

“Major,” John said. “You’re going to want to listen to what she has to say.”

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