• Published 28th Mar 2018
  • 2,446 Views, 90 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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Return to Sender

“Commander!” Lieutenant Midnight Shouted, as she circled low overhead, two other Thestrals mirroring her. The sun soared high in the sky set beneath an ocean of crimson and butterscotch.

John kept his swift pace, long armoured legs carried him with more speed then any human could normally maintain. A triangle of three shadows kept pace around him, the Lieutenant called down to him.

“The changelings have started to pull out from the southern quarter – the Princess wants us to harass their troops as much as possible on the way out!”

John checked his Heads-Up Display; his armour had been sketching out a basic layout of the town as he’d moved through it. The southern side a few hundred meters away – he began running toward it, ducking past destroyed and burned out buildings.

More winding alleys and carnage swept past Johns peripheral vision. Dead Changelings and shrivelled up ponies adorned the front of almost every house. The mix of slate and wooden domiciles became sporadic, the ground dustier as he neared the settlements southern perimeter.

In the air above, tens of changelings buzzed away from John in formations of a few to a few dozen. They were being intercepted by the Lieutenant and her Thestral comrades, picking off stragglers from the larger groups and annihilating smaller teams of bug-horses without reservation.

John took aim, but the risk of hitting the ponies was too great, so he relented. His eyes swept left and right as he approached a small enclave of gold armoured quadrupeds.

Smoke rose from smouldering homes, the fires visible from before seemed to have been concentrated entirely on this side of the village. Royal Guard on the ground worked hastily to secure the buildings still standing.

In the distance a massive ravine could be seen, stood in the blackened frame of an old cottage were Princess Luna and Captain Ivory, encircled by a few Lunar Guard.

Johns dead sprint saw him arrive quickly, he stopped in a few stuttering steps, before walking up behind the pair. Together they watched in silence as many flights of changelings escaped toward the crevice in the earth. John searched the horizon with his enhanced visual suite.

Backed by bronze earth were hundreds of black specks, the orange sky filling with a growing swarm of tiny pinpricks.

“They might be regrouping for another attack,” John broke the silence.

“We think not. Our reports indicate that they have fed on half the town and abducted the rest, they shall mass over there, before retreating to the safety of their hive.” Her tone and face were twisted in sourness.

A single unicorn stallion rushed into the command frame, the circle of Thestrals parted o let him in, “Captain, your highness,” he let off a quick salute, which was returned, “I’ve collected after-action reports from senior guards Summersglide and Golden Field and Sergeant White Flag and Lieutenant Midnight.” The guard huffed as he tried to catch his breath, in emerald magic he held a few crude scrolls.

Princess Luna held a small spyglass to an ultramarine coloured eye, she scanned the distance while the Captain silently read through the collection of scrolls.

Captain Ivory continued to read as the sounds of squad roll-call could be heard. She used her hooves to flick through the creased parchment.

Finally, she looked at the guard, “Good work Soy Bean. Spread the word, continue to move our wounded toward the town hall,” her tone lowered a shade, “lay out our dead there as well.”

The guard saluted smartly, “Yes ma’am!” He turned and bowled his way through the Lunar defensive ring.

“How bad is it?” Luna asked, one eye still peering through the spyglass.

“Not good,” the captains head rotated to look at Luna's back and meet Johns helmeted gaze.

The blue Alicorn didn’t respond, turning around as well.

The smallest of the three looked back at the scrolls as if to reconfirm what she already knew.

Her head lifted, “We began with 235 Guards from the 7th and 208 Guards from the 1st. Our mixed battalion is down by almost half. 87 confirmed killed, 94 wounded – most have been relocated to the town hall. We’re also missing twenty guards, all from the 7th including Captain Sharp Wing.”

Luna absorbed the information without a reaction, she could ill afford to display her true emotions as a leader. Her head pivoted to look at John, “we assume you have returned with news of the Captain?”

Johns laser weapon was held steadily in his arms, “I tracked him down. Apparently, he tried to hook-up with you to try and get his unit out of a pocket the Changelings had cornered them into.

“I found four Royal Guard, K-I-A – I’m fairly confident I found evidence of the Captain's abduction, he was taken south-west and then south before the trail ran cold.” John took a sword he’d collected from his back and held it handle up for the Princess and Captain to inspect, the latter leaning forward.

“Unfortunately, that is most certainly the blade of the Captain.” Her eyes betrayed sadness.

“So, what are we doing now? There’s too few of us to continue the pursuit of the Changelings. We can’t just let them escape,” John said, breaking the short pause in dialogue.

The Princess snorted, “If you think we shall sit idly by while our most hated enemy makes off with hundreds of our little ponies, you are a fool.”

She unclipped a gold scroll from her armour, its length unfurling as she toggled a clasp, “We have received a response from our sister and updated her on our current predicament. I’m having the remainder of the 1st deployed here with us on the grounds of a royal ceremony.”

John knew their world was likely different from his, but back on earth in a similar situation, several battalions would have been mobilised to counter this newly emerged threat.

“A single battalion?” He asked.

“Politics, Commander – we shan’t be able to deploy large amounts of our military without sufficient reasoning.”

As they discussed her sister’s correspondence, the three had moved to another burned-out home, this one more like a crater in the ground. A pair of Royal Guard were removing the charred, grizzled forms of what looked like two adults and three smaller ponies. One of the guards scrabbled away to vomit.

Children, John thought with no small amount of anger. It was always the children who were hurt the most by conflict.

He gestured at the crispy remains of the family, “This shit seems like sufficient reasoning to me, Princess.” He spoke loudly and more angrily than he had intended to.

“Do not dare to lecture us in front of my own dead people, Human,” she contested hotly, “we know very well how to bend the nobility to approve of our goals. We have been doing so for many of your lifetimes.

“We shall have proper reinforcement and the backing of our nation in the next week, until that time we shall have to make do with fewer numbers.”

She pressed a silver encased hoof into Johns shoulder pauldron, “we shall have to make do with tactics that reflect our fewer numbers.”

She kept her hoof on John, he had to stop himself from knocking it away, “How many more soldiers can you have here?” John demanded, his tone filled with apathy.

“The rest of the 1st, approximately 400 more Thestrals,” she smiled measuredly.

“We’ll leave the 7th here with the wounded and have Captain Stark Wing at the crash site reinforce them with another two platoons.

“You, ourselves and the Lieutenant will head south toward Dodge Junction – we shall keep the enemy in our sights and track them down to their lair.”

John grunted in approval, “I can level the playing field, but I’ll need to resupply from my ship. Can you arrange a means of transport there and back?”

Luna squinted at John, attempting to discover signs of betrayal. His blank helmet gave away nothing. She doubted herself she realised and re-evaluated her opinion of the human – he seemed to fight for fighting’s sake; so far killing only those who deserved it. She was now certain that wouldn’t change.

A little reluctantly she agreed, “Captain, see to it the Commander has a means of passage both to and from the crash site,” finally returning her hoof to the dry ground.

“Yes, ma’am,” Captain Ivory said, saluting sharply.

Luna levitated a small scroll toward John, he took it in his unoccupied hand, unravelling it with clumsy, bulky fingers. The message was hastily written and short, John assumed as he saw the ponies written language for the first time – utterly as alien to him as they were.

“We need you to deliver this to Captain Stark Wing on your arrival, relay to him the utmost urgency with which he must carry out these orders.” Her tone was flat, all business.


* * *

Princess Luna and the small band of Lunar Guards returned to the blackened frame as the Captain and John headed north, back through the town.

Battered and bruised, the remaining Royal Guard hobbled about – squads moved in loose columns toward the towns southern side, others aided the wounded as they evacuated toward the town hall.

Many of the Lunar Guards had taken to the ground as well, some limped towards medical help under their own power, while others were carried by their comrades.

John and Ivory Sky walked side by side in companionable silence, quickly entering the main road where the majority of ponies were mobilising. John stopped to assist a Unicorn mare, she wore a single breastplate that extended underneath her body, small openings allowing her legs to move unhindered.

She levitated two critically wounded Lunar Guards, both sported bandages that barely covered deep gouges. John delicately picked up a dead Thestral, she’d had her neck neatly cut, the insides of her throat pocking out gorily.

They continued at a pace that rivalled the other ponies moving in the same direction, eventually reaching the town hall. The unicorn went inside, where a multitude of wounded ponies could be seen. John carefully lowered the dead Thestral in a line with several others, tens of ponies lay in rows.

He looked around, the nearby guards, both Thestrals and Ponies; they were arrayed in mixed formations for the first time since the prelude to the battle.

Many chatted quietly, the small groups covering one another in the event of a continuation in the fighting. John could see the unmistakable bond they now shared, on his return he would recommend that the 7th remain in combat with the 1st.

Captain Ivory Skies bid John farewell, informing him that the carriages would come to collect both him and the wounded and dead within several hours. At the same time deploying the rest of the 1st Lunar Guard and taking John to the Anlace so that he could deliver orders and collect some heavier weaponry.

* * *

He spent that time assisting where he could, several pickets of Changeling resistance still existed within the town. John instructed the ponies to hold back and concentrate on their dead and wounded while he cleared them out.

Minutes turned into a few hours, John used his suits life signs tracker to locate enemy positions, before knocking them out.

John burst through a wooden door, ripping it off of its hinges in a cloud of splinters, several Changelings scurried and weaved to avoid the laser blasts that followed.

He killed three with precision, those remaining darting around the room, fly-wings buzzing. Several magic blasts were fired back, John ducking behind a thick wooden support pillar. He leapt from his protection – using his armour-mounted thruster, he performed a jumping kick and downed two of them at once.

He stomped down hard at the Changeling, it writhed and screeched, his power armoured treads mulching the bug-horse. The second quickly regained flight with three others, the four Changelings slashed at Johns vital areas with chitinous blades.

His powered assault armour had been designed to protect against armour-piercing rounds and energy weapons fire, the blades left only scratches on the matte gun-metal grey paint.

With servo-assisted motions, John entered the subsequent melee, catching each one with a punch or swatting them with his weapon, his quick strikes split their black carapaces releasing emerald blood.

He punched with his left hand, sending a Changeling crashing into another support pillar, its spine audibly breaking. With his right arm extended, he lined up another with his laser rifle – a barrage of energy bolts reached out, virtually cutting the selected enemy in half.

The mutilated Changeling hit the floor with a wet thud, the smell of seared organs lay heavy in the air.

Golden energy shields crackled around John to ward off the sickly green energy blasts coming from behind. He whirled around and adopted a square stance, he fired into the oncoming opponents, they charged through the air, one was shot several times, it was shaken violently from its flight as the second impacted John in a vicious headbutt.

John didn’t even budge, the simple physics of a sixty-kilogram Changeling splattering against his six-hundred-kilogram suit were pretty poor odds for victory.

In an instant John had battered the final Changeling to the ground, it ricocheted into the wooden floor with the sound of cracking ribs.

Its body shook as it wracked with coughs; sage-coloured blood ejecting from its obsidian maw. John looked around the room, the scene was atypical of all the others he’d witnessed; overturned furniture scattered amongst pony corpses – shrivelled up as their life had been drained. Several dead Changelings lay still with copious amounts of life-fluid escaping their various puncture wounds.

The last one situated at the base of Johns armoured legs. Its body trembled and it wheezed with short breaths, it fought desperately trying to stay alive.

John leaned down toward it and aimed his laser rifle at its head, the hole-ridden creatures blue orbs looked up at John. He didn’t sense any emotion in its lightbulb-like eyes, which flicked back and forth wickedly examining his form.

The laser shot his weapon emitted entered its head at a thousand meters a second and exited, before burning through the floorboards and sizzling out into the dirt beneath the house with a sound like crackling glass.

John sniffed loudly, he surveyed the still room one last time and then left, heading toward yet more Changeling life-forms.

* * *

This search-and-destroy routine would continue until dusk; the once bright sky dimmed as hues of violet and apricot met the greys and jet-black of the coming night time.

The crisscrossing streets of Aylesbury were shrouded in shadows cast by the low sun, it burned on the horizon and appeared as if the sky were on fire.

John stomped through the cooling streets, the heat from the day before had succumbed to a slight chill, the nights here were fairly cold. Not an issue inside thermally insulated armour, he slowly looped around a ring-road that would see him arriving at the town hall.

The ponies had been busy. They had set up a double ring of defensive positions around the town hall; crisscrossed with barricades and fighting pits, gold armour glinted in the waning sunlight.

Tents had been erected between the defences and the hall, the large building was being utilised as a field hospital.

He spied Captain Ivory Sky resting in a defensive pit, sandbags ringed the foxhole and he could see she was alone. He slowly walked over, stowing his weapon on his back for the first time. Inside the hole was a small wooden box with scrolls, maps and diagrams, they were arrayed haphazardly as she wrote quietly in a small notebook.

“Captain,” he said, seeming to snap her out of a daydream. She looked up at him, the youth of yesterday having been replaced with weariness.

She gestured at the space next to her with a foreleg, “take a seat.”

John surveyed the edge of the encampment one last time, he saw no sign of trouble and like at the camp in the forest, he had deployed sensor beacons.

He walked away without a word, Captain Ivory raised an eyebrow at his back. Once near the hall, he wondered inside and found, amongst the rows of wounded, a small empty spot – he exited his power armour, the sound drew a few looks but most had already seen the spectacle of the unarmoured human, bleary eyes once open quickly closed again.

He took his laser rifle this time; just in case and slowly padded toward the Captain's foxhole. He stepped down into the pit, at about thigh height if he sat on the ground his head was just below the rim.

A small assortment of pilfered cushions lined the edge of the oval-shaped crevice, a thick canvas tarp covered the dirty ground. A plank was being used as a makeshift table, on which was a small oil lamp and a few pieces of food. Dairy, bread and some grains, as well as more oat-loaf that John had eaten with Rose and Berry – he had not seen them since the battle had broken out and wondered idly if they were among the wounded or killed.

He sat down and suppressed the urge to groan, he’d once leapt out of a downed dropship from about thirty meters and broken both his legs, despite the rapid healing of modern medicine – he still ached, especially during periods of cold weather.

The sky above was slowly darkening, John estimated another thirty minutes of light, “do you have news for me, Commander?” The Captain's face was creased with what John sensed to be a short lifetime of manual labour.

“I located and eradicated several pockets of Changeling resistance. I’ve set up some sensor beacons to alert us to any intruders, Just ahead of your perimeter observation points.”

She nodded in thought along with Johns words, “did you manage to find any survivors or any more of my guards?”

John shook his head, no.

“Damn it all.” She leant over an plucked up a small piece of cheese, John watched closely as her hoof seemed to stick to the morsel despite not having fingers. Magic, John thought.

She talked while she ate, “while you were gone a few stragglers found their way back, we managed to find a few more of our dead and three critically wounded died,” a few flecks of cheese shot out of her mouth, “that leaves us with…” She picked up a couple of scrolls, a piece of resilient dairy balled within her cheek.

“We began with 443 from both battalions, with the four dead you found and the three who died we’re up to 94 Killed in Action,” she made a little scribble, “bringing our wounded to 91 and our missing…”

She gave a lengthy pause as her eyes darted along the lines of writing, she then locked gazes with John.

“One. Captain Sharp Wing – he’s the only one not accounted for, now you're sure about what you saw?” She spoke hurriedly, “If there’s a possibility that he’s still here–”

“There isn’t – I’m sure of it,” John interrupted.

Her features became stern for a moment, as if she was about to argue, only to relax as she looked sadly down at her notebook.

They sat in silence for a few minutes, the daylight having fully vanished to be replaced with a star-filled sky. The warm glow from a multitude of small fires and lamps fought against the darkness.

“Thank you,” she said suddenly.

Johns brow scrunched quizzically, “for what?”

She heaved a sigh and raised her head, “without your assistance we’d have lost many more.”

“Don’t worry about it.”

They sat examining each other, about an arm's length apart. Her peach coloured eyes met Johns blue, they kept up this game of surveille for a time, their gaze was broken by the arrival of Princess Luna.

“There you are, we were getting worried,” John could tell from her slightly mischievous smirk that she had not been.

She stepped down into the pit, her mass making the once ample-spaced foxhole a bit cramped. John shuffled up closer to Captain Ivory, whose eyes hadn’t left him. The Princess levitated a large blue cushion and another tarp over, the pillow being nestled between her side and the cold mud wall, the tarp levitated to cover the hole.

Luna had laid down, her body curving against the side of the egg-shaped dugout. Opposite from her, Captain Ivory returned nonchalantly to scribbling in her notebook, John sat hugging his knees to his chest so as not to touch either of them.

As Luna began to unclasp her armour, starting at her neck; she could see the uncomfortable looks John was casting around the small hole.

She began talking so as to relax him, “Have you eaten?”

His wandering gaze snapped to meet Lunas, “Not yet.”

She had removed her leg portions of armour and had begun to move to her torso, she levitated a cloth bag to John, it bulged as he took it in his hands.

Inside were fruits; peaches, apples, grapes and pomegranates. A century prior humankind had managed to extinguish the majority of pre-war fruit-bearing plants; samples had been reverse-engineered and humanity once again could enjoy many fruits and vegetables that had been lost.

John took out a soft, ripe peach – he bit into it without hesitation and juice began to drip down his chin.

Luna smiled genuinely at the hum he gave, “these are good!” He sounded surprised and his eyes crossed a little as he appraised the remainder.

She gave a shallow laugh as he animatedly attacked the helpless fruit; his carnivorous looking teeth ripped flesh and chewed until only a raisin-like stone was left.

He used some water from a canteen strapped to his waist to wash his hands and face. Letting them air-dry in the almost too cold hole, his face not displaying any irritation.

He lent back and stretched out his long legs, his feet entering a small gap between the Princess and the Captain.

They remained like this for some time. John brought up his pip-boy and began scrolling through statistical data, while he ate more fruit, he made journal entries on everything he’d witnessed.

It was the standard operating procedure to catalogue as much as possible while on reconnaissance; he created files on every pony he’d met, he wrote about the Changelings and the threat they caused.

He also began to draft a document, should the circumstance necessitate official agreements from John on behalf of humanity with the Equestrians.

Captain Ivory maintained a steady inscription into her notepad, the small pages seemingly infinite. Meanwhile, Princess Luna glossed through statistical reports of the engagement, she started writing scrolls of her own. Likely letters of condolence for the fallen guards and reports of the battle.

* * *

Another hour passed by, the trio having sat in silence. Light hoofsteps approached, “The chariots are nearly here, Captain!” A familiar voice declared.

Blue ethereal energy encompassed the edge of the tarp, revealing a sky dotted with miniature lights that twinkled and glimmered.

Guard Berry Twists head retreated from view as the cover was retracted, “we shall be there shortly,” Princess Luna said, her large eyes examined John, “escort Captain Ivory to the landing zone and greet them. Their commanding officer will either be Captain Anthem or Major Kodiak.”

John stood, his body exposed from the waist, and frowned as he looked over his tactical belt, “how will I know which is which?”

The Princess began reattaching her armour, fastening straps after holding segments down with blue magic, “Major Kodiak had been liaising with the Griffon military over a border dispute.”

John squinted to get a better look at her teeth as she used them to pull a stubborn strap, she turned to him, “if she managed to get back in time, we are certain she would want to join us in our campaign.”

She stood, forcing John to escape the foxhole so as not to be pressed against her. “If alone it shall almost certainly be Captain Anthem, she has lighter colours compared to the Major.”

Ivory Skies leapt out of the hole with impressive agility, without her crested helm, her single torso piece of gold armour and pearl-white coat made her indistinguishable from the other Royal Guard.

John followed closely, laser rifle clutched in his right hand by the top of the emitter, in the style one would carry a ballistic rifle from its carry-handle.

“Are you relieved to be left behind?” John asked guardedly.

She snorted, “Not at all – I’ll be sure to speak my displeasure at the 7th being left as caretakers for a graveyard once all of the officers are gathered.”

“I’d feel the same way; I’ve been thinking,” John paused.

She glanced up at him as they walked side-by-side toward a large, flat wasteland on the eastern side of town.

“From what I’ve seen, probably dangerous,” John smirked at the banter.

“I’ll be heading out to the crash site; your Princess has given me orders to pass on to Captain Stark Wing.” He faced forward again.

“What orders?”

“To collect two platoons to bolster your unit.”

She snorted again, “the 7th can handle itself – you’ve seen what we can do.”

John hummed in begrudging agreement; they had done well considering they’d never seen combat. He had suspected half of them would soil themselves and gallop for the hills.

“For sure, but you’ve still suffered plenty of casualties,” his voice rose as he pointed a finger at her, like he’d suddenly forgotten, “although, you’re better off than that other guy.”

Her small smirk vanished, “poor stallion. If he’s still alive he won’t be for long if the Changelings have him.” She stared glumly forward, morose.

“We’ll get him back,” John assured as they stopped at the villages eastern edge. Several Lunar Guard were already posted there, including Lieutenant Midnight – she offered the standard nod at John, which he returned.

No one spoke as dark shapes in the distance slowly glided down toward them. Carts pulled by dark armoured Guards bounced across the natural landing strip, the ponies pulling them visibly struggling to arrest their momentum.

The two dozen carts contained tens of Royal Guard, they disembarked without orders being called, likely so as not to give away their position.

From the south came a large number of Thestrals, the multitude of occasional wing-flaps sounding like an off-beat lullaby.

A small formation broke off from the group that glided silently overhead and landed in front of John and Captain Ivory.

Five Thestrals stood tall in a vague line, they all watched John, wide eyes scanned every part of him, he reflexively brought his weapon into both hands and held it low.

“Ma’am,” Ivory said easily.

“Captain,” the largest of the three said, she had jet black fur which made her piercing yellow cat eyes even more prominent. Two long fangs protruded down her muzzle, one glinted as she looked down her nose at him.

“You’re the creature we’ve all heard about.” A statement rather than a question.

“Commander John Maxon,” he greeted, not breaking eye contact, “you must be Major Kodiak.” He offered a small smile.

She didn’t return it.

“Correct. This is Captain Anthem and Lieutenants Pontiac and McKenna,” a mare with markings like the foam of a latte nodded as her name was spoken.

A darker coloured stallion met Johns gaze, ‘Pontiac,’ John thought. A lithe looking Thestral with ruby coloured eyes looked fixedly at John, as tall as the Major, but without the mass, a carbon-grey diamond sat on her collar, ‘a Lieutenant, the same insignia as Midnight.’

“And this is Command Sergeant Major Duran,” a stallion with markings of combat visible throughout the exposed parts of his heavy armour, burn scars ate into the pale brown fur of his right foreleg, a spiderweb of scar tissue creeping up his neck.

Several dozen small blades and spears adorned every surface of his angular grey armour. Between his wings, he carried a crossbow and a quiver filled with arrows.

John filed the names away, burning their faces into his memory. He greeted each one with an easy nod, the five bat-ponies drank in his appearance, before Kodiak whirled around at the sound of Midnight's voice.

“All that relaxing with the featherbrains has made you soft, Major Kodiak,” Midnight smirked as she entered the larger Thestrals personal bubble, their eyes locked and John thought he may have to separate them.

After a beat of tense silence, both of them split into massive grins, the coldness in their eyes receding into friendly playfulness.

They embraced each other tightly, neither letting go for a few seconds, the teeth of their smiles a weird blend of prey and predator. The other officers' bar Sergeant Duran gave little smiles at the reunion,

“John, this is my aunt”, she turned back to the Major, “He’s been keeping an eye on me; helped me out in a pinch, he’s as fierce and as brave as any Thestral.”

John absorbed the information silently, offering a small awkward smile as something new flashed through the Majors eyes, even with his enhanced vision her expression was unreadable due to her pure black coat.

The appraisal in her voice was evident, “any friend of my niece is a friend of mine,” he could just make out the flicker of a smile as she broke the reunion and headed past him, flicking his calf with her tail as she passed.

Pontiac, Anthem, and McKenna all shouldered past after her with newfound respect in their eyes, they carried saddlebags stuffed full of supplies. Sergeant Duran remained impassive, his eyes exuding a simmering hatred for all things.

“I think she likes you,” Midnight said as she joined him at his side.

* * *

The Royal Guard contingent began loading the wounded and dead onto the carriages. Within the hour they had them fully stacked with bodies both alive and not.

During this exchange of corpses, John had gathered with the officers and the Princess to discuss the plan of action before he departed to resupply.

As the town hall had been evacuated, it quickly became filled with provisions that the carriages had brought. Crates of food and water and fresh medical supplies lay interlaced with utilitarian army-style cots.

A large room at the back on the second level had been dubbed the command room, tables had been covered in maps and diagrams of the area, as well as intelligence and after-action reports.

A large map occupied a round table in the centre of the room. John stood unarmoured just behind Lieutenant Midnight and Major Kodiak, the other officers arrayed around the table with Princess Luna to Johns right.

“You have all been updated on the events so far; from Johns arrival, the battle at the crashed ship and the long march here. Where we faced our enemy and killed them.”

Princess Luna looked around at each of their faces, none broke eye contact. She used magic to deploy several counters with little plotting rods. She had gold and blue markers to denominate the different Guards units.

“Against our wishes, Major Kodiak saw fit to bring not only the remainder of the 1st – but another company of the 7th as well.”

She allowed a pause, “the plan will go on unaltered; the Lunar Expeditionary Force or L-E-F, will continue south at daylight,” she moved a blue counter with a small flag atop southward, “those who are able. The 7th will remain here as a rear guard and will hold this position. Aylesbury shall become a forward base for our next phase in the coming days.”

Pontiac and McKenna leaned close to one another and whispered a few quick words while frowning at the map.

“Is something the matter, Lieutenants?” Luna's stern tone rocketed them apart.

“Just thinking out loud, ma’am,” Pontiac slowly drawled.

“Well speak-up, tomorrow might be too late.”

He took a moment as he exchanged a nervous glance with Kodiak, “well, Princess,” he began measuredly, “I just thought it’d be better to leave a small patrol and recon team here and have the rest head south with us.”

“After all,” he said more confidently, “we could use all the ponies at our disposal.”

“I have to agree,” Captain Ivory Skies spoke immediately after, drawing the attention of everyone present.

“Respectfully, I had been meaning to bring this up with you privately but…” she paused, “I know the 7th are just reserve troops and not,” she made little air quotations with the tips of her hooves, “real soldiers, but I believe we’ve performed pretty well, given the circumstances.”

John could see Luna nodding a little in agreement out of the corner of his eye. Her armour had been reequipped and her twin sabres were nestled in their sheaths along the sides of her long body.

“I just think holding us back here would be a gross misuse of military resources, ma’am,” her head raised and she stood a little straighter as she brought her thoughts into the open.

John didn’t know what he expected, when the Princess leaned back on her haunches and rotated her head toward him, “what do you think, John?”

She looked down at the ponies arrayed in front of him, “and you Lieutenant – after all – you’ve fought in the battle, please share with us your opinions.”

John remembered his talk with the Captain not long before, “I think they’ve done quite well, could have been better – as most of the killed are from the 7th. Among my species, acceptable losses are expected, especially in the case of inexperienced troops against a numerically superior foe.”

He continued in a cheerier tone, “but, I witnessed the engagement and so far, all I’ve seen is discipline and tenacity against an aggressive enemy with larger numbers. I vote to relieve the 7th with the 1/6th when I return from the Anlace and we double-time it to catch up with the LEF.”

John looked around at the ponies while he spoke, his eyes flickered to the map and the ceiling as he summoned the memories of the last thirty-six hours. All the ponies watched him as he spoke, none of them revealing away their true feelings.

The Princess gave an expectant look as she watched the tabby Lieutenant.

“I agree, they’ve sustained losses – sure – so have we. You’ve got more combat leaders now. Request permission to go with the Commander, I think you can spare me, ma’am.”

Her blue eyes became glossy, the gears in her head almost visibly turning as she weighed her options.

“Very well, permission granted. The rest of you, prep your troops – the LEF will leave at first light, you’ve got a few hours. Eat and rest, it all starts again soon.”

Her head swivelled around to glance at each of them, when no one said anything she said, “you’re dismissed!”

The five officers snapped off salutes, a hoof over their chest, Luna imitated it and the group broke up, chatting quietly amongst themselves as they left.

Midnight turned to John, he furred ears flicked forward as she looked up at him, while unarmoured her head reached just under his chest.

“Come on, I can get us a fast ride out of here, follow me.”

* * *

It took a few hours; the pair began by boarding a two-wheeled carriage – the four Royal Guard fastened to it galloped away with rapid wing-beats as soon as they had embarked. John watched the forms of larger carriages filled with wounded and dead waiting for take-off.

The night sky revealed little, John deciding to forego bringing his power armour on and sat with his legs out wide in the centre of the carriage floor. Midnight sat to his right and kept her eyes facing into the impenetrable darkness.

Some light turbulence shook and rattled them, but the journey was otherwise uneventful, John and Midnight opting not to speak.

The sparse cloud cover sank away from them overhead as they descended toward barely visible treetops. The cart hurtled over the canopy, the occasional branch scrapped the underside but the ponies leading them didn’t relent in their high-speed and perilously low-altitude flying.

Midnight and John instinctively pressed into one another, neither spoke as a slight fear gripped them both. Midnight extended a leathery bat-wing over Johns broad back and shoulders, he stiffened at the contact but the frigid air and adrenalin prevented him from jerking away.

Quickly, the harsh crosswinds that threatened to down the sky-carriage and the rushing of the treetops ceased as they emerged over a large rocky flatland.

Johns augmented eyesight could make out blurry details that jumped out to him, it was the clearing where the Anlace had touched down.

Seemingly in the centre of the plateau lay a few large tents, dotted with some campfires that helped John make out the shapes of ponies who were on guard.

As the small airborne cart touched down, its twin wheels bounced over the rock-strewn ground.

After their momentum abruptly ceased, the Lieutenant and John were left looking at each other face-to-snout. John as his right arm snaked around her lower back as one of her rear legs had become entangled with Johns.

She blushed and John felt his own cheeks redden as they hurriedly tried to separate themselves and their embarrassment from being seen by the other Guards.

After being greeted by a small security detail, John and Midnight were escorted through the invisibility field. The same soda-shower feeling encapsulated John and he tasted static.

He handed Midnight the scroll Luna had entrusted him with, “take this, it’s a formal request from Princess Luna for two platoons of the 1/6th to relieve the 7th on our return.”

She took it silently in her mouth, acknowledging his words with a minute head bauble, before doing an about-face and marching off.

John took off for the darkened shape of his former spacecraft. Still semi-embedded on its right side, the scorched hull remained a grim reminder to his arrival here.

He spied an entrance door on what would have been the aft side, he walked toward it, his rubberised soles making little sound.

As he approached his pip-boy flashed to life; a wireless connection to the ships onboard systems was giving him power readouts of less than seven percent. Just enough for opening accessways, lights and life support.

He clambered up the three meters to the recessed portal and entered an override code into the little information panel next to it.

A seam parted the heptagonal shaped door down the centre and exposed the dark bowels of the ship to Johns keen eyesight. He activated the lamp on his pip-boy, effectively brightening the screen to absurd levels, causing a dull green light to cast wild shadows around him.

He entered the ship without hesitation, keeping an eye on his wrist-mounted radar and another ahead of him. He turned to his left and keyed in another command, the door sealed shut.

He brought up his map; it displayed a weapon bay a deck below, half buried and about thirty meters in front of him. John moved for it, this was maintenance corridor D-6, he needed to link-up with corridor I-1 at a junction ahead and down a ladder into a bulkhead labelled as armoury K/3/5.

Continuing on the move, he sidestepped destroyed interior sections and collapsed support struts, the majority of the damage seemed to be structural. The Agora-class recon ship, in which the Anlace existed, had been extensively field tested before their deployment. Obviously despite its excellent resilience against weapons fire – colliding with a planet was the nutcracker, so to speak.

Silence fills the empty grave.

* * *

“Pre-voyage checks are complete, Commander,” a young-faced scribe declared; with Eurasian features, his golden skin blended seamlessly with his orange and cream tech-bodysuit.

He was stationed in a raised seat above and slightly behind John. Their 34-person crew had been aboard the Anlace for three months now working tirelessly to simulate every possibility.

As the multitude of asteroids passed harmlessly by, held back with advanced antigravity technology, John saw the signs that denoted the edge of the Kuiper belt. Their final exit from the solar system and the beginning of a new adventure.

* * *

His muted steps echoed a few meters in either direction, he reached a junction and saw a sign directing him to the right and up a slanted hallway or straight ahead toward a sealed door.

The raised maintenance corridor was marked I-1, he quickly moved up it, bent at the waist, many of the branching hallways were built too small to conserve space and resources.

Halfway up, a red-lit ladder access was built slightly submerged into the wall, a notice displayed “Armoury K/3/5,” which John read aloud. He lowered a leg into the depths of the ladder-well and began his climb down.

* * *

“Scribe Paisley, begin final long-distance calculations – I don’t want us to miss – and have the NAV run course-correction sims again, ”Johns' voice echoed around the large bridge. The panoramic view screen gave breath-taking views of the bow, its angular titanium-tritium hull sparkled, like granite against the pitch-black of space.

“Aye-aye,” her voice was melodic, by now in control of his cardiac system; Johns' heart had beaten a little faster when he had first heard her talk. Her long light blonde hair flowed down her black body-suit in a non-regulation style. John had always been relaxed with breaches of protocol he didn’t deem life-endangering.

* * *

His feet soundlessly met with the floor of corridor D-4. One end of the corridor had been sheared off and met the dark coloured earth of the crash site, debris and rocks had flowed into the passageway, effectively blocking it.

The other end was sealed with thick, blast doors – above which read Armoury K/3/5. He made for the doors, the circuitry was intact and the bulkhead hadn’t been as badly warped despite being on the bottom side of the ship.

He pressed a palm into a bio-sighs reader, “Scanning… Scanning… Welcome, Paladin Commander,” the female voice of the ships onboard computer announced.

The doors ground open, disappearing into the floor and ceiling, which was actually the walls given the ships unusual angle.

He sniffed loudly, the air smelled like recycled oxygen. The burned carbon from a few days ago having mostly been muted. He surveyed the racks of weapons, the walls had been covered in an assortment of killing devices, armoury K/3/5 and five others just like it had given the crew of the Anlace enough firepower for half a battalion.

They had manufacturing facilities, armour cradles and recharge ports for Microfusion cells, Johns tactical pouches were stuffed full of drained ‘cells. He walked carefully over the abundance of weaponry splayed across the floor due to the ships tilted axis.

He spied plasma rifles, heavy plasma mortars, Gatling lasers, grenades of every variety, plasma casters and plenty of smaller energy weapons. Several ‘Fat Man’ tactical nuclear launchers were bolted above Johns' head as he tip-toed for a charging plate.

Essentially a large metallic plate; place any energy consuming device with a battery and the correct wattage and voltage of power would be administered until the device was fully charged. From spent ‘cells to radio and flashlight batteries. Although Microfusion Cells wouldn’t hold the same power, recycling them was still useful.

He rotated the charging plate so gravity wouldn’t snatch his dead ‘cells off of it and placed them down, after moving toward a heavy weapons cabinet.

* * *

“Is everything in order, Knight-Sergeant?” John asked, he’d tracked her down to Armoury B/1/0 in the forwardmost section.

Karina Williams was as tall as John and nearly as muscular, the torso piece of her bodysuit had been tied around her waist, she wore a grey vest that amply showed off her breasts and equally large biceps. She was doing weighted squats and grunted as she re-racked the fully laden barbell.

“Ship-shape, Johnny,” she had given him that nickname after the countless times they had saved each other’s lives, it had soon stuck.

“I’m just finishing off this set, then I’ll hit the showers and get to my pod ASAP.”

She turned away from him and John saw her reflection flex its arms and chest, she lifted her vest and rubbed her hand over her abdominal muscles, “oh yeah! This old lady has still got it,” she grinned at John over her own shoulder.

“I can’t be seen in the new world in anything other than peak physical condition, John and you know it!” She reassumed her squats, John spotted for her and lowered the weight as needed. She exercised until failure.

* * *

In the shadows cast by his pip-boy, his figure padded carefully over weapon racks toward the ‘fat man’ nuclear catapult launchers. Almost as big as a man, they were heavy and unwieldy and John suddenly wished that he had brought his power armour.

He grasped the edges of a launcher with both hands and pulled it down, he bent at the knees and gently lowered it to the floor.

He heaved as he power-lifted the launcher onto his shoulder, adjacent to the ‘fat men’ were numerous ‘mini-nukes’. Essentially a miniature sun. The fifteen-kilogram warhead could be fired accurately at a range of a hundred and fifty meters, indirectly it could stretch out to a range of almost eight hundred meters.

He hefted a bandolier of five nukes and huffed with the combined weight, “Yes, this would definitely be easier with armour!” He spoke through gritted teeth as he carefully returned through the blast doors.

Separately he cautiously carried the launcher and then the nukes up the ladder and back toward the entrance, storing them just before the exit, before returning to the armoury.

Once inside he collected a pair of Fusion Cores; essentially larger and more powerful energy sources compared to Microfusion Cells. He placed them in a compact back-pack along with more fusion and plasma cells, he stuffed it with grenades of every subtype, the bag looking like a too-full piñata. A smaller drop-bag that he could affix to his leg carried flares, mines and demolition explosives.

He abandoned the bags whilst he approached a workbench, he took a stock plasma weapon and quickly disassembled it. He checking it thoroughly before rummaging on the ceiling above him for some accessories.

He attached a long-range sniper barrel and a recoil compensating stock, the weapon now a meter long. He affixed a high magnification sight and tweaked the power output of the Gamma wave emitter to draw more plasma from the photon agitator; yielding a long-range, high damage sniper-plasma rifle.

He harnessed himself into the pair of strap-sacks, collecting his semi-charged ‘cells, before slinging the plasma rifle around his neck and stabbing another laser and plasma side-arm into his belt.

Before departing he scoured the room with his eyes, searching for any new weapons he may need – the combined hundred kilograms barely straining his stamina.

He wobbled a bit, before squatting down a little to lift a Gatling Laser. It was a large, heavy frame with a quad-barrel set of high precision laser rifles that would rotate. No much would be left standing on a battlespace once he’d raked the area with its energy bolts.

Once again removing the virtual arsenal of weaponry, John carried as much as possible; taking a couple of trips to ferry the deadly cargo to the exit point. Once there he loaded himself up again, as a child he remembered carrying supplies from the depot to where it was needed, he always tried to carry it all in one go – he would do so again right now.

A laden sack on his back, a bulging bag on his left leg, he hefted the plasma rifle and mini-nukes around his neck and shoulders. Then squatted to heave the fat man launcher and slung it over a shoulder; he tilted right as his outstretched fingers clawed for the Gatling Laser.

John stood erect to his full height and jumped from the sealed entranceway. His knees bent to absorb the weight of his impact and he sank slightly into the soft ground.

He waddled like an overladen beast toward the carriages, passing through the energy barrier – he quickened his pace as he felt his sweaty grip start to loosen involuntarily.

Heaving both launcher and Gatling weapon into the two-wheeled aerial cart, he inhaled the crisp midnight air to replenish himself. Unloading his torso of the remainder of the death-dealing devices – he returned through the field toward a command tent with solely his laser sidearm in a holster.

The “tent” was really a large gazebo which was about as tall as Johns' neck, two guards outside held spears across the entranceway and lifted them as he entered.

A pair of red flaps were pushed aside, revealing a map-strewn table and several ponies. Captain Stark Wing blearily stared at Johns entrance – he had to stoop to fit inside the tent.

There was a pair of officers that John recognised from the battalion’s arrival, in addition to Lieutenant Midnight, there were a pair of Lunar Guards.

Midnight looked over at him, “Captain Stark has accepted the Princess’s orders and has two platoons getting ready to mobilise now.”

“Commander,” Stark Wing greeted, “these two will go with you, newly promoted Senior Guards Starfire and Starry Skies – I believe you’ve already met.”

Starfire leaned around her companion, a helmet clutched tightly beneath a foreleg, “I owe you a round, my friend,” the look of thanks in her eyes not surprising.

“Once we’re back, I’ll hold you to it,” he said simply, she nodded as her lips pressed firmly together in a look of assurance.

Stark Wing cleared his throat, drawing the attention of everyone gathered, “the 1/6th will move through the forest. Following in your hoofsteps,” he gestured at a well-groomed looking stallion, “Lieutenant Percios will be in command, they’ll make quick progress.”

“Hoo-ah!” The Lieutenant said a bit too loudly.

The disgruntled Captains ears flattened but he gave a reluctant smile at the young stallions enthusiasm.

“I have a few political and tactical updates for the Princess if you’d take them to her, and wish her luck,” he levitated over a small stack of scrolls and files.

After a round of salutes, the meeting was over. John and the three Thestrals returned to the cargo-laden carriage and braced against one another as the now rested guards resumed their frantic flying.

Zipping over the canopy before gaining altitude, the moonless sky created a completely obsidian world. No sound or sight could reach them and John had to contend with looking at the sky and fighting off other passengers as they swayed a little with the momentum of the cart.

Minutes stretched into a few hours, John drifting into periods of restless slumber as the three Thestrals curled around him. He awoke more suddenly halfway through the journey as the Lieutenant lay over his legs, the three bodies were like space heaters and the warmth lulled him back into more peaceful sleep.

* * *

Author's Note:

Some exposition as we're introduced to some supplementary characters. How many of them will ultimately survive the next chapter? Even I have no idea.

Stay tuned.

- Have a pleasent day

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