• Published 2nd Jan 2013
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Slipping Through A Sideways Door - hornethead



A man accidently follows his friend, who was believed to be dead, to a strange and colorful land mired in conflict.

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Smoke On the Horizon

Chapter 25: Smoke On The Horizon

It was unusually hot for this time of year. It was all Private Jax could think about, especially in the stuffy metal armor he had to wear. Still, he kept his thoughts to himself. His sergeant didn't think much of complainers. So he marched on with his patrol, bearing as best he could.

They were patrolling the area west of Baltimare, along a seldom used dirt track that ran though the forest parallel with the train tracks not far away. Their company had received orders from Canterlot to increase security in the cities about a week ago and his platoon had drawn the short straw and was sent out into the country side.

It was their job to inspect the area, this one in particular, around the city for anything that might be suspicious. So far, it had only been the occasional ponies traveling for business or vacation. But that was on the main roads. Which is why they were a little surprised when they came upon a small caravan of three bumping down the small road. What was peculiar was the size of the carriages. They were clearly too big to be on such a small road, their tops scraping and smashing into low hanging branches.

"Platoon, halt!" The sergeant called. "Flank orders, block the road." Private Jax hastily moved to get in position. It was his first real patrol after graduating from training and he didn't want to screw it up. His sergeant took up post in front of them in the middle of the road and held up a hoof to signal the caravan to stop, at the extreme annoyance to the stallions pulling the carriages.

"Hey what gives?" One of them complained as the caravan slowed to a halt. "We got deliveries to make, you're gonna make us late!"

"I know, I know. I'm sorry, but due to recent events we've had to raise our security. One moment and we'll send you on your way." The sergeant explained. "Corporals Lue Bline, Straw, on me."

The lead stallion huffed, but didn't protest any further. Private Jax watched as his sergeant and one of his section leaders went forward to the caravan. the two corporals continued down along either side while the sergeant stopped at the lead stallion to question him. Looking past the first carriage, Private Jax could see some of the other stallions pulling the carriages. A couple of them seemed really nervous, but he couldn't see why. It was just a routine stop.

"What are you pulling back there?" The sergeant asked the lead stallion. "Freight?" Meanwhile, the corporals continued along the caravan, checking under the carriages and inspecting the exteriors.

"Nothing important. Just soap and stuff."

"That's a lot of soap. There a shortage I don't know about?"

"Hey Serge!" One of the corporals shouted back to the front. "You want us to check the inside?" The lead stallion seemed to stiffen.

"Not unless you have probable cause, our orders are clear."

Private Jax hoped they didn't see anything worth noting, he wanted to go back home. The corporals went back along their search and the sergeant resumed his questions. It dragged on for a few more minutes, Private Jax felt like he was absolutely baking inside his armor in the hot sun.

*CRACK*

The whole platoon jumped at the sound. Private Jax glanced around, not sure what exactly was going on. He looked back at the caravan just in time to see his section leader fall backwards onto the ground with a hole in his chest where there hadn't been one before. Private Jax barely followed what happened next.

His sergeant had his sword out in an instant, calling the platoon to arms as he pulled it from its sheath. He never got the chance to use it. Tall dark figures swarmed from out the backs of the carriages, strange looking weapons raised in their hands. Private Jax knew what they were, they'd been told in briefings. Some deadly technology from the humans called guns.

In less than a second, his sergeant was cut down. Some of his platoon tried to fight back, but it was almost pointless against such weapons when they were only armed with swords and spears. In the next few seconds, more than half of his platoon lay bleeding on the ground, the weapons could punch right through their armor like it wasn't even there.

Private Jax almost couldn't move, he was frozen with fear. But a thought pushed its way in. A thought that made sense in the chaos, something he knew he had to do. He had to get back to the city or another patrol, he had to warn them. So he turned and galloped as hard as he could, leaving the equipment he carried, save for his armor.

He tried to get away, he could still hear shots coming from behind him. Then the ground around him started exploding up in little puffs and he felt something slam into his side like a hammer made of searing fire. He didn't pay any attention to it, just focusing on getting away. Private Jax kept on running even though he started feeling very sleepy.

He noticed a warm trickling sensation running down his stomach and legs. He thought he might have pissed himself, he couldn't believe it! His friends in the company wouldn't let him live it down, he was sure, but that wasn't important right now. So he kept on running.

Private Jax was getting more and more tired, but he didn't know why, he was a star sprinter back in school. His breaths became more labored, his heart started struggling, fluttering irregularly in his chest. He felt like he couldn't go on any longer. So he pulled off into the woods, hoping to evade those things. He thought they were Lotkin, but they looked different. Changed.

Stumbling loudly through the brush, his breath reduced to ragged gasps, Private Jax slowed to a trot, then a walk. Soon he was on the ground, but hecouldn't remember when he fell, desperately dragging himself through the bushes and dead leaves. He felt rediculously sleepy, trying hard to keep his eyes open. His side was really starting to hurt now, maybe it was a cramp, he wasn't sure.

Private Jax found it harder and harder to continue, every time he tried to move forward, his body wouldn't respond. He was still so very sleepy. Maybe he just needed a quick nap. Yeah, that was it. He'd just take a quick nap. Just one short one and he'd get back up and go warn the others. . .

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Glass shards crunched under Jackson's boots. He was in the home of Mr. Marcus, a modest building near the north edge of Van Hoover. He was looking for anything Luna's intelligence operatives might have missed, something that could tell him more about whatever threat they were facing. So far, there wasn't anything else. Who ever was behind all this had a very clean operation going.

His earpiece crackled, "Aye-up Jackie Boy. I'm in route with your pick of the litter here."

"Sounds good, man. I'll meet you out in the field, nothing really here."

"All right, mate. Oh, something I need to tell you."

"Go."

"We got a tag-a-long here."

"Intel?"

"No. Apparently our dear old Princess Luna wants to give some of the new recruits a little field experience under supervised conditions. Trouble is, we got stuck with some little wanker." Mayfield explained with a hint that he wasn't getting along well with some one.

"Sorry to hear that, brother. How's the team feelin'?" Jackson asked as he jogged out into the open. He could hear the hum of a propeller approaching.

"A bit jittery, even though it's not a combat Op."

"Well that's normal."

Jackson looked up in the direction of the noise. The small Clipper Class ship maneuvered in and touched down near him, the engine dropping to an idle as it rested on the ground. The side door slid open and Mayfield hopped out to the ground with minimal kit. Just some light armor, his rifle and sidearm.

Behind him, the other occupants stepped out. First was Swift Paws, nose twitching as she sniffed the air around her. Then Iron Defense, having to duck his head through the door way due to his height. Next was a thin, almost wiry looking unicorn with the coat of a mustang. All of them were wearing light armor over the RSTG uniform. Lastly was bored looking pegasus. The pegasus sported a bright crimson coat, the color of oxygenated blood. It was mostly uniform, save for the tips of his wings which a brighter red, almost electric. He had a long tail of black streaked with yellow. It matched his mane, which was cut short and messy, even unkempt. He was a little taller than the others, but still shorter than Iron Defense who seemed to tower over everything. Although he was RSTG, his uniform differed underneath the armor. It was that of a recruit still in training.

As the pegasus stepped off, he shot Mayfield a barely concealed look of contempt, but when he saw Jackson, his eyes suddenly lit up. He moved up next to the other three and stood a rapt attention in front of Jackson. "All right, welcome to the team." Jackson started. "Mayfield, meet Iron Defense, Cray—he's our techie—and you've met Swift Paws."

"Yeah, yeah, we've all been getting very well acquainted on the ride over." Mayfield said.

Jackson looked at the pegasus. "Now you gotta help me out with this guy, who's this guy right here?"

"Oh, that? That there's Mr. Redflare. Watch it, he's not the most friendly. Not much for military bearing either."

"So Mr. Redflare, what can you do?" Jackson asked him.

The pegasus replied with a slight smirk. "'Sup Chief. Glad to actually meet you. Saw you fight in the dojo a while back, sweet moves. Much better than Buckingham over there."

"Hey!"

"Well, glad you think so kid, but when it comes down to a fight, the quicker you end it, the better."

"Sure, but you don't have to trick 'em. Be honorable about it."

Mayfield leaned over and whispered to Jackson, "See what I mean?"

Behind the group of new comers, another passenger stepped out, one Jackson had not expected to see here. Howitzer leaned out the door and looked around before half hopping, half gliding to the dirt with his wings. Jackson spotted him and brought him over with a wave. "Hey man, what you up to here?"

"Nothing much, Chief. Got my own projects to look after."

"Yeah, about that. I haven't met that contact of yours yet, when is that gonna happen?"

"It probably won't. The guy works best when we stay out it. You might get to meet some griffons though."

"Griffons?" Mayfield said. "Like big half bird, half lion blokes?"

Howitzer chuckled a little, "What else would they be? But yeah, the Griffon and Equestrian military have been working together for a while now, seeing as they have stakes in this country too. Your human friend actually enabled the set up for an RSTG/Griffon joint squad. It was pretty cool to see."

"Ok, cool." Jackson nodded.

"All right, I guess I should leave you guys to it." Howitzer wing hopped back up into the crew bay and hit the cockpit door a few times. "Whoops, don't forget your kit bags!" The black pegasus tossed out four big canvas bags to the ground. The airship's engine rose up from an idle and slowly took off into the air.

"All right." Jackson said. "I'm sure you all know each other adequately. Break out kit, let's get to it."

Cray raised his hoof, "Chief, what's the objective?"

"Nothing difficult. Our shadowy friend that just took off there has a contact of his gathering information. He's gonna make a drop in about an hour and we're gonna pick it up."

Cray nodded with a smile and joined Swift Paws and Iron Defense in breaking out their kit. It was nothing fancy. Just a cut down version of an M4 for Swift Paws. Cray packed a P90, something he had insisted on having, he said he could take care of anything else himself. Iron just had his blades since he couldn't hold a rifle or use magic, but he would be invaluable in close quarters or during a breach.

Jackson had a kit for himself, but for once it lacked the large Mk 43 he so often carried. Rather, he just equipped another old M4, this one of slightly bigger length than Swift Paws. Still, it felt ridiculously light in his hands. He could probably fire it one handed. Extremely inaccurately, but still one handed.

While they were all gearing up, Redflare glanced around, "Hey, don't I get anything?"

"Sorry kid," Jackson said, "but you're still a recruit."

"But I got all my quals, I was even in the top fifth of my melee weapons class! Out of forty! Plus I'm almost better at air combat than the Griffons. I could kick some serious Lotkin flank, just give me the chance, Chief!"

"Don't be so hasty to fight, it ain't all that great. Besides, we're just taking a little walk, nothing serious, no combat. Fact finding mission. You'll get your chance when you graduate and get assigned to your first team."

Redflare scowled and stomped away. Jackson found him a little peculiar. Everyone was always eager for their first taste of combat, if they weren't too nervous about it, but the guy was chomping at the bits for it. He looked pretty young, not much more than twenty-one, twenty-two years old. He chalked it up to youthful, naive confidence. Something he'd experienced himself. Still, he'd keep an eye on him.

Once every one was ready, Jackson ordered them to move out, they took their kit bags with them. They marched out from the house to the north road and went a ways before forming a wide search pattern and moved through the scrub that surrounded the road. Other Intel gathered said Marcus had regularly been spotted in the company of some strangers out around this area in night time meetings. None of the locals had seen the visitors before, they definitely weren't from the town.

When nothing of note could be found after several passes through, Jackson halted the search and had them continue on to their next objective. The drop point for the package was back in town, so they double timed it back down the road to Van Hoover. Jackson kept glancing at his watch. For some reason, Howitzer didn't want contact between his contact and Jackson's team, so he had timed it so that Jackson would arrive at the spot after the contact had been and gone.

While they jogged, Mayfield moved up to the front with Jackson, "Hey, you got a minute?"

"Got all day." Jackson said between breaths.

"Not to be 'that guy', but why'd you pick that little fella, he looks like he barely got past grad."

"Yeah, but he passed. Plus he's smart, real smart. Talked to one of his instructors, active mind, always messin' with equipment, adding or altering it. Took a look at a night optic he took from him. Way better. Actually has depth to the image. not all strength is muscles and brawn."

"Meh, guess it makes sense." Mayfield nodded. "But it sounds like he'd be better off in an R&D lab."

"Maybe. We'll see."

After a good half hour of jogging, Jackson had them slow back down to a walk. They were close now to the location, a rough, broke down looking neighborhood on the outer edge of the city. Jackson made his team stow their weapons in their kit bags, wouldn't do them good to be making residents of the area nervous.

They were looking for a small one story with a bright green door. The info would be in a box under a broken recliner inside. If it wasn't stolen first, Jackson thought. The place didn't look too friendly. It only took them another fifteen minutes to find the place, the directions relayed to them by Howitzer were good.

Jackson went up to the door while Mayfield and Iron watched the street behind them for any unwanted company, they were warned that there was gang activity in the area. Jackson jiggled the handle and found it locked. That was good, the package might still be there. One gesture to Swift Paws fixed the problem. He waved her forward and she knelt in front of the lock, extracting some tools from a small pocket on the ankle of her trousers.

Before long, the door swung inward with a faint click and a creak, allowing them to move inside, checking first to make sure it was unoccupied. Satisfied, they entered and closed the door. The recliner was in the corner and under it was the box, as promised. Unlike the door, it was only protected by a strip of duct tape over the top. With the flick of a knife, Jackson opened it up and was perturbed when all he pulled out was a single sheet covered in some kind of gibberish. "Toph, come take a look at this." He beckoned.

Mayfield ambled over and studied the paper as Jackson showed it to him. "Yikes. Not good. I can't read it. Looks like some one sat down with a Welshman and wrote whatever came out of his mouth, if that helps."

"It doesn't." Jackson felt his arm get nudged. He glanced back and saw it was Cray.

"Mind if I get a view?" He asked.

"Sure. Whatever good it will do." Jackson said as he handed the paper off to the unicorn who took it and glued his eyes to the paper for quite some time.

Finally, "It's smuggler's code." Cray blurted out.

"It's what?" Mayfield asked.

"Smuggler's code. It's a code the smugglers use around the country to let each other know where the hot spots for work are. And warn about local law enforcement."

"Can you read it?"

"A little. Most of it's just what it looks like, gibberish, to throw you off the trail of the real info. But there is some consistency. Here." Cray pointed to a line of text with his hoof. "The line of text is repeated multiple times, always in the same spot. Near as I can see, it says" he squinted his eyes, "well it doesn't make much sense either; 'Three deep land line, carrying dangerous goods of the flesh and blood variety'."

"That doesn't sound to good." Jackson said. "Any idea what it means?"

"It's an attack." Every one turned to the source of the voice. It was Iron, he caught them all off guard, he usually didn't speak much. "It's an attack. Land line, it's a caravan, probably got three wagons. Dangerous flesh and blood, soldiers. Or something like that."

"I'll take it." Jackson said. He switched on his radio, "This is Chief Jackson to Howitzer."

"Go."

"I know you're busy, but we got some stuff for you guys. There's an attack coming according to the drop."

"Crap. Does it have a date and time, targets?"

Jackson repeated the question to Cray, who studied the paper again, but he shook his head no. "That's a negative."

"Ok." Howitzer said in a stressful tone. "You guys stay in town, I'll pass on word to Canterlot immediately. Get the garrison here ready and alert for trouble. Hopefully we're not too late already."

Author's Note:

OC Redflare Created by: Radical Prescott

OC Cray Inspired from an idea by: It911

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